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?