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.