Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book #48: Shakespeare Saved My Life

A while back, I put this on my reading list upon the recommendation of a friend, then I was inspired to pick it up after attending a staged reading of a new play about Shakespeare's later years, written by my niece's husband, this past Monday evening.

The book is by a college professor who drew high-security prison inmates, particularly one lifer named Larry Newton, eventually her teaching assistant, into a deep study of Shakespeare's works over the course of ten years.

The stories she tells embody truths that I believe, made manifest in real life:

(1) That reading well written fiction enables us to develop empathy for others and to look squarely at our own selves.

(2) That someone who commits crimes is not simply a criminal and nothing else.

(3) That people generally respond favorably to being treated like adults who are capable of learning, growth, and positive change and to being given substantive, challenging opportunities to do just that.

Here are two excerpts that give a little hint about the journey:

And then [Newton] threw out his curve ball: "But why do you think [Hamlet's] seeking revenge?"

I held my breath. The group did not outright reject his question, but no one, not even Green, had an answer. This group consisted of seven men who were serving murder convictions; the eighth was convicted of attempted murder. To these prisoners, it was a no-brainer: murder requires revenge, and revenge requires murder. Duh!

"This guy killed his father, so Hamlet should kill him?" Newton prompted them.

"That's right!"


"That's what you do!"

"So, what? It's the 'honorable' thing to do?" he nudged them a bit more.

"Hell, yeah, it's honorable!" said Bentley, taking the bait.

"But why is it honorable?" he challenged them now. "What makes it honorable? And what is honor anyway?"

The group went quiet, thinking. No one had ever asked them to question such fundamental concepts that drove their lives and motivated their criminal choices. No one, that is, until Shakespeare--and Newton. Through the cuff port, he turned to me and gave me a wink. I nodded. We both knew the Shakespeare program was entering a whole new dimension. We were going to be changing lives back here.

Then a few years later Newton says this during an introduction to a performance the inmates gave of some scenes they had adapted from Romeo and Juliet.

"So the last few years that I was in segregation I spent analyzing and discussing Shakespeare through a hole in a steel door with a group of other prisoners. We'd discuss what we read, and everything would come up for discussion. We'd try to define these terms like honor, integrity, etc. It really forced me to find some kind of substance to these terms that shape our lives. I was forced to look in the mirror, basically, at myself, to give these things real meaning. That changed the way I felt about everything, about others, about myself. I was literally digging into the very root of myself while digging into Shakespeare's characters. For instance, I couldn't say that Hamlet's impulse for revenge was honorable if I couldn't tell you what honor is, and I couldn't. I still can't tell you what honor is, but I can tell you some of the things that it's not, and Hamlet's revenge is one of them."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book #47: Just Mercy

This week's book club selection, which was actually not at my recommendation, but I seconded the motion because I had a copy already on my nightstand.

If we don't look too closely, we can easily go through life assuming that our criminal justice system is working well, administering punishment objectively and fairly.

In too many cases, though, it's not.

Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, recounts, among others, the case of Walter McMillian, an innocent black man who was sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman. Ironically, the crime occurred in Monroeville, Alabama, hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I think we are waking up as a nation to at least the worst of the injustice--people on death row being found innocent, our disproportionate and unsustainable incarceration rates, heavy handed law enforcement in certain towns and cities, the destructiveness of solitary confinement, etc.

I think we are starting to respond, if tentatively.

I think we've got a long way to go.

While I have not been privy to gross injustice here in Utah, I have definitely witnessed uneven justice, and that uneven justice is typically connected to financial resources and legal representation.

A bit of evidence for this from the recent October 2015 report on the right to counsel prepared by the Sixth Amendment Center: "more people accused of misdemeanors are processed through Utah's justice courts without a lawyer than are represented by counsel - upwards of 62 percent of defendants statewide, according to the state Administrative Office of Courts' data."

I know many people, including myself, are big fans of our Constitution.

We've got work to do.

Watching this TED talk by author Bryan Stevenson can be a good place to start galvanizing ourselves to get to it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book #46: Lila

Marilynne Robinson is a good author to turn to when one is in need of spiritual contemplation and renewal, and so, this week, Lila.

Lila tells the story of the second wife of minister John Ames, the main character in Robinson's earlier novel Gilead. Until Lila meets and marries John, she lives a life of basic survival, without the context or the language to explore any larger sense of who she is or meaning in life.


Once, when they were out walking, he asked her what was on her mind, because she had been so quiet, and she said, "Nothing, really. Existence," which made him laugh with surprise and then apologize for laughing. He said, "I'd be interested to know your thoughts on it."
"I just don't know what to think about it at all sometimes."

