Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book #52: Little Woman in Blue

I was planning to finish Thoreau's Walden this week - a book I have never read in its entirety despite growing up within miles of the site where he lived his life in the woods. We're going to be discussing it in book club in a few weeks.

But, I got sidetracked when my sister gave me this novel based on May Alcott's life for Christmas.

I figured it was an appropriate book to read in the middle of reading Walden. The Alcotts were Thoreau's transcendental contemporaries and neighbors in Concord. He even turns up on page four of the novel (though he's dead by page 16).

While this is a novel, author Jeannine Atkins drew heavily on writings from the era, including May Alcott's letters and diaries.

It would be nice to separate fact from fiction in this account, but I trust that Atkins reflected the overall spirit of who May Alcott was and how her life unfolded accurately (which, by the way, was not exactly how Amy March's story unfolded in Little Women).

Two key themes emerged, which are consistent with everything I've learned over the years about her family, her geography, and her era, and to which I very much relate.

One, Alcott grapples with the tension between wanting to live a finer and larger life and being raised with the belief that there is virtue in poverty and sacrifice for others and that nature can provide all the beauty one needs.

Two, she grapples with the tension between wanting to pursue her life as an artist (her passion, though she is not so confident in her ability and receives little encouragement early on, surprisingly not even from her sister Louisa!) and also to have a husband and children.

I'm looking forward to finishing Walden with this book fresh in my mind.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book #51: Essays of E.B. White

I bought this book at Shakespeare & Company a few years ago while I was traveling with my sister and it disappeared into Roger's reading stack when I got home. He turned it up for me a month or so ago and I've been reading a few essays here and there since then.

Coincidentally, I'm sitting in a hotel room with the same sister as I write this. Traveling again, though in Charlotte, NC, not in Paris.

E.B. White, who is probably most well known for writing Charlotte's Web, wrote many essays on a wide variety of topics and was often published in magazines like The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's.

Most of the essays in this collection were written in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Basically, he wrote about the world my generation was born into.

What struck me as I read is how the more things change, the more things stay the same. Nature. Technology. World peace. Progress. Resistance to progress. Gentle nostalgia. Harsh reality.

Seriously. The details may be different, but we're repeating the conversations.

"All I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world," White once said. "I guess you can find it in there, if you dig around." 

I wish we still had E.B. White around to add his reasonable and often delightful two bits.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book #50: Jim the Boy

This week's selection comes with a confession: This is not my book. I have a copy lent to me by my sister-in-law years ago and that I unearthed from my Grammie's old desk in our front hall.

It doesn't happen all the time, but once in a while I become a black hole, and it can be risky lending something to me. Beware.

It's serendipitous that this particular book caught my attention this week. It's a gentle novel about a boy being raised by his mom and three uncles on a farm in North Carolina in the 1930s. In the first chapter he turns ten, and bit by bit as the story unfolds over the course of a year, his world gets a little bigger.

It's serendipitous because I happen to be leaving Jack and Roger behind and heading to North Carolina in a few days. Not only that, the reason I'm heading there is my cousin's daughter's Bat Mitzvah, which will mark her coming of age in her Jewish community.

Her world (and all of ours) is getting a bit bigger.

In a moment he was lost amid the uncles, who swarmed around the table and hustled him to the door, their voices combining into a single, unintelligible din of laughter and teasing. Mama handed him his notebook and his ball glove as the uncles jostled him across the porch and down the steps.

When Jim reached the state highway, he turned and looked back. Mama and the uncles waved from the porch.

"Be good, Doc," called Uncle Zeno.

"Study hard," said Mama.

"Pay attention," said Uncle Al.

"Don't get a paddling," said Uncle Coran.

"'Bye," yelled Jim, waving back. "'Bye, everybody."

And when he turned and looked up the hill toward the school, he wished for a moment that he did not have to take another step, that he could stay right where he was and never have to leave again.

It's nice, this idea of staying wrapped up in a safe, comfortable place. Growing up can be hard, sometimes scary, even painful. And it doesn't actually ever end, not that I know.

But, honestly, the widening world of experience? Even when it's hard? Maybe especially when it's hard? It's amazing.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Book #49: Frankenstein

A little over two years ago, I invited my friend Boyd to talk about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at a library lecture series I used to host called "So You Want To Read." I meant to read it then, but didn't.

Last year, Jack read Frankenstein for his sophomore English class, and I started reading it in solidarity. I meant to finish it then, but didn't.

A couple of months ago, Roger reviewed this edition of Frankenstein, illustrated by Gris Grimly, for BYU's Children's Book and Media Review. I meant to read it then, but didn't.

This week, though, I was in a bit of a funk and a horror story seemed like good medicine. So I picked it up and read it (and thoroughly enjoyed Grimly's fabulous steampunk illustrations).

My timing ended up being just right, at least in terms of maximizing the impact of the Rorschach test that is Frankenstein and his creation on me. The past few months have been tough, and now I have a few new metaphors I can use to help process it all.

At times I saw myself and others in Frankenstein, who misunderstood what he created, who wanted to ignore the consequences, and who never realized that he actually held the power (love) to reverse the course he had set.

At times I saw myself and others in the monster, who, when he revealed himself, could not be seen for who he truly was, people feared him, and in his resentment and isolation, he became something he regretted.

At times I saw myself and others in the ship captain, who rescued Frankenstein in the frozen north and who took on the weight of Frankenstein's tale.

Several times I was startled by how much I saw myself and others in both Frankenstein's cousin, who became his unwitting bride, and the unrealized female monster he started to create as a companion to the first, but ended up destroying because she would dangerously have a mind of her own.

I'm quite sure I saw all sorts of things in the text that Shelley never dreamed of, as I viewed her work through the lens of modern day politics and the history that informs our struggles to see "the other" as fully human, the uneasy relationship between organized religion and people who do not fit in prescribed boxes, and, of course, the challenges I create for my own self that would not be so destructive if I faced them head on and made peace with them.

But that is the mark of a good universal and enduring (and cautionary) tale.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book #48: Shakespeare Saved My Life

A while back, I put this on my reading list upon the recommendation of a friend, then I was inspired to pick it up after attending a staged reading of a new play about Shakespeare's later years, written by my niece's husband, this past Monday evening.

The book is by a college professor who drew high-security prison inmates, particularly one lifer named Larry Newton, eventually her teaching assistant, into a deep study of Shakespeare's works over the course of ten years.

The stories she tells embody truths that I believe, made manifest in real life:

(1) That reading well written fiction enables us to develop empathy for others and to look squarely at our own selves.

(2) That someone who commits crimes is not simply a criminal and nothing else.

(3) That people generally respond favorably to being treated like adults who are capable of learning, growth, and positive change and to being given substantive, challenging opportunities to do just that.

Here are two excerpts that give a little hint about the journey:

And then [Newton] threw out his curve ball: "But why do you think [Hamlet's] seeking revenge?"

