books

More Than Words

His hands were the first thing I noticed about him.

He was sketching, brushing feather-light pencil lines effortlessly across the page. One of his hands commandeered the pencil while the other scratched nimbly at the nape of his neck. They were beautiful. Whatever was on the paper in front of him was beautiful, too.

I stood for a while, just observing, until it occurred to me that what I was doing was a little bit creepy. So I edged in front of him, clearing my throat. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

He looked up at me, startled that someone had the audacity to disturb him at work. But his eyes met mine and softened a little around the corners, a wordless gesture that gave me the confidence to slide into the seat across from him. I half expected him to tell me to get lost, that he was concentrating and needed to be alone, but he just went right back to his drawing like I’d never interrupted him at all.

Anna Karenina was calling me; I had almost sixty pages to read before AP Lit. Yet I was going cross-eyed reading about Levin’s domesticity, and my gaze kept shifting unwittingly toward this quiet boy and his expressive hands.

After a few minutes of staring at my book with utter futility, I surrendered to my curiosity. “What are you drawing?” I asked, quietly enough that he could ignore it if he wanted to.

He didn’t, though. He didn’t look up, but he answered me, pausing between strokes and biting his lower lip. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, it’s nice,” I said, letting the conversation fade to silence before speaking up again. “I’m Sophie.”

He cracked a knuckle. “Adam.”

When the bell rang, he finally looked at me. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile I hadn’t expected as he extended his hand across the table. The heel of it was shiny with graphite, the pads of his fingers dented from holding the pencil, but his grip felt like a promise. “Very nice to meet you, Sophie.”

***

The next time I sat down across from him, I didn’t bother asking for permission. He was eating an apple, tongue darting out every once in a while to catch the juice that threatened to escape from his mouth.

“Hi, Sophie,” he said with a genuine grin.

“Hi,” I replied, blushing when his eyes lingered on mine for a little too long.

We didn’t talk much. He drew, I read – Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, A Clockwork Orange. His drawings were strange and smudged and haphazard, but they were all equally lovely. He made the kind of art you’d put in a museum in hopes that someone would be smart enough to understand it.

I jokingly asked him to draw me one day. He laughed and said he didn’t really know how to do people.

“You never had to do portraits or anything?” I asked, wincing as I recalled my pathetic attempt at a self-portrait back in the fifth grade.

“I didn’t say I’d never done it.” He brushed his forehead absent-mindedly. “I just don’t really know how.”

“What do you mean?”

“People are tricky,” he said. “The thing about people is, you can get them wrong. This,” he gestured toward the paper in front of  him, “nobody is going to tell me this is wrong. With people, it’s different.”

I agreed with him, kind of. The self-portrait I made in fifth grade was definitely wrong. But I didn’t believe someone like him could draw anyone less than perfectly. Maybe he was just seeing them the way nobody else could.

***

“I wish I could draw,” I confessed one day as I watched his hands at work.

He laughed. “You can. Anyone can draw. It’s one of the first things babies learn how to do.”

“Yeah, but I wish I could draw like you. You know…” I trailed off. “Well.”

I was waiting for him to say something encouraging, because he was that kind of person, but instead he reached into his sketchpad and pulled out a folded up, slightly torn square of paper. He hesitated, rubbing it between his fingers for a couple of seconds, before handing it over to me.

He stopped me before I could open it. “No,” he said simply as I tried to unfold a corner. “Not right now.” So I slipped it in my pocket and didn’t say a word.

When the bell rang, he disappeared before I had a chance to say anything else.

***

The next day, I kissed him.

I didn’t plan it; I didn’t even consider it ahead of time, I just sat across from him like I always did and opened The Picture of Dorian Gray. It took me seven agonizing minutes to realize what he was doing.

“Is that…what are you drawing?” I asked incredulously as his pencil strokes became rounded, fluid, detailed.

“I’m trying something new,” he said.

“I can see that.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, that. That’s a person.”

“Yup,” he replied without taking his eyes off the page.

“I thought you didn’t do people.”

He shrugged. “Figured it was worth another shot.”

The person – the girl – took shape in front of my eyes. Angular chin, slightly downturned mouth. Eyes a little too far apart. Feathery eyelashes and bold eyebrows. A slight dusting of freckles on the tip of her nose.

“Me,” I breathed. “You’re drawing me.”

It was both fascinating and terrifying to watch his capable fingers trace my likeness across a piece of paper. No one would mistake it for a photograph, but he was capturing something that was decidedly me, and I knew I had been right the first time I asked him about drawing people. He saw things the way that nobody else ever could.

