How Tradition and Art Challenge the Brevity of Life

“Do we really all grow old quickly? There is so little time” (340).

Asher is a brilliant Jewish painter whose family struggles to understand his artistic passions, particularly how they fit into the life of a devout Hasid believer. In My name is Asher Lev,Asher contemplates the brevity of life when he returns to his hometown in Brooklyn after a long art tour through Europe. He observes teachers with slumped shoulders and old mentors who are now frail. Despite the bleakness of his observations, I found his contemplation of life’s brevity strangely exhilarating and freeing; it raises powerful questions. But what about these themes of quickly passing time and death could make me feel suddenly free?

First of all, these themes fit beautifully into the overall narrative: Asher Lev is constantly reminded that he is just one part of a story that his larger than himself, an idea which comes from his Jewish understanding of tradition.  From very on early in the book we are told, “The Gemorra teaches us that a man who slays another man slays not only one individual but all the children and the children’s children that individual might have brought into life. Traditions are born by the power of an initial thrust that hurls acts and ideas across the centuries” (324). While the brevity of life can cause us to question why it must be this way, how it could be this way, and what we could possibly do about it, the book constantly whispers subtle answers. There is the strong sense that we are only a piece of the puzzle, a link in the chain, and a member of a family. Asher and his family are keenly aware of generation spanning culture. The rich tradition found in My Name is Asher Levchallenges modernity’s individualistic, live-for-now attitude. If our life is brief, perhaps it is necessary to look beyond one piece of our existence and impact; if our existence affects a wider sphere than our own individual selves, tradition and culture becomes utterly essential to a meaningful life.

I appreciate Asher Lev’s understanding of our role in a larger story but also his stunning honesty as he observes time passing before him. Asher is keenly aware of visible signs of aging, “I could see his round face and the streaks of gray hair in his beard” (93). Asher is not the kind of boy to paint someone young or beautiful; he will paint the sunken cheeks, the flecks of gray in the hair. Thoughts of age permeate the book. Jacob Kahn, Asher’s mentor, is constantly talking about what age he will or would live to: “‘I will make it past eighty,” he said, “if I can keep from thinking too much about the past.’” (262). Asher looks honestly at passing time and yet, in many ways, remained seemingly untouched by it.

The author, Chaim Potok, writes time as a force which changes the settings and expands his character but never to ruin the integrity of that character: age decays Asher’s surroundings but never touches what makes Asher Lev Asher Lev. Asher begins to explain who he is when he is four, where My Name is Asher Lev begins. It is almost a shock every time I learn that he has somehow grown up despite the fact that the narrator constantly reminds us that time is passing, that the days, and weeks, and annual Jewish holidays are going by. Somehow I am still surprised every time I learn that Asher is now as tall as his mother or that he is a man. Years may pass by Asher Lev, but he is still very much Asher Lev—perhaps more so than at the beginning of the book. This unmovable character who will remain himself, “who will not be a whore to himself,” is contrasted with an aging shifting world; but there is an additional nearly paradoxical contrast throughout the story.

Chaim Potok writes a consistent character but at the same time illustrates how inner changes can color the way we see the outer visible world. Asher’s street in Brooklyn is constantly re-colored by his different perspectives of it. While Asher may be always telling us what he sees outside of himself, always telling us the colors and lines that play before his eyes, the real action is all internal. He is a painter who is always looking out at the world and sees more of himself because he looks out to see what is within. This constant contemplative observation contributes to his greatness as a painter but also to his greatness as a human being. It is sobering to think of how many people are looking outwards and seeing just the surface. They see the food they eat, the clothes they wear and want to buy, they see the color and shape and weight and attractiveness of the people around them, they see basic color. Sometimes they see nothing more. Asher sees what is true beneath the physically visible and strives paints that. He paints his mother’s love in the curve of her face, the fear of death and torture into the snow, sketches the inner confusion and struggle with his Jewish tradition in the fiery expressions of his mythic ancestor. One of the joys of reading the book is the thrill seeing the truth painted in a way that is hard to express with words. (Although the delicious irony is the fact that the book lacks a single picture between the pages and is conveyed with words.) Asher does not say or paint anything because it is how it “should” be said or done; he says and paints what he feels to be true, utterly true, nothing but the truth, and certainly all the truth. Asher sees death and age the way that other people aren’t willing to.