I held my breath. The group did not outright reject his question, but no one, not even Green, had an answer. This group consisted of seven men who were serving murder convictions; the eighth was convicted of attempted murder. To these prisoners, it was a no-brainer: murder requires revenge, and revenge requires murder. Duh!

"This guy killed his father, so Hamlet should kill him?" Newton prompted them.

"That's right!"


"That's what you do!"

"So, what? It's the 'honorable' thing to do?" he nudged them a bit more.

"Hell, yeah, it's honorable!" said Bentley, taking the bait.

"But why is it honorable?" he challenged them now. "What makes it honorable? And what is honor anyway?"

The group went quiet, thinking. No one had ever asked them to question such fundamental concepts that drove their lives and motivated their criminal choices. No one, that is, until Shakespeare--and Newton. Through the cuff port, he turned to me and gave me a wink. I nodded. We both knew the Shakespeare program was entering a whole new dimension. We were going to be changing lives back here.

Then a few years later Newton says this during an introduction to a performance the inmates gave of some scenes they had adapted from Romeo and Juliet.

"So the last few years that I was in segregation I spent analyzing and discussing Shakespeare through a hole in a steel door with a group of other prisoners. We'd discuss what we read, and everything would come up for discussion. We'd try to define these terms like honor, integrity, etc. It really forced me to find some kind of substance to these terms that shape our lives. I was forced to look in the mirror, basically, at myself, to give these things real meaning. That changed the way I felt about everything, about others, about myself. I was literally digging into the very root of myself while digging into Shakespeare's characters. For instance, I couldn't say that Hamlet's impulse for revenge was honorable if I couldn't tell you what honor is, and I couldn't. I still can't tell you what honor is, but I can tell you some of the things that it's not, and Hamlet's revenge is one of them."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book #47: Just Mercy

This week's book club selection was actually not at my recommendation, but I seconded the motion because I had a copy already on my nightstand.

If we don't look too closely, we can easily go through life assuming that our criminal justice system is working well, administering punishment objectively and fairly.

In too many cases, though, it's not.

Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, recounts, among others, the case of Walter McMillian, an innocent black man who was sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman. Ironically, the crime occurred in Monroeville, Alabama, hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I think we are waking up as a nation to at least the worst of the injustice--people on death row being found innocent, our disproportionate and unsustainable incarceration rates, heavy handed law enforcement in certain towns and cities, the destructiveness of solitary confinement, etc.

I think we are starting to respond, if tentatively.

I think we've got a long way to go.

While I have not been privy to gross injustice here in Utah, I have definitely witnessed uneven justice, and that uneven justice is typically connected to financial resources and legal representation.

A bit of evidence for this from the recent October 2015 report on the right to counsel prepared by the Sixth Amendment Center: "more people accused of misdemeanors are processed through Utah's justice courts without a lawyer than are represented by counsel - upwards of 62 percent of defendants statewide, according to the state Administrative Office of Courts' data."

I know many people, including myself, are big fans of our Constitution.

We've got work to do.

Watching this TED talk by author Bryan Stevenson can be a good place to start galvanizing ourselves to get to it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book #46: Lila

Marilynne Robinson is a good author to turn to when one is in need of spiritual contemplation and renewal, and so, this week, Lila.

Lila tells the story of the second wife of minister John Ames, the main character in Robinson's earlier novel Gilead. Until Lila meets and marries John, she lives a life of basic survival, without the context or the language to explore any larger sense of who she is or meaning in life.


Once, when they were out walking, he asked her what was on her mind, because she had been so quiet, and she said, "Nothing, really. Existence," which made him laugh with surprise and then apologize for laughing. He said, "I'd be interested to know your thoughts on it."
"I just don't know what to think about it at all sometimes."

He nodded. "It's remarkable, whatever else."

"Remarkable," she said, considering the word. . . . It had begun to seem to her that if she had more words she might understand things better. "You should be teaching me. . . . I had to learn that word 'existence.' You was talking about it all the time. It took me a while to figure out what you even meant by it."


Sometimes I contemplate this passage in the Bible and its relationship to the development of human consciousness: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

In a very real sense, words create the universe. We use language to describe that universe as we see it, our own known universe. Language defines but also elevates us, enabling us to transcend what we knew before. Language is key to understanding who we are, what it means to exist, what it means to exist together.

It is all of a process, an evolution, an ongoing creation.

The Word is with us.

We are in the middle of all of it, grappling, imperfectly conveying our perspective, imperfectly receiving from others. This past week especially. What is peace. What is moral. What is just. What is obedience, freedom, opportunity, equality, solidarity, truth, pain, safety, grace. What is love.

It can be so damn hard to figure out how to speak our own meaning, how to hear another's. Excruciating even.

But whenever we do, whenever we truly do, our known universe expands.

And that is remarkable, whatever else.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Book #45: No More Goodbyes

How ironic it was to be in the middle of reading this book when the news came out a few days ago that the LDS Church has new policies for how they will be handling membership decisions for same-sex couples and their children.

It was not ironic in an entertaining or thought-provoking way. It was deeply, painfully ironic.

I thought about reading a different book to write about today, but then I thought, no. This is too important.

The whole premise of No More Goodbyes, written by well-known LDS poet and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson, is that across religions, people of faith should be circling the wagons around our gay loved ones, not circling the wagons against them.

I do not want to write about the LDS Church's policies here, other than to say that the implications of them are much more far reaching than readily appear, and that it has been difficult to watch so many faithful Mormons share posts on social media that have minimized and even mocked the pain of their brothers and sisters who have been grappling with it all.

I do want to write about two experiences.

The first one I learned about over lunch with a dear friend of mine who is LDS and who has a gay son. She's very involved in the USGA group at BYU and had recently attended a meeting in which all the participants filled out a survey anonymously. The papers were gathered up and redistributed so that everyone ended up with a survey reflecting another person's answers. When each statement was read aloud, people silently stood if it was marked on their paper.

"I have considered committing suicide."

More than 90% of the 200 or so people in the room stood up. More than 90%.

Just sit with that a moment.

The second experience happened a month or so ago. I was honored to participate in a program at a local bookstore for a group called the Mama Dragons. These are LDS women who have LGBTQ children, and who are fiercely and lovingly navigating unknown and difficult paths with them.

After inspiring talks by author Carol Lynn Pearson and Tom Christofferson, a gay man who is also a brother of prominent LDS church leader D. Todd Christofferson, several Mama Dragons read essays about their experiences. These essays will be published in a book along with beautiful portraits of them by local photographer Kimberly Anderson.

Then I read the essay I was asked to share. It was written by a Mama Dragon who can't reveal her identity because her son is still closeted outside the family and is serving a mission for the LDS Church. The agony in her words was palpable.

"No one can see me because I am invisible," she wrote. "I still have to protect my son from the church that will eventually tear him apart. This is my darkness and my loneliness. This is being the Mormon mother of a gay son."

"No one can see me because I am invisible."

