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 do 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 lives 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.

Basically, Gaiman sounds like he's telling a 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.