Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Children Need Magic

As a child, I had supreme confidence in cause and effect. I put out cookies and milk for Santa; in the morning there was an empty glass and a plate of crumbs. I put my tooth under my pillow; in the morning there was a quarter (my parents were cheap). The ginko trees leaves turned golden and fell; in the spring they grew back new and green. I scraped a scab off my elbow - because like Eustace says, it hurts like Billy O, but it is so fun to see the nasty thing come off; and new peachy skin grows back. The grass dried up in the long summer days; the evening thunderstorms brought it back to life.

Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The story of fall, winter, spring is woven in our hearts, but children have the cleanest grasp of its power because they haven't learned to explain things away. If they are allowed to be "men with chests," they can retain a vision of the beauty in this world, even when things are at their blackest, because the darkest night is just before dawn.

That's why children need magic. That's why they need Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and ghost stories and elves and centaurs and Aslan and hobbits and jack-o-lanterns and The Snow Queen and Hansel and Gretel. And the stranger and starker the better; the least schmaltzy and commercialized the better. Lewis called this a "baptism of the imagination," and it is just as important as teaching straightforward theology. I don't remember the lessons in Sunday school, but I remember my grandmama rocking me and saying "The murmuring pines and the hemlocks" as if it meant all the world. I remember turning off the lights to gaze at the Christmas tree with its enormous colored lights and lighted star. I remember getting goosebumps when I learned that the seeds from Diggory's magical apple grew into the tree which provided the wood for a wardrobe. And when we found out that it wasn't a train accident, but that the real Narnia was home at last....

When those children grow up, they will know why trees lose their leaves, and why rainbows follow rain. But the magic, otherwise known as wonder, will stay nestled inside, ready to spring up. And when those children meet the real Aslan, they will welcome Him as a friend.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Relationship with Rap Part Two: Leaving the Old Neighborhood

For those of us who grew up in poor neighborhoods who managed to leave, there is constant inner tension. First of all, there is the survivor guilt. Why are our old friends still poor? Why are they still boarding their windows after break-ins and learning which gang colors to avoid? The unfairness of life is thrust in our faces, especially if we didn't "earn" our way out, i.e. if our parents were the reason we were able to leave. (By the way, this is one reason why those who escaped homelessness often end up back on the streets. They are constantly thinking of their close friends still suffering hypothermia and are crippled by that knowledge).

Second, there is the nostalgia. The love of home is sometimes strongest for those who grew up in hard times. It goes beyond mere nostalgia though: the passion for home is defensive in nature. The more one's home is mocked or hated by others, the stronger one's passion grows for defending her honor. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion because they don't understand. Think of the classic examples: Sicily, North Ireland, China, Myanmar, Russia, Cuba, Brooklyn, Appalachia, the southside of Chicago. The deadliest example of course is Nazi Germany, but it appears in subtler forms in American ghettos. We would rather be feared than condescended to, because with fear comes power.

Third, there is the shame mingling with the love. In her brilliant memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette describes how she washed herself with snow before school to hide the fact that they lacked running water in the 70s. Underneath the bravado, there are parts of our old lives that we despise, that we never talk about with outsiders, that we wish we could erase. We tell lies about the past to disguise our self-hatred, to distance ourselves from the shame of growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because most of growing up poor is not cool, which is why it's so grating when middle class white kids try to be "gangsta."

In my own life, my parents had a stroke of luck which allowed us to move from the old neighborhood to a better part of town. Suddenly we had a two story house with a dishwasher, and I had my own bathroom. The ceiling didn't crack and shed; the kitchen didn't have mice behind the stove; I didn't have roaches crawling over my bed; the nighttime was dark and quiet. I was relieved by many of these changes, but I was also afraid. Change is scary, even good change. I couldn't sleep at night because I was used to noise. The streets were scary in a new way: there were no sidewalks, and these folks drove SUVs and huge pick-ups must faster than they should have. There were few pedestrians; the children played video games instead of street-ball.

