December 26, 2016

Tidings of comfort and joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:23 pm by chavisory

I hope everyone is having holidays as peaceful and restoring as possible.

When I don’t know what to do or where to start, I make lists.

I was moved to start a list a few days after election day, when everything felt very fearful and uncertain…when it seemed like nothing was impossible in the worst possible way.

As I started reading a lot about how to oppose a political regime the likes of which we’ve never really experienced before, and also Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, about the necessity of hope and joy in activism, I felt like we needed a way not only to voice our opposition, but to account for what we are tangibly accomplishing in response.

Not to maintain that everything is really okay, not to worry, that it’s not as bad as it seems, or just to make ourselves feel better (although it has made me feel better).  But to concretely track our successes at holding injustice and authoritarianism at bay, to remember not only that progressive and human rights victories can, do, and are still happening, but how they happen.  Even now.

ETA:  At least twelve pretty good things have happened in the world since election day.  In particular, there have been important developments for the rights of trans and intersex people and disabled workers.

(A lesson that’s already really jumping out at me just from the list so far is that your city councils are important.)

The introductory post to Reckoning of Joy is here.  I’ve also been including some resources and guides for taking action, inspiration, and musical encouragement.

Let’s get to work in the new year?

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November 1, 2016

What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 11:55 pm by chavisory

It’s Autistics Speaking Day, and I didn’t write anything, not only because my writing-on-command abilities have not been working quite the way I wish they were, but also because I have been proofreading and formatting the first anthology from the Autism Women’s Network, What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew, which will be out this month (if it kills me. ; )

There are so many lines in this book that it’s been killing me for months not to be able to share or quote publicly yet.  Every single author has something important, wise, and necessary to say, and I couldn’t be more thankful to all of them.

Visit the book website to see our teaser video and sign up to be notified on release day!

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[Image reads “What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew” and depicts three girls drawn in cartoon style:  One has blonde hair and blue eyes, wears a gray shirt and a bow tie and is using a cane.  One has brown skin, black hair, and green eyes, wears a blue shirt, and is sitting in a wheelchair.  One has olive skin, brown hair, and brown eyes, wears a pink dress, and waves at the audience.]

Art by Haley Moss, editing/design by Erin Human.

June 29, 2016

So many books, so little time…

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 4:03 pm by chavisory

My current book list.  It’s like a to-do list but worse in how it always gets longer but never shorter.

I think it’s hopeless, y’all.

IQ84—Haruki Murakami
The Quiet American—Graham Greene
Neuromancer—William Gibson
The Jungle Book—Rudyard Kipling
Darwin’s Cathedral—David Sloan Wilson
Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay–Christopher Benfey
River Horse—William Least Heat-Moon
A Treatise on Atonement—Hosea Ballou
Art and Fear—David Bayles and Ted Orland
Gender Shock—Phyllis Burke
All the Light We Cannot See—Anthony Doerr
The Introvert’s Way—Sophia Dembling
Theater of the Mind—Neil Verma
The Last Days of Dogtown—Anita Diamant
Angelic Orders—TR Hummer
Black Hawk Down—Mark Bowden
Gay New York—George Chauncy
The Lost Estate—Alain-Fournier
The Cellist of Sarajevo–Steven Galloway
God Help the Child—Toni Morrison
Mapping Charlie—Jane Meyerding
Room—Emma Donoghue
Saga—Brian K. Vaughn
Lagoon—Nnedi Okorafor
What We Have Done—Fred Pelka
River of Shadows—Rebecca Solnit
Saving Alex—Alex Cooper
Starvation Heights—Gregg Olsen
Burial Rites—Hannah Kent
Hugo & Rose—Bridget Foley
Cold Mountain—Charles Frazier
The Life of Elves—Muriel Barbery
The Lynching—Larry Leamer
Marrow Island—Alexis M. Smith
One Dead, Two To Go–Elena Hartwell

September 15, 2015

Thoughts on NeuroTribes

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 11:29 pm by chavisory

I wasn’t going to write a formal review of Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, because plenty of other people have done so admirably, but I finished reading today, and I just wanted to casually share a few things that struck me….

-The extent to which WWII and the rise of the Nazis shaped the personal history and viewpoints of so many of the early pioneers in recognizing autism: Asperger, Kanner, the Frankls, Bettelheim.  And the extent to which some of these people who had suffered horribly or lost family to the Nazi regime reacted so…counterintuitively… to the issue of autism, taking the route not of “these people are misunderstood and being treated unfairly,” but “this thing that we don’t understand, we have to stamp it out.”  Who saw what virulent xenophobia can do, who were themselves some of its victims, and yet who largely revisited it upon several generations of autistic kids.

I could almost read a whole other book just exploring the impact of WWII on the lives and thinking of the major players in the early history of autism’s recognition.

-The extent to which so many of these early prominent experts were making shit up.  So little interpretation of autistic traits or interiority or experience is substantiated by evidence as opposed to shoehorned into personal theories.  The extent to which so many things that people have thought they knew about autism over the years were just what some semi-professional like Rimland or Bettelheim decided about whatever their own pet theory was.   Like Rimland’s writing that real autistic people never spun or toe-walked and always had savant skills….

