Sunday, November 12, 2017

In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama

I heard of Pádraig Ó Tuama (pronounced Pah-drick O Two-ma) listening to his interview with Krista Tippett on “On Being.” In that interview, he spoke of saying “Hello” as a prayer.

In In the Shelter, I learned more about that. Ó Tuama tells about going to a Taizé retreat and the Taizé monk has several people read the story of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room (in John) in several different languages. The monk noted that Jesus greeted his disciples by saying, “Peace be with you.” 
The Taizé brother suggested that we pause for a moment and consider the words “Pease be with you” that the resurrected Jesus says to his locked-in followers. The Taizé brother said that, in a real sense, we can read that as “Hello.” After all, it’s the standard greeting in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.  
The disciples were there, in fear, in an upper room, locked away, and suddenly the one they had abandoned and perhaps the one they most feared to be with them was with them, and he said hello. 
Hello to you in this locked room. (p. 10)

Throughout the book, Ó Tuama does that – he tells a story or writes about something, and then ends it with “Hello to … something.” I find that use of “hello” very helpful. A while ago I wrote to my family about the fact that, ever since my brother died 11 years ago, Nov. 4, 2006, the Fall season brings on a kind of melancholy for me. I love the Fall so the first time it happened to me I had said to a friend that I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I felt sad for no known reason, and I was crying easily. She said, “Didn’t your brother die in the Fall?” and went on to say that sometimes our bodies somehow hold that memory. I think she was right. And this year, with the death of both my parents, it seems more acute – even though they died in winter at the beginning of the year. I find it somehow helpful to think to myself, “Hello grief. Hello sadness. Hello melancholy.” I’m not sure why it helps, but it does.

In another story kind of about saying hello (p. 14), Ó Tuama writes about a National Geographic story he read where a photojournalist wrote about a tribal group she’d lived with who “had no word for hello. Instead upon seeing someone, one simply said, ‘You are here’.” Then he writes, “The answer, as I recall it, was equally straightforward: ‘Yes I am.’ Whether by fact or fiction, it remains that for decades I have thought of the words ‘You are here’ and ‘Yes I am’ as good places to begin something that might be called prayer.

These phrases – “You are here” and “Yes I am” – made me think of hinani, the Hebrew word for “Here I am” that I have written about and thought of often. Things keep attracting me to that concept, of saying “Here I am” to God, ready for the mission you will give me.

One of the things I loved about In the Shelter and Pádraig Ó Tuama is that he loves The Lord of the Rings. He quotes from those books quite a few times. I love those books, too, so it gives me a lot of joy to see the words and stories from them used as ways to discuss deep things such as faith and prayer.

Ó Tuama writes some interesting things about religion. In one place (p. 24), he writes, “Religion had rarely been something that gave me hope for happiness. Effort certainly…” That made me sad. I hear that so often, where people obviously think that being religious is a matter of effort, of following rules.

It reminded me of a time with my grandma (Grace Kok, my dad’s mom). For the year my dad was in Vietnam we lived next door to my grandma, in Lynden, WA. This was a time when CRC churches pretty much all had “night church,” an evening service. Sometimes my grandma wouldn’t feel up to going to church in the evening, and instead she’d listen to the service as it was broadcast over the radio. I sat with her and listened to the service this night. Afterward, Grandma said that she was always disappointed when ministers gave sermons that did not talk about the joy of Christianity. She said something like, “Why don’t they talk about how happy it makes you?”

Don’t you love that? I didn’t think that much about it back then, but I think about it often now. Just the other day I was talking to a friend who has left the faith she grew up with. I forget exactly what my friend said, but like my Grandma I responded with something like, “It’s too bad the way people think religion is a bunch of rules. It’s all about Jesus’ love, so much love. It gives me so much joy.” As Pádraig Ó Tuama would say, hello to joy.

Pádraig Ó Tuama also writes about religion needing to know that it may not always be right (p. 193). He recalls a Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is writing a book of theology.
Charlie Brown comes along and says, “…I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy looks up, in a superior fashion, and indicates that he has the perfect title. He resumes typing and the title of his theological oeuvre appears in typeface in the sky. “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”
…It is evidence of religious integrity to be fluent in living well with the questions underneath our hope. “Let us cling to you,” we say to our Jesus, and he answers, “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?” He says, “No, do not cling to me.” He says, “Live well” and “Change” and “Learn.” He asks, “What are you doing with your power?” and he answers, “Do not miss the mark again.” He praises those who act and criticizes those who focus only on their words. He tells stories that do not end and ends stories that do not start.

