Alone, Together: More Thoughts on Reading

My post this morning missed a more elementary, obvious fact about why The Storied Life of AJ Fikry works so well. It is commonly believed that reading is a solitary act and that readers are, for the most part, selfish with the time they devote to their inner selves. There is, I think, a belief that too much reading carries a person far away from the company of others and makes that person a stranger, alienated from the fellowship of friends, neighbors and fellow citizens of the world. There is an expectation that too much reading makes a person strange, unfit for healthy relationships and the regular responsibilities all decent people must bear. In this belief, reading is a kind of madness, a flaw in one’s nature that separates us from other, more productive pursuits.

And yet, the story of AJ Fikry is exactly the opposite. Reading carries him into closer communion with others. His reading makes him brave. His reading widens his heart. His reading is not selfish. For Fikry, reading is an act of generosity as he constantly shares what he has read and relates his own reading to the lives of others. He reads to bring others in, not to push them out. His reading is a kind of communion, an act of radical belief in the importance of ideas and virtues and commitment. Fikry creates a family through books. He finds the people who best understand what he is about. He broadens the lives of others who felt their lives too narrow.

And it is exuberant love of sharing that makes his reading worthwhile. It isn’t an act of self focus that consumes the reader. The life of the generous reader is made larger through the time spent with books. Though sometimes, it is true, we may read to escape, we never read to make ourselves feel alone. We read to help keep ourselves together.


Why We Read: A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I just finished reading an extraordinary book, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. This post isn’t going to be a clever literary analysis or full of especially keen observations on the mechanics of a well-made story. I won’t gush on and on about the exquisite pacing, the truly-drawn characters and the subtle, satisfying twists that make this book so enjoyable. We can talk about all that some other time.

This is a thank you. I am grateful to the writer who made this story and to the friend who suggested I read it. This book found me at exactly the right time.

I am 40 years old. I am a reader. Since the age of 7, there has never been a time when I did not have at least one book in progress. There have been months and years when I have read less and more slowly than I had wanted. There have been entire years recently when I have felt my attention too scattered and dissipated to really enjoy my reading, but I have read anyway because it is a thing that I do. Reading is who I am.

This book reminds me of why I read.

I meet A.J. Fikry and recognize two things. 1: Individually, our lives are unsatisfying because they are too short and too limited. 2: We make our lives satisfying by connecting with other people. It is only by connecting our lives to other lives that we get to experience the richness and power of our purpose.

This is why we read.

We read to connect. We read to connect to the characters inside the stories. We read to connect to those people who have lived before us in other times at other places. We read to connect to the strange folk who spend their lives making up stories. We read to share ourselves with the world and to let the world share itself with us.

Life is full of plot twists. I hope it does not spoil things too much to tell you that Fikry becomes a father even though he is entirely unprepared for the experience. His life has been narrowed by loss and disappointment. He learns to make his life larger again by sharing it with his foundling daughter, Maya and through her with more and more people. As soon as he begins to open, his life grows and grows.

The novel is organized, in part, around journal entries Fikry writes for his daughter, in which he shares thoughts about the books and stories he has read. Each becomes a kind of sign post for life. The books he has read interpret the many frustrations, challenges and triumphs that make up a life. Fikry gives his daughter a love for books. In that love, she is given all the tools she needs to live a purposeful, joyful life.

As a father, I am inspired by the extraordinary gift Fikry has given his daughter. My own daughter is seven. I want her to be brave and curious and kind. I want her to feel at home in the world and help others feel at home as well. I want her life to be an adventure, full of purpose and work that demands her best attention and effort. I want her to connect deeply, as I have, with the people with whom she will share this world and with the people with whom she will share her shelves.

I am raising a reader because the world needs readers. The world needs thoughtful, reflective, curious minds tempered by generous, tender, expansive hearts.

I am grateful to this particular story at this particular moment for helping me remember.

This why I read. The world requires it.


