Tag Archives: relationships

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Little Fires EverywhereShaker Heights was founded on rules and order, and Elena Richardson is one of its most fervent native daughters. From the time she was a little girl, she had planned her life carefully, firm in her beliefs of right and wrong, always following what she thought was correct. She married well, had four children—two boys and two girls, maintained a small-town journalistic career that allowed her to put her family first, and made sure that she and her family could hold up their heads as models of success and respectability. When Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrived in town, Mrs. Richardson generously allowed them to live in her rental property at reduced rates. Nothing warmed her heart more than to do good deeds for the deserving poor.

Mia is an artist. Whenever she gets an idea for a project, she settles into a town, takes photographs, turns them into the vision in her head, ships them off to her agent, and packs up again. This time, though, she has promised Pearl that they would stay longer for her sake. She is surprised and uneasy when her daughter seems to fall in love with the Richardsons’ wealthy, bourgeois lifestyle. They have all the material things and experiences of privileged teens. Pearl is even thrilled to watch The Jerry Springer show on the couch with them every afternoon. The Richardsons are teaching Pearl to be everything that Mia never wanted.

Under the polished surface of Shaker Heights’ upstanding community, though, there are secrets, and as a journalist, Mrs. Richardson has the means to ferret them out. It is not right, after all, that the person one helped out so long ago does not consider herself to be in one’s debt forever. It is not right that newcomers, and especially foreigners, should believe that they have the same rights as one of the fine citizens of Shaker Heights. However, even though Mrs. Richardson can measure out her breakfast cereal every day, she cannot get a grip on her vexing youngest daughter, Izzy, who seems to be completely dazzled by that bohemian artist, Mia.

Celeste NgCeleste Ng writes a story of two generations in a rigid little world colliding with outside ideas and sojourners. Mothers and children are locked together with iron bonds that they simultaneously tighten and push against. Izzy is struggling to break free of her mother’s control and her siblings’ scorn, but her rebellion is limited to a young girl’s resources. Those resources turn out to be incredibly powerful. The suffocating community produces tragic decisions and secrets kept locked inside. There is no redemption here, no confession or forgiveness. As Mia tells one of the teens, there is just pain that you must carry.

I loved this novel for two reasons. The first is that I adore deep explorations of the artistic process. I have taken enough art classes to know that I cannot draw, and I have struggled through enough music lessons to know that I am not gifted. However, I am perfectly happy to be a devotee. Stories of artists passionate about their craft entrance me, so Mia’s evolution as a photographer, and then as someone who used photography to create meaningful works of art, was absorbing and fascinating. I rejoiced with every hint of her success.

Secondly, though, I empathize so closely with anyone trying to be free of others’ control. As a compliant child, I sometimes feel as if I have spent my adult life trying to escape the Mrs. Richardsons of the world, breaking through the walls of all those little boxes. And there are so many boxes! There were scenes in the novel where I could barely breathe, waiting for someone—anyone!— to fight back and triumph.

Although the ending is realistically complicated, there is hope that everyone has grown, and that the small steps down a new road— a road that was not even on the map before— will continue until each person finds freedom: freedom to let go, freedom to change, freedom to burn it all down and start again.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, although it is available right now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Not Brain, but Not Pinky, Either

ImageWherever you are and whatever you are doing, someone else is out there racking their brains to figure out how they can control you. Whether it’s Putin invading the Ukraine or the soccer mom making stringent rules about the snacks you should bring to the game, certain people are never happy unless they are confident that everyone else is playing by their rules. Lately, it seems that I am finding them everywhere.

ImageYou know the type. Every group has at least one person who only belongs to the group because it gives him an opportunity to be in charge of something. One has to assume that many politicians fall into this category. We all hope that they are there because they want to make things better for everyone, and surely most of them do, or at least they did when they started out. Working with state legislators lately has been an interesting experience. When you talk to them about sick children, you expect human beings to react sympathetically, and they usually do, but it’s amazing to see how instinctively some of them are paralyzed by the fear of losing power if their constituents mistakenly believe that they are in favor of legalizing any form of marijuana. Shockingly, that is the end point for many of them.

This is nothing new. Reading Heretics and Heroes (see review, March 13, 2014), I watched a steady stream of power brokers move across the world stage who wanted wealth, yes, but even more than that, they just want to take over countries, churches, or any other organization that would make them feel special. While Michelangelo broke his neck painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling for four years, his patron, Pope Julius II, was playing puppet master by manipulating alliances with various Italian city-states, as well as Spain, France, and England. What this has to do with being a spiritual leader, I do not know, but I’m sure that there is a church not too far from you in which some guy ran a no-holds-barred campaign for head deacon based on the choice of carpet color in the sanctuary. Same fish, smaller pond.