Hello to the gift of being wrong.

Hello to the need for change.
In another part of the book (p. 74) he tells a story that pierced my heart. He says, as far as he can remember it, it’s a “transcript of something a twelve-year-old girl said one day.” The girl talks about a story told by a woman at a church event who “said that she was going to tell a story about God that the children would love” (p. 73).
She told us this story about the station master of a train station. The station master saw that a train was coming along and saw that the line was broken. If he didn’t change the line that the train was on, then the train would go off a cliff and everyone would die. So he needed to change the line, but he saw that his son was playing on the other line, the safe one. So he had to decide if he’d save the people or save his son. He saved the people.

The woman ended the story and said: “That’s what God’s love is like. He saved us instead of his son.” She said, “That’s a story I know the young people will love.”

I thought it was a stupid story because it just made me worry that my daddy is going to murder me.
Ó Tuama goes on to say:
The clarity of this girl’s analysis of the story was compelling…It was clear that she was, as we’d say in Cork [Note from Mavis: Pádraig Ó Tuama is Irish.], not backwards about being forwards – she said what she thought when she thought it. I thought she was marvelous. I asked her if she sometimes got into trouble in school for saying what she thought. She looked at me, as if amazed that I might have perceived this about her character, and said, “All. The. Time.” I said, “Well, take it from me, you’ve got good things to say, keep saying them,” and she looked puzzled but pleased.

Hello to being right. It’s not always easy.
This whole passage makes me happy “on many levels,” as people are wont to say. First, as I said earlier, that train story is heart-piercing, don’t you think? It’s like a cruel trick question. And for that woman to think it would be a story “the children would love.” Seriously? Ha!

Then the twelve-year-old girl’s conclusion – “It just made me worry that my daddy is going to murder me” – cracks me up.

And Pádraig Ó Tuama’s admiration for her forthrightness, I love that. I myself often get in trouble for saying what I think when I think of it. It’s so great when someone finds that to be a positive trait! Hello to being “not backwards about being forwards.”

I could go on and on about this book, but already I’ve written quite a long blog entry here. I feel like this book is “an embarrassment of riches.” There’s so much in it, so much to soak in, so much to enjoy, to savor, to tuck into your heart. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

As you can see, I used my post-it note method again.
Testimony to it being an embarrassment of riches!!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I don't know why I didn't do this long ago, but I just looked up the definition of "Bardo".
(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.
Interesting. Maybe if I'd looked that up first, I would not have been so surprised at this book. We chose it for our book club. In a way, I felt kind of freaked out about it, but in another way it was really good, with lots to think about.

As I'd read in short blurbs about the book, the entire book is about one night, the night after Willie Lincoln's death when Abraham Lincoln, his father, visited him in the cemetery where he (Willie) was buried. (I think I thought "Bardo" must have something to do with graveyards.)

It's strangely written, with little separate paragraphs, with tiny names and sources typed after. At first I thought this must be some kind of thing the author was doing before each chapter, or at the beginning of the book. But it went on so long I finally looked further, and this style of little paragraphs (although a few went on for a page or so) went on for the whole book.

The rest of this blog entry is a spoiler. I want to write about the book and remember it.

Most of the paragraphs are what the dead people in the cemetery are saying. The two who "speak" the most are Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins, III (always written in small letters, "hans vollman" and "roger bevins iii"). The definition of "Bardo" makes sense as I realized that these people were dead but calling themselves sick. They were, I believe, around and, in a limited way, still interacting with the world, hoping that they would return to the world, somehow, someday. Hence, they were "sick," not dead, and their coffins were "sick boxes."

Not to put too fine a point on it, they were ghosts. They did not call themselves that but they certainly fit my definition of ghosts. Willie, too, is a ghost, but he does not realize it. When his father comes, he expects his father to hug him and talk to him. He is agitated as he realizes his father cannot hear, see, or feel him.

You get a very real sense of Abraham Lincoln. Many of the small paragraphs are from records of people who knew Lincoln, often people who worked closely with him, even servants who lived with him and the family.

