On an Education…

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Occasionally I get asked, “What are you reading?” It’s an easy question to answer because I’m always reading something and usually a couple things. When I’m really undisciplined, I’m reading too many things.

I’ve had a love affair with the written word for as long as I can remember. Oprah, Time, Fitness and Rolling Stone magazines sit beside my bathtub; some have pages torn out to pass along and others are dog-eared for Tim to read at his leisure (or at my insistence). Two or three “New Releases” lay an arm’s length away from my pillow, ready to pick up if I have a few moments of mindless energy to burn at the end of the day. (I never limit myself to just one in case it’s a stinker. Life’s too short to finish bad books.) I also have piles of books on religion, spirituality, philosophy, poetry and prayer collecting dust under various reading lamps around the house.

Despite the diversity of its subject matter, my reading material all shares one thing in common: it’s typically disposable.

Shocking, I know.

For a die-hard reader, a scholar, a former academic and a book lover, I am really good at not owning books and when I do acquire them, letting them go.

Books are rarely purchased and even then, almost never new. I borrow them whenever possible from friends and friends of friends and the library. This practice is based on both my personal philosophy and necessity. I don’t believe we need to possess, or hoard the written word. Unless a book will be read over and over again, I’d just as soon pass it on to the next person who asks. While I used to have huge bookshelves filled with tomes I didn’t need, I now have only two small(ish) collections. The second reason is more practical. I simply can’t afford my reading habit. If I had purchased all the books I’ve coveted, and managed to read somehow, I would be thousands of dollars in debt with no hope of getting out.

I’ve also been blessed with friends who can and do buy books and like to share them with me. Sometimes I get the copies when they are finished. Sometimes, they buy a copy for each of us to read together. Those are my favorite books, because we are reading, learning, discussing and growing together. That is actually how the Torah is studied in yeshivas, often in chavrusa, or a close learning pair. That ancient model holds wisdom for all of us when it comes to our reading: a book of substance, a mutual desire to learn and be transformed, and a promise to be diligent, respectful and engaged in the process.

Though I didn’t know the word at the time, Tim and I first fell in love as chavrusa in a sense – and I hope I’m not offending any orthodox readers here by using the word in this way. He brought me a copy of his favorite book, The Catcher in the Rye, so I could read it; I handed him Siddhartha. And so it began… the passing back and forth of books, which led to a passing back and forth of ideas and values and visions and ultimately, our hearts.

Over the years, there have been many books we have studied together that have transformed not only ourselves, but also the course of our family’s life. One of the first was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families by Steven Covey, which I’ve written about. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman taught us to how to better show our love for one another. Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle S.J. and Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber introduced us to new ideas about faith and struggle. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J. Nouwen brought us both to tears and a deeper understanding of what Love is and how we are changed by it. Next on our list is The Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefali Tsabary. Without the commitment to our own and each other’s growth as individuals, a couple and a family, I don’t know how we would have made it this far, or this happily.

I have to admit, however, that one of the other reasons we’ve made it this far and this happily, is that Tim is not my only study partner and soul friend. No one could take that much pressure! My dear friend, T, is almost always reading something with me. We keep a running list of what we want to tackle next, add new ideas and cross off authors who have bored, or disappointed us before. When our kids were younger and our schedules less hectic, we met on a weekly basis. Now, it’s more sporadic, but no less meaningful, or productive. The ground rules are still the same. We are diligent, respectful and engaged. We are safe, trustworthy and non-judgmental. Finally, we are open: to new ideas, new ways of being and to each other. We’ve covered Bell, Bourgeault and Rohr, D’Arcy, Lamott, and Tolle. The list goes on and so does the struggle to learn from what we read and from each other.

Many of us didn’t enjoy school, or the books we were assigned to read and so as adults, we don’t read much, or if we do, we insist on books as “entertainment,” instead of education, snapping up the latest thriller by Patterson, or romance by Roberts. If we want to stay current on the latest trends in clever thinking, we’ll inhale the latest Gladwell, or Godin, and maybe a good biography here and there. There is nothing wrong with those books, or that kind of reading. It’s a healthy form of unwinding, especially when it’s accompanied by a glass of wine and a cozy spot for our tired bodies. In fact, it’s one of my favorite past times.

However, I think we’ve done a huge disservice to our children by continuing to accept and model that one’s education ends with a degree, that learning is a solitary endeavor, and that we will always be fed the answers. Too many people have only ever experienced a top-down model, where the teacher had all the information, to be delivered, regurgitated and forgotten as soon as possible. That kind of “education” doesn’t lead to engagement, curiosity, or a habit of life-long learning and it shows in our cultural obsession with celebrities, reality TV and blockbuster movies.