Better Than Busy

A few weeks ago a colleague at work stopped me during my lunch break to thank me for the contributions I make to our workplace. It was a nice moment. It is always nice to receive simple, honest validation from someone who understands and appreciates what you do. Still, I am a little bit haunted by the way he phrased the compliment. “Man, you are the busiest guy I know. You are everywhere doing everything.” Those words, simple and specific, sat on top of my own observation that, more often than not, my own team had started to apologize before talking to me. I started hearing things like “I’m sorry to bother you” and “I know you probably don’t have time for this right now” and “Its important but it can wait if you need.” This is code for, you’ve got yourself buried behind a barricade of work. We know you’re in there and just want to acknowledge that we can still see you.”

I used to admire super-busy people as exemplars of drive, ambition and stamina. Now that I have become one of those people, I feel a bit sorry for us. I can’t help thinking that extreme busyness is a symptom of some larger disorder. That busy people aren’t necessarily more productive, and that many of us are just incapable of proper prioritization or effective delegation.

I like to be busy. I like to work hard. I like to push my limits and practice with stamina and determination. These are virtues. Still, I can’t help feeling as if I have fallen into the busyness trap, substituting energy and effort for clear, specific results. I am reading Jim Collin’s Good to Great and working again with the idea of a Stop Doing List, an exercise in clarity by cutting away at things that don’t really need or deserve my attention.

I am also working with the idea that 21st century leaders, above all else, will be rewarded for their ability to bring clarity of focus to the people on their team. Helping others find and sustain clarity of focus requires strong relationships. Clarity of focus gets developed and shaped over time. This kind of leadership only happens when the leader slows down, models relentless discipline of focus and helps the team connect to their own purpose, their own intention and their own drive. This is the kind of leader I aspire to become. I don’t want to keep being the guy who is everywhere doing everything. I want to be the guy who connects everyone to what needs doing. This kind of  leader is still a busy person, but the pace is controlled, the focus is clear and everyone travels together. That’s a better way to be.


New Neighbors

When you move into a new neighborhood, it takes time to meet the new neighbors. There is so much to be done in such a short span of time — a tornadic frenzy of boxes and furniture and such to be moved and unpacked and put into places. You meet the neighbors a little bit at a time and practice remembering their names. Someday soon these people can be your friends. But it takes times to meet them all and get to know them.

And then, one night, as soon as possible, you set up your modem, plug in your router and try to establish an internet beachhead in your new home. Things don’t go as planned. There are issues and complications to be worked through.

But as soon as your router comes to life, it casts its net across the neighborhood, scans the entire block for signals in range. Before you meet Tom and Joy and Steve and Nancy and Jeff and Melissa, you meet their wireless networks. You meet beersnob and thisisnotyourwifi and Peggyswireless2. You play a kind of matching game with yourself putting the wifi name with the house. And you wonder to yourself what these new neighbors are thinking when they see jedifunknet show up on their network list. For them, there is no guesswork. Jedifunknet arrived with the big yellow moving truck.

After two weeks, we are beginning to meet our new neighbors, collect phone numbers, host children. No doubt we will settle in quickly. Soon enough, jedifunknet will be a regular member of network community.


The Belly of the Beast

I drove home yesterday through the worst weather I have ever experienced. I left my office in Harriman, TN just a few minutes after 5pm, hoping to get ahead of the gathering gloom of storm clouds. Five minutes later, the sky split open and chaos spilled out.

The traffic on I-40 East slowed to 40 then 30 then 20 miles per hour as walls of rain fell with punishing force. 5pm in June is supposed to be daylight but the sky was a formless, abysmal gray. Driving along the corridor of the interstate, visibility narrowed into a long, gray flannel sleeve. The wind pressed in from both sides. Leaves flew from the trees in a spew of black, jagged bird-like shadows, circling my car from all directions. And then I noticed the wind was pressing the trees in from both sides of the interstate, reaching in with gnarled, nasty arms grasping blindly for whatever hapless traveler they could snarl.

Slowing to 25 miles per hour, I tried to comprehend the physics of the moment, to have wind pressing in toward you from all directions. And then, I realized I was traveling inside a swirl of leaves, branches and water.