Please, please do not minimize or mock the pain. It is real. You may not see it, but it is there. Circle the wagons around.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Book #44: The Boston Girl

Seriously, how could I not read this book? A favorite author, a favorite setting, a favorite kind of story, the life of an interesting woman, one with dreams that didn't fit expectations.

The main character, Addie Baum, tells the story of how she met her husband, a good and easy match for her after two painful misses. But the more part of the story she tells is about her meandering but ultimately satisfying career, and her friendships with sisters, peers, and the women she met along the way who mentored her.

As I read, I kept remembering different women I've met over the course of my life that I've connected with, learned from, shared confidences with, laughed with, loved. They are all so different from one another, and they've all helped bring different parts of me into better focus.

I am deeply thankful for all of them. And I hope I've done a bit of the same in return.

One of the most exquisite moments in the book for me came when Addie was reunited, after a 10-year separation, with her old friend Filomena, who tells her this:

"That time I almost died in the bathtub, what kept me going was the look on your face and Irene's and that wonderful nurse. I could see how worried you were, not mad or angry or disappointed. You just didn't want me to die. And afterward, too, you never looked at me with anything but love: no pity, no judgment. I've thought about this a lot, Addie. You made it possible to forgive myself."

I want to move through the world that way, like the Boston girl.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Book #43: This I Believe

I picked up this collection of essays from NPR's This I Believe radio project when I went home to New England last fall for my uncle's funeral. (I bought it at the independent bookstore in the town where I grew up because, as I've mentioned before, I believe in voting with my dollars.)

This I Believe, in the 1950s and then again during a recent revival of the series, invited a variety of people to share something they had learned over the course of their life. They specifically asked people to "frame [their] beliefs in positive terms" and to "refrain from dwelling on what [they] do not believe."

Writers focused on a range of ideas, from "I believe that doing practical things can make the world a better place" to "I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday."

The book was a good selection this week, as I've been alternating between fondly remembering my uncle and psyching myself up to read another and another and another student essay that barely scratches the surface of whatever complex topic they've decided to research this semester.

I've been wondering what my uncle would have said if he'd written a This I Believe essay. And I've been reminding myself that my students are just at the beginning of figuring out what they will learn more about over the next couple of months. It's okay to start out barely scratching the surface.

I've also been wondering what I would write. Maybe something like this?

In class on Wednesday, I talked with my students about moving into more serious research, understanding how people come to know things in the academic realm.

The reliance on evidence and logic and accurate measurement. The demand for reproducible results and independent verification. How personal experience and observations can be a good place to start, but aren't enough.

I put the word know in quotations marks.


I put the word know in quotation marks because I believe we will understand more if we never assume we've arrived at the place where we know. We can reach a point where we are reasonably confident, enough to take action. But I believe human progression depends on always being open to new information, new insights, new possibilities.

If we are too certain, we might stop asking questions.

And if we stop asking questions, we might stop altogether.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book #42: In the Name of Sorrow and Hope

I've had this book on my shelf for nearly 20 years. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's granddaughter Noa wrote it the year following his assassination at the hands of a right-wing Israeli extremist after a peace rally in Tel Aviv in November 1995. She was 19.

Had I read it when it first came out, it would have been a very different experience. Then, I wouldn't have known what the next 20 years would bring, like I do now.

"I cannot answer all the questions I am asked, nor even those I ask myself," Noa writes. "I do not want to address 'What if . . .?' questions. Saba [Rabin] hated that sort of speculation. He always said that one should confront reality as it is and respond to the challenges it offers."

I can't help but wonder, though, what would have happened with Israeli-Palestinian relations if Rabin hadn't been assassinated.

What if he had been able to continue with the peace process he had been engaged in? What if, despite real and challenging setbacks, he had ultimately been able to keep internal opposition at bay? What if he had held onto his position as Prime Minister long enough to give peace a chance to take hold?

Yes, yes, what if questions are futile.

And so I will ask these questions instead: Why are genuine peacemakers the kind of leaders who are most at risk in our world? Why are too many of us not ready for them? Can we change that? How?

When you died, Israel stopped to catch its breath . . . if you could see, Yitzhak, if I could tell you everything that's been happening in the country this past week, you wouldn't believe me. . . . Thousands of people have been coming from all four corners of the world, Jews, Muslims, Christians . . . can you believe it? Please believe me. -  Leah Rabin at her husband's burial

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


The other day, I say to my class at the jail, "Invest in a good erasable black pen."

We are talking about filling out job applications, and I am speaking from experience. My brain and my hands are not always in sync. I often make mistakes when I write.

After class, I drive to campus to hear author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams speak. She shares some excerpts from her book When Women Were Birds.

"I am writing on the blank page of my mother's journal, not with a pen, but a pencil. I like the idea of erasure," she reads. "The permanence of ink is an illusion."

While she is signing books, she tells us about the project she's currently working on, a piece about our national parks. It's gotten complicated, she says, because these treasures are rooted in some of our country's most grievous acts. We need to acknowledge what we've done, remember hard-earned lessons, and embrace what we have moving forward.

We talk in my class about handling questions about criminal records in job interviews. "I hear you just got out of jail," a hiring manager might ask. "What's up with that?" Own what you've done, I say, but instead of being defensive, or justifying yourself, or whitewashing, focus on what you've learned from your experiences. Get the conversation on terms that help you create a future instead of trapping you in the past.

We talk about the dreaded question on job applications. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? A check in the box marked "yes" looks so stark, there in the black ink on the white page, the applicant not yet a real human being in the eyes of the person sorting through stacks of applications, looking for ways to pare them down. But hiding the truth and marking "no" doesn't just thwart a path to redemption, it is risky. It is too easy to be found out in the age of the Internet. The goal is not just to get a job; the goal is to have a job.

We talk about the possibility of getting records expunged, and how the judge will want to know what you have been doing in the meantime to set your life straight. According to the state bureau of criminal identification, "Once the expungement is complete, you may respond to any question pertaining to the expunged record as if it never happened." And yet, when a person is granted full permission to check the box marked "no," it will never be possible to do it without being conscious of the fact it once was a "yes."

In life, we are bound to remember what we've written.

The permanence of erasure is an illusion.

But with a good erasable black pen, and if we see our mistakes clearly, we can make corrections.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book #41: No Tourists Allowed

Ah, I scratched three itches with this book!

First, I'm always looking for ways to better understand people in my community who deal with addiction, especially when their addictions land them in jail. Shannon Egan grew up Mormon in Utah. She couldn't figure out how to make herself fit inside it all, and as she grappled with that for years, she numbed her pain with alcohol, and she ended up with a felony DUI.

Second, I'm always up for a vicarious adventure. Hopping on a plane to take a tenuous teaching position in the heat and civil unrest of Sudan? Check. Jumping into a career in international journalism without any actual experience? Check. Heading into Darfur while the war there was raging? Check.

Third, I'm deeply curious about how people in various parts of the world struggle to live in community with one another, especially when they have vastly different world views and corrupt political leaders who have their own agendas. Egan delivered an accessible and emotionally wrenching front-row account of the divisions in Sudan that eventually led to South Sudan's independence. She learned her trade well!

