On summer reading

A summer’s worth of reading

It’s summer and I’m finding more time and space to read. But more than that, I am experiencing my reading as immersive, as feelings-laden. I’m reading for more than pleasure. I’m reading to participate in life from a variety of vantage points while also testing some theories within. I am reading myself back to life. Over and over again. It’s wild.

Perhaps now you’re curious about the what. What is she reading that has got her waxing philosophical? I could offer you a list: title after title with succinct summaries to entice you to do the same. But I’m not feeling that. I recently stumbled upon an insight about writing: mostly I’m writing for my edification, not yours necessarily. I write to scribble myself clear from one end of my thinking to another. Putting words and thoughts on the page are relics of me moving (literally) through my processing. Reading, as I’m experiencing it now, falls along similar lines: I’m reading to take myself someplace else; traveling with varied levels of attending baggage. For fiction where the characters seem farthest removed from my contexts, I carry barely anything. I’m a curious spectator stepping lightly with few sensitivities of possible calamity. In stories closer to what I have known and seen, I can feel my backpack of anxieties bearing down. For whatever I’m reading these days I have a rare openness and vulnerability. I have enough bandwidth.

Meanwhile, I’m undertaking a side project of perusing my journals of the last decades, culling particular insights and events. These are not particularly easy reads. A lot of it feels redundant, whiny, tiresome. Reading my way through these pages I am easily impatient with my minor and major sufferings. It’s no fun being reminded of my naiveté; of difficult feelings in difficult relationships. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable archive of writing energy and stamina. It offers some fairly strong case studies in adult development. For better or worse these hundreds of entries have provided both urgent and not-so-urgent self-sustaining spaces for me to flop, writhe, celebrate and sigh over time. I’m grateful they exist.

#YALit has really boosted my enthusiasm for fiction.

Against this backdrop I’ve been able to dive into others’ books with astounding abandon. Young adult literature has featured strongly: Darius The Great Is Not Okay, When You Were Everything and Sanctuary have all proven very rich in their character development and plot lines. My teen’s middle school summer read, Look Both Ways, was a charming diversion I enjoyed. A friend sent me Theory by Dionne Brand which I devoured in the space of a few days. Pew by Catherine Lacey was nearly as unsettling as Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Of course, I dropped whatever I was doing to read How The Word Is Passed as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. At the beginning of the summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us which prompted me to purchase Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which is up soon. Taken together, these books have consistently brought identity to the fore. While several characters are sorting out their particular responses to “who am I? Who are you? and/or What are we?” in most of these reads “What is society telling me/you/us to be?” turns out to be more pressing in several ways. Negotiating between who we want to be and who else has a say in what we may or may not get to choose about our identities and positions is an ever present struggle.

Which brings me back to my journals. Which brings me back to myself and all the inadequacies that implies. My joy in summer reading is the opportunities I have to wander away from myself, to leave some of my baggage unattended with the knowledge that these excursions also act as stepping stones towards perhaps new and unexpected insights. The point is that I leave and return. I go away and come back. I observe others, I observe myself. In the process I learn, I parse, I reason, I feel. I read, I keep writing.

Several years’ worth of journals.

All photos: © S. Spelic

First thoughts on ‘How The Word Is Passed’

I suspect this may become a series of posts.

It’s a fairly recent development in my reading life that I know enough to anticipate a particular book’s release. This has a lot to do with social media and following writers and readers who regularly geek out over what’s hot and what’s not; who is ascendant and who is new on the scene. Having followed Clint Smith for a few years and shared his poetry with friends, colleagues and followers, I was aware that his next book, following the completion of his PhD (I, mean, what??), would be a reckoning with slavery and how it is handled (or exactly not handled) in America’s telling of its own history.

As the publication date drew nearer, I read some articles, listened to podcast interviews and also included an announcement in my social justice newsletter for educators. I was ready. Or, so I thought.

At the end of his talk with Brene Brown, Clint Smith reveals that people often presume him to be older than he actually is. He graduated high school in 2006. He’s only 34 years old. I can say “only” because he’s more than 20 years younger than I am. When I think, HS senior in 2006, I think of my track team that spring. My strong sprinters claiming their flowers before they left the stage of international school track meets. It blows my mind to think of Clint Smith as someone I might have coached or taught (based on age, not geography).