The drive was careful and tedious. My hands clutched the steering wheel, fingers gripped to keep my car level on the road. The wind pushed me to the left then to the right. Puddles leapt up like fountains. Lighting ripped the air.

And yet, everything was quiet. I expected a torrent of sound, the brash locomotive wheeze of a train engine, the gale force banshee screech that is sometimes the last sound on earth. I heard none of it. I can’t swear it wasn’t happening. I may have been so totally focused on the road that my brain didn’t process the sound of it all.

I drove on in this slow, careful way for about 10 miles and then, exiting the interstate, found myself quite suddenly outside from the belly of the beast.

I made my way home carefully, still hindered by heavy rain and standing water. Even at slow speed, my tires left the road several times.

When I got into town, my city was littered with broken, twisted tree trunks, fallen branches, dangling power lines. Power was out in areas all across town.

It was quite simply the most intense, fascinating weather experience I have ever had.

My mom called earlier this evening to let me know that the weather service had officially registered a class F-0 tornado in the area I was driving yesterday.

Turns out, I drove straight through a mild tornado without realizing. This writing doesn’t capture how utterly strange and fascinating the entire experience was. I’m glad I didn’t realize I was driving through a tornado because on the stretch of road I was driving there is no good place to hide.

Now that it is over and, to an extent while it was happening, my reaction was split between a vague disquiet and complete fascination. I drove through the belly of the beast. I am grateful the beast was small and relatively tame. No one got hurt and I got to experience something I never thought I would get to see.


I Stopped Following You On Twitter. Nothing personal.

I stopped following you on Twitter today. Nothing personal. You’re still funny. People still like you. Your 2037 remaining followers still admire the amount of snark and wit you can pack into 140 characters.

Its not you. Its me.

I just woke up and realized that my Twitter feed was no longer meeting my needs. I realized that Twitter is like a dinner party in a warehouse and everyone is standing by the buffet line, all 646 million of us, trying to be clever and pertinent but not too personal and not too emotionally involved.

I came to talk to people who know about libraries and teaching and educational technologies and writing and poetry and mobile tools in the classroom and open education resources and science stuff. Oh, and Star Wars. Yes, also Star Wars.

Your posts kept interrupting my train of thought. Your selfies and cookey cat pictures kept hiding the posts I really wanted to see. I’m sure your cat is very nice, but I don’t really care what she ate for breakfast. And I don’t understand the cheese hat.

You aren’t the only one. I stopped following dozens of others. There will be several dozen more to come, I’m sure.

I can imagine you and the sadness you might feel. Sitting there alone in your apartment, refreshing your Twitter feed, wondering where follower 2038 has gone. You aren’t the kind to keep an actual list of followers, I hope. If so, it might take you a while to check and double check the list of names to find the disappeared.

There is, of course, software you might use to isolate changes in your Twitterdom to find my handle is the one that is gone.

Don’t think too poorly of me. I followed you once for some good reason. Who knows? Maybe I will follow you again.

But it is awkward, isn’t it? The knowing that you are still following someone who is no longer following you. The relationship has changed. No more favorites. No RTs. A lonely silence on Follow Fridays.

Try to move on. Don’t wallow in the misery. Use the disappointment to help you grow strong.

I wish you all the happiness in the world. You deserve followers who appreciate your every tweet. May you be richly blessed and, when the time comes, may your Twitter account be verified and graced by that little blue check that means so much to so many. That moment when the world is forced to recognize that you are exactly who you say you are.

Until then, my friend, take care of yourself. Try to be brave. You have 2037 other followers to think about. Tweet them well.


Email is Not My Job

Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to do my job. At least, that’s what I tell myself. And yet, more and more often, I find myself spending most of my time writing, answering, filing and deleting emails. It has gotten absurd.

I’m not alone. The problem of email overload is so bad, my college is drafting policies to try and define who can email who and the rules for using email in the workplace. The policy won’t help. Email is a useful, but limited, communication tool. We overuse it and try to make our emails do things for us they were never intended to do.

