A Note about Fixing Holes and Not Being Okay

It’s been really cool to see the responses to my testimony and tattoo. There are lots of us recovering elder-brother-types out there, I guess. =)

There was one series of comments that particularly struck me:

Facebook shame books comments

I thought this was particularly ironic — as did my co-conversationalist — because in talking about shame and shininess and how I (we) struggle with striving to measure up to legalistic standards of perfection we can’t attain, our go-to solution — and one I endorsed, too, I don’t at all mean to dump this on the other person — was to read two books that One Should Read To Better Oneself. Because what “worked” for me is totally a “rule” that will “work” for everyone else. And because this whole thing is totally “fixable” — right?

The problem with us elder-brother-ish rule-followers is that we think we can just find a 3-step process and make everything better. (Or at least make everything LOOK better.) But figuring out all of this shame and older brother stuff is not about fixing yourself. The fact is, we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves. It just isn’t possible. We cannot attain perfection. Our shiny whitewash can only hide the holes, not repair them.

What this process of dealing with legalism is really about is the continuing, ongoing, neverending struggle to realize and admit and embrace our brokenness. It’s not our job to fill in the hole. It’s our job to stop covering the hole that we can never fill. 

This is a hard thing to do when your life has been about presenting the appearance of a completely intact wall. We can even begin to be legalistic about not doing a good enough job of uncovering the whole. We just switch our legalism and shininess to the new goal of shinily uncovering our faults. And then we beat ourselves up for not being vulnerable enough or not being fixed enough or not healing fast enough.

Let me be clear: We will never “achieve” vulnerability. We will never “achieve” freedom from shame. We will never “achieve” honesty, or healing, or peace. (Short of some sort of Jesus-miracle, anyway.) These are not check-boxes; they are STRUGGLES. They are BATTLES, some days. And some days, they are mountains to be climbed, but off in the distance — later — not today.

It’s good to stop covering up the holes — that’s an important shift to make — but it’s also good to just rest sometimes. It’s good to stop striving for a new standard of “perfect brokenness”.

Or, as a really great blog post put it, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY.”

Or, as Daniel and I tell each other when we’re struggling to be “productive” self-employed workers, “I love you even when you derp.” (aka don’t get anything productive done all day) “I would love you even if all you ever did was derp.”

The shift I keep trying to practice in my brain is that nothing I do can change my value. Just like nothing I can do can change how long it takes sunlight to reach the earth. God made it that way and it’s stuck. If I went out and murdered a bunch of people (NOT GOING TO HAPPEN, by the way), God would still love and value me the same. If I went out and cured all the world’s suffering (also not going to happen, but less terrifying), God would still love and value me the same.

So when I feel like I should be better at this vulnerability thing, or when I feel like I should have figured out how to balance marriage time and work time by now, or even when I slip back into old habits that I feel are so “elementary” I shouldn’t have to deal with them anymore, here’s what I do: (And feel free to say it with me, if you think this one blog post means I have my poop in a group!)

  1. Stop that. All lies.
  2. Have grace for yourself — don’t feel bad.
  3. Now that you feel bad for feeling bad, give yourself grace for that too.
  4. Say it with me: “It’s okay to not be okay. God loves me even when I derp.”
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Why I’m Getting a Tattoo (My Testimony)

I’m getting a tattoo.

You might find that kind of surprising. So here’s the story of why.

I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes. I’ve been that way for a long time. I’ve always liked pleasing people, as far as I can remember. I always got good grades. I always toed the line (outwardly, anyway). I always avoided conflict. I always achieved. I always followed the rules. I liked following the rules. They told me what I had to do to look shiny, and my shininess was my trophy and my shield.

But on the inside, I didn’t follow the spirit of the rules. Often I pleased people or avoided conflict out of fear. I got good grades because I liked getting everything right and feared the shame of making mistakes. I had perfect church attendance, but it wasn’t motivated by devotion, and it became fuel for me to look down on those whose attendance was less spotless. I played with my younger sister the exact number of minutes I was required to, and then I tricked and bullied her until she went away (or got left behind). I didn’t often directly lie to authorities — too confrontational, too risky, too black-and-white — but I deceived. I twisted and finagled my words and my thoughts and my world to protect my secret selfishness. I sneakily read books with flashlights after bedtime, late into the night sometimes. I learned my memory work then, too, having watched TV before my homework was done (despite a house policy to the contrary), because — I told myself — the real deadline was making sure I had it done in time for school in the morning. I hated when my little sister copied me, and especially when we wore matching outfits, so I would come out wearing one outfit, make sure I was seen, and then go quick-change into something else, only to emerge when it was time to go and there wasn’t time for my sister to change. I did what I wanted, which was a combination of what I wanted to do and just enough of what I didn’t want to do to keep everyone else happy and off my back.

