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Posts Tagged ‘peace’

I’ve been reading but not blogging lately, but I’ve read so many good things I want to share briefly about each of them. The Computer Scientist and I just enjoyed a week off from work, as well, so there was more time to read.

First, I’m taking a class over the next two years at EDS at Union on social justice in the Anglican tradition and I have been doing the required reading for our fall semester:

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls by Kelly Brown Douglas — Douglas is Dean of EDS at Union. This book is her answer to a student at my alma mater (Goucher College) where she taught for many years, who asked why Douglas, a black woman, was a Christian when Christianity helped establish white supremacist, and in particular anti-black, ideas in American culture and upheld racist policies and practices? The student’s question is understandable. What are we to do when some Christians claim or have claimed that violence — slavery and lynching, but also discrimination and dehumanizing teachings — is in line with their beliefs? Douglas wrote this book of theology to respond fully. I learned about “platonized” Christianity, closed monotheism, and other theological notions I can’t say I am completely sure I understand. I look forward to more fully discussing these topics with the community of learners. But what I took away is that it is a distortion of Christianity — and Douglas is clear that means a heresy — to terrorize people. And yet, there are Christians historically and today who believe they are “right” with God and the world when they do so, arguing and even persuading others through interpretation of scripture and tradition that this is so. She examines not only white but also Black churches’ use of power and distorted theology to enact and/or uphold ideas that devalue anyone for any reason (gender, class, sexuality, race, culture or nationality, for example). Her conclusion is that “In effect, the troubling legacy of “Christianity” suggests that it is a religion in which imposing discriminatory power can find theological cover. Hence the truth of Christianity is that is has generated at least two prevailing legacies: one that terrorizes and oppresses and another that empowers and liberates; the first is most defined by whiteness and the second is most defined by blackness.”

The course is going to examine how we can ask questions and stay in relationship with God and each other in ways that help bring the world closer to “God’s just future,” or beloved community, as Dean Douglas told us in our orientation yesterday. It sounds pretty daunting. I’m anxious to learn more.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone — Another book of theology, as well as an examination of lynching in American culture and the responses to our legacy of violent racism in Black activism, music and literature. Cone covers theology, art, literature, and music, as well as the civil rights movement and the history of lynching in America. I’m still processing all the different angles, but for me this book was an affirmation that white Christianity has been timid at best (as Cone describes in critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr, who he admires but finds wanting when it comes to engaging with race) in confronting racism, and has colluded in violence either by silence or by endorsing it with racist theology. Another important takeaway is that there are plenty of Black (and a few white) theologians, writers, artists, and advocates to learn from, people who understand and express in their creativity and resistance what Cone writes of the cross: “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life . . . .” He goes on to note: “Jesus . . . was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States . . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” It seems to me that the many ways that our “principalities and powers” continue to lynch, through mass incarceration, police brutality, biased and racist criminal justice policies and procedures, educational and health inequities, and the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of people because of their race, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation are also the cross in America. It’s a lot to take in.

We are also reading the 1619 project — which by the way is not about hating whiteness or white people, nor about saying that white people haven’t ever helped Black people in their struggle for equity; it is about offering information most of us have not been taught about the importance of Black Americans and their experiences in our history. And it’s about illuminating the legacy of slavery in contemporary America, as well as the painful truth that while some white people have joined the struggle for racial justice in this country, historically, many of us were unaware and/or silent. As historian Leslie M. Harris notes in an essay on the 1619 project, “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.” At least two of the authors of the letter written by historians criticizing the project, Harris explains, Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, gave relatively minimal coverage of slavery and Black experience in their early career, seminal works on American history, and even in more contemporary work, “have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.)”

Our reading list also includes two articles on reparations – one by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Both of which are terrific.

Which brings me to the next book, Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. This book details the theological and scriptural case for reparations, and then in a clear and practical way lays out the steps needed, from “seeing” the existence and effects of white supremacy through “owning” the ethical response (from a Christian perspective, but anyone could find it useful), which they break into “restitution” and “restoration” through moving into the actual work of reparations: repair. I found this book inspiring as well as illuminating and it seems like a good next step for anyone who has been working on antiracism and wants to understand “what to do” now that you’ve learned about white supremacy. Spoiler: ask Black members of your community how you can support their priorities and efforts, rather than deciding for yourself what to do. Kwon and Thompson bring an ecumenical Christian viewpoint (whereas both Cone and Douglas write from the Episcopal tradition), which was interesting for me. I admit I sometimes take (false) refuge in the notion that I practice my faith in the “empowering and liberating” branch of the Jesus movement. It’s important, I realize, to acknowledge that no one denomination is that branch (not entirely, anyway) and that my own branch hasn’t always been either of those, and sometimes isn’t today.

Which leads nicely to another book I read for a discussion group earlier this summer, which is also on our course reading list, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. Spellers addresses many of the same issues Douglas and Cone do, but with a very current lens: given everything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning America is experiencing regarding systemic and intersectional inequities, what should the church do? This was a tough book to read and discuss. Spellers takes on the church as an institution aligned with empire and white supremacy. She imagines recent times as having cracked open the church, using the scriptural story of the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment that she cracks open to anoint Jesus with. Spellers asks readers to imagine that metaphor with her, and to think about how we now have to choose which way to go: patch it together or make something new? Do we go back to what we’ve been, without repenting for what we’ve learned? Or, borrowing Kwon’s and Thompson’s framework (seeing, owning, and repairing) and Douglas’s dual legacies (terrorizing/oppressing and empowering/liberating) do we figure out how to repair without just remaking the old structures that haven’t always been empowering and liberating? Spellers, like Kwon and Thompson, present examples and frameworks for thinking about how to move forward towards justice and beloved community.

The last book I read for the class is about another way to participate in the empowering and liberating work of faith: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharris, co-founder of the current Poor People’s Campaign and longtime campaigner for justice with poor, unhoused, and low wealth people. I say campaigner with and not for, because the hallmark of Theoharris’s work and this book is that poverty does not preclude people from thinking, feeling, and acting on their own behalves. If you follow the Poor People’s Campaign at all you know that it is a coalition of people who are poor and their allies, exposing the structural inequities and the social mores that have created the false narrative that poverty is somehow poor people’s fault. Theoharris explains that but also really delves deeply into the famous biblical passage where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” — which happens right after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints him with costly ointment and a man among his disciples scolds her, saying the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Through scriptural reflection and analysis, Theoharris explains how this passage has been distorted to defend economic inequality. She argues that in fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy in noting that if people didn’t follow God’s call for justice, poverty would continue to exist. Again, this was eye opening and fascinating, and I am still digesting it.

My leisure reading also connects to the ideas in the course reading, especially that human beings (particularly those with power) have a tendency to interpret their way into defending viewpoints that harm others. I read Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens, a smart, thought provoking look at the many ways America does not afford the same freedoms and privileges to all citizens — only people who look “white,” speak unaccented English and dress in a way that does not reveal cultural difference can “pass” as American all the time, and anyone who doesn’t fit these conditions is likely to find themself having to defend their citizenship or face bias and inequity at some point. Lalami also examines sexism in a searing and personal chapter on the condition of women both in America and in Morocco, where she grew up. I found the book sobering, but also strangely hopeful. Lalami’s final chapter is “Do Not Despair of this Country,” taken from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Lalami describes what unconditional citizenship for all would entail, and explains how we get there.

