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Archive for February, 2022

Edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown, You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, Resilience and the Black Experience is an anthology of black writers’ first person accounts of their experiences with the topics in the subtitle, which Brené Brown researches and writes about. You can read the introduction, a conversation between the editors about how this project came about, for free online. I haven’t read any of Brené Brown’s books, although I’ve read shorter pieces and am familiar with her work. Tarana Burke is known as the founder of the #MeToo movement, but she’s been working for racial and gender justice for much longer. Evidence of how internet algorithms further segregate us: there were a number of contributors I hadn’t heard of, even though I regularly read books and articles and take links about racial and gender justice.

My Me and White Supremacy alumni group read the introduction to You Are Your Best Thing for our last meeting, and some of us decided to read the whole book, so that we could learn more together. I really appreciated the gender and age diversity among contributors. There also seemed to be many different regions of America represented among them. I found myself wanting to read more, and will add many of these writers to my long term “to read” list.

Jason Reynolds is one of those. Here is a taste of his essay from the book, “Between Us: a Reckoning With My Mother,” in which he describes visiting his family’s southern farm in the summer:

“We’d gotten to know our cousins, trained our ears to decipher their drawls, and most important, were introduced to a part of our grandfather we’d never known. We’d only known a city man. But down South, we’d gotten to know a farmer. A giant who walked the rows, who sprinkled seeds on the ground and steered a tractor. A man who smashed melon on the ground and clawed the heart of it with his bare hands and passed it around to my brother and me like Communion host. There was a tenderness to him. A different kind of tenderness but a tenderness all the same. He wasn’t one for hugs and kisses but was always sure to thank his children and grandchildren for coming to see him.”

Each essay in You Are Your Best Thing has its own style of course, but they are all first person essays about the lived experiences of the writers, shared so that others can learn about vulnerability, shame and resilience. It’s a really important book to read if you don’t understand why movements for justice are still needed in this country. So many people supported Black Lives Matter two summers ago, or like me, have joined some kind of antiracism efforts but don’t really know many people of different races in our communities because so many places across America are pretty segregated. This book is definitely a way to learn more about Black lives. And to remember that Black Americans can’t take a break from racial equity concerns, so neither should white Americans.

You Are Your Best Thing is also about universal experiences of vulnerability, shame, and resilience. While my own life is privileged in terms of race and financial stability, I could identify with some of the contributors’ stories about with gender issues, family dynamics, and emotional experiences. You Are Your Best Thing is a lovely, heartfelt collection that reminds us all of the dignity of every person and the resilience of the human spirit. It’s good encouragement for anyone working towards a more just world where every person is valued, because these writers are each tremendous human beings who remind readers of what’s possible.

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Yep, those are two very different books. This is bookconscious, I’ll manage to find some connection – stay with me.

Let’s start with Audre Lorde. I read Sister Outsider for my class on Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition. The book is a collection of Audre Lorde’s essays, conference papers, and talks, first published in 1984. Lorde considered herself a poet, as the introduction by her editor, Nancy Boreano notes, but she is also a powerful prose writer. Lorde writes about the many facets of her own identity as a Black lesbian feminist and about the failings of movements that advocate narrowly for the liberation of just one segment of society. She was critical of feminism for not also fighting racism and classism, and of womanism for not lending support to gay and lesbian people. Like so much else that I’ve read lately, the parts of Sister, Outsider that spoke most to me were those addressing the institutional root cause of our divisions: capitalism.

As Lorde explains in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefinding Difference:”

“In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. . . . Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” Ironically, this wastes human capital, as Lorde notes, because the the outsiders are the ones who have to explain themselves to the dominant class: “There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

Like Pauli Murray, Lorde was ahead of her time in describing intersectionality, critiquing the reproduction of oppression in marginalized groups that inhibits liberation for everyone, critiquing the lack of racial cultural and socioeconomic diversity in women’s studies and academia, and recognizing the power of creativity in helping people work towards a freer society. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Lorde writes, “It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

The essays on Lorde’s visits to the Soviet Union and Grenada are also very interesting and educational (the invasion of Grenada always baffled me, and I see it now in the context of US imperialism in Latin America), and bookend the collection. An interesting, thought provoking read. I wonder what Lorde would have to say about the rifts in human rights movements today? Her critiques unfortunately are still needed today, and it seems to me she would call on people to stop reproducing hierarchies of oppression within the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities as well as other progressive movements. I feel like she would appreciate The Sum of Us. Plus, she was a librarian! I look forward to really thoroughly processing her teaching in class.

