I picked up this book because I had enjoyed Lab Girl, Jahren’s first book, which I discussed at my branch library’s book club a few years ago. I also thought The Story of More would nicely follow Braiding Sweetgrass, which my neighborhood book club discussed last November. Beyond following the breadcrumbs though, sometimes I have found myself wishing someone would take a step back and explain the larger story of climate change to me, to give me some kind of grounding on which to consider so many mini-conversations and news reports.
My family is at a crossroads frequently found in American culture: we have outgrown our house. Perhaps six people need more than two bedrooms and one shower? Perhaps six people might need a little privacy? Isn’t this the American dream? Isn’t this why when we look at those who have less, perhaps not even indoor plumbing, we want to improve their lives?
Jahren points out though, that:
“If the Story of More becomes the Story of Everyone -- if everyone on our planet adopted an American lifestyle -- global emissions of carbon dioxide would be more than four times what they are today. It is not certain how much of that carbon dioxide would dissolve into the ocean (and how much damage that would do), but as the scientists of the 1970s found, it is very difficult to envision an atmosphere with less than double today’s carbon dioxide content by the year 2200. At least two degrees Celsius of net temperature increase will accompany that rise in carbon dioxide, as well as the cataclysms attendant upon that amount of warning. / It’s not time to panic, it’s not time to give up -- but it is time to get serious.” (140-1)
That’s hard to hear, especially when I’ve felt good about my family’s carbon footprint up to this point. We have a small home. We rarely drive our one car. We rarely fly. We recycle. We compost. We don’t eat a ton of meat. We limit our purchases out of necessity -- we don’t have space to store them. We donate used items. Though on a small scale, we distribute money and resources to people who don’t have enough food, or clean water. We do a lot, right? Then I think about where we’re starting from.
One of Jahren’s points is particularly hard to hear, especially for someone highly educated, like myself, who has also birthed four children. Jahren points out that countries with the “lowest gender gap (that is, the least difference between male and female health, opportunity, and participation)...are also populated by women who give birth, on average, half as often as women who live in societies with a high gender gap...close to four [versus] just under two. It makes sense that the most effective and long-lasting mechanism for curbing global population growth revolves around an elimination of gender inequality.” (12-13)
I feel pretty out of place when I read statements like this, which I also found in Melinda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift. I diverge from the tendency in low gap countries for women to birth just one or two children. I had the opportunity to help eliminate gender inequality and pursue a profession. And yet, I didn’t choose that. Fortunately, at this point in my essay, my husband was able to weigh in and argue that there are pros and cons to shrinking the population and that it might get confusing to pair gender equality with population goals, even if they seem correlated. Hearing this made me glad that my choices can't be strictly regarded as a failure to society and also reassured me that my husband doesn’t regret having so many children. Beyond our house though, at this point in our cultural awakening, even in a country such as the U.S., I’m starting to think that until every living person on the planet takes a turn cooking dinner at least twice a week (perhaps especially politicians and CEOs), gender inequality will persist. Until we all make small sacrifices to take care of each other, some will always be more relegated to serve, rather than succeed by western standards.
This is the spirit of Jahren’s message: that we all go against the grain and cut out a little here and there.
Jahren remarks upon the revolutions that have taken place in the food industry over the past several decades -- how farmers have improved food so much that they are able to sustain our ballooning population. Still, she points out that much of this food is actually wasted. She argues that:
“Most of the want and suffering that we see in our world today originates not from Earth’s inability to provide but from our inability to share...it is because so many of us consume far beyond our need that a great many more of us are left with almost nothing.” (14)
This was hard to wrap my head around. I wanted to know how my consuming less could translate into food redistribution to those who are starving. It’s not a simple process but rather multi-step, if I’m understanding her correctly. That, if we decrease demand for grain, meat and fish products, then the incentives to overfarm and overfish decrease, eventually decreasing the activity that is changing populations of species and leading to climate change that is decreasing available land by way of rising sea levels. Or, perhaps farmers could use their grain surplus to feed the hungry, rather than supply cars with biofuel? This is one of my favorite sentences in the whole book:
“Biofuels are considered “renewable” because every year that we renew the world’s agriculture, we get the option of taking a portion of the harvest, mutilating it, and then setting it on fire.” (108)
But seriously, on reflection on the amount of food waste, she writes: “I am honestly unsure whether to feel more depressed or hopeful about it, but the magnitude of global waste is in many ways equal to our need.” (77) She then goes on to argue for global food redistribution, as well as curbing consumption in general. This is a brief summary of her message:
“The last fifty years is a Story of More -- more cars, more driving, more electricity and more manufacturing; because of this, it should come as no surprise that it is also a Story of More fossil fuel use….If we want human society to outlast the finite resource that it is dependent upon, then any movement away from fossil fuels is a step in the right direction, and one that can’t happen too soon.” (104, 105)
Jahren calls for humility in how we approach these issues, both in public and private conversation, and I accepted a large portion of that humble pie as I reflected on my recent house search. I realized I had placed (and lost) a bid on a 5,000 square foot house that would take a small fortune to heat and cool, all so we could have more space and so we could enjoy nature from within the most Hollywood-esque backyard treehouse you’ve ever seen. I think of that, and then I think of my son’s assistant teacher from Bangladesh and how Jahren writes:
“The river-delta nation of Bangladesh lies just barely above sea level. Within its borders, a population half the size of the United States ekes out a living from a piece of land the size of Alabama. If the sea continues to rise, the area of Bangladesh is likely to shrink by 20 percent over the next thirty years, crowding people into even less land and fewer resources. Incidentally, the people of Bangladesh produced far less than 1 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere during the last fifty years, yet they are poised to pay the highest price incurred by its effects. This is a common trend: the people benefitting from the use of fossil fuels are not the people who suffer the most from its excess.” (151)
I read that and pictured our teacher’s family members and friends. And I wondered, what can we do for them? If we consume less, if we use less, then maybe the sea won’t rise as fast. Maybe we could literally give the country of Bangladesh room to grow.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book, even if you feel you’re an expert in this area. Jahren writes with a humor and humility that makes me want to quote every page. Hers is a book that is so satisfying to read that it begs to be read again, so we can enjoy her writing, and perhaps also discover how we can work towards a better life for the nearly eight billion souls on our planet.
