Beauty and Truth, part 3

One year ago today, I started this blog. Happy anniversary to me! This is my 83rd post, which averages to about one every 4.5 days. Not bad at all. 🙂

My very first post was a memoir I wrote about a year and a half ago–an exploration on beauty–or the lack thereof–in my life. Interestingly enough, that subject is something that still intrigues and perplexes me. A year later, it still weighs on my mind often.

A few weeks ago, I assigned my students the chapter on Beauty from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Before I visited Massachusetts a few months ago, my opinion of Emerson was very different. I respected him for his influence on American literature, but I didn’t really appreciate him for his own literary worthiness. That’s changed so much in just three months. I’ve read Nature in its entirety once and my favorite sections many times since. My copy of Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, bought at the Emerson House in Concord, MA, is battered and worn already. Purple highlighter marks a plethora of worthy passages. Emerson’s ideas are constantly running through my mind.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.

The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. [ . . . ] Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.

When I assigned the chapter to my students, most of them balked at reading Emerson. He uses big words, they complained. Their eyes examined me skeptically as I raved over his genius. But when I gave them a writing assignment and had them give me a definition of Beauty, I received so many insightful definitions. And while they perhaps didn’t enjoy Emerson as I do now, their writing was proof that they were thinking about beauty outside of just my classroom. And they were incredible insightful.

After reading Emerson, many of them listed things in nature as being beautiful: sunsets, the ocean, rainy days. Others talked about beautiful people or love or gave a literal definition. But I also had each of them make a list of things they find beautiful, and as a good writing instructor, I made one in my journal as well, which I’ll  include here.

So what is Beauty? Have I decided? I think so. Beauty is Truth. Beauty is anything that makes me realize how powerful God is, how excellent his creation is, and how valuable my life is as a result. So here’s a very short list of beauty in my life:

1. Mornings on Camp Creek Road on my way to work, which the trees make a canopy over the road, and the Blue Ridge Mountains are enveloped in fog
2. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe; the Civil Twilight album; The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky. Plus, a whole lot more incredible music
3. Driving down a long stretch of road
4. Everything about autumn–the weather, the colors, the scents
5. Renewal and rebirth in spring
6. The ocean at night, stretching to the horizon to meet a sky full of stars
7. Being surrounded by my family at Radius
8. My bulletin board, filled with memories of adventures my best friends and I have had
9. The smell of coffee brewing
10. LOVE
11. Stacks of books
12. The color purple–not the book, which I haven’t read–just things that are purple 🙂
13. Edward Hopper paintings
14. Great works of literature
15. Long, colorful scarves
16. Christmas lights
17. Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC
18. The Concord River flowing past the Old Manse and under the North Bridge in Massachusetts
19. Redbirds
20. Lighthouses

I could go on forever, but twenty is enough for now.

Happy Halloween!

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“I think the asking is whether we get back up again.”

knife“Maybe our story will turn out differently if we take the left fork, maybe the bad things that are waiting to happen to us won’t happen, maybe there’s happiness at the end of the left fork and warm places with the people who love us and no Noise but no silence neither and there’s plenty of food and no one dies and no one dies and no one never never dies.”

* * *

“Cuz I see Viola looking back at me as we run and there’s brightness on her face and she keeps urging me on with tilts of her head and smiles and I think how hope may be the thing that pulls you forward, may be the thing that keeps you going, but that it’s dangerous, too, that it’s painful and risky, that it’s making a dare to the world and when has the world ever let us win a dare?”

* * *

“‘Here’s what I think,’ I say and my voice is stronger and thoughts are coming, thoughts that trickle into my Noise like whispers of the truth. ‘I think maybe everybody falls,’ I say. ‘I think maybe we all do. And I don’t think that’s the asking.’

“I pull on her arms gently to make sure she’s listening.

“‘I think the asking is whether we get back up again.'”

* * *

This book has been sitting in my room for over a month, beckoning to me, tempting me to abandon my academic pursuits and fall into this incredible story.

I knew it would be incredible from the first moment I laid eyes on the cover. I was taking a break from grading and homework one Saturday morning, browsing the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, not expecting to find anything new that didn’t involve vampires or angsty darkness (not that this book isn’t dark, it’s just not that kind of dark). As soon as I saw the cover, I knew I’d found something impressive. First, there’s the image of a road. This book is about a journey–literal and figurative. And the title: what the heck could The Knife of Never Letting Go possibly mean? So I picked up the book, read the first chapter, and decided I must buy it before I shifted into responsible teacher mode and graded a stack of student journals in the B&N cafe.