Early in the book she writes about a couple of epiphanies she had growing up:

"I don't want to walk in a straight line for the rest of my life." And, "I never liked the idea of having everything figured out and decided upon. I wanted the experience of seeking and finding and knowing for myself. I wanted to get to the heart of matters without being shamed for it."

Her epiphanies totally resonate with me.

Those and the scandalous crush she has on Steven Tyler that she reveals toward the end. I don't know what it is about that guy . . .

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Book #40: Daring Greatly

I've long been a fan of Brené Brown's TED talks on vulnerability and shame, and have checked posts on her website from time to time, but until now I've never read one of her books.

The library had this one on CD, so I borrowed it and listened to it in the car. So many times I thought, "I need to write that down!" and "I need to write that down, too!" so I ended up buying a copy I can mark up.

It might be surprising to some--because I do things like write here on my blog, often enough about tough subjects, and I speak up in various meetings I attend, usually in a spirit of advocacy--but mostly I don't "dare greatly."

Mostly I am content to fly under the radar.

I tell myself that flying under the radar gives me more flexibility to accomplish things I care about. Plus, I want a lot of private wiggle room to evolve what I think and believe about, well, everything.

But with increasing frequency, I wonder if I'm letting valuable opportunities slip through my fingers because I don't want to deal with the inevitable push back, especially if it's public.

And I wonder if keeping fundamental aspects of my world view private is just smart strategy, or whether I risk undermining my integrity by letting people make false assumptions about me when I fear what could happen if they know what's really in my head.

I truly value my integrity.

But do you see how even so, I write obliquely here?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book #39: Orphan Train

This is a triumphant story. It weaves together the lives of young woman named Molly, who is close to aging out of the foster care system, and an old woman named Vivian, who was placed with several families during the tail end of the Orphan Train Movement.

Both were at the mercy of strangers, many of whom were inclined to assume that they were wayward children simply by virtue of the fact they did not have parents to look after them.

I teared up in several places.

This may be why: the author explored a bit, though not particularly overtly, the idea of children becoming wayward as a result of being considered wayward.

They might internalize the idea and meet expectations. Or, in an effort to defend themselves, they might act out in ways that simply end up confirming the assumptions people have made about them.

Vivian triumphed, and by the end of the book it seems Molly will as well.

I think a lot about the people who don't.

But--and I'm lucky this is actually in my job description--I also think a lot about how they still can.

Sometimes I tear up in those real life places, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book #38: Negroland

Shortly after I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book (week #36), I heard an interview with Margo Jefferson, a professor of writing at Columbia University, about her new book.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (week #32), who often explores in her work the varied experiences of black immigrants in America, rightfully argued that there is danger in relying on a single story to understand people and cultures.

I agree. Ergo this week's read.

Jefferson's memoir, like Coates', is also about growing up black in America, but from a very different perspective. Jefferson is part of an earlier generation than Coates, she was born in upper-crust black Chicago rather than in a poor, tough neighborhood in Baltimore, she is a woman not a man, and while Coates' grew up concerned about his physical safety, Jefferson grew up concerned about being perfect.

My generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little or no notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public. . . . Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of 'human, all too human': our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.

Her story is not ancient history. She's not even as old as my parents. Her own parents had crosses burned on their lawns. Jefferson writes about the myriad ways she lived a life despite this framework she was steeped in, but it persists. It persists.

And in the meantime, while both she and I have felt pressure to be perfect from other quarters--as women, for example--I have never had to think about how my life reflects on the rest of white America nor have I ever had to think about how "unacceptable" behavior on the part of other white people reflects on me.

White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book #37: The Namesake

And now for a book that has been sitting on my shelf ever since it came out in paperback about 10 years ago. I'm not quite sure how I could forget I had an unread Jhumpa Lahiri, because I love her work.

She typically explores cross-cultural themes, like figuring out who we are independent of where we come from. Usually her main characters are from India living in the United States or vice verse.

As I read, Lahiri's writing kept tapping into that place in me that is hungry to know and experience how other people live. Then about half way through the book, I slammed headlong into this passage:

"She has the gift of accepting her life; as he comes to know her, he realizes that she has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way. This, in his opinion, is the biggest difference between them."

I am more like him than her. There are so many good things I appreciate about my life, but I confess I am a restless soul.

Maybe there is a part of me that is Hindi, like most of the characters in this book. I am not so enamored with the idea of life after death (perhaps I just lack imagination?), but the idea of starting fresh and living more than one life here on earth totally appeals to me.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book #36: Between the World and Me

I drove home today after a short visit to Telluride, Colorado. On the way, I passed a town called Paradox, and for the next couple hundred miles, I thought about how it was an apt word to describe many aspects of race in our society.

Even the concept of race is a paradox: it is not real (in the sense of being an artificial social construct based on the false notion of racial supremacy) and very real (in the sense of lived experiences).

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black man who grew up in Baltimore. This is his story of his experience. It is a worthwhile and challenging read.

Coates wrote this book as a letter to his teenage son. Early on, he acknowledges that he and his son have and will experience race differently--different generations, different life circumstances.

That's another paradox. We collectively experience race, but we each see (or fail to see) our experiences through our own individual lenses, all of us with our own perceptions and understanding.

And we often have a hard time believing that what other people experience can exist simultaneously with what we experience.

While I was in Telluride, a family member mentioned an editorial about the book by David Brooks. As I read Brooks' resistance to some of what Coates wrote, I found myself resisting Brooks' resistance. I had not read Coates the same way. In part, my lens was shaped by my experiences as a woman living in a patriarchal society and having empathy for the struggle to have your voice heard (all heightened by watching a screening of the upcoming film Suffragette at the Telluride Film Festival while I was in the middle of the book).

So not only do we personally experience race differently, we experience the stories people tell about their own experiences with race differently. More paradox.

Then perhaps the greatest paradox of all: we can only disappear race by seeing it very clearly.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book #35: How To Be a Bad Christian and a Better Human Being

I discovered Dave Tomlinson, an English vicar, when I listened to him speak at St. Paul's in London. (To clarify, I listened here, not here.)

What he said was intriguing, so I decided to read one of his books. (I confess I picked this one because of the provocative title.)

"Bad Christians," he writes, "may struggle with much of the religious paraphernalia that surrounds the Christian faith, but their vision of life, the way they wish to follow, is based on the person of Jesus."

It is deeply ironic that for some people--a growing number of people, in fact--organized religion can be a barrier to finding a connection to the divine. But it can be. I know. First hand.

Tomlinson, who himself has struggled with a counterproductive relationship between organized religion and spirituality (also deeply ironic considering his chosen profession as a man of the cloth), lays out a beautifully unorthodox approach to finding God by way of Jesus.

If you are not a Christian and read the book, you may be surprised at the various ways Christians view their faith.

If you consider yourself a "bad" or hopeful Christian, you may be inspired.

If you are a traditional orthodox believer, you may be shocked.

He's a bit of a heretic.