She cautions that despair “is a gift to the status quo” and that therefore, we have to do what we can and remain hopeful. She suggests informing ourselves, voting, and looking to “the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level.” And she leaves readers with this important last thought: “In any discussion of change, there comes a time to choose partners. In the last few years, many opinion writers have urged dialogue and compromise. Only by talking about differences of opinion, the argument goes, can we hope to reach resolution. Certainly, there are disagreements that can be resolved through debate: the size of the transportation budget, say, or the allocation to Job Corps training programs. But some disagreements are not bridgeable. Separating asylum-seeking children from their parents, for example, is not an issue on which I see a possible compromise.” I appreciate this point; I think there have to be certain things that are not negotiable, and among those are human rights. She also goes on to point out that we also have to remember the partners who are not right in front of us — people in other countries who are also affected by our dialogues and decisions. Lalami’s insightful writing should inspire people to hope, and to take part, in some small way, to being and allowing others to be equitable citizens. Or what Dean Douglas calls, bringing about God’s just future.

I also finally read The Book Thief which I’ve had on my to-read pile for several months. During the pandemic, my dad re-read it and send me a copy. It’s certainly also about the way humans will interpret their way into defending harmful beliefs and practices. Markus Zusak‘s famous novel is about a young German girl whose brother dies as they are on their way to live with a foster family. Liesel’s new father realizes she can’t read and helps her learn how, and she has a new best friend next door, Rudy. Life gets more complicated as the war begins and in addition to having to deal with “the Party” which her father is reluctant to join, being hungry, and having to go to Hitler Youth activities, where Rudy is regularly bullied, Liesel soon has to keep secret that her family is hiding a young Jewish man, Max, in their basement. The novel is uniquely narrated by death, who cobbles together different perspectives, muses on the difficulty of his work, and shares snippets of thoughts and even pages of a book that Max creates for Liesel. It’s a story about people who manage not to despair and who try to do their part for justice even if that means giving up some of their own meager comfort to help others. And it’s a beautiful tribute to books and reading and writing, and their power to lift us out of even the darkest moments.

Another vacation read for me was Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Our elder offspring gave me this for Christmas, and I had been waiting for a chunk of time when I could dig into such a meaty read.The Computer Scientist said “Do you know how many times you’ve looked up from that book and exclaimed, ‘Did you know . . .’?” It’s an eye opening read for anyone who grew up schooled in the white dominant American culture that taught exactly what the 1619 project counters: a national history centered in white experience. I went through public schools, got a “good” liberal arts undergraduate education in college, and have attained two masters degrees. And yet, what I’ve learned about Black history (and what little I know about Asian history, and Native American history) I have had to learn on my own. Even then, when I first began to learn, I still had to wrap my head around all that I didn’t (and still don’t) know or understand, all that I’ve been socialized to believe or accept. Stamped From the Beginning continued that education for me. Even as someone who has been trying to understand systemic racism it is mind blowing.

So many little things we take for granted as positive if we are white — like scientific research into genetics — can be, have been, and are being used for racist means, like “proving” that intelligence is determined by genes (it’s not). Even the stories I already knew seem shockingly fresh when Kendi brings them into this lengthy overall story. For example, the racist implications of certain policies (like standardized testing) and the manufacture of false and illogical narratives about drugs (marijuana was not considered dangerous even by substance abuse specialists until Reagan pronounced it dangerous, more government money has been spent on the “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing laws on drug possession than on deadly drunk driving). Kendi doesn’t limit himself to government policy in this book; social, economic, and cultural racism is also laid bare: disdain for and/or appropriation of Black culture, double standards or dominant cultural standards in dress, behavior, and language in schools and workplaces, false narratives and claims made with no evidence about affirmative action, Black parents, city life, and welfare. Anyway, I learned a great deal, and as with the reading for the course I’m taking, I am still digesting it all.

A small but very powerful book I also read last week is How Can I Live Peacefully With Justice?: a Little Book of Guidance by Mike Angell. Angell is rector at a church in St. Louis, and wrote the book after living in that community these past few years; he moved there just a few months before Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson in August 2014. He frames his discussion of peace and what it is and how we can live peacefully in terms of what he has learned by living in St. Louis and also through his longtime partnership with a human rights organization in El Salvador, but his guidance absolutely applies to all of us, wherever we live. Angell notes, “Living with peace means being willing to become uncomfortably vulnerable, and working for justice requires building unlikely relationships of trust.” He goes on to provide a brief but clear theological explanation of the relationship between peace and justice (which protestors even more clearly elucidate: “No justice, no peace”). And he tells us his own story — because one other aspect of living peacefully that he explains is that “We all, all of us, need to work to reconcile our own sense of self, our own identity, if we are ever to be able to reconcile with others. Peace only exists in relationship.” Angell gently guides readers through what that might look like, by being vulnerable himself. One important message he shares is that peace and justice, like everything related to bringing the world closer to God’s just future, is complicated, takes practice, and requires us to engage with questions that may not have answers.

On a much lighter note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, after a friend recommended it when I recounted clearing out some closets and shelves for my mother to make her house more manageable recently. The idea is pretty straightforward — clear out your stuff now, so you can live better in your old age and so that your family won’t have to do it after you die. The book is somewhat instructional with dashes of memoir as Magnusson recalls memories evoked by her own death cleaning. It was enjoyable.

And on the last evening of our week’s vacation at a little cottage by a small lake here in NH, I read a book that was on the bookshelf there: The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, a mystery featuring a ninety year old sleuth, Queen Elizabeth II. My offspring gave me a ribbing last night for reading all this stuff about equity and justice and then indulging in a mystery featuring the ultimate symbol of wealth and empire. While the Queen solves the mystery, she relies on her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian army officer, for help. Rozie learns that she is the latest in a long line of women who have helped Her Majesty solve crimes for decades. Okay, I get it, the Commonwealth is a vestige of colonialism. Seen another way (or am I interpreting away harm? I’m not sure) it is empire cracked open, an organization rebuilt in a post colonial world to acknowledge the relationality required for countries to collaborate globally. Anyway, while I do understand the controversies of monarchy I find the Queen interesting and this book made me laugh out loud (disturbing the Computer Scientist, who was trying to take notes on Always With Us? at the time) and I found it entertaining and enjoyable.

I promise not to go so long between posts or to mention so many books at once next time.

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Yesterday afternoon I was running errands with Teen the Younger. She had earbuds in so I switched off the car radio in order to think. I was considering an audio essay I’d listened to earlier, a “This I Believe” piece by Holocaust survivor Jay Frankston, who believes that if more people — especially those with influence, like the Pope — had reacted to the Holocaust the way the Danes did (a national act of collective resistance, something my children & I learned of when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars together) millions of lives might have been saved, and Hitler’s policies would have failed. He said that when he speaks in schools, he reminds children they “must speak up against wrongs, however small.”

I had recently had a conversation with the Computer Scientist about a workplace incident  in which someone was rude without recognizing it — the person was focused on getting the answer she wanted to complete something the way she preferred and not on consensus or consideration. I suggested that schools and workplaces would benefit from conflict resolution training, maybe also mindfulness training so people learn not to react immediately to the triggers that tend to set us all off. It seems we need remedial training to be in community with each other. We decided it was impossible to know what would solve the epidemic of self-absorption in contemporary culture.  As my grandmother used to say, you can only do your best yourself and hope others do too. (An update: today the Computer Scientist sent me a quote he finds helpful, if challenging:  “Life becomes easier if you learn to accept an apology you never get.”)

