Initially I was going to write something absolutely brilliant to go with this, and maybe I’ll still do that later. But several years ago, a friend of mine and former colleague told me we’re supposed to have relationships with books. Although I’m not sure if this is what he meant, I interpreted his words to mean interacting with books on the pages and margins. So when I picked up G.K. Chesterton’s classic collection of essays entitled Orthodoxy, I decided to make my reading experience like a kind of conversation. I had read Orthodoxy before, but it didn’t quite sink in the first time. However when I interacted with the book by underlining key parts and reacting to his writing in the margins, I was able to get beyond the chore of reading it I’d experienced the first time and it really enjoy it. Of course, this method of reading does take longer. I’ve actually started doing this with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (in untranslated French, mind you). I’ll let you know how that turns out in about a year and a half. Anyway, here are some examples of the “conversations” Chesterton and I experienced. Enjoy!
I’ve been writing, honest I have! Sure I missed posting anything for Christmas or New Year’s Day, but that does’t mean I’ve been idle. On the contrary I’ve been writing a lot and for many years now. The problem is, everything is scattered and fragmented. Ideas come and go and to keep them, I must write. But after they’ve been scribbled down on paper, they’ve been stored and all but forgotten.
I carry paper with me wherever I go. Even in this age of electronic gadgets that can digitally record everything we want to remember, there’s something more lasting and more enduring about putting a thought into my own handwriting that gives it substance and life.
Unfortunately, ideas are nothing if they are left unused and laying dormant in boxes, notebooks, and binders. They’re only really made useful when they are shared. So my task now is to release these thoughts and ideas to you in a format that’s both genuine and marketable.
The way we record our ideas – be they in writing, painting, or recorded music – gives us that unique ability as humans to keep our thoughts and ideas alive even after we’ve been dead for five-thousand years. I’m not saying all of us are called to be artists. I’m not saying artists have all the answers either. All I know is that when I read a book written by some who lived a thousand or more years before me, I feel this strange connection – not in the sense that I’m his superior or equal. The connection lies in knowing that someone I can never meet in this lifetime, separated by time and culture, still faced the same core challenges humans in this post-modern world face and are still able to teach us about life even today.
This year, then, my goal is to take these clusters of words and rhymes and weave them into a tapestry of hopes, dreams, wisdom, and encouragement accessible to this generation and many more to come. Happy New Year!
A dream come true! Les Misérables the musical is coming to movie theatres on Christmas Day! My long obsession with this musical dates back almost 20 years when I was a kid going to see the touring company as they came through Fort Worth, Texas. Right from the start I latched on to the tragic heroine, Eponine, not only because she had the most beautiful solo, but because she was so often unnoticed and unappreciated by those she loved. She essentially lived in two worlds: the world as it was and the world as she longed for it to be.
No doubt Les Misérables played a role in my decision to learn French, study abroad, and eventually earn my bachelors in French. Victor Hugo and I crossed paths when I read the English translation of Notre-Dame de Paris as a teenager as well. And who would have imagined I’d one day learn that Victor Hugo and I were born on the same day? I can’t tell you the whys and the wherefores for such bizarre coincidences, but to me there must be a reason – there must be.
It was October 2002 and at last I could walk through the streets of Paris, alone, pretending to be Eponine dreaming hopelessly about her sweet Marius. The temptation to sing “On My Own” aloud was difficult to resist. There was the Seine, right beside me, singing softly and mournfully. I could feel the emotional weight baring down on me again. I could’ve been with my friends. I didn’t have to be alone. But I changed my mind at the last minute for the same reason I’d recently bought those new, long-sleeved shirts. I didn’t want my friends to see the cuts on my wrists. I wanted to prove to them I was strong. I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Of course Les Misérables sounds prettier than “The Miserable People” as one might say in English. Like many people do when they realize they can’t control the circumstances surrounding them, Eponine retreated into her imagination.
“On my own, pretending he’s beside me / All alone, I walk with him ‘till morning / Without him, I feel his arms around me / And when I lose my way I close my eyes and he has found me.”
Imagination is one way to escape from a world we can’t control. Sometimes, when I’ve had to take a walk to find peace away from crowded dormitories and chatty housemates, I’ve taken a walk with my grandmother who died when I was a baby or imagined long conversations with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. And with all my might I’d try and imagine someone holding me and whispering in my ears the simple phrase “everything’s going to be all right.” But my imagination can only take me so far.
Prayer requires imagination as well. I’m not saying I have to imagine the existence of God (although to some extent that may be true). But God is not physically tangible (as you probably already know). All the way back to the ancient Hebrew texts, God is too sacred and too powerful for our human eyes to see. Moses was told not to look at God on the mountain top, for he would surely die.