I didn’t technically disobey often, but I wasn’t really obedient either. I was an expert at non-disobedience.

I didn’t really start to come to terms with all of this until I heard a sermon preached about the book The Prodigal God, which reframes the parable of the prodigal son (the author renames it the “Parable of Two Lost Sons”) as a tale about two types of lost-ness: the obvious, rebellious lost-ness of the prodigal son, and the subtle, sneaky, self-righteous lost-ness of the elder brother. I recognized myself immediately. I knew I had to read that book.

…But I didn’t. Life happened, my list of books to read was long, and it slipped through the cracks.

Then, as part of a reading group, I read the book Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I didn’t really identify with the title much — after all, I always could measure up to people’s expectations, for the most part — but I heard it was a powerful read, so I dug in.

I was totally blown away. I FINALLY UNDERSTOOD why I felt so anxious about making a misstep, and why I was so deadline-driven, and why I never really felt like I needed God, and why finding myself self-employed (with no one to please or perform for) was so darn difficult. I was stuck in a cycle of trying to justify myself, and it was motivated by trying to avoid shame — trying to prove my worth with my own two hands.

Looking back, I think the truth of this idea softened my shell just a hair. The armor cracked just enough.

I don’t even remember all what I read that struck me — looking through the book again, I can’t really find anything terribly quotable. But I do remember the part where I read the list of God’s names:

During biblical times, a person’s name was really important. People gave their babies names that described the characteristics they wanted them to have when they grew up. A name wasn’t just a label; it was a description of the nature or character of the one to whom it belonged. Look at some of God’s names:

Elohim, the Strong One;
El-roi, the Strong One who sees;
Jehovah-jireh, He is our Provider;
Jehovah-raffa, He is our Healer;
Jehovah-nissi, He is our Banner;
Jehovah-ra’ah, He is our Shepherd;
Jehovah-shalom, He is our Peace;
Jehovah-tsidkenu, He is our Righteousness;
Jehovah-shammah, He is Present.

All of a sudden I got it. I GOT IT. All those years of knowing about the Bible, of being smart, of giving the right answers to avoid pain, of hiding and sneaking and pleasing and deceiving — and only now, at the age of 26, did I get it. All the work I do to be shiny doesn’t matter. My own name doesn’t matter. The name on me is God’s. It doesn’t matter if I’m shiny. In fact, working to be shiny is counter-productive, because the facade of shine distracts me from reality. My “righteous” deeds were really filthy rags. Rather than fixing the hole in the wall, I had spent my whole life trying to cover it up. I was a whitewashed tomb.

I finally just read The Prodigal God last week. It’s a short book, so it didn’t take long. But the whole way through, I just kept thinking, “Yep, that’s me. This is me. This is what I’m fighting.” The transition from that place to my tattoo action step is well-illustrated by this passage:

Why doesn’t the elder brother go in [to the Father’s feast]? He himself gives the reason: ‘Because I’ve never disobeyed you.’ The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.

So I’m getting this tattoo to remind me that I’m not shiny. I can’t be perfect. I can’t earn my way into the big feast in the sky by following all the rules. And not only that — but I need to stop whitewashing my tomb.

This tattoo is risky. It’s (somewhat) counter-cultural. It’s visible. To make sure I can please everyone and keep my “future life options” open, I should remain clean and unblemished. Or at least put it somewhere more discreet, where no one will see it. I shouldn’t get this tattoo.

So I am.

My tattoo will read “YHWH shammah” (in my handwriting), which is Hebrew for “The Lord is There” or “The Lord is Present”. (Found in Ezekiel 45. You’ll also notice it’s at the end of the list quoted above.) And when I look at it, it will remind me that it is physically impossible for me to be without blemish. But the Lord is there. Or, to summarize with a secular quote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

This is my reminder that I’m cracked. It reminds me to stop plastering over the hole and just let the Light in.