-And the extent to which personal agendas or personal ambitions shaped what so many of these people said about autism.  Kanner trying to play both sides of the field regarding whether autism was an inborn genetic feature, or inculcated by bad parenting, for instance.  Public opinion about autism and the fate of autistic people often come off as pawns in these self-appointed experts’ personal quests.  

-I did not expect to wind up so upset with Lorna Wing.  Her “parents won’t accept having a child with autism, but they’ll accept having a child with this interesting new syndrome!” line of reasoning regarding Asperger’s Syndrome….has really left us in a mess.  Even more than Asperger’s emphasizing the strengths over the disabilities of his clinic patients in attempting to safeguard their lives, this rationale would seem to have established and perpetuated this binary, divisive thinking in a lot of the parent-advocate world that Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t real autism, that “ultra high-functioning aspies” have a totally different condition than what their severely-affected, “classically autistic” children have, that acceptance and accommodation might be fine for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, but their children with “severe” autism need a cure, etc.

-There are multiple stories of parents being told that their infant child was mentally r*tarded, and that being taken at face value.  How did it come to be believed that was a thing you could even know about an infant?

-I think that this book is best considered not as a comprehensive history of autism or autistic people, or of autism as experienced by autistic people.  This book is laying out a really specific thesis about how what we think we know about autism came to be, and how professional and popular knowledge of autism has been distorted by that history.  It’s a modern history of how the personhood of autistic people has been libeled in the interest of certain ideologies and professional ambitions and how that is just starting to be undone.

And so, it’s not that I don’t share frustrations over lack of portrayal of autistic women and people of color (and also of rural autistic people, autistic people in the arts and humanities rather than STEM fields, queer autistic people, etc.), but knowledge of those people’s lives, too, is a casualty of the history of how and why people thought about autism, of the racism and sexism of those professionals and of the times in which they popularized their own views, and of a lot of the stereotypes and prejudices that they’ve left us with, and not simply a weakness of the book.

NeuroTribes is not a perfect book or a flawlessly comprehensive book, but it is a deeply necessary book.  I have seen other criticism that the stories and perspectives of autistic people ourselves seem to take a backseat for much of the book compared to the stories of professionals and researchers.  And I found that true, to an extent.  NeuroTribes is not the chronicle of autistic people and autistic culture that we still need and want, but I think that it stands a good chance of helping pave the way for those stories to gain more widespread acceptance.  It has been too easy for any substantial work by autistic people about autism to be written off as the perspective of only the token, exceptional, “very high functioning.”  Or of the supposedly very rare non-verbal person who finds a method of communication and turns out to actually have a profoundly articulate “intact mind” after all.  It’s been so easy to marginalize autistic narratives this way precisely because of the history of distortion at the hands of professionals we’ve been saddled with.  This isn’t the history of autistic people and autistic experience that we want; this is a history of our sidelining from our own lives and histories that helps begin to set the record straight about how that happened.  It’s a course correction, not a conclusion.

Anyway, consider this an open thread–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

April 30, 2015

When schools hate it when kids read

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:14 pm by chavisory

gaston

[Image is of the character Gaston, from the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, known for his dislike of girls like Belle reading books, and Belle, whose book he has stolen.]

I used to write more about educational issues than I have been for the past couple of years. Partly due to the fact that as I’ve known more of my own friends who have become teachers, and more parents especially of kids with complex educational needs, my feelings have moderated a bit. So many people are doing the best they can with not enough time or money. Perhaps I’d been too strident. I was actually wondering recently if I might more or less give up the topic. Maybe I was a little bit crazy.

Well, the New York Times has come to the rescue with this story of school districts that require students who opt out (or whose parents have opted them out) of New York’s state assessment tests to sit at their desks and do nothing while their classmates take the exams.

With sadness, I conclude that I was not crazy.

The article details that while many districts have relented to parental pressure and allow test-refusing students to either do other work, read quietly, or go to the library, some are sticking to policies of prohibiting them from doing anything but sitting and staring.

“We were not going to reward them by having them do something that other students may perceive as either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment,” says one superintendent.

Either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment, as in doing other assigned homework or reading a book quietly.

I’m just going to throw this out there, school administrators: If you sound like a villain from a Roald Dahl book, you should possibly reconsider your life choices.

Funnily enough, when this story came to my attention, I’d just been telling a friend the story of how my middle school assistant principal had tried to disallow me from reading at lunch.

It actually started with A., a new student that year, who was sitting at a table behind me quietly reading a book one day, when I overheard her being told to put it away by Assistant Principal Jones. A. complied and didn’t say anything else about it, though I asked her later if what I thought just happened really just happened, and she said yeah, she thought it was really odd, too.

