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Our younger offspring gave her father The Body: a Guide for Occupants by family favorite Bill Bryson last Christmas. It caught my eye when I was clearing piles of books off the table in the living room (actually just moving to the shelf underneath) to put out a candle carousel nativity scene the first Sunday in Advent. That was nearly two weeks ago. At 383 pages plus notes, this book is a commitment.

Bryson’s writing is as delightful as ever. As in his previous books, he tracked down stories of little known accomplishments and forgotten heroes, this time in the history of health and physiology. There are plenty of human interest stories throughout the book — I had no idea how many people have experimented on themselves, or their family members, for the advancement of science. Like Ernest Lawrence, who used the cyclotron he invented for his research as a physicist to shoot radiation at his mother’s cancer (it worked).

Bryson also relishes debunking myths, such as this beloved trope: “The more or less univeral belief that we should all walk ten thousand steps a day — that’s about five miles — is not a bad idea, but it has no special basis in science. Clearly, any ambulation is likely to be beneficial, but the notion that there is a universal magic number of steps that will give us health and longevity is a myth. The ten thousand-step idea is often attributed to a single study done in Japan in the 1960s, though it appears that also may be a myth.”

Even better, he goes on to say that the CDC’s recommendation for the amount of exercise one should get in a week is “. . . based not on the optimal amount needed for health, because no one can say what that is, but on what the CDC’s advisers think people will perceive as realistic goals.” Well, that’s not very reassuring, is it? Bryson reveals all kinds of myths and misconceptions, and repeatedly reminds readers that science is a process of discovering not only what we know, but also expanding what we don’t know. It’s refreshing to read a popular science writer who is unafraid of uncertainty. I spent a fair amount of time over the past three years in University of Edinburgh’s Science Communication and Public Engagement graduate program thinking about how to communicate uncertainty without causing people to distrust science. Bryson does it very well.

To be clear, Bryson also notes when the science is settled, which isn’t often. My takeaway is that moderation is generally a safe bet — be reasonable about sleep, food, exercise, etc. I heard an interview with Bryson last year (it may have been this one, from BBC’s Science Focus podcast) where he said the most important thing we can do to live longer is not sit around. Sitting is worse for us than most things. Which sucks, since most of us sit a fair bit; even more during COVID when we don’t have any other offices to wander into and have a chat during the workday.

Anyway, because of the subject matter, not the writing, I was ready for the book to end. Which it does, fittingly, with a chapter called The End (how we die and decompose). Nearly 400 pages of detailed information about how the various systems of the human body work (or stop working properly), what can go wrong, and how ineffectual or misguided much of what we do to take care of ourselves actually is, was plenty. If you are a Bryson fan, or like good science writing generally, The Body is certainly a good read. And in retrospect it might be a good book to leave on a living room table and dip into, rather than tackling all at once.

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My dad sent me For Love & Money: Writing. Reading. Travelling 1969-87 by Jonathan Raban. He’s a fan of Raban’s travel writing. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to read this book for a few reasons. First, between the election and COVID, I’ve been a little distracted by news (ok, to be honest, I’ve been, like most of us, compulsively scrolling). Second, I have been watching more television: the four part screen adaptation of Summer’s Lease, the Great British Baking Show, and season 4 of The Crown. Third, For Love & Money just isn’t a quick read.

For starters, although the narrative is about Raban’s development as a writer, the three parts are only related in that way. It’s not like reading a book with a beginning, middle, and end. Raban tells us about his childhood and early aspirations as a writer, his starting out as a professor and his chucking academia for the freelance life. But along the way, there is a whole chapter that unless I’m really missing something, is someone else’s story (A Senior Lectureship), which I didn’t quite understand. The reviews section is very interesting, and shows readers what Raban was doing as a reader and writer, but require a little insider’s knowledge, either of the authors and their works or England and English history and society.

This makes for a sense of starts and stops rather than a smooth, flowing book. Some sections read more as narratives. I loved the part about The New Review and Raban’s early days as a freelancer. I admit to laughing out loud reading the section on Freya Stark rafting down the Euphrates and the section on Florida. Describing Stark calmly embroidering on the raft while all around, rain fell and tempers rose as the BBC crew and the locals argued about logistics Raban writes, “You need to have that peculiarly Arab sense of the absurdity of most human endeavor in the face of anything as mighty and unyielding as the landscape of the Euphrates. That is exactly what Dame Freya has: a serene humor that can be maddening to the sort of people who live off nerves and sandwiches.”