——————-

UPDATE: It is finished. Here’s a picture of my tattoo!

tattoo YHWH shammah

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‘Changes in the Land’: The Making of a Literal New England

This week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.

Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.

1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.

One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:

Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)

When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:

[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)

Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…

2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.

One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:

Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)

I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:

  • How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
  • How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
  • How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!

This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.

3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.

Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:

  • English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
  • Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
  • English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).

The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:

“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).

In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)

CONCLUSION

It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.

Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.

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I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas… There is Just One Thing I Need… Justice.

Hey friends!

So if you happen to be my Facebook friend, you’ve probably noticed a lot of pictures of me in a dress over the last week. That’s because… I’ve been posting a lot of pictures of myself in a dress (or more specifically, dresses) all week. The reason? It’s DRESSEMBER!!

dressember days 1-5 2014

Dressember is a month-long fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to fight slavery and trafficking, especially slavery and trafficking of women and girls. (Hence the dresses.) Funds raised will go to International Justice Mission, which is:

ijm logoBasically, they’re my heroes. They fight for freedom and dignity for women, children, and men, and they do it even in long, boring court proceedings and endless piles of paperwork. (Seriously, if you’ve never dug into IJM, check them out. They have some SERIOUS bad-guy-busting chops.)

Anyway — so here I am at the end of Week 1 of Dressember, and I have currently raised $85. If you have some dollars floating around that need a home, I — and more importantly IJM — and more importantly, the folks IJM works for — would love if you would add those dollars to the fight for justice for women and girls!

You can donate to me specifically at my Dressember page. Or, if you want, donate to the team I’m on, which is a few of us ladies from my church doing Dressember together. My personal goal is $300 (but I’d love to beat it!) and our team goal is $2000 — so please consider chipping in!

OR, if you don’t have any dollars floating around, or if your floaty dollars need to float in another direction but you still want to support Dressember/IJM, consider donating your social media juice! Share this blog post, or share my donate page, and tell your friends why you support the mission of IJM. Then THEY can send THEIR floaty dollars — and it doesn’t cost you a thing!

International Justice Mission is working like crazy to provide much-needed advocacy to end slavery – so thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider financial and/or moral support of this incredibly important cause!

 

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Meditation on a Turkey Carcass

Today was the first day-after-Thanksgiving that I’ve spent processing our leftover turkey carcass.

I’ve made my own broth before — from chicken bones, vegetables, etc — but this is the first time I’ve taken a whole carcass and processed every bit of it. First I boiled the carcass (put it in when we got home last night) to make broth and get all the meat off the bones. Then this morning I strained out all the broth, separated out the meat from the bones, and put the bones back in the crock pot to make bone broth.

turkey bones on day after thanksgivingAs I was sorting through the pile of meat and bones left after the first round of boiling, I actually sort of had fun picking out all the little (and big!) bones. They were fun shapes, and it was cool to pull out a few I could sort of identify — leg bone, wishbone, ribs, and even vertebrae! I inwardly smiled when I recognized one of those spine-y bones — and then as I cleaned the meat off of it, I noticed that there was a stretchy tube left inside the vertebra’s center hole. Maybe a nerve or something.

All of a sudden, I realized that I was picking through the dead body of a formerly living creature. I was holding its bones and cooked muscles in my hands. I was boiling its remains as many times as possible to pull out every bit of usefulness and nutrition from its carcass. It felt a little surreal.

At first I thought I might feel a little grossed out… but as I kept sorting through the bones, it started to feel sort of intimate. Like I was spending time with this turkey, like we had a connection. The growing pile of clean-boiled bones in the crock pot started to feel sort of familiar and friendly and warm (and not just from the heat of the crock pot, either).

I’ve never killed and eaten an animal myself before, but today I felt like I might understand a bit of why many traditional hunters place so much importance on gratitude. Over the course of my reading books about Native history and practice and talking with several Indian friends, I’ve learned that traditionally many Indian people (including Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibwe — all in my neck of the woods) will often leave tobacco as a thanks when they gather plants or hunt game. It’s meant to be a physical symbol of (and often accompanies) a prayer of thankfulness.

I didn’t have any tobacco — plus that’s not my culture — but as I finished digging through the gelatinous tendons, tender meat, fat-greasy skin, and still-warm smooth bones, I thought a little prayer of thankfulness for that turkey, whose little life will sustain and nourish mine for quite a while, and for the reminder that even though I’m a (relatively) smart creature, I’m still a creature.