I took walks every day because I believed in facing my fears, and the neighborhood seemed so empty - except for the speeding trucks of course. For one thing, I wasn't used to streets where everyone worked. Most of our neighbors either couldn't or wouldn't find work, and they sat on their porches getting drunk most days. These neighbors were busy even outside of work, and they had comfortable, air-conditioned homes to escape from the heat and mosquitos. The empty streets were lined with two-story houses, which seemed to tower over me. As I said in the previous post, we lived in a neighborhood with dumpy one-story houses, not the brownstones you would see in Brooklyn, and the "fancy" (to me, I was sheltered in that way) homes intimidated me. I was accustomed to tidy blocks with avenues and streets intersecting, and I was baffled by the rabbit warren of culdesacs and curling streets. They had almost identical names too, called drive or place instead of the more sensible street or avenue. Once I got so lost that I wandered for hours before finally making my way home.

These changes made me defensive of my home. Before I had avoided bringing friends home; now I bragged about my past. I was disgusted by the spoiled kids on my street, and I was eager to distinguish myself from those kids. I mocked my classmates that got new cars on their 16th birthdays, and I stopped trying to hide the fact that I still wore second hand clothes. Part of this defensive stance was delving into the music I had hated, but it was a long journey.

A Protestant's Journey to Mary

And not just any Protestant either: I grew up a five-point Calvinist in the Presbyterian tradition and, as if that wasn't enough, I went to a Southern Baptist school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I can safely say I never heard a good thing about Catholics until I was college. I wasn't taught that Catholics were the whore of Babylon, but it was a close thing. Catholics were wrong because they tried to earn their salvation; because they thought the Pope was sinless; because they had priests when we were all a holy priesthood; because they added to Scripture, etc. You've heard it all before. Even Lent was verboten because of its links to Catholicism, and my grandmama was unhappy when her church started using an Advent wreath.

As far as Mary went, we couldn't be too careful to avoid giving her honor - except at Christmas. Suddenly, images were allowed - we could have wooden manger scenes, Christmas cards with pictures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and every church staged Nativity scenes with the kids dressed up in homemade costumes. (As a girl, I was typically made to be an angel, with a wire halo pinned in my hair. And if you haven't read the classic "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," your life lacks meaning). But as soon as Christmas was over, which for evangelical Protestants is December 26, Mary was packed away for the year and never spoken of again. (This sort of perspective was typical.)

When I was in graduate school I began to feel a strong emotional connection to Saint Monica, mother of Augustine. It came out of the blue and made no sense: at the time I wasn't even married, much less a mother to anyone, wayward or otherwise. However, I think it was one of the few real spiritual experiences I've ever had, precisely because it came out of the blue. My mama had just told me bad news about friends of ours, and I felt rudderless in the storm. Standing in the hallway with my eyes closed, my heart said Monica please help them. Only a day later I remembered this and thought where the hell did that come from? As the weeks passed, I began to feel an emotional, deep connection to this ancient mother, and I found myself seeking her intercession before I even (began) to understand on an intellectual level what the communion of saints is all about.

As I continued with graduate school, my flexible schedule allowed more prayer time than I had had in undergrad since my classes were all online. The backbone of my prayer life then and now is the Episcopal Daily Office, which I highly recommend even to Catholics (but that's a post for another day!)  As I began to understand the power of liturgical or "rote" prayers, which were verboten in my childhood, I wondered about the famous Rosary. It was forbidden fruit, idolatrous, and I'm afraid to admit that the rebellious side of me was drawn to it merely on those terms. But hey, God works with us where we are, right?

Still, I have the Reformation in my genes, even if I no longer counted myself a strict Calvinist. Most of my ancestors were Scottish Presbyterians who retained their traditions once they got off the boat; others had relatives slaughtered in the Bartholomew's Day massacre. I was also turned off by many of the websites that I found about the Rosary, with the Catholic kitsch, flowery backgrounds, and talk of "Mary will give you this if you pray the Rosary so many times." It sounded pretty manipulative to me, like a slot-machine Mary. But I was willing to try out the Rosary on my terms.