As I thought about these things in the car, I imagined a post in which I’d discuss an Op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times which made me feel sick and heartbroken and outraged. It was written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the estimated 40 (40!) people currently on hunger strike in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a man who contends he has never done what he was suspected of (but has never been formally charged with) when he was captured and brought to the prison camp* 11 years ago. I was thinking that despite Guantanamo being a divisive and unpopular topic, by Jay Frankston’s humane standard, I must speak up. And that by doing so I’d  be encouraging the awareness of others that is so often lacking.

Then my phone rang as I stood in line at the local Goodwill store. It was my mother, calling as she often does when tragic events happen, to ask if I’d heard about Boston. Before we hung up she said, “Give everyone a hug. I’m glad you’re safe.” This wasn’t a reference to any of my family being at the scene — none of us had plans to attend the Boston Marathon yesterday. She was just stating a common response to senseless violence, relief that our loved ones are safe.

In the evening, I checked our local Patch.com site for news of local runners. I was disgusted to see in the comments section of the story another kind of response, vitriolic posts about gun control, President Obama, etc. I vented on Facebook that surely human history shows hate isn’t a good response to conflict. Two people who were among my closest college friends replied almost immediately that while that may be, hate and anger are easier responses to make and also the default for adults in our culture.

While I agree they’ve become the default, I don’t believe anger is easier than empathy. Loving kindness and empathy come easily to children. Anger grows as a habitual response to the unending stream of negative stimuli we are bombarded with. Like the woman who was blind to rudeness because of her own insecurities in the workplace, the Patch commenters didn’t think about the hurtfulness of their response. If you asked them why they felt it was right to focus on their own opinions at a time when severely injured people lay in hospital beds fighting for their lives, they would probably be shocked and argue they weren’t doing so.

This morning another Op-ed in the New York Times, this one by Jonathan Rieder about Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous anger, caught my eye and led me to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’d only read excerpts before and I’d never considered the letter in the way Rieder did. In line with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading, it turns out that just before I finally turned off the radio and went to bed last night, heartsick as all of us are over the bombings, I’d texted with Teen the Elder at college about his own response to the day: anger.

At first I counseled against anger. But when he replied that this kind of news makes him want to be out of college and working in some way to make the world better, I realized, and told him, that righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice as long as we avoid becoming bitter or hateful and channel it into right action. And when I read Jonathan Rieder’s piece and King’s words this morning I realized this is just what my son was feeling, and just what the world needs, along with people who are unafraid to speak up.

If you’ve never read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do. It’s a response to eight white clergy who had issued a statement condemning the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely.” It’s a remarkable piece, a reminder of the King’s gifts not only as a leader but as a thinker and writer.

Consider his words carefully and it will be hard to read the news: that gays should “wait” for marriage equality, prisoners should “wait” for justice, bullied children should “wait” for life to get better, ” the homeless should “wait” for year round shelters, college students should “wait” for a time when debt doesn’t shackle them for a lifetime, the uninsured should “wait” to not be bankrupted by medical bills, the elderly should wait for care that doesn’t require giving up a lifetime’s assets. U.S. citizens should “wait” for campaigns and voting to be fair and for politicians to engage in thoughtful work for the common good instead of partisan bickering, kids should “wait” while adults ban dodgeball and books in schools but allow assault weapons and high capacity magazines that make school shootings easier, low wage workers  should”wait” for a decent living, women should “wait” for equal pay, the mentally ill should “wait” for access to treatment, innocents caught in drone attacks should “wait” for the war on terror to end . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But King’s letter will also give you hope that Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, Jay Frankston, and countless others —  people just like those who ran towards the scene of the explosions yesterday to help the wounded, and just like those who opened their homes to stranded runners and their families in Boston, and just like all the people who take time every day to advocate for the voiceless and powerless, and just like Teen the Elder who feels fired up to join the ongoing march of humanity towards a just and peaceful world — are ready to lift hands and hearts and voices to that work.

*Also worth a read, a piece on the results of a nonpartisan report that without any access to classified materials concludes the U.S. engaged in torture after 9-11 and criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the lawyers and doctors who abandoned the core principles of their professions — upholding justice and not doing harm — to justify torture.

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It’s been over five weeks since my last bookconscious post. In that time, I only finished reading four books, although I’ve got three others started and have dipped into several volumes of poetry. Two of the books I’m currently reading are all about grounding oneself in the quiet within an ordinary day.  I can’t seem to focus on that goal, despite a deep longing for it.

My writing life is in complete disarray. Yesterday I went out in the car to run an errand or convey various members of my household to various places 8 or 9 times (I lost track). While making a cake for my father-in-law’s 68th birthday, I had to start over after adding the wrong ingredients. In short, I’m in need of a rest or a re-balancing of some sort, although I don’t see one on near horizon.

One of the books I’ll be reading for months to come is Paul Wilson’s Finding the Quiet. This book caught my eye at Gibson’s, and after checking it out at the library, I decided it was one I should own. I have to be more careful about my book purchases, because I now have three piles of books beside my nightstand, another pile on the nightstand, and two more piles beside my desk, plus the ongoing “library list” of books I plan to check out.

Many of these are books I purchased at the Five Colleges Book sale last spring or picked up at the store or at the New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show — publishers provide booksellers with advance reader copies so we will get excited about the books. I came home from the NEIBA show very excited — with two huge bags of books! I am looking forward to reading the stacks (and to inviting several of the authors to Gibson’s to do readings) once I get through my current library pile. But I digress.

In Finding the Quiet, Wilson manages to condense much of what I’ve read in other books about meditation into very clear, bullet-pointed directions. Some people who are seriously into a particular school of meditation, or who have studied with a master, might find the book a little too basic or pared down. But I’m to the point where I’ve read a great deal of theory and am not making progress, so I want, and perhaps even need, a step-by-step meditation guide. Finding the Quiet is simple in the way an uncluttered but well designed floral arrangement is simple — there is plenty to study, plenty of detail to notice, but the basic lines are clean and clear.

Wilson actually advises readers to stop about 100 pages into the book and try the first practice he suggests for a couple of weeks. I’m at that point, and have already slipped in and out of regular practice, forgotten or misremembered half of the pointers, and even have fallen into the cold weather trap of convincing myself that I can meditate on my back underneath the down comforter if I try hard enough (it doesn’t work, I fall back to sleep). I’m determined to start fresh and stick with it, and stop my mind from racing the moment my eyes open.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of welcoming an author who writes eloquently about the importance of those first quiet early morning moments. Katrina Kenison‘s Mitten Strings for God is one of those touchstones of my early mothering years. A  friend recommended it when my children were small and I was feeling very outside the mainstream in the suburbs of Seattle.

Many people I knew had their young children in foreign language, chess, swimming, computer, gymnastics, dance, music, and any number of other lessons. The neighbor children were so busy at ages 2 &4 that they had to schedule play dates with my kids instead of just coming over. My kids and I liked to play baseball in the back yard, sit in the tree fort the Computer Scientist built for them in the secret space between two enormous cedars, go to what they called the “Poohsticks” park (where there was a bridge perfect for dropping sticks into the stream and then hurrying to see them come out on the other side), or stay in bed on a rainy morning with a bag stuffed full of library books, reading and snuggling. If it was sunny, we often decided at breakfast to pack a picnic and head to the zoo.

I felt torn in those days, worried that I was denying my kids all the “enrichment” the culture around me was pushing for younger and younger kids, and yet knowing in my heart I didn’t care to give up our spontaneous, joyful time together. Mitten Strings for God made me feel like I had a wise friend reassuring me that snuggling, baking together, and pretending to pitch a wiffle ball to the entire Mariners lineup (whose many pre-batting rituals my son could mimic precisely) was good for them, and for me as a mother, and I should listen to my heart.