He nodded. "It's remarkable, whatever else."

"Remarkable," she said, considering the word. . . . It had begun to seem to her that if she had more words she might understand things better. "You should be teaching me. . . . I had to learn that word 'existence.' You was talking about it all the time. It took me a while to figure out what you even meant by it."


Sometimes I contemplate this passage in the Bible and its relationship to the development of human consciousness: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

In a very real sense, words create the universe. We use language to describe that universe as we see it, our own known universe. Language defines but also elevates us, enabling us to transcend what we knew before. Language is key to understanding who we are, what it means to exist, what it means to exist together.

It is all of a process, an evolution, an ongoing creation.

The Word is with us.

We are in the middle of all of it, grappling, imperfectly conveying our perspective, imperfectly receiving from others. This past week especially. What is peace. What is moral. What is just. What is obedience, freedom, opportunity, equality, solidarity, truth, pain, safety, grace. What is love.

It can be so damn hard to figure out how to speak our own meaning, how to hear another's. Excruciating even.

But whenever we do, whenever we truly do, our known universe expands.

And that is remarkable, whatever else.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Book #45: No More Goodbyes

How ironic it was to be in the middle of reading this book when the news came out a few days ago that the LDS Church has new policies for how they will be handling membership decisions for same-sex couples and their children.

It was not ironic in an entertaining or thought-provoking way. It was deeply, painfully ironic.

I thought about reading a different book to write about today, but then I thought, no. This is too important.

The whole premise of No More Goodbyes, written by well-known LDS poet and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson, is that across religions, people of faith should be circling the wagons around our gay loved ones, not circling the wagons against them.

I do not want to write about the LDS Church's policies here, other than to say that the implications of them are much more far reaching than readily appear, and that it has been difficult to watch so many faithful Mormons share posts on social media that have minimized and even mocked the pain of their brothers and sisters who have been grappling with it all.

I do want to write about two experiences.

The first one I learned about over lunch with a dear friend of mine who is LDS and who has a gay son. She's very involved in the USGA group at BYU and had recently attended a meeting in which all the participants filled out a survey anonymously. The papers were gathered up and redistributed so that everyone ended up with a survey reflecting another person's answers. When each statement was read aloud, people silently stood if it was marked on their paper.

"I have considered committing suicide."

More than 90% of the 200 or so people in the room stood up. More than 90%.

Just sit with that a moment.

The second experience happened a month or so ago. I was honored to participate in a program at a local bookstore for a group called the Mama Dragons. These are LDS women who have LGBTQ children, and who are fiercely and lovingly navigating unknown and difficult paths with them.

After inspiring talks by author Carol Lynn Pearson and Tom Christofferson, a gay man who is also a brother of prominent LDS church leader D. Todd Christofferson, several Mama Dragons read essays about their experiences. These essays will be published in a book along with beautiful portraits of them by local photographer Kimberly Anderson.

Then I read the essay I was asked to share. It was written by a Mama Dragon who can't reveal her identity because her son is still closeted outside the family and is serving a mission for the LDS Church. The agony in her words was palpable.

"No one can see me because I am invisible," she wrote. "I still have to protect my son from the church that will eventually tear him apart. This is my darkness and my loneliness. This is being the Mormon mother of a gay son."

"No one can see me because I am invisible."

Please, please do not minimize or mock the pain. It is real. You may not see it, but it is there. Circle the wagons around.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Book #44: The Boston Girl

Seriously, how could I not read this book? A favorite author, a favorite setting, a favorite kind of story, the life of an interesting woman, one with dreams that didn't fit expectations.

The main character, Addie Baum, tells the story of how she met her husband, a good and easy match for her after two painful misses. But the more part of the story she tells is about her meandering but ultimately satisfying career, and her friendships with sisters, peers, and the women she met along the way who mentored her.

As I read, I kept remembering different women I've met over the course of my life that I've connected with, learned from, shared confidences with, laughed with, loved. They are all so different from one another, and they've all helped bring different parts of me into better focus.

I am deeply thankful for all of them. And I hope I've done a bit of the same in return.

One of the most exquisite moments in the book for me came when Addie was reunited, after a 10-year separation, with her old friend Filomena, who tells her this:

"That time I almost died in the bathtub, what kept me going was the look on your face and Irene's and that wonderful nurse. I could see how worried you were, not mad or angry or disappointed. You just didn't want me to die. And afterward, too, you never looked at me with anything but love: no pity, no judgment. I've thought about this a lot, Addie. You made it possible to forgive myself."

I want to move through the world that way, like the Boston girl.

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