At any rate, I almost immediately began reading. Here’s what I noticed:

The book presents places, locations, sites as leading characters that help us get proximate to the book’s central question of how we come to understand the role of slavery in American history. As I read I am thinking about place. Clint Smith takes us with him, sharing details with a poet’s eye for detail and nuance.

I’m also thinking about this book in conversation with other things I’m reading. My nightstand currently looks like this:

Image of 3 books on a flat wood surface: Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad, We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba and How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

These texts are in conversation with me and with each other. All three address the overlapping concerns of history, education and liberation. They prod me to observe carefully, acknowledge what I don’t know, to stay curious especially if and when the material is difficult.

I’ve noted in other places that history has never been my strong point. How The Word Is Passed takes me on a series of distinct field trips. Clint Smith uses remarkable sensory detail – the sound of the wood beneath his feet, the roughness of the jail cell wall, the reddening of his conversation partner’s face – to place us in each scene with him. I found myself needing to take deeper breaths while reading about him sitting in a replica of the electric chair at Angola Prison. I marveled at his patience in probing the thinking of Sons of Confederate Veterans at a Memorial Day event at a Confederate Cemetery. I can’t quite get over how he maintains the level of mental and emotional presence that these encounters, individually and taken together, require to bring them to the page with such immediacy.

I’m nearly done reading and I’m sure I’ll have more to say later. For now this is me taking stock of the book’s initial grip on me. Someone on my timeline described it as enthralling. Yes, and/but/or consuming, piercing while also fundamentally clarifying and mind-shifting.

That’s a lot for one book, for one author. And yet, here it is.

In Sickness and In Health: Reading ‘On Immunity’

Book cover of On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss features a Reubens painting, Achilles Dipped In The River Styx. Baby being held by one leg and dipped in river up to navel.

When you are pregnant in Austria, you receive a booklet called the Mutter-Kind Pass (Mother-Child pass) which records all the exams during pregnancy, details of the birth and forms for mandated doctor visits including the immunization schedule for the first 2 years. As a mother I found it an incredibly useful and reassuring thing to have since it kept so much information in one place. It also saved me from having to think too much about what needed to be done. I’m a rule follower so the document hit my compliance sweet spot.

Looking back, I can say that the document provides an effective public health nudge to parents. For every encounter with physicians from pregnancy through the first two years, there’s a place to collect and track a slice of family health information. While I was able to see myself as a beneficiary of sound public health policy, through my compliance I also became an agent of public health. Few of us think of public health until there’s a crisis.

Author Eula Biss invites us to  accompany her on a journey to understand the interplay between health, immunity, disease and society. On Immunity: An Inoculation was published in 2014. In it Biss asks readers to consider how we arrive at and think about public health, particularly in response to disease prevention through immunization. To follow her lead in 2021 through this multifaceted and complex set of topics in the midst of a global pandemic feels like a lifeline I didn’t realize I needed.

COVID-19 has put us all on notice: We are interdependent. Public health is a shared endeavor. Individual actions hold consequences for the community with or without direct intention. That so many folks choose their personal privilege to publicly shop, dine, socialize, etc. over the opportunity to make their communities safer for everyone by putting those activities on hold tells us a lot about the trouble we are already in. Capitalist consumerism (and its destructive toll) seems determined to have the last word; sooner rather than later.

Eula Biss raises questions in these connected essays that offer us dry ground in an informational swampland. How are we related to each other in health and illness? Who is responsible for the health of the community? Which metaphors do we use to talk about immunity and how do they inform our actions? What does it mean as a parent to protect our children? I found myself both unsettled and sobered through these explorations. In each chapter we learn precisely how deeply these questions and their answers overlap and intersect. Biss consistently acknowledges the dark, the murky, the foreboding and the promising.

In considering the nature of risk perception drawing on research by Cass Sunstein, she notes

“…risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk as much as it is about immeasurable fear. Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us.” (p. 37)

I’ve been thinking about this quote ever since reading it the first time. Yes, our fears are dear to us. In an age where disinformation can take hold in the popular imagination faster and more fervently than ever, those dear fears mutate into an arsenal of potentially deadly actions (or inaction) that can hold communities hostage. We are living this reality right now as anti-maskers continue to assert their right to put themselves and others at risk of infection. The fear: that their rights (power) are being removed or curtailed. The threat of illness (to themselves or others) is not permitted to enter the discussion. Fear can make us do outrageous things. Our positional sense of power will influence our sense of appropriate measures we can and should take to counter those fears. In a different context I wonder about how the most entitled among us may respond when they feel threatened: call the police, demand protection, escalate violence, claim immunity

Biss raises the question “What will we do with our fear?” (p. 152) And I have to acknowledge that it very much depends on who you are and where the fear is coming from. Throughout the book, she bears witness to the ways in which race, class and gender impact who is most often in a position to decide how medical care will be administered and whose health will be prioritized in the face of contagious and other forms of disease. Eula Biss does not allow readers to dwell solely in the realm of well educated middle class whiteness from which she hails. She shows us other times, places and circumstances and how these connect to a present day health care system which still caters to privilege.

