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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post; I have two reviews due for Kirkus tomorrow and both books arrived late last week, so I’ve been busy with those. Before that I was busy with the book I’m going to tell you about today — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose this book for my “published the year you were born” title for Book Bingo; that said, I believe this book was written the year I was born and published a year later. This book is both uplifting and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing because I didn’t realize how little I understood the time it was written and because it was a disturbing time. The nonviolence of the movement MLK had founded was called into question when justice did not appear to be coming after federal legislation. Victories won on the national level did not mean equality in many communities. And the Black Power movement was not only questioning nonviolence, they were countering it. MLK writes of being booed by young black people in Chicago. I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea? Probably because white people wrote my history textbooks — and honestly, we never made it through the Civil Rights era in high school history class anyway. I guess I grew up thinking the civil rights movement was a success and that was all I needed to know. Of course I’ve since realized that is a trite and incomplete view of things.

Where Do We Go From Here is a moving book, as MLK passionately defends nonviolence as a tactic and gives eloquent and clear voice to where America — black and white — should go, together. The wisdom packed into this volume is almost overwhelming. King writes that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And then he lays out, point by depressing point, all the ways American society is not governed by this kind of power, nor ruled by this kind of justice. That racism is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible, often leaving white liberals unaware of their deep-seated prejudices. Look around and you’ll see why it’s depressing — the same could be said of American society today.

King also wrote that poverty and militarism must be vanquished for all people, black and white, to ever come together and make a better world. That we are all linked, black lives to white lives, American lives to foreign lives. That we have to take care of the other in order to preserve ourselves.

I admit, I could not finish this book. The horror of realizing that a leader who saw what needed to be done to complete the work he’d started, saw that without economic justice there would be no racial justice and no peace in the world, was permanently silenced by just that kind of injustice and violence was more than I could stomach in the present climate.

But I know this: the thing that keeps me going is the belief that love eventually prevails, in the face of everything that stands against it. King knew it and refused to give up. It has to happen, as he writes, “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.” One person at a time, that’s what we’re here to do.

I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with a difficult person I have to interact with regularly. As an experiment in cultivating compassion, throughout Holy Week I prayed silently for that person by name and also prayed for understanding on my own part of his situation; what could cause this anger and bitterness and malice, and how could I respond? Could I turn my heart of stone (fear, resentment, anger, irritation, suspicion) into a heart of flesh? No matter what you think of prayer or God, know that this mindful, intentional shift in perspective worked. By the end of the week I was able to not grit my teeth when I faced him, to reflect with compassion on his misery rather than react resentfully.

That’s love correcting everything that stands against love. That’s justice. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete – it’s an action, correcting. It’s not done yet, and may not be in my lifetime. But things will get better, and if we look hard enough, and reflect carefully enough, they will have begun without us.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours snow fell, covering grey high rises, broken pavements and potholed roads, transforming the city into a winter fairyland.”

More importantly, she vividly portrays the lives of Nargis, a widow and mother of three working as a nanny, and Harriet, her expat employer. Harriet is a young Englishwoman and mother of two, married to a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Henri. Through her journal entries we learn that she feels useless and lonely in Dushanbe. Henri is never around, he expects her to entertain when groceries are scarce and power cuts are frequent, and he berates her for showing any interest in Nargis’s life.

Nargis, meanwhile, appears to be the disobedient one. She was married at sixteen to a man who loved her and treated her well, bore him two children, and watched him die of a cancerous throat tumor when only in his twenties. Her parents made her remarry and her second husband beat her son, ordered his mother to feed the children only bread, and eventually attacked Nargis. She left, but he took their infant son. She visits the child at her in-laws apartment, and mostly doesn’t have to see her husband, because he works in Russia a good part of the year like many other young Tajiks.

When the book opens we learn that Nargis is the only adult working in her household for the time being, and is supporting herself, her parents, her brother, and her children. Stretched thin, she wants to buy a small shop to increase her income. Just reading about her life was painful. Her family and neighbors consider her to be in the wrong for leaving her husband because most Tajiks seem to think that an abused wife deserves it. So she’s scorned both in her neighborhood and in Harriet’s world, where locals are seen as potential servants or criminals.

But Nargis is not the only disobedient wife. Harriet begin to sense that her life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. In fact, even though she’s not physically abused and she’s wealthy, there is an imbalance in Harriet’s marriage that is odious in its own way. The more she gets to know Nargis and to empathize with her, the more she considers what she really wants for herself and her children. Harriet also wants to help, and that’s another interesting part of the book — Nargis doesn’t want to have to humble herself or be indebted but she desperately wants a better life, and Milisic-Stanley makes that easy to understand.

The book doesn’t paint the expat, missionary, and NGO communities in the best light, although again, Milisic-Stanley doesn’t make anything too cut and dry — there are some people who are better than others. There’s a definite ugly American, which was a little painful to read, but there are ugly Europeans too. The same goes for Tajiks — some are good people, some are not. Milisic-Stanley lived in Tajikistan and several other placed after graduating from SOAS in London, so she probably based her characters on people she’d met. There are definitely a lot of socio-political aspects to the story as well as economic, so it’s both an entertaining novel and a book that will make you think.