To summarize, we have a character who is poignantly aware of how the changes within himself colors and lights the way his physical surroundings look AND yet, at the same time possesses an absolute honesty to who he is – past, present and future, no matter what ages, changes, or morphs in his city and those around him. It is with this ever-honest eyes that Asher Lev sees death and time. This is what I appreciate: it is freeing to face a truth that most people prefer to forget or run from as long as they are able. We are aging. Time is passing; we are dying.

If that is where the story ends then it would be best for humans to drink away our sorrows and rationality or perhaps end life as soon as it becomes painful. Try to forget or slow relentless oncoming age and pretend perhaps that the end will not come for you.

But what if we die? All of us?

Asher’s art is already a hint of the answer. An artist certainly does not end with death, nor does he start with himself. Asher understands and is captivated by those who came before; he understands he must know who came before. His art is one of, if not the, deepest part of himself and yet is not just himself; it is a large tradition that he is merely a part of. Chaim Potok is keenly aware of this throughout writing the story. He knows Asher must paint and yet he knows that painting is not just an individual act. He writes Asher going to museums every chance he gets; he writes Asher studying painters every moment that he can. And Asher’s deep understanding of the tradition of art is built on an even earlier culturally held tradition, that of his Jewish religion.

The previously, above-mentioned tradition that Asher sees constantly in his life hints: There is something outside of ourselves, more than ourselves that makes us who we are. We are not just ourselves but our ancestors and our offspring, our art and impact. Fleeting age is not a threat, it is a responsibility. What art will we leave behind? How will we shape what is here long after us? Time passes, and the art Asher creates becomes increasingly honest and earnest, it is a gift where which holds who he is past, present, and future.

Turning to look honesty on such things as these: tradition, integrity, age, death, and immortality, it is increasingly evident that people were not made to fit within time. Humanity expands beyond it.

So what if we die? All of us?

My Name is Asher Lev will not force an answer. But it will paint you a picture of integrity, tradition, and humanity that echoes with truth. It reminds us it that it may be worth asking ourselves honestly where we lie in the painting.

* * *

Post Script: Perhaps my favorite part of the question of the brevity of life and having something outside of ourselves is because it reminded me of one of my favorite answers that I read when I was a child:

“And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” If we are truly, wonderfully honest with ourselves here on earth, even within the bounds of time, we can watch the rate at which life evaporates. Perhaps that can turn a head or two towards what may lie beyond.

