Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm Just Sayin'

When he glanced up again, he noticed at her side a much older lady, as warty and wrinkled as the ugliest toad that ever lived. A strange pair, Gawain thought: one a wretched old hag with an evil eye, a hairy chin and a warty nose, the other a paragon of beauty with a face like an angel. But I must not let my mind think on her any further. You’re in a chapel, Gawain, and she’s another man’s wife.*

It’s been fifteen years since I read anything about King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Still, I love tales of adventure, of conquest and victory, and so do Oldest and Middle. This week, I found myself reading aloud the above adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and was stunned to note that the only female characters in the entire story were either lovely young seductresses or ugly, evil old ladies. In every other scene was the most repetitious description of these women: “the ancient crone,” “the hideous old hag.” As for the “lovely lady.…Her kiss was so inviting, so tantalizingly tender. ‘Oh, Gawain,’ she breathed, ‘forget you are a knight just this once. Forget your chivalry and your honor.'"

“It was lucky for Gawain that she had reminded him at that moment of his knightly virtues. ‘Dear Lady,’ he said, desperately trying to reign himself in. ‘You have a gentle lord as a husband, who has shown me nothing but the greatest hospitality and friendship. I would not and I will not ever cheat him or dishonor him. We can talk of love all you want, lady, but that is all.’”

First, I was trying not to choke while I read this aloud and second, trying to edit the dialogue on the fly, not wanting to risk the girls catching on to the meaning of Gawain "forgetting himself" while in the embraces of this temptress.

Third, I shouldn't be surprised.  The whole evil/ugly/old v. lovely/pretty/young/irresistible female dynamic has been Disney-fied since the middle of the twentieth century.  King Arthur after all is just closer to the origin.  And speaking of origins, in church on Sunday, our pastor was talking, metaphorically, about taking a good path in life. He mentioned this illustration from Proverbs, in which the writer warns his offspring not to be led astray into a path of destruction, toward which the woman in chapter 7 lures him:

"Come, let's drink deep of love till morning; let's enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon. With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk."

There it is, a scene written right into Sir Gawain's story. 

In case the reasons for my distress are not apparent, let me speak clearly:  It's a shame that such timeless ethics (follow a righteous path/don't sleep with other people's wives and husbands) are presented in ways that underscore the stereotype of woman=seductress/tempter/evil/path to destruction, yet I understand that the biblical writer is presenting an ultimate ethic (make good, moral choices; bad things probably will happen when you sleep with someone else's spouse) via example that is nuanced with a cultural-bound world view and aimed at a particular audience of young men. 

I get it.  I'm just thinking of my girls, who are already trying to insert themselves into the biblical narrative, who already ask, "will women be rewarded too?" in response to the Sunday School memory verse that says God will reward each "man" for his righteousness.  These girls will read Proverbs someday, and do a lot of hermeneutical wrangling in order to get at the ultimate ethic, not to mention dismantling the portraiture of their gender so often portrayed in scripture as conniving, immoral, dangerous, and promiscuous.

They're also trying to insert themselves into King Arthur. Into Roman history and battles.  We have two Mycenaean shields in the basement, two Roman signums for battle, two double-headed war axes drying and ready to assemble tomorrow. I'm just sayin', I know that somewhere in their copious minds they are reconciling their love of action and adventure and goodness and ethics with the portrait always before them of the dainty/lovely/tempting/dangerous lady, trying to figure out who they are and who they're going to be.

*Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as told by Michael Morpurgo

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Adjusting to Now

Almost six years ago I had my second baby. I loved her and my first child immensely, as most parents do, and about as soon as she was six months old I was counting down the days till I could spend a large chunk of the week doing anything other than parenting and cooking/cleaning/laundering, etc, etc.  I felt incredibly jealous of the spouse who went to work every day while I stayed home in sweatpants and had no interesting adult conversations.  I chose to do that because we held to an ideology that it would be better for our kids if one of their parents were with them most of the time when they are very young. I held to that ideology just a hairsbreadth more than than I did to the belief that in order to stay sane I needed to be doing something with grown-ups or by myself and my computer for a big chunk of time during the week. (And playdates didn't count. Neither did Tot Time. Mercer Park parents, you know what I'm talking about.)