The problem with email is that messages are wickedly easy to send and, on the receiving end, wickedly difficult to deal with. Handling my email inbox usually feels like hand to hand combat with somebody else’s to do list. Every email brings with it a decision. Do I reply? Do I delegate this? Does this person really need my response? Is the sender really a person anyway or is it just a semi-clever software program spewing invitations to review someone’s latest [fill in the blank]. Many messages get deleted. Others get flagged. Some get answered or delegated. Every email is a decision. It is exhausting.

Enough is enough. I’m building some new rules for myself regarding email. I want efficiency. I want clarity. I want control.

My brother manages manufacturing workflow processes. He treats his inbox like a project. Everything that comes in gets immediately color coded. Certain senders (his boss, his boss’s boss) are colored special colors to help them stand out. Every message is quickly reviewed for action type and given a color category using Outlook’s category options. One color for urgent. Another color for not urgent. Anything that doesn’t deserve a color is deleted.

I’ve been working with this idea for a week now. I already have my most important email senders pushed into a priority, VIP email folder. Messages from my boss, my staff and my related work teams get pushed to the VIP folder. Messages in this folder can be viewed as a group. They also display on my iPad as a special alert to help me keep track.

All incoming messages are quickly scanned for possible action. Easy things get answered or addressed right away. Most things aren’t easy and require a color. Red for urgent. Pink for important but not urgent. Green for waiting for an answer or more information. Purple for things to read.

My new rule: every message gets scanned and immediately answered, deleted or categorized. I then use Outlook category filters to view my urgent emails all together. This helps me prioritize my work for the day. After those are gone, I will view the important, but not urgent set. Some day, in theory, I will read the purple items labeled to read.

It isn’t a perfect system. I’m still not entirely in control of my inbox but, after a week of using categories and filters, I already find myself less stressed about the hemorrhaging inbox. I’m dealing with the things that need my attention most a little more quickly. At least, I think I am.

I still need to fine tune the system. Today, I added another step. I close my email software when I’m not actively using it. Today, I read email first thing in the morning, again mid-morning and then right before lunch. I opened email midafternoon and then once more before I left for the day. The rest of the time email stayed closed.

From time to time, one of my VIP senders showed an alert on my iPad. I glanced quickly over to determine if the message was urgent, knowing that truly urgent things always arrive via phone call or text message.

It felt good to close my email when I wasn’t actively using it. I felt more in control.

I have written about my personal struggles with email before. You may think I’m daft. You may think I’m making things too complicated. The truth is I’m just trying to feel more in control and capture that feeling that email is a tool I use rather than a tool than uses me.

You may be reading this and feeling upset because you’ve sent me an email or 5 and haven’t yet gotten a response. Try not to be upset. There’s a good chance your email to me has a pink cast, in which case I’ll get to it.

There is also, of course, a chance that your email(s) have been deleted. If that’s the case, you are going to need to decide how many emails you want to send me to try and get my attention. My new rules are still young so I’m not sure how they will play out. I am declaring a kind of war here. Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to help me do my job.

I need your help. What rules or processes do you use to manage your email? Comments most welcome.


Cups of Coffee

I am drinking cups of coffee this morning brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. She died last week. In the months before she died, coffee had become very important. She faced cancer bravely, but I can see now that her fight was always a war of attrition. We had good months after her diagnosis in July. We got her out of the house to eat and shop and just drive around and look at pretty things. Still, looking back through it, I can see how her cancer made her world progressively smaller.

She was tethered to oxygen. The initial diagnosis prevented her from being able to work. It was a kind of spontaneous retirement. Her work friends were her closest friends. Not seeing them everyday made her sad. They were kind and visited as often as they could. They brought her food. They mowed her yard. They texted and called. They brought her news from the outside world to keep her connected with the places and people they shared in common. Her friends had become ranger scouts reporting back to home base.