Note to Protestants: if you want to keep Mary at arm's length, do not pray the Rosary at all. Even if you pray an ecumenical version, without the beads, or cut out the last two glorious mysteries, it will bite you in the ass. Mary is sneaky that way.

At the beginning of the rabbit hole, I liked the idea of mediating on different mysteries about Jesus on particular days, except for those ludicrous last two Glorious mysteries of course. I didn't own the beads, and I didn't want to succumb to vain repetitions, so I tried out a Protestant version of meditating on the mysteries. As I washed dishes, rode the bus to work at the library, took showers, I would think about the appointed mysteries for the day. I kept an index card in my purse with the list until I had it fairly well memorized. I would always forget about Monday because, you know, Monday, so I was most likely to do Tuesday than any other day of the week. As a result, I memorized the Sorrowful mysteries pretty quick.

At length, I decided that praying the Lord's Prayer (that's what we call it instead of the Our Father) before each mystery was OK. If I was working the reference desk on Saturday and had no customers, I would put on headphones and listen to the Lord's Prayer set to music, or listen to instrumental music while doing the meditations. My attention span is atrocious, so I would get distracted and often pick up again several hours later.

Finally, I decided that maybe doing the set of prayers at the beginning (the Creed, Lord's Prayer, Gloria Patre) minus the Hail Marys of course, would be OK. And instead of doing that sentimental ending I would just pray another Lord's Prayer, or sing a hymn if I was at home alone. (For irony sake I sometimes sang "A Mighty Fortress is Our God.") And then one day I made the fatal mistake of actually reading the Hail Mary.

Most Protestants don't really know what it says. The very title, "Hail Mary," sounds idolatrous, because most of our Bibles have a different translation of the angel's greeting. The popular NIV says "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." It leaves out the "blessed are you among women." The equally popular New King James version retains the blessing part, but it renders the greeting as "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you!" Now, the more classical Authorized King James Version says the word "hail," but the wording is different: "Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee." So most Protestants don't see the connection between the words "Hail Mary full of grace" and the angel's greeting, because none of them are told, and most of our translations don't include it. (Forgive the repetition, but it is crucial to understanding the Protestant mindset, in which Biblical translations are many, and interpretations can hinge on the wording of a single verse).

But I took the plunge, read the Hail Mary, and with a little help from a website explaining the Rosary, discovered the Biblical quotations from both the angelic greeting and the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth. I was shocked: Catholics are supposed to hate the Bible! This is what I had been told all my life - why else would they have opposed vernacular translations back in the day? So why would they quote the Bible in this most Catholic of prayers?

I still didn't like that second part though, because how would Mary pray for us? "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" was a verse I digested with my baby food. It's even set to music so as to instill it deeply in our conscious, and it is a popular proof-text among evangelicals. So I took another baby step and recited the first half of the Hail Mary during my meditations. I started doing the decades now (albeit with the cut-off Hail Marys), but those last two Glorious mysteries still rankled, so I used substitutes from ecumenical sites, or just substituted my own. I settled on using The Lord's Future Return for the fourth, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb for the fifth. And I still steered clear of that ending prayer.

Gradually though, it dawned on me that I had been sub-consciously seeking the intercession of Monica, so why not Mary? They were both in heaven and loved by Jesus, right? I did some more research and learned about the intercession of the saints. I already believed that the dead in Christ were actually alive in Christ, and I already believed that we the living should pray for each other. So if the "dead" are actually alive, why not ask the saints to pray for us? How is that being any more of a "mediator" than if I ask my mama to pray for me? The whole "at the hour of our death" wigged me out, but I decided to give it a shot.