At about the hour I was going to lose my mind with our current set-up, I got accepted into a graduate program and I went back to school (on the side). I spent about 15 hours every week alone with my computer in an office that was all mine. And I joined the staff of a local church as a very part time assistant pastor. What followed was three years of being incredibly productive in and outside my home. And then I got pregnant--all good. Planned. And then I had my third child. And then I went on leave from my staff position. And then I graduated from my program with an MFA.

So right now, at this very moment, I have come full circle, returned to that static place I was in five years ago. I've carved space out of my life to have a third child, carved space out for the weeks and months of nightly wakings and feeding-on-demand and we-don't-know-why-but-she's-just-crying cries.  And on top of that, I have carved space out of my life to homeschool Oldest and Middle, as I've been doing the last couple years when I wasn't doing school work.

I have no deadlines hanging over my head. No papers to write. No books I have to read. No thesis to proofread. I have no meetings to attend. No mass emails to write and send to church members. No events to plan and organize. No announcements to give on Sunday mornings.

For about a week this was all astoundingly beautiful.

Then I felt bored and anxious.

The problem being that I have no meetings to attend. No administrative kinks to work out. No looked-forward-to emails from my professors (nor the time or energy to respond if I got them).  I should have known that I could not be happy resuming this sort of life indefinitely when my heart started beating harder over a book on biblical hermeneutics yesterday.  Just the name (Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis) probably flooded my brain with enough dopamine for a half-day high.

I don't know exactly what the future holds. I think the now that I'm in might last a bit longer--weeks, maybe months. So, I'm trying to live in this limbo with grace. It really doesn't last that long. Meanwhile, I'm walking my children to art classes, baking bread for their lunches, nursing five hours a day, handling tantrums, teaching math, and day dreaming about all the things I want to say and write and read and the people I will be having those conversations with someday soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Open Road Wasn't Quite Open to All"

This just in the New York times this morning feels particularly relevant after my last post.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Re-reading History (a readerly response to The Help)

I know, I am so late to Kathryn Stockett’s party. The Help, Stockett’s first novel, has been on the New York Times Bestseller’s list for 72 weeks now and I’m just getting to it, after having had it on my reading list for over a year. On top of being late, I’ve also been known to declare that I don’t have a “fiction bone in my body.” Kind of ironic seeing as how I just got an MFA in creative writing (my creative thesis was a non-fiction memoir). But there is fiction that moves me occasionally—and it’s Stockett’s kind.

The Help begins in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi, where “coloreds” and “whites” live on separate sides of towns, shop at separate grocery stores and use separate bathrooms. It’s the era of Jim Crow laws and JFK and the assassination of Medgar Evers and prominent activity of the KKK. In the novel, we encounter race relations on the domestic level, between colored women who work as maids and childcare providers and their white, middle-to-upper class female employers. Through first-person accounts of three different narrators, Stockett enters into what we can imagine is some of the best and worst of racial interactions; she highlights for the reader the paradox of a colored woman so intimately connected to the home of the white woman (an intimacy that can include an almost-maternal bond with the children of the white woman) while, in a million different ways, denigrated by the white racist sensibilities of the time and place.

Over the years, a friend of mine has made reference to an African American domestic worker who would come into her home in the sixties. She lived in the Chicago suburbs, so the racial inequity of the area was not quite the same flavor as Jackson, Mississippi’s (although present nonetheless). Still, as my friend aged, she began to wonder about this woman who left her own family and took a bus or two across town a few days a week to bathe my friend and her siblings, comb their hair, and clean my friend’s house. Stockett, too, had a relationship with an African American domestic worker, and she writes about Demetrie in an epilogue. Here, she draws on a quote from Howell Raines describing the difficulty of describing relationships like these:

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Yet I think Stockett gets the complexity and nuance of this matter across to the reader marvelously, through the accounts of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, as well as Skeeter, a young white college grad who teams up with Aibileen and Minny to push back, at great risk, against the system. Perhaps it is because of Stockett’s success on just this point that her book has been on the best seller list for over a year now.

