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.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.