Funny. Jesus was too.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book #34: Letters to a Young Poet

This week's selection is brought to you by a series of synchronous events. In fact, four separate events just this week led me to this book, including it catching my eye as I browsed a shelf at a bookstore, seeing it on a recommended reading list, reading a quote from it that someone posted online ("be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves"), and re-discovering it was already on my "to be read" list that I keep at the back of my journal for this project.

I'm not sure what that all actually means, except that as I read Rilke's letters, I was reminded about another series of synchronous events that have also occurred during the past week, prodding me to listen to my own instincts--not the voices of others--as I sort through some issues that have challenged me as long as I can remember, but especially recently.

As Rilke mentors the young poet, he keeps revisiting this idea of going inside, of solitude, of finding answers there. Just a few examples:

. . . all I wanted to do in the end was advise you to go through your development quietly and seriously; you cannot disrupt it more than by looking outwards and expecting answers from without to questions that only your innermost instinct in your quietest moments will perhaps be able to answer.

. . . trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgment, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights.

What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours--that is what one must arrive at.

It may all be pure coincidence. Or it may not.

After all, according to Rilke's own words, I shouldn't be listening to him.

But then, he also says, "Irony: don't let yourself be ruled by it."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book #33: A House in Corfu

We carried this in our bookstore, and the last copy came home with me when we closed up shop (along with, oh, a few other books).

I planned to read it one day when (A) I wanted to hang onto summer a bit longer or (B) I needed to brighten up a bleak winter. Because Greek island.

This week I've been in that liminal space between my annual escape to a family cottage on a lake in Wisconsin and a new semester starting at the university where I teach. So I went with A.

As I read about the family in the book going to great lengths to build a home on crumbling hillside terraces overlooking the sea, I thought of my great grandmother and her vision for our once swampy stretch of shore on the lake.

I think she'd be pleased that nearly 100 years later, so many family members still make pilgrimages there, to connect with the landscape and, more importantly, with one another. I know I've driven thousands of miles every summer to recharge my body and spirit and to pass the legacy on to my son.

The shore of a lake in Wisconsin is a very different place than the coast of the Ionian Sea, but is it really so much when it's about a family and a house?

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Book #32: Americanah

I've been wanting to read something by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ever since I discovered her 2009 TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. Worth it, for sure.

In that talk, she explores the way we risk serious misunderstanding if we know one story about a person or a culture and think as a result that we know that person or culture.

We are all more complex than the labels we put on ourselves and one another. We are all more complex than the assumptions we make based on the few things we know.

We are all more than a single story.

And so is this book.

Why do people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing, Adichie writes part way through.


Sunday, August 02, 2015

Book #31: The Vacationers

Roger sent me off with this book to our family's cottage on a lake where Jack and I spent the last week with friends--playing hard, eating tasty food, staying up too late and laughing a lot.

This was a perfect, light read for the week!

The story was fine - a family at a bit of a crossroads sorting through their issues. But the most important part of the book, in my opinion, was that it was set on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain.

The author provided all sorts of delicious details about the island, the house the family rented, and their day-to-day activities, including trips to the local grocery, lingering meals, long walks, refreshing swims, and satisfying naps.

I felt like I'd gone on a lovely vacation to Majorca myself.

Since before Roger and I were married (25 years this past week, by the way!), I've dreamed of spending some sort of significant time on the Balearic Islands.

And after I married Roger, I decided they'd actually be the perfect place for us, because Roger likes a good desert clime and I want to live by the sea.

He knows me so well.

Maybe one day we'll be able to escape to Majorca for real. In the meantime, it was nice going there in my head.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book #30: The Magician's Assistant

This book was a gift from my sister, who had it signed by the author at a bookstore in Pennsylvania.  

The Ann Patchett actually held my copy in her hands!

The basic story is that a woman finds out, just after her husband dies, that he has told her lies about his past, and she travels to his hometown to piece together the truth about who he was.

I'm not inclined, at least in the same way as the woman's husband, to leave my past completely behind and reinvent an entirely new life for myself, but sometimes I do wonder who I would be if all the things that seem to define me, like work and home and family, disappeared. Poof!

Would I still be me?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book #29: The Speechwriter

A friend of mine drew my attention to this book shortly before it came out on Tuesday, and I knew in my soul, wonk that I am, I had to get my hands on it.

See, I find the intersection between language and politics fascinating. I also find memoirs fascinating because the way people choose to tell their stories can reveal more about them than they may realize. (True of blogs, too. Gulp.)

Barton Swaim was a writer for Mark Sanford when he was the governor of South Carolina, both when his name was floated nationally as a presidential hopeful and when he limped through the balance of his last term in the aftermath of, as Sanford himself began to refer to it, "that which has caused the stir that it has."

The book was thankfully short on juicy gossip, which was not what I was after, and it was satisfyingly long on discussion about rhetoric, which was what I was after.

Swaim covered the gamut, from choosing single words ("After I wrote the phrase 'hiking taxes' it occurred to me that 'hiking' would have to be changed to 'raising.'") to getting inside someone else's head and articulating their scarcely conceivable grand ideas ("I always find myself trying to communicate something larger," said Sanford. "And I don't know what I mean by it exactly. It's just--I feel there's something--larger--you know, just bigger--bigger than what I'm able to communicate in words. That's what I'm after.")

The book was also full of exploration about ego, both the ego of writers and the ego of politicians. Lots and lots of ego to go around. And it was full of exploration about creating illusion and about disillusionment, about connecting with virtual strangers, like constituents, and about disconnecting from loved ones, like wives. Lots and lots of illusion and disillusionment, connection and disconnection to go around.

Through it all everyone carries on, spinning their lives with the stories they tell like so many of us do.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book #28: Becoming Human

"We are all frightened of the ugly, the dirty. We all want to turn away from anything that reveals the failure, pain, sickness, and death beneath the brightly painted surface of our ordered lives . . . How easy it is to fall into the illusion of a beautiful world when we have lost trust in our capacity to make of our broken world a place that can become more beautiful."

Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.

He is also a provocative spiritual thinker. One of my favorite kinds, actually.

In his writing, he explores what disconnects us from who we are and how we can find true freedom, both personally and in society, through meaningful connection with people we tend to marginalize or are marginalized from.

Yesterday, I met with an inmate at the jail who was particularly uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help. "I've always been able to pull it together on my own," he said apologetically. "But now I'm not sure what I'm going to do. That's why I messaged you."

As we talked, he mentioned that he was hoping maybe he could live with his 90-something grandmother, that it could be a mutually beneficial arrangement because he could see to her needs and keep her company and he'd have a home that would meet the requirements of his probation.

I silently hoped that if he did end up there, it truly would be mutually beneficial. It's the kind of thing that could go horribly wrong in any number of ways.

Then suddenly it occurred to me to tell him about this book. I happened to have it with me and decided to risk it. When I showed it to him and described what it was about, he was immediately enthused and asked me to write down the name of the author and the title so he could get hold of it after he was released.

