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Disturbing the Universe

The musings of author Christina Knowles

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May 2014

Book Review: Covet by Tracey Garvis-Graves

13481759I bought this book when it first came out because I absolutely loved Garvis-Graves’ book, On the Island. I hadn’t had time to read it, but then my book club chose it to read for the month of May. I eagerly anticipated getting lost in another intense story by Garvis-Graves and imagined that I would love the characters as I did in her first book.

That didn’t happen. This book was a bit disappointing. The first half of this book was quite boring as it slowly, very slowly, painted a picture of a suburban couple, Claire and Chris, whose marriage was falling apart due to Chris’s emotional issues and unwillingness to communicate after losing his lucrative job and his inability to find another for over a year. Claire meets a good looking police officer, Daniel, and a seemingly innocent friendship develops as Daniel meets Claire’s emotional needs in a way that Chris refuses to.  This sounds like a decent plot, full of possibility for conflict, but there really isn’t much. Even Claire’s internal conflict–there’s hardly any; she’s mostly in denial.

One reason I found this book rather unexciting, I think, is because I am not really interested in suburban housewives’ first world problems, such as boredom, vodka lunches, and not getting to shop at designer stores, and there was way too much of that in this book for my taste. It seemed very Desperate Housewives to me at first (without the quirky characters and conflict), and I didn’t like any of the characters, but I’m glad I stuck with it because it did get better.

However, one of the most annoying things about the book to me, and this is just a matter of taste, was the present tense narration. I find books written in the present tense very awkward, and because of this, I am constantly reminded that I am reading a story rather than experiencing the characters’ lives. Maybe it’s just because I am used to being told a story in the past tense. I’m not sure. Also, I really did not enjoy the first person alternating points of view. Most chapters were Claire’s, but every once in a while, we would get the perspective of Chris or Daniel. There was not enough from them to feel like I really got to know them, and I think it would have been better just to stick with Claire’s point of view if the others’ perspectives weren’t going to be well-developed.  For me, this is what really interfered with the character development.

Garvis-Graves’ character development in On the Island was probably my favorite thing about that book, but Covet really lacked in this area. It was not until after the first 200 pages that I actually began to have sympathy for Claire, and strangely, this sympathy came not from her own point of view, but from Daniel’s. And even then, it was through her dialogue and actions with Daniel that I started to care more about Claire, and the same was true for Daniel. When Claire spoke in the first person about her feelings, I was left cold and emotionless. They didn’t ring true for me, or somehow, she just didn’t seem like a real person. I felt the same thing when I read Daniel’s perspective. He seemed like an opportunistic creep when speaking in his own perspective, but seemed better in conversation with Claire and in his actions toward her. However, I never cared one whit for Chris, Claire’s husband, and for the remainder of the last half of the book, I just wanted her to divorce him. His perspective was always incredibly brief and uninformative. I felt like the author didn’t even know who he was, so how could I? And his behavior toward Claire just seemed childish and selfish. The author did not do an adequate job of making Chris sympathetic or justifying his behavior enough to make me want to see them work things out, or even care, for that matter. As for the minor characters, too much seemingly irrelevant information was given about them that just seemed superfluous.

The most interesting thing about the book to me was Claire’s Type 1 Diabetes. More than just a plot device, it made her a little more real to me. In addition to Claire’s diabetes, I liked the realism in which the gradual shift from friendship to romantic feelings that Claire and Daniel shared was portrayed. This made the whole book worth reading.  Although Claire should have clearly known better than to become so close to another man if she wanted to save her marriage, most affairs do start out this way.

I did end up kind of liking this book because I did like the message. This book clearly demonstrates the need for one’s spouse to be one’s best friend, to look for that companionship, conversation, emotional connection, and comfort from the person who should be closest. We need to constantly see our spouse as our best friend and share those things that we wouldn’t share with anyone else. We need transparency and vulnerability if we want true intimacy. Garvis-Graves did an excellent job of showing this in Claire and Chris’s life together.

