One of humanity’s most defining characteristics has got to be the desire to make records, keep them, and share them with the next generation. And yet, obstacles to such a pursuit have run rampant throughout history. In the middle ages, despite the best efforts of scribes, “one bad-tempered abbot, one clumsy friar, one invading barbarian, an overturned candle, a hungry worm – and all those centuries are undone.” (172) And perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, as Anthony Doerr imagines, paper will be obsolete, such that our species will be reliant on our virtual memory, as data stored only in computer systems.
The associated reverence is mocked as superstition in the middle ages, or labeled academic pursuit in modern day, and later, attributed to nostalgia in centuries to come. However, by then, no one can deny the beauty of such a craft, or the way stories have an ability to entwine their way into our personal lives, soothing us, and directing our own hopes and dreams.
Perhaps expectedly, the advancement of technology – while astoundingly imaginative – is what is most mocked in this text. A cannon so large that it could destroy a city – at the expense of beloved livestock that hauled it to battle? A bomb so sophisticated that it can be operated with a cell phone – at the expense of innocent children, including the one who assembled it? A ship so advanced it can transport the last humans on earth across the galaxy – at the expense of leaving their heritage behind?
Reading all of this makes me recall the quote from the book I loved last month, Sea of Tranquility:
"When we consider the question of why...there's been this increased interest in postapocalyptic fiction over the past decade, I think we have to consider what's changed in the world in that timeframe, and that line of thinking leads me inevitably to our technology...My personal belief is that we turn to post apocalyptic fiction not because we're drawn to disaster, per se, but because we're drawn to what we imagine might come next. We long secretly for a world with less technology in it." (190-1)
That is, indeed, what Mr. Doerr’s characters seek by the end – simple lives. A view of the sunrise. The feel of dirt beneath their feet. Companionship. Air to breathe. And paper on which to record and share.
Because whatever disasters they witnessed in their lifetimes, these characters conclude that by the end of their journey, “The world as it is is enough.” (568)
You will live a hundred lifetimes in this book. Follow the threads, suspend your disbelief, and delight in the emerging tapestry on display in the final pages. Enjoy.
I love film adaptations from children’s books, but I had another reason to run out to see Lyle, Lyle Crocodile this fall. My family recently moved across the country, and I found myself intensely nostalgic not only for the place we left but also for who we used to be before this transition.
Something happened during the pandemic, though. Despite the library’s best intentions, my kids became more focused readers, no longer allowed to grab random picture books from the shelves and flip through them within the library’s walls. Our inspiration for reading stemmed from what was most within our mental recall, that is, a lot of Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Book series hold their own value, don’t get me wrong, but I started to notice that we sat together less and less frequently, and read my childhood favorites even less than that.
So I was already on edge this summer as we geared up to move out of state, and from city to suburban living. Among other changes, I realized we would no longer have built-in bookshelves in the living room. If I couldn’t display those childhood favorites, would we sit and read together again? With my youngest children now seven years old, would I also have to say goodbye to an era, to childhood, in addition to everything else?
It was while I was hyperventilating, trying to resist the ephemeral nature of time, that I saw a preview for Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, which was to be released in theaters on October 6th. I stared at the screen, entranced, and knew I absolutely had to be there opening weekend. This movie is a sign, I realized. This movie is a metaphor.
Lyle, along with the young son Joshua, takes center stage in this story, but after reviewing the plot now as a mother, I see another dimension peeking out between the lines. In the storybook, the action seems to begin with Mrs. Primm entering the upstairs bathroom and encountering Lyle for the first time – a real shock to be sure – but the story for Mrs. Primm herself begins long before that.
The Primms, like my family, enter the story in a moving van, distraught by many things, like where to put the piano (Mrs. Primm’s first concern) and where to freshen up (Mrs. Primm’s second concern). Now I wonder, was the piano really the only piece of furniture that was hard to place? And, after doing all of that work, was there no powder room on the main level where this hard-working mother might refresh herself? Nonetheless, the focus here is on the mother, and the need to wash her hands draws her to the discovery of Lyle in the bathtub upstairs.
Once the family overcomes their collective shock, Mrs. Primm begins to settle into her new home. She cleans, decorates, and entertains. And, she is drawn out into the community, presumably where she can enjoy Italian ice and visits to the park, just like Lyle.
After my family moved this summer, there were no scaly surprises in our new bathrooms, although perhaps my “Lyle” appeared in the form of my property tax bill, among other expenses that jumped up dramatically. But maybe all of that would pay for something good? I waited in anticipation for something like Lyle that would draw us into the world and then accompany us home to rest.
I’m still adjusting to the shock of driving everywhere – I really mean everywhere in this suburban environment – but overall, I’m trying to focus on how we’re engaging in our new place, how our kids are involved in sports and activities through the town and at school. This is where I meet people. The bus stop especially is a daily check in for neighborhood parents.
The thing is, we don’t have a clue as to what the Primm family did with their time before Lyle came into their lives, before they lived on East 88th Street. Did Joshua enjoy sitting next to his mother on the sofa while she read to him? Or had he just outgrown that, same as my kids? Whatever their lives were like before, they learned to love Lyle, miss him when he is gone, and celebrate his return. Realizing this, I think the Primm family has a message for anyone trying to settle in after a big move:
Be entertained. Be cozy. Be together. Bring delight to the community.