On Immunity is a work of tremendous care and nuance. Where we might be inclined to jump to conclusions, Biss offers us earnest words of caution. In describing the tendency of anti-vax adherents to buy into shaky research, she suggests that they

“…are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used – to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.

Believing that vaccination causes devastating diseases allows us to tell ourselves a story we already know: what heals can harm and the sum of science is not always progress.” (p. 70)

Her use of “we” is instructive. Underscoring the interconnectedness of individuals, communities and societies, she reminds us that “we are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here…Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.” (p. 20)

Biss refuses to cast us in our anticipated roles. She resists painting sides with a broad brush. On the contrary, she uses detail from immunology, the history of medicine, vampire literature, and personal experience as a parent and daughter to provide us multiple ideas which both contribute to and complicate our understanding of disease and society. In the end, we are still in the swamp but perhaps better able to appreciate all the ways we are also of the swamp that we create on the daily.

The pandemic has not yet left us. As the vaccine rollout reaches larger numbers we can begin to hope for better days, safe in the company of friends and family. Some of us have learned more than our fair share about the limits of a society running on unchecked capitalism and worker disposability. The weight of our losses will bear down on us longer than we can imagine. Given the socio-historical moment I am grateful to have spent time with this exceptional writing. I step away mindful of my role in supporting public health and also wary of the faith I have to place in others to keep society afloat. The more I know, the more I fret. Thanks to Eula Biss my fretting at least has a home away from home.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss, Graywolf Press (2014).

Boxes of Thought

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Photo by furkanvari on Unsplash

Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.

To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.

To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.

I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.

The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.

I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.

  • Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.

 

  • Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.

 

  • Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.

 

  • In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.

 

  • I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.

 

Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.

I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.

Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.

My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.

Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together  – re – member – in these few days of rest.*

Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.

I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.

Even our freedoms are full of constraints.

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Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

 

 

Winter Reads Bringing the Heat

Over the winter break, I was privileged with an abundance of reading time. I finished whole books! Each in turn provided so much joy, sustenance or entertainment or any combination of the three that by the end of the break my literary appetite was temporarily sated.

What did I read, you ask?

Going into the break I was finishing up, Dr. Joy Degruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which after having heard her speak at the NAIS People of Color Conference offered a welcome and necessary recap of her arguments. Reading allowed me to deepen my understanding of the lingering impacts of  slavery over generations. I had never invested in making those direct connections previously between slavery and my own family’s (behavior) history.

After that, I was ready to read Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Written as a letter from an American born son to his Vietnamese mother who cannot read, as readers we are drawn into personal spaces at once intimate and charged. I don’t know what I expected but I found poetic passages page after page which blew me away.

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But the books I really want to tell you about turn out to be a rather unusual pairing: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger. Death and Anger, Anger and Death! What a combination for the holidays!

Caitlin Doughty has made a name for herself on social media with her youtube series, Ask A Mortician and goes by the handle @TheGoodDeath on Twitter and Instagram. Smoke describes her initiation into the undertaking industry at age 23 when she got her first job at a crematory. Besides being a gifted storyteller, Doughty shares her wonderings about the way death is done in modern Western societies, particularly in the US. In the tradition of excellent non-fiction, she provides tricks of the trade alongside a bit of historical background mixed in with squishy messy details of preparing the dead. Author Doughty had me interested in all of it. Smoke emerged as an unexpected page-turner.

Before arriving at the conclusion that humans are “glorified animals” and that “We are all just future corpses,” Doughty describes how she came to this point early in her career as a mortician:

Less than a year after donning my corpse colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world. p.168

She reminds us through stories and wit that “death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.” (p. 228) And this makes so much sense to me. Considering what my own “death values” are and where they come from is certainly a mental-emotional exercise in my future. Smoke provided me with an basis for reframing death and burial as processes that complete my humanity rather than erase it. That’s pretty significant.