However disappointing this book was to me, I will definitely look forward to more from this writer simply because On the Island was THAT good. Any writer who can pull me into a book as quickly and immerse me into the characters’ lives to the point where I miss them when they are gone, as I did when I finished On the Island, deserves another chance. 3 out of 5 stars. –Christina Knowles

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Tone Matters by Christina Knowles

In my English classes, we are always talking about tone when we read and analyze a piece of literature. Literary tone refers to the attitude and presuppositions of the author on a topic. The author’s voice, word choice, and even the plot and characterization reveal an implied attitude in a work. We read between the lines and apply this tone to reveal more about the author’s purpose, his intentions, which may or may not be conscious intentions, but, nevertheless, shed light on deeper levels of meaning within the text. I have recently noticed that tone is sometimes glaringly obvious in social media conversations, and this tone may reveal more than we want it to.

Lately, well for some time really, there has been a lot of bashing of our fellow human beings in the social media because of differences in viewpoint. It may be politics or a general worldview, but most often it seems to be focused on what people have labeled “The Religious Right” and the “Liberal Agenda.” Recently I wrote a blog defending Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay and called Christians to be kinder and more understanding of him regarding his Twitter scandal faux pas. As a result of that, I was harshly criticized. Among other things, I was told that I “name-call like a Liberal” by one Christian, and that I am “obviously not a Christian” by another. I didn’t call anyone any names, and I guess I am liberal about some things, not everything. I am a Christian. I find it rather ironic, yet unsurprising, that I would be harangued about an article condemning haranguing, which ultimately proves my point.

But, unfortunately, this critically harsh environment has become the norm. It is not just acceptable to attack those with whom you disagree, but it is now fair game to berate fellow Christians who simply ask that we remember to be nice. It’s as if “being nice” is seen as joining the “enemy.” Almost every time I turn on a television talk show or “news” show or listen to talk radio, I hear angry, sarcastic people, who appear to be willing to do anything to get their points across, leaving a path of destruction behind them. I am so weary of hearing incensed people accusing other people, who disagree with them, of being hateful when they are being just as hateful. I just want to call “time,” and make everybody shake hands or something. When I bring up the idea of being more loving and understanding, I get told that Christians have an obligation to stand up for truth, that the truth hurts, or I start getting prophecies about the end times and am basically told, “We’re at war.” Well, I don’t know many people who come to know Christ, looking down the barrel of a gun held by a representative of Christ. So I’d like to ask a small favor, and I promise to do this as well. Let’s stop being defensive for a minute and honestly ask ourselves some real questions.

If you are a Christian, examine your motives when you become politically active. What are you really trying to accomplish? Are you seeking to glorify God, obey His commands, create a righteous Christ-like, God-honoring society? You may think you are, but let’s really examine the heart–the literary tone. What are your real intentions and attitudes hidden between the lines?

I don’t think Christians should hide their political beliefs, go along with culture, ignore their biblical beliefs, put up with discrimination, or anything like that. But when Christians engage in angry mob attacks on other Christians for honest mistakes or even doubting or questioning their faith, does this please God? Is this how Jesus would have dealt with them? Or would He sit down and lovingly tell them the truth and reason with them?

Looking beyond the surface of what we say when we confront others may reveal more of our hearts than we realize. How we say things matters as much as what we say. According to Matthew 15: 18-19, it says, “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (NKJV).What is your true intention when you rebuke someone harshly? Is it to put them on the right path or to prove yourself right? Sometimes I think the anger seems to come from a feeling that someone is endangering the Christian worldview, that their ideas, actions, or words are undermining the work of Christians and causing them to lose ground in a culture war that can really never be won. I don’t mean that Christians should give up fighting for good causes or standing up for God’s word, but reacting in an unloving and angry way because we are losing a battle we know won’t be won, even according to bible prophecy, is fruitless and harms the true calling of a Christian, which I believe is to spread the Good News of Christ’s love, sacrifice, and forgiveness to individual people, awakening one heart at a time, which is the only way any real change can happen.

If that is our intention, then what purpose does insulting, back-biting, and angry outbursts serve? Do you seek to change the world by force? By bullying, ridicule? By passing laws? No one has ever changed anyone by legislation. Jesus never tried to change the government or the culture as a whole, but focused on one individual life at a time. When an individual has a real change of heart, then his whole life changes. If enough individuals change, then society may change. However, ultimately, we know that society is destined to be more and more corrupt before the end; therefore, our primary goal should be individuals anyway.