(For any Catholic readers, let me say something a little controversial: the term "praying to the saints" is really, really bad evangelism. It sounds like you're praying to them like you would God, rather than asking for their prayers like you would ask a friend to pray for you. It would really help your apologetics to say "ask the saints to pray for me" or something similar, especially when you're talking to your Protestant friends or writing on your *public* blogs. Ok, rant over.)

So there I was, playing with fire, while Mary just laughed at me. And y'all, I don't know, somehow I just fell the rest of the way. While the first part of this journey was primarily with the intellect, my heart finally followed, and I felt loved by Mary. It became a joy and comfort to say "O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!" On days when I really was in a vale of tears, the poignancy of that previously despised prayer rang true. And I finally started praying the last two mysteries of the Glorious mysteries, even though I'm still not quite sure about the fourth one on an intellectual level. I finally now recognize Mary as my true Mama, the mother who breastfed God.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Five Favorites: Children's Picture Books

There are two necessary ingredients to a good picture book: a good story, and good pictures. Notice I said story. When I used to babysit, some of the kids had these gosh-awful books about "This is a fireman. He wears a red hat. This is a policeman. He wears a blue hat." Kill me now. These books aren't like that, because they have actual stories paired with gorgeous pictures.

1. Agatha's Feather Bed: Not Just Another Wild Goose Story

This was one of my favorites when I little. Don't you love the cover? And the story is great too, about how the naked geese come shivering to Agatha's window to get their feathers back from her bed.

2. Something Nasty in the Cabbages

(By the way, don't do an image search on this one. Some of the images... well, you can guess). This is a retelling of the classic French tale of Chantecler the cockerel, and it is hilarious. The writer has a great ear for language.

3. Crysanthemum

All I have to do is show some pictures, and you will buy this for your children:

It's about a little mouse named Crysanthemum who wishes she had a more normal name like Rose or Daisy. No one could pronounce my (very common) name - everyone thinks it is Carolyn, and I can't convince them otherwise. So I thought this story was the bee's knees. 

Eh, whatever, just 3. It's one of those weeks, and I feel like cheating. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

You Might Be from Georgia When....

... One of the first things you learned in kindergarten was "red on yella, kill a fella, red on black, venom lack." We used to chant this in unison, and I'm pretty sure it was on a test.

I mentioned this to one of my co-workers (he's from Maine and thinks beaches have rocks), and he was baffled. "Red what?" he asked. I wanted to prove that only a Yankee from Maine wouldn't know this rhyme, so I asked my co-workers from North Carolina. They were equally confused.

Apparently, this is only a thing if you grow up surrounded by swamps and woods infested with cuddly creatures like coral snakes, cottonmouths, rattlers and gaters.

For those of you from climates friendlier to human life, here is a visual:

Now all you need to do is learn how to blow gnats off your face and you're good to go.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Seven Quick Takes: Seven Weird Changes Recently

Daylight Savings Time

The date when daylight savings time ends and the endless night of doom begins used to be in October. And then one day the candy companies said hey guys, if we push that date back to November then the kiddies can stay outside longer during Halloween. I can't believe they didn't think of this earlier, but I can believe that their lobbyists were able to push it through. 

Cell phones got big again

Remember how the phones were bricks in the 90s? (I didn't even know they existed back then). And then they turned into flip phones and that's what all the cool kids had? And then they just got super tiny and you could fit them in your pocket or purse, no problem? I mean, I like my iPhone too, but I miss being able to drop my phone on concrete without it shattering, or popping it in my jeans pocket. 

The Laugh Track Finally Died - or at least lessened

Growing up, I loved Brit comedies. You know the kind: they aired on PBS about two decades after they came out. Faulty Towers, Are You Being Served?, As Time Goes By, Mr. Bean, Keeping Up Appearances.... Great shows all. But I was watching an episode of Keeping Up Appearances on youtube, and I was so annoyed by the laugh track. I mean, it was every other sentence! This didn't use to bother me at all, because I didn't know any better.  Some shows still have a laugh track, but the use has greatly dimenished. And thank God you no longer have that "ooooh" that would happen whenever sex came up. 