I was very excited when I found out that Kenison’s new book, The Gift of An Ordinary Day, is about the changes she faced and worked through as her sons became teenagers. I’m a little over halfway through, but it’s proving to be, once again, the wisdom I need for this point in my mothering journey.She writes about the ways that motherhood has helped her truly grow up — something I’ve told my own kids for years. I didn’t ever truly consider what I value, what is real and true and good in the world, and what I was just doing on autopilot because it’s what I’d been conditioned to do, until I had children, and faced the prospect of discussing life with them.

Now as I read Kenison’s new book, I have a child who is contemplating a different path than his mainstream peers — a year or more off before college to pursue a dream, and perhaps skipping the SAT’s, which so many people accept as an inevitable rite of passage.  I’m about to get into the section of the book where Kenison describes her own son’s decision not to take the SAT’s, and writes about the enormous pressures of the college application process, and how challenging it is for parents to resist worry and involvement. I can’t wait to find an afternoon to sit down and finish the book.

One reason I didn’t read as many books in September is that I was slogging my way through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I wanted to finish, because I was leading the Gibson’s Book Club brown bag discussion. After nearly setting it down for good, I managed to get through it. Although I like magical realism, and I love a meaty, challenging book, this one wasn’t my cup of tea. I found many of the devices that make it a unique piece of literature distracting.

I wanted to know much more about the Midnight Children, especially Parvati and Shiva, and how their magical powers manifested themselves.  Certain long sections of the novel, such as the description of Saleem’s time in the jungle,  lost me. And I didn’t like keeping track of so many possible sub-plots which were just story-alleys that didn’t really lead anywhere. Much of the difficulty I had is due to the fact that I have limited time to read and trying to pick up where I left off in such a complex novel was unsettling. I loved Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and I want to try Rushdie again when I have the time to devote to understanding his work better.

By the time I finished Midnight’s Children, it was nearly time to start the next Gibson’s Book Club book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbary. Certain sections of this deceptively quick read are as challenging to penetrate as Rushdie’s most erudite prose. Barbary is a philosophy professor, and in our book club discussion I saw more clearly that she managed to express her views on aesthetics and the meaning of ethical living through the two main characters, Renee and Paloma, and to a lesser extent, through Mr. Ozu.

The group also discussed one of the things I didn’t care for when I first thought about the book — it’s scant plot — as a characteristic of the novel of manners, or in this case, a novel of philosophy and manners. When I considered it in that light, I liked it better. I’m still not crazy about the ending, but again, the book club helped me see that there wasn’t a great alternative.  We all agreed that the characters are well drawn, and that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a tremendously witty novel. We concluded that this book would make a great film.

Speaking of film, I took time out last week, even though I really didn’t feel like I had time to spare, to go to Red River Theatres to see Bright Star. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it brought Keats and Fanny Brawne alive so vividly that I am feeling compelled to add Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats to my “to-read” list.

Back to my current book pile: I’m in the midst of a Nicholson Baker read-a-palooza. I’ve got three of his earlier novels out on inter-library loan, and I’m currently reading The Everlasting Story of Nory. It’s wild — like being nine all over again, or being inside a nine year old’s stream of consciousness.  Baker must be a wonderful father, or else he vividly remembers the emotional complexity and creative chaos of his own childhood mind, because he doesn’t miss a thing in the inner life of his child protagonist.  I’ve also got Room Temperature and The Mezzanine checked out.

A few weeks ago, Nicholson Baker was in Concord to appear on my favorite radio program, NHPR’s “Word of Mouth.” We invited him to come to the store to sign books — we weren’t able to book him for a regular evening event, but the publisher was willing to send him over for an informal signing. Baker is an Important Writer, a serious literary star, and he turns out to also be very gracious and kind, clearly one of the book tribe (some authors, believe it or not, seem to belong to the marketing tribe, or even worse, the all-about-me tribe, instead), who was eager to see what poetry books we had on hand and seemed genuinely happy to be visiting the store.

I read his new book, The Anthologist and got a foreshadowing of what a down-to-earth, generous soul Baker is when I read his positive description of a small turnout for his protagonist’s poetry reading in an independent bookstore. Having recently dealt with an author nowhere near as talented who was insulted that very few people showed up for his reading, I’ve decided Nicholson Baker is “good people,” as my boss would say. Kindness aside, he’s also a genius.

In some ways, The Anthologist is like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, in that both Baker and Barbary are projecting a philosophy of aesthetics through their protagonists. In Baker’s case, it’s a defense of formal poetry, which his main character, Paul Chowder, is trying to get down on paper for the introduction to an anthology. Chowder is such a richly wrought character — you feel like you know him well by the end of this short book. The Anthologist is cerebral — there are plenty of musings on poetics, literary history, and human nature — but it is also funny, warm, and compassionate. There was something about it that made me feel as if I’d had a long satisfying discussion with an old friend when I got to the last page.

Part of my delight in The Anthologist was due to the fact that I wasn’t actually expecting to enjoy it so much. I was a little fearful, in the wake of Midnight’s Children, that I wasn’t up to the task of reading another Important Writer. Baker, after all, is known for the mind-blowingly new kind of novel he created with his debut, The Mezzanine. After enjoying The Anthologist so thoroughly, I had the confidence to read another book I wasn’t expecting to relate to easily, John Manderino‘s The Man Who Once Played Catch With Nellie Fox.

This time, my reticence was simple to source: this novel screamed “guy book.” I enjoy baseball (although not so much this October, with the Red Sox out of the playoffs), and the book received nice reviews when it came out in hardcover, but I wasn’t sure it would be a story I could get into. I was wrong.

Manderino, like Baker, creates a main character you want to root for.  Hank is struggling in his personal life,  and he’s at the end of a long and not terribly successful baseball career, playing for a  less than minor league team. Manderino leads readers through the final games of the season, and Hank’s ups and downs as he tries to make things right with his fiancee and her son, and sets out to better himself at the public library. What’s not to love about an author who sends his hero to the library? As he tells the story, Manderino weaves in multiple points of view. Even the librarian gets her say towards the end of the novel, and although she’s a minor character, I thought that was a lovely touch.

But it was also fitting. Despite the rough ballplayers and their seriously flawed social lives, this isn’t a jock book. The baseball action is interesting, but the meat of the novel is Hank’s crisis: is he washed up? Has he failed his fiancee? Can he reach her angry boy? Can he ever be the man he wants to be, the man who was once an innocent boy, full of dreams and potential, playing catch with Nellie Fox? Does his memory of that day, which he calls The Story, have any basis in reality, or has he relived it into something it wasn’t?

John Manderino is coming to Gibson’s on November 12, and I look forward to meeting him. The Man Who Once Played Catch With Nellie Fox is a dense little book, busting at the seams with longing, and with the difficult work of living out the ordinary in light of bigger dreams. Hank and his friends seem to me to represent the simple victory of choosing to be true to oneself and to the people in one’s life, even as life offers the temptations of self indulgence, self pity, or despair. Manderino’s characters are vivid and the story moves along. It’s an entertaining read.

Which is how the Computer Scientist described The 13th Hour by Richard Doetsch: an entertaining read. I brought it back from NEIBA, and knew it was the kind of book he’d enjoy. He said the concept — a man traveling back in time at set increments of time to try and save his wife from being murdered — was intriguing, and it’s a good thriller. It was fun to get him in on the advance reading. I’ll be able to hand sell this book now that I know something about it.