If Smoke was the beer, Burn It Down was an extraordinary chaser. Behold, 22 essays by women from a variety of backgrounds all illuminating ways of thinking about, experiencing, managing, and expressing anger. So many spoke of the taboo surrounding feminine expressions of anger – about the shame and also manipulative capacity of tears, of being labeled hysterical, emotional, bitter, deranged… That rang entirely true and at the same time, I could also see parts of myself in the stories of those women who flew off the handle, who got loud and vocal when necessary.

While reading I thought of my many girlfriends and how seldom we have chances to be this frank with each other. Which is the beauty of having this collection of women’s voices which validate our right and need to feel and express our rage, particularly when we open our eyes to the underlying patterns in society which place all manner of hurdles in our paths. Especially striking for me were two essays, each penned by trans women, which made me think again about what it means to identify as woman.

Sheryl Ring caught me with this:

“…the reality is, I am a woman, and therefore, I am what a woman looks like. Every trans woman is what a woman looks like. It’s not that we all pass – it’s that whether or not we “pass” is a question we shouldn’t have to ask. (From “Crimes Against The Soul,” p. 191)

And in her essay, “On Transfeminine Anger,” Samantha Riedel proposes a vision of what could be:

Imagine radically inclusive spaces where inquisitive minds explore both cis and trans femininities, where we can each open ourselves to new possibilities of the self and take the next steps toward our collective liberation.

That is a form of vision that I don’t find everywhere. Until I read that passage, I hadn’t really recognized my own deep appetite for  pictures of what we could create, what alternatives to abrasive and harshly competitive existences might look like.

A different perspective that resonated profoundly came from Lisa Factora-Borchers, a daughter of Philippine immigrants who writes about living in middle Ohio and why she stays. She describes conversations with her kids and I am reminded that my friends, colleagues and I are navigating similar talks with our own kids and with students.

When we drive on Highway 62 and pass the Confederate flags and the billboards declaring “one man, one woman = real marriage,” I see it now as an opportunity to give my kids what I wish I always had: an example of how to embrace anger; how to use it as a natural resource, whether facing injustice of critically interpreting political and religious propaganda. “You see these big signs?” I ask my kids when we pass religious billboards. “There’s a lot of people out there who are afraid of anything different from themselves. People who are afraid will try to tell you who to love, how to love, or who to be friends with, but we’re not afraid of other people just because they may be different from us. That’s just not who we are.” (From “Homegrown Anger,” p. 189)

The struggle to convince our children that we have agency when there are whole industries dedicated to demonstrating the opposite can weigh heavily. In Factora-Borcher’s essay, I am reminded that I am far from alone; that as I teach my children, I can teach myself.

I’m sure it’s no accident that I raced through these essays and Doughty’s account of the undertaking industry in the matter of a few days. I clearly was in the market for some #RealTalk. Doughty takes time to meditate on what it means to handle the dead and death in a society that would prefer to pretend they don’t really exist. Throughout the book she makes a strong case for reclaiming death and its subsequent ceremonies as a natural part of life. Meanwhile, Lily Dancyger’s curated essays assure me that acknowledging  and expressing my anger will not kill me. Either way, I’m better prepared on at least two counts.

 

 

Get Ready For PET

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I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.

Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is   populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.

And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.

What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually.  Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:

If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…

…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet.  p. 71

or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13

I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary.  This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.

And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?

As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back.  It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.  p. 140

Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.

I also tweeted about it here. This thread by Sarah Waites also sings its praises.

Thoughts on *Instruments Of The True Measure*

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My relationship with poems is not as fraught as my relationship with Poetry.

Each poem offers itself, independent of all its potential brethren and I read what I can,

Understand as much as I can and let it be.

Laura Da’ writes poetry which challenges me. In Instruments Of The True Measure I run up against my only rudimentary grasp of US History of the 19th century. It’s a painful encounter – my ignorance colliding with Da’s haunting portraits of specific human suffering and survival of that period.

I read and feel out of my depth. There are so many words I would need to look up: calico, lariat, forelock, sorrel, bandolier, slake, vellum.

As I persist, I begin to make out figures – babies who become boys then young men who find work and traverse the landscape.

I hesitate to tell you what I believe I read because I fear I could be wrong. But there are moments where we see with our own eyes the greedy claims of Manifest Destiny.

