Guest Post: The best book I read recently...

Today I asked two of my favorite former students to guest blog for me. My question was simple..."What was the best book you read recently?" Here are there answers:

Mia, 17

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Arthur Dent, his alien hitchhiker friend, the woman that rejected him for a "space man," the space man with a personality literally split into two, and a manic depressive robot. What do they have in common? Absolutely nothing, which is why their severely misguided journey to find something as serious as the meaning of life in made comical by their utter incompatibility. Trying to understand the dynamic that Douglas Adams successfully established is like imagining a child futilely jamming a square block into the space for the circle. One would think it would never work, but what Adams does well is hack away at that square in order to make it fit. Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin, and Ford represent all the square blocks in the world that just would not fit in the circle. Yet these rejected circles are expected to find the meaning of life, to get to the bottom of why they exist. What ensues is both hilarious and oddly insightful because ultimately the answer to the overarching question is rather meaningless: it's 42. Arthur has his home planet--Earth--blown up. Zaphod steals a legendary ship. Trillian is almost eaten alive. All for a lousy number. It may not have been intentional, but Adams speaks to the unnecessary importance we often place on life having a meaning, on the desire for life to have meaning. The result is that, as passion builds to find meaning where there is none, the true meaning is lessened because anything will be accepted to satiate that hunger for meaning. Almost like planting evidence just to be right. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy becomes a piece on absurdism, evolved from its comedic origins and superficial observation.

 

Aminata, 17

The last great book I read is actually the book I'm currently readying. It's called Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I'm only partially through the novel, but I really like it so far--mostly because I can relate to it. Not to the fact that Cath, the main character, has a twin sister, but every other aspect about the main character I can relate to. It's about how Cath is undergoing her first year at a university and she still isn't over her obsession with Simon Snow. Cath is me because I'm going to go to college in the fall and I'm still not over my obsession with Justin Bieber (although I'm really into a band called The 1975). She's a bit antisocial and the friends she befriends seem like they're going to be her close friends for a long time. (She only has 2). I'm currently at the part where she's having an emergency dance party with her new friend, Levi, and they're dancing to Kanye. Whenever I'm stressed or upset, I always listen to my favorite songs on repeat. (I have a special playlist that I listen to.) My favorite author is definitely John Green, so I recommend people read ALL of his books, including his part in the multi-authored book, Let it Snow.


As for me, I'm currently reading my first Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Each night I get to sneak in a few pages--I am a mother of two young children after all--his words drip like honey off the page. They're sexy and funny and devastating and honest. I'm not a passive accomplice when reading his work, instead, I'm an active participant. He invites me into his universe, and I can see it and smell it and feel it. It's hard to articulate the feeling I get when experiencing his language, only that it's as if I'm  transported to a place where I get the pleasure of watching his various worlds take shape. And Marquez? He's a master craftsman. A builder of life.

My Not-So-Swedish Family Christmas

This post originally appeared in Nordstjernan.  


     For decades, my family has celebrated Christmas the same way, every year. I grew up listening to my grandmother tell me, “This is how the Swedes do it, how your relatives did it. So this is how we do it.” It didn’t really matter to me that my grandmother is actually a second-generation Swedish-American and not truly Swedish. (In fact, my closest relative to celebrate a legitimate Swedish Christmas would be my great-great-grandparents, who came to America in the late 1800s.) What mattered was the fact that we were replicating the traditions and customs of my ancestors, my roots, my people. 
     This is how my family celebrates Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we have dinner, complete with Swedish meatballs, lingonberry preserves, ham and Swedish prayer followed by an evening service at my grandparents’ Lutheran church. On Christmas morning we open presents from Santa, and eat a Swedish brunch of potatiskorv (potato sausage) and äggröra (egg gravy). 
     It’s all very proper, and I dare say a Christmas that deviates from this tradition wouldn’t seem like Christmas at all. I always felt I celebrated in a way that honored my ancestors, those Swedish immigrants who left their homeland over a century ago for better lives in hope-filled America. 
Or so I thought. 

     In 2005, I eagerly invited my then-Swedish boyfriend, Erik, to partake in my family’s Christmas. I expected him to be impressed, to be moved by how we kept up authentic Swedish traditions. Most of all, I expected him to feel at home. 
     But things quickly went awry at the Christmas Eve table when my grandmother proudly shared with him the family’s traditional Swedish prayer. We would finally hear a real Swede read the words we’d only imagined we pronounced correctly for years. Erik took one look at the prayer and sheepishly said, “This isn’t Swedish; it’s Norwegian.” 
     We were stunned. Of course, looking at the words now, it is easy to see the Norwegian vowel ø, a vowel that doesn’t exist in the Swedish language. How had none of us spotted it before? My mother and I had both even lived and studied in Sweden. 
     “I can still read it if you’d like,” he offered meekly, but it was too late. Swedish Tradition #1 — The family prayer: ruined. 
     Later, when we pulled into the church parking lot, Erik was visibly uncomfortable. He shifted awkwardly in his seat and tapped his knees with his palms. 
     “Is everything OK?” I asked. “Are you worried the service won’t be in Swedish?” 
     “You know,” he whispered, “Swedes don’t really go to church.” 
     “I know they don’t go much during the year, but surely, on Christmas …” I responded. 
     “No, not then either,” he answered. 
     “But how do you celebrate the birth of Jesus?” I questioned. 
     “With Donald Duck,” he replied matter-of-factly. 
     While I sat in the car, mouth agape, Erik explained to me, in detail, how Swedes everywhere gather around the television on Christmas Eve for an annual showing of "Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul" (Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas). And they’ve been doing so since 1959. Young and old watch the cartoon together in a moment of familial togetherness. In a very real way, watching Kalle Anka on Christmas Eve is as much a Christmas expectation for Swedish people as is attending church for Americans. Swedish Tradition #2 — Lutheran church service: crushed. 
     The next morning, after exchanging gifts — which Erik informed me happens on Christmas Eve in Sweden (Swedish Tradition #3 — gifts on Christmas morning: poof) — my family prepared our cherished Swedish Christmas brunch. It involves boiling the potato sausage before browning it in the skillet and carefully stirring the eggs and milk to cook the gravy slowly. The process of cooking the meal is as meaningful as sitting down to eat it. 
     “We order the sausage special from Minnesota,” I declared smugly to my boyfriend as he swallowed his first bite. The casing crackled as he cut off another slice. “Does it taste like the kind you have at home? And the äggröra? It’s so tricky to make sure the egg doesn’t separate, right?” 
     “I’ve never had it before,” he said in between forkfuls. 
     “Huh?” For me, this plate of food was the most important meal of the entire year. I love this dish so much, that should I ever find myself on death row, potatiskorv and äggröra would be my last meal. My family reserves these recipes for the most holy day of the year — preparing this meal on any day other than Christmas would be sacrilegious. 
     “It tastes good, but, you know, this is a typical meal for poor Swedes from the old days. Pork is more expensive than potato, so long ago Swedes used to add potato to the sausage to extend the pork. It’s all filler,” Erik continued. “And the äggröra is mostly milk, not eggs. Eggs were hard to come by, so they did what they could to spread them out.” 
     And there it was. My Christmas brunch, a meal I believed was suited for royalty, was nothing but a poor man’s breakfast. Swedish Tradition #4 — potato sausage and egg gravy" annihilated. 
There was nothing left. 