Last spring when we all entered isolation, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a women’s small group at church that was able to pivot to meeting on Zoom. As racial tensions mounted outside our walls and we talked about how to respond, one woman mentioned that she was reading Latasha Morrison’s book with white extended family members who live somewhat south of here. Herself a person of color, she expected disagreements to arise in conversation, but she was hopeful for the space to voice her societal concerns.
The copy I read was a library book, and at risk of misrepresenting Ms. Morrison, I am going to take a stab at what it’s like to revisit what sentiments and take-aways I have retained in the time between then and now. I will just admit right that the process of remembering has been a little disheartening, like I’m disappointed in my own stamina for listening and change. I found plenty to interact with in Morrison’s story as I discovered intersections with my own recent history with racial education. I realized I had much to respond to, but I didn’t know how to shape my words to be appropriate to share out loud in a group setting. I considered chalking this up to my lack of inexperience speaking about racial matters.
Part of my education recently has been learning how people of color speak more about race and have more of a racial identity at a younger age than white people. I first heard statistics on this two years ago during an event at my children’s elementary school called Courageous Conversations. So it was surprising to read that this was not Morrison’s experience. In fact, this book reminds me of Waking up White by Debby Irving which I read with my neighborhood book club in 2017, except Morrison tells a story of waking up Black -- seeking to learn the history no one offered to teach her. These books include similar examples of history that had been swept under the rug, such as the bombing of Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 which I heard Irving speak about during her talk “I’m a good person; isn’t that enough?” back in 2017. Some acts of racism are so blatant, and I appreciate this new movement to include such events in a more collective history of our country.
Other situations are less clear cut and so nuanced that this is where discussion might help...or might become contentious. Like this question: Is it okay for our churches to be segregated?
Of course not, right? We recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about how “11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” and we lament the history of whites protesting the admission of Blacks to their churches. We grieve the time when Christian slave owners debated whether they could retain rights over their slaves if they taught them the gospel and how some would decide to withhold the story of eternal salvation so to not lose their means to economic prosperity.
To digress one step, in her book, Morrison addresses plantation life and how we remember it today when we tour said places. Her description took me back to my husband’s and my visit to the Hermitage back in 2018. We had skirted the long ling for the guided tour of the main house in favor of a self-guided walking tour of the slave housing and fields. It’s where we found the cotton. But while the placards within the shack dwellings provided some information of slave life, the experience on offer was a far cry from Morrison’s experience at another plantation where each visitor was asked to imagine stepping into the daily life of a particular named slave. By contrast, the majority of attention during our tour was placed on the white experience, and perhaps this is what Morrison means when she uses the word “whitewashing”:
“I suspect much of the whitewashing of plantation history stems from the fact that discussing the true accounts would be shameful and might conjure feelings of ancestral guilt.” (70)
I wonder if that perhaps even more often than that, the experience is white-washed simply out of habit. Perhaps these are the narratives tourists expect when they come to visit. And yet, I bristle when Morrison makes an almost parallel assertion regarding church attendance,
“You don’t see many White people attending churches of color or ethnically diverse churches as bridge builders. Why? Maybe it’s because seeking ethnically diverse churches would highlight their complicity in structures of racism, and that complicity would bring so much shame and guilt.” (77)
Goodness! I wished I could talk with her right on that page because if I felt any complicity in this situation, I would need someone to point it out to me! I didn’t think I fell into her category, and I wondered how many people she knew would identify with that, and what that even looked like. For myself, I remember that when I first moved to Cambridge and walked my new neighborhood, I was disappointed that the closest, most convenient church I found was Korean. I assumed I wouldn’t be welcome there. I don’t speak Korean, and I wouldn’t want the members there to have to go out of their way to make me feel comfortable. I remember really wanting a church home, but I didn’t want to impose or enter a situation where I might feel out of place either. Nowadays, in contrast, I have thought about how it would be interesting to attend the Ethiopian church where my son’s friend’s family goes. And yet, I haven’t. I still assume I’m not wanted, like these groups need to preserve a safe space for themselves.
Just a few pages earlier in her book, for example, Morrison herself admitted to a time when she sought out the black table in the cafeteria in high school after a painful experience where her fellow classmates rejected her proposal to celebrate Black history month. She states:
“I wasn’t complaining about the separation. I needed a place to vent, to voice my anger. I needed a place of solidarity and safety.” (65)
I agree that there are times when you want the support of those familiar with your experience. I prefer to ask close friends for advice, just as I prefer to speak about my spiritual life in women’s groups instead of co-ed ones.
On the other hand, I’m glad I go to a fairly diverse church, one that, I only found out after years of attendance, was founded by a group of Korean Christians who wanted to create a space that was welcoming for all people. The result of this natural mixing is that now when I visit all-white churches I feel uncomfortable, like there are people missing. I have to wonder if something about the culture of those churches is repelling people of color.
And now, as I type this, I remember a close friend from junior high. She was the first close friend I had with whom I talked in depth about God on a regular basis. She and I used to exchange notes with Bible verses on them. She and I sat at the same lunch table nearly every day before she moved away after graduation. The thing is, my friend was Korean, and at the time, I had no idea that over a decade would pass before I had another Korean Christian friend. At the time, I only knew the longing that comes with separation from an old friend.
I wonder if this is the longing Morrison felt when she created Be the Bridge and went on to write her book. Sharing life is possible. Patient listening is possible. Our selfish motives and insecurities might get in the way, but with grace, perhaps we can begin to construct a new understanding. If we are able to make deliberate effort to step outside of the comfort zone of our own groups, eventually perhaps it may even feel natural to sit at the same lunch table once again.