I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them? (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22)

I think I have a new Thanksgiving tradition.

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1491: The Book that Turned My World Upside-Down

For those of you who have been reading along at home since my last post, you should have had PLENTY of time to catch up with me! It’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)

What I Expected to Find…

When I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what did the earth look like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.

Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:

  • What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
  • The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
  • A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).

One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:

Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)

To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.

What I Didn’t Expect…

Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.

Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70′s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)

Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:

  • Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed  maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
  • Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
  • Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.

Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.

Confession Time

Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke  book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?

At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).

My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”. 

There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.

Conclusion

Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.

Next up: a book that Charles Mann references in 1491 – William Cronon’s  Changes in the Land. Hopefully it won’t take me three months this time! =)

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Posted in Imperial Geography, What to Read Wednesdays

In which I learn 3 mind-boggling geographical ideas

You know how sometimes you discover AFTER graduation what you really wish you had taken more classes in? For me, it’s geography. I never took a single geography class while I was in college. And since I’m about to dive into an extended reading project focused on geography, I thought I’d better start with an introduction. So… I bought a (used, older version) textbook and read it… cover to cover… for fun.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you can tell someone is a serious geek when they do homework in their spare time. (Fun fact: Before I learned to read and write I would color with markers on paper and turn it in to my teacher mother as my “homework”. True story.)

Anyway. The textbook I chose to read was Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture. I think they’re up to edition ten by now, but I got the eighth edition to save a few bucks. I was more interested in the broader geographical principles than in having the most up-to-date stats and examples. And learn broad geographical principles I did! I really enjoyed trying on a new lens through which to view the world — and it even became practically useful, as you’ll see below! There was a lot of new (and some familiar) information in my textbook, but three main ideas really struck me and stuck with me, and I’ll spend a little time delving into each one.

1. Scale covers over a multitude of sins

One of the pretty foundational geographical principles I learned in the very first chapter is the concept of “scale“. Basically, this means that it matters on what level(s) you look at an issue — for example, at a national, regional, or local level.

When I first read this concept, I was like “Duh… I know how to read maps.” But the far-reaching implications of this principle became clear just a few days later.

As a part of Daniel’s and my web presence consulting business, I write blog posts for a client who works in the healthcare realm. In writing a piece about how Obamacare premiums are projected to change for 2015, I found this article whose headline (“Obamacare premiums slated to rise by an average of 7.5 percent”) touts a smaller-than-previously-projected national increase in healthcare premiums for plans provided through the Affordable Care Act. What lurks beneath this title — and what I discovered after reading the rest of the article – is that looking only at the national average TOTALLY OBSCURES the fact that predictions for premium changes state by state vary wildly. For example, the premiums in Indiana may rise as much as 15%, while premiums in Oregon are predicted to drop by about 2%. Not only that, but if you zoom in even further to different sub-markets within states, you find even MORE variation. Some customers in Nevada might have their premiums go up by 36%, and the premiums for some customers in Arizona could drop by 23%.

The point of this is to illustrate how scale can be used to completely twist and spin (or just get more perspective on) any issue, depending how you look at it. If I was a rabid Obamacare hater, I could truthfully write a headline of “Obamacare premiums skyrocket by 36% for some customers”. Or if I was a rabid Obamacare over-zealot, I could truthfully write a headline of “Obamacare premiums predicted to decrease, lower costs by 23% for some”. And those are BOTH TECHNICALLY TRUE.

Basically, in the principle of scale we discover the genesis of the saying “lies, damned lies, and statistics” — because changes in scale enable us to turn statistics into lies. Mind-boggling.

2. The idea of the modern nation-state is… well, modern.

I still remember how I felt back in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. It was something along the lines of, “Countries can still DO that???” After years of schooling and memorizing where everything went on a world map that had nice, solid, unchanging borders, I was shocked to learn that a modern nation-state would ever actually overtly attack another nation-state. They were both internationally recognized by the other nation-states, and all that conflict stuff was ancient history, from before those nice solid boundary lines got put on a map… right? Maps are PERMANENT, right?

Wrong! The textbook gives a brief overview:

The political map of the world… becomes so natural-looking to us that we begin to think it is natural.