Thoughts for Spring

Happy Easter! Here are 7 Quotes for Spring 🙂

  1. “Spring: a lovely reminder of how beautiful change can truly be.” This is just a pinterest quote I found that I think struck me because as I feel like my life, like so many peoples, is so full of change right now and because of that, it’s so full of uncertain future. Sometimes there is this temptation to think of the future as a black or at least a blank unwritten page which is a bit daunting and a bit frightening but perhaps I should be thinking of that future as full of colors which are just starting to blossom. Every life change is a chance for our own little spring:)
  2. “Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson. Walking around at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival this past weekend I feel like flowers bring out laughter in people too. Friends and lovers in flower crowns standing beneath the sun-soaked blooming white branches, taking pictures or stealing a kiss, they are all so full of lighthearted laughter and smiles.
  3. “A little Madness in the Spring,/ Is wholesome even for the King” Emily Dickinson. That light hearted laughter we talked about in the last quote borders on a little madness as Emily Dickinson points out. And I feel like a little insanity is so wholesome for everyone’s actual sanity when it comes in the form of giddy excitement, laughter, and love. pictures What causes it? Is it the warm weather? The sudden overwhelming beauty of the blossoms and fresh green? The intoxicating fragrance of flowers and new buds which is suddenly floating everywhere through the air? Or is it something a bit deeper? In her poem, “A Light Exists” Emily Dickinson writes as though that spring feeling is like a light… something that is harder to explain. Here is her full poem “A Light Exists”:
  4. “A light exists in spring/ Not present on the year/At any other period./When March is scarcely here./ A color stands abroad/ On solitary hills/That science cannot overtake,/ But human nature feels./ It waits upon the lawn;/ It shows the furthest tree/Upon the furthest slope we know;/ It almost speaks to me./Then, as horizons step,/Or noons report away,/ Without the formula of sound,/ It passes, and we stay:” “That science cannot over take but human nature feels.” She believes there is something a bit deeper to spring, a bit more elusive, it’s almost a bit sad because it’s so hard to grasp, and so quickly gone. Here’s a quote by Mark Twain to follow that up.
  5. “It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want – oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” Spring, so fresh and hopeful but something that makes our hearts ache and I really don’t think it’s just because the sakura are so brief. Yes, it’s a reminder that life is transient and fleeting, but I think this almost painful ache is not just wistful wishing this tree would stay in bloom forever but something more than that. Our hearts ache the same way at times when we look up at a startling bright night sky or when we see the vastness of the ocean. There is a desire in the ache.…. It’s almost painful as Ariwara no Narihira points out.
  6. “Ah, if in this world there were no such thing as cherry blossoms, perhaps then in springtime our hearts would be at peace.” Taking a moment to stop and smell the flowers and be still and enjoy nature, it can bring so much peace but I feel like the peace so easily is paired with this subtle pain, and I think it says something deep about humanity. So I just want to end it with one more quote by C.S. Lewis in his book Till we have Faces.
  7. “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to find the place where all the beauty comes from.” How perfectly that sums it up. “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to find the place where all the beauty comes from.”

Some lovely things to think about this spring 🙂 And once again, Happy Easter!!

Thus Dies Originality

Writers like writing about writers. They say write about what you know and it makes sense that if you are a writer you will know all about the writing process. Not only is this pathetically uncreative, its a pretty crappy topic to chose because its already flooding the writing/reading world.

Take, for example, this post.

Ironic, huh?

Disgusting. I can’t believe I got sucked into this. They told me to write about what I know about and now I am practically as boring as every beginner. So let me write about something original. I will as soon as I know exactly what original means.

I think of original as something new. It looks like the dictionary is pretty much on my side: “not a copy or imitation.” No matter what it is whether it is a story idea, a purse, or a life, we want it to be original. I think that being original sounds pretty good until I look at the writing industry today. Another teenage girl falling in love with Mr. Hot-and-Angsty?  Seriously? They told me to be original but what is getting published today certainly doesn’t always follow that standard. The market is flooded with the same topics: loves sick teens, how to lose weight, and depressing memoirs. Why do people keep reading this stuff? I’m not so convinced that a new topic is really what up and coming writers should be focused on.

And then your teacher comes along and tells you that there are only ten story lines and a thousand variations.That’s pretty depressing. I would like to read more than ten stories in my life… if possible. Sue me. Is this seriously my fate as a writer? Re-tell stories over and over? Tell people what they have heard a thousand times before and keep telling them that till long after we are both sick of hearing it?

What about my favorites? Shakespeare who changed our language? What about hipster Stoker who liked vampires before writing about them was beating a (un)dead horse? I don’t know about you, but I would really prefer to be the kind of writer that Shakespeare and Stoker were.

Let’s look at Shakespeare. Only one of his plays that I know of was an original story line. Interesting right? It was all about how he told it, his insane power with words. (So basically, if I was Shakespeare I could write yet another Hunger Games wannabe and make it appealing, maybe even fill it with some deep themes. As tempting as that is that doesn’t really seem to be the answer.) During the Victorian Era vampires were already “a thing.” It wasn’t like Stoker was actually all that hipster (sorry to break it to you!). Stoker was brilliant because he captured readers with his new style of writing that uses many points of view and made monsters sexy. (So the answer is get more progressive with the structure of the story until we have un-defined the novel and make it risqué enough to keep people’s attentions.)