"I know I should have more important priorities than reading," he confessed.

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure!" I laughed, pleased to discover I was hanging out with another reader. Honestly, Jean Vanier's ideas have the capacity to fundamentally transform the way he engages with life as he moves forward, and he genuinely seemed to sense that as we talked.

The system I work within at the jail can pretty much be summed up with two words: order and expedience. It's a system that can easily disconnect people, both inmates and employees, from our humanity. Talking about a book I happened to be reading at the time isn't exactly in my official job description.

But I am willing to bet the short moment we spent doing that was worth far more than the more part of the time we spent talking about "practical" things. Even if he never reads the book.

Because in that moment we connected as fellow humans, neither at the margins, both at the center.

"Everything that is human needs nourishment: the body, the mind, the memory, the imagination, and, particularly, the heart. They must be nourished by encounters with other hearts that can lead us into other gardens of life, into a new and deeper vulnerability, and into a new understanding of the universe, of God, of history, and of the beauty and depth of each and every human being."

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Book #27: Delicious!

Once again Roger, who has a gift for selecting books I'd love, brought me home a treat.

And once again, I dug into the new book instead of the others in my stack. Or, more precisely, stacks.

Mostly what I want to stay about well known food writer Ruth Reichl's first novel is that I just wanted to climb inside the pages and live there.

I will also add this.

The mystery she unfolds through the course of the book could have easily been solved early on with a little bit of Googling instead of old-fashioned, heads-together, pavement-pounding sleuthing.

But that would have been like inhaling fast food.

If there is anything Ruth Reichl knows how to do, it is to weave the slow magic of good food--the scents and sights, the textures and tastes--through and around city streets, satisfying work, family and friends, and drinking it all in deeply. Of course she would take the long way around to solve the mystery.

Since I can't climb into a story someone else created, I've got to pay more attention to my own.

Less fast food. Less Internet surfing. Less of everything that is skimmed over and barely remembered by the end of the day.

More real food. More real people. More real conversation. More real life.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book #26: The Invention of Wings

When I was a kid, I may have swallowed a bit too much water spending summers swimming in Walden Pond. It may be why I savor a bit of thirst quenching civil disobedience.

Oh, say, like Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse this week and pulling off the Confederate flag. She knew she'd be arrested. She knew the flag would go back up. But she sure made a statement people could hear far and wide. Gutsy and brilliant.

The Invention of Wings is set in Charleston and is based on the lives of real life abolitionist and suffragette sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and Handful, a slave who was gifted to Sarah on Sarah's 11th birthday.

The book is written through the eyes of Sarah and Handful, who both had aspirations that were not suitable for their time. But they were determined to pursue them--even when they were terrified, even when the path was complicated and unclear, even when people pushed back on them hard and relentlessly, and even when they got in their own or each others' way.

"I felt alone in the world with my alien ideas," Sarah said, early on in the story. I knew exactly what she meant because I have, often in stunned wonder, felt that, too.

Am I really that alone?

Not all of us overcome fear. Not all of us find our voice. Not all of us teach our slave how to read in defiance of the law, in defiance of our parents, in defiance of our preachers. Not all of us follow our ambitions. Not all of us break free from our constraints.

Not all of us climb the flagpole.

But more than just one of us think about it.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Book #25: The Long Loneliness

Last weekend, I overheard (and then nosed my way into) a conversation about a book club that focuses on reading memoirs and biographies of interesting women. Hello! These were my people!

I love reading about women who break out of societal norms, and, if they do choose to conform, how they manage to do it on their own terms. I love reading about what shapes their ideas and their lives. I love reading about the impact they've had on the world around them.

Coincidentally, I had just started reading The Long Loneliness, an autobiography written by Dorothy Day, "a nonviolent social radical of luminous personality . . . founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and leader for more than fifty years in numerous battles of social justice."

That conversation with strangers was serendipitous, but then as the week wore on, I realized just how prescient my choice to read this particular book had been.

On Wednesday night at an historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a white man attended Bible study and an hour in, after singing and praying and talking with them, he shot and killed nine people. Because they were black.

With that context, reading about Dorothy Day's life took on a new urgency for me.

Early on, she was put off by organized religion because she had so often seen religion used to justify inhumanity and indifference to inhumanity. Exploitation, violence, oppression, extreme economic inequality, racial injustice.

And yet, increasingly, she was drawn toward God until eventually she converted to Catholicism. That is the story she wanted to tell in this book. How her spiritual journey informed her life's work.

By the end she says this: " . . . the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima [The Brothers Karamazov], a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried by fire. We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. . . We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on."

It all happened while we sat there talking.

It all happened while we sat there talking.

It all happened while we sat there talking.

This morning a friend posted, with deep emotion and a lifetime of experience as a black man in America, that he is "absolutely convinced that the subject of race can and will never be discussed honestly."

We need, all of us, for the sake of our humanity, to bear the trial by fire and work on proving my friend wrong.

The shooter in Charleston later said that he almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so kind.

It all happened while we sat there talking. 

To love we must know each other.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book #24: The Clockwork Three

I've been meaning to check out Matthew Kirby's writing for a while because he's a good friend of good friends of ours.

When I heard he was going to have a launch party for his most recent book, The Arctic Code, at The King's English Bookshop at the end of April, I shifted into high gear and got a copy of his first book to start reading with Jack before taking him to hear Matt speak.

The most memorable moment in his presentation for me? When he told us how he responds to a question he can't quite believe he gets so often (isn't it 2015?!): Why does he write so many books with lead characters who are girls?

"Why not?" he says.

Over the years, Jack has read and loved many books with interesting and strong female main characters. Many of them we have read together. Maybe by the time he starts reading books with his own children, this will have ceased to be something unusual.

So it may have taken a while (hey, it's nearly 400 pages and teenagers do have lives of their own), but Jack and I wrapped up our reading of The Clockwork Three today. What an intricate story, woven together in a way that kept us intrigued from start to finish!

And Matt, if you happen to be reading this, I need to tell you that I got a little choked up as I read the last few paragraphs. You ended the book on just the right note.

Wish we still had our bookstore so we could sell the heck out of your work.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Book #23: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Because I don't have enough books, Roger brought this home as a present for me this week. I found it fun, joyful, charming, jaunty. Just like the blurbs said it was. A good start to summer, when I tend to read more fiction.

The main character owns a bookstore on an island off the coast of my home state of Massachusetts. He becomes a parent when he adopts a child, who grows up to love books, too.

Four favorite story lines in my life right there.

Then there is a character who is a teacher. A character in law enforcement. A character who wants to write. A character who retired from the computer industry. More and more mirrors reflecting bits of my own crazy, crooked path.

And then this, from near the end, "We are not quite novels. . . We are not quite short stories. . . In the end, we are collected works."

Maybe remember that line for my obituary some day. But not until after I've added a few more plot twists, k?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Book #22: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Scene One

I am at a conference - an action camp, actually - focused on achieving functional zero when it comes to chronic homelessness (the same people experiencing multiple episodes) in our community by the end of 2016. The second morning, we are asked to include the name of a song that represents us as we introduce ourselves.

