Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book #9: Night

I've read several books about people's experiences in concentration camps during World War II, but hadn't yet read Elie Wiesel's account. His has been an important voice, and I would not be at all surprised if the phrase "never forget" came from a specific passage in his account, which was originally published in the 1950s.

Early in the book Wiesel recounts the story of a man in his village who had been shot and left for dead by the Gestapo while he was traveling through Poland. Moishe returned to the village and tried to warn people.

He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things.

And then Wiesel makes his own record in the hope that people would listen and keep it from happening again. At least now many of us are trying to listen. We want to keep it from happening again.

But it is not as easy as it sounds.

I believe this is one reason why: We hear stories we don't believe but should, like Moishe's, and we hear stories we shouldn't believe but do, like the stories the Nazis told themselves about Jews (and Roma, and homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on).

Sometimes we underestimate a real enemy. Sometimes we create enemies out of people who are not our enemies.

At the end of the edition of Night that I read is the text of the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Wiesel gave in 1986. "Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political view," he said, "that place must--at the moment--become the center of our universe."

May we always strive to be there and on the side of the persecuted, and watch very, very carefully that we do not become the persecutors ourselves.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book #8: The Curve of Time

For years, Roger has recommended this book every time I am casting about trying to decide what to read.

This week I finally took him up on it.

The Curve of Time is a beautifully written memoir of the summers a mom, her five children, and sometimes a dog, spent in the 1920s and 30s exploring the waterways between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia by boat.

Because I come from sailing stock on both sides of my family--maybe even Vikings going back in my maternal grandfather's line--it was not hard for me to be drawn into their happy adventures and narrow escapes.

I started reading the book Monday morning as we set out on an expedition of our own in our Jeep. My dad is visiting from out of town, and the rest of us all had a holiday from work and school.

The foreword began with a detailed description of the cramped sleeping quarters on the boat. I could immediately relate. Roger and Dad were riding in front; Jack and I were cozy together in the back, nestled between the cooler on one side of us and a backpack on the other, our feet penned in by the handle of a shovel (carried in case we ever have to dig ourselves out of something).

I didn't marry a sailor. I married a boy who lives between mountains and loves the desert. I married a boy who loves to drive off the beaten path.

So, I realized, as we bounced over rocks instead of waves, our Jeep is our boat. Our desert is our ocean. Our canyons are our inlets. Our sagebrush is our seaweed. Our dust we kick up is our wake. We breathe deep and we live. Our wind is our wind and our sky is our sky.

All week as I read, I dreamed of heading up to Seattle over spring break to explore the San Juan Islands by ferry. Maybe we'd even have time to go all the way to British Columbia.

This may have been a risky book for Roger to recommend to me. Because he married a girl who comes from sailing stock on both sides and loves the sea.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book #7: Black Like Me

In 1959, the same year my parents got married, writer John Howard Griffin changed the pigment of his skin, shaved his head and spent nearly two months traveling through the southern United States as a black man.

I knew this memoir was a classic, but I still went into it with some trepidation. Would it be superficial? Would it be exploitative? What were Griffin's intentions?

What I found was a deeply insightful book that brought out the multi-faceted complexities of racial identity, injustice, cultural barriers, humanity and inhumanity.

While we are far beyond that Jim Crow era, Griffin's observations are still meaningful today. We are clearly not done untangling the threads that have been a knotted mess through many, many generations.

Yesterday, my friend Loki, who is dedicated to untangling those threads, wondered about a couple of white kids he saw walking down the sidewalk carrying .22 rifles with total impunity. Where are the police? "Oh yeah," he wrote, "they didn't fit the profile." A couple of people pushed back on him, not engaging him on the specific point he was trying to make, but criticizing his negativity. They wanted him to look on the positive side (the kids were just out having fun!), and to be his usual inspirational self.

Shortly after I read that exchange, I read a passage in Griffin's book about a friend of his who ran a local paper. "For the first year," he wrote, his friend "managed to please everyone and offend no one. The paper had prospered . . . [He] had fence-straddled all major issues, if he mentioned them at all." Eventually he "entered into a battle with his conscience, his sense of decency. It became clear to him that though he wrote in his paper what his readers wanted to see, this was not always the truth. . . . As the situation in the South degenerated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation [Brown v. Board of Education], he was faced with a choice--either he must continue more and more to alter truth to make it conform to people's comfort, or he must write the truth in the dim hope that people would alter their comfort to conform to it."

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to face the truth that Loki was trying to get at: in our society, white people are far more likely to be able to walk down the street carrying .22 rifles with impunity than people of color.

I can already hear the arguments defending that reality. They are the same arguments Griffin dispelled in Black Like Me more than 50 years ago.

We still have work to do.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Book #6: The Bean Trees

This week's selection falls into the category of "books people probably think I've already read but I actually haven't."

Unexpectedly, reading this book was exactly what my soul needed this week.

In The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, people are lost, people connect, and people are healed.

"I can't even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that."

"You live in that world," [Estevan] said quietly, and I knew this but I didn't want to.

From time to time, the balance between trying to make a difference and preserving my own mental health gets precarious. Lately, I've been slipping down the wrong slope, and it's overwhelming to even think about climbing back up again to get to a place that is right.

Says Estevan near the end of the book, before we know how things will work out, and giving me fresh perspective, "Mi'ija, in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is to make things as right as we can."