The world map of states is anything but natural. The mosaic of states on the map represents a way of politically organizing space (into states) that is fewer than 400 years old. Just as people create places, imparting character to space and shaping culture, people make states. States and state boundaries are made, shaped, and refined by people, their actions, and their history. Even the idea of dividing the world into territorially defined states is one created and exported by people. (p.222)

Whoa. The mind-blowing is exacerbated by the distinction drawn between territoriality (asserting control over a specific geographical area) and sovereignty, which is a complex concept that basically means a body (e.g. a government or a leader) has political and military control over a people or territory – but it doesn’t have to always be the same territory:

American Indian tribes behaved territorially but not necessarily exclusively. Plains tribes shared hunting grounds with neighboring tribes who were friendly, and they fought over hunting grounds with neighboring tribes who were unfriendly. Territorial boundaries were shifting; they were not delineated on the ground. Plains tribes also held territory communally — individual tribal members did not “own” land. In a political sense, territoriality was most expressed by tribes [rather than individuals] within the Plains. Similarly, in Southeast Asia and in Africa, the concept of sovereignty and state-like political entitles also existed. In all of these places and in Europe before the mid-1600s, sovereignty was expressed over a people rather than a defined and bordered territory. A sovereign had subjects who followed (and happened to live in a place) rather than a defined space to rule. (p.223, emphasis added)

DUDE. So basically, the idea of sovereignty and territory (a) always going hand-in-hand and (b) being fixed and unchangeable on a map is TOTALLY NEW AND WEIRD. Which is funny, because I didn’t really know that until, you know, now. I feel like the entire of history just opened up into a giant realm of WHAT. (Total side note: I feel slightly impressed that this description of Native tribal sovereignty is vaguely similar to Daniel’s metaphor about gas molecules back at the beginning of LH/WK.)

The textbook quips, “Once you become a geographer, you begin to question every map you examine” (p.149). So far I’ve found that to be true — and that has made the idea of the modern nation-state get even fuzzier. When I look at a map now, I find myself asking more questions than I get answers: When did these particular boundary lines get drawn? Who drew them? What ethnic or language groups are present within these borders? How do they feel about the borders — is their group bisected by political boundaries, or do they have some recognition in their political home state? What natural features are contained within or used to demarcate the borders of this country? Who named the country? Who named and designated its capital? What do those decisions say about who holds power and what’s important to this country’s culture and history? 

…And of course, it’s just not possible to cram ALL that information into one map! Which means I have now embarked on the endless quest of geographical question-asking. I guess I’m a real geographer now, because I’ll never look at any map again without thinking of a million questions! Luckily I hope to start answering some of them as I read more of the books in this project (e.g. place-naming… can’t wait for that book!).

3. Where does our crap go?

I like recycling as much as the next gal, but I guess I never really thought very far along the chain of what happens to my trash after the garbage truck picks it up. As such, I was rather shocked to read the following little segment on waste disposal in my textbook:

According to current estimates, the United States produces about 1.7 kilograms (3.7 pounds) of solid waste per person per day, which adds up to well over 160 million metric tons (just under 180 million tons) per year. … Disposal of these wastes is a major worldwide problem. The growing volume of waste must be put somewhere, but space for it is no longer easy to find. … The number of suitable sites for sanitary landfills is decreasing… and it is increasingly difficult to design new sites. In the United States landfill capacity has been reached or will soon be reached in about a dozen States, most of them in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and those States must now buy space from other States for this purpose. Trucking or sending garbage by rail to distant landfills is very expensive, but there are few alternatives.

Similar problems arise on a global scale. The United States, the European Union, and Japan export solid (including hazardous) wastes to countries in Africa, Middle and South America, and East Asia. While these countries are paid for accepting the waste, they do not have the capacity to treat it properly. So the waste often is dumped in open landfills, where it creates the very hazards that the exporters want to avoid. (p.404, emphasis added)

So basically we’re running out of places to pile our crap. (Side Question: Doesn’t it ever break down? Or are we just producing more trash too quickly?) That’s a bit alarming already, and we haven’t even gotten to the section about toxic and radioactive waste yet…

High-level radioactive waste [emits strong radiation; produced by nuclear power and weapons facilities] is extremely dangerous and difficult to get rid of. Fuel rods from nuclear reactors will remain radioactive for thousands of years and must be stored in remote places where they will not contaminate water, air, or any other part of the environment.