From “Greenwood Smoke”

To the south, a surveyor

crosses the river

once called simply

after the shape of its bend,

soon to be baptized anew

with an Irish assessor’s surname.  (p.36)

From “The Coming Men”:

Dig out

the granite corner markers

capped in numbered brass,

 

blaze random

marks in the haggard

stands of hardwoods.

 

Public auction and preemption

scatters two million

Delaware and Shawnee acres.   (p. 56-57)

Da’ who is Eastern Shawnee refers us again and again to the role of measurement in the process of conquest. We consider the tools of the surveyor, the authority of the map maker. She shows us a list of 18 treaties between the US government and the Shawnee between 1786 and 1867 and reminds us:

The gore of the battlefield seeps into the ground and is lost; ink on vellum is its approximation. …

Any treaty is an artifact of unimaginable suffering.  (“Pain Scale Treaties” p.58)

As I read I learn. I am humbled by the weight of history I have been able to shrug off until now. Because it is no longer ‘someone else’s history’. No, my own history is absolutely bound up in those countless transactions designed to benefit only one kind of people. This is where Laura Da leads me – back to my own responsibility and forces me to consider the extent and limitations of my humanity. Alas, I am back to measurement, not with meridians but the low gray lines of my mental horizon.

 

 

15 titles and not nearly enough time

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline arrived in the mail today. I already read the library copy and decided I needed to have my own copy to underline and reread at will. It was that spectacular.

In the same shipment, my second copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo also arrived. This will be my loaner, the one I allow friends to borrow and receive enlightenment. That perhaps they will finally see what I see. But first I have to get my original underlined copy back.

On my nightstand I have a ridiculous stack of books from which I just returned Dear Martin by Nic Stone to the library, while Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Ayedemi rests on top, bookmark about a third of the way through. I’ve been reading more and more young adult fiction – to mix things up but also to rekindle a connection to fiction I thought was lost. Reading young characters who are brave, resilient, hopeful and a strange kind of wise helps me. I sleep better after surviving their travails and recovering their losses.

That pile has been accumulating for a while where a thick sturdy volume of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning patiently awaits my return. But it’s certainly not alone. Cathy Davidsons, The New Education is waiting its turn to be continued and as is Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. Robin Kimmerer holds two spots in the pile with Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, both of which offer me green space in the form of words and sentences. And balanced and open near the top is some theory and practical wisdom for my teaching: What If All the Kids Are White? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey. Anti-Bias teaching with young students. I used to think my presence was enough – as that one, quite possibly the only black teacher a child may have in their school career to have a crucial impact. And it may be the case but it seems unlikely. I need to help teach anti-bias along with the rest of my colleagues. So I have more reading to do. Sandwiched somewhere in that pile is also my own skinny volume of poems in German that I published in February this year, Die Sprachbürgerschaft.

Meanwhile I have a stash of books I have read and reshelved but have not yet had a chance to really share or discuss; among them, Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. This was a book that astonished and saddened me. Eubanks is a gifted reporter who conveys both the human tragedy at hand but also the faulty logic of those who would have us believe that more tech rather than less will benefit the greater good, when actually profit the greedier investor appears the more likely scenario. As the poor and vulnerable are subject to greater surveillance, scrutiny and deeper inequalities through algorithmic sorting, programming and predictions, the already weakened safety nets are at risk of being phased out or becoming downright inaccessible. I need to re-read and finally put more thoughts together on it.

Of course, I’ve also read a bunch of articles and blog posts that have also helped me want to do and be better. Jess L. wrote this blog post “Someone, Somewhere,” about LGBTQ safety for students in schools and I immediately shared it with counselors and administrators in my school. While I read Troublemakers with the #ClearTheAir group on Twitter, this podcast interview with author Carla Shalaby felt helpful in the aftermath of putting thoughts into practice.

Of course there are so many more good and necessary things to read. These are my snapshots today.img_20180806_122616

 

On Reading, Knowing and Not Knowing

I went on a hike recently with my husband and 10 year-old son. The 90 minute uphill trek proved challenging and after 2 hours we were rewarded with spectacular views of the neighboring valley and an expansive alpine meadow. Hiking is not a frequent occupation of ours. Given that, our shared accomplishment of almost 4 hours of walking completed in the space of about 5 1/2 hours let us all feel satisfied and content by the time we returned to our apartment.

