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.

This 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 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: if we want to disappear race we have to see it 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."