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Soul vs. Body: Thoughts on David Levithan’s “Every Day”

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I recently finished a very thought-provoking young adult novel by David Levithan called “Every Day.”  It’s about a person named “A” who has no body of his own and every day for as long as he can remember he wakes up in the body of another person, has access to their memories, and must live out the day as this new person without drawing too much attention to himself.  (NOTE: I’m going to refer to A using male pronouns because that’s how I viewed him in the book, but he is in no way either a he or a she.  He’s both and neither, and it’s a very refreshing and radical approach to gender).

A’s is a lonely existence.  He has no mother, father, grandparents, or siblings.  He can have no true friends because his existence is too difficult to explain.  And having a relationship is practically out of the question because he has no gender and no body of his own—something about which humans are surprisingly picky.  We like to say that we love the person “inside” the body, that we’d love them no matter what they looked like, but how many of us have relationships with people that change their body daily? Well, none that I know of.

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While the main plot of “Every Day” follows A as he falls in love with one girl and attempts to form a relationship with her despite his ever changing physical form and location, what struck me as most interesting about this tale is its fine attention to the nuances of the body.  We take for granted our physical form.  We know how we walk and talk and move and function without having to think about it, but if our consciousness was suddenly thrown into someone else’s physical body, and we had to pass off as them for a day, I imagine that we would become much more aware of the physical demands the body makes on us and how that affects who we are.

What fascinated me the most, though, was the portrayal of mental illness as seen through the eyes of a body jumper.  A very clearly states that mental illness is something chemically connected to the body.  However, throughout history, society has tried to convince us that mental illness is something inherent in our minds.  That it is our mind, our soul, our very being that is sick, but science has shown this just isn’t the case.  Our environment and past can create many obstacles for us mentally that therapy can help work out and teach us to cope with, but many people have a chemical imbalance in their bodies that causes the real culprit of mental illness—the depression, anxiety, OCD, and on and on.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay. We don’t even wish so much for fantastic or marvelous or outstanding. We will happily settle for okay, because most of the time, okay is enough.”

-David Levithan, Every Day

As A jumps from body to body, one day he lands in that of a teenage girl who struggles with deep depression. He knows this from the moment he wakes up.  He can feel the weight of it.  The loss.  The utter despair and defeat.  And even though he has no mental illness, the body takes a toll on him.  In a way, the body is it’s own entity. It wants things and demands to have them (e.g. he spent a day in the body of drug addict which was utter torture for himself as he keep himself locked inside of a room all day to avoid shooting up with heroin).  And through this demanding the body can have detrimental effects on the mind.

“She is so lost in her sadness that she has no idea how visible it is.”

-David Levithan, Every Day

When you struggle with depression or other mental illnesses, it’s very likely that you don’t know what it’s like to live without depression.  You accept the defeat and the drag and the weight as a part of who you are—as a part of your mind and soul.  But in truth, it’s not!  If you could step into another body like A does every day you would realize that many of your struggles are coming from your physical being.  It’s why there are so many drugs for mental illness.  It’s why taking care of your body (i.e. eating well, exercising, etc.) is so important.  It’s why, I would suggest, suicide is such an unfortunate self-prescribed fix.  Because you want to escape that body that feels like it’s trapping you.

It’s true, in a way, when you have a mental illness your body feels like a prison.  But you’re not stuck that way forever with no escape except the unthinkable method of suicide.

Ask for help.

In A’s case, he did something he normally forbids himself from doing: making a life-altering choice for his host.  But once he found a notebook full of extremely detailed suicide plans with an execution date just six days in the future, he knew he couldn’t follow his own rules.  He questioned the ethics of asking for help since he was not in fact the owner of the body who would eventually receive it, but can you really argue with his decision?  If your friend was struggling—if ANYONE was struggling—wouldn’t you throw ethics to the wind in order to provide the appropriate and needed care.  Many times, those of us with mental illnesses don’t ask for help.  Quite frankly, some of us don’t even know how to tell that something is wrong.  We think the way we think and act and our misery is some kind of sick self-punishment that we deserve.

I’ve thought like that.

And I don’t want to ever think that’s normal again.

If you or someone you know thinks this way, ask for help.  You don’t deserve this kind of “punishment.” No one does.  And with the right medications, therapy, and support, you can overcome mental illness.  It won’t be easy by far, but you are worth trying.

“I am always amazed by people who know something is wrong but still insist on ignoring it, as if that will somehow make it go away. They spare themselves the confrontation, but end up boiling in resentment anyway.”

-David Levithan, Every Day

As a side note, A’s experience in this suicidal teen’s body is only one day, one chapter in his own story.  While he may not have to battle a mental illness every day, there is its own kind of torture in never being able to call one body home.  And so I think that no matter how unfortunate our own physical situation may seem, we have to be grateful.  Because we will always have something he doesn’t: time.

