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Monthly Archives: January 2015

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” and Other Joni Musings

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)“No, but are you really listening?” This is the line I repeatedly confront my husband with when listening to Joni Mitchell. I have yet to convert him, and until that fateful day, I’ll be a broken record. I knew that I had found a kindred spirit in Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period upon reading that the author used Mitchell as a litmus test for would-be boyfriends, confessing, “When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out.” She adds, “You didn’t play Join Mitchell for girlfriends… I already knew that they got it,” but “a soulmate would ear the ingenuity of Joni’s chords, the novelty of her song structure…” Judging by this standard, my otherwise wonderful husband is not soulmate material — Joni doesn’t inspire reverence in him so much as chuckles and gentle mockery (can you believe the gall! To chuckle…) For example, in the admittedly playful but equally brilliant “All I Want,” he gets such a kick out out of the line “I want to shampoo you” that he likes to convert the following one, “I want to renew you…” into “I want to run through you…” He also occasionally chicken balks when I’m putting on an impromptu concert from the revered Joni canon, but that’s another story…

For the longest time, I thought my singing voice was the problem. I kept saying, “You’d like Joni better if if you listened to her sing her own songs, rather than my flawed imitations,” but he’s yet to have the aha moment, you know, when he comes to his senses and properly worships the ground she walks on. I do give him credit for nabbing me a copy of Will You Take Me As I Am from our local library, and we shared a laugh over the fact that the “you’re not really listening!” sentiment seems to be something of a phenomenon. Then there’s Mercer’s observation that women “just get” Joni, consistent with my experience — I’m thinking of my friend Allison, and my mom, whose Ladies of the Canyon and Court and Spark CDs first prompted my obsession — and men? Well, the noncommittal ones just need to listen, in case I haven’t made that clear.

I discovered Joni Mitchell relatively late, I guess — in college. I’m embarrassed to say that as an adolescent I never had a love affair with any particular band, or “singer-songwriter,” excluding some modest enthusiasm for The Cranberries 🙂 I’ve always tended towards female singers — at the time I was probably fond of Lauryn Hill, Dido, Sara Mclachlan, you get the picture — and then of course I was also immersed in the campy, self-referential, albeit musically rich world of musical theatre, which probably crowded out space in my soul for more earnest, angsty plungings into sophisticated artists. Nothing in my middle or high school years compared to the technically agile, lyrically pointed and precise, vocally pure music of Joni Mitchell, which only became more rewarding as I discovered more albums, her style always evolving, becoming more and more expansive. For all intents and purposes, though, I think college still counts as adolescence, at least for my innocent, rather late-blooming development, and so I was probably bowled over by her lyrics in the singular, intense way of a pimply teenager. In her book Mercer states that according to scientific studies, the music we are exposed to in our adolescence hits us the deepest. I find this fact at once utterly fascinating and entirely sensible — it makes sense like the notion that the first love is the deepest, but it’s fascinating to imagine that the half-formed synapses and emotional/hormonal turmoil of adolescence is also the perfect storm for receptivity to music.

Mercer is a music critic for such media outlets as NPRThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and DownBeat. She originally interviewed Joni for her biography of Wayne Shorter, and many of their conversations are included in Will You Take Me As I Am. Mercer writes as a fan, but “without a scintilla of fanzine gush,” as described by reviewer Phillip Lopate. In the book she writes that what inspired her to take on the project was her immense gratitude for Mitchell’s songs, and a feeling — shared by Joni herself — that despite the awards and critical acclaim, there is a lack of critical analysis breaking down what Mercer calls “the hybrid force of her words and music.” The book is a huge pleasure for fellow Joni fans, allowing us to revisit our own gratitude for her work and investigate the source of our immense pleasure in it, and — no small thing — providing us with extra ammo the next time we need to persuade a certain special someone of the genius that he’s missing out on 🙂 I’m only halfway through, but here are some points I’ve found noteworthy so far:

The Personal Is Universal

  • Much is made out of Mitchell’s dislike for the term “confessional” as it is often ascribed to her deeply personal and heartfelt songwriting style. Despite the fact that Mitchell is gifted with a profound receptivity to her environment and to the people around her, falling in love multiple times and drawing artistic inspiration from her many loves, she chafes at the word “confess,” as if the songs were more about her and the specificity of her experience than artificial renderings of characters, speaking to what is universal about the human experience. Blue is known to be one of her most heart wrenchingly personal albums, as well as one of her most artistically coherent, elevated ones. According to Mitchell, when she played “All I Want” for some songwriter friends, Kris Kristofferson’s famous response was, “Jesus, Joni, save something for yourself.” Mercer argues that Joni’s willingness to put so much of herself in her music, to write so purely from the heart while putting out music that is so formidable from a technical and artistic standpoint, is exactly what makes her music so universally beloved, almost a “religious experience” for listeners. As Mercer writes, her music tends to feels like a unique experience to each listener. As Mitchell puts it, “The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it.”

Linking Emotions and Artistry

  • One of the most impressive aspects of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which emotion and heartfelt expression underpins every musical choice, and — here’s the key — makes the music better. As Mercer puts it, Mitchell has a reputation for being untutored, for “instinctively laying out feelings on a record…” For a great many of us, this approach may lead to amateur, self-indulgent ramblings, but in her case, even though raw emotion is driving the music, because emotion is driving the music, the “aesthetic rigor” of her music is strengthened. (Mercer devotes an entire section to Mitchell’s use of open tunings on the guitar, freeing her up to experiment with unusual intervals… I have a book of her music for piano, and the sharps and flats are through the roof; the open tunings thing explains that.) “How many artists would kill to say,” Mercer writes, “that they created new chord progressions and structures from a place of emotional inspiration, but writing from the heart made Joni’s music more technically and aesthetically intricate, complex surprising…” On a side note, in a college course I took with director Mary Zimmerman, I remember her once saying that to her, the creative process always feels like a process of anthropology, of uncovering, digging, getting to the heart of things, rather than building from the ground up. If this is how art-making should be, then Joni consistently lives up to the ideal, something to marvel at.

Lyrics, Not Poetry

  • Another impressive, and signature aspect of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which the lyrics and music are connected. A testament to this is that reading Mitchell’s lyrics on the page, they fall short of poetry. But listening to her lyrics sung, they sound poetic. Mercer gives an example in the song “A Case of You,” in which the lyric reads, “I am frightened of the devil and I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t…afraid…” The asymmetry of the word “afraid” that follows the rhyming word, “ain’t” (rhymes with “I am lonely painter/I live in a box of paints”)   hints at the boldness and daring possessed by those who “ain’t afraid.” A criteria, perhaps, for all good lyrics, Mitchell’s lyrics are meant to be sung, and in setting them to music, she achieves something worthy of a poet.

Confessions that Run Deep

  • In the chapter, “In The Manner of the Ancients,” Mercer charts some of Mitchell’s influences, finding historical continuity in Mitchell’s impulses as a songwriter. She starts with a literal link: leading up to Blue, Mitchell spent time on the hippie expat island of Matala, Crete, in no uncertain terms “on a lonely road…traveling/traveling/traveling,” undeniably “looking for something…” Mitchell characterizes this point in her career as suffocatingly “self-referential”; she was seeking new experiences beyond the music industry and looking to shake off her image as an “angelic folk maiden.” So she headed to what at the time was a very trendy hippie hot spot, a place that also happens to be ancient and steeped in history, for example, a stopping point for Ulysses admits his “traveling/traveling/traveling.” Leading up to Blue, Mitchell’s physical location and “place” in her career aligned itself with the odysseys of the ancients; she was traveling, adventuring, seeking, looking to know herself through the process of making art. As Mercer notes, the mandate to “know thyself” is “essential to the ancient Greek worldview.” More specifically, Mercer connects Mitchell’s quest to know herself through songwriting to St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine “comes to know himself” by “merging Augustine the protagonist and Augustine the narrator.” In a society where written works were customarily recited aloud, Augustine envisioned the lone reader as the audience for his Confessions, catering to this figure with the “profound intimacy” of “revealing a mind thinking.” I see a parallel in the scores of lone listeners who feel that their experience of Mitchell’s songs is somehow unique, existential.