A few times during the course of the story, Willie, or Hans or Roger, and once a whole bunch of the ghosts, inhabit Abraham Lincoln. They attempt, by all thinking concentratedly of the same thing together, to persuade Lincoln to do something they want him to do.

When he is inhabiting his father, Willie does not try to get his father to do something, though; he just feels much of what his father feels, and hears his father's thoughts. This is how he realizes he is not sick, he is dead. His father, Abraham Lincoln, says (thinks) it, and therefore it must be true. Willie becomes joyous when he realizes he is dead. He jumps around, "hopping with joy now, like a toddler too full of water." He says,
I was good. Or tried to be. I want to do good now. And go where I should. Where I should have gone in the first place. Father will not return here. And none of us will ever be allowed back to that previous place. (p. 298)
So accepting death is good. Lots to think about there. Like Roger Bevins says, "It gave me pause."

When he shares that they are dead with all the other ghosts, many of them believe/realize it, too. When they accept that they are dead, they actually, somehow, really die. They leave this state of being a ghost. When they go, there's an explosion of some kind. The author calls it a "matterlightblooming phenomenon." What an interesting word. Reflecting on that word is one of the many areas of further thought in this book.

Of course, now I wish I had underlined and flagged pages when something especially struck me. I've been doing that in my non-fiction reading. But I was lazy, basically, and wanted to keep getting on with the story.

There's much about Lincoln's suffering as he grieves. In his thoughts (which the ghosts hear as they inhabit him), he questions whether he should have let Willie ride the pony he loved. Willie rode that pony all the time, including once when he was exposed to cold for a long time, became sick with a cold and then typhoid, resulting ultimately in his death. Lincoln also thinks about the criticism from others regarding a big celebratory party he and his wife held, while Willie was lying deathly ill in a room above the party.

Lincoln thinks about how many others are experiencing this same loss -- of their sons -- because their sons are dying on the battlefield. It seems like he realizes he has to make their death worthwhile, by making the war worthwhile. He begins to think that he must take a "bloody path" and perhaps cause even more suffering, but the bloodiest way may be the best way.
He must (we must, we felt) do all we could, in light of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded, in open fields, all across the land, weeds violating their torsos, eyeballs pecked out or dissolving, lips hideously retracted, rain-soaked/blood-soaked/snow-crusted letters scattered about them to ensure that we did not, as we took that difficult path we were now well upon, blunder, blunder further (we had blundered so badly already) and, in so blundering, ruin more, more of these boys, each of whom was once dear to someone. 
Ruinmore, ruinmore, we felt, must endeavor not to ruinmore....

We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and--


Kill more efficiently.

Hold nothing back.

Make the blood flow.

Bleed and bleed the enemy until his good sense be reborn.

The swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.

Must end the suffering by causing more suffering. (pp. 306-7)
More to think about. It reminded me of those who say the atom bombs at the end of the war with Japan were the best way to end the war, even though they killed so many, because more would have been killed if we had not dropped the bombs.

Another ghost character, the Reverend Everly Thomas, has a long passage about a memory of what appears to be the judgement after death. One fellow dead person is sentenced to a beautiful place; the next one to a horrible place full of demons. When Thomas is judged, he, too, is sentenced to the horrible place. He escapes and does not go, but now he is in this ghost state (although he knows he is dead), and "is ignorant of what sin [he] committed." (p. 194) Again, food for thought. How can you be unaware of your own sin and the reason you would be sent to hell? That doesn't fit in with what I believe about the assurance of God's grace.

Near the end, once Willie has truly left (with the "matterlightblooming phenomenon"), Abraham Lincoln seems to have resolved his grief, and made it so he could resume life again.
There in his seat, Mr. Lincoln startled.

Like a schoolboy jolting suddenly awake in class.

Looked around.

Momentarily unsure, it seemed, of where he was.

Then got to his feet and made for the door.