The German word for hike is wandern and in my bilingual mind it’s associated with the English notion of wandering: of moving through a space without a particular destination. Of course, on our family hike we had a series of destinations which defined our route. We hiked but did not wander. We walked and celebrated a series of arrivals on our way. We were in it for the experience, the scenery, for time together.

I woke up thinking about reading. I grabbed the collection of essays currently on my nightstand: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books 2014) and opened up to a random page. I landed on a heading titled: “Pimping For The Global North” in the essay “Worlds Collide In A Luxury Suite” from 2011. She describes events, people and organizations I hadn’t previously considered: About the International Monetary Fund and how it’s previous head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn met his downfall after being accused of rape and further abuses of women. Solnit tells me a number of things I do not know; things that are news to me: the origins and purposes of the IMF; about it’s largely harmful effects on the economies of the developing world, particularly in Africa and South America. Not knowing, lacking awareness, being clueless – these were all part of this particular reading experience.

In many ways we may read to learn, to find out what we don’t know. But I didn’t pick up Solnit’s essays because I wanted learn about the IMF. I didn’t go on a hike with my family out of a necessity to get from A to B. Men Explain Things To Me offers a virtual potpourri of insights related to feminism, political activism, social histories of violence against women, and the public presence and absence of women. The not-knowing or ignorance that I bring to Solnit’s writing is not something I need to overcome. Rather it is the portal that allows me to discover “what’s new? what’s relevant? what does this text say to me?”

In “The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading,” Jesse Stommel suggests that “Not reading is serious scholarly business.” Realizing that even the most voracious readers among us can only absorb a tiny fraction of all that is available to be read helps me in coming to terms with so much not-knowing. Even as I continue to read widely and travel in so many different lanes of interest, I remain remarkably ignorant. When Jesse explains why he doesn’t police students’ reading, he posits that

[l]earning is a series of constant arrivals. And we should be just as willing to talk about and theorize our non-arrivals.
This is my work, increasingly – to encourage students and other teachers to recognize that there is no genuine turn to a text that doesn’t include both not knowing and not wanting to know as potential outcomes.

The idea that not all reading will hold our attention, spark insight or compel us to even get past a few lines or pages feels important to acknowledge. Jesse reinforces the notion of reading as an act of volition where completing a text is not the goal, rather it’s about locating our unique responses. While I cannot claim to grasp the complex operations of the IMF based on a single essay in which it forms the backdrop for a different narrative, I have a distinct awareness of my not-knowing. From there it’s much easier to determine the status of my curiosity; where it might lead me next.

I am fairly certain my next big read will not be a deep investigation into the politics of the IMF. But I will read more about inequality, about human struggles for justice and as I read I will learn more about myself and the expanse of my unknowns. My reading as a form of wandern; moving through a space to see what I can see. Where what I can see will relate to what I know, don’t know, or think I know and change based on the many different ways I continue to become.

I want to close with some inspired thinking from an English teacher making a strong case for disrupting the canon by replacing or supplementing traditional texts with works by authors from marginalized populations. In her blog post: Disrupting Texts As A Restorative Practice, Tricia Ebarvia refers to the need for teachers to “help students reflect on who they are when they read: what are the identities and experiences that have shaped them? Because it’s these identities that we bring to every single reading experience. Because it’s these identities that are the vehicles for bias and prejudice. Unpack those.

Yes! Who are we when we read? Who do I believe myself to be? Literally and figuratively, what do I know? Because as much as I would like to leave you with this happy image of me scrolling through texts connected loosely by serendipity in the same way that I describe me and my family strolling through the Alps like Maria in The Sound of Music, Tricia Ebarvia’s post reminds me and us that our personal bubbles are neither sterile nor pollution free. The not-knowing person I described reading Solnit’s essays is also someone who holds bias and benefits from privilege. That’s me. I may be ignorant about many things but as Tricia makes clear I cannot afford to hide behind not-knowing my identity as I read, as a reader. Knowing, it turns out, likely has a lot to do with who I am and believe myself to be. Knowing myself in order to learn and be able to see the world becomes the hike of countless arrivals but no end.

Dear Tricia: A meditation on a life of reading

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Dear Tricia,

Ever since I read through the beginning of your thread last night and finished reading it this morning, several thoughts have been turning in my mind. First of all, let me say how grateful I am for your voice not only in my digital life. Your leadership of #DisruptTexts as an initiative and community has opened up another world for me, one I preferred to leave to the experts until now. But let me get to this thread you shared.