Traces of Dylan

  • Mercer gives a short, appreciable summary of the relationship between Mitchell and Dylan. Allow me to share a condensed version: Both members of music royalty share a folk music heritage, rooted in Woodie Guthrie’s songs. Both singer-songwriters depart from Guthrie’s populist, social commentary oriented lyrics to scale more personal, more universal subject matter. However, Mercer points out an interesting contrast between Dylan and Mitchell’s approach to the personal/universal: Dylan’s “confessional” songs contain an air of bitterness, almost lessening the blow, whereas Joni confronts the personal with her defenses down, sheerly, from a place of vulnerability. (I think this has something to do with the difference between male/female appreciation of Joni — perhaps women identify with and find catharsis in her vulnerability, whereas this quality falls flat for some male listeners? Women find gravitas and genius in her vulnerability, whereas men (some, that is, I know there are plenty of male Joni fans) don’t know what to do with it?)

Soundscape as Landscape

  • One more piece of Mercer’s analysis to mull over is the way in which Mitchell’s music sounds like what her native Canadian prairie land looks like, and more generally, the way in which the sound of music parallels a visual landscape. Mitchell hails from Saskatchewan, Canada, a landlocked province characterized by “flatland,” “big sky,” and “wide open spaces.” Mercer quotes Mitchell on how her flatlander upbringing permeates her songs: “I’ve always thought Neil [Young] and I have carried a loping prairie walk in our music, a loping pulse… As opposed to reggae, which for me has a tree frog sound.” The “loping prairie walk” image makes me think especially of the song, “Night in the City” from Song to a Seagull. Mercer notes that the frequency of the terms “soundscape” and “landscape” in music criticism have prompted editors to ban both words entirely, and draws a more explicit connection between the two in citing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s observation that both “scapes” “are nonverbal forms of communication that affect us subconsciously and profoundly.” Mercer adds that “the act of listening can feel like sculpting shapes out of the air,” that the presence of the prairie in Mitchell’s songs is both “subtle and manifest.”

So there you go — an attempt to dig my chops into some music criticism, sharing it out of gratitude for Joni. She gets better with every listen. What’s your favorite song/album? Drop me a line; we Joni fans must band together 🙂

Grateful Wednesdays

Kalyan Chakravarthy Half what? (CC BY 2.0)I’ve decided that hump day deserves a regular gratitude list. It’s the best way to slide into Thursday with my head screwed on straight, to pause in the middle of the week for a little putting-in of perspective. And I think there’s added value in listing nuggets of thankfulness  in order to share them — for me, that is. It feels like a subtle way of taking action on what I’ve been given, paying good things forward by making them known to you, dear reader, or by drawing attention to the less tangible things. And for me, making a personal gratitude list public helps me to
cement and augment a more general posture of thankfulness and abundance. I hope it reads less as, “good for me, now let me pat myself on the back” and more broadly as “the world is loaded with wonder.” So, thank you, and without further adieu, ten things, small and not so:

  1. Wait for it…chocolate chip and roasted pear scones, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. What a slightly unexpected, fruity, chocolatey, tart-sweet combo. While I’m at it, the entire Smitten Kitchen site — a self-contained gold mine of recipes, simple and scrumptious — and also, the mini scone pan I was gifted for Christmas. I never got around to making scones before I had this pan. It’s the little things.
  2. The people in this world who choose a hard path, knowing it’s hard, and knowing that there is no way around it. I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King. I marvel at the clarity of his life’s mission, vision, and moral conscience.
  3. Winter headbands that keep things insulated on, say, an early morning/early evening commute involving lots of walking and waiting in the cold. If you’re reading, go ahead and grab yourself one! Just do it.
  4. The unique beauty of urban landscapes: the warm, orange glow of streetlights against a dark early morning sky, the steep rise of buildings, winding around the lake, the contrast between a bright train car and the sleeping wooden balconies outside. I could go on (I’ll spare you) but suffice it to say that Chicago is a looker, even in the thick of late January.
  5. A new vegetable soup recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. There are a couple of things about this soup that I find noteworthy: the addition of broken spaghetti noodles and halved green beans, the liberal use of chopped leeks, and last, but not least, the swirling-in-for-serving of pistou, a paste made of raw garlic, tomato paste, fresh basil, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
  6. The practice of blogging. I think of it as a practice,  not unlike a yoga practice. It’s something I routinely turn to to clear my head, to challenge myself, to slow myself down and develop a deeper presence of mind and level of self-awareness. I’m thankful that blogging is something I can always return to when I have the time, that there’s now a foundation of entries on this here site to blossom into more entries. And more. It’s a good thing we bloggers collectively have going here, on WordPress. To think that the world of blogging didn’t exist a few years ago…
  7. New horizons/things to look forward to. For me, that includes a very hypothetical, much discussed and absolutely unprepared for trip to Ireland in the not so distant future. The longer it goes unplanned, the longer the gestation phase of my fervent anticipation — a blurry assortment of misty, rolling hills, warm pubs, and long, stretched out days of doing whatever the heck we please. One day we’ll get there.
  8. The space and time to be enjoyed by two adults who don’t have kids…yet. In other words, the absence of a heavy (yes, and beautiful) responsibility. This translates into gym time, leisurely cooking, the satisfaction of getting-stuff-done after work, whimsical and aimless conversations with my husband that have nothing to do with getting stuff done.
  9. The difference between writing for an editor and writing for myself. I say difference because I am grateful for both modes, so to speak. I find both challenging and rewarding in different ways. With writing for myself comes the joy/challenge of figuring out what I truly want to say, and also the spontaneity and lightness of having an idea strike my fancy and setting words to page. With writing for an editor comes more scrutiny, more research, a satisfying degree of clarity regarding form and style, and the meaty challenge of organizing ideas accordingly. With both comes the joy and freedom of returning, writing as much or as little as time dictates, but always knowing that writing is there.
  10. Befitting this rather nerdy post I will end with an entirely nerdy “nugget”: I am proud to say, I am very, very thankful for step aerobics. Yep, that’s right. Doing “mambo cha-cha-chas” and “corner knees” and “helicopter turns” astride a big plastic bench. At about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening when I’ve been alternately sitting and standing but not doing a whole lot of moving, it’s bliss, a way to get the blood flowing if you have an affinity for basic jazz dance moves and/or leanings toward the 1980s decade. Somehow, over the last three or four years I’ve morphed into what some would call “a stepper” — I just wish I had the wristband and the pastel-hued leg warmers to do myself justice. Oh well. When a girl’s gotta step, a girl’s gotta step. Er…woman, that is… (I have a pet peeve for grown ass women referring to themselves as girls. Oops.)

So that’s it. My list of small, and not so small points of gratitude to get me over the hump. I hope they serve you as well. As my dust-gathering Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere, to be thankful to God.” Amen.

Reading Wonder

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclearan

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.45.07 AMI just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, assigned for a SPED class. In my opinion, the above quote encapsulates the spirit of the book as a whole, about the struggle for kindness in the most petty and mercurial of settings: middle school. The protagonist Auggie suffers from a rare, genetic deformity that leaves his face mangled, and Wonder charts his first year at Beecher Prep following years of homeschooling.

The events of Auggie’s school year are described by several child narrators, including Via, Auggie’s sister, sympathetic classmates Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend, Auggie’s bully, Julian, and Auggie himself. Each narrator grapples honestly with the ramifications of Auggie’s physical differences, from the need to suppress visceral, uncompassionate responses to his appearance, to the resentments created by Auggie’s special status. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Auggie’s special circumstances are explored; no attachment to political correctness dilutes the very real and present challenge of being in the world with an unusual-looking face. There are insights to be gleaned from each character:

Auggie…

possesses forthrightness, courage, and charm. Having been home schooled due to frequent surgeries, middle school presents Auggie with a new, formidable  world in which to immerse himself. He excels academically but is predictably subjected to a high quantity of teasing from his peers.

For example, Auggie is at the center of a game called “the plague.” As the rules go, any student who touches Auggie catches it. So Auggie watches as his peers make conspicuous efforts to avoid him. His charm stems from the detached, matter-of-fact resignation he exhibits toward his deformity, and toward the gaping and staring and knee-jerk immaturity that his appearance inspires.

In the opening pages, titled “Ordinary,” Auggie makes plain the severity of his physical differences — “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” — and makes an equally compelling case for his commonness — “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” I wonder how many children who are marked by visible, defining differences, either physical or behavioral, feel this way, feel regularly misjudged and misread on the basis of what is obvious about their appearance or demeanor, when for them, their differences are simply something to get past.

