Sunday, December 21, 2014

7 (Not So Quick) Takes: Life-Changing Literary Works

Or perhaps thought-changing would be a better term. These are books that challenged my thinking or shifted a paradigm. (These are not particularly "quick" takes, and it's no longer Friday. Oh well.)

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

I was nominally pro-life before I read The Giver. That is, I thought abortions were tragic, and I certainly would never have one, but I hadn't delved into the root of the issue. I also hadn't given much thought to other "life" issues. If pressed, I was pro-death penalty in specific, severe cases. I was against torture, but I didn't have a clear, compelling reason other than vague thoughts about human dignity. I had studied ethical models in college, and I knew that I was not utilitarian. However, I could not have told you why. 

Reading The Giver as part of a children's librarianship class changed all of that. This children's book about a society that has eliminated suffering should be required reading for everyone. Through the eyes of a young boy, we walk through what it really means to never suffer. If you haven't read it, please, stop what you're doing and go to the library. Or just buy it; you won't regret it. I won't say more for fear of ruining the story.

For Your Own Good, by Alice Miller

Growing up evangelical, corporal punishment was considered as essential to the Gospel as Jesus Christ. WORLD magazine, our favorite news source, published numerous stories about parents who were jailed for "correcting" their children, usually in Canada or Western Europe. I remember one story about Canadian Christians who considered themselves martyrs for the Gospel because the law forbade spanking with implements and leaving visible marks. All these years I've remembered a quote from one of the parents, that they "need to use a stick or belt; a hand isn't hard enough." When people talked about the problems of contemporary society, they never failed to mention that "you can't paddle kids in school anymore." (This isn't even true in many states, certainly not where I'm from. In Tennessee, schools don't even need parental permission or knowledge). Even after I changed my views on Calvinism, I still operated under this mindset. 

Reading For Your Own Good upended everything I thought I knew on the subject. In horrible detail, Miller shows how the "spare the rod," mindset led seamlessly to Nazism. The basic argument is that German parents taught their charges to mindlessly obey authority, always. The authority was always right, and weakness was always abhorrent. I'm normally suspicious of any Nazi analogies, but in this case it fits. For those of us who grew up in poisonous religious environments, it was interesting to see how secular wisdom fit so seamlessly with the fundamentalist mindset that small children and infants are little devils that must be beaten into submission. Of all the disturbing images in this book, the one that stuck the most was that one late 19th century German book suggested having the "the talk" in a morgue so as to instill the most potent sense of shame about the human body. What it instilled instead was comfort with seeing piles of dead bodies. When you dehumanize someone, the results are bound to bring hell on earth.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 

I recently discussed the racism in my background. One aspect I didn't mention was that many Southerners, even to this day, don't really believe that slavery was so bad. In a vague, hypothetical sense they believe that it was contrary to human rights, but if you discuss it sooner or later someone will say "but their lives were much better under slavery than they were after they were freed" or "most slave owners worked in the fields alongside their slaves." The Gone With the Wind version of history reigns quietly supreme in white, Southern households. I was even taught that the "first KKK" was not so bad, because they were trying to reign in the criminal black elements that were unleashed during Reconstruction. The most insidious notion of all was that history had been "revised" - that prior to about the 1980s, historians understood that slavery in the U.S. not not nearly so horrid as, say, Roman Empire slavery. (In many ways, it was much worse, actually. Among other things, Roman slaves captured in war might one day be free, while race-based American slavery ensured a permanent second-class status even to "freemen.") I also heard that "the winners write history," implying that those damn Yankees made everything about the antebellum South sound horrid.

Frederick Douglass' autobiography was the perfect antidote. It was written during slavery, so you can't discount it was "revisionism." It was written by someone who was actually a slave, giving yet another layer of authenticity. And it shows, indisputably, that the system of slavery itself was a nightmare. 

Of the many realizations I had while reading this classic, two hold fast in my memory. The first was his telling of his childhood, such as it was. I had heard the stories of parents torn from children, but I didn't realize what it was like to be born into slavery and never have a family. Douglass never knew his father, though he heard many rumors about their master. He and his mother did not have a relationship of any depth. He had siblings, but they did not really know each other. His mother was more of a wet-nurse than a family member. I didn't truly realize how much people were treated like farm animals until I read this account. The second thing that stuck out was Douglass' memory of a slave owner who converted to Christianity. I'd assumed that Christian slave owners were kinder to their slaves, but Douglass blew the lid off that assumption. In fact, in his experience religious conversions were a terrible calamity for slaves. Rather than change their behavior, owners now had an iron-clad religious excuse for owning slaves, and even for savagely beating them.