They must be taken OUTSIDE THE ENVIRONMENT!!! …Wait a minute…….

In fact, no satisfactory means or place for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste has been found. (p.404-405, emphasis added)

Okay — I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to know that being exposed to radiation is BAD. Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Bonus: What about the potatoes?

Oh — and for those of you who got hooked by me asking where potatoes come from back in the last post, look, I already have an answer for you!

The corn (maize) we associate with the American Corn Belt diffused from Central America and Southern Mexico into North America. … The white potato we associate with Ireland and Idaho came originally from the Andean highlands but was brought to Europe in the 1600s where it became a staple from Ireland to the eastern expanses of the North European Plain. The banana we associate with Central America came from Southeast Asia, as did a variety of yams. (p.334)

This world is SO COMPLEX. And I’m just starting to dig into it! =)

Tune in next time for a journey through 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

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Posted in Imperial Geography

Imperial Geography: My Next Stack of Books

Since I finished my months-long self-imposed college course about the context and history surrounding the Little House on the Prairie books, I’ve been enjoying reading whatever I want, whether or not it fits my pre-determined schedule of interconnected research. I’ve blown through a few fluff novels and savored a few books about excellent women.

But my brain has continued to percolate on all the stuff I put in it during my journey through Little House / Wounded Knee. And I still have questions.

The most notable one, for me, is, What happened to the land?

In LH/WK, I explored the human and historical context of the Little House events — I learned what life was like for some contemporary Native and African and Asian Americans —  but I never really thought much about the backdrop. Until I got to the eighth Little House book, These Happy Golden Years. In it, Almanzo and Laura discuss their future, including Almanzo’s plans to gain land by staking his claim (provided for by the Homestead Act, which divvied out land taken from Indians to white settlers in parcels). Here’s the section that made me scratch my head:

There was a small claim shanty on Almanzo’s homestead. On his tree claim there were no buildings at all, but the young trees were growing well. He had set them out carefully, and must cultivate and care for them for five years; then he could prove up on the claim and own the land. The trees were thriving much better than he had expected at first, for he said that if trees would grow on those prairies, he thought they would have grown there naturally before now.

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (p.170-1)

In my post, I pondered whether this was just another form of colonization — the US Government made plans to colonize the environment as well as the people of the Plains. But just supposing that didn’t go deep enough; I wanted to know more!

I asked, “Anyone have a connection with an ethno-environmentalist historian??? Is that even a thing???” And after a little thinking and chatting and research, I discovered that yes, that is a thing. It’s called a geographer.

So, long story short, I discovered that there is, in fact, a whole field of study that addresses some of the human-environment questions I’ve been having, and there are plenty of books about said questions, and I have a stack of those books sitting next to me on the floor as I write. And I am going to read them, and blog about what I learn.

As you may have noticed by the title of this blog post, my main theme in this reading project is “Imperial Geography”, better explained as learning about “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America? And what is the fallout for us today?”

Here is my reading list, in the (general) order I’ll be reading them:

  1. Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture — a textbook (for a quick geography primer, since I’ve never studied geography other than maps…)
  2. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  3. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
  4. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by George R. Stewart
  5. Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage
  6. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning
  7. Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World by Fred Pearce
  8. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke
  9. Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry

Optional Bonus Books That I Might Add In If I Feel Like Reading About Some More Geographical Theories:

Before I dive in, I should say a few more things:

  • I never thought I would care about the environment. Seriously — I grew up with a theology of “subdue and dominate” environmental relations, and even later when I began to soften a bit I still separated the whole world into “human/important” and “everything else/less important”. Very binary. Very separate. But as I’ve been learning and thinking more — and especially after my recent trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — I’ve been thinking a lot more holistically about our existence on this planet. God didn’t just put humans here and then make us a bunch of stuff to entertain and sustain us — God created an entire planet full of beautiful, complicated ecosystems! And we’re all interconnected in ways we don’t even fully understand. So I’m excited for my very first, totally ignorant foray into the world of reading about environmental issues. I seriously know nothing! So this will be fun. =)
  • This reading project is going to be a bit different than the last one. Once I got going on LH/WK, I was very strict with myself about keeping up with my schedule. I’m glad I practiced being disciplined then, but for this project (a) I’m only reading one book at a time, (b) I might not make it through a book every week, and (c) the books are organized in the order I want to read them, not in a tight chronology. Basically, this is a gaggle of somewhat related books that I’ve made a connection between. So come along with me for a fun and slightly more relaxed reading journey!