Wearing oxygen makes every excursion into the world a pain in the ass. There are devices and straps and tubes and things that want to tangle in the spokes of the wheelchair. When you wear oxygen and use a wheelchair, you calculate your trips carefully. You do a kind of math each time. You need to commit yourself to the idea of going out. The trips became fewer — mostly doctor visits and occasional restaurants for dinner.

She handled chemotherapy like a champ but, when the cancer moved into her bones, the radiation was a much harder hit. The pains and embarrassments of cancer began to mount. Each treatment took a greater toll. Pain set in to stay.

Eventually, her house became her universe. And then her living room.

After a month or so, the pain kept her moored in her recliner. She needed  a walker to get to the bathroom. It became a struggle for her to get into the kitchen. When she could get there, she couldn’t carry anything back with her.

Cups of coffee became very important. She had to plan each one. She hated asking for help but, in her last week, asked if I might come over when I woke up just to carry a cup of coffee. Of course.

And when I carried what would be my last cup of coffee for her, I realized just how small her world had become. This was a woman born in Paris, who had grown up all over Europe and then settled in Tennessee. She treasured her childhood memories of Germany and Greece. And now, her world had become the size of a cup of coffee.

It was, for all that, I think, the best cup of coffee. As her world became smaller, my mom-in-law, my wife and my family began to appreciate smaller and smaller things. Standing where I stood in early July 2013, before our struggles began, I would have thought the shrinking of her world would be a source of inevitable pain and despair. Those were always there, but, more than anything else, we saw in her a growing appreciation for the smallest things. The smaller her world became the bigger her appreciation.

She suffered a brain hemorrhage and lasted almost two days before passing. In those last hours after the hemorrhage, she could not move or speak. She was just breathing and that was a difficult chore. I would not have thought it possible, but her world had become smaller still. Her world had become her body. Less than her body. A portion, some unseen pocket of her body where the spirit still propelled the heart and lungs to function. For most of those hours, it was impossible for us to know if she was even there with us or if her breath was just the trick of a body that hadn’t yet learned how to stop breathing.

In those moments and the moments that have come since her passing, I like to think that when her world became so incredibly, impossibly small, her appreciation and gratitude for the world grew incredibly, impossibly large. I like to imagine that, in those final, isolated moments when she was locked into herself that she felt herself swallowed by gratitude and that her capacity for amazement and wonder had become infinite.

In the very last hours of her life, we had small signs that she was still there and that she knew we were there with her. This was a mercy for us. It was a comfort for my wife. In that moment, we were her world. And we were bathed in that wash of gratitude and appreciation.

We miss her. The funeral is over. Friends and family are returning to their homes and their lives. We will develop new routines. Learn to call a new kind of life normal.

There are difficult days ahead. I am drinking coffee brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. I want, every day, to appreciate each cup in the way my mom-in-law had learned to do. Having tasted that particular blend of joy, appreciation and sorrow, I don’t want to lose the richness of that kind of gratitude.


Poem About Grief

Note: I want to share this thing with you. Not because it is finished but because it needs to be outside of me. It came to me very quickly. A few words a few days ago. A sentence last night. A phrase when I woke up this morning.

I ate my breakfast. I drank my coffee. I took my daughter to school.

It was waiting for me when I found my chair. It is better, I think, for it to be on the outside of me. What I mean to say is this: I wrote this, then went for a run with a friend and, when I came back to it, it seemed more beautiful than scary.

***

Grief is the subterranean monster that has been waiting with inexorable hunger since your childhood. She is the unseen creature lurking just beneath the surface, reaching up for you with her impossibly long arms to drag you into her silent kingdom of earthworms, clattering bugs and other blind, scurrying things.

Grief is the shape inside the shadow standing in the corner of your room. That faceless familiar form, seeming so much like a person with no name. The thing tucked in that corner of the closet which reminds you somehow of an open mouth, not speaking, not moving. Preternaturally still. Patient as thunder.

