Reading

On Killing the Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known…

…I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictions: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.  –excerpted from my first blog post,                         August 18, 2012

So, here we are, on the literary cusp of a sad day for Finch fans. I’ve spent the last week reading reviews, interviews, and the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/postquel to TKAM. And like the rest of the world, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch advocated segregation. The headlines screamed: Atticus Finch was a bigot. “No!” I cried. “Not Atticus!”

Yet, after having some time to reflect, I must admit, I am a bit relieved. Atticus Finch is a literary hero, but he has turned into a paragon, a demigod. Decade after decade, he remained the ultimate father and citizen. And therein lies the problem. He was PERFECT. He lacked any flaws. Sure, one could admire him, and aspire to be like him, but, in the end, his persona was unattainable–even for Atticus himself. This does not sit well with the world: We like our heroes without flaw, beyond reproach. We seem to forget that heroes are human, and, therefore, fallible.

I am disheartened to learn that Atticus was not whole in his support for African Americans, but I am even more dismayed by society’s need to bring this book to the fore. The elusive and reclusive Harper Lee spent the better part of her life shielding it from public view. For more than half a century, Ms. Lee was content to let To Kill A Mockingbird remain her solitary novel. Speculation has even arisen as to Lee’s current mental and physical state. Thus, for me, the question remains: Was this really her intent? Why would a very private, humble woman finally agree to publish a work that will reshape her entire legacy?

Lee’s perplexing decision reminds me of the mockingbird referenced in her classic.

As Scout recalls:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'”(90).

I can’t help but think of Harper Lee’s voice as the mockingbird in question. For most of her adult life, her solitary novel served to6320407696_c23c605e65_n create music for generations of readers to enjoy. By breathing life into a young Scout and her father, Miss Lee sang her heart out for us.

Yet, we live in a world of insatiable appetites, one where greed trumps integrity, and our desire to know everything denies one’s request for privacy. In so doing, we have killed the mockingbird Lee tried to protect for over 50 years.

Sure, there is a chance that Lee knows exactly what she is doing. That by bringing Watchman to light, she is finally giving a complete, well-rounded perspective of the character. As many of you know, he was modeled after her father. Perhaps Lee wanted to pin down the wings that we have given St. Atticus, and make him more believable, fully developed–a truer reflection of a noble, but flawed, Southern white man of his time.

Now, you may be wondering if I plan on reading the book. I do. Yet, I will do so with a heavier heart. I am already mourning the loss of the man I have thought of often as I parent; the man I aspired to be. Truth is, like many, my sense of indulgence will get the better of me. Unfortunately, I am a product of my environment. I am human.

It turns out Atticus was, too.

(more…)

THE BEST THING I LEARNED IN 2013

This is my first ALL CAPS title. I’m that excited. It’s THAT important. I want to share with you the best piece of advice I received this past year. It’s actually part of a philosophy called Stoicism.

Still here? Good. Don’t be scared. Like many people, I want to be wise. I seek knowledge. I crave understanding and acceptance. Every year, I try new things to fulfill these goals. This year, I tried to meditate, but found that I would only fall asleep. It was like taking a ten minute nap sitting cross-legged on the floor. Even my butt fell asleep. Meditation was not going to get me there.

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I bought some books in September. I thought I’d begin everyday of the school year with an inspirational poem or thought-provoking essay–short, to the point. I bought A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings, by Coleman Barks. My friend Michele over at The Everyday Strange and Sacred (check out her awesome blog here) peaked my interest in Rumi. Very cool poet. He died in 1273, but his words are of all time. As I was finding the right book of Rumi, Amazon led me to the People who bought Rumi also bought…which led me to A Guide to the Good Life {the ancient art of stoic joy}, by William B. Irvine. I was looking for the good life–I knew I needed a guide. Yet, I was intimidated by the word “stoic”. Stoic seemed cold, steely, detached. But once I checked out the inside jacket cover, I was hooked. It read:

One of the great fears that many of us face is that, despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life…William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most successful and popular schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives…Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a road map for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us.

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The two books arrived together, and I spent the first few months of the school year trying to begin each day with Rumi and the Stoics (sounds like a cool band name). Like most things, my morning routine faltered, and my reading was replaced with hitting snooze seven more times, or making lunches for the boys, or–you get the gist. But as I look back on 2013, and I take stock in the year that was, I keep returning to the greatest insight I have gained this year, in fact in the past few years. It’s that good.

