A Million Miles In a Thousand Years (review)

A Million Miles In a Thousand Years
Donald Miller
Nelson Publishing

Most people assume that as a teacher, I’m the one who instructs. And it’s kind of implicit in the teacher-student relationship, I agree. But as I move into my twenty-third year of teaching (good heavens!), I find that dynamic is often flipped, and it’s my students who share their wisdom with me.A million miles in a thousand years

During one of my Advanced Placement students’  Socratic Seminars this year, one of the students, Matt, remarked, “Donald Miller once said your life is a story” (this in a discussion of death and dying) and I was intrigued. I’d never heard of this Donald Miller fellow, and who was he that a sixteen-year-old would quote him?–about ‘story’, no less.

After a quick Google search,  A Million Miles In a Thousand Years  popped up and the subtitle “What I learned while editing my life” spoke to my heart. It didn’t take me past reading the author’s introduction to decide I needed the Kindle edition delivered post haste to my reader

The book goes like this.

Miller gained some fame after his first book Blue Like Jazz, and there was interest in a film based on the memoir, even though since writing Blue, he was stuck and had no motivation for much of anything but watching TV.  As Miller and the film makers began writing the screen play, they broke it to him not-so-gently: his life was too boring to be a film. While Miller himself wanted his life to be an “easy story …  [he knew that] nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a story good.”  Artistic license was necessary to make the memoir appeal to filmgoers who would want that good story—in the same way, Miller himself begins to re-write his own reality to follow more closely “the essence of a story”. Try putting these on your Life’s “To Do” list: reunite with a long-lost father, ask the girl out, hike to Machu Picchu, cycle across country. Life got interesting real fast.

This is a journey that, at its heart, is spiritual—but with a small “s”. While Miller is a Christian, there’s nothing holier-than-thou here, which is refreshing. But what an incredible vision of God he has here:If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, Enjoy your place in my story, and you can create within it even as I have created you.

And this:There is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.

While much of the book is focused on the author’s own transformation, he also introduces us to other “characters” he has met who epitomize living a good story. Talk about inspiration, dear reader! My only reservation is that I found myself most moved by the first two or three sections of the book– the ones where Miller confronts that his tendency to let life happen to him; as he checks off his “To Do” list, the narrative becomes a bit less compelling. Overall, I think Miller’s story metaphor will especially resonate with readers, but is a great read for anyone who wants to live more deliberately.

You shared some pretty incredible wisdom, Matt. Thank you.

I ♥ Poetry: National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and seeing how we’ve only three days left, posting about poetry is either now or never! Although I was an English major and always bookish, poetry was quite another thing. In short, I just didn’t like it. A fantastic poetry prof in college helped open my mind a bit, but I just couldn’t get excited over the stuff.

I was always intrigued by Emily Dickinson’s poems, but truthfully, I think the bleak romance of her life story is what drew me initially, not her language. But after faithfully reading the three volume Letter s of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas Johnson (Harvard Press), I bought her complete works and was hooked. Dickinson’s poems are some of the few I’ve memorized and if I was a few years younger, I’d probably get a tattoo based on this (yes, really):

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Fast forward to teaching the Odyssey to high school freshmen—I know, to some a fate worse than death—and I found myself (finally, English teacher that I was) truly appreciative of the imagery, the word play, the cadence, probably because I read so much of it aloud to the kids.

And that’s, I think, the hook to falling for poetry. You must listen to it read by expert readers. Like poets …  My husband and I had the serendipitous opportunity to hear poet laureate Billy Collins and poet Naomi Shihab Nye read at a local college nearly. The notice was in the Sunday paper, it was small, but we thought, “Wow! Poet laureate—let’s go” not even knowing Collins’ work at the time.

Oh. My. Goodness. We were smitten. Reading Collins—and especially listening to him—I discovered poetry could be not only insightful and musical, but witty and droll. The poet laureate was down-to-earth, humble, and oh-so-fun.  Here’s the first poem Collins read that evening:

See what I mean?!

You may be one of the lucky ones who has always had a love for poetry, but I came to my appreciation late. If you’re still reluctant, try a little Dickinson or Collins. Go to Youtube and listen to Sara Kay and Taylor Mali’s spoken word.

Don’t worry about being serious; don’t think you’re not sophisticated enough. Just let yourself be delighted.