We may not be able to make significant, or successful changes in our public educational system, though it’s not from a lack of trying. Look at the debate over Common Core, No Child Left Behind and the College Board exams. We all want the same thing for our kids when it comes to their education. Ironically, it’s the same thing they expect in a chavrusa: diligence, respect and engagement when it comes to learning. We can’t legislate that and I think it’s silly when we try. I do know, however, that we can teach our kids those traits by modeling them in our own lives. I know it worked for me. My parents’ house is still littered with stacks of books with broken spines and ratty pages from being read so often. The television was never on at meals, because the expectation was that each of us had something better and more interesting to say.

I have kids in private and public schools and they’ve had excellent, mediocre and terrible teachers, but for the most part, I try not to sweat it. Like everybody, I am grateful for the good and frustrated with the bad, but I know the example we set at home is even more important than what they get at school.

I hope this is what they’re learning at home:

We’re in charge of our own educations and it never has to stop. We’re always looking for new material and it’s a lot more fun if we find someone to walk through it with us. Accumulating information isn’t the primary goal, because our hearts and souls matter too. An education that leads to transformation is way more important, even if it won’t get you into college and can’t be shown off at dinner parties.

So here’s my pitch to you. Enjoy your entertainment – in books, movies, and television. Embrace your time to unwind from stressful days, nasty bosses and unruly children, but at some point in your day, week, month, or year, go back to “school.” Engage your heart and mind. Pick up something new and challenging. Find a chavrusa and share the journey. You might just get to change the world in the process.

“Pay Attention, This is for You”

I’ve just finished reading Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and general bad-ass. This isn’t meant to be  a book review. I liked the book – okay, I loved it – but that doesn’t mean you will. She’s a recovering alcoholic and swears like a sailor. In fact, she reminds me a little bit of Anne Lamott (if St. Anne had gone to seminary and taken up Cross-Fit). The only thing more fascinating than Nadia’s 6 foot-tall, tattooed body is her beautiful and gritty theology.

Pastrix3Nadia, like me, like all of us if we admit it, are slow-learners. We might have gotten straight As in school, have college degrees, be able to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle (at least the first half of the week), but when it comes to the really important stuff, like life and death, change, anger, love and just general human challenges, we generally don’t rise to the occasion. Most of us (all of us really, but if you want to keep pretending this doesn’t include you, that’s okay) just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again – whether its going out with the wrong guy, losing our temper, saying ‘yes’ to too many things to make ourselves feel better, or having “just one more drink” when we should have stopped two drinks ago.

Chances are that at one point in our lives, we learned our lesson well; we made the mistake, faced the consequences in an emotionally, physically, or fiscally painful manner, and thought, “I am never going to do that again.”

And we don’t.

For a while.

And then we do.

We let our guards down; we think we’re different people, or that the experience changed us on some cellular level. Sometimes it does, but often as not, when the pain fades away, the old scripts and habits resurface and we are back to where we started – dating the jerk, yelling at our kids, drinking the vodka, or handing over the credit card.

There have been seasons in my life when I have beat myself up over my apparent need to have certain “Life Lessons” repeated ad nauseam. They almost always have to do with how to love someone better (usually my husband, my kids or myself), or how to forgive more quickly and completely (usually my husband, my kids or myself). I seem to be continually enrolled in Love and Forgiveness 101.

Nadia’s book helped me understand that there is no shame in this repetition; it’s part of the human condition, but it’s not completely unavoidable either. We usually have a choice. We can race through life, insisting on learning our lessons the hard way, crashing and burning, leaving us, our loved ones, and even society scarred in the process, or we can watch for the warning signs and make adjustments. (Congress, take note. We’re in a downward spiral here.)

Now Nadia is not one of those crazy, “God directs everything I do” kind of people and neither am I. I do plenty of things that God isn’t directing and in fact, probably isn’t crazy about, but when I remember that I am still a student – that I haven’t, in fact, graduated to perfection just because I’m a grown up – I can be attuned to the lessons I still need to (re)learn. Throughout her memoir, Nadia describes the experience like this:

“God comes and gets us, taps us on the shoulder and says, ‘Pay attention, this is for you.’ Dumb as we are, smart as we are, just as we are.”

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to ignore the tap and miss the lesson. The universe is full of opportunities to learn, but we have to be open to the interruption. Every day, we hear and see things that could remind us who and how we want to be in this world. We encounter stories and people and problems, songs and articles and traffic jams and most of the time, we don’t pay attention to what they might have to teach us. We simply take them at face value, as entertainment, or annoyance. They go in one ear and out the other. They fly across our screens with a flick, or a click of a finger and they are gone, hardly registering. The moment is lost.

I hate that.