The lad's departure having set him free. (p. 302)
He accepts his sorrow, realizes many others have sorrow, and he "must do what he could to lighten the load of those with whom he came into contact..." (p. 303)

One of the book club members sent a link to a page where it talks about the book receiving the Man Booker Prize. One of the judges has a video and says that Lincoln in the Bardo may seem a bit disconcerting at first, and it certainly was for me. As I went on, though, I was caught up in it, and discovered how rich it was, how it told many stories, and how it gave me so many things to think about.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey

This is a picture of Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey, which I finished a couple days ago. I tried a new method of using little post-it notes to help me mark and be able to go back to pages where I'd underlined things I thought were significant. This photo is when I was about a third of the way through. I wondered if my new method would be very helpful, but I just now wanted to find a passage about God's will that I knew was in the book, and the post-its did help! I was able to find the passage more easily. So there you go.

I am going to write out the passages about God's will that I referred to. I have a Facebook friend who is the daughter of a longtime friend and fellow reader who passed away from cancer. I want the daughter to see the passage. Later, I may write more on other significant parts of the book.

...too often we seek to comfort with the platitudes that have held the Church captive for years: God is all-powerful, God could have stopped it, God didn't stop it, therefore this--all this--is God's plan for us.
The problem with this quick shot of it ends up filling our heads with the wrong idea of God while perhaps absolving us of our complicity.We pit our pain against God, holding tally and requiring meaning, instead of saying the truth: This isn't God's will. This is completely against what God wants for us. And it's wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Simply blaming God or blaming ourselves fails to recognize the truth that we are in a war zone. The world is complex, ambiguous at times, and so yes, evil things often happen because we live in a fallen world of free agents. We don't always escape the evil in this world, and we don't always find victory in this life, but the core belief I was given at the start is true: God is not to blame.
He is not the origin of evil nor does He "use" evil as a means to justify some cosmic end. Rather God fights evil.
When Jesus was confronted with people who suffered, He never offered platitudes, did He? ... Jesus offered compassion, even tears at times,
God is always on the side of suffering wherever it is found, and God's endgame is resurrection.
--Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey, published by Howard Books, copyright 2015, pages 185-189

Sunday, July 23, 2017

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

It was good to read Sherman Alexie's work again, and I feel even more privileged that not only did I read his book, but I went to the final stop of Alexie's book tour at Kepler's Bookstore. Here is a link to my sister's blog where she tells about that tour, and its cancellations:

Jan links to the open letter Alexie wrote, explaining the cancellation of most of his bookstore stops. I wrote in my email about it to my family: He often in the talk, and in the book -- which I'm halfway through -- talks about NOT believing, not having faith, not being religious, not believing in the afterlife, or ghosts, or spirits, of being secular. Yet, he canceled most of his book tour because he received so many signs from his now passed-on mother that she wanted him to stop, that he couldn't ignore them any longer and he did stop.  Plus, he writes many stories that include the afterlife and spirit world. During his talk he said he believes in "interpreting coincidence whatever way you want to." I feel like he "doth protest too much, methinks." I think he IS religious and does believe but does not want to profess it even to himself. But that's just my theory and we never know what's going on in people's hearts and minds. At any rate, I enjoyed his talk and I enjoy his writing.

I sat next to and chatted with a woman named Julia at the author event. When somehow it came up that both my parents had died earlier this year, she said the book might be hard for me, since it has so much about death, and in particular Alexie's mother, her death, and their relationship. I found, though, that was not true. I did not get overly emotional while reading the book.

It seems kind of weird to say I "enjoyed" the book. That's a funny word - enjoy. To me, it carries the implication that whatever it was you enjoyed, made you laugh, and smile, perhaps clap, and somehow it brought merriment into your life for that period of time you were enjoying it. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me did make me laugh -- a lot! -- it's true, but it was not what I'd label a funny book. It felt like Alexie laid bare his soul, and he used humor as he was doing it. In one part of the book he writes about his use of humor. His friend asked him why he was so much less funny when they (Alexie and this friend) were alone than when he was with others. Alexie told him that he uses humor as an armor, and that the fact he is less funny with his friend actually shows he loves his friend more.

I did definitely enjoy the funny parts. As I am wont to do, I read some of them aloud to my husband. Alexie is also profane, which, I must admit, almost always makes me laugh. In one story, "Performance" (page 182), Alexie tells of speaking to an audience of eight hundred during a fund-raiser for salmon restoration.