It is the moment you first notice the rusty hinge of heaven and how, once seen,  you cannot unsee it ever again. How precarious the sky hangs there above your head now, no longer floating. Now pressing downward and how you realize for the first time that the sky has been falling your entire life. You just never took the time to notice. And now, there is no escape from it. The sky which has always been falling and your life which gets smaller with each passing moment.

And now how your life seems like a hallway with only one door. A long hallway, perhaps, but one that narrows and slopes slightly as you slip constantly forward, tripping toward that one single door waiting for you at the end. That door is slightly open. It stands ajar as you move closer and closer until, one day, which will be a complete surprise to you, you will stand with your hand on that door’s knob.

And now grief is like a closet overfilled with all the things you packed away, the useless things that had no place in the moment but which are now tumbling out and toppling over you. Forcing you to deal with each and every misplaced thing. How they break and bruise you and they bury you in this endless avalanche of things you thought you had forgotten, things you had set aside, things you not wanted to remember.

And now grief is sitting with you underneath a small tree on a very small hill, trembling like a leaf on a branch on that very small tree. And how you will call it meditation. Or you will call it mindfulness. Or you will call it prayer.

But it is really just you and your grief waiting for something to happen. Something different. Something without precedent.

And the sun rises. And the sun sets as it always has. And there are creatures moving underneath you, stirring in the dirt. And there are shapes inside all the shadows that lengthen and shrink as the days roll by. And the sky closer to you now that it has ever been.  And you notice how the bright traffic of clouds once so unremarkable now restlessly rearrange themselves like the furniture of your life. And how, even with your eyes closed, you can feel the stretch of that long, one door hallway as it swallows you down into mystery, deep into surprise.

And how, when you open that final doorway, all the things come down on you.

And now you understand your whole life has been a practice with gravity. The trick of holding things down. Keeping things where they belong. And now everything is floating. Everything is drifting. And you are working, once again, with groundlessness, except this time you are working with sorrow. You are working to save your life.


What Writing’s For: An Appreciation of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is the most helpful, encouraging, and honest book about writing I have ever read. I’ve read a few.bird_by_bird

Most books about writing and the creative life come across preachy. It is hard to write about the creative process without sounding either prescriptive or condescending. I often avoid both traps by embracing vague, gushing hyperbole. (See for yourself.)

Reading books about writing is so often like candy. It makes me feel happy, enthusiastic and inspired for a few minutes, maybe a day, but then the bottom falls out. The bright ideals fade, and I am left with a crippling hangover, a shock of self-doubt and a fear of the page.

Inspiration rebound syndrome afflicts most aspiring writers. Bird by Bird is the antidote.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott achieves a friendly, familiar, no-nonsense tone. She is that best friend always telling you things you need, but don’t really want, to hear. She got me writing again, and here’s why: she gave me something better than inspiration. She gave me a useful perspective.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Most people who write will never be published. I should write anyway.
  • The first draft is going to suck. Write it with love but write it quickly. Get it out and behind me so I can write the second draft. It may suck too but each draft should get better.
  • Novels aren’t built the way they are read. Stories get told in layers. They aren’t lined up in neat rows. Writing is more like painting than brick laying.
  • My writing won’t save the world, but it may save my life.

And here’s what I carry that has made my writing easier and better. Writing and publishing are separate things. You have almost no control over whether or not your writing gets published and yet the act of writing itself gives a sense of control and purpose.

Writing is a practice. You can devote yourself to the practice. You can do it everyday. You can use writing to develop a sense of mindfulness. You can use writing to teach yourself to pay attention. You can use your writing as a way to cultivate empathy with others and recognize connections between people, ideas and the choices people make.

A life spent this way is a life filled with joy, deeper awareness and purpose. Even if no one reads what you have written, they will see it in the way you live your life. You will carry this habit, this way of seeing, around with you.

You will still be frustrated and confused but you may find yourself becoming more patient and less lonely. Your writing will teach you to appreciate your life. Your writing will constantly bring you back into the company of yourself.

This makes it work very much worth doing.

Find Bird by Bird in a library near you.

What books have helped you understand why so many of us bother writing?

 

 

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 673 other followers