About Me

Thanks for being here! I am a mom of three (two girls, 15 and 13, and one boy, 9) and a teacher of many (thousands during my more than 17 years teaching high school English and Spanish in Philadelphia). Forever a student, I love learning - whether through talking to others, reading, watching movies and documentaries, or traveling. I also love running (slowly), hiking, and practicing yoga!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Great Short Stories That Changed My Life

Me. Longwood Gardens, Spring 2015. Photo by Genevieve. 
I was a junior in high school when my English teacher gave me a book of Raymond Carver short stories, told me to read them, and then sent me and a classmate to see the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts, based on the book. We took the train to Philadelphia to see the movie at the Ritz, a first for me, and I fell in love. Even as everything else on the surface stayed the same (friends, a boyfriend, tennis, studying) I felt something in me shift. I was aware of the world in a way I hadn't been before. Now, more than 20 years later, I still think about the stories in that book (and movie). So Much Water So Close to Home, Neighbors, A Small, Good Thing ...  The last one was my favorite, offering as it did a sliver of hope in the midst of the worst tragedy (and there is a lot of tragedy, and desperation, and strangeness, in Raymond Carver stories, something that startled me as a 17-year-old but that I just nod at, now, at 38). There are other short stories, too, that have equally broken open my world and helped me see it more clearly, some as recently as last year.  In the book store with Grace and Joseph this morning, my heart aglow with all of the stories surrounding me, I started thinking about those that really changed my life, if just in some small way. Below is my "Top 5" list of short stories.

#1. A Small Good Thing, by Raymond Carver. As I reread the last paragraph, I am once again sitting in the movie theater, 17 years old, watching Lyle Lovett as the baker comfort grieving parents Howard (Bruce Davison) and Ann (Andie MacDowell). I am reminded that small, good things may be the only good things. "It was like daylight." Amen. 
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

#2. Death Constant Beyond Love (Muerte constante más allá del amor), by Gabriel García Márquez. I read this story, about a senator (Onésimo Sánchez) who finds "the woman of his life" with only six months and eleven days left to live (he is already married with children), when I was in college. It scared me,  I remember (the death, the solitude, the infidelity), but it also induced in me a sort of urgency for living. I wrote a paper on this one. A-. 

#3. Brownies, by ZZ Packer. I first heard this story when Anthony and I were driving cross-country from San Francisco to Philadelphia, back in May of 2001. We had a few books on CD, including the "Best American Short Stories 2000," and this one came on as we were still driving down the California Coast, on Highway 1 (we first drove from San Francisco to San Diego to see friends, and then zig-zagged our way back). Laurel, the story's narrator, a fourth-grader on a camping trip with her African-American Brownie troop, is both hilarious and whip-smart. Racism and human nature are held to the light, and seen. A beautiful, important story, perhaps especially so now. 

#4. The Scarlet Ibis, by James Hurst. I am not sure if it is the writing on this one that got me. It was more that, while reading it with my 9th grade class at Central High School in Philadelphia nearly 10 years ago, one of the students in that class, a lovely girl, wept openly and even cried out when Doodle, the narrator's younger brother, died. She told me later it was because her own younger brother had special needs, and the story hit so close to home. I will never forget her love for her brother or how much the story moved her. 

#5. In a Tub, by Amy Hempel. My 26-year-old niece Sam gave me Hempel's book (The Collected Stories) for my birthday a few weeks after my mom died. We were at her house for an Easter celebration with more than 50 people, and I snuck to an upstairs bedroom to read the first story.  I need to post the whole thing here. Sam's gift was the small good thing (one if them) that got me to breathe again after my own loss. Thank you, Sam. 

My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. 
It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. 
I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.
---
At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.
My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.
When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.
The birdbath is shaped like that tub.
---
I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.
I lock the door and run a tub of water.
Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. 
Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.



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