The tone of some of the people out there who supposedly represent Christians implies that what they are really concerned with is themselves. They want to live in a world that they believe follows their worldview, they do not want their children corrupted, they do not want to see or hear about offensive things, or have to struggle with raising children in a world that does not respect their views. All of these things are understandable, but do they reveal the heart of Christ? Again, I am not saying they shouldn’t speak truth, vote, rebuke fellow Christians in love, but political activism, fighting for our “rights,” should not be our primary concern or ever get in the way of showing God’s heart for souls.

Why not focus on building relationships and having one-on-one loving conversations with people who have learned that they can trust us not to attack them? Unless bringing the good news of Christ to people who don’t know Him is not really your concern. Ask yourself honestly, “Am I more worried about myself and the kind of world I want to live in and raise my family in than I am in the souls of people around me?”

The kind of tone you are using when you confront people who do not act in accordance to biblical belief, whether Christian or non-Christian, matters because it is either confirming God’s love or denying it. Do you confront fellow Christians with condescension because you know more than them? Do you respond in mocking sarcasm because you desire to put them in their place?

When it comes to social and political issues, do you enjoy listening to destructive talk shows that perpetuate an antagonistic attitude to people who have a different worldview than you, and do nothing to solve the problem, but create division and conflict? Is your confrontation of people in the world loving and honest, or is it motivated out of anger, frustration, or disgust? Do you care about helping people or do you just want to be right?

In the end people who do not know Christ are judging Him by our representation of Him, by the tone of our voices. We may be exactly right in our words and interpretations of text, but our tone shows that our hearts are not right. This is an on-going struggle, and we are flawed, only human, but let us not be Pharisees as well. While we are calling out other Christians, Jesus is calling us out for our lack of love. Let us daily examine our own hearts, so that what proceeds from our mouths, or our keyboards, reflects a pure heart.

When I became a Christian, I was amazed at the words of the song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Ironically, it was the Jars of Clay arrangement that I listened to. But my prayer is that someday we can represent the words of this song in the world:

 We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

And we pray that our unity will one day be restored

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love

We will work with each other, we will work side by side

We will work with each other, we will work side by side

And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand

we will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand

and together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land

and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love–Lyrics by Peter R. Scholtes.

 This song was inspired by John 13:35: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (NKJV). Well, that’s all I have to say on the matter for now, and I hope I said it in a tone of love.–Christina Knowles

 

 

 

 

Choosing Contentment by Christina Knowles

 

Courtesy of Pinterest
Courtesy of Pinterest

I have decided to like my job. It just seems easier and far more pleasant than hating it. I am a high school English teacher, and I absolutely love my subject and really love and enjoy teenagers. But lately, the insane expectations placed upon teachers by the government, the critical blame-laying on teachers, the lack of accountability on students, the absence of respect for the profession, the inability to obtain fair compensation, and the sheer magnitude of the workload all soured me on my vocation. With all that weighing on me, it is all too easy to forget what I love about it. However, having fourteen years invested in this career and a huge student loan debt, I cannot just change careers or quit. Furthermore, I am a person who likes to be happy, and focusing on these negative, albeit real, aspects of my job won’t really get me there. I choose to be content, regardless of my circumstances. The best way to attain contentment is to be grateful for the wonderful things we have. With that in mind, here are the things I love about being an English teacher:

  • Reading: I love literature, just about every genre and time period. I read for enjoyment, and I read to learn new things or to understand things more deeply. I love to analyze it, speculate about it, interpret it, talk about it, and criticize it. I get to do this in my profession almost every day.
  • Writing: I love to write–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, anything. Most of us forget a lot of what we learned in college if we don’t use it, but teaching a writing class allows me to keep up good habits and practice the techniques I teach my students. Teaching keeps what I learned fresh in my mind and ready to use in my personal writing. I also love teaching my students what I know about writing and seeing their talent and creativity flourish. My creative writing students love my encouragement and get so excited about their writing. This enthusiasm is contagious and helps me to want to write every day as well. Right now my creative writing students and I are working on compiling short stories for a class anthology that we intend to publish as a free ebook. I love these kids. I feel like we are kindred spirits when I work with them.1492499_10202398236311367_1034169101_o
  • Grammar and Vocabulary: These are often considered to be the drudgery of English class, but I love them. I enjoy diagramming sentences and figuring out really difficult grammar questions. Learning new words along with the students is a benefit of my job. Having a large vocabulary makes me a better writer. It also just makes me feel intelligent. I like that feeling.
  • Argument and Reasoning: Discussing rhetoric, logical fallacies, and philosophical thought are extremely satisfying activities I am able to include in my lessons. One of my favorite things about my job is the journal topic discussion I have with my science fiction literature class every day. We discuss important and controversial philosophical, political, moral, and social issues daily. The students can voice any opinion they have as long as they can logically defend it. They love it, and so do I. Again, kindred spirits. All of my classes learn to logically support their arguments. Logic is good. I feel like it makes the world a better place. The world could use more logic.1500811_10203176068396683_1291760977947750353_o
  • Academic and Professional Environment: Working with an intelligent group of people who are all educated in the same discipline is a stimulating experience. There is never a lack of informed conversation, and we all are eager to help each other and share our ideas. The people in my department are a lot of fun as well. There is never a lack of clever author quotes, puns, double entendres, or witty aphorisms. We even take our practical jokes to the next level, academically, of course. Over lunch we dissect our favorite shows, such as The Walking Dead, and analyze them for plot and character development, and of course, thematic significance. What else would you expect from a room full of English teachers?

When we have to work evenings, with the exception of parent-teacher conferences, it is usually to supervise a concert, a play, attend a sporting event, or to participate in fun activities with the students, such as our Jeopardy-like competition, Knowledge Bowl. Working late is a regular occurrence for teachers, but I have to say it’s not as bad as other jobs I’ve had.

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  • Students: I left this one until almost the end because it is truly the second most loved aspect of my job. I love my students. Well, most of them. I’d have to say that out of five classes, I have only a handful of students who are really a pain. Every year I think that my students are the best I ever had. Every year I meet such sweet, kind, funny, and engaging kids. They make me laugh and smile every day. I miss them when they graduate, and we often keep in touch, sometimes becoming good friends in their adulthood. I have to admit that they really do bring joy into my life, and I hope I do the same for them.
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  • Breaks, Snow Days, and Holidays: The absolute best thing about my job! I work in a district with a modified year-round schedule, so I get two weeks off for fall break in October, two weeks off for Christmas break, two weeks off for spring break, and about six weeks off for summer (the students get eight, but teachers usually have training, staff development, and start a week early to get ready for the year). We don’t get paid for this time, but it is so worth it and necessary. I honestly could never do my job without this recovery time. But mostly, I need it to write, which is my passion. I don’t know of any other job for which I would be qualified that would allow me this uninterrupted stretch where I can focus totally on my personal writing consistently for several weeks at a time. A lot of teachers travel during the breaks, but I use it to work on my novels and spend more time with my husband.

Snow days are gifts from Heaven throughout the winter in Colorado. The thing I love most about snow days is that they are totally unexpected days off. I don’t have any plans, nothing I was counting on doing at home, so it really is a day off. If I take a day off, it is always to get something done, but a snow day is perfect for watching movies or reading with no guilt–and no sub plans! The worst thing about taking a day off when you are a teacher is planning for a substitute, and then coming back and finding that they didn’t do anything you asked, and now you are behind. I do have to admit, though, I often grade papers on snow days to catch up, but the beauty is that I don’t have to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be any worse off than if I had to work. In addition to that, we get all the major holidays off with pay. Having worked retail in the past, I can really appreciate this benefit. Without breaks, I don’t think any teacher could endure the rigor and demands of the job. At many low times in my career, the thought of upcoming breaks was the only thing that kept me from quitting.4599_1112432185140_818882_n

So there you have it, or should I say, there I have it? After all, this was really about convincing me that I love my job in order to obtain contentment in my life. I think it worked! I really do. Focusing on the positive is more than a mind trick. The good things in life are always there all the time. They just become obscured when we pile on the negativity so thickly that we can no longer see through the dark haze we created. I don’t mean we actually create the negative things–oh, they’re really there, believe me. But we don’t have to let them obliterate the beauty and joy that is also there. At least I choose not to, not anymore. Life is too valuable and wonderful to live like that, so from now on, I choose contentment.–Christina Knowles

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