Raban visits Florida in the 80s because he’s been reading the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald and he wants to meet him. He’s utterly amazed by the wildlife (“I had only seen alligators in zoos. Here they littered the banks of the ditch by the side of the road.”). And the natives (he describes meeting a man wearing a hat that says “If God made man in his image he must be a redneck” and the conversation they have about hunting; he also describes American senior citizens in “pastel romperwear” driving around in golf carts that are reminiscent of “tricycles and sandpits”). And the the commercial hucksterism (“It was a goldrush landscape, torn to bits by the diggings of latterday prospectors. The skyline was jagged with unfinished condos, the roadside a bright mess of of advertising hoardings that begged the passing motorist to invest in his own patch of heaven before it was too late”). “Everywhere I looked, someone was trying to bribe me to inspect their condominiums,” Raban writes. His description of touring one complex in exchange for lunch was especially funny.

He also meets MacDonald and writes admiringly about him as well as his writing. And that is the kind of writer Raban is, generous, truthful (he doesn’t hold back in the more critical of his reviews), observant, smart. There were a few places where I felt lost, because I think at times the books pieces that appeared elsewhere read a little awkwardly strung together to try to make a narrative. But I have a sense that if I’d dipped into this book here and there instead of reading it start to finish, that wouldn’t have seemed like an issue. I also really enjoyed the personal essays, in particular the story of Raban’s family and how he both grew up and grew out of his childhood and came to make peace with it.

For Love & Money ends with Raban’s finding the boat he ended up sailing around the UK in, which he wrote about in Coasting. That sounds like one of his best books. Anyway I’m glad to get to know one of my dad’s favorite writers and to be reminded of how much I enjoy travel writing. Not the kind that reads, as Raban dismissively describes, “as a more or less decorated version of the ship’s log” but the kind that tells a story about a journey. Raban explains the difference very nicely.

As a bonus, I hadn’t heard of Eland, the publisher of this book. Its purpose is to “revive great travel books” that are no longer in print, and publishes other works “chosen for their interest in spirit of place.” I’ll have to explore their list!

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I’ve heard great things about Atul Gawande‘s books, but hadn’t read any of them. My dad sent me and my brother each a copy of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End so we can have a conversation about how he’d like things to be if he reaches a point that he can’t care for himself and what he’s prefer the end of his life to be like. Gawande notes that many people avoid this kind of conversation.

Gawande explains why this matters by telling stories of patients and his own family members facing such decisions. He also briefly outlines the history of aging and dying, and the state of geriatric care (not great) at the time of his writing in 2014. It turns out, like so many other things about healthcare in America, this situation is mainly caused by money, and yet investing in more geriatric specialists or at least training in geriatrics for doctors and nurses would improve health outcomes and save money. As Gawande notes,

“If scientists came up with a device — call it an automatic defrailer — that wouldn’t extend your life but would slash the likelihood you’d end up in a nursing home or miserable with depression, we’d be clamoring for it. We wouldn’t care if doctors had to open up your chest and plug the thing into your heart. We’d have pink ribbon campaigns to get one for every person over seventy-five. Congress would be holding hearings demanding to know why forty-year-olds couldn’t get them installed. Medical students would be jockeying to become defrailation specialists and Wall Street would be bidding up company stock prices.”

Just after the study came out, however, the university where the doctors worked closed the geriatrics department. There is a shortage of geriatric specialists — because this is not a profitable specialty for the corporations that run hospitals and medical practices — even as we have an aging population. Gawande points out similar information about hospice care, and about supportive services that help seniors stay in their homes. These things all improve quality of life, well being, and mental health for both seniors and their family members, result in fewer invasive medical procedures, emergency room visits, hospital stays, etc.

Besides discussing these unpleasant aspects of our health care system, and the way the vision of the founder of assisted living was abandoned to economic efficiency and legal protections, Gawande also tells some very inspiring, and even sometimes funny, stories about people who have attempted to reform the way we care for the elderly. Like the Eden Alternative, which simply introduced cats, dogs, birds, and children into a nursing home with terrific results, and its offshoot, the Green House project. And NewBridge, a community in the Boston area where people live in private rooms with communal shared spaces. And Peter Sanborn Place, a housing project for disabled and senior citizens where the remarkable director created her own version of aging-in-place supportive care so that her residents could have full lives.