Justice, by George MacDonald

The reason I titled this "literary works" and not books is because Justice is an unspoken sermon. However, I couldn't leave it out of this list. Without this sermon, my spiritual life would look profoundly different. 

During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I struggled to have this thing called "faith." I had slowly realized that the God of Calvinism was a monster, but to my dismay, the non-Calvinist, evangelical model did not solve the problem. There was still this underlying issue of penal substitutionary atonement. This model teaches that all people are born sinners. God cannot look at sin and must punish all sins, but because He loves us He punished His Son instead. The entire reason Jesus came to Earth was that He could live a perfect life and then die the most horrific death. Our sins were placed on His account, and His righteousness was placed on ours.

As I struggled, one of my major problems with this doctrine was that it offered nothing on earth. Everything good about salvation happened after death: there was no healing for the sickness of sins while still living. This seemed fundamentally wrong and, dare I say it, unjust. MacDonald's sermon articulated all the problems that I had noticed, and the relief was indescribable. For one thing, I'd been told that my questions were irreverent, the equivalent of back-talking God, and that every Christian in history had believed in penal atonement, so it was get with it or get out. Later, I would learn that this was historically false, but in that moment I needed some thread to hang onto. This sermon was that thread. 

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, by Geoffrey Canada

In this fascinating memoir, Canada shows how violence escalated in the South Bronx through the 60s-90s. I grew up in a poor neighborhood - though it was not as dangerous as his - but the "gun" stage was all I knew. Canada's book traces the problem of violence and gangs and shows how the influx of guns into inner cities created catastrophe. I grew up in the South, where guns are part of the religion, and I've always heard "guns don't kill people" and similar slogans. Canada's book blew this out of the water. If you want to better understand urban crime, gang culture, the interplay of drugs and weapons, and what can be done to improve ghetto neighborhoods, this is the place to start. It should be required reading for anyone who works in public education, as it explains that students are highly unlikely to care about math and English when their very lives are at stake. This book challenged my thinking on multiple areas, but especially that of gun control.

Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller

This book was a tremendous success in the late 90s/early 2000s among evangelicals and post-evangelicals. I didn't read it until college because it had an air of the forbidden about it, even though the author maintains a fairly traditional Christian faith throughout the memoir. It was "forbidden" because it dared to say what so many of us were thinking: that evangelical culture had failed those of us who grew up inside of it. Blue Like Jazz was like a love poem to everyone burned: those who didn't fit into a youth group culture that favored the cool and popular; those whose politics were left of George W. Bush; those who lived in the wrong neighborhoods and didn't get the material blessings promised by health and wealth preachers; those who wanted to be Christians without shutting out the world. This was the book that made me think I could actually be a Christian without being miserable.

And... I don't have a seventh book! Those are the ones that stick out to me the most, and there are no other books that I can automatically think of as "life changing," i.e., that changed the paradigm of my thinking on particular issues. There are many wonderful books out there that I would likewise recommend, but they strengthened or added to a thought pattern that I already had. 

What books changed your thinking? Were there any poems/sermons/short stories that made you question something you'd always believed?

*Don't forget to check out the other blogs at This Ain't The Lyceum!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Importance of the Inessentials

The last two weeks, I spent almost every night either in rehearsal or performance for a community play. It was a Christmas play, albeit a nontraditional one with zombies and salty language. I haven't done any theatre at all since high school, so it was both scary and delightful to get my feet wet again. Doing the first reading in front of the other performers was about 1,000 times scarier than doing the first real performance. Audiences are much less frightening than peers, in my opinion. In fact, that's why theatre is so addictive. There's something sublime about making people laugh, or applaud, or cry.

Now was not a practical time to involve myself in a play. We are poor, and I lost wages because a lot of my shifts conflicted with rehearsal times. I am struggling to keep my head above water, to get things done, to be organized when my default is total disorganization on a massive scale. Our laundry pile is embarrassing, especially considering that we don't have children. Our dishwasher has been coming out of the wall since we moved in, and our apartment complex has yet to respond to my latest plea for help. Meanwhile, my car keeps breaking down, as it has ever since we sent it to the no-good mechanics in August, and I have yet to get my tag replaced. And, you know, Christmas.

It was the best decision I could have made.