Actually, what these authors have in common is an innovative voice. They have an accent that no one has heard yet so everyone wants to know where the heck they are coming from. They were able to talk about people and things that we already knew about. However, we had never seen the story or characters the way that they had seen them. They had an original voice.

Having a similar story isn’t bad. It’s actually the opposite. Sure, we get sick of hearing the same story, but don’t we always want to have that, “No way! You to?” moment? We want to know what other people did when they were feeling the same as us. We want to know that  certain struggles have always been; we are not excluded from the rest of humanity. Universal human experience should leave us with stories that encourage solidarity not boredom. We are going to have similar stories (praise God!), but we shouldn’t bore each other. We need to use a unique voice. Perhaps the answer to originality is all in the voice. Good writers have a unique voice.

Doesn’t everyone?

Just to make this depressing post all over again, everyone has their own voice. I don’t know a single person who is exactly like another person. I’m going to assume that everyone is unique. I definitely don’t want to listen to everyone. So we are right back to where we started. How am I as a writer going to make myself heard?

Someone once told me that the trick to being a good writer is writing about something that no one else can. So…in other words they were just prettying the phrase “write what you know about” and throwing it back at me. They were also saying to make it original. It needs to be your voice.


But it also needs to be a voice that they can’t imagine if they haven’t heard you. You need to be confident in your own perspective to create your own accent so that they’ll wonder where you are coming from? Where are you from/who are you that makes you look at the world like that?

You are probably wondering why I wanted to make you listen to my writing about writing. Sorry. I just wanted to know that originality is not dead. Writing about writing seemed like a good place to start thinking about that. And if you write about writing recreationally, tell me why its valuable? You probably do it better than me and so justify yourself partially. How are you original? The best answer I have to keeping originality alive in writing is writing about something that no one else can write about.

So excuse me while I go figure out what I know about that only I know about.


Depressingly Happy Endings

Why is it that I find myself so amused by pessimists like Lemony Snickets and Puddleglum and so depressed by radical optimists who say humans are going to be happy for the first time ever? For the first time in my life I completely understand Cecily Cardew when she sighs and says, “I don’t like happy endings; they make me so depressed.”

Except that I do like happy endings.

I just also enjoy a healthy dose of looking at reality through the lens of people who see the ending that isn’t so happy.

I’m feeling a contradiction. (What is sad can make me happy and what is happy can make me sad.) I would call it more of a paradox. Reality happens to be full of those.

I like people who are able to make paradoxes spin like tops, philosophers like Chesterton and writers like Wilde who are witty. I am rather amused at people today who smile condescendingly and say, “Isn’t he playing so nicely with words?” without even realizing just how powerful the meanings of the words are. Words are dangerous. You try playing with them. You trying playing with ideas about reality–what makes people happy or sad–and you’ll see that sometimes it bites back. Why?

Here is the thing: you need sadness to have happiness. Lemme bring in a little Chesterton at this point:

“An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything right and nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling everything right and nothing left. Upon the whole,  I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself” (Orthodoxy 71). While I am not 100% convinced that I agree with his definition, I think his point is helpful.

While I still can’t say for certain, I do believe that being brave enough to face the bad side of life is sometimes helpful for claiming that the good side of life is worth living well.


Shakespeare Without the Words

Isn’t that like saying Shakespeare without the reason he is Shakespeare?

Deutsch: Shakespeare Denkmal Sommer 2004 in Weimar

The Word Wizard

Ok, words may be feeble vehicles for carrying the full wieght of human passion but if you think about it, even people are feeble vehicles for carrying the full weight of human passion. We have so many feelings, so many values, so many experiences and we just want to show them to others somehow. The funny thing is, we don’t just struggle showing ourselves to other people but to ourselves as well. (And that’s when we get great songs like this.)