If any of you are in the housing market right now, you know it’s incredibly stressful. There is barely any inventory, and anything worth having will quickly go for well over asking price. In this intense seller’s market, it’s hard to believe that any house tour will turn into an actual acquisition and move. And yet, when I tour a house, I try to suspend my disbelief and picture exactly how my family could use each space. I’ve been surprised at how far this game of mental gymnastics can take me, like how many bathtubs have looked appealing, when I have taken maybe two baths in my adult life. And in one particular house, I felt an irrational draw to the walk-in master closet. When I opened the door, I felt a blast of warm air brush across my face. Unusual, I thought. Closets are usually colder than the main rooms. But then I realized that this house had radiant heat. Even the closet floors would be warm. It was like a combo closet and sauna, and all I wanted to do was close myself inside, lie on my back, and breathe.
Nestor, who has suffered from breathing problems throughout life, sought to learn about proper breathing techniques and how they might make us healthier human beings. In his meandering prose, he suggested that breathing correctly might help me with my anxiety, and that is why I instinctively was drawn to lie down in the closet. He claimed that breathing properly wouldn’t only help asthma, sleep apnea and other pulmonary problems, but also autoimmune diseases, psoriasis and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In his introduction, Nestor discusses the disconnect between the ancient cross-cultural wisdom of breathing properly to ensure a good, long life, and what he feels is a dismissive attitude of modern medicine towards breathing technique. He states that the majority of western doctors he spoke with agreed that it didn’t matter how you breathed -- the point was just to get air in and out of the lungs. Still, he found researchers at credible institutions who thought otherwise. Nestor asserts:
“No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are -- none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly. That’s what these researchers discovered. The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there.” (xix)
Nestor’s ten years of research led him to travel thousands of miles in search of the best combination of practices that would ensure healthy living. From interviewing free divers to western scientists, to exploring the catacombs beneath the city of Paris, to visiting a breathing expert in Brazil, Nestor searches for explanations for how our species actually evolved to breathe poorly, and what we can do about it now. He points out that,
“Of the 5,400 different species of mammals on the planet, humans are now the only ones to routinely have misaligned jaws, overbites, underbites, and snaggled teeth, a condition formally called malocclusion.…Why would we evolve to make ourselves sick?” (12)
He notes that, on the evolution of Homo sapiens,
“Strangely, sadly, the same adaptations that would allow our ancestors to outwit, outmaneuver, and outlive other animals -- a mastery of fire and processing food, an enormous brain, and the ability to communicate in a vast range of sounds -- would obstruct our mouths and throats and make it much harder for us to breathe. This recessed growth would, much later, make us prone to choke on our own bodies when we slept: to snore.” (16)
He points out that historically, people across cultures used to value proper breathing technique, and that that meant breathing through the nose. To take the Bible for one example, “Genesis 2:7 described how “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (45-6) Fast forwarding several thousand years to the 1830s, artist and researcher George Catlin documented the dedicated practice of nasal breathing among native tribes of North and South America, noting their tall structure and perfectly straight teeth.
“The Native Americans explained to Catlin that breath inhaled through the mouth sapped the body of strength, deformed the face, and caused stress and disease. On the other hand, breath inhaled through the nose kept the body strong, made the face beautiful, and prevented disease.” (47)
To this end, Nestor describes how native tribes would close their babies’ mouths as they slept, to encourage them to breathe only through the nose. Today, some scientists promote mouth taping in order to ensure nasal breathing, prompting air through the sinuses to release nitric oxide -- “a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells.” (50)
By the end of his book, however, Nestor leaves the reader with hope that the disadvantages of our evolutionary changes perhaps can be reversed:
“That our noses and mouths are not predetermined at birth, childhood, or even in adulthood. We can reverse the clock on much of the damage that’s been done in the past few hundred years by the force of will, with nothing more than proper posture, hard chewing, and perhaps some mewing, [where mewing is repeated tongue thrusts toward the hard palate].” (136)
Sifting through his meandering prose during which he spends thousands of dollars conducting a breathing experiment on himself under the care of a physician at Stanford, I was able to distill Nestor’s recommendations for healthier breathing. He basically proposes the benefits of breathing through the nose, timing inhalations and exhalations to each last 5.5 seconds (which, he points out, is the length of many ritual prayers in different religions), doing occasional other breathing exercises, and chewing gum regularly to preserve or boost facial bone density. He also stresses the overall importance of lung capacity, which he says can be boosted with stretching techniques.
Nestor’s prose is readable, and yet, I had trouble connecting the dots between scientific studies and anecdotes. He spoke of some techniques of being nothing short of miraculous, and yet, the reader begs to know whether such techniques are replicable, or even what the results of these breathing techniques even were. In some sections, Nestor claims that “the results are profound” and yet he fails to define the results. Yet, by the end, I was wondering whether I should sleep with tape on my mouth, or whether I should start chewing gum in order to build bone mass in my face. Perhaps one simple thing I could do, I decided, was to make sure I was breathing as I worked on the computer, to avoid “email apnea” as he described it. (172)
One thing is for sure: reading this book will make you hyper aware of your own breathing. You might wonder the whole time whether you’re doing it right. You might wonder how long these ideas and questions will stay with you. And you might wonder if, for more reasons than one, researcher Catlin’s advice from long ago is particularly fitting for today’s society. By his own assessment, the key to a long healthy life was found in following this simple instruction:
Shut your mouth.
What with so many normal points of connection suddenly severed, I clung to my friend’s book recommendation like a little lifeline. It reminded me that the top reason I love reading so much is that it connects me to others. If I wanted to just read a lot of books, I could sit in my living room and devour mysteries or romances, but it wouldn’t help me consider what my friends and neighbors were thinking about, or what they were wrestling with. Most of the books on this blog were recommended to me, and it means so much to me that as I scroll through my reading lists, the titles I see prompt me to remember the names of people I know.