If you wait until you have a perfect routine to add something fun, you never will. Human nature doesn't work that way, or at least mine doesn't. Perhaps there are people, real ones and not just robots, that can do all of the things you're supposed to do, can refrain from wasting a single penny on nonessentials, can only eat healthy foods, never pick up fast food when they're tired, always have a clean house, never waste a minute at work, always feel ready to have strangers inspect their closets and kitchen cabinets and basements without a sliver of embarrassment, never get behind on laundry or dishes, and wait until all these things are true before even thinking about "wasting time."

Instead I acted recklessly, volunteered to participate and tried out for a major role, landed it (primarily because they really needed someone, anyone), and found myself in nightly rehearsals, saying lines to myself in the car on my way to work. It's been the first time in awhile that I was doing something that required something of me (i.e. isn't just mindlessly surfing the internet) but was inessential, impractical, and fun. It did not give me exercise (other than simply "being active"), or help my nutrition, or put money in my pocket, or increase my sleep.

What it did do was get me out of the apartment and around people, which in turn helped my depression and anxiety, which in turn helped the rest of my life. I had to keep a commitment, which is something I struggle with, without financial pressure but with peer pressure, i.e., I didn't want to lose face. I missed one rehearsal because of a panic attack, but this is a good record for me.

So go ahead. Stay in the car so you can sing with the radio, even if you really need to get inside and get busy. Say yes to something that seems crazy if there's an inexplicable sense of peace about it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

7 Quick Takes: Doing Advent When You're Broke

Do Your Christmas Shopping at Goodwill or another thrift store

Let's get the shopping bit out of the way, shall we? My husband and I only have a few people to shop for this year since we don't have children: our parents, his sister (who also has a birthday on December 30!), and the secret santas where we work. We are buying all of our gifts at Goodwill to save money and trying to get one thing that's meaningful in an emotional sense. For instance, for my parents I'm making a collage of some wedding pictures that they don't have. For his secret santa, my husband is making the Space Balls helmet for a guy who looks just like Michael Winslow and loves the movie. 

Down to the facial expression 

Embrace Imperfection 

That first Christmas the Holy Family was away from home when Mary was fit to burst. While waiting for the Messiah, the people of Israel were repeatedly subject to foreign powers from the Persians to the Babylonians to the Romans. So if you can't make it home (or you can, and that's the problem), you're in good company. 

Accept that Advent will never be as Holy and Quiet and Meaningful as you want it to be

The entire world is fighting you on this one. While you're trying to limit commercialism and get to the "real meaning of Christmas," you're smacked in the face at every turn by SALES SALES SALES. Don't get bitter about it, there's no point. Just keep your sense of humor and know that nothing this side of heaven is perfect. 

On the Other Hand, You're Poor, So You're Ahead of the Game!

Look, you can't worship the god of commercialism if your pockets are empty after rent and doctor bills, so embrace it! It's OK that you can't afford a bunch of junk, because that's kinda not the point.

If You Want Greenery, Ask the Tree Places for Clippings 

I learned this trick from my florist mother-in-law. She's a bulldozer and has no qualms about asking for high-quality tree clippings that fall from Frasier firs at Christmas tree farms, and she gets them for free! After all, most of them die unless someone picks them up. If you can't afford a real tree but you want that nice pine smell, get a handful of free clippings and put them in a vase on the table. 

Nothing Manufactured is Real 

I'm talking about emotions here. You can't force yourself to feel spiritual, no more than you can force excitement or anything else from the inside. You can light a candle, and the very action may bring peace to your home... or it might get knocked down and start a small fire. Who knows. You can drag yourself to midnight Mass and be too tired to enjoy yourself, and then it hits you what you're really celebrating. Or the feelings may not come until the day itself. You may be stuck in your parent's hospital room on Christmas, or working the night shift in the ER, or crying over bills. When Jesus comes back, He won't ask if you felt sufficiently spiritual during Advent. 

Kindness Doesn't Cost a Dime 

You may not have time to volunteer at the homeless shelter. You may dig in your purse for the Salvation Army kettle and come up with Kleenex and a blackened penny. You may not be able to afford a gift for your own spouse that costs more than a card and homemade cider. 

But remember what you can do. You can wait patiently in line at the grocery store and speak nicely to the overworked and exhausted cashier. You can listen to your spouse and kids even when all you want to do is lock yourself in the bathroom and scream. You can be merciful to the choir and priest when the music and sermons are less than exemplary. And if someone wishes you a Happy Holidays, just say "thanks, you too!" instead of filling their ears with a sermon. 