ImageWe are fallen people, let’s face it. Every personality type has strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to lead is valuable to all of us who would rather just live quietly. Michelangelo would not have been able to create great masterpieces if he hadn’t had a wealthy patron, but Julius could just as easily have prevented Michelangelo from ever being able to work again. He held all the cards in the relationship. Governments are important, since we don’t want foreign powers invading our country or even burglars breaking into our houses, but when your government makes arbitrary laws—thousands and thousands of them—for no other reason than to give itself more control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives, it has gone too far.

As a democracy, we are free to vote people in or out of office, but what about the power mongers in our daily lives? At work, you may be diligently working away, completely unaware that someone else in your department is bent on world domination, starting with undermining you in public. At home, you may be cozily reading your little ones a bedtime story, while your homeowners’ association president is considering whether she should force you to tear down your swing set by saying that it doesn’t meet the neighborhood standards, all because you planted prettier flowers than she did this spring. No matter how petty, holding power—or even the perception of power—is what keeps these people awake at night. The rest of us are just trying to get dinner on the table.

We are all engaged in a search for significance. For most of us, the struggle for fulfillment doesn’t hurt other people, but we can’t prevent the power-hungry from having some influence on our circumstances. I have had some success in loosening the grip of control and manipulation, and if you’re struggling with little monarchs around you, some of these ideas might help. Although I can’t do anything about Putin, I might be able to help you to find some personal freedom.

ImageFirst of all, check your own motives. If you’re doing something just so that you can control someone else, you’ve already lost. As Switchfoot wisely says, “Love alone is worth the fight.” If the motive for what you do is not love, what is it? Whether you’re working every day to support your loved ones or you plant flowers for the love of beauty and nature, make sure that your motive is love.

Secondly, don’t fight with power mongers. Fight for right, but not for power. If you’re just trying to have more power than they do, you are them. Furthermore, if you lose, they just get more power.

Thirdly, live transparently and vulnerably. My mother used to say, “Sunshine is the best cleanser.” Have you ever watched a television show or movie in which someone is being blackmailed because of a big secret in their past? I’m always yelling at the screen, “Tell!” If you’ve done something wrong, confess it. If it needs to be a public confession, do it. It’s painful, but afterward no one can manipulate you on that point. Now, continue to live openly. This does not, of course, mean that you should be totally indiscreet; we don’t want to know that much about you. Don’t worry about how other people think men or women (or young, old, Christian, agnostic, liberal, conservative, northern, southern, or whatever people) should act. Just be yourself, since there’s nobody else you can be, anyway.

ImageFourthly, if you need to, move their actions into the light. This takes a tremendous amount of courage and, for me at least, spiritual preparation. I take my inspiration from Matthew 18, and speak directly with the person who is undermining me. This interaction can be a real minefield, so it is important to be very sure of your motives and to speak and act kindly and lovingly. I have not always been completely successful with that, but it usually works out better than not speaking at all. If that doesn’t change the situation, you may have to involve another trusted individual, and then perhaps more than one person, always making sure that the individuals involved are impartial people with some authority, not just a big group of your friends. That’s intimidation. Many people are afraid of such confrontation, but if you check your motives constantly, this is a much more righteous way to live than with passive-aggressive, seething resentment. The goal of confrontation should be resolution of the problem and restoration of the relationship. If it’s done well, the relationship could be even better than before, and you will have disentangled yourself from manipulative control. In the process, a whole lot of other people may be so glad that you did.

ImageLastly, do real things that you love, and don’t look around to compare yourself to others. Figuring out how you can live authentically can be a life-long journey, but letting other people take you for a ride will never bring you joy.

If you are gifted in leadership, we can all benefit when you use those gifts to run your corporation or your PTA group, but no one wants to be a slave. If you are a Christian, you should believe that we were all created in the image and likeness of God, and so you should recognize the human dignity of all persons. I’m not sure how that translates for an unbeliever, but the point is that fear should not be a part of any relationship, even those that call for respect.

If, however, you are not a leader, go on and farm, paint, teach, program, build, sing, or whatever you do for all of us. Stay wide open to life and own your own soul. Examine your heart and make sure that you do it for love.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

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Disclaimer: You know that one about “any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, is totally coincidental”? Yeah, that one.

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Filed under Christian Life, Life's Travails- Big and Small