This disparity between what a person feels on the inside — ordinary hopes, fears, desires, aversions — and projects on the outside — extraordinary physical or behavioral qualities — is a heavy burden. It demands a heightened level of thoughtfulness and empathy from the outside world, and sometimes the world refuses to give it. Circle back to the need for kindness, the mindset that everyone is fighting a battle, that our eyes deceive us, that a second, third, fourth closer look reveals the shared humanity, the ordinariness, of every human being.

Jack…

is Auggie’s best friend. But even for Jack, it takes time to develop the maturity and compassion that Auggie’s differences demand. For example, Jack admits to the reader that he was initially averse to the principal’s request to meet Auggie prior to the start of school. Then, on Halloween, Auggie overhears Jack talking disparagingly to several boys about his obligatory friendship with him. This incident drives Auggie over the edge, emotionally — a shock, when he thought Jack saw the real person underneath the face. Auggie responds by giving Jack the cold shoulder, a shift that bewilders and flusters his friend. Jack asks their mutual friend Summer Dawson for an explanation and she drops him a hint.

Just before Jack and Auggie are assigned to be partners for a science-fair project, Jack puts two and two together. Auggie caught him in a moment of pettiness, smallness, projecting the attitude toward Auggie that he was supposed to have, according to Julian and the popular crowd. This look at himself, reflected through Auggie’s eyes, kills him. Back to science class. Julian tries to get Jack to switch partners, inciting, “You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be,” and impulsively, Jack punches Julian in the mouth. Underlying the punch seems to be Jack’s frustration with himself for trying to be someone he is not. It’s an overcompensating statement that says, “I am definitely not Julian, not a bully.” Needless to say, this action softens Auggie’s resentment toward Jack, and the two boys resume their friendship.

I like the character Jack because he represents a response to physical difference that is at once sincere, good, human, and imperfect. He has moments of selfishness, as evidenced above, but his feelings toward Auggie are sincere and strong. His friendship with Auggie is an honest depiction of a relationship with a person who is different — sometimes it involves hurt feelings, sometimes loyal friends make mistakes, sometimes the differences get in the way. Jack reassures the reader that he/she can also overcome the small, pettier impulses that strike (well beyond middle school, if we’re honest with ourselves), and that authentically embracing others’ differences is possible even for judgmental, selfish, not-always-so-nice folks.

Via…

is another ally of Auggie’s, fiercely loyal but without a resentment-free relationship to Auggie. As Auggie’s sister, just a few years older, Via has born witness to his unusual struggles more than anyone, to the point that her own identity is partially defined by her brother’s special needs. When kids stare, point, or register disgust on their faces, Via feels it by extension. When the janitor at Via’s elementary school calls the home-schooled Auggie by name, it’s an invitation for Via to resettle into the familiar role of Auggie’s sister. Or when she can’t play so as not to disturb her brother after surgery. Or when she sees mom hovering nervously outside Auggie’s bedroom door, and wonders, for her mother’s sake, how many times she’s done that, and then, if it’s ever been her bedroom door. Or when she lies about taking the subway and gets away with it, because mom is distracted.

Via’s is a lifetime of choices, moments, that link her to her brother, which is both a source of great affection and angst. In “A Tour of the Galaxy,” Via writes that “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” Later she recalls a four-week visit to her “Grans” during one of Auggie’s surgeries. For the first time, she experienced normalcy — no Auggie, no one pointing or staring in public. Before she left, Grans let her in on a very taboo secret: she was Grans’s favorite, even more than Auggie. Knowing this meant the world to her, given the galaxy at home.

As much as Via’s self-concept is shaped by forces beyond her control, she demonstrates a strong and consistent ability to step outside of herself, to regard her brother’s problems and her parents’ reactions with a high level of empathy and objectivity. For example, she follows up the comment about Auggie being the sun in their familial galaxy with the admission that her “worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through…” In “August Through the Peephole,” Via wonders what her brother sees when he looks in the mirror — his face, or the person behind the face? She professes to feeling profoundly sad when Auggie cuts off his Padawan braid, associated with his lifelong obsession with Star Wars. This signal of a desire to conform, of heightened self-consciousness, also signals Auggie’s loss of innocence, perhaps, a lagging insulation from the cold, hard perceptions of others, kicking in Via’s protective instincts and her profound sense of empathy.