The Teenager joined us in reading some intriguing Norse literature last month.  Together, we chose some sagas to read as he was waiting for his Oxford University distance education course on viking archaeology to begin. I decided, when he first mentioned that he wanted to explore Norse works for our literary circle, to contact his Oxford tutor, David Beard, as well as a Harvard professor, Stephen Mitchell, whose website I found as I searched for Norse resources.

Both professors very generously shared their recommended reading lists for great Norse literature, and both also suggested the best translations. We ended up hunting down used copies of The Vinland Sagas, in the translation by Magnusson and Palsson, as well as Njals Saga. Bookconscious fans know the Teenager got very into T.S. Eliot last spring, so he also requested we get the Poetic Edda.  At Mr. Beard’s suggestion, I ordered Norse Myths by Raymond Page on inter-library loan. We each began exploring the Raymond Page book but have not yet discussed it. After a brief hiatus while grandparents visit, we’ll get into the Poetic Edda.

In September, the Computer Scientist, the Teenager, and I read and discussed The Vinland Sagas. We enjoyed those very much, and the Teenager said he found it interesting to compare the two (Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders). He’s attracted to Norse literature in part because he is a Tolkien fan, and he found some sections of the sagas felt very familiar to him as grand, heroic adventure tales. He also noted that despite the age of these texts, they are enjoyable reads — debunking the idea that teenagers don’t respond to classics.

One other thing he noted was that the Vikings had no better relations with the Native Americans than later explorers did. Kids have a natural sense of justice, and mine have always been disgusted at the way native people around the world have been exploited or exterminated in the name of progress.  They didn’t need any “politically correct” text to figure this out. Eddie Izzard helped, however. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve discussed a historical event (or a more recent one, like international squabbling over rights to polar waters), and one of the kids has said, “No flag, no country.” The Preteen hasn’t seen Izzard’s dvd’s in their entirety, but she knows the gist of this piece.

The Preteen read a heap of books in September. She’s a big re-reader, and she often revisits entire series, especially Harry Potter, but also Tintin, Time Warp Trio, and some of the Royal Diaries series this month. Another of the Preteen’s favorite re-reads in September, and she said yesterday perhaps her favorite book, period, was The Amaranth Enchantment, by Julie Berry.

A friend recommended she read the first four Sisters 8 books, which are another set of stories about orphan siblings, (why are there so many orphans in literature, anyway?) each of whom discovers she possesses a special “power and a gift.” My favorite thing about this series is that the authors’ eight year old daughter is credited as their co-author. The Preteen enjoys the artwork as well as the stories, and I hope to host this talented family at Gibson’s when the fifth book comes out next spring.

The Preteen also read The Demi-God Files, by Rick Riordan, which is a supplementary volume to the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. We just gave her the boxed set for her birthday, and she is psyched to finally get to read The Last Olympian, which she has had on request at two different libraries since late August. Popular books. Now she’s got her own set, plus a nifty map, all in a treasure chest. And the Teenager gave her a copy of The Demo-God Files, to complete the collection.

She also got an American Girl book called Earth Smart Crafts, and the two books about 2009’s “Girl of the Year,” Chrissa. Until recently, I would have told you she didn’t need to read about bullying. Some recent stories from friends about rampant meanness among middle grade and teen schoolgirls makes me wonder if it’s not a bad idea to know this is out there.  Generally speaking, I’ve found the American Girl books to be mostly practical, fun, and wholesome stuff, if a bit on the fluffy side, and my daughter loves them. I recently told a customer at the store that if you need a book for a young girl facing puberty, you can’t go wrong with The Care and Keeping of You.

I’ve written before about something I really admire in my daughter – the ability to put down a book that’s not interesting to her. This month, for her, that was The Graveyard Book. She did read Coraline, also by Neil Gaiman, and enjoyed that better, but still said it was a tad too creepy for her taste. I just about always force myself to read to the end, even if I’m not enjoying a book. But really, why do that?

We’ve been encouraging her to read history through literature, and in addition to the Royal Diaries, she also read Tomie dePaola’s For the Duration, the latest installment in his autobiographical 26 Fairmount Avenue series for kids. This one covers WWII, and the Preteen thought it was sad, but well done. She can read these books in one sitting at this point, but still finds them interesting.  We’ve often seen or heard something about the 30’s and 40’s or visited someplace and she’ll remember a detail from dePaola’s books. He is such a gifted storyteller, as well as one of my all time favorite illustrators. I’m glad she doesn’t feel she’s outgrown his stories. I haven’t, and I don’t plan to!

In Finding the Quiet, one of the techniques Wilson suggests novice meditators use is called “instant replay posture.” There’s a drawing that shows how to hold one’s hands and use that posture to trigger a psychological response and bring oneself into a peaceful, relaxed state. As I think over this month’s reading, and the calm, all’s-well-in-the-world feeling I get when I’ve read a really satisfying book or enjoyed a good conversation about books with friends or family, I see that the “quiet” is there for me even in the midst of what feels like a life that’s too full right now.

Conjuring peace is simple enough if I let myself feel like I’ve just finished The Anthologist, or a Jane Austen book, or a really good poem. All I need it to notice that gift, as Kenison suggests, that is in the ordinary day-in, day-out family life, even when life’s busier than I’d like. It’s there when I talk with my children and husband, or when we just sit near each other, reading. It’s not exactly the same as when they were small and snuggled close, asking me to read a favorite story again as soon as we got to the last page, but then, I’m not the same as I was then either (thank goodness). Books have been a constant for all of us, and that’s the quiet I’ll focus on.

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March flew past. I meant to savor it, mindfully. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied that I had some mindful moments and keep practicing. Mindfulness is a way of being aware in the present — hard if you are someone who multitasks, and hard in our culture, that values being busy.

For me being mindful also means being aware of the connections between what I’m thinking, doing, or reading and all that has come before and will come after. It’s probably no surprise to those of you who’ve read my monthly musings here that I equate mindfulness with finding  interconnectedness.

That may not be “real” mindfulness, but it works for me, because one of the my goals in practicing mindfulness is perspective — awareness of what one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer calls “the changes and chances of this life.”  Mindfulness for me is about being more fully present with the people and experiences I’m having, not racing ahead in my mind to the next ten things I need to do. At the same time, mindfulness, and other meditation practices, remind me to rest in God’s “eternal changelessness.” (from the same prayer in BCP).

Two books I read this month inspired me to work on mindfulness in my writing and in life. Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart reminded me of all the reasons I love haiku. Really good haiku is not necessarily the 5-7-5 poem you learned about in elementary school (some good haiku use this form, but the majority don’t). An excellent haiku is a little “aha” moment — a glimpse into the poet’s mindfulness, because writing great haiku requires the poet to distill a moment of awareness into a few words.

Donegan adds annotations to each poem in this collection, which includes work by both classic and contemporary poets. Her own background as a poet and scholar, as well as a student of meditation and a colleague of Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute, inform her insightful commentary.

This isn’t straight up literary criticism — while Donegan calls attention to each poem’s beauty, her criteria for including poems in this collection had as much to do with content as craft, as the subtitle indicates. In fact, I was interested in reading the book not only because I love haiku, but also because I want to “cultivate awareness and open (my) heart.”

One reason I am on a quest towards mindfulness is that I see it as a crucial part of being a good parent. To that end, I’d been meaning to read Jon and Maya Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings:The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Over the years I have read a large number of books on being a parent.

