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Posts Tagged ‘gratitude’

My friends Peg & Nicki recently recommended Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer is a scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her book is part memoir, part sharing of indigenous knowledge and beliefs, and part natural (and unnatural, in the case of the poisoning of Onandaga Lake, clear cutting of forests and draining of estuaries) history. It’s a book that describes ecological degradation as a broken relationship. This makes the work of repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment clearer, although not necessarily easier: “Here is where our most challenging and rewarding work lies, in restoring a relationship of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity,” Kimmerer writes.

This is countercultural, at least from the perspective of the dominant culture in America today. In fact, visiting an Onandaga Nation School near her home in New York, Kimmerer watches the children leading and participating in the Thanksgiving Address, and comments on how this teaching is so different from the way most people relate to the earth as a collection of resources to be exploited. This passage gives you a sense of her wonderful writing and the main point of Braiding Sweetgrass:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

The Thanksgiving Address is very different from the Pledge of Allegiance Kimmerer (and most of us) grew up saying in school, which purports that the flag stands for “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — a notion that is clearly not the case if you spend any time examining the way race and socioeconomic status, as well as gender, cultural background and religion if it’s not Christian, determine who has access to liberty and justice in contemporary America. The Thanksgiving Address “reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom.” It’s “a pledge of interdependence,” Kimmerer notes. Imagine.

Whether she is writing about restoring the pond behind her home, healing the legacy of government schools where Native American children were stripped of their culture, learning alongside a graduate student that harvesting Sweetgrass makes it grow more plentifully, making Maple syrup, rescuing salamanders from a roadway, or raising her daughters, Kimmerer infuses her prose with appreciation and gratitude for the natural world, and a sense that “We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us.”

Which is what justice for all is really about, and what most if not all faith traditions teach — that we are here to care for one another. Kimmerer extends that to what she refers to as non-human people, including plants. It seems to me that this thinking helps make a way forward with regards to environmental and every other kind of justice clear (and again, I don’t mean easy). Gratitude and mutual responsibility towards each other and the earth, definitely. But for starters, simple awareness that everything we own, consume, use up, is likely in our life because another life ended for it — trees and other plants, the prehistoric creatures who died and became fossil fuels, insects, animals, algae, etc.

This isn’t an easy or quick read. Kimmerer’s writing is beautiful but requires careful consideration. It took me over two weeks, although I was also finishing a class and  started with the eBook version from my library, which crashed so often I went to my local indie bookstore and bought a paper copy, for which I am grateful. I think this is a book to savor and to return to. But if you’re looking for a summer read with some substance, Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent choice. Thanks, Peg & Nicki!

 

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It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, Get Going! is a children’s book (I’ve seen it suggested for grades 5-8) which I read as part of our library’s teen & adult winter reading program, Book Bingo. Here’s my card so far:

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Clinton was also the final speaker at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston last week, where I was giving an Ignite talk on our customer service initiative, so the book caught my eye there.

Clinton writes about two main inspirations for writing It’s Your World. First her parents and grandparents, who taught her to be interested in and engaged with the world to appreciate her own good fortune, and second, a book some of you may remember, Fifty Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. Clinton peppers her explanations of issues relating to economics, human rights, health, and the environment with personal anecdotes about her own early activism. She shares things she thought and felt as a child, like worrying about the plastic rings on six packs, helping her grandmother quit smoking, and being alarmed when she learned about the plague.

Clinton makes being curious and engaged seem not only cool, but normal, which is a nice touch. I did some letter writing as a kid (I was very concerned about the fate of the Snail Darter after reading in Ranger Rick that a dam was threatening its habitat) but I recall feeling like it was a pretty geeky thing to do. I did appreciate that I could get grown up information about this kind of thing and act on it, and Clinton’s book takes a similar tone — kids are capable of getting the facts and deciding where they stand, and of doing something positive. Each chapter ends with “Get Going!” suggestions.

I also like that she presents different ways people come at problems like poverty or hunger and then tells readers, “You’ll have to decide what to think,” or “You’ll have to make up your mind.” A book suggesting kids get the facts, think, and decide seems like a very good idea to me. She also suggests kids thank people who are making a difference, referring to this as “the discipline of gratitude” that her mom and grandmother taught her. And to share what they’ve learned with other people.

One small style issue: Clinton repeats certain points (and even notes she is doing so) throughout the book. I wondered if this was necessary, but studies do show that people need to hear things repeatedly before they sink in. More on that in a bit  . . . .

Even though I’m a grown up who volunteers and keeps up with issues that concern me, I still learned some things as I read It’s Your World, or thought about them in new ways. I did not know George Washington had his troops vaccinated against smallpox, or that pangolins are among the most endangered mammals on earth.

One thing that is both heartening and confounding is how many nonprofits Clinton cites in this book. I couldn’t help think that if I were a kid reading this, I’d wonder why the heck all of these problems are still happening, if we have facts and information about them and there are so many smart, capable, and kind people working to solve them.

So that’s my main quibble, and it’s a pretty cynical one. Is it right to give kids such an optimistic view of things when humankind has historically continued to harm each other, ourselves, and the planet whether we know better or not? Clinton’s belief that “small things matter” and suggestions of what kids can do every day (eat breakfast at school so no one who has to feels awkward, get your family to take walks) and over their lifetimes (recycle, give, use less energy, shop intentionally) may give kids the impression they can make more of a difference than they really can. There’s evidence that recycling sometimes uses more carbon that it saves, and that not all nonprofits are effective or ethical, for example. Granted that’s not the point of the book, but it bears mentioning.

Ok, I suppose criticizing a book for giving kids too much hope is really pretty grinchy. And some people —like Bill Gates, for example — who regularly talk to those working on the world’s problems see reasons for hope. And maybe the more individual people act responsibly, fairly, and peacefully the more likely  a global increase in civility and a decrease in inequality become.

But probably not, because  . . . humankind has historically continued to harm each other, ourselves, and the planet whether we know better or not. Still, I guess that doesn’t mean we should quit trying.

I’ve already admitted that I write letters, volunteer, and advocate for causes I believe in, so don’t worry, or flood me with comments about being cynical with kids. There is an important factor that Clinton sort of hints at behind all altruistic behavior — we do it because it feels good. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor with wanting to feel less helpless in the face of huge global challenges. So I’d recommend this book if you have a kid in your life. Just a suggestion though? Occasionally let them know that bad things happen, and not everything works as intended.

 

 

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