When he finished, he held it up for me with a sheepish grin, and I smiled back while something warm and heavy spread through my entire body.

“Did I get it sorta right this time?” he asked, nervously raking a hand through his hair.

“Sorta,” I said breathlessly in the seconds before my mouth was on his.

***

He kissed like he drew: carefully, skillfully, and a little selfishly. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that he loved that way, too.

The first time we said it, we were sitting under the tree I used to climb as a kid. I told him about the time I fell off the fourth branch and broke my arm, and he drew me a little cartoon – a tiny upside-down freckled girl, her mouth curled into a surprised “oh!”, dangling from the fourth branch of a towering tree. I laughed until my stomach hurt and kissed him until my lips tingled, relishing the feeling of his wonderful hands as they roamed across my back and shoulders and face.

“I love you, you know,” I whispered to him when we were catching our breath.

“I love everything about you,” he whispered back, running a finger along my jawbone. We laid there under the tree, our limbs tangled together, until the sunset started to spill across the sky and we remembered the rest of the world.

***

“I never looked at that note you gave me,” I told him one day while he was cooking dinner.

“What note?” he asked, scraping a diced green pepper into the saucepan on the stove.

“That folded up piece of paper. The one you handed me, and acted really cryptic about, and never mentioned again.”

He smiled knowingly. “I wondered why you never said anything about that,” he said before starting to hum his favorite ABBA song.

Neither of us mentioned it again.

***

I found him again at our five-year high school reunion. He was sitting on a barstool, his heel tapping on the leg, sketching on a napkin. He hadn’t changed at all.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked, gesturing toward the seat next to him.

“Sophie,” he said, letting his eyes crinkle a little as he half-smiled. “Hi.”

“Hey,” I said back. The silence enveloped us like a blanket, warm and familiar and comforting. Being around him always felt private, even when there were a million other people in the room.

“You know,” he started after a few minutes, “I didn’t…I just, I mean -“

“I know.” I rubbed my thumb across my bottom lip. “You don’t have to say anything.” To tell the truth, I didn’t really want him to. It was easier this way, without words. Words can never really mean everything they’re supposed to.

“I’m glad you’re still drawing,” I finally said, squeezing his shoulder as I stood up to walk away. “You really are amazing.”

I could have let him talk. There were plenty of stories I could have told him, about the rambunctious high school English classes I was now teaching or the incredible man whose ring I was wearing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Our relationship wasn’t about words and sentences and conversations. It was about feelings and instincts running wild, smudging the lines in a picture nobody could figure out anyway. We were art, and art was messy, and the artist never got a happy ending.

That night, as I unfolded the fraying piece of paper I kept on the nightstand by my bed, I was glad I hadn’t let him say anything. I ran my fingers over the fading pencil marks, the ones that knew me before I knew him, and I saw all the pieces of him he didn’t want me to see. “Art is the lie,” Picasso once said, “that enables us to realize the truth.”

His drawings had always said more than he ever could.

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The Empty Journal

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A year ago, I bought this journal at a craft store. I laughed out loud when I saw it, because it was just so incredibly perfect. “The creeping sense of impending disaster and the all-encompassing fears both specified and vague that colonize my mind, body, and soul” – that’s pretty much my everyday life, right? (And in case you can’t read the fine print at the bottom, it says “even though optimism may be unself-aware and ill-placed, I know I’ll be happier as a blind fool than as a clairvoyant apocalyptic.”)

Now if there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I have an uncanny ability to fill a journal. I’m constantly buying new ones because I can never quite keep up with the pace of my own writing. So it is seriously weird that I’ve had this awesome journal for a whole year and only filled five pages.

Here’s my problem…it’s prompted.

The beginning of every page begins with “What I’m hanging hope on today:” and that seems unfair. Because hope is a nice idea and all, but when a page starts off with a heading like that, all of a sudden I feel guilty writing down anything negative. Because how can I finish that sentence? “What I’m hanging hope on today: my body image really sucks”? Or “What I’m hanging hope on today: my roommates and I just had explosive diarrhea simultaneously and we only have one bathroom”? And I can’t just ignore the prompt, because it’s sitting right there staring at me and making me feel worse about feeling bad.