So when I picked up Jesuit Priest Gregory Boyle’s book, I didn’t worry about what type it was. My friend told me it was “so good”, and that was good enough for me. Yet, in his preface, Boyle seems fixated on trying to skirt any definition of genre. He mentions some of the things that this book isn’t, saying it’s not a memoir or a how-to on dealing with gangs. He points out that there is no narrative chronology. He didn’t intend to write a sociological study or even a call to action. But as I turned the pages and fell more and more in love with Boyle’s stories, it became quickly apparent what this book is.
This book is permission to cry. When life, as it had been lately for me, demands that you put one foot in front of the other and keep tackling problems and continue to strive to do better, no matter the circumstances, this book gave me the space and reason to let it all out.
In a nutshell, Boyle’s book is about L.A. gangs, grief, and Jesus.
Gang culture is terrible, to bluntly understate the obvious, and like seeing Jesus standing over a deceased Lazarus, the reader, like Boyle, is at times drawn to indignant tears of why the heck haven’t we solved this problem yet? Why should a teen girl in his book need to specify that she should be buried in a sexy red dress (“Promise me, that I get buried in this dress”), expecting not to make it to middle, let alone old, age? (89) And how eye-opening is this view of teen pregnancy, when another teen comments:
“I just want to have a kid before I die.”
To which Boyle responds, “I’m thinking, How does a sixteen-year-old get off thinking that she won’t see eighteen? It is one of the explanations for teen pregnancies in the barrio. If you don’t believe you will reach eighteen, then you accelerate the whole process, and you become a mother well before you’re ready.” (90)
In the midst of frequent violent death, Boyle muses, “Enough death and tragedy come your way, and who would blame you for wanting a new way to measure [success].” (177)
Boyle finds that new way in Jesus, who reminds us that our purpose in life stems not from our success but from our faithfulness to love. As Boyle describes him:
“Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. There is a world of difference in that. Jesus didn’t seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast. He didn’t fight for improved conditions for the prisoner. He simply said, “I was in prison.” (172)
Boyle points out that ““The Left screamed: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” And the Right maintained: “Don’t stand with those folks at all.”” And yet, “[t]he strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place -- with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.” (172, bold italics mine)
Boyle tries to do this in his gang-dense neighborhood in L.A. He founds a work program called Homeboy Industries to help funnel gang members off of the streets and into employment, and in doing so, opens his life to theirs. It seems natural, this interaction of priest and gang member, this intersection of love and recklessness. So when Boyle is overcome with grief at one boy’s funeral, the reader cries in solidarity. And when, in the same moment, a bystander scoffs at Boyle for crying, letting him know he thinks the deceased was not worth another thought, the reader too feels the punch in the gut as the world rears its ugly head and forces its own expectations, marching effortlessly over love and mercy, leaving them crushed in its wake.
As Boyle stands there wondering what to do, he remembers that “[b]y casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is, “Where are you standing?” And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, “Are you still standing there?” / Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidenced-based outcomes) -- that didn’t end in the Cross -- but he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced.” (173)
Boyle reiterates this point over and over again, that “[s]uccess and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified -- whichever came first.” (172)
After burying nearly hundreds of gang members whom he came to love, Boyle acknowledges that the world might not give us the permission to grieve the way we need to in order to heal. Reading his book, I grieved for the lives lost in L.A., and I grieved for everything else wrong in the pandemic and in our lives as well. It was hard to stop crying actually. And yet now I think, what better way, in fact, to let each other know, you were loved? These lives, as Boyle’s example shows, are worth our tears.
The first time Dan and I got a puppy (over twelve years ago now), we had no kids. As I’ve written on this blog in a prior post, Sanibel was our first child, and we grieved for a long time after she passed away in November, 2018. This summer though, we realized that our youngest kids barely remember her, and while Sanibel can never be replaced, we also knew that we wanted our kids to grow up with a dog in the house.
We knew it would be a challenge to bring a puppy into the mix with four active children already. So we decided to make it absolutely as hard as possible by purchasing said puppy on the brink of winter during the pandemic right after travel restrictions tightened up again. That way, the kids’ grandparents would be unable to babysit them as we had been hoping so Dan and I could drive out and get the puppy ourselves. Instead, my daughter and I could make the 15-hour round trip harrowing drive through a Nor’easter into Pennsylvania and back. (After hydroplaning slightly on the highway, I heard a voice from the backseat: “Mom, what was that sound?” “Oh, just the tires going through some water. We’re going to drive in the middle of the road now.”)
Fortunately, Dan volunteered to run the remote schooling show in the upstairs of our house, so I could sit in the dining room and learn the music. Rehearsing with Opal snuggled in at my feet, I couldn’t help but compare the experience to practicing for the 2018 Christmas Concert. Sanibel hated music. Maybe she felt it was too unpredictable, maybe too loud, but when I think of the last weeks of her life, I remember the disdainful looks she gave me as I sang about God’s love for the world. My tiny newborn, Opal, by contrast, raised her head occasionally in surprise but went back to napping pretty easily. For me, the emotions involved in this process were overwhelming. To be recording a concert virtually during a pandemic while being reminded of a grievous loss in our family, I wanted to simultaneously cry for the memories and smile at the possibility to still carry on.
By the end of the week, I was feeling ready enough to sing for the camera. But first, I had to construct the set. After many iterations of furniture arrangements and lighting options, Dan helped me hang a white sheet over our bedroom closet door to create a neutral background, using the push pins that one of our sons brought home from school to strengthen his fine motor skills. After grabbing my children’s reading lamps for spotlights and slipping my phone into one son’s phone tripod from the Harry Potter invisibility cloak gift set he got for Christmas the year before, I felt ready. I took a practice selfie to assess my progress...and realized no one wanted to see that mugshot. So a shower and wardrobe choices and makeup followed, but eventually, it was time to press record.