Now how on earth am I going to connect Audre Lorde with Ben Winters? Well. The characters in his book, The Quiet Boy, are in one way or another victims of the same profit-over-people economy that Lorde cautions us to resist. That’s as far as I’ll go to push the connection right now.

Still, when I’m reading a book that requires studying — careful attention and thought, followed by processing what I’ve read and considering where it fits into the other reading I’m doing or have done, how it relates to the course, what learning it offers, what work I still need to do — it’s nice to have a mystery to read before sleeping. Like working a puzzle, reading something that swiftly moves your brain from clue to clue can be a great release. But this is no pat mystery (not that there’s anything wrong with reading those). Ben Winters is an author I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, and his books are always intriguing and thoughtful. This one was interesting for me to read as I now work in a hospital, and the plot revolves around a lawyer trying to win a malpractice trial after a boy named Wesley hits his head, is operated on, and is a shell of himself, walking endlessly in his room without speaking or interacting in any discernibly human way with those around him.

The lawyer, Jay Shenk, is hired again by Wesley’s family over a decade later when his father is accused of murdering the scientist who served as an expert witness in the malpractice trial. Throughout the book, Jay’s relationship with his son Ruben, and the impact of the two cases on Ruben’s life, are the focus. A mysterious man and his small band of followers are convinced that because of his condition, Wesley is the key to bringing about a “good and golden world” and this little existentially motivated cult play a key part in both cases. This twist is provocative in the best way, as are the themes Winters treats so well: the nuances of ethical behavior, family relationships, the impact of those who’ve died (or become walking shells of themselves) on the living, what it is that can transform humanity into a better version of itself.

One of the things I love about his books is that people I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, like a policeman (in his Last Policeman trilogy) or an “ambulance chaser” lawyer like Jay Shenk shine as not only fully human but also deeply empathetic characters. Winters gently challenges readers to look beyond the exterior of the “usual suspects” that appear in his books, and he manages to make the familiar pattern of a mystery (which is comforting for many readers; we like mysteries because they fit into our deeply grooved mental binaries of good and bad) and expands it to something much more complex and thought provoking and even instructive.

You can learn a thing or two about being a better human from Winters’ books. There you go. Another way reading Audre Lorde connects with reading Ben Winters.

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I started the new year off with some heavy duty nonfiction. My dad sent me a copy of The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren, and our elder offspring gave me Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner for Christmas. Both were tough in their way, but good reads.

Let’s begin with what everything in America (and most of the world) begins and ends with: capitalism. Tanner’s book examines the idea of the “protestant work ethic” and also looks at capitalism’s morphing into an entirely finance driven enterprise that causes both private and public sectors to cut costs (working fewer employees harder, outsourcing, etc.) in order to please investors by producing greater profit or yielding higher interest rates on bonds. If you’ve wondered why your taxes go up but your city isn’t really providing any more services — and in some cases is cutting them — this little book explains it pretty handily.

She gets into detailed explanations of the crazy financial investment products that led to the Great Recession (if you liked The Big Short, you’ll enjoy her lucid overview) and explains why workers, especially those with few resources, get caught in cycles of debt and employment insecurity. Basically, why most of us are the chaff in the financial elite’s fat harvest. I especially enjoyed the places in the book where she noted that this system actually undermines the long term sustainability of companies that are “succeeding” according to financial capitalism’s rules, because there is only so long they can squeeze out lower costs and higher profits before companies or governments reach unsustainably low staffing levels or simply can’t force suppliers or vendors to price materials and services any lower. And there reaches a point when monitoring and measuring employees limits rather than enhances their productivity.

I was with Tanner as she explained all this, and I understood, to a point, the ways that our relationship to time — our perceptions of past, present and future — are impacted by capitalism’s relentless push for financial gain at all cost. And I followed her lines of thought as she described why Christianity is not aligned with these theories of profit over people, and why God’s creation, including humans, is not enhanced by these systems.

As Tanner writes, “The materials upon which we work have value prior to our activity insofar as they form non-purposive ‘products’ of God’s creative activity. God created them for no purpose or end other than to be reflections of God’s glory. We are similarly not responsible for creating the value of what we are and will be through productive activities, whether on ourselves or other things. . . . With an anthropology of production in which human work is the source of value fundamentally undermined, the heightened work ethic of finance-dominated capitalism collapses. One can no longer expect personal fulfillment through work in any ordinary sense of that.”

Which is more or less the view I came to (without the analysis of finance-dominated capitalism Tanner engages in) last spring, when I had a kind of ah-ha realization that my satisfaction in life comes from my relationship with God and with my fellow members of creation (human and non) and that my satisfaction in life decidedly did not and would never come from work. Which a few months later was a factor in my decision to leave my job (more on that over at Nocturnal Librarian), albeit for another one.