As Gawande learned all this, he came to change the way he talks with patients himself. He credits a palliative care professional, Susan Block, with teaching him to ask patients, “What do they understand their prognosis to be, what are their concerns about what lies ahead, what kinds of trade-offs are they willing to make, how do they want to spend their time if their health worsens, who do they want to make decisions if they can’t?” Block notes that the purpose of these conversations isn’t necessarily to learn people’s last wishes or determine which treatment options to pick, but rather “to learn what’s most important to them under the circumstances.” To help them “negotiate the overwhelming anxiety” that comes with “arriving at the acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits of medicine.”

With these conversations, which Gawande acknowledges take time and skill, he envisions a cultural shift from the mindset that medicine should fix everything. He counsels courage, “. . . to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.” And, “to act on the truth we find.”

This is an excellent, if difficult read. It may make you angry at the systems we have erected in our society that prioritize profit instead of people. But it will also give you hope, that there are people within those systems working to make a difference. And it will give you tools to empower yourself and your loved ones when you find yourself facing mortality.

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I read All About Love by bell hooks last February, just before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent. I don’t think I shared before that my introduction to the bell hooks, prior to reading that book, was an essay recommended by the same student who suggested I purchase Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching for the library where I worked, a student who organized a book club for other young men, who told me he was a big fan of hooks’ writing. As I look back, his recommendation was my real introduction to antiracism (as opposed to simply non-racism), although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I am grateful to that young man and hope he is doing well now.

I digress. Back in the spring, I bought Belonging, also by bell hooks, because I had enjoyed All About Love and also Wendell Berry‘s This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems which I read parts of along with an accompanying Lent devotional booklet from Salt project, and Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis, which connects agrarian themes in the Hebrew scriptures with the writing of Berry and other contemporary agrarians. I knew that in Belonging, hooks talks about how much she admired Wendell Berry’s work, not only on racism (The Hidden Wound) but also on agrarianism; in fact one chapter is an interview hooks conducted with Berry. I was looking for something that was meaningful and also affirming of humankind’s potential and so Belonging floated up to the top of my to read pile.

Because that’s the thing about hooks: despite a tough childhood and growing up in white supremacist segregated Kentucky, hooks write a fair bit about joy, integrity, creativity, self-reliance. Don’t get me wrong, she writes very clearly and searingly about “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and does not sugar coat a thing. But she also writes about what freedom, safety and belonging she felt in the hills of her girlhood, the self-reliance and self-expression her grandparents felt in growing food and making beautiful quilts (like these), and the joy to be found in community. Growing up she learned, “Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy.”

The essays in Belonging focus on community, but hooks has an expansive view of that word, to include environmental justice as well as racial justice. She talks about the sense of loss she felt leaving Kentucky, even though it had been a painful place for her, and the years she spent trying to find and nurture community in cities where she thought she did belong. But for hooks, belonging is as much connected to the human need to be in right relation with the earth as it is to the same need to be in right relation with each other. Her sense of Kentucky as “homeplace” has as much to do with the land as the people, and she writes movingly about the destruction wrought by hilltop removal and her own work to preserve land.

Having just finished Me and White Supremacy, which I was working through as I was reading Belonging, and I found myself feeling hooks was speaking directly to me when she addressed the fact that even though individual white may be anti-racist, as a group, progressive whites are as racist as any others in her experience, especially when it comes to self-segregating in white neighborhoods. I can think of only 3 homes in my neighborhood where either nonwhites or immigrants live. In fact, all my life, I’ve never lived in a truly diverse neighborhood.

In reminding us that racist habits are so deeply ingrained in American culture, hooks addresses all readers. She writes about the psychological impact of racism, systemic dominator culture and white supremacism and how that prevents both Blacks and whites from trusting and moving forward towards community. White people, she notes, are the ones who have to “work at unlearning and challenging the patterns of racist thought and behavior that are still the norm in our society” — so that it is safe for Blacks to do so as as well. And yet, she is hopeful:

“Yet most people still long for community and that yearning is the place of possibility, the place where we might begin as a nation to think and dream anew about the building of beloved community.”

Speaking to how this can come about, hooks says:

“Those of us who truly believe racism can end, that white supremacist thought and action can be challenged and changed, understand that there is an element of risk as we work to build community across difference. The effort to build community in a social context of racial inequality (much of which is class based) requires an ethic of relational reciprocity, one that is anti-domination. With reciprocity all things do not need to be equal in order for acceptance and mutuality to thrive. If equality is evoked as the only standard by which it is deemed acceptable for people to meet across boundaries and create community, then there is little hope. Fortunately, mutuality is a more constructive and positive foundation for the building of ties that allow for differences in status, position, power, and privilege whether determined by race, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality.”