After singing my heart out, I played back the recording, only to hear my children’s screams from the living room downstairs. Right. I had left Dan to juggle four children and a non-potty-trained puppy at the same time. It was a bit much to ask, but after a few more takes, we got there.
During those early weeks of December, everything seemed to be happening at once, but after that, life seemed to calm down a little, back to its regular chaotic state. We were heading into the last days of school before Christmas break when we got the call from the vet late in the evening on December 22nd.
“Your dog has giardia.”
And if you have no idea why our stomachs sank when we heard those words, all I can say is lucky you that you’ve never experienced parasite-induced diarrhea. The first time Sanibel had giardia, we were living in an 8th floor apartment in Chicago. Dan will never forget that night when he waited for the elevator eight times, hoping our dog could hold it long enough to make it outside.
Opal, fortunately, was asymptomatic, but the vet recommended treating her before it really took hold...and before she affected anyone else in the house.
“Giardia can be transmitted from dogs to humans,” she warned.
And then I remembered how one of my sons had vomited his breakfast the other day. I had assumed he got up too early (ahem, 4:30am) in his excitement about the first big snowfall. But then later that evening, another son couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time after running in from playing in the snow. The snow pants were spared, but I was glad for the sanitize cycle on my washing machine in order to take care of the rest of the clothing. Come to think of it, a third son had complained of stomach pain after not eating much dinner...
Suddenly, it hit me that my children might already have giardia, and I needed the answer to a very pressing question: Am I going to have to collect stool samples from my children? On top of all of the other stresses I was already feeling, I really didn’t think I could do that one. I really thought that might make me snap.
The nurse who returned my frantic message to the pediatrician’s office tried to reassure me that it was unlikely my children had giardia.
“People actually contract different strains than dogs,” she explained. “But,” she continued, “they could have COVID.”
Ah. Right. They could have that virus that is ravaging our planet.
But I have to tell you that as I was talking to her on December 23rd, anticipating Christmas preparations and how we were basically heading into a quarantine time anyway and had been quarantined pretty much due to remote schooling, all I could think was how relieved I was that they likely didn’t have giardia. I wouldn’t have to schlep all of my children to the doctor’s office or rush out to get medication from the pharmacy. AND I WOULDN’T HAVE TO COLLECT ANY STOOL SAMPLES!
I was at a school playground with my kids recently when I overheard a conversation between four young teenage girls that made me pause. I’m guessing they were in eighth or ninth grade.
“You went through a Jesus phase in seventh, didn’t you?” one asked another.
Mumbling ensued that I couldn’t discern, and then I heard something like,
“Yeah, that stuff was really important to our parents when we were young, but not now.”
A third girl seemed to start to wonder why that was, but stopped. The conversation paused and then shifted direction.
I can’t claim that these girls had spiritual questions, but I can claim two things from this, both of which made me sad:
First, they had questions about why they were taught about church when they were young and why that teaching stopped.
Second, they didn’t make more of an effort to talk about spiritual things with their friends, perhaps because they weren’t interested, perhaps because they were embarrassed, or perhaps because they just didn’t know how. But the fact that they considered discussing these things at all made me feel like they wanted to talk about these things on some level.
As I reflected on what I heard of their conversation (i.e. righteous indignation stirring) and the accusatory thoughts it stirred in me (akin to Why didn’t their parents keep teaching about faith and the church?!), I was instantly humbled as I recalled my admission to you in last month’s newsletter that I myself had run spiritually dry.
At dinner that night, with my husband and four children, I asked for everyone’s attention. I told the story of the four girls, and I then I said this:
“I want you to know it’s okay to ask questions about God and Jesus and the church. I want you to know that you might not always have the answers, that some answers may take years to figure out, and some answers you may never get.”
My daughter interrupted, saying that she had thought once that the story of Jesus all made sense to her, and that now she wasn’t so sure.
I nodded and affirmed her. “I think that you’ll find that as your brain grows, your questions will change. But I want you to keep asking questions. I want you to be able to keep talking about God and Jesus and the church. There may be times when Daddy and I don’t seem to talk about it as much, but it is still important, and you can always talk to us about those things.”
The authors recommended choosing five or fewer suggestions (out of a hundred) to start, with the emphasis on starting small and trying to be consistent. I knew I wanted to start with the ideas in Chapter 2: Modeling Faith.
Pre-COVID, I used to sit at Starbucks in the mornings, and while I waited for my tea to cool off enough to sip, I wrote in a gratitude journal and read the Bible. I had a pretty consistent “Quiet Time” as some call it. It felt pretty ideal.
But my kids never saw that.
I realized that under these COVID conditions, my kids’ could be listening to me sing worship songs during our church’s services, now streamed over YouTube. So that Sunday, I started to “go to” church again, deciding to dismiss any concerns about whether the kids would be too loud or distracting to really feel involved with it. Regardless of their behavior, if I turned on the TV, they would see how it was important to me.
Besides attending church, I identified a few other things I wanted to try with my family. Small things like adding a question or two to the dinner conversation like, What was your favorite part of the day? Or Did anyone make any mistakes today? I was surprised when all of the kids latched onto that second one, and it brought to light how each of us views mistakes and how we evaluate what makes those mistakes big or small.
In chapter 4, I learned about the power of prayer in building warm family relationships. There were beautiful examples of prayers parents prayed routinely over their children and / or with them. In our family, we say a dinner prayer and a bedtime prayer, but the examples in the book made me want to try out new ones.
Here’s a fourth idea I likely will have to save for post-COVID times: The researchers stressed the impact of intergenerational relationships. I would like to identify five adults who can pour into each of my children’s life and faith. This could be through visits, activities or cards or gifts in the mail.