On a personal note, The Help has caused me to reflect upon the time and place of my birth in our country’s history. I was born in May of 1978, a mere ten years and one month from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But I was not born in the Deep South, and neither of my parents were, either. I was raised first in California’s bay area and then in Iowa. I didn’t hear of lynching or cross burnings or Jim Crow laws until junior high, at least. Still, I was not oblivious to the attitudes and terminology my elders used for people of color (mild, but racist if you looked close enough), terminology that was so different from what I was learning in a post-civil-rights-movement and politically correct educational system in Iowa. To their credit, my parents’ childhoods occurred against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Their worlds were just coming into focus as the movement found its voice in a mainstream conversation. My grandparents were in the prime of their adulthood; their language, attitudes, and stances toward people of color were entrenched and influenced by the generation that went before them.

So even though I don’t come from a line of white supremacists, maybe what I've got is a healthy portion of white guilt. I am so painfully aware, after reading Stockett, of my privilege, of the relative ease of my conduct through the world. I know this is nothing to take to the presses; I am not the first to express this sentiment, nor is it the first or last time I ever will. I know the history of racism in our country is an old story. But don't we need to listen to old stories over and over again, let their truths and lessons wash over us, shape who we are and help us re-determine who we want to be?  

The Help

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Speaking of Paying Attention

I am gearing up for another year of home schooling.

For those of you who don’t know, I have three daughters. Oldest and Middle are in 3rd grade and kindergarten, respectively. The Tiny is only 2.5 months old and this fall will probably be learning about rolling over, without any assistance from me. But all the school planning for the big girls is exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. I’m not sure how I’ll juggle teaching with the presence of the Tiny. (The Tiny does not take regular naps yet and the Tiny has difficulty falling asleep at times.) This summer, with three kiddos in the house all clamoring for my attention at the same time some days, it was tempting to send Oldest and Middle off to entertain themselves. Since the Tiny was born, they’ve been entertaining themselves with lots of video games. Define lots? Often two hours a day. Once, when I was so desperate and sleep-deprived and couldn’t move off my bed, they played for three and a half hours.

Because Spouse was recently diagnosed with ADHD, it’s got me thinking a lot about brain health and the girls’ ability to pay attention to the non-media parts of the world they live in. In July, Iowa State University came out with this study, suggesting that attention problems in the classroom are related to the amount of “screen time” (video games/movies/tv) children have and that in fact, video game playing is a likely factor in the development of ADHD. I was telling Spouse the other day that I think I like our kids better when they aren’t playing video games so often. Ever since they started, Middle seems particularly agitated and has more difficulty sitting still and paying attention at dinner time and other moments during the day. She’s only 5, so this is sort of developmentally normal. Yet, it seems worse than it was before we started letting them play so much. According to this article the brain is “trained” by the sort of stimuli it becomes accustomed to. When stimulated for long periods of time by quick edits, flashy lights and fast, jarring sounds it becomes difficult to pay attention to the quiet, austere print of a book. Dear lord!—maybe this explains why Oldest has claimed disinterest in all the new library books I tossed her way this summer. I don’t believe she’s read a chapter book for three months and this kid used to devour books written at advanced reading levels.

We’ve taken a hard line in the last week, making her read at least the first ten pages of every new book she starts (after that, she’s given them back). But today I took a harder line as I prepped for the coming year’s schooling and wrote her the following letter, which I gave a special place in her home school binder:

Dear [Oldest],

Below is a list of books that I would approve as part of your reading for 3rd grade. Some of these stories you are familiar with, such as Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, but you have not read the books themselves—only seen the movies. Also, most of these books you have already or will come into contact with because they are used for the Writing with Ease books we’ve done together. You expressed interest in many of the excerpts I read aloud to you last year, so I bet you’ll enjoy the books in their entirety. If you are curious to know what a book is about, you can go onto the computer and go to www.amazon.com. This is a book web site. You can type in the particular name of the book in the “search” field and hit “enter.” Then you will see a list of books that might match the book you are searching for. Click on the correct one and you will see a picture of the cover; a paragraph or two will let you know what the book is about. Once you decide you are interested in something, we can either check it out from the library or buy it on Amazon.

I will ask you to read at least one of these books each month and write a very short book report when you are finished.

Happy reading!