    "Salmon," I said "are the most epic fuckers in the animal kingdom."
    The audience, crunchy-assed liberals one and all, laughed but not with the abandon I wanted to hear...
    "So, honestly," I said, unafraid of being even more inappropriate, "When we celebrate salmon, we are celebrating fucking. And I don't think we celebrate fucking enough. In fact, forget salmon for a minute. Let's talk about our mothers and father. I mean--have any of you ever thanked your parents for fucking and conceiving you? And I don't mean thank them all cute and poetic like, 'Oh, I light this ancestral fire in tribute to you for my human creation.' No I mean have you ever looked your mother and father in the eye and said, 'Thank you for fucking me into existence.'
    The audience laughed louder. I knew I'd won over a few more of them. But I wanted to win all of them. So I went stuntman.
    "In fact," I said as I pulled out my cell phone and held it close to the microphone. "My father is dead. But I'm going to call my mother right now."

He goes on to describe the call, and telling his mother "thank you for fucking Dad and conceiving me." She laughed, and when he asked what she thought of that, she said, "I think you sound like you're drunk. Have you been going to your AA meetings?" Alexie exults in the laughter as a "celebration of my mother."

The end pages are from a photo
of Alexie's wedding quilt that
his mother made.
The book is very much about his mother. Lilian Alexie was a conundrum. She vowed, when Alexie was 7, that she would never drink again for the sake of her children, and she kept that promise, making their home safe, at least relative to others. Yet she was often cruel, very cruel, to Alexie and the other children. Alexie is working out his feelings through his memories. It sounds trite, but he is processing his mother’s death.

I read or heard somewhere that when a person goes through trauma, part of the healing is to make the event that caused the trauma into a story. People who have PTSD or something similar are not able to do that – they continue to live the trauma without getting it into a different part of their mind that putting it into a story enables. I think Alexie is going through that healing process of making stories about his life with his mother, and her death. During the talk, Alexie said it had been too fast. He said he wrote the book too quickly after his mother died, and it was published too quickly after that. He must still be going through this healing process. He definitely seemed raw during that talk – he opened up several times with personal revelations, he cried at times, he seemed bruised and hurt.

Alexie uses both the prose and the poetic form in this book. I read every word. I had no desire to skim and skip, the way I do sometimes. Through the engaging (another word that doesn't feel quite right) stories and poems I learned more about the Spokane Indians and other Native Americans than I knew before. I vaguely remember reading in history textbooks about Indians that lived by rivers and were fishermen. But Alexie writes that the Spokane Indians were, and are, people of the salmon. I had no idea the salmon were so important to them. They worship the salmon. Maybe not the way we worship God -- and Alexie's mother went to a Christian church -- but still some form of worship. Alexie writes (in "God Damn, God Dam," page 132) how the Grand Coulee Dam stopped the wild salmon in the upper Columbia and Spokane Rivers. I didn't know that. I also like the poem he wrote called "Communion," page 135:

we worship
the salmon

because we
eat salmon

He writes of visions of salmon, his mother and father as salmon. Salmon appear over and over.

I learned much, too, of the "culture of rape" in Indian reservations. As any book about Native Americans must, it includes many stories of the ruin caused by alcohol, including the alcoholism of both his mother and his father, his older sister, and many others in his family and community. He writes, too, of many times he has felt the cruelty of racism, and his confusion about the election of Trump, especially considering that the region of the nation Alexie comes from, where his beloved friends and schoolmates live, was heavily in favor of Trump.

I remember thinking, when Julia, the woman at the author event, was telling me that I might find reading this book difficult in light of my parent's deaths, that I wondered if the book ended with a note of hope, the way I felt Ruined had, making me able to read it without going into despair. As I ask myself that question now, it's a different kind of hope, I guess. I felt hope with Ruin because the author kept her faith. Alexie certainly professes not to have kept a faith, yet somehow the book does not lead to a burden of unhappiness or hopelessness. Maybe part of it is Alexie's joy coming through. At the author event he said that he feels his life is a miracle. All he went through, and he has a wife he loves, who adores him, and two sons he loves. Through it all, there is reason for hope.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Ruined by Ruth Everhart

It took me a while to psych myself up to read this book. I felt I needed to prepare myself to handle it. I read about Ruined a while back when it first came out, and I even read an excerpt of the beginning pages. That excerpt, in fact, was why I waited until I felt ready. My aunt read it and told me I should, and I knew I would eventually. I finally did.
Ruined is a memoir. Ruth Everhart was Ruth Huizenga, and she went to Calvin College, where I also went, and grew up in the Christian Reformed Church (the CRC), which I also grew up in (although my dad was a chaplain in the Air Force so my experience was quite different). The crucial event in her memoir happened in my graduating year at Calvin, 1978.