Lastly, as I read about connections between monitoring teenage cell phone use and maintaining warm family relationships, I realized that while that was a long way off for our family, there were ground rules I could implement now...for myself. I knew that every time I checked a text message or an email on my phone, my children noticed. If I was staring at a screen, I was unavailable to them. I knew this and felt convicted all over again to place boundaries on technology for myself. I decided that for the after school hours, when all of my children are home, I would try to put the phone away until after they go to bed. I also would save my computer time for when they are watching TV. For sure, there are other times when they are so engaged in play or a dance party or reading that they usually don’t seek my attention. During those times I am tempted to focus on my writing or computer-based research (where should my son take karate, for example). But having this boundary for myself has helped me maintain eye contact and be available when they do flit into the room with a question.
Bottom line, I don’t want my children to be left out in the cold when it comes to their questions, spiritual, logistical or otherwise. Five years from now, when they are hanging out on the playground with their friends, I don’t want them to feel embarrassed or hesitant if someone asks about faith. I want them to be curious and supportive of others, and I want them to have people in their lives who can be faith role models, approachable people who will listen and encourage them on their spiritual journeys. And all of that starts at home.
I’m aware that my presentation needs work. My ankle-length, winter white sleeping bag coat is smeared with more than two seasons of grime, and even if it were brand new, L.L. Bean sure wasn’t going for sleek and sophisticated when they designed it baggy enough to fully zipper my last pregnancy to full term. And that was when I was carrying twins.
The day I arrived at the unmarked warehouse that is La Collaborativa Food Pantry in Chelsea, I tried to put some cheer and confidence in my voice to make up for what I lacked in appearance, but when I approached the two women on the front step and asked,
“Is this the food pantry?” one of them gave me a double take and, hesitating momentarily out of politeness, asked,
“Are you looking for food?”
“No,” I replied, remaining pleasant so as not to undermine their purpose, to affirm that it’s not shameful to accept handouts. “I’m from Highrock Church. I signed up to volunteer to pack boxes today. That is, if you could use the help?”
I had first heard of the need two months back, through my pastor’s wife who had rallied the moms ministry to act on behalf of this operation that had lost its USDA sponsorship in late 2020. This organization usually feeds 8,000 people per week, which meant that 8,000 people were now searching for another way to find food...or going hungry. My pastor’s wife, brimming over with compassion, quickly organized collection locations in 13 communities in the Greater Boston area. We moms were asked to add a selective list of items to our grocery lists and then deliver the foodstuffs to the designated drop box nearest to our homes.
Several weeks went by before I jumped on the bandwagon. I had seen the weekly emails, the updates of multiple vans of food collecting and delivering hundreds of pounds of food each week, the generosity and collectively mammoth-sized offering of dozens of moms working together to support one of the communities hardest hit by COVID. I saw the updates and somehow couldn’t get past my cynicism that this would make any difference. Why should we be the ones to fix this? If we keep delivering food, will they ever figure out how to get it themselves?
And then, a few weeks ago, something happened that I can only explain by calling it God’s intervention. I had been wallowing in my need to escape -- to escape my tiny home in the middle of a gray winter, to escape the uncertainty of COVID, to escape the soul-crushing isolation that resulted from the combination of all of those factors. I had been searching for a new home for my family, but when an opportunity fell through, instead of disappointment, I was surprised to feel enormous relief. I heard a reprimanding voice in my head, the kind that not only puts you in your place but speaks the wisdom you’ve been craving. It said,
“You still live here.”
Weary of Zoom meetings being my only way to see the faces of friends from my pre-COVID past, I had stopped attending my church moms’ small group sometime this past fall. I didn’t want to commiserate over pandemic woes and strive to make the best of it by substituting staples like full time school attendance with alternative activities like socially-distanced snowshoeing. I was ready to seek that full time school in a new community and imagine a new life for my family. I was so deep into the fantasy that I couldn’t function in my daily life.
The wise voice told me I needed to step back into my life.
Shortly after that, I signed into the weekly small group meeting and enjoyed the discussion of drawing closer to God through implementing spiritual disciplines, like fasting, rest, prayer, Bible study, confession, solitude, simplicity, fellowship and service. I shared my recent unexpected relief at losing out on an opportunity to leave my situation, and as people shared their own stories, I reflected privately that I was glad to feel called to spend time with God through service work.
It had been a long time since I had participated in a service project. Perhaps since last summer. Sure, we still tithe and give monthly and occasionally to charitable organizations, but the last time I could remember intentionally participating in a service project was following my kids’ Vacation Bible School curriculum last June. I wrote about this already on this blog, how I wasn’t sure we had what it takes to give when we were running on empty ourselves. I also felt tentative about participating in projects because the overall message during COVID was “Stay home”. Earlier on this blog I wrote about seeking alternative fight strategies when our usual service work was disrupted, but thanks to that voice, I felt like I had waited long enough. I now felt moved to act.
I added to my grocery list non-perishable items to donate to the food pantry in Chelsea, and I visited the SignUp Genius and, enlisting a friend to help out alongside me, I marked my name down for three shifts of packing boxes of food, boxes that other volunteers would later hand out to those in need.
My first shift was cancelled due to a snowstorm, so a week after that I finally showed up on the doorstep, prepared to appear foolish and remain malleable in order to be used in whatever way was most helpful.
The ladies standing there smiled at me from behind their masks and took me inside, explaining a bit about the facility. I quickly realized this was one of those situations where I could have benefited from studying Spanish in school instead of French, but at least no one seemed to mind. We mimed to each other and did the best we could.
Except, when I wanted to double check that we really were supposed to throw away hundreds of pounds of meat that appeared stably frozen but was past the sell by date. Or when we were asked to sort a random assortment of non-perishable foodstuffs. If I understood how the food was distributed, perhaps I would be able to better discern whether to group Asian noodles with rice or whether baking powder should go with cake mix. And bottom line, I thought there would be so much work that I wouldn’t have time for ridiculous questions like these about the minutiae of it all.