I hate that most of the time I’m too preoccupied to pay attention when God says, “This is for you.” Someone in my home loves to sing in the shower and I could share the joy, but instead I think about how much water is wasted.  Listening to Kiko play the ukelele could relax my heart and soul, but instead I fret about the homework that still needs to be done. When Tim stops me for a hug after work, it could remind me that I am loved, but it could also annoy me if I’m in the midst of something else. I wish I weren’t too busy, too anxious, too wrapped up in my own little world to see the very things that could get me to slow me down, so I don’t crash and burn.

But I’m trying. Nadia’s stories have inspired me to stay in the classroom a little longer each day. Whether I’m in Love and Forgiveness 101, Silence and Stillness for Beginners, or Holding Your Tongue for Dummies, I’m trying to take more notes and listen when the teacher say, “Pay attention, this is for you.”

 

 

Become a Mockingjay

I recently finished The Hunger Games trilogy. I know I’m late to the party, but I always am when it comes to new Young Adult book series. I don’t know if it’s my inner, snobby professor, or my loyalty to The Little House on the Prairie series of my youth. Perhaps some part of me hasn’t wanted to betray the Ingalls family by falling in love with the Potters, the Cullens, or even Katniss Everdeen.

But alas, I gave in. I usually do.

For those of you who haven’t yet succumbed, let me set the stage. The Hunger Games are an annual, reality TV show set in Panem, a futuristic North America. Think Survivor gone dark – very, very dark. There are alliances, betrayals, and back stabbings (literally in this case). Twenty-four “contestants,” children between the ages of 12 and 18, battle to be the sole survivor. Everyone else must die. In the wealthy Capitol of Panem, the citizens watch on big screen TVs and cheer as one child after another is murdered.

In the books, a Mockingjay is a songbird, which becomes a symbol of rebellion – against The Games, against oppression, against the tyranny of The Capitol itself. When a song fascinates a Mockingjay, it will repeat it perfectly, even after hearing it only once. Other Mockingjays join in and the song, begun by one lone human being, is spread everywhere.

In the Districts, the poorer outlying areas of Panem, the Mockingjay is useful. In District 11, it sings the song of ‘quitting time,’ the end of the workday for the beleaguered population. In District 12, its songs bring some measure of joy and beauty to the grey-faced inhabitants of the coal-mining province. In the contest arena of The Hunger Games, the Mockingjay helps the heroine and her allies find one another, a way of saying, “I’m okay. Are you?” When words are not safe, the Mockingjay sings for desperate humans, communicating things they cannot say. Ultimately the Capitol cannot silence Mockingjays.

Panem is a fictional America, but there are some striking and uncomfortable similarities to our culture today. In the affluent Capitol (which may be more like Hollywood, than Washington DC), the citizens are obsessed with cosmetic surgery and reality TV. They overeat and purge, while others starve. They rely on their high tech gadgets and silent laborers for just about everything and have little to no compassion for their fellow men and women. Above all, they are characterized by their smug superiority, their certainty that this is the way of the world, the natural order of things, simply the way it is supposed to be.  If we are brutally honest, we might see versions of ourselves in the citizens of The Capitol. I am sure that was Suzanne Collins’ intention.

But I live near a canyon, and as I woke to the sound of dozens of songbirds out my window this morning, I thought of something else as well.

What if we are called to be Mockingjays?

Not The Mockingjay, the violent, desperate, rebel whom Katniss Everdeen, the hero, becomes.

I am talking about the songbirds, the ones who hear a beautiful melody and repeat it, taking the simple notes far and wide, sometimes for themselves, sometimes simply for the benefit of another soul, in need of hope.

Can we be Mockingjays? Do we have the courage to confront The Capitol voices in our heads? The ones that tell us how to look and behave, what to believe and treasure? The ones that tell us that the way things are, are simply the way they should be?

Is there another note being sounded in our lives, however faintly?

Can we sing a song of hope?

Of beauty?

Of peaceful rebellion against authoritarian voices?

What if others are waiting to hear our song, so they can join us and repeat it, so others can hear it too?

I felt a little foolish writing this blog about a teen novel, but then I thought, Go on! Be the Mockingjay you imagine. And all I can do is encourage you to do the same.

When you hear a song of truth, beauty, hope, love, or peace, repeat it.

Repeat it beautifully.

Repeat it as many times as you can throughout your life, until your song is heard by someone who will sing it with you.

Don’t think it’s someone else’s job. Don’t think another Mockingjay will do it better. Don’t think that you weren’t made to do it.

Its not Suzanne Collins’ job as a writer; or Bob Dylan’s as a singer; or even Billy Graham’s as a preacher.

It’s ours.

It’s yours. It’s mine.

We can all be Mockingjays.