Movie Blockbusters Require an Antidepressent 

My husband is a huge fan of Independence Day, with all the "We will not go quietly into the night!" and other goodies, like Will Smith before he was in everything. We were watching it recently (he said he was getting withdrawals) and I thought huh, this would never be a summer blockbuster today. Some directors (cough Christopher Nolan cough) think that doom and gloom, with a side of blood and guts, is the only way to go. So even the new Super Man used a gun. WTF? 

Everything Nerdy is Cool 

I think Harry Potter was the tipping point. I mean, books about wizards at a British boarding school - nothing can be nerdier than that. And it was the biggest success in children's publishing history. The other game changer was Spider Man, and that was for one main reason. It came out in fall of 2001, and it was set in NYC.

But dungeons and dragons will never be cool.

And Facebook Became Uncool

It is popular, hugely so, but it is no longer cool. It was cool when it was just us college students. Now it's about as cool as a family reunion, but with more drama.

"Health Food" at MacDonalds

And Wendy's, etc. My favorite is Wendy's actually, because they have those awesome salads with dried cranberries. People pick on the fast food places for this, but I think it's great. When I had wheat allergies in high school I would have loved to be able to eat something at a fast food joint. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Religious Climate in Washington DC: Living in Rome

Bird's Eye View of the National Cathedral

When my husband and I moved to DC a year and a half ago, we were astounded by the people. They were so young, so beautiful, so thin, so wealthy. Coming from Georgia this was a shock.  I don't mean to say people in Georgia are ugly, but the obesity rate is much higher, and so is the poverty rate, since these things go together. DC is the center of today's Roman empire, and just like the old one it looks so good on the surface, but there are many hurting people underneath the glimmer. 

1. Where I Live: Northern Virginia, otherwise known as NOVA. They really should just make a state called "metro DC" though, because southern Maryland and NOVA have more to do with each other than with the rest of their respective states. So for statistical reasons I'll use DC/ Maryland data. 

2. Church Attendance: here is a map that shows data for Maryland and DC concerning religious affiliation. You will notice that the largest category is Catholic, closely followed by unaffiliated. I would hazard a guess that if Baltimore were removed from the polling, that unaffiliated would far and away surpass Catholicism as the highest affiliation. There is a high percentage of historically Black Protestant churches in DC, and there are a fair number of evangelical and mainline churches, but nothing like what you would see in "The Bible Belt." I was unable to find stats strictly on Washington DC church attendance as opposed to affiliation, but it's always a much smaller number. 

3. How appropriate would it be if a person were to acknowledge in casual conversation that he or she is a believing Christian: I live in two worlds - the world of the Episcopal seminary where my husband attends, together with my parish community, vs the work-a-day world. In the church world, of course it would be no-biggie. I have had a fellow parishioner suddenly hold my hand after a service and tell me that she needed to pray for me, and I have had intense spiritual discussions with other wonderful people there as well. But the secular world of DC is another story. DC is so fraught with political strife that everyone has an unspoken agreement of don't ask/don't tell when it comes to religion and politics. It's understandable - after all, you wouldn't want people to come to blows on the metro. But there is a sterility to relationships here because everyone is so guarded. The only exception to this is the homeless - they are happy to talk about God with you. 

4. What belief system do the politicians in your area claim to practice: honey, it's DC. They say whatever they think their constituents back home want to hear.

5. How common would it be to see a family with more than three children: it depends on what neighborhood you're in. In the wealthier neighborhoods yes, this would be shocking. It's expensive to have more than 2 kids if you want to live in the pricier zip codes and attend the right schools; heck, this area is pricy no matter where you live. But when you get into the immigrant communities, large (and openly religious) families are the norm. Generally they are observant Muslim though. 