I won’t tell you what happens to either woman, but to Milisic-Stanley’s credit, there isn’t a pat ending for Harriet or Nargis — we get an idea of what direction things are going, but she doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. The Disobedient Wife is a thought provoking, mind-expanding book that offers views of lives so fundamentally different and yet at heart, exactly like ours; people everywhere just want to be safe, have enough food and health care and education for their kids, and security for their families. How we can get there is such a mess, and this book really shows how complicated and precarious it is, especially when the balance of power and wealth in the world is so lopsided.

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Over Thanksgiving weekend I read an advance copy of Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (due out in the U.S. in February). It was a squirm-inducing read; Hudson’s own upbringing “in a succession of council estates, B&B’s, and trailer parks” informs her debut, which portrays the bleak, depressing life of a single mother and her daughters Janie Ryan (who narrates the book from birth) and Tiny as they bounce in and out of housing projects in Scotland and England. Tony Hogan of the title beats the girls’ mother. Drugs and alcohol abound.

The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it. I kept thinking how random it is that I grew up in such a different world, when I know there were kids in my town whose lives were not a lot different than the Janie’s.

So why did I keep reading a book that made me feel miserable? Believe it or not, this is a love story. Because despite the soul crushing poverty and attendant overwhelming pain, Janie and her family love each other. Hudson has written a novel that simultaneously repulses and taps the depths of human pathos. But by the end of the story readers sense that Janie is going to be ok, despite the absent father, the wreck of a mother, the system that sees her as nothing but trash with no future but to repeat the pattern. What might save her? At the risk of over-simplifying, unconditional love. (And, I am extremely pleased to report, regular visits to the library from a young age.)

Hudson’s talent lies in her ability to write a story no one wants to hear but readers can’t seem to put down. The book was a sensation in Britain, garnering critical praise and prize nominationsGibson’s Book Club this week got into a discussion about what deserves to be called a great book. One thing we agreed on was that good writing doesn’t stay on the page — it enters our hearts and minds and lingers.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I continue to think of Janie. A fictional walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how painful, can influence the way we see each other in the real world. Janie was with me when I read an article this week about fast food workers’ hopes for living wages. And her world also brought to mind the families caught in the cycle of poverty in the incredibly moving documentary on hunger in America the Computer Scientist and I saw a few months ago, A Place at the Table. 

 I’m fortunate that with the final page of this book I put away the misery Janie lived with and stepped back into my own very comfortable shoes. I read to the end for her, and for everyone like her. Not because I can save them, but because I believe reading — and understanding in even the tiniest way what other’s lives are like — can save us all.

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I finished Alexandra Horowitz‘s On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes last night, and earlier this week finished a book for next month’s column, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s A Million Years With You: A Memoir of a Life Observed.  Thomas is an amazing woman, who learned at an early age the value of being fully present (both to people and animals) and observing closely. More on her book in the column. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist specializing in animals — both women wrote very popular books about dogs. But her latest book looks at what we humans don’t see, hear or sense in our everyday environments.

On Looking is about Horowitz walking her own block and other city streets with eleven experts: her toddler son, a blind woman, an insect tracker, one of the foremost raccoon experts in the world, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a typographer, a physician, a public space specialist, a sound engineer, and her dog. On each walk Alexander immersed herself in the specialty of the person (or dog) she was with. By identifying signs that other creatures were nearby (or what lettering or types of stone reveal), understanding how the blind (or a toddler, an artist, a dog) experience the world, and so on with each of her walk-mates, she considered the unique perspectives of her experts, and all that was there to explore in plain sight.

All of us have experienced — at work, at home, in friendships and with our families —  the way differences of perception color our everyday experiences. What we each notice and what even those closest to us notice is not always aligned. But Horowitz reveals that not only do humans perceptions vary, but beyond that, we don’t give our full attention to what’s right in front of us. As a longtime (and very unskilled) student of mindfulness I knew this, but Horowitz’s book examines this phenomenon beautifully.

She finds as she walks around her block at the start of her project, “What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see . . . .” Throughout her fascinating research, walking with people who guided her beyond the familiar, Horowitz discovered “the unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe.” She writes with humor and very accessible intelligence, as well as curiosity and admiration for her fellow walkers.

Will I ever be as attentive as she is? My monkey mind gets in my way all the time, and I’m not sure I can ever wrangle my synapses’ high capacity magazine with a mindfulness trigger lock. I recently read that creative types and “sensitive” introverts have overly active brains so maybe fighting the way my brain works is counterproductive, but some stillness and attentiveness has got to be better than none. I don’t expect to reach Horowitz’s level of attention on my next walk, but she’s given me a great deal more to notice.

Which brings me to the seeing part of the post: thanks to an attentive friend, I heard about and attended the rally in our town on Monday in support of our homeless community, who’ve been evicted from both public and private land and had their belongings seized, including donated tents handed out by a number of churches and social organizations when winter shelters closed. At the rally I noticed that one of the problems facing the homeless is perception: people see someone rough around the edges and assume mental illness or addiction. But the only accurate definition of someone who is homeless is that he or she has no home.

If you or I had nowhere to rest, clean up, or be safe, we’d look a little rough. As my friend Kellie’s sign said: poverty is not a crime. Treating it as such isn’t productive. Refusing to see the homeless will not make the problem of homelessness disappear. Thank God telling them to get out of sight won’t put them out of mind of the concerned citizens who were present on Monday. I’m thankful for those that not only see but also do, who are providing legal representation, practical support, and loving kindness to people who have little else in this world.

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