It was...I don't know what to call it...strange? funny? odd? eerie? read her descriptions of her life at Calvin and in the CRC that were so familiar to me. Reformed worldview. Synod. Marchienne Rienstra. The White Rabbit. Grand Rapids. Bob Dylan. Names like Huizenga, Hoekstra, Terpstra, John Timmerman. Calvinettes.

The main reason I waited until I felt ready was that the book starts with a moment by moment telling of a night in November, 1978, in a house in not such a good neighborhood of Grand Rapids, where Ruth lived with 4 of her best friends from Calvin, that was broken into by two young black men. The men held the girls at gunpoint for 4 hours, and they raped and robbed them. It must have been incredibly hard for Ruth to write it.

Another reason I hesitated to read this book is I knew from what I read about the book that Ruth left the CRC. I wondered how bitter she was toward it, and how she would portray it. I figured people failed her and since those people are the church, the church failed her. It made me wince, thinking of that. I know the people -- the church -- have failed me, too. I stuck with it. She didn't. I was afraid to learn why.

I was right. It was tough to read that night's story. The writing is vivid. You feel you're there with Ruth, feeling the confusion and fear, the cold gun on her temple, the rapist's hands and lips on her body, hearing his voice, and the voice of his "leader," as the girls called the other perpetrator. You feel the carpet and bare floor where the men forced all the girls to lie, your mind echoes the prayers and Psalms Ruth tried to think of as she struggled to survive what was happening.

The church did fail Ruth. People like ministers and chaplains, college administrators and others, who might have been a source of comfort and healing, were not. Ruth looks back on them now with mercy and understanding. She is not harsh or blaming towards them.

As she describes her life after that night, and the thoughts she was working through, her biggest struggle was trying to understand how God could let this happen to her. It's the question of how there can be evil in the world if God is in control. And that belief that God is in control is a big part of the Reformed worldview. Ruth describes that view this way:
Here's the Reformed worldview in a nutshell, meant to be ingested in one swallow. The sovereignty of God means that God is supreme and rules over all. Nothing can happen apart from God's will. Total depravity means that we are sinful in every part of our being. Redemption means that despite our sinfulness, God loves us and saves us. Well, some of us anyway--the ones who are elected to salvation, which is referred to as limited atonement. Predestination means that God has already chosen the people who will choose Him. Perseverance of the saints means that once a person is saved, then you're chosen, and so are your children. That's called "covenant theology," although there's more to the covenant, of course. Still the family package is the spoonful of sugar that makes the whole system go down.
I just asked my brother and another minister for recommendations on books about the Reformed worldview. I want to study it more and learn more about it so I can write about it. When I went to Calvin and started learning about the Reformed worldview, it was life-changing for me. I felt like walls were falling down in my brain. To see it written in this way, not really bitter or sarcastic, but not what I'd consider super flattering, takes me aback. Why do we need a "spoonful of sugar" to make it go down? I think it's sweet already.

From this worldview where, like we often say, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” (Abraham Kuyper), Ruth extrapolates:
But the idea that everything is preordained meant ... that God's finger had hovered over the map of greater Grand Rapids, passing over the neighborhoods of Eastown and Heritage Hill in ever-narrowing circles until it landed on our roof. Alexander Street.
Tap tap. This house. These sleeping women. These are the ones who will get raped tonight.
What an awful thought. No wonder Ruth struggled so hard and so long with this belief. No wonder we all do. Later in life Ruth goes to seminary in the Presbyterian denomination. There she writes about "theodicy," the problem of evil in the world. In the book, she writes:
I wish I could say I definitively solved the problem of theodicy. But I was unable to reconcile God's sovereign power and the image of God in humans. At least I was unable to reconcile the conundrum like a mathematical formula. Each side of the equation was necessary and gave life comfort and meaning, though the two sides appeared to cancel each other out. But both sides are real and necessary. On the one side, God is all-powerful and loving, and God's will prevails. On the other side, humans are made in God's image and can exercise their will to make choices that matter, which God allows.
Ruined also contained information and thoughts about the CRC's "women's issue" -- the question of allowing women to serve as ministers, elders and deacons. How well I remember, and still see evidence of, this struggle. Ruth talked about one Synod meeting where this question was discussed. While at Calvin I sat in the Fine Arts Center building where Synod met, and I watched the men of Synod having this discussion. One man said the change was like a big ship turning -- it goes slowly, and takes a long time. Boy, did it. And it's still an issue. Less now, but by leaving it up to each congregation it has taken years and years. In my own church, where I have been a member close to 40 years, I am just ending my term as the first woman elder in my congregation.