Love what you do: Ray Bradbury

I’ve had a quiet love affair with Ray Bradbury for some time now. I actually think I love the man more than his books—or is it that I love his books because I adore the man? What’s odd is the faRay Bradburyct that I don’t really like science fiction. I mean, Star Trek Next Generation is fine, but anything else … not so much. But Dandelion Wine and Martian Chronicles hooked me, and his short story “The Smile” reeled me in. I’m currently reading Zen in the Art of Writing which shines with typical Bradbury enthusiasm about his craft.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a few (surreptitious, I’m sure) cell phone videos of Bradbury on YouTube—he was a frequent speaker at Comic Con and on college campuses even in his last years–and I was over the moon all over again: a spunky, life-loving, sometimes profane old guy who was a champion of the power of the written word.

I show this National Endowment for the Arts video to my high school students every year, hoping against hope that they, too, will fall in love. And they do find him endearing–because who can’t resist a cute old man who says to the film crew, “I want a close up of the cat, now,” (did you also notice the canary yellow cat tie?) and (lover that he is) re-reads Tender is the Night every time he visits Paris?

Bradbury died in 2012; his last appearance at Comic Con was only two years before. By all accounts he was frail and tired—but he was with his people, passionate to the end. So “the things that you do should be things that you love–things that you love should be things that you do.” I’ll try, Mr. Bradbury. I’ll try.

Grow your soul

Nothing tickles me more than reading my students’ writing when it sparkles. Last week, for instance, I read about a boy who plays baseball “for the man in the clouds”—his grandpa. In that one phrase I see the baseball field in May, those huge cumulous clouds and Michigan blue sky. I hear the crack of the bat and see this seventeen-year-old glance up for a moment as he takes the base.


Now it’s not always easy getting them here—I push. I prod. I question … my voice trails off, hoping they fill in the blanks and capture again their five-year-old selves. You remember, those kids who invent words and dance in the outfield– who tell stories about riding in a parade. Before Twitter and driver’s licenses and Snapchat and high school dances in the gym.

I thought about all this after reading this Huff Post Books article today (link). In 2006, Xavier High school students were asked to write to an author for an assignment. Five wrote to Kurt Vonnegut–and he was the only one who responded.

Now getting a letter from a writer such as Vonnegut would be treat enough. But his advice? If only.

If only my students would keep close to that five-year-old they once were. If only they would dance and sing and paint and write, they’d sparkle. Not for me, mind you, but, in Vonnegut’s words, “to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

If only we all grew our souls deeper and wider, even just a little bit, every day. Because, really, what else is there to do to make our days matter?

Listen to the Mockingbird

Nearly ten years ago I was captivated by Charles Shields unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird. To write Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, Shields spoke to Lee’s friends and some friends of friends, piecing together a fascinating glimpse of a writer who had became all but a recluse. But here’s the thing. Shields gives us a Harper Lee who was anything but solitary. She entertained closed friends, went out to dinner with her sister Alice Lee, visited high school students, stopped at the casino–in short, she was a woman of a certain age going about life in a quiet Southern town.

Medal of Freedom recipient: 2007

What Lee did withdraw from was the literary life and all things Mockingbird. She never published another book (her second one was supposedly stolen in a burglary) and was disillusioned after Truman Capote snubbed her contribution to In Cold Blood.  Lee reportedly told a close friend, “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”  Lee didn’t even participate in the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking novel, nor did she condone the Disney-fication of her hometown Monroeville with its Radley Fountain grill, tote bags and tee shirts, and Calpurnia’s Cookbook. There was no Larry King or Oprah for this legend (although she did meet with Oprah once for lunch in a private suite at The Four Seasons). Some think Nelle Harper Lee eschewed the public eye because her novel was too frank, that she spilled too many family secrets and lived with that regret. Readers tend to take the novel’s young narrator, Scout, as Lee’s own voice–an irrepressible, sensitive tomboy bursting with enthusiasm for life. But she told Oprah during that lunch, “I’m really Boo”, the mysterious town lunatic (link).

Earlier this month The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee written by Marja Millsand supposedly authorized– was released to a kerfuffle. Lee’s sister Alice confirmed the book’s authenticity; her lawyer refuted that the sisters’ agreed to the interviews, insisting that when Mills moved next door to the Lees and befriended them, she did so under false pretenses. You can read the flurry of letters back-and-forth here (link). What most reviewers agree upon is that Mills’ Nelle Harper Lee is fairly close to Shield’s and we readers will probably read little that’s new. But despite the book’s controversial publicity (or perhaps because of it), The Mockingbird Next Door is sure to find its way to the top of bestseller lists just like its predecessor.

Writer Garrison Keillor said about Lee’s early aversion to public attention, “Here is a woman who knew when to get off the train” (link). Maybe we should respect that woman’s decision and let her walk away with dignity.