On Reading Women & the Power of Community

This year, 2014, has been dubbed by many in the Twitterverse as the Year of Reading Women.

As an avid bookworm since childhood, I have pretty much always just read whatever grabbed me. In terms of my taste in books at any given time, the scope of what I might pick up is wide. But when I saw the #readwomen2014 hashtag show up on Twitter, it brought to my attention a trend that had been slowly materializing for several months: a lot of the books I’ve been gravitating towards have focused on women.

From fictional biographies of real women (like Memoirs of Cleopatra), to realistic stories about fictional women (like the Dear America books I recently read), to historical research about generations of women (like The History of the Wife or America’s Women), those are just the books I’ve found myself wanting to read.

sotomayor - beloved world coverThis week I finally read a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.

I wasn’t really sure what to think of it — I try to avoid reading books published by well-known politicians close to major changes in office, because I feel like many of them are just cheesy publicity-fodder to boost their name recognition — but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and connected with Justice Sotomayor’s story.

First, I found her sense of measured practicality, compassion, and justice really refreshing, and very non-politicized. She mentions several times in the book that her purpose in writing is not to give people insight into her case history, but to tell about her journey to the Supreme Court to serve as an example for the children.

Secondly — and related to the first point, I think — I was really impacted by the clear and almost unspoken sense of community and strong relationship in this book. While Sotomayor doesn’t tout the support of her family in a cheesy way (“My family was always there for me…”), it’s clear that she feels a strong sense of interconnectedness with her fellow humans, both relatives and not. This feeling of common humanity bleeds through into the sections where she explains her vocation to public service. In fact, throughout the book, she illustrates how various people in her life — mentors and otherwise — affected her as a person and as a thinker and lawyer.

When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become – whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm – her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than an inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, “Yes, someone like me can do this.” (p. 178, emphasis added)

This idea of physical, embodied mentoring and modeling really struck me. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the importance of relationships, and I think this is a big part of their richness and power. Through relationship, we see possibility embodied.

Little House / Wounded Knee: A Pine Ridge Post Script

Hello, dear readers.

Yes, it’s been over a week since I got back from my trip to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And no, you haven’t missed anything — I haven’t written about it yet. In all honesty, I haven’t really been sure what to write.

There is so much input in my brain — so much that happened that affected me so deeply — that I’m not really sure how to process or express it yet. But here are a couple things I can tell you:

1. Seeing Mount Rushmore again was really weird.

Mount Rushmore - before & afterI’ve been to South Dakota / Mount Rushmore twice before. I figured going there again would be pretty run-of-the-mill — you know, been there, done that. But actually I was surprised at my reaction. After spending the previous day just looking at the natural landscape of the Badlands and the prairie on the Rez, when we finally got to where we could see the sculpture portion of Mount Rushmore it felt really unnatural. I mean, I had already been admiring all the natural rock formations and the faces and figures I already saw carved by the wind and the rain — the hands of God, if you will. To then see the strangely too-white, polished, tiny (compared to the rest of the mountain) faces of four little American presidents slapped up there… jarring.

Moreover, it felt… futile. And petty. Like kids playing “King of the Mountain” on the playground. I found a plaque on a display of a giant motor that had been used to help fuel the blasting of the mountain rock. It said, “…this is a testimony to the power it took to carve a mountain.” When I read it, it came out in this pompous windbag voice in my head… It just felt so… conqueror-esque and dominating. Like “Look at me, I carved this mountain! Take that!” Just so childish and immature and pointless, like peeing your name in the snow.

I’ve thought of our American culture as a lot of different things before, but I’d never before seen so clearly such childish self-glorification. It reminded me of the poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Percy Shelley, emphasis added)

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (Ecclesiastes 1)

2. The Rez was both more awful and more wonderful than I expected.

Until this trip, I had never been to an Indian Reservation. I wasn’t sure WHAT to expect, really — but I had read and heard a lot about poverty and suicide and hopelessness. So I guess a part of me expected it to be awful — ugly and dirty and full of dirty, sad people. We did see some of that. We drove briefly through the “town” of White Clay, Nebraska — hardly far enough over the border to notice a difference — where there are no houses, one gas station, and four liquor stores. It was early in the month, when people had gotten their checks, and although we only spent about 2 minutes driving down the street we probably saw 20 adults — all Native — sprawled everywhere, ostensibly drunk. The legacy of “manifest destiny.” It was… a soulless place.

hope on the reservationBut at the same time — the Rez was beautiful. The land was some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen. And some of the people we met are some of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt so welcomed by total strangers, especially when I entered with such apprehension and such an expectation of UNwelcomeness, because of what I know about the history of how people who look like me have treated people who look like them in this country. In a film we watched during our stop at Pipestone, MN, the narrator commented that despite all the death and oppression that has been unleashed on Native peoples here, “the people survive.” I was struck over and over again at the incredible strength of a people whose spiritual and cultural center is their connection to sacred God and sacred earth.

I began this trip expecting to feel grief and pity. Instead, I felt admiration, humility, and gratitude.

3. I don’t have many tangible takeaways right now… but I felt lots of feelings!

As our group shared some of our experiences with others from my church, I just kept feeling myself butting up against a fog in my head. So I said, “Well, when we started out talking about this trip we said it was a little nebulous and hard to describe exactly what our purpose was. And now that I went on the trip, I find it’s a little nebulous and hard to describe what happened.”

The trip was unquestionably powerful. We laughed, sang, drove (a lot), conversed, ate good food, worked together, shared stories, met people, cried, sweated, and took in both the hopeless and the hopeful on the Rez.

But as for how it changed me…. I’m still trying to figure that out.

I can tell you about some of the places we went — Pipestone, MN, a sacred site where many Plains tribes came and still come in peace to quarry stone for their sacred pipes; the Badlands, a beautiful and arid chasm of strange mountains in the middle of a treeless prairie; the Black Hills, a lush and rolling place where there are faces and images in the beautiful rocks (and also some white guys carved in a stolen mountain); Red Cloud Indian School, which began as a white-washing boarding school and is now a prestigious prep school where Natives can get a great education; Wounded Knee Creek, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where the surviving soldiers from Little Bighorn mowed down women and children who were fleeing US artillery fire.

I can tell you about some of the people we met, or the people I traveled with and came to know — a gentle, grandfatherly man who became a mentor to the whole group; a strong, practical woman who learned deeply about what womanhood means; a thinker whose faith journey reminds me strongly of my own; someone (all of us, really) who wants so badly just to be a good human being; a collective of folks who are experimenting with ways to help the earth and help their people.

I can tell you about clouds for miles, or seeing a herd of buffalo on a not-so-distant hill, or feeling incredibly safe as we prayed together in an unforeign-foreign language in total darkness. Or receiving deep hospitality like we’ve never seen before. Or crying when I didn’t expect it.

A lot of stuff happened on our trip. But… I can’t really explain it. It’s just inside of me.

I feel disoriented… “unsettled”, as Pastor Jin says, maybe even a little like an “un-settler.” And maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

….

[Edit: P.S. If you want to embark with me on my next reading project about colonizing the land, you can check out the first post here.]