How to achieve mutuality? Service. Again I can’t possibly say it better, so I will quote hooks:

“Dominator culture devalues the importance of service. Those of us who work to undo negative hierarchies of power understand the humanizing nature of service, understand that in caregiving and caretaking we make ourselves vulnerable. And in that place of vulnerability there is the possibility of recognition, respect, and mutual partnership.”

In the final chapters of Belonging she writes about how that taking care — of friends, of family, of herself, and of the land — has helped her come home. In Belonging readers can both learn and understand the forcers we are up against in contemporary America and how to overcome them. It’s not easy, but hooks shows us the way.

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I discussed Braiding Sweetgrass with a group of science librarians over the summer, and that group chose Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller as our next read. We only have to have the first half of it read by next week but I sat down with it over the weekend and didn’t want to put it down. By Sunday night I’d read the whole thing.

Miller starts out by telling readers that she began to learn about David Starr Jordan, famed taxonomist, especially of fish species, and first president of Stanford, in earnest (and in great detail — Miller was a history major and she knows how to really dig into research) when she was at a low point in her life. She wanted to know “what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.” She had heard about Jordan early in her science reporting career, and felt it was remarkable that when hundreds of one-of-a-kind fish specimens were broken and jumbled in the 1906 earthquake, representing years of work lost in a few minutes, he was not overcome, but dug back into his work.

While the book jacket and publicity make this sound like a science history book with a dash of memoir, it seems to me to be the opposite. Why Fish Don’t Exist is the story of a young woman trying to understand her family, her life, and her future. She’s seeking something to believe in that can make what her scientist father told her as a child less depressing: you don’t matter (and neither does anyone) in the grand scheme of things. This wasn’t meant to put her down, by the way, he just believes it, scientifically.

As Miller goes deeper into Jordan’s story, she begins to realize this man who she looked to for hope, this historical figure who managed to rise from humble origins, and get back up again and go on after many setbacks and personal tragedies, was deeply flawed. He acted unethically and selfishly, ignored or marginalised the indigenous and immigrant people who helped him collect specimens, and it’s even quite likely he murdered Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders. He was also one of the most outspoken and prominent proponents of eugenics in America.

Miller, still struggling with her own “chaos” — depression that dogged her and her eldest sister, tension in her household growing up, a broken relationship she hoped to patch up for several years — laments, “That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live.” The one her father taught her about. Where there is no “cosmic justice.” Unless there is . . . .

Because just when it seems she’s run the story to its end, Miller learns “that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.” I can’t ruin the story by telling you why not — you really have to read the book. But it’s fascinating, and now I think it’s amazing that the category fish persisted for so long, and I followed my husband and grown daughter around the house telling them about it in minute detail yesterday.

What I appreciate is that Miller neither dwells too long in her own chaos nor in Jordan’s; she is thorough without being heavy handed. I learned not only that fish don’t exist, but also a whole lot about the eugenics movement (and I wondered why I’d never learned about such an important and horrible aspect of American history in any depth before). And about “story editing” — the answer Miller found when she wondered whether deluding oneself is ever a good idea. And resilience, which Miller and several other people she writes about appear to have admirable amounts of.

A fascinating read, which you will want to share (whether your current housemates want you to or not). It could have been depressing, since after all this is partly the story of patriarchal hubris. But Miller makes it hopeful and lovely and so interesting.

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Although I own a print copy of H is for Hawk, I listened to it as an audio book; I’m not much of an audiobook listener, but if I was still driving to work every day I probably would have tried the audio of Helen Macdonald‘s new book, Vesper Flights, because she is an excellent reader. As it is, I was delighted to download the library eBook on the day the book was released, which was lucky. I don’t love e reading, and it takes me longer than print, but while I’m not going to physical libraries, I’ve been pretty happy with the selection of new (and some old) books on Hoopla, which doesn’t have holds and long waiting lists like Overdrive or cloudLibrary. 

Vesper Flights is on Hoopla so I got it right away. It’s a collection of essays, some of which are reprinted and others, new. I hadn’t read any of them before, so it didn’t matter much to me which were which. She writes about the natural world, and many of her pieces are about birds, but as in H is for Hawk, she tends to tie what she’s learned or observed about nature to observations about human nature. 