     But here’s the thing. After getting over the shock that my Swedish Christmas traditions were a sham, I surprised myself. I found I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed of what Erik had taught me. Instead, I became more proud of my family’s holiday. Sometime, somewhere over the years and years celebrating Christmas, my family’s traditions changed from the original Swedish customs. I now understood how it’s not about celebrating Christmas the Swedish way, but celebrating Christmas our way. After all, we’re not authentic Swedes; we’re Swedish-Americans. And for what we are and what we’ve become, I think my great-great-grandparents would be proud. God jul! 

 

Dear Teen Me...

Dear Jessica,

In about two miles, you’re going to get into your first car accident, so please slow down.

Your sister is in the passenger seat. She’s not talking to you again, but that’s okay because you haven’t really liked what she’s had to say for awhile. You let the silence speak for you. And she listens to that silence as if it were your confessional. And your confession is this: in this moment, you hate her.

She listens to that, too.

You hate her because she is making your life really hard. She’s dealing with some pretty heavy shit, and you can’t handle it. You can’t talk to her about it because it only makes you feel more shitty. It’s something you can’t control. It’s something you can’t undo. It’s something you can’t fix. But it’s something that is destroying her. So, Jessica, for once in your life, please stop making it about you.

Jessica (Hanson) Lidh Senior Portrait 2003

Here’s the thing about your little sister. She doesn’t really want a big sister. She wants someone to listen to her.

You think you can impart wisdom on her by repeating the same words over and over, stressing how you know more than she does because you’re two years older. But it’s not about you, Jessica. This is about her. And right now, she needs you to listen to her. She needs you to believe her. She needs to know you care that she survives this.

So instead of using this time alone to yell, instead of telling her how she’s a pain in the ass because you have to drive her to group therapy so she can sort through all this bullshit, just listen to her. No interrupting. No becoming defensive. No pointing the finger back at her. Just listen. It’s okay you don’t know what to say. It’s okay you don’t know what to do with all she’s going through. She doesn’t know what to do, either. No one does. But at least she’ll know she’s not alone.

Now, stop fiddling with the radio and look up.

Jessica


This post originally appeared on the website, Dear Teen Me.


The Art of Storytelling

This weekend I was invited to the 40th birthday party of a man I don’t know very well. This reality was compounded by the fact that I was soon surrounded by his closest friends and family—all people who knew him very well. I tried my best to stick to the periphery of the gathering, trying not to draw too much attention to myself lest I be cast out as an intruder. What I witnessed at this party, however, was a bit of magic.

 

Much of the man’s family—including his two parents—is deaf, and about an hour and a half into the party, guests were asked to gather into the living room for “storytelling.” I watched as first his mother, then his father, his cousin and his younger sister, each took the proverbial stage to relay memories and stories about the guest of honor. I listened to tales about his attempted homicide of his baby sister with an over-zealous bottle of baby powder, his winning homecoming court and prom king in the same year of high school, and his affinity for shirtless wrestling and Guitar Hero. The storytellers—aided in part by an ASL interpreter—told their stories with gusto, gesturing largely with their hands, their bodies, and their faces, pulling down the corners of their lips to pantomime mock-anger or smiling widely at the punch lines of their own jokes. Needless to say, I’d never experienced living-room storytelling with such abandoned joy. And because I don’t know the man very well, I felt as though I was witnessing a special, private moment usually reserved for only the most intimate of acquaintances.

 

I also noticed that none of the guests was checking his phone during the stories. Everyone—me included—was totally enraptured by this exchange of old memories. The storytellers made us feel a part of them: the memories, the stories, their lives. I don’t exactly know how they did it, but in that moment, the love in the room was palpable. The hairs on my arms stood on end, my heart ached with happiness and amusement. I felt alive.

 

This communion of memories made me realize the importance of congregating together, leaving our distractions at the door, and simply enjoying the story. A good storyteller will introduce new worlds of which the rest of us can only hope to be a part. And it’s the master storyteller who makes us forget that the story wasn’t ours to begin with.