The Computer Scientist likes to tell people that when we brought our older child home from the hospital, he hid the books on top of a tall bookcase so that I would relax and rest with the new baby. Our children howl with laughter when we describe administering our son’s first bath: I read the directions, step by step, from a parenting manual, and the Computer Scientist followed them.

Everyday Blessings is not a prescriptive manual, and you won’t get step by step advice from the authors. But it is an important guide, and one of the most honest parenting books I’ve come across. Rather than setting up perfect parenting examples and talking about the wonderful experiences the authors have had in applying their stellar techniques, the Kabat-Zinns provide hope and encouragement but also tell it like it is: parenting is not easy, kids are not always easy to live with, and you’re going to lose it at some point.

But mindfulness can offer perspective, can help people through challenges, and can foster peace when emotional storms have passed. The Kabat-Zinns open their home to readers and share their own parenting experiences, but they also don’t claim to have all the answers, and frequently let readers know that parenting is a judgement call, and it’s alright to not always know what to do.

As a mother of a preteen and teen, I found that comforting. When I was younger and wanted “how to” information I might not have appreciated it as much. I found myself sharing bits of this book with the Computer Scientist and also with the kids. One thing I shared with them is that the Kabat-Zinns quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” several times in Everyday Blessings. This impressed the Teenager — you’ll find out why later in this essay. I was fascinated to connect Eliot’s poetry with mindfulness.

Everyday Blessings points out that being mindful in relationships is enormously helpful — it may not be the key to determining how to handle every parenting challenge, but it will help you to know whether there really is a challenge. So often there isn’t; one or the other person is simply overwhelmed by emotions — in our house we call it “reacting to stimuli.”  Being aware of what is happening, rather than half paying attention while doing three other tasks, can make a huge difference in accepting, understanding, and responding fully.

A novella I read this month addresses the full horror of humans not taking the time to be aware and accepting of each other: Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo.  It’s a book about slavery and colonialism, but it reverses history, and makes Europeans slaves of African overlords. An interesting concept, realized in a fast paced story.

Racism is racism, no matter who perpetrates it. Slavery was barbaric. None of this is new, but Evaristo’s twisted history forces readers to consider man’s inhumanity to man in a fresh way. It was an interesting read, with a page turning plot.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, reading a novel set in South Africa inspired me to pick up Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders, by Jason Carter, about his time in the Peace Corps. He lived there during the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. As President Carter’s grandson, he got to meet Mandela, and he writes about what a phenomenal experience that was. During the rest of his tour, he worked in a small town near the Swaziland border.

Power Lines is not just a book about Carter’s time volunteering, although he does explain the frustrations and challenges of Peace Corps work. Because he lived in South Africa at such a seminal moment, as the country began to recover from apartheid and enter a new democratic era, he also tells readers about the history of the area where he worked, the changes taking place, and the racial attitudes he encountered.

As a person who spent five years as an outsider in a small southern town, I felt that much of what he wrote about was eerily familiar. Because I grew up fairly insulated from the civil rights era struggles, I was surprised by the ongoing misunderstanding and mistrust between blacks and whites in the small town where we lived. I had the ignorant impression, before we lived in the south, that race issues were a thing of the past in America.

One thing that I was unaware of, naive as it may sound, is that racial mistrust goes both ways — and even within races. Carter really describes vividly the ways that people judging each other, rather than seeking to know each other as individuals, hurts communication and understanding. Of course, this goes on wherever humans, of any race or culture, are together.

In Power Lines, Carter touches on the very thing my family and I learned: economic discrimination and stereotyping is a major factor in racism.  Lack of educational resources and jobs meant that some of the South Africans he met had less hope about the future than others, and that in turn often influenced their attitudes about race. Some of the whites he met were able to make friends with other city dwelling, professional people of either race, but routinely he met whites who were afraid of poorer blacks, and cautioned him against riding in black taxis or hitchhiking.

He also found it frustrating that many of the educators he worked with routinely told him that they couldn’t do something because they were black, or asked his advice in areas that were well beyond his expertise, simply because as a white man, they believed he knew better than they did. Around the time Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, a fellow librarian in the southern town where we were living told me that several African American women on the library staff believed that Obama must be a foreigner because of the way he spoke. I suspect that racial stereotypes will be around for a very long time in South Africa, as they are here.

Carter’s book was also intriguing because he openly doubts his own idealistic views and the value of his work, which I think is realistic.  Anyone who spends significant time volunteering is likely to have his or her idealism crushed by the system at one point or another. The only other Peace Corps memoir I’ve read, Dear Exile, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery, also addressed disillusionment.

I’ve experienced it myself, when I found that many of my fellow volunteers at an ecumenical food pantry mistrusted the clients and were more concerned with The Rules than with ending hunger. And when I realized the obvious: that food handouts probably have little to do with solving the problem of hunger. Hard to swallow, because I wanted to be Making a Difference. Turns out I was having a Thoreauvian epiphany, I just didn’t know it yet. Hang on, we’ll get to that.

Straight talk about doubts and fears makes Power Lines an interesting read, one that could foster discussions about the of the pros and cons of volunteer programs. Carter also shares the few negative experiences he had, and the societal problems he saw, such as alcoholism and organized crime. At the same time it’s clear he loved the people he came to know, he loved what he was doing, and he did make a difference. I’m glad he didn’t leave out the challenges and struggles.

Carter’s  honest appraisal made the book vivid and informative, and timely as our government talks about ramping up American volunteerism.  The book reinforced my belief that the experience of living in another culture, making friends, and trying to understand the world and one’s place in it, is life changing not only for the people volunteers meet and work with, but also for the volunteers themselves. Person to person understanding is valuable regardless of how well the actual work of a volunteering mission goes.

Last night I sat down to read a bit of Walden — more on why in a moment — and in the way it so often does, what I read connected to my prior reading. Just as I had been reflecting that Jason Carter’s examination of the motive, purpose, and impact of the work he is in South Africa to do are the most thought provoking passages in Power Lines, I discovered that Thoreau covers this same territory in Walden.

Thoreau writes that rather than doing good, people should focus on being good, and that instead of throwing money at the poor, philanthropists would be better off solving the societal problems that cause poverty: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

In other words, handing out food at the food pantry isn’t going to end hunger. Working to help people be self reliant so that they can feed themselves, might. Living your own life so that your actions aren’t making someone else hungry (even if that’s not what you intend), is probably the best option.

As my family and I have learned about social justice and been involved with nonprofits (the Computer Scientist worked for a large international NGO while we lived in the South), we’ve spent time debating this very idea, of how best to make a difference. We tend to support the work of nonprofits like Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity, which help people change their own lives. My 95 year old grandmother has always told me she thinks handouts are no good because they take away a person’s dignity — a legacy of living through the Great Depression. Habitat’s motto is “a hand up, not a hand out.”

The private development world has moved in this direction, towards sustainable aid, local control of projects, microlending, and partnership. But recent discussions of development, and particuarly government aid, on public radio programs Speaking of Faith and Word of Mouth would sound familiar to Thoreau, and many developing world economists and writers are saying much the same thing that he did: attack the root, not the branches, and above all, don’t throw money at the tree.

I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about the famous 19th century residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  I picked it up again, along with The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 by Van Wyck Brooks, because a couple of weekends ago we finally visited Concord, so I’ve set aside some other “to read” books and am revisiting Concord’s literary heritage.

We walked around Walden Pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. We also saw the homes where the Alcotts, Hawthornes, and Emersons lived. At the Concord Museum, which is well worth a visit if you are interested in the town’s famous residents, the Computer Scientist and I each found some really cool books for planning future outings: R. Todd Felton’s A Journey Into Transcendentalist New England and Susan Wilson’s The Literary Trail of Greater Boston. So far I’ve only dipped into each of these, but they are both beautiful and fascinating.