Have a blessed Advent!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I'm Not Color-Blind

Unless you live under a rock and don't have a TV or internet, you've heard about Ferguson and Staten Island. I won't belabor those events here. Since I was not at either hearing, nor have I poured over the Ferguson grand jury notes, I do not feel knowledgeable enough to comment.

However, I do have extensive experience about what it's like to grow up in the South as a white kid, and I don't think we're "over" racism.

When certain scandals arise, like Paula Deen's "nigger" statement, folks around the country are shocked that someone could ever say such a thing. There's a sincere element of bewilderment. After all, aren't we a "post-racial society"? Didn't we elect a black president? Don't we have integrated schools? Haven't we ended job and housing discrimination against blacks? Aren't blacks given the same benefit of the doubt that whites are given in a court of law?

(Short answer: not really. These rights are enshrined by law but either not enforced or not enforceable. Society has many methods of self-segregation).

The way that we see these instances of racism - indeed, if we call them racist at all - has deep roots in the very core of our being. No meme, or even nuanced article, that you post on Facebook will change anyone's mind, though I've tried. That ship sailed a long time ago, and some of us are honestly waiting for the truly die-hard racists to grow old and die out. Sounds harsh, but I'm talking about people I love and care about, like my granddad, who I'm longing to see again before he dies. In some respects, maybe time does heal all wounds.

However, time moves slowly at best, and meanwhile the next generation is growing up. My generation is raising them, and we learned Racism 101 both explicitly and implicitly from the time we were toddlers. At the same time, those from outside the South who were taught to be "color blind," but never actually interacted with those outside of their race, absorb all kinds of racist signals unawares. And that's the most dangerous problem of all, because it's subconscious and therefore cannot be fought.

A friend of mine from diapers informed me that he was "deleting me" from Facebook because of my posts, that I had completely disrespected my parents and rejected everything they taught me. Though his statement was obviously hyperbolic, it got me thinking. Did my parents raise me to be racist? To be colorblind? Or something else entirely?

I found this quote five minutes ago. I never learned it in school. We never took a field trip to the town's civil rights museum, and I didn't know it existed until I was in college. I had not read the Letter from Birmingham Jail until college. We never learned about the Albany Movement, or that there even was a movement. I heard that Dr. King tried to come to Albany and was derailed, and that was that. I didn't know that the Shiloh Baptist Church was the headquarters for a civil rights singing group that toured throughout the South in the 60s at the risk of their lives. I didn't know about the sit-ins and boycotts. I'd never seen pictures of police carrying black girls out of the whites only library. I'd never seen the images of black children and teenagers crowded into a jail cell in the country outside of town. My eleventh grade English teacher tried to rectify the situation by teaching the Harlem Renaissance, and apparently she had to fight the administration to do so.

Here's what I heard about Dr. King coming to Georgia: 

"Well son," my granddad said to my dad one day, "my brother and I were sitting on the porch watching them [MLK and others march in Atlanta]. My brother said 'look at that, a whole bunch of niggers, only some of them are white'." My dad and granddad laughed. 

My private Baptist school didn't have to teach us about Civil Rights if they didn't want to. Our Bob Jones University Press history books were courtesy of a college that lost its accreditation because they believed that "Biblical" marriages were segregated, that God didn't want "the races to mix." We got MLK Day off, but for the first few years I was in school it was called a "teacher work day." Another private school in the area did not get this day off, but they get a holiday for Stonewall Jackson's birthday. Like most elementary and middle schools, we never managed to get to the 20th century in history classes, which might explain the gap in our civil rights knowledge. I pity the teachers that had to cover the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Southerners don't call it that. The more scholarly ones say "The War between the States," the sarcastic ones say "The War of Northern Aggression," and older generations simply say "The War.") My parents said that public schools had "changed" their history textbooks to make sure they were politically correct, and that the truth was being suppressed. In reality, slavery had very little to do with the Civil War - it was all about States' Rights. We never discussed which rights the states wanted beyond the right to own slaves. Lincoln was not our favorite president, though at school he was moderately praised in vague terms. 

Albany State University under water in 1994

In 1994 we had an historic flood that wiped out whole neighborhoods, and because the poorer areas were closer to the Flint River, it was mostly black neighborhoods that were effected. Jesse Jackson came to town to say that the white leaders in town somehow arranged this catastrophe. He was an example of an "outside agitator," a common designator that also applied to the kids that came down with Freedom Summer in Mississippi. 