So that’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. But I’m curious—did your kids have extra screen time this summer? And do you think the correlation between screen time/attention deficit exists? or not?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paying God Attention (thoughts on Soul Revolution)

Dear Reader,

This is a book review.  This book changed my life.  But first, an aside:

(I confess a predjudice when it comes to mainstream Christian books these days, especially those that appear particularly contemporary.  Along with that adjective sometimes comes what feels like an overabundance of branding and marketing that seem to undermine the rather diverse and organic nature of spirituality and relationships within the church. This branding/marketing phenomenon is often identified by such things as pictures of people with tattoos, ripped jeans, piercings, black-rimmed glasses, and (sadly) the absence of women and people of color as well as all people over the age of fifty-five.  Now, I like tattoos, piercings and ripped jeans, but they have become cliche as a marketing tool, to the extent that North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, produced this video--a parody of themselves and other churches engaged in this type of sub-culture marketing--in which they coin the term "contemporvent," a marriage of relevant and contemporary.)

Now for the important part:  You can't judge a book by its cover.

While the cover of John Burke's Soul Revolution: How Imperfect People Become All God Intended has the markings of a "contemporvent" book (including a close-up of distressed jeans and inner-arm tattoos), its content is rooted in the centuries-old tradition of practicing the awareness of God's presence in our daily lives in the manner of Brother Lawrence and Leanne Payne.  I became enthralled with Burke's description of the "60-60 experiment," a 60-day challenge to check in with God every 60 minutes of the waking day. The experiment presupposes a belief in a God who is all-knowing and everywhere-present and is designed to assist the reader in fostering an ongoing recognition of that abiding force in our lives. By so doing, the theory goes, how we live in the world begins to change and that change is evidenced by our actions, decisions, service and love of God, others, and ourselves.

Burke recommends the reader go so far as to purchase a watch that will beep all day on the hour. If not that, notes up around the house or on the computer would remind one to pause and check in.  While I neither bought a watch nor posted notes, I did do my best to emulate Burke's experiment in my own organicky sort of way.  I began with moments of reflection in the empty spaces throughout my day, taking stock of what was happening around me in my relationships and duties and consciously reminding myself of God's presence in my life.  In particularly good or bad parts of the day, I would wonder what God's "take" on the situation was, and sometimes I would just go ahead and ask him, for the heck of it. I did not hear any audible voices or see any burning bushes in response to my prayers, but often I had the strong impression that God was answering, if not with something concrete, then with something a lot like compassion. I could almost feel him feeling my pain or frustration or longing or joy or delight.

There seemed to be cumulative effects of practicing this sort of awareness. By the end of each day I felt as if I'd had a real, back-and-forth dialogue with God: a prayer uttered in the morning met its consequence in the afternoon.  A question at lunch time found its answer by dinner. And by the end of the week, I felt a new comraderie with God--as if we'd been two pals at summer camp trading whispers back and forth from our bunk beds all week. Probably the most profound moment of this experiment came one day as I was on my way to a rather difficult appointment.  For weeks, we'd been watching lilies in our front yard climb feet in the air, reaching from the bulbs planted in the ground the summer before.  The stems shot up, the buds of the lilies formed yellow and pink, but they were slow to open. Each morning for two weeks I expected to see one of those lilies open and unveiled in full glory, but instead they just shimmered, closed up, ready to explode. 

That's how they looked on my way to this appointment, and as I backed out the driveway I felt as if God drew my attention to those flowers.  See those? I think he said.  See all that potential--how the lilies are on the cusp of bloom? Instantly I knew he wasn't really talking about the lilies but about the difficult situation I was facing, that it was something that had the potential to morph from something desperate to something redemptive and life-affirming. Well, I thought that's what God was saying, anyway, and the impression pierced me so deeply that tears gathered in the corner of my eyes as I backed out my driveway. Yet, I wondered if I was imagining things. Was that really God?   Imagine my shock when, on that same steamy July morning, I returned to the house an hour later, after the appointment, to find the largest lily of the bunch had petaled open into glowing pink radiance.

You can call me crazy and maybe you will. But sometimes it's the little things that make us sure the Divine is right within our reach.  I think Burke is saying, and I whole-heartedly agree, we'll see God when we pay attention.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

This Is Just to Say

I haven't been around for a while. It's been a busy year. Or two. On Sunday I'll graduate from an MFA program in creative writing and it occurs to me, that after writing my thesis, I now have nothing big to work on, no obsessions to turn into a 200-page project. Also, I had a baby two months ago. It may be fair to say that she's my big obsession at the moment. My other thoughts are short and small these days, but they are there nonetheless, scratching at the door of my mind and asking me to open language to them. So, this blog post is just to say that I'm planning to do just that.