How to do this? My first thought is to throw a barbeque and invite the neighbors. Never mind that summer has passed. We’re here now, and it’s time. Bus Stop BBQ, here we come.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month I spent working a part-time job where we were encouraged to wear pink shirts on Fridays. That first Monday, though, we kicked off the month by wearing all things pink. My manager bought scarves for the team. I brought pink pom poms and tucked one in my ponytail. The boss distributed pink tutus for the ladies and pink bow ties and suspenders for the guys.
I was surprised by his short burst of sharing. Usually it was a heads down, fast-paced, take your breaks at staggered times type of place. Little time to get to know each other. And of course, we were back to work after this brief exchange.
So I didn’t see a good opening to share the news I’d just found in my email.
My friend Grace had been on hospice for breast cancer recurrence when she finally succumbed earlier this month. The thing is, I had been thinking of her just the week before – before I knew she had died – and I found myself reflecting on the last emails we exchanged. This was in August. I felt like I should have checked in one more time.
She had been cancer-free for over twenty years before it recurred. I met her during her remission a couple of years ago when we signed up for the same writing class.
I remember the first night of that class. It was January, 2020, and I had just finished a brisk walk from the Red Line stop at Park Street to GrubStreet’s old location in the Steinert building on the Boston Common. I reached the back of the dimly lit entry hall just as a group of writers scuttled into the tiny elevator. I knew I wouldn’t make it onto that ride, so I slowed my pace and prepared to wait for the elevator light to reset so I could push the button.
Before I could reach out my hand, a Chinese woman blew into the vestibule, crossed the floor and poked impatiently at the button. I knew her action wasn’t going to call the elevator. I waited for a polite moment and then gently pressed the same button again once the light reset.
It was a small moment, but one that, for me, captured the essence of Grace – who ran after life, demanding the best, and quickly.
Self-described as a global nomad and journalist, Grace Segran had a passion for travel, for writing, for Jesus, and for her late-husband Raja. She leaves behind a plethora of personal narratives for us to enjoy, as well as advice for those who may shirk from hospice care.
Today, I am grieving the loss of her life, and I am grateful to have known her. She encouraged me – in writing, in faith, and in life. Even with only months to live, she asked me about my life. When I said I wanted to go back to work but didn’t know what to do, she suggested Walgreens, saying it was fast-paced and interesting. She also sent me the link to a song that sustained her during her breast cancer metastasis – https://youtu.be/rNXd0KQaYXg – a production of “Yet not I, but through Christ in me.”
And I thought of her during subsequent writing classes, including during a session in which I didn’t know how to respond to a prompt. This is what I wrote, and it’s how I’d like to always remember Grace:
"I don't know what to write -- which makes me think of Grace, who never knew what to write in class either. What if the prompt doesn't fit? What if you want to write something else? I think of her smiling eyes behind her glasses, playful and a little devious, daring me to play hooky and grab a cup of tea with her in the kitchen. She'll tell me tales of Scotland, and I'll wonder if I'll ever see the world through her eyes -- to have a brush with death and a heart full of gratitude for one more day. Let's stay here in the kitchen, Grace. We'll get back to work eventually. There is time. There will be enough time for it all."
I wanted to come to your memorial service, Grace. I told you that. But I had to attend virtually instead. I’m sorry I never met your daughter, the one who shares a name with my own. I’m sorry I never met your granddaughters. But I’m so glad I was there to sing with the worship team “Yet not I, but through Christ in me” and to hear your brother-in-law proclaim your immense faith and the comfort you found in your last days in Psalm 130 and your anticipation of seeing Jesus for the first time:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”
You told me once, Grace, that you wished you could write more about your faith. Know that your faith was proclaimed and witnessed. And we cherish it.
I am so glad to have known you, and I hope that one day, we will meet again.
In moving to our new neighborhood, it became quickly clear that this community is service oriented. At least, fundraising opportunities abound – both for community-based programs and for the like that support school-based activities. Our new church (or my “old” one, having spent my elementary and high school years there) was no different. The service activity I accompanied my middle school daughter to a few weeks ago, however? That certainly was.
Most of the time, when I think of supporting a community with sustenance, I think of canned food drives. In the past, I’ve written about food drives we’ve hosted at family gatherings, or my volunteer work at a food pantry in Boston during the pandemic. But at Feed My Starving Children, we did something completely different.
We were handed hair nets when we walked through the door. We were instructed to remove all jewelry and told to wash our hands well. Then, we were taught how to bag the rice mix that had been formulated to support starving people and nurse them back to health.
We assembled in groups of six or seven in stations in the workroom, manning individual spots in order to scoop in the vitamins, vegetables, soy and rice that we weighed and bagged, sealing each before loading a box that would be shipped to receiving distributors. Kids as young as six participated, standing on overturned wooden crates in order to reach the activity. My daughter joined one group. I joined another, and we quickly got to work.
In just one hour (maybe less), the sixty-odd volunteers prepped and boxed over 18,000 meals. Now that’s an assembly line! Afterwards, we gathered in the warehouse to pray over the boxes that would be shipped to South Sudan where they would be received by a group called Reach International and distributed to those in need.
I had previously prepared food for others (most consistently with Community Cooks in Cambridge), but this was food prep on a whole other scale.
Feed My Starving Children is not a huge organization, but they are helping relieve hunger in the way they know how, stating that 98% of their deliveries reach their destinations.
That night, I was glad to have been a part of their work.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.