When I went home sick on Tuesday, I decided to curl up on the couch and read because that’s what I do when I’m sick. But I was caught up on all my reading for school, so I realized the time had come to read this book.

The basic plot: a boy named Todd is one month away from his thirteenth birthday, at which time he will undergo the ritual to make him a man. Todd, however, lives on a planet called the New World, in an isolated village called Prentisstown. Todd is the last “boy” left in town. This village consists only of men; previous to this story, according to the story Todd has been told, a virus called the Noise germ infected the residents, killing all the women and half the men.  The germ also made it so that every man hears every other man’s thoughts. No one can ever escape the Noise, and even the animals have Noise through which they communicate with humans.

The month before his birthday, Todd is made to flee the town for reasons that he doesn’t fully realize and the readers have no concept of. He grabs a rucksack, and he and his dog Manchee cross the swamp and escape Prentisstown, with an army of villagers forming to chase him down and kill him. Outside of the swamp, Todd meets Viola–the first female he has ever encountered, a girl his age. Her parents are dead, and she is also being attacked by the villagers. The two of them flee, and the story ensues.

The first aspect of this story that is immediately recognizable is the language in which the story is written. Many longer words are misspelled intentionally. For example, “preparations” becomes “preparayshuns.” Also, the author, Patrick Ness, employs a lot of run-on sentences and comma splices, bad grammar, and double negatives, and he breaks many other major rules of language. This should annoy me. It doesn’t. The run-on sentences actually add a lot of tension to the story. They move the action along more quickly and greatly reveal the intensity of the narrative. Additionally, the misspelled words and other grammatical issues aptly imply the degradation of society. Education is no longer important, and the men have slipped into a violent, selfish lifestyle. Much like Faulkner, Ness uses the narrative style in an incredible way to paint the chaos of the society he has created.

This book also provides an extensive commentary on society and religion. One of the main antagonists is Aaron, the preacher in Prentisstown. He is an almost mythical creature–he escapes death so many times, and he always manages to be several steps ahead of Todd and Viola. He preaches hellfire and brimstone, and he’s everything a good preacher would never be. He attempts to hide his violent and repressive nature behind a mask of religion.

Additionally, the book is an interesting commentary on the differences in gender. Women were resistant to the germ, and as a result, men can never know what women are thinking. Women, however, still hear everything men think, and as men attempt to hide their Noise, women become more adept at reading the silences in their Noise.

There’s so much more I could talk about: the idea of voice being what actually comes out of your mouth, or what you actually think; the idea of what actually makes a man; tension between hope and despair; and so much more. However, this blog is long enough already. In conclusion, this book is now one of my favorites. It has a cliff-hanger ending, however, as it’s the first book in the Chaos Walking Trilogy. The second one is already out in hardback, and I’m going to buy it this afternoon because I just can’t wait. That means, though, that I’ll probably have to wait a year or so before the conclusion. It’ll be frustrating, but worth it. The book is so good!

“Only weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone”

anne-frank“I lie in bed at night after ending my prayers with the words [“Thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful”] and I’m filled with joy. I think of going into hiding, my health and my whole being as [good]; Peter’s love (which is still so new and fragile and which neither of us dares to say aloud), the future, happiness and love as [dear]; the world, nature and the tremendous beauty of everything, all that splendor, as [beautiful].”

-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (The Definitive Edition)

* * *

I finished this book tonight. It’s really hard to read a book and know that as I finish each entry, I’m a day or two closer to her death. Every time she mentions a break-in at the warehouse of the building in which their hidden, or another person arrested for hiding a Jew, I wondered if people realized yet that eight people were hidden in what she called the “Secret Annex.”

Certain entries could be the diary of any fifteen-year-old girl. (For that matter, they could be a diary entry I wrote yesterday.) Then, Anne discusses the fact that they’ve been hidden for two years, or that they’re eating rotten lettuce, or that the man who delivers potatoes has been arrested for hiding Jews. Suddenly, the fact that she doesn’t get along with her mother or that she thinks she’s falling in love with Peter seems to be extra-weighty. Her dreams of being a writer, of going to school to be a journalist, are bittersweet. Although she certainly hoped and dreamed it, she would never know for sure that millions of people decades later would still be reading her words, would still care about her story.

