Thoughts That Arise

Break, break, break,

On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman’s boy,

That he shouts with his sister at play!

O well for the sailor lad,

That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on

To their haven under the hill;

But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,

And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,

At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!

But the tender grace of a day that is dead

Will never come back to me.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ever since I first watched “Anne of Green Gables” and heard Megan Follows reciting “The Lady of Shalott,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson has been one of my favorite poets. There were so many poems I wanted to write about this month, but I chose this one a) because it is short enough for me to quote the whole thing, and b) because the imagery is so beautifully striking.

This poem is an elegy written after the death of one of Tennyson’s dear friends. It is full of the melancholy that comes with watching people be happy when you yourself are grieving a terrible loss. The sense of finality in the poem is contrasted with the constant, never-ending breaking of waves.

There is something about the sea that entrances us. It is easy to spend hours simply staring out at the ocean and thinking. The effect this has on one’s mood is fascinating. When I look at the sea, I get wistful, sad, and hopeful, sometimes all at once. What is it about an endless gray expanse of water that creates this effect? I have no idea, but I think Tennyson does a good job capturing it in his poem.

Tennyson’s rhythmic lines “Break, break, break” clearly echo the sound of waves crashing, and his wish to be able to put his thoughts into words expresses the wistfulness that comes with being near the ocean. It is a poem that anyone who has lost a loved one will relate to, and that is why I love it.

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One Struggle; One Fight

We are not a menace, and we will not be silent any longer.

– Roma Guy, “When We Rise”

This past week, ABC aired a docudrama called “When We Rise” about the LGBT rights movement. It starts with the Stonewall Riots and continues through the overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Whatever your political leanings, I would highly recommend the four-part series to anyone interested in the history of the gay rights movement, although it does contain some adult content. The drama is interspersed with actual footage from the time these struggles were taking place and was co-written with three activists (who are also portrayed as the main characters) at the center of it all.

The series is a moving depiction of the fight for equal rights for all Americans. While it focuses on gay, lesbian, and transgender issues, it also brings in the mistreatment of women, black people, and those who are impoverished. From the AIDS epidemic to police beating women at a peaceful protest to a black man being refused service at a bar, its true story is compelling and heartbreaking. There is nothing more essentially human than love and loss, and this series is full of both.

Throughout the movement we see disadvantaged groups slowly learning how to join hands and fight for their rights together rather than competing with each other. This is one of the most central messages of the series – that none of us can be truly free until all of us are. It is all “one struggle; one fight.” It is pointless to advocate for ourselves while leaving others behind.

Because the series covers a span of about forty years, it feels a bit disjointed at times. The change to older actors between the second and third episodes is especially odd. But that does not negate the importance of the message. If you do not have time to watch the entire series, just watch the first episode or two. And no matter who you are or what background you come from, I hope you will be able to relate to the essentially human struggle in this series.

The Idea of a Person

“I don’t know why, but I always thought she would look different. Older…. But there she is, and I am watching her through the Plexiglas, and she looks like Margo Roth Spiegelman, this girl I have know since I was two – this girl who was an idea that I loved. And it is only now… that I realize that the idea is not only wrong but dangerous. What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person.” – John Green, Paper Towns

Paper Towns is not your average love story. And as much as I love Romanticism as a genre, John Green’s book points out the trouble and heartbreak that romanticizing a person will cause.

Quentin had built up an idea of what Margo was like mainly by watching her from afar. It should not be a surprise, then, to find out that his idea of her is not entirely true to life. Whatever he thinks she is – hero, goddess, sprite – is fictional.

The theme of Paper Towns is stripping away fiction to find reality. This is Margo’s quest. Quentin’s quest is to find Margo. But he does not realize that the harder he chases after her the more of his fictitious idea he will lose. He finds Margo, but not the Margo he was looking for. Rather than the paper girl he created, he discovers a flesh and blood person, as well as all the baggage that entails.

While romanticized stories that make heroes out of humans and delete all the baser details are all well and good, it will only cause pain and suffering to romanticize real people. No one is a superhero, and no one is meant to be. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can begin to love the people around us for who they truly are.

Self-Sustaining

“But where will we go?” Klaus asked.

“Burb,” Sunny said, which meant “Anywhere, as long as it’s out of town.”

“Who will take care of us out there?” Klaus said, looking out on the flat horizon.

“Nobody,” Violet said. “We’ll have to take care of ourselves. We’ll have to be self-sustaining.”

“Like the hot air mobile home,” Klaus said, “that could travel and survive all by itself.”

“Like me,” Sunny said, and abruptly stood up. Violet and Klaus gasped in surprise as their baby sister took her first wobbly steps, and then walked closely beside her, ready to catch her if she fell.

But she didn’t fall.

–          The Vile Village, Lemony Snicket

In honor of the new Netflix series that came out this month, I thought I would write my first post for The Uncommonplaces on A Series of Unfortunate Events, some of my favorite books both as a child and as an adult.

My mom never understood what I liked so much about a series that begins with three children being orphaned by a fire, and that only gets more depressing from there. But I think one reason I liked it so much is exactly because it deals with such morbid events. Snicket does not shy away from the reality that life is sometimes just plain awful, despite your best efforts to the contrary. He does not insult children by pretending every story has a happy ending, and that is a refreshing change when it comes to children’s literature. He treats his readers like intelligent people, and makes his readers more intelligent through his books.

Snicket has a delightful way of expanding one’s vocabulary that is neither dry nor condescending, a word which here means “treating perfectly intelligent blog readers as though I were better than them for putting an opinion on the internet, as if that were particularly difficult to do.” Among the many words and phrases I learned from his books as a child are “stiletto,” “red herring,” and “penultimate.” Snicket’s explanations of words and concepts that may be above his audience’s current reading level are sufficient enough to educate them and amusing enough to keep more advanced and even adult readers interested. I am enjoying reading the series again now at least as much as I did when I was a kid.

In fact, one of the things I love most about A Series of Unfortunate Events is something that I only fully began to appreciate on rereading it as an adult: Snicket’s books give children the mental and emotional tools to deal with unpleasant or downright nasty situations in their own lives. They show that adults, even when they have the best intentions, do not always act in a child’s best interest. The very people who should be protecting them sometimes place children in harmful situations, whether intentionally (like the evil Count Olaf) or unwittingly (like the bumbling Mr. Poe).

Bad things happen to good people – even clever, intelligent, and resourceful people like Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. Circumstances beyond their control sometimes force children to grow up more quickly than they should. They must learn to become “self-sustaining.” And while things may not always end well, Snicket shows us that there is no situation so bad that it cannot be faced alongside someone you love.

Especially if that someone happens to possess mechanical skills, a love of reading, or four very sharp teeth.