"Dream On" by Aerosmith, I say.

Scene Two

An hour or two later, we go over the post-it notes we wrote on in a brainstorming activity. For the third time in less than 24 hours, I hear someone say, "Yeah, that will never happen."

I rankle. "We need to stop saying 'never.' We're meant to be opening up possibilities, new ways of approaching our challenge!"

Scene Three

At lunch time I pull out the book I have to start for book club a few days later. I read about author Chris Hadfield seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when he was nine. It sparked his dream. "I knew, with absolute clarity, that I wanted to be an astronaut."

But then he wrote, "I also knew, as did every kid in Canada, that it was impossible. Astronauts were American. NASA only accepted applicants from U.S. citizens, and Canada didn't even have a space agency."

He went on to become an astronaut.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book #21: Alive Again

Last Saturday, I stopped at Costco to buy a cake for Roger and Jack's birthday. As I walked to the bakery at the back of the store, I saw an old friend from our bookstore days who had written a book and had gotten into some small-scale publishing. He was there with his new author Scott Mitchell, former NFL quarterback and Biggest Loser contestant, and a table full of Scott's books.

After I picked up the cake, I stopped to chat with them and discovered that Scott grew up in our town and is building a house a few blocks away from where we live. (I later discovered that I know his best friend from childhood and we actually have 24 mutual friends on Facebook. Who knew?)

So, of course, I had to buy the book.

I must say, though, it was slightly awkward standing there holding a nearly 10-pound cake (including two pounds of chocolate mousse!) while a Biggest Loser contestant signed it for me.

On Monday morning during one of my classes at the jail, we talked about how personal growth and connection requires vulnerability--being willing to fail and willing to be seen for who we really are. I shared some ideas from Carol Dweck's Mindset and showed them Brené Brown's TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

Then later that day and less than ten pages into Alive Again, I read this: "Initially I didn't want to go on the show. I felt so guarded and defeated in life. I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to be on this show and expose myself to vulnerability.' I just didn't think I was emotionally up to it. . . . I have to admit it was a surprise when I jumped in with both feet, opened up and shared my feelings. . . . I found that my vulnerability and willingness to share my feelings was what resonated with most people. They wanted to hear that I was a real person with real problems."

The entire emotional journey Scott goes on to tell in his book is full of evidence that Brené Brown is onto something when she says vulnerability is "the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love."

I'm glad Scott discovered that. 

I'm working on discovering that too. Being courageously vulnerable. It's sure not easy and it'll be a life-long process, but when I do risk it, I am always rewarded in unexpected and often beautiful ways.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book #20: The Blue Jay's Dance

I know why I stopped reading this "memoir of early motherhood" by the lyrical Louise Erdrich after picking it up last fall for book club: The first quarter of it is about being pregnant and giving birth to one of her daughters.

Most of the time I don't think about the fact that I did not give birth to my son. Usually, I enjoy reading the experiences women write about their own pregnancies and childbirth, thinking, somehow, that I can live vicariously through their words.

But in the past year, I've discovered a place deep inside me that is painful when touched, and I have to set aside whatever touched it.

Like The Blue Jay's Dance.

It catches me off guard, this pain. A few months ago, for example, someone I care about had an unplanned c-section and she was grappling with her feelings about not having a chance to hold her son until a few hours later, after he was all cleaned up and dressed. That he didn't seem like her child in the same way her first son did disconcerted her. Nursing made a difference, but she still felt a real sense of loss.

I mourned with her.

Then suddenly and over and over, tears flowed unbidden as I found myself grieving my own wrenching sense of loss: I am a woman who will never, ever know what it is like to create life. Ever. I will never know what it is like to bond with my own flesh and blood. I will never nourish a child with my own body.

This is why I decided to pick the book up again and finish it this week: Today is my son's 16th birthday. And I love him.

I am lucky mom.

Update the next day: In case anyone reads this and thinks they need to walk on eggshells around me, please, please, please don't think that. I very much want to share in your joys and sorrows. Just last night, in fact, I dreamed my sister told me she was expecting a baby. All I felt was pure happiness at the thought.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book #19: Travels with Charley

I started reading John Steinbeck's memoir about a cross-country trip he took in 1960 in a truck camper with his dog Charley a few years ago and have no idea what distracted me from finishing it. Especially because I was enjoying it.

He wanted to reconnect with places he wrote about but hadn't been for years and to meet places he'd never been before.

He wanted to find America.

Steinbeck is among my favorite authors of all time. His writing is packed full of little gems of insight into human nature and quirky observations about the world.

Here are just a few examples - 

Regarding a dour waitress: "For a moment I considered giving her a five-dollar tip, but I knew what would happen. She wouldn't be glad. She'd just think I was crazy."

While driving through upstate New York: "Indeed the dismal downpour made my intended visit to Niagara Falls seem redundant."

On interpreting his experiences as he traveled: "I've always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel there are too many realities . . . for this reason I cannot commend this account as an America you will find."

This. This. So much this. America is not just one reality. No place is.

And, surprise! I couldn't resist googling "truck campers" as I read. More than once this week I fell asleep dreaming of packing one up and having my own adventures criss-crossing the country, experiencing as many realities as possible.

Friday, May 08, 2015

After the Car Bombs

I flipped on the television to kick off a discussion this morning about preparing for job interviews with some classic clips from Chandler's ill-fated interview on Friends.

But what initially turned up on the screen was an article from the Washington Post I had queued on my laptop to read later. It tells the story of Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, who sat in a chair on the sidewalk where a car bomb had exploded the day before and played his cello.

"He's probably the one who detonated the bomb and he's come back to celebrate, to rub it in their faces," said an inmate in the front row without missing a beat after reading the headline. Some of the class laughed and nodded. "You can't tell the good guys from the bad."

"That is really your first thought?" I asked. I shouldn't have been surprised. Every day I am reminded in myriad ways that people view the world differently than I do.

I scanned the article to reinforce my belief in humanity. “It’s about reaching out to people exactly where someone had experienced something so grotesque and ugly earlier,” Wasfi said . . . “The spot where people lost their lives, the spot where people were still trying to stay alive, trying to function.”

"He's trying to create something beautiful in a devastated space," I pushed back. "To reclaim it from the terrorists. To help people in the neighborhood find some hope."

Then I remembered the homework assignment I'd given them moments before to prepare for our next class, when we'll be talking about handling questions about their criminal record in an interview. A key strategy, I told them, is to get the conversation on your terms. Instead of being reluctant or defensive or justifying yourself, which won't go over well, face your experiences head on and talk about what you've learned from them. Focus on moving forward.

There is a metaphor for us somewhere in Wasfi's story, I said.

Sit with your past and become the cello player.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Book #18: All About Love

The other day, a co-worker of mine said, "You ask people to define what love is and they'll all say something different." Between his comment, a tumultuous week in Baltimore and all the discussion about last Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing on same-sex marriage, I thought it would be a fine time to read this book, which I picked up a couple of months ago to help with some research.