Somewhere in the middle of transferring wholesale linguine by the one-pound handfuls into individual Ziploc baggies while discussing the pros and cons of city versus suburban living with another English-speaking volunteer, I started to wonder if I was helping at all. I couldn’t see the bigger picture, and I couldn’t communicate to learn more.
When I left at the end of my shift, I felt a little let down, a little discouraged. Was this what service was? Drudgery that feels like it’s getting you nowhere? It’s funny how I started the morning thinking I was going to do something useful with my hands but that I ended it wondering how any reasonable person could have thanked me for showing up that day.
A few days ago, I was grateful to hear this reminder from my pastor during a Sunday sermon: The service work we do is a form of worship. If we remember that we serve others in order to serve God, then we don’t have to feel let down when the people who receive our gifts, like our offerings of food and time, might not use them as wisely or efficiently as possible. We don’t need to put qualifiers on our efforts. A few years ago, a mom in our family small group put it this way: if you feel moved to give, God will honor that gift. It was something I would remember when my book club read The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates and criticized her efforts and even the efforts she could have highlighted with the writing of her book.
From here I understand my task is to fight the human tendency toward cynicism that tugs at my heart and tempts me to push my cart past those items in the grocery store that are in high demand at the food pantry. Whether by contributing a few more bags of rice, or whether by showing up with willing hands on site, I can see God working through it all, through reinstating the connection to the USDA Farmers to Families program, through the faithfulness of the suburban mom minivan drivers, and through the perseverance of the on site volunteers.
There is a season for everything, and while I’m here in this season, I turn to this work, remembering that at least one of my feet remains firmly planted, right here.
This December, for the third year in a row, our book club enjoyed a book exchange. The format was a bit different due to COVID. Readers deposited their paper treasures in a cooler on my back deck and signed up to receive the title of their choice. A few days later, I delivered books in my car, temporarily cheered by lightly falling snow and crooning Christmas carolers on the radio.
Christmas itself involved staying up to wee hours to wrap presents, then getting up twenty minutes later when my kids decided they couldn’t sleep another wink. And then, after a flurry of wrapping paper, Christmas ended, and I started wishing mightily for a pick me up. As my husband likes to say, there is no reward for getting through Christmas. You just get January in New England.
I have to tell you I laughed out loud. Repeatedly.
It was such a great choice for the dead of winter in the doldrums of a pandemic when you realize you haven’t had a date night in gosh knows how long. Date night now might mean sitting in the same room for an hour after the kids go to bed and fretting (fuming?) about how to get the squirrels out of your attic space.
Then you read this little 100 page book. It reminds you that you don’t love marriage despite the struggles. In fact, you enjoy the struggles too. Or rather, you enjoy minor problem-solving scenarios like divvying up leftovers and doing that dance in the kitchen as we jockey for space. And with regards to bigger issues like the squirrels, perhaps you’ll enjoy laughing about those times when you look back at them later (if the squirrels ever leave). You enjoy this extra-unpredictable-other-worldly dimension of your life and truly believe it’s other-worldly in nature because only a God with a hope bigger than our understanding would ever believe that we could pull it off.
Remember you are not alone is something we’ve heard so often during this pandemic and yet strained to believe, and this book reminds you of related truth that you’ve forgotten to remember -- to be grateful that you get to be a part of this strange club where you get to have inside jokes -- and inside arguments -- with the initially random person who later became the one who vowed to put up with you no matter what. This book is so great I’d say give it to your lover for Valentine’s Day. I mean, I would if the day hadn’t already passed. You probably got her something amazing though, right? What’s that? You forgot? Oh well, it’s really just a Hallmark holiday. No one really cares about it.
But you could still read the book. Enjoy. For twenty minutes may you too forget that you are in the middle of winter and slogging it through a pandemic. May you remember that you are surrounded by (sometimes suffocated by) someone who loves you.
Sometimes truth comes at you from the most unexpected places.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re reading the third memoir in a row about substance abuse -- and all of the really really awful choices people make when they feel unloved -- and you’re wondering to yourself why people can’t write about beautiful things for a change. You know you’re not the only one who needs a pick me up, whose spiritual life has bottomed out, whose hope for that light at the end of the tunnel has dwindled to a pinprick of pixels if that. Your misery loves company, and yet, there’s something innately disturbing about dwelling in someone else’s quagmire such that you feel more sucked down than comforted.
But this book is so long. You tend to be verbose in your own writing, so you understand the need for Karr to go on at length, but you just wish she could have capped it somewhere under 300 pages, or at least not included so many swear words and trashy metaphors that are dragging your mind into the gutter and stirring up feelings of frustration and anger and agony and --
And then you see it. In the middle of page 217. Sacred truths you know but have lost sight of in your inability to let go of despair:
Faith is not a feeling...It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually has experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it.
And on page 218:
You were saved for something...Don’t die before you find out what. What’s your dream for your life?
And on pages 368-9:
[What’s] God’s dream for you?
God has a dream for me?...I love that idea. It sounds like a Disney movie.
You know from the beginning that this is a self-reported conversion story -- a sinner’s fall to faith and subsequent redemption -- and yet the way Karr tells it absolutely blindsides you.
People in my writing group have asked me to dig deep when describing what it feels like to hear God’s voice. When they ask me next time, I will ask if they have read Mary Karr. Her writing makes it clear that God speaks to us through our own idiosyncrasies, reaching us in as many unique ways as we are uniquely different from each other. You read her descriptions of what it meant for her to find faith and you don’t doubt her discovery. It may not spur the reader on her own spiritual journey if the seeds for it aren’t already planted, but no doubt the reader will be glad that Karr has begun hers and will wish her well.