The altar at my parish, St. Paul K Street

6. What was the dominant belief system in your area 50 years ago? What is it now: The most common religion in this area 50 years ago was Christianity, especially Episcopalian protestantism - think "WASPS." The effects of this are still in the area: there are tons of Episcopal churches and schools, including boarding schools and the seminary where my husband attends. And of course the National Cathedral is in DC. I would say though that the influence of this denomination is far less than it used to be because there's much more "competition" for lack of a better term. This is such an international community, especially near where we live in NOVA. Sometimes I'm the only English speaker in the grocery store line, and it is very common to see women wearing hijab. 

Unfortunately, the gods of materialism and professional success rule supreme. When you meet someone, the first question is "what do you do?" i.e. what is your job. In an economy where unemployment is high, the emotional effects of this are almost as devastating as the physical ones. It is hard to maintain a healthy sense of self if you are not rich, if you can't wear the latest fashions or go to hip clubs on U Street or live in a cool neighborhood. Materialism is an American problem, but it is intensified to a giddy degree in the nation's capitol. Those who are poor are shunted to the side, ignored, and despised, even by the people who would claim to be socially conscious. 

7. Do the people where you live seem happy with their lives: I would say yes and no. It looks like the wealthy professionals in Chevy Chase and Arlington with their 1.8 kids and Whole Foods memberships are happy because they have it all. But I watch the professionals on the metro and in the city and at the Safeway, and there is a sense of discontent. 

Right before I got married, I worked for 6 months in a pediatric office in the poorest, most rural country in Georgia. And when I got married and moved to NOVA, I worked at an orthodontist office in Arlington before I found my current job at a DC law firm. The difference was unbelievable and, at first glance, the Arlington families were so much healthier. But that was the surface: underneath was a constant hurry, a fear of mediocrity, a need for their child to have the best of everything that will never satisfy. 

And then there are the poor, the homeless: they have nothing but what they can carry or push in a cart. But I have been blessed by the homeless - actually blessed, as in more than one homeless man has "pronounced" an impromptu blessing on me after a single conversation. They tell me that God is good; they tell me that God will fill my heart with peace. So nothing is as it seems around here. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Seven Quick Takes : Fictional Characters I Relate To

1. Dorrie from Finding Nemo

After I had my concussion in the spring (otherwise known as "when shit hit the fan"), my memory, what little I had, just up and died for several months. I had a list by the door of things I needed to take with me (keys, wallet, cell phone, metro card, etc), and a list on my bedroom wall of things I needed to do before bed (brush teeth, pick out the next day's clothes, turn on the dishwasher, etc). It was really that bad. "Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming" was all I could do - my poor husband is a saint y'all! I was so scatterbrained that I would forget what you told me in seconds; I couldn't remember the office phone number or address; one day, I remember trying to remember how a stapler works. Dorrie is my inspiration for how to keep your spirits up when your sanity is gone.

2. Jill in The Silver Chair

I would love to say that I relate to Lucy, but I'm much more like Jill. I'm OK with that - Jill is brave, strong, and takes no prisoners. But she's also got a lot to learn in The Silver Chair about selflessness, discipline, and faith. As do I. When she says that she would give anything for a hot bath, I say "yes sister you got that right!" Even if it does lead to evil giants.... And my first experiences of God were similar to hers too; can't You turn Your back God, so that I can drink from the well of grace without Your untamed nature to deal with?  And the signs. This is kind of how my prayer life goes - I know I should pray every night, but really, zoning out to Netflix is so much more appealing....

3. Hermione in Harry Potter

Not as clever or smart, but just as obnoxious. Hermione comes a long way in the series, and she is positively amazing in the last two books - I only hope I can be that brave someday. But all of her know-it-all statements, especially the "Have you still not read Hogwarts, a History?" Oh my, that was so me in high school. Who am I kidding, that's me now, every time I see a billboard with poor grammar. 