It’s of course a thread so there’s a lot more to this and I’m going to pick out the 3 or 4 that really hit me:

I want to pause here. Already at the first tweet I was shaking my head. My bookshelves are testament to the overwhelming whiteness of my reading diet over years. My children’s libraries are not so different, although their shared interest in Manga series may shift their reading ratio considerably over time.

I second your claim that we adopt the values that come along with reading mainly through the dominant gaze. I’ve been very good at assimilating into the dominant culture. My reading choices over decades have reinforced and bolstered that process. And maybe this is what I woke up thinking most about: The way I read, which naturally bleeds into the way I write, is a function of how those efforts have been rewarded – as a student, colleague, employee, and friend. Since my social circles over decades have been comprised of mainly well-educated middle class white people, the language and literary habits I have cultivated reflect that participation. As a kid, I was told by my Black neighborhood friends, “You talk like a white girl.” They were correct. I suppose in my pursuit to fit in even better as an adult I learned to “read like a pretty smart white guy.”

And this is where I am.

My home library is heavy on non-fiction: sport psychology, parenting, education, cultural studies, sociology, general self-help, psychology, and business consulting and leadership lit. This is no accident. At some time in my early 20’s I found non-fiction to be where I felt more at home, where I could explore my interests often with a journalistic lens. In the course of my adulthood reading, I shoved fiction to the margins. I still read the occasional novel and enjoyed it but when it came to book shopping – I always headed for the non-fiction sections first. This is all still largely the case but my fiction and poetry reading is on the rise thanks to some friendly nudges from friends and colleagues.

OK, so that’s some background. Non-fiction – mostly written by academics who have established their reputations as capable (and sometimes extraordinary) storytellers is what ‘s mainly on my bookshelves. That means a LOT of white men, some white women and a comparably smaller selection of authors of color. I haven’t done an inventory. I haven’t gathered the data. But I know. The spines of my books tell me. There are far more Dans, Davids, Jameses, Alans and Michaels than there are Lenas, Rebeccas or Susans.  The few authors of color are most likely to be among the education texts and in my small stash of fiction titles. Sport psychology (the area of my 1st masters) – that shelf is all white male authors.  Fitness, parenting and self-help books on my shelves have been penned overwhelmingly by white women.

My 10 y-o’s library is full of favorite American authors: Mo Willems, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Leo Lioni. We’ve read a number of chapter books by Ann Cameron, Sharon Creech, JK Rowling and most recently Chris Colfer’s series, The Land of Stories. My older son enjoyed similar fare as a child. I am thrilled that they are both enthusiastic, nearly greedy readers. At the same time, I see the lack of color and range of perspectives and work on addressing that. My school library has been a great help so that my youngest and I have read novels by Jacqueline Woodson and Svetlana Chmakova and absolutely loved Sundee Frazier’s Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It, which featured a boy like him – brown and biracial. We also read John Lewis’s March trilogy together which sparked all kinds of questions that I needed to research to answer. (Fortunately I was reading Carol Anderson’s White Rage at the same time which provided more context.)

My insight as a result of your thread: How our reading lives develop becomes its own field of research revealing things we might not have recognized about ourselves just by looking in the mirror. Your thread reminded me that there is always time to explore, to step out of well worn habits and seek out what is likely missing. Most recently for me that has meant adding indigenous voices to my reading lists: Robin Wall Kimmerer, for instance, and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. These are only beginnings but they open doors and windows and help me see new vistas. I’ve made fresh attempts to investigate more fiction as a way of joining new conversations with different people (i.e., #THEBOOKCHAT and #DisruptTexts) This is still so new to me but invigorating and enriching. If not for so many folks on Twitter I would not have read the work of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Jessamyn Ward or Elizabeth Acevedo. Now that I have, I am primed to seek out more from these wonderful writers and others who are being brought to my attention.

The way you describe your experience resonates deeply with me:

We’re growing and cultivating intentionality as we go. Witnessing your example and that of others who share this passion for widening perspectives gives me both pause and strength. It’s clear to me that I will continue on this path. It behooves me as a parent, educator and citizen. Sharing the journey, encouraging each other one read at a time makes it all the more doable and inviting.

Thank you.

Sending gratitude, love and admiration,

Sherri

 

image via Pixabay.com CC0