Historical Fiction: A Living Genre

I recently read Alan Brennert’s novel Moloka’i and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is set around the turn of the century in the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. To control the leprosy epidemic, everyone found infected with the bacteria, was sent to live in isolation there. For many patients, that isolation lasted their whole lives.  Historical fiction like this is my favorite genre, because it appeals to me on two levels. The reader in me gets lost in the story, while the scholar in me absorbs all sorts of new historical facts and trivia to bore my friends and family with later. In my nerdy opinion, historical fiction is the perfect combination of fact and fiction, research and escapism, a fabulous two-for-one deal.

However, reading the novel reminded me of an experience I had a couple months back. It made me think about historical fiction in a more personal way, because it wasn’t in a book anymore. At a cocktail party in my neighborhood, I saw all too clearly how our own personal historical fictions influence the stories we tell ourselves each and every day. While the fiction is probably harmless most of the time, it may actually cost us something valuable in the long run: our ability to see ourselves as we are today.

As Tim and I walked up to our hosts’ front door, he reminded me that I was his wingman. I wasn’t allowed to go mingle, if he didn’t find a buddy to talk to. He doesn’t usually worry about that happening, but this wasn’t our normal social circle, so I acquiesced. For my part, I straightened my skirt and checked my make up one more time. I was as ready as I would ever be. I knew we were both responding to some personal insecurities, but figured our secrets were safe with each other.

So imagine my surprise when our hostess asked us to put on a nametag, complete with three adjectives that described us in high school. It was, after all, a fundraiser for a youth organization. Oh boy, I thought, but honesty was probably the best policy here as anywhere else. Tim jotted down Lone Wolf, figuring that pretty much said it all, while I scrawled geek, klutz and swimmer under my name. We looked at what the other had written and shrugged. We’ve been together for so long and shared so many stories from our childhoods that we knew exactly where the adjectives had come from and accepted them as some approximation of the truth. I knew that after several moves, Tim had only a few friends at any given time growing up. He frequently ate alone in the cafeteria, and spent many of his afternoons, kicking a soccer ball at the backyard fence, scoring goal after game-winning goal for an audience of one. He knew how awkward I had felt as a child, skinny and freckle-faced, more at home in water than on land. He’d counted the scars I still have on my body that testify to the face-first, flat out falls I took on the black top, off bikes and into thorn bushes. He has also tried to heal the scars on my psyche from years of feeling inferior to so many of my peers.

So we stuck on the wounded egos of our teenage selves and started to mingle. I couldn’t believe all the casual friends and acquaintances we met, who were apparently all popular, smart, beautiful and athletic. Honestly, the ratio of class presidents, cheerleaders and homecoming queens to the rest of us was a little ridiculous. But what was even funnier was how they responded to our nametags. They thought we were kidding, or at least really exaggerating who we used to be. I assured them we were not. They thought we were “one of them,” and until that night, I had thought so too.

Not a single person at that party would have pegged Tim for a lone wolf. At this point in his life, my husband is known as “Coach Tim” to a large swathe of the under-15 population in our community and their parents. He’s spent years coaching our kids’ sports teams, from softball to soccer. He is sarcastic and funny, hangs out with the guys, but prefers to chat with the ladies. And as for me, I haven’t tripped over my own feet (much) since my second child was born, and I have become a fairly self-confident and capable woman, athletic even, since discovering Pilates.

The night was fun, but I didn’t love reliving my past. I put those words down, thinking they were harmless, that I had moved beyond those labels and memories, that they were “history” and I know Tim did the same. But when we reflected on the last things we had done before we walked into that party, we saw the evidence that our past is hardly history at all. He was making sure that he wouldn’t be the lone wolf, and by adding another layer of lipstick, I was re-arming myself against the superficial judgments of other girls. Despite twenty years of love and success, our historical fiction is still a palpable presence in our lives.

Does anyone ever get over who they once were, and thought they might always be? Is it worse for the class presidents, valedictorians, or homecoming queens, who perhaps never lived up to the promise of those early days? I don’t know the answer to that. My story runs the other way and they aren’t exactly the kind of questions you’d ask a casual acquaintance over a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

By the end of the novel Moloka’i, a cure for leprosy is found and the patients are free to move back into society, leaving their “shameful” past behind them. But virtually no matter where they go, they face prejudice, scorn and outright discrimination. There are no jobs for them, no places to live, and frequently no family willing to love them. They are technically “free,” but they are bound by their past and the evidence is written all over their bodies and souls. A few of them find the freedom they seek, but many of them return to the leper colony, Kalaupapa, where they are known and loved for who and what they are.

As I read this book, I was taken back to that cocktail party and the way our histories can continue to haunt us. Thankfully, for the most part, I am free. I laughed with everyone at what my nametag said. I am no longer that geeky girl, who lacks the self-confidence, courage and grace to be fully herself. However, when I went home that night, done socializing with the world at large, I was glad to be alone with Tim, my own personal Kalaupapa, where I am known and loved for who I was and who I try to be today.