There were tears in my eyes as I read the afterward to the diary. In the 323 pages of the definitive edition, I grew to know Anne, her sister and parents, and the other inhabitants of the Annex well. I rejoiced when Anne and Peter kissed for the first time. I grew angry when Anne’s mother berated her for a seemingly insignificant matter. Then, to read the afterward, and find out that only Anne’s father Otto survived, was heartbreaking.

While the book is engrossing and not a taxing read, as far as vocabulary goes, it’s definitely hard to read in regards to content. When I closed the book, I felt like I’d lost a friend (cheesy, huh?). Nonetheless, I’m glad to have read it. I think I’ll go write in my diary now. 🙂

[Note: the title of this blog is from the song “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel. One of my students wrote a review of the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for a class assignment and has been reminding me to listen. The whole album is apparently Anne-Frank-themed, but this song in particular is striking. The link is to a video someone made containing images of Anne Frank and other images from World War II. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it is poignant, if you care to watch.]

Happy October!

wordpress_pumpkinThings I love about this month:

1. Pumpkin everything–candles burning in my room, bagels and cream cheese at Einstein’s, the literal pumpkin that Michele bought yesterday (we’re going to carve it, as I’ve never carved a pumpkin before).

2. Coffee! “Perfectly Pumpkin” to make in our Keurig at home and Einstein’s new chestnutty “Autumn Roast.” Yum!

3. Cooler weather–I can wear sweaters and drive with my windows down with the heater warming my feet. 🙂

4. Fall for Greenville! Civil Twilight is playing at 9 tomorrow night! (And their album is currently #29 on the charts! YES!!!!!)

5. Fall Break. Two days off from work next week, and then my own Fall Break from classes. It’s totally time for a break.

I love autumn. 🙂

September Books

Ten in September…that brings my total to 85!

1. That Summer, Sarah Dessen. A re-read, but a good one.

2. The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963, Christopher Paul Curtis. This was the first book for my adolescent literature class, and it was quite remarkable. The story is mostly about a family living in Flint, Michigan. The Watsons have three children–Byron, Kenny, and Joetta, and they have some grand imaginations and adventures. When the oldest son, Byron, gets into more trouble than the Watsons feel like they can handle, they decide to take him down to Alabama to stay with his grandmother for the summer and experience the racial prejudice down there. While there, Joetta attends church on the day that the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed, and Curtis blends historical details with the coming-of-age of Kenny Watson. It’s a really good book.

3. Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson. The second book for Adolescent Lit. It was so good, I finished reading it six days before class.  The book is about the yellow fever that took hold of Philadelphia in 1793. I had no idea our country had experienced such an epidemic! This book is well-written, includes a lot of history, and is very difficult to put down.

4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Slayer, Interrupted, Paul Lee. This comic book takes place before the first season of Buffy and provides some back-story about a time that Buffy spent in an insane asylum (her parents didn’t believe she was the slayer after her little sister Dawn found her diary…who would have thought?). It’s a great story, with good illustrations.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Note from the Underground. This comic book takes place after season six, I believe. It  features the appearance of an ex-boyfriend of Buffy’s named Pike. (Why the similarities to Spike? Not really sure.) It was also pretty great.

6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow and Tara. Don’t read this. It was terrible. Strange plot, bad writing, and illustrations that made it difficult for me to figure out who was who.

7. The Best School Year Ever, Barbara Robinson. Do I even need to talk about how excellent this book is?

8. Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle. An assigned book for my young adult literature class. It’s essentially a journal about her thoughts about writing and life and education. I really enjoyed reading her thoughts, even though I don’t agree with everything she talks about.

9. The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice, Wilkie Collins. A Victorian ghost story, of course. It’s either a short novel, or a lengthy novella. It’s wordy, at times, as the Victorians tend to be, but that’s never been an issue for me, as I love all the details. If this is any indication of how The Woman in White will be, I’ll have no problems reading that 600 page tome. 🙂

10. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. This is required reading for my Young Adult Lit class in grad school. Be jealous.