Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I admit that I ignored this book when it came up in my Amazon.com recommendations for a long time. I thought it didn’t seem like the type of book I would “get.” But then I saw that a movie version was coming out, and had Emma Watson in it, and since I’ve loved Emma Watson since her Hermione Granger days, I decided to give the book a chance.

I’m so glad I did.

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As much as this is a “coming-of-age” novel, it’s definitely applicable to those of us who are already technically “of age” but still have a lot of learning to do. In the book, the main character, Charlie, writes to an unknown reader about his life. He explains what he sees, what he does, what he learns, and who he is becoming as a result. As a “wallflower,” Charlie spends a lot of time observing others and trying to make sense of his surroundings. As a bit of an outcast, he is delighted to become accepted by some older schoolmates during his freshman year of high school. These people, too, are the outcasts, and have a very unique and beautiful way of living their lives as they (not others) see fit.

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As people who really don’t care what others think, these individuals are free to do what makes them happy. This is, of course, quite unusual, considering high school is often a very chameleon-like experience, trying to fit in in whatever surroundings you might find yourself. But not these folks. And that takes Charlie by surprise.

Charlie is struggling with depression following the suicide of his friend, and as he becomes more involved with this group of people, he learns how to live.

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He learns to take chances. He learns that the best moments are often ones that require risk of embarrassment. He learns about love, and about true friendship. He struggles accepting the friendship his friends are offering to him, unsure of why they find him worthy of their time and effort. He discovers a truth about friendship, and about love:

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And he decides to try to open himself up to accepting more for himself. He begins to share who he is – his dreams and goals of being a writer, and his love for Sam (played by Emma Watson). One evening while driving down the road with his friends, they go through through the Fort Pitt tunnel, and Sam gets into the bed of the truck, stands up with her arms out, and imagines she is flying while they blast the song “Heroes” by David Bowie. The mood is electric, and Charlie thinks “at that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

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It is this love for Sam that leads him to discover something painful about his past, and telling about his future. During a moment of potential passion between Sam and Charlie, Charlie realizes that he “can’t do it” and shuts down. Throughout the book Charlie has been trying to process his feelings about his aunt and her death via car accident, and has remembered how much of an impact she had on him while he was growing up. It is during this moment with Sam that Charlie understands what happened between him and his aunt, and this rocks him to the core. He has a breakdown and ends up in the hospital.

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With the help of his family and friends, Charlie learns to heal from the abuse in his past. Sam (and her brother Patrick, who plays a big part but I have yet to mention…oops), come to visit Charlie and inspire him to embrace life in the now. He realizes he can’t change what has happened, but he can impact what happens now and in the future.

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The story is one of learning to come out of one’s shell, of learning to become oneself despite what others may think/say/do, and of learning to be okay with whoever it is you are. It’s one of living life and choosing to look at painful or difficult situations as challenges and opportunities. It’s about learning that only in taking a risk can we have the types of experiences that will make memories and experiences that make an impact on our lives. When we find people who encourage who we are becoming, we find the strength within ourselves to grow, learn, develop, and blossom into the person those who love us know we can be.

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Life In A Jar

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About a year ago, I read the book “Life in a Jar” by Jack Mayer. This book is the story of Irena Sendler, an extraordinarily courageous Polish woman whose dedication and selflessness saved the lives of children in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII.

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Being of Polish descent, I am always fascinated by all-things-Polish. I did not grow up in a family that knew a lot about our heritage, so any customs and traditions are new and exciting to me. I long to connect more fully with my Polish ancestry. Take that and combine it with my admiration for the people who lived through the deplorable conditions of WWII, and well, this book naturally appealed to me.

Once I began reading about Irena, who was such a normal young lady, it was really quite easy to feel a connection to her. She was like me, or any other young woman out in the world, trying to balance her family of origin, with a new job, and perhaps a love interest. We’ve all heard this story before, right? And, we can all relate to it, right? But really, that’s where the relatability ends and the admiration begins. See, as I continued reading, I was no longer feeling like she and I were similar – but that she was so much more heroic and courageous than I could ever be! I read of her disapproval of the way that people began to be treated when the Nazis moved in, and how her Jewish friends were terrified of being taken away without notice, possibly never to be seen again. As a social worker, she would have had the ability to provide the Jewish people with resources for food and housing, but if she did and were found out, she could be sent away, too. Her whole life was turned upside down.