For example: “So often we think of mindfulness, of existing purely in the present moment, as a spiritual goal. But winter woods teach me something else: the importance of thinking about history. They are able to show you the last five hours, the last five days, and the last five centuries, all at once.”

And: “At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken. And if you’re watching urban falcons, this is not a distant world, but one alongside you, a place of transient and graceful refuge . . . . The Poolbeg site is about as far as you can get from a thriving natural ecosystem, but the act of watching a falcon chase its prey above the scarred and broken ground below feels like quiet resistance against despair. Matters of life and death and a sense of our place in the world tied fast together in a shiver of wings across a scrap of winter sky.” 

Brexit and the awful conditions for refugees in Britain make their way into some of the pieces. So does climate change. But though there is plenty to be anxious about in human behavior, Macdonald examines the way we take solace in animals and suggests we consider what we don’t know. In the final piece in the book she notes, “. . . the more I’ve learned about animals the more I’ve come to think there might not be only one right way to express care, to feel allegiance, a love for place, a way of moving through the world.”

She cautions that the way we experience the world and the way the other inhabitants we share it with experience it are not only different, but beyond us. We can’t feel or experience what other creatures do. She explains, “Perhaps this is why I am impatient with the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone.”

But Macdonald doesn’t think this means we can’t experience a real connection with other creatures. Yes they are not us, and we are not them, but we do share the places where we both live. She describes a moment when, feeling worn out with worry and computer time, she steps outside and as a rook flies over, and they make eye contact. “Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else sent a glance across the divide and stitched me back into a world where both of us have equal billing.”

To enjoy this book, I’m afraid, you’d have to be open to this idea. And to the idea that we are negatively impacting nature by our inattention and self absorption and greed. I would hope that those ideas are commonplace, but that’s probably overly optimistic. I enjoyed it very much. I don’t know when I’ve made eye contact with anything wild other than insects and squirrels that I’m chasing away from my garden, including one squirrel who very well may have nibbled through two strands of solar lights on our deck. I plan to be more deliberate about noticing. I have a feeling that making eye contact with birds and other wild creatures might make us all less self-absorbed.

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I finished two books yesterday,  and  “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Tatum and Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.

First, I read Tatum’s book, which I had bought a used copy of at a small indie bookstore two summers ago, for a discussion group at work. It was written in 1997, which struck me because it is a stark reminder that back then, although I would have said I wasn’t racist, I was not actively antiracist and would have been surprised by much of what Tatum writes about. Knowing what I know now, I was not surprised, but I will say this is a very interesting book because Tatum is a psychology professor so she approaches antiracism from the perspective of an educator, researcher, and psychologist.

Which is not to say this is dry or academic — it’s smart and thorough but completely accessible and replete with anecdotes from her classes and her life as a Black woman, mother, and professor. Her approach is to address racism as it impacts Black or multiracial people from childhood through adulthood as they develop their racial identity. Whatever your race there is much to learn about these stages of development. Whether reading it for your own education and understanding or to support a loved one or friend, Tatum’s sensible advice and authoritative voice will be helpful.

For example, in a chapter on “The Development of White Identity,” Tatum describes how white people, especially those who have gained “an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage” struggle to deal with self-consciousness, guilt, fear, and even blame. Sound familiar? It did to me. But Tatum cautions, “We all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of our racial and cultural heritage, not in terms of assumed superiority or inferiority, but as an integral part of our daily experience in which we can take pride.”

I am really looking forward to the conversation about this book!

Into the Silent Land is one of the books I’m reading as a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I’ve read a LOT of secular books on meditation, and have practiced mindfulness (practice being the operative word) for a long time. I also have a regular prayer practice, and have read about and tried meditative forms of prayer, mostly unsuccessfully. Laird, also a professor, has written a concise and highly informative handbook, which makes me want to try again.

Drawing on the history of contemplative prayer as well as the practical aspects of practicing it, Laird is both systematic and supportive. The combination of practical advice, encouragement, and ancient but still highly relevant wisdom is terrific. I’ve made tentative steps towards trying contemplative prayer. It’s a little chaotic around here right now, but maybe that is a good time to try stillness.