I greatly enjoyed David Leviathan’s “Every Day” and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique story with a though-provoking premise.

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The Reality of “Running For Your Life” in Movies

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I was watching the movie “How I Live Now” starring Saoirse Ronan recently—incidentally a lovely Netflix find—which chronicles the experiences of an American girl who’s decided to stay in England with her young cousins and lover as World War III breaks out all around them.  (Why you would even send your child to spend a summer in Britain when there are bombings and a literal projected World War on the horizon, I don’t know, but it serves the plot.)  I would separate the movie into three main segments: young love and friendship in the idyllic English countryside, realizing the realities of World War III, and RUNNING.  I will refer to the third segment in all caps because that is the only way to even slightly express the energy needed to endure this section of the movie.  Essentially the main character, Daisy, and her young cousin, Piper, spend over a final third of the movie running/hiking across the English countryside to find their way back to their family’s farm in hopes of reuniting with the male counterparts of the clan.

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How they hike for days without fresh water I’m not quite sure, but what really made me think was the beginning of their journey when they run away from their “safe house” as the suburban neighborhood is being bombed.  A seventeen-year old girl and her chubby ten-year old cousin—neither of who look particularly athletic—run for miles on hilly and uneven terrain in clunky hiking boots while carrying a seemingly heavy pack.  How do they do this?  Well, it’s fear for their lives, right?  However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that even if I was running for my life, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace for as long as they do.

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Arguably, I am a swimmer not a runner.  I’ve been trying to run recently because it’s just not quite warm enough to swim yet, but my running is pretty pathetic. I can get maybe a little over a quarter mile before my legs and lungs want to give out.  I could probably keep running after that point if I wanted to endure excruciating pain, but I’m trying to build myself up not kill myself.  And because of my recent experiences with running, I can say without a doubt that Daisy and Piper’s frequent “runs for their lives” in “How I Live Now” just isn’t realistic.  The walking and hiking for days on end, I believe that.  Piper looks like she’s going to collapse through all of it, but I know you can trudge forever—not quickly, of course—if needed, but running is another story.

I know movies aren’t realistic.  But when I watch an apocalyptic movie where the protagonists (SPOILER ALERT!) survive, I want to believe they had good reason to do so.  I want to believe that the Average Joan (like me) could survive World War III if I just worked hard enough and kept my head up.  But movies like this make it confusing.  They realistically portray the situation (i.e. having to run and walk for days to escape danger and eventually find one’s way back home) but don’t always show it being realistically carried out.  This leads to a disconnect for viewers.  Fiction film is fantasy, but it’s also a form of escapism that is not always meant to be fantastical.  Sometimes it’s where our dreams and fears go to play out in the best (and other times, worst) case scenarios.

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For me, this means that films need to portray a certain level of reality in life or death situations for its characters or the “suspension of disbelief” can be easily voided.  I want to know that if I was that character, I too could survive. Otherwise, my emotional investment in him or her is not nearly what it could be.

So is “running in movies” realistic? No. Of course not.  But can there be a layer of reality to it? Absolutely.  Despite being an overall, suspenseful and beautiful film, “How I Live Now” doesn’t quite succeed in the physical endurance category.  It’s unfortunate, but it just makes me realize how important of an element that really is to successfully immerse oneself in a film.

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My Unanswered TFIOS Question

 MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!

If you have not read the book or seen the movie, do not continue reading! I don’t want to ruin your TFIOS experience. You need to deal with all the feels first.TFIOS-blog-1

I read John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars” back in the summer of 2012 when it first hit bookshelves. (Well, library shelves. I was poor college grad.) I read it a second time in May of 2014 to ensure the plot (and feels) were fresh in mind when I watched its movie premiere on opening weekend. And it seems no matter how many times I digest the story, I still have one nagging “problem” with it (though I’d rather call it a “question”).

Why doesn’t Hazel feel betrayed or lead on when Augustus finally tells her he is dying of cancer?

I thought perhaps in seeing the movie that this question might be answered as many times film adaptations of my favorite books bring a new level of understanding when you can see the characters rather than just imagine them, but this was unfortunately not the case. I would argue that “The Fault in Our Stars” the movie is one of the closest book-to-film adaptions (to the point that I could quote the movie while watching it for the first time) that remains genuine, engaging, and doesn’t lose the magic of the original story. Which is glorious from a book and film lover’s perspective, but disappointing in that I really wanted to know the answer to my question! I understand that there is far more being addressed in TFIOS than Hazel and Gus’ most basic level of a relationship, but it still bothers me. Because if I were Hazel, I would be mad. I obviously couldn’t stay mad. (I mean, he’s DYING. And I’ve fallen in love with him.) But my initial reaction would not be calm acceptance.