4. Beth in The Long Secret

I love, love, love this book. Harriet M. Welch takes a back seat to "mousy" little shy Beth Ellen in the sequel to Harriet the Spy. Beth Ellen learns how to be her own person in spite of her terrible socialite mother who just wants her to become a rich leach going to spas in Europe. I can relate to the terrible anger inside her that is never unleashed, and the piercing thoughts she has but never expresses. Beth is the hero for all shy, cautious introverts. The ending will have you cheering.

5. Margalo in the Bad Girls series

This is a delightful, wickedly funny series of books about two best friends growing up the late 90s (when I did) who don't fit in (which I didn't either). It starts when they're in fifth grade and carries them through the turbulent middle school years. Mikey is the stereotypical tom-boy amongst the preppy and girly-girls - she plays soccer with the boys (and gets the school to start a girls' team); she butts heads with the junior high principal; she is blunt to a fault. Margalo looks like a good girl, but looks are deceiving. She is poor and wears clothes from second-hand stores, which means she is shunned by other girls, but she is actually a fashion-queen who doesn't follow the trend and does her own thing. She has better people skills than Mikey, and uses them to their mutual advantage.

 She does things that I never would have dared to do though; in the first book she puts a dead squirrel in an enemy's desk as pay-back. The principal demands to know why she did this, and her reply is "Well, opposums are too large to fit into the desk, and I couldn't find any raccoons." Priceless. I can especially relate to her poverty; it is very rare to read about realistic poverty in modern children's lit that isn't over the top. I remember having to bring a sack lunch too when all the cool kids bought theirs at the cafeteria, and eating whatever was on sale regardless of what it was. These books are picture-perfect in telling what it's like to be in middle school and not fitting in.

6.Susie from Black Eyed Susan

This is a lesser-known children's book about an isolated prairie family in the Dakota territory. The mother is severely depressed, primarily due to isolation and loneliness and homesickness. I connect with Susie's attempts to "cheer up" her mother, to encourage her to see beauty in the prairie surroundings. 

We didn't live in the prairie (obviously), but we were living as a white family in the ghetto, similarly isolated by our differences. I had an easier time than my parents did, because that was what I knew. I had never lived in a house without 6 kinds of roaches and mice in the kitchen and no dishwasher. I was used to getting rocked to sleep by the sounds of sirens, trains, gun shots, and rap. 

But my mom was used to quiet, middle-class neighborhoods, and she was depressed and lonely in our neighborhood. I remember trying to get my mom to see the beauty around us - the azalea bushes, the dogwood trees, the Spanish moss dripping from live oaks. Likewise, Susan tries to show her mother the beauty of a sunset in the tree-less prairie. Reading this was heart-breaking but also cathartic. 

7. Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

More than any other character in any book or movie, I feel like Francie. When I first read the book in high school, I kept laughing and crying and nodding, saying "this is my life!" In many ways it actually wasn't - my father wasn't an alcoholic; we lived in the South, not Brooklyn; we lived in a little house, not a tenement; I never went hungry as a child. But I remember so many things as Francie remembers them: the sitting on the porch (her "stoop") and watching the neighbors; her passion for writing; the creative meals due to lack of money; the loneliness of being better educated that the neighbors; her difficulties with English teachers; her fierce love and defense of her roots. Her mother read a page from Shakespeare and from the King James Bible (though they were Catholic) to better educate the children. Hilariously, Francie picks up the language, in a Brooklyn accent. Oh boy, I so remember using "big words" in the ghetto and reading library books on the front porch while crime and drugs were just next door. Most of all I was bound to her by the "drunken" state that beauty imposed on her. The first time she sees tulips, she is light-headed, awe-struck, dizzy - she has to sit down. I have had this same experience with beauty and music so many times, and I have never seen it described so accurately. 

Francie moved from Brooklyn at 16, and I moved from the old neighborhood (she called it that too) at 15. I was in tears in the last scene, when Francie watches a little girl reading under a tree on the roof just she used to. "Goodbye Francie" she says. I remember standing at the chain-length fence in the back yard, watching the children playing in the alley, promising them silently that I would come back - maybe not to that place, but to that type of place. One day they will call me on it.