But words are powerful. Words on paper can change a persons life. Yes, in the sense that fiction can tranform our ideas but also the fact that paper contracts bind us in real ways that we don’t often even think about. Although I do rant about the Top Five Reasons I Hate Being Literate. The point is that words are really important.

I think Shakespeare is powerful because of his control over words. He can manipulate twisty turns of double meanings while keeping an internal rhythm which captures the hearts of the audiences even if they can’t define the rhythm. He is able to capture human passion,” Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” but he makes our cries and rants beautiful because he has not only captured human emotion but tied that to artistically stunning sounds.

Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Hea...

I wonder if I ranted in iambic pentameter if it would be more effective?….

What is the point of saying all this? Making Shakespeare “accessible” is running a huge risk of dumbing him down to the point of being worthless. His words are hard but people are hard to and sometimes struggles are worth it, when there is something so wonderful complex that you are trying to figure out. Struggling thorugh Shakespeare has proven to help your brain (duh), it gives you a sense of satisfaction, and it opens up new ways of understanding…not just understanding the broad concept of humanity but hopefully yourself as well.

Sketch of William Shakespeare.

Is dumbing him down fair to either him or the readers?


So the question becomes, is Shakespeare worth translating? The sublties of words can get marred when passed to a different medium. Tranlations of words always fall short. Is he worth dumbing down so kids can understand the basic story line before they can understand his tricky early modern english?

What do you think?

Hameus Papam!!!!!!!!!

This is a beautiful day!! White smoke! “It’s so fluffy I could die!” Haha!! I have been waiting for white smoke for a long time! White smoke? That means we have a new pope!!! Hamebus Papam!:)

I’m so excited!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The rest of my school is to:

P1010208 copy

I have been everywhere online reading what everyone has to say about this guy!

The media really cracks me up! “He seems to have similar views as the last guy!” They all seem surprised? “And he’s really old…”

Are they shocked he has similar ideas as Papa Bene? Is it really a shocker? Really? Peoples! Get with it! This guy is the 266th guy to lead the Catholic church as pope! It’s not like we are doing something new here! We are simply celebrating because we are a part of a tradition thousands of years old. (Did I say simply celebrating? I meant we are celebrating because we are apart of a tradition that is thousands of freaking years old! This is cool! Catholic culture is incredible!!)

Looking at his role through an over political and “modernly progressive” lens is going to leave people confused. The Catholic church does not demand to be lead someone who is a powerful young persuasive ruler. The pope is not just a leader, the pope is a father. Pope. Papa. Don’t underestimate the quiet power of love and kindness, and it sounds like this new pope is all about that!

So, I for one am very excited about our new pope, our new leader. Viva il Papa!!!

The Right Word for Magic

Tolkien makes a valid point. “Magic” makes you think of magician. Magicians do things that are fairly scientific like mixing chemicals together and sighting specific formulas. What?

I’m not a huge fan of that kinda magic.

I’ve talked earlier about what kind of magic I want in my stories and I have decided to go with more of the “natural magic.” I think that Tolkien has found the right word for it: Enchantment.

Which brings up a big question: Enchantment?

That’s not just in fairy tales! That is a type of enchantment which is in our world to. So I guess an even more important question (and hopefully equally interesting) is what kind of enchantment do we want in our own world?

Hold on! I am not asking you to start seeing fairies in everything, but there is the meaning wonder connected with enchantment and when we lose wonder, we are left in a colorless world which we have imprisoned ourselves in.

We know that we are meant to do things that bring us wonder. What is the enchantment in your own life? Is it climbing a mountain? Watching a sunset? Reading a book? How about eating a cookie. I tell you, no matter how many times I have a had a chocolate chip cookie there is something about licking the spoon that is magical (and sort of in the magician sense because we did have to do some mixing;) and it always brings out the kid in me.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Pure magic…yup, pure magic

I guess it’s funny to say that  “Enchantment” is what “brings out the kid in me” because really, all it does is bring out me. The side of me that is filled with wonder. I guess that’s all of us. We all have the ability to be enchanted, to be filled with wonder

Tolkien and Dangerous Fairies

I told you I was taking a Tolkien class; there are obviously going to be a plethora of topics that  I can tie into my own writing journey. As I am very interested in the topics concerning myth, I found it fascinating what he said about fairy stories.