Every time I write in that journal, I say I’m going to do it more often. That I’m going to suck it up and write what I want, prompt be damned. But I never do. Although I am a person who generally craves order and organization, when it comes to writing, I think the best thing I can have in front of me at any given moment is a blank page. No prompts. That way I can write in poetry or metaphor or prose or even draw, and there’s nobody looking down their nose and telling me I can’t. So many times I want to write about things other than hope. I want to write about fear and loneliness and vulnerability and how it feels to fall in love with someone from thousands of miles away. I want to write about my family and how beautiful they are and how much they truly love each other. I want to write about the way I feel when I have too much to drink and the emotions spill out of me like running water and I’m left face-to-face with something ugly and scary. It doesn’t give me hope. It gives me life. It means I’m living. And living is oh so very painful. To quote William Goldman, anyone who says differently is selling something.

I’ve moved on to other journals since I started this one. In fact, I’ve completely finished at least two since the last time I wrote in it. Still, I keep it. The cover makes me laugh, and the sometimes funny/sometimes inspirational quotes inside are fun to look at.

Perhaps my inner optimist is disappointed in me. I doubt it. I usually find some way to see the bright side of a situation, even when nobody asks me to. And maybe I’ll find use for such a book someday, when my thoughts bleed out loud rather than on paper. Until then, well, whatever happens, it’s gonna be okay.

Reading Is Different Now

I love a lot of the books I read for my classes. I really do. The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises and Dracula and The Brothers Karamazov…I mean, I’m lucky that I can at least sort of understand such complicated and important literature, you know? I’m confused a lot, but I always end up taking at least something from each book. Learning history, understanding society. I like feeling intelligent when I read; I like that it’s sometimes a challenge.

But sometimes, I miss the simplicity of reading. I miss the honesty. I miss being able to relate to the characters, to look for pieces of myself in them. Those books that I read through my childhood, the ones with no “literary merit” whatsoever, those are the books closest to my heart. Sometimes, before I go to bed, even if it’s late, I take one of them off the shelf, open the crinkled, worn out spine, and start to read.

Sara Nickerson’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found is one of my favorite books on the planet, and it’s about a twelve-year-old. The book doesn’t criticize society or have some important philosophical message behind it; there isn’t any symbolism or really any rhetorical devices at all. It’s just a twelve-year-old girl, on a quest to discover the truth about the death of her father and her complicated family history. She doesn’t fall in love, although she does realize the enormity of possibility. The writing is simple but clever, and the story is sad but hopeful. I remember being twelve, all that horrible confusion, and reading this book is kind of a moment of clarity, a tribute to the past.

This is the kind of thing I feel like the big-time classics I’m reading now don’t offer me. I’m not transplanted there anymore, I don’t begin to feel as the characters do. Opening a book is like trying to understand a foreign language instead of meeting a new friend. It’s different now, I’m older, I should be able to handle more. But I still hold onto those midnight readings of children’s books, waiting for the day I’ll find the same truths in something else.

We Are All Flawed Heroes

The Little Bookworm

Ever since I can remember, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” has been one of my favorite books. I mean, that’s where I learned everything I know about time travel, a topic which still fascinates me today. But the main reason I loved it was because the heroine wasn’t beautiful or brave or brilliant. Meg had a wild adventure, sure, but she didn’t mean to. She was lost, overshadowed by literally everyone else in her family, stubborn and insociable. She messed up a lot. She accidentally put people in danger. She was self-deprecating and mousy and a little slow on the uptake. But my God, in a book full of mad science and fantasy, she was so real.

I’ve been devouring books for a long time (read: since age three #sorrynotsorry), and I say devouring because my love of reading is probably borderline carnivorous. From the time I entered school until my life became a giant supernova of chaos, I flipped through every novel, poem, and short story I could get my hands on. I came in contact with a huge number of characters – many with whom I sympathized, several I hated, a few with whom I fell in love. I can trace periods of my childhood to which one was my favorite at the time; for example, my “Harriet the Spy” phase resulted in some very mean journals about my classmates and a deeply rooted misunderstanding of the word “dumbwaiter.” But no one ever stuck with me the way Meg Murry did. No literary love of mine has lasted so far into adulthood.

There’s something special about the kind of heroes that don’t realize they’re heroes. The ones that don’t realize they’re part of an adventure until it’s halfway over. The ones that defy every stereotype of heroism because it would never occur to them that they could be important. Their lack of faith in their own magic is what makes us believe in them, because every one of us could just as easily become a hero without realizing it. We believe in them because it reaffirms a belief in ourselves.