But for me, I sat there for a full minute befuddled by the page. A page that had been recommended to me by someone who had rejected me. A page in a book by a writer highly acclaimed in the writing circles who approached my own ideas with more scrutiny than a health inspector in a restaurant. Two realizations slowly dawned:
It’s possible to write about religion in a way non-religious readers will devour.
And it is possible to find God in a scathing book about an abused drunk on the road to recovery. Well, maybe I knew that. But I didn’t know it was possible to find God in a book recommended to me by a community that, on the whole, is disinclined to believe he exists.
In one of the final chapters, Karr asks her mentor to recall how she felt she could never repay him for his kindness. She reminds him of his teaching that kindness isn’t meant to be repaid, it’s meant to be passed along. Karr lets him know that she’s had the chance to do that, to help the next person in line. And by this point in the story, it’s clear to me that I’m probably not the only person whom Karr is unaware of helping.
Anne Lamott knew full well the invisible train of thanks, the untracked links in the chain, when she wrote in her writing guide Bird by Bird:
“Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or stories or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town -- still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done. Against all odds, you have put it down on paper, so that it won’t be lost. And who knows? Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” (235-6)
I sit here now wondering about the mystery -- how we can never know from where the light will shine next. Tentatively, we step ahead.
I’m told that names with X or Z in them stand out and are easier to remember, but having an interesting name isn’t what put Ibram X. Kendi on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Rather, Kendi’s intentional name change (according to Wikipedia, his middle name Xolani is a Xhosa and Zulu word for "peace" and his last name, "Kendi" means "the loved one" in the language of the Meru people of Kenya) is a small testament to the focus with which he has lived his life, dedicated to the research of racist ideas and their influence on American society.
As I described this ambitious structure to my husband and confessed that I was having trouble holding all of the information in my head so that I could make sense of it, he suggested that, as far as reading history goes, it can be particularly hard to find a narrative through-line in an intellectual history like this one. Kendi tells a story for sure, but, as I write about elsewhere this month, it is easier for a reader like me to digest the information when the story centers around one person, like in The Lemon Tree. Kendi is onto something when he tries to encapsulate chunks of time in the lives of each of those influential figures, but if you pick up this one, know you’re in for some hard work.
As I compiled my reading from this month, I realized that my selections each raised issues of American myths, myths like these that Kendi addresses in his book:
-That hate and ignorance led to racism and discrimination
-That racism is in the past
-That Americans have a troubled history but have been generally engaged in racial progress
-That anti-racism is intuitive and easy
In his preface to the paperback edition, Kendi explains that in his research, he “did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. [He] saw two distinct historical forces. [He] saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. [He] saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in politics.” (x)
He goes on to explain:
“If Barack Obama came to embody America’s history of racial progress, then Donald Trump should come to embody America’s history of racist progress. And racist progress has consistently followed racial progress.
“It is this dueling duality that I present in Stamped from the Beginning, taking away the shock of Trump’s election, and showing its striking consistency within America’s history. Trump was shocking for me, but then again not shocking at all. This history prepared me for Trump, and all the other Trumps that could rise one day on the timeworn back of bigotry.” (xi)
This idea of a “dual and dueling history” really resonated with me, especially after reading Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Bradley Jersak last month. In detailing biblical and historical perspectives on Hell, Jersak challenges the reader to consider the teachings of the pre-Nicene church (Christianity before 325 A.D.) as a path to thinking beyond the possibilities that the world and heaven are either consecutive ages or two separate spaces in different dimensions but rather “are two coexistent realities constantly competing for our allegiance.” (163)
The Bible says that the more we seek God, the more the devil will try to turn us from him. Kendi’s idea of racist progress following racial progress parallels this.
Kendi posits that “hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America… Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame from their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” (9)
Reading this did not make me proud to be an American. Beyond that though, it highlighted the incredibly disappointing fallibility of mankind. To begin with, I just don’t understand how generations of people could dedicate themselves to the study of whether groups of people can be categorized into a hierarchy. Just because Aristotle embraced it doesn’t mean we should follow suit. Please read the first few chapters of Kendi’s book and feel the fury. Or better yet, listen to the audiobook and pair the placid cadence of the reader’s voice with the audacious history depicted in his words. (And if you can listen to this book while on a cross country road trip where your children compete for your attention as they demand movies, music and snacks, you’ll experience the madness in a more palpable way.)
Do you ever picture yourself in history? Do you ever imagine how you would have acted during that time? In antebellum American, women were using their voices through narrative, as Jessie Morgan-Owens writes in her incredibly researched book Girl in Black and White. Could I have written something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Okay, perhaps not, but if I had been living in Little Rock, Arkansas, would I have tried to help the new Black students feel welcome at Central High School? Images from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry remain seared in my mind from when I read it as a teenager, and yet, Kendi points out that I missed the bigger picture -- why Beals had to seek alternative education in the first place.
This is an example of where I struggled with Kendi’s message to tease apart what actions were segregationist, assimilationist or anti-racist. According to my reading of his words, to encourage Beals and her classmates to attend Central High School would have been an assimilationist act. How would that help the kids at Horace Mann High School (from where Beals transferred) get a better education? He suggests that perhaps the anti-racist action would have been to pour funds and resources into that school, instead of implementing bussing of kids to better schools in a different part of town. Would I have been so focused on welcoming Melba and others that I would have missed the opportunity to build up the communities that needed it? What about the Blacks that didn’t want to go to white schools?
Over the 511 pages of the paperback edition, Kendi weaves the complicated story of racist ideas from multiple perspectives. There is no one Black perspective, just as there is no one white perspective. As I read more this book, I began to understand the need for places like Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research, work he first began at American University but now continues at Boston University as of July 2020.
I would like to read Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist so that I can continue to learn about how to practice anti-racism, something I’m finding might not come as intuitively as I first thought. And yet, according to Kendi, it all comes down to this straightforward belief:
“That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.” (11)
That is the whole foundation. That is the place to start.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.