Museum bookshops are one of my favorite places to browse, and a few weeks ago we visited an entire museum exhibit devoted to the work of a man whose books are often found in museum shops: David Macaulay. The exhibit features the drawings and paintings he’s done as he’s illustrated books as well as models he built for Mosque, journals from some of the research trips he’s done, and the books themselves.

The Computer Scientist thought Underground was really cool, and I chose Angelo for our nieces and nephew, who are visiting at Easter. The Teenager and his younger sister liked seeing the art from The New The Way Things Work, and we were inspired to check out several Macaulay titles from the library after the museum visit, including a couple of really innovative picture books, Shortcut and Black and White.

Another book that multiple family members enjoyed recently is How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. Both the Computer Scientist and the Teenager think this is an intriguing book. Foer delves into the sociopolitical lessons of soccer, which he says is  “further along in the globalization game than any other economy on the planet.”

Our book discussion group with the Teenager is chugging along. So far we’ve read, discussed, and journaled about The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men. Our focus is 20th century American authors.  Not the most uplifting bunch of stories, so far, but the Teenager seems to find validation for his own angsty outlook. For example, he commented that Steinbeck doesn’t appear to believe that it’s worth having a dream, based on the fact that the characters who dream of better lives are all thwarted in Of Mice and Men.

If you look at the current events he’s known so far, you might understand why he just shrugged and said, “but that’s life.” I tried being mindful, and told him I thought we actually have it pretty good, really. He’s not really as pessimistic as he’d like people to think, and acknowledged that I’m right, just before asking cheerfully what’s for dinner. It’s good to be young. So far it’s not that bad being middle aged, either. And it’s interesting having a teenager’s perspective on books, and life.

I put up a poster for National Poetry Month last week and the Teenager did a double take. “Who wrote that?” he asked. “That’s really powerful.” I immediately tracked down two copies of The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. Granted, he’s usually grouped with 20th century English writers, but he was born American, so that’s what we’ll read next for our book group. I felt like Eliot was calling to me — first in Everyday Blessings, where I enjoyed the references to “The Four Quartets,” then in my son’s immediate, forceful reaction to the poster.

Eliot came up at an event I attended last weekend — a one day conference on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, put on by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. One of the speakers, Diana Durham, has written a book on the grail myth, and her presentation at the conference, “The Poet As Shaman,” included a discussion of the way Eliot conjures up the spiritual desolation of 1920’s London in “The Wasteland,” but then heals the wounds, twenty years later, in the completed “Four Quartets.” Her talk was very interesting, and reinforced my Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading.

Another author whose work fit nicely into everything else I read this month is Mary Oliver. I was at Ohrstrom library checking out books by Dorianne Laux, who I’ve heard is coming to the campus. On their new book shelves, I saw The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays.

Oliver is a master of mindful awareness of her surroundings, and her poems are haiku-like not in their form, but in their immediacy, their descriptive power, and the way they capture the extraordinary in everyday experience. I also find her poems transformative — you can so clearly see what she sees that it’s easy to feel what she feels, too. This collection is mostly made up of previously published poems, all relating to animals, and in many cases, our connection to the natural world.

A final note on connections. The Pre-teen is reading a book I picked up on a book store sale table a few years ago, We Just Want To Live Here: A Palestinian Teenager, An Israeli Teenager — an Unlikely Friendship. It’s the true story of Odelia and Amal, girls who meet on a trip designed to bring Israeli and Palenstinian teens together to learn about each other’s lives. They become friends and stay in touch. Through their letters, readers get an idea of the huge gulf in understanding the girls try to overcome.

I enjoyed this book when I bought it, and the Pre-teen likes reading about girls in other countries. I attended a very moving talk given by two members of Combatants for Peace last month, and shared what I heard about person to person peace efforts in the Middle East, so maybe that is what led her to choose this now. When she browsed our shelves and came across We Just Want To Live Here, I knew that even if it means having to stack books on the floor someday, I’ll resist weeding — you never know when a book will be right for someone, and I love sharing reading connections with my family.

In my “to read” pile if I finish Walden and The Flowering of New England in April? I watched a re-run of Masterpiece Theater’s David Copperfield and decided I’d like to read the book (which was waiting on my shelves), and I’ve pulled out an old Powell’s Books  find called Beyond the Sky and the Earth: Journey Into Bhutan, because I am volunteering with refugee resettlement, and the family I’m helping welcome are Bhutanese. They’ve lived in a camp in Nepal for 18 years — so what I read about Bhutan will be clouded by what I know of their experience. But I’m curious nonetheless.

I also bought a copy of Krista Tippett‘s Speaking of Faith, which she signed, when I went to hear her interviewed by NHPR’s Virginia Prescott last week. I’ve read it before, but Ive left it out to dip back into. I’ve been slowly reading The Making of a Sonnet, a Norton anthology, and I’m up to the 19th century (perfect as I read about the same time period in New England’s literary scene). And of course, I’ll be reading T. S. Eliot with the Computer Scientist and the Teenager.

I also plan to read poems by three amazing poets who are coming together for a reading next week. Mike Pride, retired editor of the Concord Monitor and a poetry fan, sent me a note this afternoon because he saw my bookconscious post on last year’s fantastic Poets’ Three reading.

Mike says, “Dogs’ Night Out: Three Great Poets, will be held next Friday (April 17, 2009) at the Concord City Auditorium. The poets are Wesley McNair, Sharon Olds and 2008 Pulitzer prize winner Philip Schultz. They’re all terrific, accessible poets, and it should be a fun night. In tomorrow’s Monitor (April 9) and in the online Monitor, there will be profile-interviews of the three poets, along with a sample of their work.”

Tickets for Dogs’ Night Out are $10, and any proceeds above costs will go to local homeless charities. The time is 7 p.m., and tickets are available at the Monitor, at concordmonitor.com, at Gibson’s and at the box office. Thanks, Mike.  The Computer Scientist and I have our tickets, and we’ll see you there!

So I’ve got quite a pile “to read” (my kids are relieved that I no longer stack books on my nightstand — when they were younger and when we lived in tornado country, they used to fret that the stack would fall on me in the night). But no matter how many books I browse, I will read one thing at a time.  Mindfully.

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It’s dark here in northern New England in November. Evening comes early — the sun is going down by four o’clock. One of my favorite poems of all time is “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon, which I always think of at this time of year, as the dark hours increase. Kenyon writes, “God does not leave us comfortless,” and I like to think one of the chief comforts at any time, but especially in darkness (whether physical, spiritual, or emotional), is reading.

As the final weeks of campaigning came to a close, I read a couple of funny books to help balance the negativity. I wrote a few months ago about visiting a terrific used bookstore in Maine. One of my purchases there was a pair of paperbacks by Shirley Jackson.

My grandmother first recommended Jackson’s memoir, Life Among the Savages, when I had a three year old and a seven year old and had just moved into a 132 year old house in New Hampshire. I was still in that anxious phase of early motherhood, and I was also a bit overwhelmed by the house. Mostly my husband and I became of aware of how little we really knew about houses, despite having been homeowners before. An old house will humble you. Even though it was in many ways the coolest house we’ve ever lived in, I felt like we were in a power struggle, that house and I. The house won, but that’s another story.