I think often of those years where I tried to work within the church to change the way women were perceived and considered for serving in the various roles of the church. During those years my daughter grew up and became an adult. I felt I needed to stay in the church because there was so much more to it than that one issue. I loved -- and still love -- the members of my church family who, even when they disagree with me on this issue, love me back, and helped me and my family in times of need.

But Ruth left the church without losing her faith. She went on to find a home in the Presbyterian church, which still has the Reformed background like the CRC. But she found this church welcomed women. The first pastor she knew at that church was a woman. The day she and her husband visited, the congregation voted for a woman to become their pastor. Ruth was joyfully astounded that all these people would actually vote in favor of having a woman minister. Ruth went on to become a pastor herself in the Presbyterian denomination. I can't help but wonder if I should have done that -- left the CRC for a denomination that welcomes women in this way --, both for myself and for my daughter's sake. At least I wonder what my life would have been like if I had.

Ruth called the book Ruined because that is how she felt after she was raped -- ruined. Ruth writes about the sexual-shame paradigm, about how she and her friends felt so much shame at being raped that they even contemplated not reporting the crime. At the end of the book she writes a letter to her daughters and includes a memory of reading an article about the gunman who went into an Amish schoolroom. He tied up the little girls and may have had plans to rape them but he ended up not doing that and killing them by shooting each one in the head, execution style. One father was quoted as saying his daughter had escaped "a worse fate." Ruth's reaction to this was visceral.
I did feel sorry for this father and the loss he had endured. But I didn't understand him. Or maybe I did. Maybe that was the problem...Could a parent think his child's survival was second to anything? Was he suggesting that his daughter's perceived bodily purity was more important than her retaining breath in that body?...[Would he] prefer his daughter dead over damaged? What is this alleged "worse fate"? ...
Imagine saying such a thing about another injury--a broken bone or a punctured lung. Are those fates worse than death? ...
The truth is that women who have been sexually violated have the same intrinsic value as women who have not been sexually violated. Period. Another human cannot damage a woman's sexual self and by doing so destroy her life.
Daughters, don't believe the lies! You are more than your virginity. You are more than your sexual history. You are more than what happens to you. You are immensely valuable.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World was a book club choice but I missed that meeting and had not read it yet. In fact, I had forgotten all about it or ordering it. A nice surprise when it arrived in the mail!

Once again, I was charmed by the physical aspect of the book. I like the feel of the front of the paperback cover, kind of rough and thick. And I like the rough-cut pages, also a little thick with uneven sides. There's a word for that. I just googled it: deckle-edge. As I started writing about this, I was thinking it's probably kind of strange for me to care and like the physical things of a book like this. But then I thought it's probably not so weird or publishers wouldn't do it, right? So there you go. There are other weird people like me who are fond of books for their feel, their look and even their smell (at least in my case).

News of the World is historical fiction. The main character is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71-year-old man who travels around the U.S. to small Western towns where the people do not hear or read "news of the world." They often are aware, and even contentious about, local politics, but they do not hear of the news of far-away places such as events in lands like India, Ireland, England, even Chicago, and other far-away cities, "THE LATEST NEWS AND ARTICLES FROM THE MAJOR JOURNALS OF THE CIVILIZED WORLD," as Captain Kidd's posters said.

At one reading:
He read about a great windstorm in London that toppled chimney pots (What is a chimney pot? He could see it on their faces.) and then of the new packing plants in Chicago which would take any amount of cattle if they could only get them...The Captain read of the Irish pouring into New York City, ragged crowds from the passenger steamer Aurora, of the railroad driving into the plains of the new state of Nebraska, of another eruption of Popocatepetl near Mexico City. Anything but Texas politics. (p. 89)
Captain Kidd purchases several newspapers at larger towns and finds good articles to include in his readings. He tries to make his readings almost fairy-tale like, taking the listeners out of their ordinary life, to other lands and other peoples. At the readings, he passes a bucket for people to pay a nickel apiece and in that way ekes out enough to make it.