At the moment of truth, when Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are presenting Meg with what she needs to fight for her father on Camazotz (if none of those words make sense, go read the book), she is dumbstruck by what they tell her.

“Meg, I give you your faults.”
“My faults?” Meg cried.
“Your faults.”
“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “But I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.”
(6.82-86)

What makes Meg different, for me, is that she never needed to overcome her faults in order to succeed. She never had a sudden burst of self-confidence or a rapid transformation of personality. All she needed to do was realize that it was her faults that made her different from everyone else, and it was her faults that made her strong. A little change in perspective, and suddenly her flaws could be strengths, strengths beyond anything she’d ever dreamed.

There is value in being imperfect. You don’t have to be sure of yourself every step of the way, or love everything about yourself all the time. You don’t have to be beautiful and brave and brilliant to matter.

For every Superman, for every Doctor, for every Harry Potter, there are thousands of Meg Murrys. And their stories are just as important, if not more so, than the comic book sagas of saving the world. They teach us that we are enough, exactly as we are, with all of our idiosyncrasies and blemishes and cynicisms. We are more powerful than we will ever realize.

This is it.

I have decided to write a book.

Yes, by the end of the year 2013, I am going to have a 50,000-word novel. It might be good, it might be okay, it might be utter crap. Whatever it is, it’ll be mine. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone besides me ever reads it – although I probably will share it – I’m just doing this for me.

I’ve only ever tried to write in a linear fashion, just putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and going until I can’t go any further. But seeing as the most I’ve ever written that way has been a measly two or three pages in Microsoft Word, I’m trying a technique called The Snowflake Method. Basically, I started with one sentence that told my entire story, and I’m slowly filling in from there. It’s interesting, because it’s giving me a chance to really get to know my characters before I immortalize them in the plot. I’m already very attached to my protagonist and excited about the wonderful people that are going to enter her life during the course of these 50,000 words.

I’ll probably be expressing some of my joys and frustrations here during the writing process, because I’ll need someplace to dump them all and document my own adventures. Hopefully this is just another step in the creation of the new, empowered, passionate me. But even if it isn’t, it’ll give me something else to write about, right?

Here’s my first insight into the writing process. It’s a haiku.

I’m way too obsessed –
This must be the honeymoon
Get me off this couch

Wish me luck!

Home Again, Home Again

The last few days have gone by faster than I ever could have imagined. I can’t believe it was only last Friday that the process of coming home started, and now it’s Wednesday evening and I’m sitting at my kitchen table surrounded by all of my little brother’s college mail. Time really has a way of sneaking up on you! It’s overwhelming to look across from me and see my trunk and drawers and boxes and think about unpacking it all, but I figure I’ve got five months, so I probably don’t need to start unpacking immediately. I do need to get some of that stuff out, though, so that I have things to wear in the next few days. That’s probably important.

The flight today was pretty uneventful. It’s been awhile since the last time I was on a plane – I think it was last spring break. Even though the noise in the back of the plane was slightly ridiculous, it was almost calming enough to be considered white noise, and I had no trouble concentrating on my book. It was one I started reading last June but had to put down because I just got so busy, and the other day after I decided to leave school I picked it up again. Honestly, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s non-fiction and it’s all about math, so it probably wouldn’t appeal to the masses, but I really enjoyed it! When I finished it, I looked over at my mom and said, “Everyone needs to read this book.” I then opened the front cover and voila! Some reviewer agreed with me! So, in conclusion, everyone needs to read this book.

Here’s Looking at Euclid was written by Alex Bellos, a British journalist who graduated from Oxford with a double major in mathematics and philosophy. The book is separated into sections and deals with not only concepts and ideas, but personal interviews and background information about people who have influenced the reception of those concepts. For example, there’s a section that deals with φ, the golden ratio, and has a description of Alex’s encounter with the man who uses φ to design dentures. The math is laid out in really simple terms so it’s not too difficult to understand if you don’t know much about math, but it’s also not too tedious if you’re more experienced. It’s just really well-written. I was upset when I finished the book – I wanted there to be so much more!

One of the things I’m looking forward to most about being home is being able to read all the books I want. I have a long list of books that I’ve been adding to for years that I really want to read, and I figured now is a pretty good opportunity to start making a dent in it. Between my parents, the public library, the school library, and my Nook, I can probably get access to all the literature I want! I have to decide where to start, though; that’s going to be the hard part. Maybe it’s just best to start at the beginning. We’ll see what I end up choosing first!