Example of outside agitators: nuns registering black voters in Albany

The real education about race happens in day to day interactions, both within the family and in the broader community. My hometown is majority black, and I grew up in a majority black neighborhood in one of the poorer areas of town, though not the poorest. I remember the day that I first noticed race. I was playing with two children who lived in temporary government housing next door, a little girl about my age and her younger brother: I think I was about 5 or 6. The boy touched my face and asked if I was sick, and his sister punched him, apologized to me, said that "he's never seen white people before, so he doesn't know about freckles." Then I learned that I was white, and that I was a different specimen in the neighborhood. The black kids treated me with kid gloves. I was never pushed or shoved even in play.

I also learned what "black" means. The children I played with that day had rotting teeth; they had probably never seen a dentist or a pediatrician. Their house was unairconditioned (in the 90s, in south Georgia), and the word "house" is a generous description for the random collection of painted red duplexes with ratty screen doors that dotted a dirt landscape. The adults sat on porches and drank or used drugs. Fights broke out frequently, and the police were called regularly for noise and other complaints. (It's only fair to add that the worst neighbors we ever had were white, however). Their mother and her... boyfriend?.... didn't seem to work. Like most of our neighbors, they were here today, gone tomorrow, moving from one dilapidated dwelling to the next. Black kids in my town will tell you where they "stay," not where they live. Where they stay can change from week to week, and their fellow housing occupants are just as variable. 

"Modern" housing

In the whiter side of my world, there were black people, but they were shadows on the edges. My grandmama "had" a black man for well over two decades. He was not formally employed, but he started working in the pecan orchard and eventually lived in the white shack across the back yard. In the early morning I would get up to spend time with my grandmama, and she would make coffee for herself and Henry*. He had his own mug and juice jar that no one else used. Like a good Southern kid, I said sir and ma'am to adults, and Mr. or Miss/Mrs. I called him by his first name, unadorned, and never said sir. No one ever corrected me, and everyone referred to him by his first name. I meant no disrespect; it was just "the way it was." When he moved into a place with his girlfriend, an illiterate woman with a difficult past, burn marks on her face and about two teeth, my grandmama insisted they get married. When they had a son, she paid for his yearbook photos and doctor appointments, and always gave him books for his birthday and Christmas. I have pictures of me holding him as a baby on the back porch, when I was probably about 10 or 11, with his mother beside me. The pictures could easily be from the 50s except for the color. 

 The word "nigger" was not something my mother's family said. It was low-class and "common." My grandmama was never mean to anyone, she just believed that black people had "their place." In college I read about paternalism and almost had a heart attack, right there in the classroom. Paternalism is the concept of benevolent white Southerners taking care of "their" black people. I grew up on stories of white folks in that small Alabama town who bailed their black employees out of jail. When my uncle hired a Northern manager at a factory, he had to do the communicating for him because the fellow "didn't know how to talk to blacks." This was my life. And I grew up in the 1990s, not the 1890s. 

An abandoned shack in a pecan orchard, probably an old slave quarters

In middle and high school, my friends and I talked about race from time to time, usually at one-on-one sleepovers when the talk got deep. One friend from the country had a Confederate flag hung over her bed, and probably more black friends in one year than I've had in my life, and we wondered together what our daddies would do if we ever dated a black man, and confessed that we thought some were sexy. Another friend and I wondered what we would do if we lived in the Confederate South, if we would be traitors by siding with the US, if we could be pro-South without being pro-slavery. Another friend's father openly declared his affinity for slavery and wished aloud that he could have one. I had one "black friend" in high school, one of the few black kids at my private school. We bonded over Alicia Keys and basketball (street-style, no fouls for punches) and dancing, and she hung out in the same group with the kids I just described. She sang soprano in Show Choir with me, but on our own we harmonized, and she took the alto or descant, because I couldn't make my voice sling around the room like she could. 

Recording of Albany's Shiloh Baptist Church singing group

Did my parents raise me to be a racist? The question doesn't even make sense. It assumes that some people, "bad" people, in America are racists, while others are "good people" and don't see race at all. I see race. I have seen race since that day as a child, and on very few occasions, with certain people, the consciousness fades. My parents did not raise me to be colorblind: I didn't know any kids that were truly raised to be colorblind. As an adult, I had to make a decision: how to use that information. How would I look at race in America? What are my responsibilities? How should I educate myself?

I've heard that being colorblind is the goal. Maybe it is. But right now, in our society of America, do you think that African Americans see color? Do you think that they recognize a difference between their lives and the lives of whites, especially in the Deep South? Do you think it makes things better to say that you can't see color, or that you know that color makes no difference in America today?

*Name has been changed.