Jackson writes about moving to an old house in Vermont from New York City with her husband and two young children. While she doesn’t know much more about the maintenance and upkeep of an old house than we did, she makes use of her inexperience by writing a hilarious memoir. Between her observations of the nature of very young children and anecdotes about things going wrong with her house and car, I laughed out loud. So when I saw it this summer in the used bookshop for $ .50, along with its companion, Raising Demons, I snapped them up.

Rereading Life Among the Savages, I was struck by how funny it still is, even though we’ve moved twice and now live in a house that’s only thirty something years old. My toddler and young son are now a preteen and a very tall kid who eats a great deal and is three months from being legally able to learn to drive. Despite being older, more experienced (notice I didn’t say wiser), and a great deal more relaxed, I still laughed out loud. Jackson manages to write about things that are so easy for any parent or former child to identify with that it doesn’t matter that the books were written in the late 1940’s.

Jackson’s book is all the more appealing to me for its New England setting. Rebecca Rule’s Live Free and Eat Pie! A Storyteller’s Guide to New Hampshire is a funny but affectionate look at the bookconscious family’s adopted home. Arranged like a guidebook, Live Free pokes fun at New Hampshire culture, but also fills readers in on history, people, and places around the state. While she enjoys pointing out the state’s quirks, Rule clearly loves New Hampshire, and revels in her role as collector of its tradition and lore. She writes that many of her best stories come from her own storytelling audiences, and I’m hoping to be in the audience when she comes to Concord in December.

At Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago, I went to hear D. Quincy Whitney read from her new book, Hidden History of New Hampshire. This little book grew out of Whitney’s work preparing New Hampshire “firsts and bests” for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Rather than putting her information in chronological order, Whitney organizes the book into thematic collections of stories, such as “Home, Town, and Community,” “Seasons: Work and Recreation,” “Creativity and Culture,” or “Ingenuity and Enterprise.” I found the groupings creative and conducive to browsing — when was the last time you picked up a history book and found a chapter on “Sea, Lake, and Sky,” or “Forests and Mountains?”

The pieces themselves are short and engaging. You may have recently heard references to Bretton Woods in the news, and this book will tell you the story behind the location of the conference and preparations for world leaders to come to remote NH. As always, hearing the author talk about her work really enhanced my appreciation for the final product, and it was interesting to hear about her travels. Whitney’s research led her to all kinds of fascinating places, like a unique monument to women who have lost their lives serving their country, which is decorated with reliefs Norman Rockwell designed.

Whitney doesn’t leave out familiar famous Granite staters, like Robert Frost and Christa McAuliffe, but she also writes about lesser known people who have achieved extraordinary things. And kids of all ages will enjoy hearing about notable sports achievements, including New Hampshire’s illustrious skiing history. It’s a well written, interesting little book enhanced by a great selection of historical photographs, and I’ve left it out where I hope the rest of the family will browse through it.

The kids have been reading some interesting fiction. My son tried The Sand Reckoner, by Gillian Bradshaw, who writes marvelously detailed historical fiction and is one of my favorite authors. As you can tell by the title, taken from his famous treatise on large numbers, The Sand Reckoner is about Archimedes, and Gregory found it interesting as well as entertaining. His sister is reading an Enola Holmes mystery, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, and she also just read Ivy and Bean and The Magic Half. The mystery features Sherlock’s little sister, and is part of a series by Nancy Springer my daughter really enjoys. The other two books are by Annie Barrows.

Annie Barrows is also the co-author, with her aunt, of a book I just finished last week and loved: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This was one of those books I didn’t want to end. A few years ago I watched Island at War on Masterpiece Theatre. I’d never really heard much about the occupation of the Channel Islands until then, and found it really interesting. Given all the hype about Barrows’ book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s written almost entirely as a series of letters between the protagonist and other main characters, which sounds hokey. But instead it was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was torn between wanting to know the heroine, Juliet, and wanting to be Juliet.

Another story I thoroughly enjoyed was The Blue Star, by Tony Earley. This novel is a sequel to Earley’s successful and critically acclaimed Jim the Boy. Both books are evidence that a person can write a good book for adults that is neither graphic nor shocking nor steeped in the latest pop psychology nor dripping with dramatic twists lifted from tell all talk shows and gossip rags. Earley’s setting, a small town in the South in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, feels vibrant and real. His characters are good without being sappy or cloying. Difficult things happen, especially in The Blue Star, but the books don’t titillate, taunt, or tire the reader. I wish there were more novels like these.

Which brings me to a book I didn’t enjoy that much, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. This was one of those books reviewers raved about that just didn’t appeal to me. I felt like it would have made a better movie or television drama. Nothing much happens in the book, but at the same time, there are so many characters that you don’t really get to know them, either. Maybe the main character, Manny, is the only one O’Nan meant for readers to care about, but despite his obvious good qualities, I found Manny fairly boring as characters go.

O’Nan’s writing is vivid, cinematic, I’d call it. His descriptions of restuarant work brought back vivid memories of a summer I spent busing tables, and I could picture the Lobster easily as I read. I didn’t hate the book, but I just felt there was not much to the story, and characters I couldn’t really get excited about — which are two things I’m really looking for in a novel.

When it comes to nonfiction, I often read about subjects I’m exploring with the kids. We’re learning about Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, because my dad and his wife are traveling there right now, and I just finished The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed reading it, but it was good read. The subject matter was disturbing: this book tells the story of Bashir, who was born in the house his father built in Ramla, with a lemon tree in the garden; and Dalia, the daughter of Bulgarian Jews who moved into the house after Bashir’s family and most other Arabs were expelled from Ramla when Israel became a country. Tolan tells, in spare, clean language, what happens after the two meet in their late teens, when Bashir comes to see the house and Dalia lets him in.

No matter your politics, this book will probably make you angry as well as horrified. The thing that struck me most was something Dalia noticed when she was still a little girl: the children of European Jews in Israel managed to dehumanize and mistreat people who were “other,” despite the experience of the Holocaust. I stayed awake wondering how that could be possible. The stories of Dalia and Bashir and what becomes of the house with the lemon tree are gripping, and Tolan fills in historical detail without bogging down readers or losing sight of the bigger picture. Tolan also manages to maintain an impartial tone throughout the book. When I was finishing the last chapter, Israel was blocking UN food aid deliveries in Gaza. After reading this book, I wonder if the situation can ever be fully resolved.

After such a heavy read, coming right after a novel I didn’t really enjoy, I’m going to read something I’m pretty certain I’ll find entertaining next: Brisingr, Christopher Paolini’s latest book in his Inheritance cycle. First of all, how cool would it be, as an author, to have written a series known as a “cycle” — as in The Epic Cycle, or the Arthurian Cycle? My son read Brisingr as soon as it came out, put in on my nightstand, and promised I would love it. I think it will be just the thing to sustain and inspire me as I crank through the 30,000 word mark this week.

Yes, crazy as it is, I am doing NaNoWriMo again this year. In case you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is the insanity of thousands of people around the world each writing a 50,000 word novel in November. A month in which I will spend hours in the car, taking the boy to a series of soccer tryouts some distance from our house and the girl to a weekly drama class where she is memorizing lines for an early December play, and to several art classes a week. We are also preparing for visiting relatives I am looking forward to spending time with, and Thanksgiving, which is one of our favorite holidays and which would result in mutiny if it did not include the traditional bountiful and somewhat time consuming menu.

In short, it’s not a month in which I really ought to be committing to 1667 words per day. But for some inexplicable reason, I love NaNoWriMo. Especially since I am ahead on my word count today. Talk to me tomorrow. You can follow my progress with that nifty word count meter in the side bar here at bookconscious.

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