However, this did not stop Irena. When her father was dying when she was a young child, he gave her his last words of wisdom that became the foundation on which she built her life and chose her actions. He explained to her that if she sees a person drowning, she must jump in to try to save that person – whether or not she can swim herself. He said she must not idly stand by and watch the person die.

As Irena grew and became a social worker, it was clear that she was doing her best to “save the drowning.” So, when she began to see what the Nazis were doing to her friends, family, and neighbors, she knew she had to do something.

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Now, before I continue, I must make you aware that this blog post will not even come close to detailing the incredible work that this woman accomplished. I will only mention a few of the things that stuck out most for me. But if any of this moves you to consider reading the book, then please, I urge you, do so! Her story is nothing short of remarkable.

In the photo above, you see Irena in a truck. Irena would dress as a nurse in order to be allowed into the Warsaw ghetto. The Nazi police allowed nurses in, because they were very afraid of catching the typhus epidemic that was raging in the ghetto, taking the lives of many. Irena used this fear to her advantage. She worked with a medical supplies deliveryman who would help her hide children amongst the medical linens in the van. When the Nazis would look into the van to inspect and see the soiled linens, they would wave the van on, not wanting to risk catching any illness that might be contained on those linens. Once safely outside the ghetto, Irena would set the children up with a sort of “foster family” who would look after the children until they could place them in another safe place. It was a type of “underground railroad,” so to speak. Many of the children ended up living with the families who took them in because their parents perished in the inhumane conditions of the ghetto, or were sent to death camps. It is said that in her rescue efforts, Irena saved the lives of 2500 children. Calling her heroic and courageous really doesn’t do her legacy justice, for she was so much more!

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Throughout the course of the years following WWII, Irena went back to her relatively normal life, and her deeds went uncelebrated. That is, until a group of high school students from Kansas ran across a brief article about her while looking for a topic for their history fair project. When they began doing research on her, they found that there was very little information available. They wrote to and called many resources, from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to the Holocaust Memorial in Poland. In each location they were given more information that helped them piece together Irena’s story. Then the best news of all came: Irena was still alive! They were able to communicate with her (via a translator, of course), and even visited her in Poland. These high school girls were so moved by Irena and her story that they decided to make it their mission to help spread her story to all.

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For their history project, they put together a play which told the story of Irena’s assistance to the children in the ghetto. The reaction the play was so great that they continued presenting it to many groups, sharing the story of Irena Sendler. It is still in production today.

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The story of Irena Sendler was also adapted into a movie produced by Hallmark. This movie also does an incredible job of sharing the inspiring story of Irena. See if you can find it at your local library – and if not, suggest that they carry it!

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Now, the question you might be asking yourself is – why the “Life in the Jar” title? What does this story have to do with jars? The answer: For every child that Irena rescued from the Warsaw ghetto, she wrote the child’s given name and new name on a piece of paper, then placed it in a jar and buried it under a tree. The children’s given names were often Jewish, so they were given a more Christian-sounding name in order to protect their identities (otherwise they might get sent back to the ghetto). In an effort for the children to be able to know who they really were, as well as to reunite them with family once the war was over, she kept these records. And, since she would be subjected to major punishment if found out, she had to bury the jars to protect both herself and the children she rescued. (Despite the gravity of this story – there is one funny part that goes with this story…the tree that Irena buried the jars under was in the backyard of a friend’s residence. The friend resided across the street from the Nazi police station. This woman was really quite gutsy!! 🙂  )

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Irena Sendler died in 2008, but her legacy lives on in the lives (and now descendants) of the children she rescued, all those inspired by her story to do good for others, and through the work of the Irena Sendler Project. I encourage you to peruse this website in order to familiarize yourself with this incredible story, as well as the work that continues in Irena’s name. Perhaps you can even locate a production of the “Life in a Jar” play that is coming near your town!

The story of Irena Sendler is a beautiful story that shows one of my favorite Mother Teresa quotes in action: “We can do no great things; only small things, with great love.” By saving each one of those individual children, secretly arranging a safe place for them to live, and remaining humble about the whole thing, Irena’s “small things” that she carried out with “great love” have continued to serve as a reminder to all of us about who we are called to be as members of the same human family. To each child she saved, her “small” action had an enormous and untold impact, giving them a chance to live, to grow, to share, and to carry on her legacy of “great love.”

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