For the past few years, I've been nibbling around the edges of a large-ish writing project, which in part explores the transformation we could experience in our world if we embraced and practiced the kind of radical love Jesus and other spiritual leaders have taught.

(No promises. My project may or may not ever come to fruition. But it might.)

I was curious what bell hooks--who is most known for her provocative writing about issues of gender, race, and class and the intersections among them--had to say on the topic. The only thing I knew going in was that she isn't a lightweight and it wouldn't be a superficial treatment.

It wasn't.

At the heart of her definition of love are the ideas of genuine connection and of nurturing spiritual growth in ourselves and in others. Among other things, she wrote about love in the context of grace, clarity, justice, honesty, commitment, values, community, mutuality and healing.

Many people--even those who say they follow Jesus--scoff at the idea, but I agree with her basic thesis: building our lives, our families, our society and our world on an ethic of love has the power to save us from alienation, division, oppression, persecution, poverty, violence, and soul-sucking materialism.

I am not naive. It will require an awful lot of us. We've got so much to learn. We've got so much to unlearn. We need critical mass. We're not even remotely close. Not even remotely. Reminders of that are everywhere. Just now, in fact, a stark one from Garland, Texas.

Still, I hope. And I work, however imperfectly, on my part.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book #17: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Reading something by Neil Gaiman this week wasn't even a question after hearing him interviewed by Radio West's Doug Fabrizio in Park City last Saturday night (click here to listen to that conversation).

My nephew's wife Becca and I discussed which book I should read in the car on the way up, and I settled on The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (A close second was American Gods, which I also plan to read sooner of later.)

I stayed up until midnight last night to finish it, curled up under warm blankets, listening to the rain outside. Perfect conditions. I couldn't turn out the light until I was done. Heck, I couldn't turn out the light for a while after I was done.

Basically, Gaiman sounds like he's telling perfectly normal stories, but then impossible--often horrifying--things happen in them. And then he continues on as though everything is still perfectly normal.

In this book, a grown man heads home for his father's funeral and remembers a strange thing that happened when he was seven, something he'd forgotten about entirely.

An important truth he discovers at the heart of it all:
Lettie shrugged, "Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don't. I don't. People are much more complicated than that. It's true of everybody."

This is also true of novels (at least good ones), not just people, I think. An engaging story on the surface, but dive in and you find there's more to it.

I was never quite sure, though, if I was reading way more into this one than there actually was. It could just be that an oral report one of my students gave a few days ago on depression and suicide prevention was still ringing in my ears. But, no, I don't think so. I think Gaiman plumbed the depths of that particular ocean brilliantly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Go Fishing

This post was inspired by a discussion I had with some friends on the topic of economic inequality. We did not all agree with one another, but I'm not convinced we are as far apart from one another as it often seems.

Below I've extended a familiar metaphor to illustrate what I mean.

This is just a starting point. I am not making any particular assumptions about the roles of the market, private charity, or the government in addressing each point. I'm only claiming that each point in and of itself is something most, if not all, of us buy into.

And just look at how many points there are!


Here’s the starting point:  “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” (The gendered language, which is ironic in the context of a blog post about equality, must be a topic for another day.)

We know people need fish to survive.

We want people to have the opportunity to fish so they can provide fish for themselves and their families. Simply giving people fish isn’t a viable long-term option.

We agree that we need to teach people how to fish, and we mostly agree on the idea of pooling our resources to do this.

We mostly agree that it is okay—even good, but at least okay—to give people fish while they are learning how to fish.

We understand that sometimes we’re not very good at teaching people how to fish. We also understand that sometimes people have a hard time learning how to fish.

We recognize that sometimes people don’t believe they can learn how to fish or that they can have an opportunity to fish like everyone else.

We understand that there are people who will never be able to fish, some who used to fish but can’t anymore, and some who can’t fish temporarily.

But we get frustrated with people who refuse to learn how to fish when they seem perfectly capable of learning or who refuse to fish when they already know how. We don’t like it when people take advantage.

It’s hard, though, to tell which people are which. And what’s truly going on underneath what we can see. How do we truly judge?

We recognize that we ourselves might not be able to fish one day. It could come sooner than we think. We may not be expecting it; we may not have had a chance to prepare for it. And if it ever does happen to us, we’d rather not feel shamed for it.

However we slice it, all of the people who aren’t fishing for themselves—many of whom have children—can end up without fish and risk going hungry. When it comes right down to it, all but the most cold-hearted among us believe children shouldn’t go hungry even if it means their parents get fish they might not deserve. Because we actually don’t like the idea of anyone starving.

Some people have to make difficult choices when it comes to balancing the time they should spend fishing with the time they should spend taking care of their children. Sometimes those choices seem impossible.

We generally support the idea of people having equal opportunity to fish, but we know we fall short of that ideal.

We love the idea of having lots of options for places to fish as well as kinds of fish to catch. Some people have access to many fishing holes that are well stocked with fish. Some people have very few options, only poor options, or sometimes no options at all.

Most of us support the idea of helping people gain access to a fishing hole and the equipment they need to fish. Because what good is knowing how to fish if there isn’t anywhere to fish or anything to fish with?

Some of us want to use our own initiative to create more options for people, and we want to be as free as possible to do that. But wherever people go to fish, we also want the water to be clean and we don’t want the fish they are catching to make them sick. And in times of drought, we don’t want the fishing holes to dry up if we can help it.

We know that we need to renew and expand our supply of fish, especially as our population grows, so we don’t put everyone at risk if there are not enough fish to go around, or worse, no fish left at all.

We understand and accept that once people are fishing—even in the very same pond—some will catch more fish than others and for the most part that’s okay. It’s just the way it goes. Sometimes it’s due to skill or experience. Sometimes it’s due to luck. Sometimes it’s due to people being able to use the smaller fish they catch to catch bigger fish. And for many it might be better or worse the next day or the next.

Many of us empathize with people who spend all day fishing and don’t catch enough to live on. We especially empathize with people who spend all day, every day, day after day fishing and fishing but failing to catch enough.

And we empathize with people who are on their way home with their catch and lose it through no fault of their own—maybe they are mugged by a bear?—leaving them empty handed. Better yet, we want to protect people from having their fish stolen in the first place.

We see that some people are inclined to share their catch with others. Sometimes that is enough. But when we look closely enough, we see it too often isn't. 

We also see that inevitably there are people who take advantage of another person's generosity. None of us like that.

We understand that people don’t like being forced to share, especially when they’re worried about having enough fish for themselves.

If people hire other people to catch their fish for them, we want the people they hire to be able to take home a reasonable share of fish.

We--including even some of us who are in a position to do this--are not okay with people who claim most of the fish for themselves.

We recognize a relationship between societal instability and some people having fish while others don't. We understand that kind of societal instability can lead to violence in extreme cases.

We value human existence.

We know people need fish to survive.