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Book #5: Death Coming Up the Hill

This week's book is a YA novel written by a friend of mine, Chris Crowe, and set in 1968, a pivotal year on so many levels. The main character grapples with the Vietnam War, the hard realities of racism, and the breakup of his parent's marriage. The story is told entirely in 976 haiku. Here's why:

There's something tidy
in seventeen syllables,
a haiku neatness

that leaves craters of 
meaning between the lines but
still communicates

what matters most. I 
don't have the time or the space
to write more, so I'll

write what needs to be
remembered and leave it to
you to fill in the 

gaps if you feel like 
it. In 1968
sixteen thousand five

hundred ninety-two
American soldiers died
in Vietnam, and

I'm dedicating
one syllable to each soul
as I record my

own losses suffered
in 1968, a 
year like no other.

Honestly, it was an emotional read.

This in part because we are still going around and around and around with essentially the same things that divided us back then. Civil rights. Enemies both real and perceived. Militarization. Profiteering. I can't breathe. War and unrest. Marriage equality. Je suis Charlie. Controversy over the film American Sniper.

But let's not forget we survived 1968.

Well, some of us did. Among others, the book reminded me, sixteen thousand five hundred ninety-two American soldiers, three black youth in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and untold numbers of Southeast Asians didn't.

Still. We do survive.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book #4: Change Anything

I finally sat down this week and read Change Anything from cover to cover. I've been dipping into it off and on for months as I've been adapting the material from a course based on the book to teach at the jail.

The premise is fairly simple and constructive: having the will to make better choices in our lives is important, but if we're not aware of things that influence our choices--such as a lack of skill or information, social pressure, perverse structural rewards, environment, etc.--and wrangle as many of them as we can to work in our favor, we may well be set up to fail. Click here to watch a short video that explains more.

"They just need to make better choices!" I hear that a lot. And not just about inmates.

This kind of sentiment often comes from people with a privileged perspective--people who, yes, had the will to make good choices and did, but who are often unaware of everything that worked in their favor and even more unaware of things working against the people they are criticizing.

Today, in fact, I saw again the old meme with the picture of the pointing finger of shame that reads, "Don't blame your behavior on someone else. You are 100% responsible no matter how bad you are feeling or what's happening in your life."

Yes, it is true, what the old meme says. Unless we lack some essential brain capacity, we are ultimately 100% responsible for the choices we make. Try as they might, no one can force us to behave in a certain way. At some point it requires us to choose whether to cooperate.

But, I want to shout, that is only part of the story. 

Not one of us makes our choices with perfect knowledge or ability. Not one of us makes our choices in a vacuum. Sometimes we can't even see there is a better choice to make. If we fail to understand this we will continue to shame people, including, by the way, our own selves. And shame can be truly counterproductive.

What if, instead of pointing fingers of shame, we all opened up our eyes and saw the rest of the story? Imagine the power in that. Maybe we actually could change anything.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book #3: The Rosie Project

I read this novel because it is our February selection for book club. I read it a month early because I had the fortunate chance to hear the author, Graeme Simsion, speak at The King's English in Salt Lake City last night. It was a brilliant choice. Entertaining book. Fascinating author.

I'd read about a quarter of the book before Simsion's presentation, then read the rest of book with his voice reading Don Tillman--the main character who unfolds in first person his story of setting out in a most logical fashion to find a wife--ringing in my head. Also brilliant.

Don Tillman's voice is unique, and not just because he speaks with an Australian accent. Simsion rooted Tillman's character in people he worked with in the computer industry during the 1970s. 

People just like my own brother.

My brother packed information into his brain, picked apart the logic of everything, and had an unusual sense of humor that I realized wasn't unusual at all after I took a job in the computer industry myself.

And once my sister and I listened to my brother talk about a woman he'd met, and our jaws dropped when he complained that she wouldn't go out with him after he'd told her the three things she'd need to change to be perfect for him. For Pete's sake, he said, it was only three things!

But also in many ways not just like my brother.

While my brother had very specific ideas about how the world should work and didn't always adapt very well when it didn't, he did not share Tillman's methodical approach to living. Also, emotion spilled every which way out of my brother.

Was Tillman somewhere on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum? Maybe. Maybe not. Simsion was deliberately vague on that, he said. But people who are on the spectrum do identify with Tillman. And people who know people who are on the spectrum have said they appreciate the opportunity to get inside Tillman's head and better understand his way of thinking.

Was my brother on the spectrum? Maybe. Maybe not. Simsion explained that he was deliberately vague about Tillman because being on the autism spectrum doesn't mean just one way of being. People are, after all, individuals.
"I consider you remarkably intelligent--"

"Don't say it."

"Say what?"

"'For a barmaid.' You were going to say that weren't you?"

Rosie had predicted correctly.

"My mother was a doctor. So is my father, if you're talking about genes. And you don't have to be a professor to be smart. I saw your face when I said I got seventy-four on the GAMSAT. You were thinking,
He won't believe this woman is that smart. But he did. So, put your prejudices away."

It was a reasonable criticism. I had little contact with people outside academia and had formed my assumptions about the rest of the world primarily from watching films and television as a child. I recognized that the characters in
Lost in Space and Star Trek were probably not representative of humans in general. Certainly, Rosie did not conform to my barmaid stereotype. It was quite likely that many of my other assumptions about people were wrong. This was no surprise.
In the end? Don Tillman learned he couldn't even rely on assumptions he'd made about himself.