The book is set after the Civil War, in Reconstruction times.  Captain Kidd served in the Civil War and two other wars, the War of 1812 and "President Tyler's war with Mexico." He is a widow with 2 grown daughters who live in San Antonio. Until the war caused him to lose everything, he was a printer. He had his own printing press and shop, and loved being a printer.

The main storyline of the book is the story of Captain Kidd and "Johanna Leonberger, captured at age six four years ago, from Castroville. Down near San Antonio," or as she says, "My name is Cicada. My father's name is Turning Water. My mother's name is Three Spotted. I want to go home." An acquaintance of Kidd's gives him a fifty-dollar gold piece to deliver her back to Castroville. Johanna's parents were killed by the Indians who captured her, but she has an aunt and uncle who have paid to have her returned to them.

The book was a good read for many reasons. The story is exciting, the writing is good, I learned some new things about life during those times, and the subject of captured Native Americans is fascinating. In a note from the author about her research, she wrote:
Anyone interested in the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier should read Scott Zesch's book The Captured. It is excellent. His book documents child captives from the Texas frontier, including his own great-great-uncle, and in each instance gives the background of death and terror these children endured before they were adopted or claimed within the tribe. There has not been a definitive study of the psychological strategies these children adopted in order to survive but one would be welcome. They apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families, even when they had been with their Indian families for less than a year.
 In News of the World, you get glimpses of Johanna's thoughts as she is surviving the trauma of being torn at the age of 10 from the only family she knows, in the Kiowa Indian tribe. Mostly, though, you read the thoughts of Captain Kidd, who grows fond of Johanna. He resists in a way, telling himself he's already brought up his daughters and doesn't want to go through that again, but there is no doubt he cares about Johanna and all she is going through. He saves her life and she is also instrumental in saving his.

I found the fact that the author did not use quotation marks for dialogue or thoughts mildly distracting, but I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I bought several books by Mary Oliver today. They are beautiful little books with soft covers that have beautiful pictures on them. With beautiful poems inside in attractive fonts. I like looking at and feeling them. Reading them, too, of course. I kept taking various books out, trying to decide which to get. Then I bought four. That didn't quite work out the way I intended. But anyway.

Here's the first poem in the book A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver.

               I Go Down to the Shore
               by Mary Oliver

               I go down to the shore in the morning
               and depending on the hour the waves
               are rolling in or moving out,
               and I say, oh, I am miserable,
               what shall--
               what should I do? and the sea says
               in its lovely voice:
               Excuse me, I have work to do.

This poem makes me smile every time I read it. It reminds me of how God responded when Job said, Why did these terrible things happen to me?

Your thoughts?

Scape by Luci Shaw

I am at Lynden this week. I came for my mom's funeral and then stayed an extra week to help close up accounts and take care of all the things that need to be taken care of after the death of our parents. (My dad died January 27, and Mom April 14).

It's April, which, thanks to Facebook, I know is the month of poetry. I bought several books of poetry at Lynden's bookstore. One was Scape by Luci Shaw, which I thought was extra appropriate since she is a local poet, living in Bellingham I believe. My sister Jan has gone in the past to some literary nights that Luci Shaw has held. I also saw and heard her at The Faith & Writing Festival.

Here is one poem from Scape.

States of Being
by Luci Shaw

Isn't stability greatly over rated?
Why would I ever want to sit
     still and smug as a rock,
     confident, because of my great
     weight, that I will not
     be moved?
Better to be soft as water,
     easily troubled, with
     at least three modes
     of being, able to shape-
     shift, to mirror, to cleanse,
     to drift downstream,
To roar when I encounter the rock.

I like this poem because it seems to describe an aspect of me -- someone not stable -- and it says that is okay, in fact is it overrated, to be stable.

I tend to think of being unstable instead, someone who doesn't say the right things many times, who blurts out tactlessly. I like thinking of it as being "soft as water" instead. And still someone who roars sometimes.

What do you think?