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Fairie is a perilous land and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times bought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.”

Dream Fairy

In what way is a myth/fairy-tale true?

Tolkien sees myths as a new realm of the human imagination that is not true in the sense that science can measure it but is much more true in the ideas that it conveys. Our  skewered ideas of fairy tales being mainly for children comes from our pathetically watered down versions that we are familiar with. Ideals of good, evil, desirability, and identity are found in myths and myths are essential to understanding the world around us.

“He sees no starts who does not see them first

of living silver that sudden burst

to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song

whose very echo after-music long

has since pursued. There is no firmament,

only a void, unless a jeweled tent

myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,

unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Fairy Tale

Our World is Enchanted to You Know

It is true that child-like wonder draws young people to good stories (haha, I know I’m still too young to be talking about “young people” in a generalized way, but bear with me!) but even as the experience life and grow hardened up, they need to keep the fundamental wonder and ideals that we can learn through fantasy. The idea that the scientific version of reality excludes the mythic reality is complete rubbish! We understand scientific reality better perhaps when we are older but it should be the same for the mythic reality. We should better understand and want to explore ideals and grow in wonder through myths when we are adults and able to get more from the stories, not dismiss them. When we loose a sense of the enchantment of reality then we loose a beautiful, essential part of who we are.

What do you think myth is? What kind of story do you want write? In other words, how will you portray reality?


I want to eventually be able to write fairy-tale in the sense of “adult myths.” People deserve to again get fantastic literature which challenges them to think, illustrates realities that we cannot see, and is rewardingly dangerous.

We Could Be Friends

She was I-don’t-know-how-many-years older than me with curly gray hair and a lovely smile; I was a broke busy college student. And yet, there we were talking about how awesome the Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf was. Did you know that he reads a version of it out loud and it’s really well done? I didn’t.

I did not get to talk to her for long because she was just getting my book for me that I had put on hold and then had to answer a phone call but I suddenly got this feeling…if we knew each other, we would be friends.

“We read to know that we are not alone.”


I think as readers we get that characters become friends. Sometimes the people that change the course of our lives are people who are simply the creation of others. But I think that there is more to what C.S. Lewis is saying than just that. We read and suddenly we have a plethora of mutual friends. And so, I was just starting two new adventures by buying these books and this cashier was excited because I would be meeting her friends and walking through places she knew pretty well.

We were already mutual friends.

So one of the books was Beowulf. What was the other??

A vampire book. And I can’t stand vampires but I love this book.


I think I love the story because it intends to make me to hate the vampire. Unlike more modern rendition of these damned, blood sucking, lustful creatures…Bram Stoker  really describes something to be feared and destroyed. (Well actually, someone could make the case that some of the more modern vampires should be feared and destroyed but that would be an entirely different post!).

So here I am meeting (and slightly falling in love with) Jonathan Harker and Mina and Dr. Steward. I have been loving (not to mentioned totally freaked out of) this adventure so far and will update you as soon as I and done with it!!

PS Have you read it? What did you think? Don’t tell me the ending until I am done with it but if you’ve read it we have some mutual friends as well 🙂 …or mutual enemies….whatever the case may be:)

Today I heard something really beautiful about freedom (and I thought it was really fitting for the fourth): we have to keep in mind the different between freedom and liberty.

Liberty is exterior. We have to stand up for our rights and for our country so that we are allowed to have  our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Freedom can be a little different. Freedom can be interior. Because it’s interior, no one can take that freedom from us. We can believe what we want and do what we think is right, and it is even more important to keep that interior freedom as well the external liberty.

With those thoughts of liberty and freedom, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the Declaration of Independence:

“We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”

“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

Happy Independence Day!!!!! God bless America:)