As Laird notes, “When we first begin the inward turn to quiet prayer we are faced with chaos, and the prayer word serves as an anchor in a storm, a shield and refuge from the onslaught of thoughts, feelings, storms of boredom, and fidgeting. But with some practice with the prayer word we grow in recollection and concentration and begin to see that there is something deeper than the chaos within. . . . What exactly is the prayer word doing? The prayer word excavates the present moment. The resulting interior focus eventually sets off and maintains a process of interior silencing.”

Sounds pretty good right about now, doesn’t it?

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My son (former Teen the Elder, for longtime bookconscious readers) recommended I read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale after he and his sister (former Teen the Younger) gently disabused me of the idea that police are basically good, and there are just “bad apples.” They recognized that I was conditioned to this idea by our culture and my schooling. They, having been freed from “schooled” thought by their unschooling, had no such illusions. I can’t take credit; other than choosing to unschool them, I had little to do with the amazing humans they became.

Forgive me for digressing. I’ve got to say that if you don’t have any twenty-somethings or teens in your life you should seek their counsel online or via friends. While I have long thought of myself as social-justice oriented, I have learned more in the past few weeks from discussing current events with my young adult offspring than I did on my own for a few decades. Case in point, I had no idea police are not, in their mission or intent, “good.” To be clear I’m not talking about individuals. I still hold that there are good people who unwittingly enter into a career in the police force believing they will bring about good in their communities. I (and Vitale) am talking about the institution of policing, which, as part of our overall elitist capitalist society, serves mainly to enforce the norms of power and wealth at the expense of the poor, people of color, and those with disabilities.

If you are not shocked, or just disagree, with the idea that capitalism is hurting more people than it is helping, then you will at least be shocked by Vitale’s illuminating discussion of how police at best do a disservice to and at worst, outright exploit, the disabled, especially those with mental illness. I was shocked and sickened by two cases described in the chapter on political policing by people who are mentally disabled who were coerced by police into “terrorism plots” that were just meant to ensnare Muslims, who are now serving lengthy prison terms. In our names, as Americans.

Reading The End of Policing in the week leading up to the Poor People’s Campaign “digital assembly” this weekend helped me connect the dots between the social justice issues that have concerned me and policing. Vitale notes that if we actually invested the billions spent on police budgets (including military gear like tanks and grenade launchers that are used in communities’ and even schools’ police presences around the country) in the communities that allegedly need the most policing, many of the criminal and disruptive behaviors the police claim ti be solving would be eliminated. He cites evidence that where housing, education, health care, or other basic needs are met, policing is much less necessary.

And if we’re all equal, whether you come to that belief via the founding documents of our country or the sacred scriptures of any of the major world religions, shouldn’t we all have access to safe, clean, secure, affordable housing? Clean water? Nutritious and affordable food? A living wage and paid time off to care for sick family members or just recharge? Health care? Quality education? The right to vote? The right to peaceably protest? No matter our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, or any other identity? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Vitale points out that “Our entire criminal justice system has become a gigantic revenge factory. Three-strike laws, sex-offender registries, the death penalty, and abolishing parole are about retribution, not safety.” That’s a lot to take in. But when you dive into these, it’s true. They don’t make us safer. They just make it harder for people to return to society, receive mental health care, and become healthy, functioning members of their communities. Vitale goes on to say “Real justice would look to restore people and communities, to rebuild trust and social cohesion, to offer people a way forward, to reduce the social forces that drive crime, and to treat both victims and perpetrators as full human beings.” Yes.

Another point Vitale makes better than I can paraphrase: “We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems. . . . Instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organize for real justice. We need to produce a society designed to meet people’s human needs . . . .”

Vitale traces the history of policing, and then breaks down its failures, mostly in the U.S. but also in some international contexts, broadly and in particular areas such as homelessness, the drug war, sex work, the school-to-prison pipeline, the border, gangs, and political policing. I sped through the final chapters after tuning into the Poor People’s Campaign for a few hours yesterday, and it really all clicks. Bringing about a more just, equitable society will secure our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren. Anything less will mire us in the kind of fear, mistrust, misinformation, economic inequality and political paralysis that we currently enjoy.

I highly recommend you read this, and also that you read with care the Poor People’s Campaign’s moral budget. Maybe tune into the rebroadcast of their digital assembly. Think about what you grew up learning about policing and whether it jives with what you know of the world as an adult. And listen to the young people in your life. I have no doubt they will lead us, out the mess we made for them.