But when I am walking alone at night, I sometimes imagine God walking with me. I have conversations with him in my head. Sometimes I smile at what I imagine him saying. Most of the time I try and imagine him reminding me that I’m still important and I still have a purpose in life. My story isn’t over yet.
Eponine dies in the arms of Marius, the friend she loves who is not in love with her. Still, she masks her pain to make him happy. It is what she’s always done from the first time he set eyes on his bride, Cossette, until her fall at the barricades.
This is the strange thing about human relationships. We don’t want to burden our friends with our troubles and yet we feel sad when our friends withhold their troubles from us.
We all know how the France chapter of my story ended. I tried so hard not to let the people I most cared about see me when my pain had become too difficult to bare that my mind could no longer distinguish between what was my imagination and what was real. And yet even when I woke up in a psychiatric hospital and a couple of my friends took time to call, I didn’t tell them anything was wrong.
I will note it’s much easier to hide your pain from your friends when your friends live far away. People like me have trouble regulating their emotions. I can’t stop the tears once they’ve been triggered and it’s often made for awkward situations. But I can weep silently while listening to a friend’s voice on the phone and they never have to know.
As Eponine died in the arms of her Marius, she sang a kind of lullaby with him.
“Don’t you fret Monsieur Marius I don’t feel any pain / A little fall of rain could hardly hurt me now / You’re here that’s all I need to know / And you will keep me safe / And you will keep me close / And rain will make the flowers grow”
Last week I posted the things that make me want to read a book. Today I’m posting the things that turn me off about books. Sometimes I’ll make exceptions when there’s a book that kind of fits in both “turn-ons” and “turn-offs”, but for the most part, these are some of the general kinds of books I tend to steer clear of:
So, my friends, I have begun work on a novelization of my story. I feel compelled to make it fiction as opposed to memoir due to the fast that fiction offers much more artistic freedom! Here is a brief excerpt from my first rough draft. But let me begin with a synopsis of the story.
The main character, Colleen, finds herself in a dilemma. She has been home from studying in France for a year and has been an inpatient in the psyche hospital twice, once in France and once in the US. She feels lost and confused, floating between two worlds. In this scene, she’s reflecting on her time before France and before she was told she had a mental illness. This is actually one of the light-hearted scenes. Guy, Tristan, and Elise are the three French students mentioned here.
I loved the Frenchies!And what better way have we Americans to express our love than to give each other hugs?I mean, I’ve seen those people carrying around the “free hugs” signs at carnivals and such.It’s like we love our hugs so much here, we’ll even risk hugging complete strangers!But the Frenchies were less willing to be won over by the “American hug.”
I learned this the hard way.Guy came over to my dorm for a party and I was so happy to see him that I impulsively hugged him.As I did so, I could feel him stiffen.In response I backed away, assuming I’d just caught him off guard but otherwise had done no harm.
Shortly thereafter, Guy and Tristan pulled me aside and explained why they found the “American hug” so uncomfortable.I gulped, lowered my head in humiliation, and listened.
“Colleen,” Tristan began.“We do not like this thing you do where you embrace us in your arms.How do you call it?A hug?”
“But I hug everybody!” I argued.“It’s just what we do here in America!”
Guy remained silent as Tristan continued.“Sorry but we don’t like.
“Why?” I firmly demanded.
This time Guy spoke up.“It is too close; too personal.That’s all.”
“Serious?That’s so sad!” I lamented.“I love to get hugs!And I love to give hugs too!”
“As I say, it is too personal for us.Too bad for you.That just how it is.” Guy stated matter-of-factly.
“So what you’re saying is, when I hug you, it’s an invasion of personal space?Then how am I supposed to greet you when you come over?”A legitimate question, I thought.
“Shake hands,” they both kind of blurted out together, nodding to one another in agreement.
“Shake hands?That’s too formal!Don’t you do that kissing on the cheeks thing in France?You know, “la bise” or whatever you call it.I mean, as an American, I think that’s way more personal than a hug.Would you like me to give you that instead?”
Victory!I thought.How are they going to maneuver around that one?
To my dismay, they both shot that idea down sans hesitation.So I surrendered: no hugs and no la bise from that point forward.Except, of course, on the last day of school just before Guy and Tristan left the States for good.
Elise, on the other hand, loved the “American hug” and vowed to introduce it to France and improve the French culture with it.The stark contrast in her reception of the hugs and that of the French guys threw me for a loop.The French students rationalized it all by informing me they weren’t really like the French stereotype or they weren’t really French.