All right, I think that’s all the notes I have. Let’s do this! =)

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Posted in Imperial Geography

The Road to Hell is Paved with Blind Privilege

I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed today, just taking a little break between loads of laundry, when I saw this video, shared by a friend:

The video explores the phenomenon of Germans who are obsessed with “Native American culture” — both those who “live like Indians” and the followers of the story — now in books, film, and a live-action show-town complete with museum — of a fictional “Apache chief” created by German author Karl May.

The more I watched, the more shocked and angry I got.

As the video begins, it seems as though there’s this nice group of Apache/Lakota-culture-loving Germans who are inspired (though perhaps a bit ignorant and naive) by what they learn from this story of an Apache hero. But as I watched more, I saw all those excuses disintegrate.

  1. They don’t love real Apache or Lakota cultures, because this story and “culture” they keep reproducing is (a) an amalgam of many Native peoples, plus (b) the author never even went to North America before writing his books, so he probably made a ton of it up anyway!
  2. They’re not naive or really even ignorant — or at least the main actors aren’t — because they know the story of the author, Karl May, and they are aware of the fact that he made this story up and that the “Apache” culture they’re peddling is fake.
  3. As regards the other German “Indian hobbyists,” one says it’s fine for him to do this because “black and white people lived with Native tribes all the time.” But he’s not living with Native people — he just copied some of their ways and is now living a semblance of their traditional life in a vacuum in Germany. Not the same.

I can arrive at no other conclusion than that the people involved with this movement and production in Germany are willfully ignoring any pricks at their conscience, and purposefully avoiding consulting (or listening to) the counsel of actual Native people. I mean, at the show they had a German who had studied Indian Art in New Mexico and stood there and said that their dances were fake, stereotypical, and harmful. And the museum with the scalp in it! They had at least the one man the documentary interviewed (if not more) tell them, directly, that keeping human remains from being properly buried was unacceptable. And yet they refuse to release it!

I can’t comprehend why every(white)one seems to think that they know better than actual Native people what will honor or hurt Native peoples. I saw SO many examples of ridiculous, self-centered illogic in this film that I just want to smack something. The fact that this entire thing sits on such a huge throne of lies is proof of the chasm of cognitive dissonance that these German faux-Indians are straddling — and ignoring — every day.

Why does someone not have the right to respectfully bury their relative? Because it’s apparently more important that some museum of white people try to prove (or disprove) whether it’s measurably your relative, and then maybe they’ll think about permitting it. Why is it okay to reproduce on a massive scale a representation that slurs together hundreds of real people groups? Because it’s all in good fun — they don’t WANT to hurt anyone, so surely no one gets hurt!

This kind of willfully blind, arrogant, asinine privilege makes me sick.

If people want to learn from a Native tribe — like one actual group rather than a conglomeration of all of them — they should do it the old fashioned way: sit at their teacher’s feet like disciples instead of stealing their stuff and selling it to anyone who’s feeling existentially insecure.

This is the same sort of patronizing, dehumanizing, self-centered exercise of privilege that gets people saying “But the Washington R**skins ARE respectful!” or even, “Calm down, I’m sure the officer had a good reason to shoot, and more importantly, why do you keep looting stuff?”

When we relate to and talk about our sisters and brothers — whether they’re of the same groups as we are or not — it is incumbent upon us to do it in a way that THEY find respectful and humanizing, not one that meets our own definition of respect.

To look at it biblically, time and time again we see Jesus empathizing with people, differentiating his words and his approach based on who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re feeling. To Zacchaeus, he said, “I’m coming for dinner.” To the woman at the well, he said, “I will give you Living Water, and whoever drinks it will thirst no more.” With Nicodemus, he had a complicated theological discussion and gave no straight answers. With the disciples, he called them to drop everything — literally everything else — and gave them the gift of his physical proximity for three whole years. In dozens and dozens of other stories, Jesus rarely does the same thing twice. He relates to each person not based on the approach that is in his “wheelhouse”, but based on their unique selves.

Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. But the willfully blind privilege of “but I meant well” loves only ourselves, at the expense of our neighbors. Focusing on “good intentions” is about keeping our hands clean, and not about truly loving our neighbor. We are not called to have good intentions. We are called to have compassion.

I truly believe that if Jesus were here today, he would say to the Apache and Lakota (and all the other Indian nations), “What do you think is respectful? How would you like to be treated?” And to the angry, grieving, frustrated black community, “I grieve with you. I feel compassion for you. How can I be with you in your pain?”

I’ll conclude with a quote from a piece that (though I disagree with its assessment of liberation theology) I think speaks powerfully to a Christian response to the Michael Brown shooting, written by Pastor Brian Loritts and titled “It’s Time to Listen”:

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just get over this [the injustices of the past]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each others skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it. Tragedies like Ferguson are like MRIs that reveal the hurt that still lingers. The chasm that exists between ethnicities can only be traversed if we move past facts and get into feelings.

…Facts are a first and last resort in a court of law, but when it comes to human relationships, let us first stop and feel, before we go to facts.The communication pyramid offers a revolutionary paradigm in our journey to understanding.

May we stop and feel what our sisters and brothers feel, as Jesus did. Amen.

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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

In which Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorites!

For some of you fellow bookworms who have chatted with me about books, you know that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books. I already loved it to pieces when I read it (and its sequels) as a kid. Then I found an audiobook version where Madeleine herself narrates Wrinkle, and I loved it even more because it feels like you sort of know her  by how she reads the book (which is perfectly how I imagined it).

a circle of quiet lengleI remember my mom once told me, “You know, Madeleine L’Engle has written some adult non-fiction books, too. You should check them out.” But I sort of let it drift into vague-land… until recently.

I found and bought a copy of the first book in “The Crosswicks Journals”,  A Circle of Quiet, and let it sit on my to-read shelf for a bit. I had a full plate working through my Little House / Wounded Knee project, so I didn’t pay Circle much attention. Then about a week ago, when I was lolling around with nothing in particular to read, feeling a little down about life, I saw this book out of the corner of my eye. I picked it up and flipped to read the reviews on the back and found, “My favorite of all Madeleine L’Engle’s books. Lovely, charming, a book to cherish. I know it will give great consolation to ordinary people who sometimes wonder why they bother to get out of bed in the morning.

Needless to say, I was sold!

I snuggled in on the couch and started to read… and was BLOWN. AWAY. by the simple, thoughtful, soulful musings of Madeleine L’Engle, writing her thoughts on life, nature, philosophy, marriage, and writing (among others) from her family’s farm house, Crosswicks, in New England. It really did lift my spirits. It felt like this book was A Wrinkle in Time for grown-ups, because it’s about real life, but it’s the same sensible, spiritual Madeleine at the helm.

Anyways. I could rave about this book all day — I’m really excited to read the second one — but for now I just want to let Madeleine’s writing speak for itself and share a few of the way-too-many-to-write-down-because-I’d-write-the-whole-book passages that really struck me and stuck with me.

On community & identity:

Grandma gave me herself, and so helped to give me myself. (p.58)

On illness, death, and relationship:

She was not our mother, child, wife. Our lives would be basically unchanged by her death, except in the sense that our lives are changed by every death. And I think that we all, except perhaps nurses and doctors who see it all the time, have a primitive instinct to withdraw from death, even if we manage to conceal our pulling away. There is always the memento mori, the realization that death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived.

I always took a bath when I got home from the hospital.

It takes a tremendous maturity, a maturity I don’t possess, to strike the balance of involvement/detachment which makes us creatively useful, able to be compassionate, to be involved in the other person’s suffering rather than in our own response to it. (p.118-119)

On community, the Establishment, and revolution:

Because we are human, these communities [family, village, church, city, country, globe] tend to become rigid. They stop evolving, revolving, which is essential to their life, as is the revolution of the earth about the sun essential to the life of our planet, our full family and basic establishment. Hence, we must constantly be in a state of revolution, or we die. But revolution does not mean that the earth flings away from the sun into structureless chaos. As I understand the beauty of the earth’s dance around the sun, so also do I understand the constant revolution of the community of the Son. (p.131)

Seriously, so much wisdom and humor and real life words in this book. Go grab a copy and give it a try. You won’t regret it!

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Posted in What to Read Wednesdays
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