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Archive for the ‘anti-war’ Category

Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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As I mentioned in my last post, the bookconscious household spent October packing up, moving, and unpacking. We are so happy to be mostly settled in our new (to us) home, back in New Hampshire. I noodled around a couple of books while in transit — I read most of Out of Africa and some of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Madness.

My mental and physical chaos weren’t conducive to concentrating for long periods of time. And I was having a hard time keeping track of where various books were — we packed you-don’t-want-to-know-how-many book boxes. When I’d reached the zenith of my move discomfort level, on the very last weekend in our small town in Georgia, I went to the library book sale.

We didn’t really need any more books to pack, but I am a book junkie: I absolutely love the little jolt of pleasure that comes with finding a treasure among the trash at book sales. I found a few potential gems, including one book that fit both my state of mind and my need for portable reading material I could slip in my bag: The War Prayer by Mark Twain.

My edition is illustrated by John Groth. Twain wrote the piece and submitted it to Harper’s Bazaar in 1905, when he had become disillusioned by the Spanish American War, specifically the war in the Philippines. The magazine rejected it, and because he had an exclusive contract, he couldn’t sell it elsewhere. He told a friend in a letter, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” His prediction was accurate, and the prayer remained in his papers until 1923, when it came out in a posthumous collection.

The War Prayer is a short piece, describing the scene in a small town church, where the patriotic congregation has gathered to send their young men off to battle. The pastor prays that they will be successful, imploring God to:” . . . make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –”

What struck me as I read this first part was that Twain could have been describing a church service in America today, sending a unit off to Iraq or Afghanistan. We’re a long way from 1905, yet some of us are still praying for the destruction of our enemies and we are still sending young people off to battle. Depressing that the pastor’s words, written in another century, could fit the current situation so easily:

“Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

Haven’t you seen or heard the same sort of rhetoric in the past few years? I know we did in rural south Georgia. An alarming (although happily, dwindling) number of people believe that God blesses our troops and is on America’s “side” because as the President insists, “our cause is just.”

Never mind that this is exactly the sort of thing we decry in Islamic extremist propaganda. Ministers and other leaders of churches in our little town either stayed quiet or chimed in with the patriotic blather in 2003. In fact, I ruffled some feathers at our Episcopalian parish by asking why we weren’t discussing, as followers of the Prince of Peace, the moral problems with pre-emptive war.

Brief aside: one reason I love my new neighborhood is that there appears to be, based on an unscientific survey of yard signs, a healthy dose of dissent here, and also, not everyone agrees with each other (yes, I am actually glad for people who don’t necessarily share my own views, as much as I am glad for those who do. A spectrum of ideas is the best thing for developing clear thinking, I believe).

My kids have asked how people who claim God’s approval know what God thinks, and I tell them, honestly, that in my opinion, they don’t know, they believe they know. I particularly struggled with explaining the “just cause” idea when it came up — even a kid can see that when it comes to the Iraq war, it’s a simple case of cognitive dissonance, or, “I chose this, so it is the best choice.” Stay the course.

Another brief aside: today was “Issues in Contemporary Science” at our house — with a nod to a fellow unschooler in Atlanta who I piked the name from, this means that the kids and I sit around the computer and read articles from Science News for Kids and the Science section of the New York Times, which comes out on Tuesdays.

Nothing like sitting in your jammies (the kids), drinking coffee (me), and discussing the latest happenings in the world of science, such as a study that explores cognitive dissonance in monkeys and 4 year old children., suggesting the instinct to believe our choices are superior to the alternatives is primal. When I sat down to write about The War Prayer, the connection came to me. Autodidactism is contagious.

My son was only 9 when America invaded Iraq. He asked our rector at the time whether soldiers who killed someone would go to hell, since he’d learned in Sunday school, “Thou shalt not kill.” When the rector shuffled a bit and said we couldn’t really know but that he felt probably not, my innocent child asked in a skeptical voice whether killing was really wrong, then, after all. Also, he asked me why we weren’t looking for the bad guys who flew those planes into buildings anymore, and what Iraq had to do with anything.

The kid’s a genius, and a lot of adult thinkers have come around to his way of seeing things. Twain was writing about the blinding patriotism that accompanies the rationalization process in wartime, and he really nailed it. When you read the second half of The War Prayer, you see the unpleasant, unavoidable truth. It’s not that the current war is a terrible disaster; all war is a terrible disaster.

As Twain’s minister wraps up, a stranger enters the church and begins his own prayer. He claims to be sent by God to speak the “unspoken” other half of the prayer. He tells the congregation they must “pause and think” about what they’ve asked. And then he lets loose with the flip side of praying for their own young men to enjoy a valiant victory in battle: the pain, suffering, destruction, and loss their answered prayers will cause for people just like them who are the families and friends of the young men on the other side of the fight.

Twain doesn’t mince words, and the second part of the prayer is tough to face: “help us to turn them out roofless with their little children,” and “help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells.” You can read for yourself what the congregation thinks of the strange visitor.

I’d like to send the link to all the presidential candidates, to all of Congress. No need to send it to the President, whose thinking is either the best example of cognitive dissonance I’ve ever heard or has been spun that way by his handlers. The thing is, I’m not sure any of them would act on it, just as the people in the church in The War Prayer are unmoved. Twain wrote his prayer before the worst wars of the twentieth century. It was published prior to the development of nuclear weapons. Generations of people have read it.

And we’re stuck, still rationalizing our bellicose behavior, still praying for victory. What is God thinking? Sometimes I think we’ll be sorry to find out. But I’m heartened that my children can clearly see the moral consequences of war regardless of the actions of the adult leaders in their world. Raising them to resist and respond to cognitive dissonance is at least one part of my own war prayer.

Teaching them that they can be the stranger in the room if they have the courage to keep asking questions is another part. On that note, I will email the link to my elected representatives after all. We’ll talk about it tomorrow during “Active Citizenry 101,” also known as reading and discussing the Concord Monitor over breakfast.

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