If I was healthy, I probably could deal with it in a calm and sympathetic way. There have been countless movies made about that particular subject, the most formative example being “A Walk to Remember.” However, TFIOS is different because our protagonist and the one affected the most by this startling revelation that her newly minted boyfriend is made up of cancer cells is also sick. She may not be immediately and actively dying, but it is a struggle to survive, and she has accepted the fact that eventually she will die. And before reaching a ripe old age, unfortunately. Actually, the first half of the book and film are spent with Hazel trying to keep Augustus from becoming romantically attached to her because she considers herself a “grenade” that will eventually explode (die) and everyone in her vicinity (her friends and family) will be irreparably damaged by her passing.

So it bothers me that the girl who so desperately wants to keep Augustus from being hurt by her inevitable death, doesn’t feel the least bit betrayed or angry by the realization that he too is dying. Does she feel a kinship to him now that she knows they both share the same fate? Does she feel like they are now equals so the damage is excusable? Does she feel like she deserves to experience the grief of losing someone she loves to cancer in return for her eventual death and the pain she’ll cause her parents?

I think these are certainly questions that Hazel considers and asks herself, but I feel like her journey is really about realizing that the here-and-now matters. And those who care for her will go on living even when she ceases to exist. Not because they don’t love her or aren’t affected by her passing, but because they HAVE to keep going. The journey Hazel goes on through TFIOS is not necessarily a romantic one so much as it is a journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and letting go of her selfishness. She learns that the world does not revolve around her, and it will keep spinning after she’s gone. And for a novel aimed at teens, that’s an incredibly worthwhile subject to be discussed in depth (because let’s face it, teenagers believe they’re the center of the universe).

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I still can’t find a way to sufficiently answer my question though. She tries so hard to make sure that she doesn’t do to Augustus almost exactly what Augustus does to her. Why can’t she be at least a little bit hurt initially? I wonder if perhaps, I can’t comprehend Hazel’s acceptance and lack of ire because I have never been in that kind of situation before. Is there some secret cancer kid society where everyone is just “okay” if you lie to them about being healthy until it’s too late? Gosh, I wouldn’t think so!

It’s not that I want Hazel to be angry. That fact that she accepts the reality of Gus’ situation so lovingly endears me to her even more, and I think, shows how mature of a teenager she is. But it distances me from her as a person. I like to read novels and watch movies in which I can believe I’m the main character. It needs to be a story where the protagonist makes decisions that are either in line with my values and morals and therefore agreeable to me or against them but eventually redeemable. Hazel isn’t either. She’s off in her own plane of reality that I feel like I can never reach. Because I would feel betrayed and lead on and angry with Augustus. It wouldn’t last, but I know I couldn’t just listen to him tell me that the last few weeks had essentially been a fantasy, and now that we’re an item here’s what’s actually happening. Oops! I just kind of forgot to tell you…

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I love Augustus Waters. I love Hazel Grace Lancaster. And I love John Green. But my question goes unanswered, and I don’t know if I’m just being petty or if there really is a reason the answer still remains unknown despite the numerous means by which the story has now been told.

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Today’s Novel Writing Inspiration

Move On Chapter In Life Inspo

This is relevant in both life and writing. Happy Tuesday!

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Justifying Word Vomit (Novel Writing: Month 5, Chapter 5)

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Another month of novel writing: COMPLETE! However, it certainly didn’t come without its challenges.

The farther I get into this story, the more I realize how complex it is. I initially started a journal/sketchbook to keep all the little details of the story organized. For the first two or three chapters I did pretty well with making sure to update the journal every time I added a new obscure detail, but as I’ve gotten deeper into the story I find it too easy to write and forget about keeping all the fine details organized. This, in turn, is causing problems now as I’m delving into the story. I’m seeing holes in the plot and a disconnect between my first and last few chapters. It’s nothing that’s not fixable with some fine-tune editing and overall storyline decisions, but since my focus and goal in writing is to get through as much content as possible without worrying and getting hung up on quality. Essentially, I get to spend a year making lots of word vomit! Woohoo! However, I am a detail-oriented person, and it’s hard to not want to know all the minute details in my story. Having already written this story in one form before, I am constantly getting confused as to what serves as a detail for this story and what details I created for the original story and am confusing with the one I’m writing now.

About halfway through chapter 5, I realized I was taking too long looking back through previous chapters trying to find certain details and slowing down my writing progress. I remedied this by 1.) trying to keep a better tab of details as I go by just jotting them down in a bulleted list that I can later add into my journal and “prettify” it and 2.) MOVING ON. For this project, I just have to learn to not care as much about the fine details. I have to remember that this is a time for writing, and that there will later be a time for crafting and beautifying and making sense out of the mess that I’ve created. For this goal, though, it’s important for me to learn to just go with imperfection and holes in the plot because it’s helping me to feel accomplished and creative so that I can continue generating ideas. It’s certainly not an easy task, but it’s well worth my time in the long run based on the growth that I can already see in myself.

Tell me in the comments about your writing process!