But as I read Tanner’s book I was hoping for a clearer explanation of the ways Christianity can not only discredit the theory of work upheld by finance-dominated capitalism, but also help people unshackle themselves. Barring that — which after all is impractical when every good and service we need to live a healthy life is produced by the system we’re shackled to — I was hoping at least for more practical advice for how ordinary Christians can take heart in the face of a system so tirelessly devoted to grinding up workers and spitting out profit.

In fairness, Tanner was not out to write a how-to or self-help book. She’s an academic, and she wrote Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism to respond to the work of previous academics and to develop her own theories in a way that allows her to reach not only the students in her classroom but those beyond, including this ex-library director now hourly hospital worker. It is a challenging read, not to be undertaken at bedtime or after your evening glass or two of wine. And definitely one that required re-reading in places. But I appreciated wrestling with the information Tanner presented and I felt validated. I’d had a sense that my “ah ha” was a sign of spiritual/ethical growth and not just being fed up at work, and Tanner helped me understand that better.

Now on to the easier to read but no less challenging to think about book about climate change.

The Story of More takes a systematic approach to examining all of the changes in the world that led to climate change since author Hope Jahren was a child. She’s about my age so I found her data interesting since she’s talking about my lifetime, too. The data is staggering, and she uses a lot of imagery to bring it to life. One example I read aloud to the Computer Scientist that he actually asked me to send him the next morning because he couldn’t stop pondering it (to set the scene is, Jahren is flying from Newark to Minneapolis):

“If instead of flying, all two hundred of us escaped from the plane into two hundred separate cars and drove, individually, from New Jersey to Minnesota, we would have collectively burned 40 percent less fuel than we ended up using for that one plane by flying together. If instead of using separate cars we had boarded a single passenger train, the total journey would have required only half as much fuel as was required for the gas-guzzling airplane that saved each one of us fourteen hours of travel time.”

Vivid, right? The whole books is studded with these kinds of examples. Jahren is a scientist, so she is methodical and thorough. She covers all the things humans use and consume, like food and energy, as well as the impacts we’re having on what’s around us, including, air, water, weather, and our fellow inhabitants of earth (human, plant, and animal). The Story of More is very much connected to the story of capitalism, so reading them both at the same time was a lot.

My dad told me he liked the book because it’s hopeful. Jahren is hopeful, and is clear that the future is in all of our hands. She explains why individual actions to reduce our consumption — to get from more to less — are important, because they add up, especially if those who consume the most cut back. And she lays out a step by step plan for prioritizing, reviewing, taking steps, journaling, etc. so that readers can act on what they’ve learned.

The reasons I find it hard to wrap my head around this as a solution are:

  1. if people can’t be persuaded that their personal actions can help end a pandemic, say by wearing masks, or getting vaccinated, why on earth should we expect that people will voluntarily choose to consume less? And,
  2. see above. Finance-dominated capitalism is pervasive, overwhelms everything in its sight, and is the driving force behind the “more” in The Story of More.

Still, as The Sum of Us so beautifully explains (I still find hope in that book, months after reading it), there’s power in solidarity. Consuming less, like overcoming the most dehumanizing aspects of finance-dominated capitalism, requires working together. Jahren knows this too, and suggests starting a dialogue with others. I agree that talking about this is a place to start. And The Story of More may be a catalyst for those kinds of conversations that can lead to action. It’s definitely a good choice for book clubs, which is why my dad read it.

So what to do with all of this? I’m still processing, but here’s how I spent my day today. I have Wednesdays off at my new job. I chose work that only takes up 36 hours a week, where I can still get health insurance for my family but have a whole extra day for the things that DO bring me satisfaction. I caught up with an old friend on the phone. Got some COVID rapid tests so I can continue to test at the end of each workweek ahead of visiting with our older offspring and his rescue pup. Had a couple of Zoom meetings with new friends in an organization I’ve become involved with, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action. Attended a noonday prayer service with friends I’ve met from all over the country over the past two years who are my Companions in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, where we caught up (I’ve missed seeing them for a couple of weeks because I was covering Wednesdays for a sick coworker), brought our gratitude and concerns to God, and laughed together. Took a walk with our younger offspring. Was amused by our two cats. Used up some leftovers to make a delicious dinner. Researched funds where I could invest my rollover of retirement funds from my previous job without supporting the prison industrial complex or fossil fuel extraction. And wrote.

Will any of this break the chains of capitalism or end climate change? No, not these small actions by themselves. But I spent my time on the relationships that do bring me satisfaction, and my small steps will add up with every other person’s small steps. So I guess Dad’s right, that’s hopeful.

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