One autumn morning, as the sun turned our kitchen a golden orange, I was reading about stoic joy–I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. I came across the following: “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people  that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability…One wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE.

WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE. My mind was blown. It seemed as if all of the words on the page darkened save for those six. I felt the glow of those words shine of the page a la Indiana Jones when he found the Holy Grail (maybe that was the sun coming in, but I swear the pages were glowing). Want the things I already have. Could it be so simple? Yes. Yes, it could.

I immediately thought of the gas fireplace I had been pining away for these past few years. “It’d be so nice to just flick a switch and have a roaring fire,” I’d say. (Damn you, HGTV) But wait. I have a fireplace. So many people wish they had a fireplace in their home, and I already do. I am lucky. What if I simply enjoyed the fireplace I already have? What if I made a point of having more fires this year? I could enjoy the sounds of crackling flames, the sweet smell of smoky wood, the natural warmth and ambient glow. Want the things I already have.

As I got dressed for work, I looked at my wardrobe. “How many plaid shirts from the GAP does one man need?” I thought. Not as many as I own, I’ll tell you that. Yet, I’d find myself buying another shirt or pair of pants every other month or so because of a sale that was too good to pass up. “Why do I even need to go shopping as often as I do?” I thought. I don’t, if I just learn to want the things I already have.

I drove to work that day and thought of all the things I covet that didn’t matter. I live in a nice house. I drive a nice car. Yet, there’s always something more on the list that I thought I needed–and when one thing was acquired, more was added to the list. It never seemed to shorten, just grow.

All that week, I applied this philosophy to my thought process. Looking around at the gym, I’d see the bodies of people more fit than I. “Wish I had that guy’s muscles,” I’d lament. But then I’d catch myself–Hey, want what you already have. You have powerful legs that allow you to run, and healthy lungs that let you breath. You are lucky.

And I am, terribly lucky. I have all the ingredients for happiness, yet I allow myself to become distracted by all the insignificant desires that consume us. We are consumers. And that’s the tragedy of it all.

But I found as the weeks passed, I continued to think about this phrase, and it released me from some of the pressure we put on ourselves to be, to do, to buy, to desire. I looked around me at the people in my life, and I thought how happier we’d all be if we just learned to want what we already have.

To the writer who just started a blog–don’t worry about when you will get your next follower–want the ones you have today.

To the person who keeps checking Facebook for more likes on her photo–appreciate the Likes you’ve already received.

To the folks who dream of one day getting the corner office–want the job you have right now.

To the couple trying to conceive their second child–appreciate the miracle that is already in your life–want the child you already have.

To the friend who can’t wait to move to a bigger house–talk a walk through your house now and remind yourself what you loved about it when you first bought it. Want the house you already live in.

To the people who look at their significant other and think how they might be able to do better–how much better would your relationship be if you desired your present partner more? Want the person whose hand you hold today.

To those who are searching for THE ONE–want the life you have right now, the freedom, and enjoy this time to discover more about you.

To all of us who’ve lost people, be it this year, last, or long ago–what if we loved those still in our lives more deeply, rather than allow our energy to be consumed mourning those who are resting in peace?

Yes, I found that this phrase became a mantra for me. I applied it to things, to situations, to people.

This Christmas, I thought of these words when spending time with family and friends. Too often in the past, I would fixate on the people who were not there, on the loved ones from whom I am estranged. But this year, rather than think about the people I didn’t spend the holidays with, I looked around the room at those who did come to my house, or I to theirs, and I appreciated them more. I was thankful to have so many kind, caring people show up in my life. I refused to waste my time and energy worrying about those who do not. Yes, I wanted the people I already have in my life.

Such thoughts were with me as I heard the laughter of my boys and their cousins as they chased one another through the house. I did not care about the furniture, or the mess, only the people who were there to share this special time with us. These thoughts made me feel more alive.

Someone came up beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Beautiful fire,” she said, admiring the dancing orange flames in the hearth. “Thanks!” I said.

Beautiful fire, indeed.

Happy New Year, Everyone. I hope 2014 is filled with many moments of joy and wonder. May you see the amazing things that surround you in the present. May you find more value in what you already have.

I leave you with a few of my favorite poems by Rumi, which complement this phrase that has become my guidepost.

Out Beyond

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense

Hoping to be More Alive

You are an ocean in a drop of dew,
all the universes in a thin sack of blood.

What are these pleasures then,
these joys, these worlds
that you keep reaching for,
hoping they will make you more alive?