What does Via teach us? That sibling relationships are complex, enduring, and deep. And the existence of special needs further complicates things. And we shouldn’t forget the sister, the brother of the kid with special needs. Theirs is a ongoing world of “wonder” (and worry): who am I in relationship to this person? To his problems? What would life be like if…? What can mom and dad deal with today?

Summer…

More than any other character, Summer embodies the spirit of kindness invoked by Ian Maclearan. In “Weird Kids,” Summer admits to befriending August on the first day of school because she felt sorry for him. But what starts as a kind gesture — sitting next to Auggie at lunch — quickly develops into something more mutual. “I keep sitting down with him because he is fun,” Summer writes. When an insecure Auggie accuses Summer of befriending him because the principal, Mr. Tushman, requested it, Summer gets the chance to set the record straight directly to Auggie: She just plain likes his company, and “he was such a good sport about himself.” Summer is curious, open, non-judgmental, and in the end, she benefits from Auggie’s friendship.

Julian…

is, in many ways, the opposite of Summer. Julian is anxious kid, and decidedly unempathetic. He’s a jerk to Auggie for the majority of the school year; to the point that he gets called into the principal’s office for bullying. But Julian gets the last word — his chapters close out the book — perhaps this is the author’s way of asserting that his and Auggie’s stories are deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, Julian has special needs of his own, albeit psychological and behavioral, making it easy to write him off before putting his behavior in context. Julian has nightmares and anxiety issues, and Auggie’s face exacerbates them. In the chapter, “First Look,” about Julian’s first time meeting Auggie, Julian says about the moment he first saw Auggie’s face, “I think I said that word [dude] a thousand times to myself.”

However, Julian’s anxiety about Auggie is separate from his outsized, mean-spirited response to that anxiety, which includes trying to turn all kids in the grade against Auggie, creating “the plague” game, and posting taunting notes in Auggie’s locker. Julian’s tactics don’t work in the end. While he ends up switching schools, Auggie becomes a class favorite after a school camping trip, and wins a big award at the end of the school year. Julian is left to feel embarrassed by his lack of kindness.

Like Auggie, Julian has a chapter called “Ordinary,” in which he defensively claims that despite being mean, he’s just an ordinary kid responding to an anxiety-producing situation in an ordinary way. Julian’s mom encourages him to justify his mean behavior — she’s a member of Beecher Prep’s board of trustees who engages in her own acts of meanness, such as photoshopping Auggie’s photo in the class picture and expressing outrage at Mr. Tushman, the principal, for allowing a “special needs” child in a non-inclusion school. Julian mimicks his mom’s tendency to translate anxiety into anger.

It’s not until Julian spends some time in Paris with his grandmother over the summer that he breaks down and admits that he was in the wrong, that he was afraid of Auggie, that his fear drove him to do unfair, immoral things. His grandmother, who lived through the Holocaust, tells him a moving story about being hidden by a crippled classmate that she had previously mocked. Her admission of similar guilt allows Julian to fess up, and motivates him to change. He writes a letter of apology to Auggie and Auggie responds generously.

So what do we learn from Julian? That angry, intolerant kids are fighting their own battles, ones they don’t know how to handle. That it’s a choice to let one’s fear of someone else’s differences translate into anger and bullying, it’s not something to be justified. That parents set the tone for their kids…and sometimes, grandparents need to intervene!

Wonder

So…Wonder. The title of this book seems so appropriate to the reality of living with special needs — from the wonder of how one individual’s circumstances, differences set in motion an altered reality for so many other people (think Julian switching schools to Via’s identity being defined by her brother), the wonder of the ordinary and the extraordinary being embodied in one person, the wonder of the human body, its strange complexity magnified by having certain limitations, the wonder of how families and individuals push through challenges and overcome tremendous obstacles.

As teachers we are trained to use people-first language, as in, “students with disabilities” versus “disabled students,” as a sign of respect for the humanity of the children in question. But I think the best way to dignify the experience of students with special needs is through storytelling. And Wonder, with its kaleidoscope effect of multiple narrators exploring all sides of Auggie’s story, keeps the reader questioning, and marveling, at the richness and the struggle of an utterly special, utterly ordinary life, fully lived.

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

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