I’m so proud to say that the author of this blog is my dear friend. She writes about her experience with melanoma, pregnancy, and motherhood—and she covers some of her just-for-fun personal interests like crafting along the way. It’s really an amazing blog.
This letter has some very fun (not to mention creative) uses of new words, and the website as a whole is a fascinating journey in personal correspondence.
I recently finished reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I put the book down and went, “Huh.” Then I picked it back up and stared at it for a while before setting it back down. I couldn’t even begin to formulate how I felt about the book, so I walked away from it. More than 10 days later, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it. I figure that makes it a pretty good book, though. If I hadn’t liked it, I would’ve stopped thinking about it long before now, and if I had just liked it a little, I would’ve said, “How nice,” and moved on with my life. But I seriously can’t get this book out of my head.
Niffenegger used intriguing language throughout the book in sentences like, “He would say her name over and over until it devolved into meaningless sounds—mah REI kuh, mah REI kuh—it became an entry a dictionary of loneliness.” As an exploration of language and meaning, Niffinegger provided this insight through the thoughts of one of the characters during a tricky conversation: “How delicately language skirts the issue. How meaningless it is.” In the conversations themselves, she turned ordinary talk into opportunities for depth. In one example, she took something like talking about the possibility of ghosts existing and turned it into a beautiful discussion between two characters: “I think perhaps if that sort of thing does happen—ghosts—it must be more beautiful, more surprising than all these old tales would have us believe.”
She also delved into the mind and its complexities. One of my favorite characters struggles to make other people understand him but often gives up short of getting them there—because they will never truly understand him. And yet, I think his character gave me more insight into how minds work than the other characters with descriptions like this: “Martin knew that there were two realities: the actual one and the felt one.” However, in another section (based on another character), these sentences—about how we think and react—struck me: “There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic…. Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.”
Just as she explored the mind’s complexities, she also explored human relationships and their complexities. While each of the relationships is dysfunctional in its own way, all the relationships are also quite… beautiful. Maybe what I think about the book is that its beautiful. I think one of the reasons I am having difficulties deciding about this book is that I dislike a lot of the characters. But that’s a strength of Niffenegger’s writing in this book—she makes the characters so real that they have very deep flaws. She doesn’t hide them or even make a pretense of hiding them. She allows us to hate them a little while wanting more and more about their stories.
“It was an October morning in the year 1872, and New York City’s air was so befogged with white mist and dark smoke that I could barely see across the street.”
Any book that can use ‘befogged’ in its first sentence is one I know I’m going to enjoy!
Avi’s The Seer of Shadows is a young adult (or perhaps ‘young reader’ is a better term?) book that I can only describe as a mix between a ghost story, a love story, and a love letter to the art of photography. Oh, and add into all that mix a healthy dose of historical realism that makes the book read more like an autobiography than fiction—in a good way. The main character, Horace, felt incredibly real, and by the end of the book, I wanted him to be real. I’d read (and adored) The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing but the Truth by Avi before picking up this book, but it had been so long since reading either of them that I had forgotten what a treat his writing is. But now that I remember, I definitely need to pick up some more of his books. Thank goodness I know our public library has a healthy stock of Avi books.
One of my passions in life is photography, and I’ve often regretted that I haven’t learned the art of non-digital photography and of processing my own film in a dark room. In the book, Avi includes incredible descriptions of photography and how it was done in 1872 that I very nearly want to go back to college just to take photography courses to learn more about how to do these things myself. One of the most beautiful passages in the book is the following:
“There is something almost magical about the developing of a photographic image. Consider: You stand quietly in a room with a dim yellow light that fills the air with an enchanting twilight glow. That glow always seems to transport me to another place, a demiworld where images, like shy spirits, lie in wait.
“Holding your breath, you peer into a chemical brew. Not so very different, I suppose, from sorcerers of old when they gazed into their magical potions. Gently you slide the exposed but blank glass plate into this chemical bath. You wait for something to appear as if waiting on the shore of a mist-shrouded lake.
“Slowly, a shadowy image begins to reveal itself. It’s as if the shadow were coming from some mystic depth, emerging from another world, little by little, taking bodily shape and form until that shadow becomes … real. Just what one would expect—would want—from a ghost.
“But the image on the glass is backward—that’s to say, what is dark is light, what is light is dark—a negative image, which only enhances its otherworldliness.
“During the whole process, you must watch the image intently. Too much developer and the negative turns as black as soot, becoming irretrievably lost. It’s as if the image, coming as it does from an unreachable void, plunges back into the emptiness from whence it came. Unless you hold the shadow and embrace it tightly, it will vanish—forever.”
I read that passage several times over while contemplating what I could do with a new degree in the art of photography and how much it would cost to start my own dark room and buy all the equipment necessary for taking pictures the old-fashioned way. I love my digital cameras, but I don’t think anything I do with pictures from a digital camera could be described so romantically as what’s in the passage above.
Now to decide which Avi book to read next…
I overheard a conversation one day, in which a student complained about her school, saying, “It sucks that they care more about recruitment than they do retention.” She had made this (rather wise) observation after talking to her friend about all the things the school was doing to entice new would-be freshmen to enroll in the school but doing next to nothing to keep the students once they got there.
I know academia seems to be heading down the road of valuing recruitment over retention, and I think that is reflective of our society. We, as a whole, tend to value acquisition over maintenance. I know I’m guilty of that myself—I like to acquire new skills but not necessarily maintain the ones I already have. I also know it’s sometimes easier to acquire new friends rather than maintain the relationships I already have, especially when that maintenance means crossing state borders.
I know I’m not alone in this. I hear people saying all the time how hard it can be to pick up the phone and call someone they haven’t spoken to in a long time. It might be guilt, it might be a crazy schedule, or it might just be a reaction to not knowing how to maintain after a life of focusing on acquiring. It’s easy to acquire 500 friends on Facebook, but it can be incredibly difficult to maintain even 5 close relationships over a lifetime.
So to all my lovely friends who I’ve neglected to maintain solid relationships with, I’m sorry. And I am going to try my darnedest to get better at maintenance because I don’t want to lose you.
I know (and believe) the old adage that we learn from our mistakes and bad decisions in life. But it’s only recently that I’ve begun to accept the mistakes that other people make and sometimes even embrace them.
This is kind of a weird example, but tonight I went to a local restaurant and ordered food to go. They messed up my order, but I didn’t notice until I got home. My inner voice blamed myself (“You should have checked the order before you left!”), but I managed to ignore that little nagging feeling and call the restaurant to ask for a reimbursement. The manager was incredibly polite and profusely apologized. He said he would certainly reimburse me, but even more than that, if I could get back to the restaurant, he would replace the order so that I could still enjoy the correctly made meal.
When I got to the restaurant, the owner himself came out to speak with me and, once again, apologize. I realized as I left that their mistake turned me into a loyal patron. No restaurant gets 100% of its orders 100% correct 100% of the time. What separates a good restaurant from the ordinary is how they react when something gets done wrong.
I think that’s a good metaphor for the people in our lives—what separates the worthwhile people from the not-so-worthy is what they do when they make a mistake. Because let’s face it, we all make mistakes. It isn’t making the mistakes that’s notable; it’s what we do with the mistake that is.