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I lent The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the former Teen the Elder and borrowed it back when I visited him recently. He kindly left me some margin notes, as did the first owner of the book! I found this book on the sale shelves at Adelynrood last summer.

In the introduction, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a scholar in her own right, explains that for her father, the Sabbath, in the sense of “holiness in time” defined Judaism. Heschel examines our definitions of time and space, of our identity within these concepts, and of the philosophical understanding of goodness versus the religious understanding of holiness. Yet for all these nuanced ideas, The Sabbath is a quick, and in many ways, a simple read.

It’s particularly poignant to think about the time when Heschel wrote as the backdrop of his thinking. This book was published in 1951 when the full revelation of the extent of the Holocaust was still fairly fresh. In the chapter, “A Palace In Time,” Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Despite the incredible horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people only a few years earlier, Heschel focuses on the eternal, and celebrates the gift of a day set apart for its eternal peace.

I see that contrast in this passage: “But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the profanity of all other days . . . . For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” The Sabbath brings us back to our being what we are meant to be — God’s people. Or, as Heschel says, much more beautifully, “On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Heschel’s observations of human weakness also remind readers that the problems of the world are not new or unique to our present anxious time:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty.  Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Really, that about sums it up!

I’m using a guide to Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poetry as part of my Lent reading this year, which is what reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read The Sabbath. The challenge of setting aside and honoring time, whether a day or part of several days, to remember ourselves does not come naturally in this world. I’ve tried to observe the sabbath in various ways over the years, mainly as a time to slow down, recharge, and be ready to bring my best self to the rest of the week. But I think the sense of sabbath that Heschel teaches, as “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” and as a “foretaste” of eternity, that “raises our minds above accustomed thoughts” goes far deeper than a mere day of rest.

I am going to try to think of sabbath as “Spirit in the form of time” as Heschel affirms, and to rest in the sabbath rather than on the sabbath.

 

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I went to visit the former teen the elder to hear his divinity school senior sermon last week. It was terrific to spend time with him and his classmates — such a smart and spirit-filled bunch of people. I was pleased to see his bookshelves so full, and he knew I’d enjoy popping into the div school bookstore (which is independent!) while I was there. It was hard but I limited myself to two books, and one of them was All About Love by bell hooks.

I’d only read essays by bell hooks, and those have been written for educators, or at least people interested in pedagogy. This book is definitely for everyone. Hooks notes in her introduction that she chose to write a book about love because she realized ours is “no longer a world open to love.” The rest of the book is an eloquent argument for the vital need we all have not only to feel loved, but also to give love.

Hooks lays out what the world could be like if we placed love at the center of our lives, and then gently instructs readers in the skills and mindsets that could accomplish that. For example, she calls on us all to be more open in our communications about love as well as to have a “love ethic” in public policy and civic life. She also approaches romantic and sexual love from the same practical viewpoint, examining common problems with these kinds of love and gently pointing to solutions.

I enjoyed this book for two reasons: first, hooks is not a scold. I’m sure you’ve all read intellectual work that takes a position and then beats readers over the head with it. Hooks instead makes her case in the way a good friend or kind and wise older relative might. Firmly, but with compassion. Second, she quotes a number of other authors and provides a list of their books in the back of All About Love. I always appreciate having ideas for further reading.

Certainly some of what hooks writes is not new — most people are aware there is a lack of love in our common life these days, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t learned some of the lessons hooks explores about interpersonal love. And many people, even if not religious, are familiar with the spiritual idea of lovingkindness found in several of the world’s major religions. But hooks manages to write about these familiar ideas in fresh ways.

For example, she notes “Young people are cynical about love. Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart. . . .  Indeed, all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic. Yet young listeners remain reluctant to embrace love as a transformative force. Their attitude is mirrored in the grown-ups they turn to for explanations.”

She goes on to say that when talking to people of her own generation about the ideas in this book, she was sometimes told she “should consider seeing a therapist.” Her conclusion that today’s generations of young people are cynical in part because preceding generations have taught them that love is not to be trusted is both incredibly obvious and not something I’d thought of before. I tended to blame the culture at large — but who makes that culture? All of us.

I’m not really doing this book justice — hooks touches on so many more big ideas, like trust, honesty, justice, divinity, gender, patriarchy, mutuality and commitment — and I think it needs to be read more than once to fully grasp its power. Hooks is an incredible voice for about the most key element of human interaction. It’s a book that makes me want to sit and talk about the ideas with someone . . . someone I love!

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