Already a lot of things about the way things were done in this school felt stupid, mean, and unfair to me, but this was above and beyond. Not long afterward, having a book I was eager to finish, and not so much trying to be deliberately snarky but definitely curious as to whether I’d draw the same reaction, brought my book to lunch.

Sure enough, Mr. Jones was along shortly to tell me that I needed to “put that away, young lady.”

It wasn’t a school library book, it was mine, so the objection couldn’t have been that food would get spilled and ruin it, or that I was reading and not eating, because I’d eaten and had my empty lunch cooler to prove it.

And this doubly didn’t make any sense, because Mr. Jones was also the person who, every other day or so, was selecting for punishment whole entire classes of sixth and seventh graders for supposedly being too loud. If we were reading, we weren’t talking, so shouldn’t he be thankful for our not contributing to the noise?

In telling Sparrow the story, I finally figured it out.

He didn’t like us reading because then we were proof that he was just picking tables randomly to punish without a care in the world for whether we’d actually done anything wrong. If we were reading…we were obviously innocent of being part of the discipline or noise problems, and he wasn’t thankful at all because that undermined his excuse-making ability for the bullying and scapegoating he enjoyed. Collective punishment of whole classes was common, and treatment of everyone as guilty was justified because “we can’t always tell who the troublemakers are and aren’t,” but now that was demonstrably not true. And this development was not appreciated.

I know this sounds like childish reasoning, but if that wasn’t what was behind it, somebody else solve this for me, because I haven’t come up with a better answer in nearly 20 years.

(Long story short: Our gifted teacher was enlisted to protest to the principal, and before long there were about five of us participating in defiance, and he actually kept fighting the issue, like we went through two or three rounds of this, but eventually our right to read at lunch without further harassment was established.)

Is it self-evident enough that when school faculty would rather kids actually do nothing than read or be tempted by having to see another kid reading, that something is extremely wrong? I mean I’m just inarticulate at the logic that if they can’t control how you use your time, you won’t be allowed to use it at all…but not disbelieving.

Because the effect isn’t only to not make refusing the tests look attractive, it’s to prevent any kid from showing that they can and will use their educational time more constructively.  And they can’t be allowed to generate any evidence that their time is being ill-used, that they know it, and that they do know how to do better with it.

It’s almost like the people implementing these policies are more interested in safeguarding their own ability to see their students as the problem. Their interests aren’t served by their students’ taking an opportunity to prove that they aren’t the problem, by reading on their own initiative.

Now where have I seen that before?

(I know, I know…somewhere down the line it all comes back to funding. School districts ultimately need kids to take these tests for reasons of funding and school quality rankings.

I humbly submit, though, that when growing percentages of students are saying No, this is not a good use of our time and we’d like to be educated as people, not test scores, that maybe schools should try standing up for their students.)

In point of contrast, my senior year of high school, some new set of standardized tests was introduced for which we were a test group for the state of Missouri, and for some reason that made sense at the time, they had half the class take it in the fall, and half in the spring. This left half of us with nothing to do for four hours a day, for two full weeks. They put us in a spare classroom with only the typing teacher to keep an eye on us, but otherwise left us alone, to do whatever we wanted as long as we could do it in that room and without being heard too far down the hall.

People did homework, or just talked while sitting on the combination desk-chairs in contortions not normally allowed, and I have a vague memory of some Hangman getting played on the blackboard. I finished reading Les Misérables and started and finished The Three Musketeers and I think also some Kurt Vonnegut.

And as much as part of me decried the waste of time that we were required to be there when no one cared what we did, part of me was actually pretty overloaded with AP classes and happy enough for a chance just to read a book which has turned out to have stayed with me in a lot of ways besides being how I passed the time while stuck in a room so half my classmates could take a test run of a test.

I remember The Three Musketeers. I don’t remember one single thing about that test. It’s an absolute blank in my memory.

I’m not making this stuff up, and I wish I were. I don’t actually enjoy being obsessively critical of the American educational system more than anything in the world, but it just keeps going to inane lengths to show that it doesn’t really love it when kids independently demonstrate, like, enjoyment of literacy, or ability to act in their own best interests.

I think it might not be a coincidence that those are things we’re supposed to believe that kids don’t have.

If I can boil anything down from this, maybe something like “If school officials can’t fucking stand the sight of a child reading…there is something else going on, and it’s probably nothing good.”

June 12, 2014

Who was I the last time I read “Native Speaker?”

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 12:05 pm by chavisory

I don’t re-read books very often, except for the handful that I read more or less constantly, just a few pages at a time before bed, infinitely.  The ones that I’ve re-read probably dozens of times apiece in the course of just opening them randomly to read three or four pages…while I have a midnight snack before bed, or wait for tea water to boil, or for my computer to finish processing a printing job.  Aside from those, I can probably count on one hand the number of books I’ve picked up again and re-read from beginning to end.  I don’t want to take the time, which sounds horrible.  But there are so many new things to read, and so many things I’ll never get to read for the first time as it is.

So a book that I choose to re-read has to be one that I both enjoyed that much, but also realize fairly desperately that I need to understand something about it more clearly that I probably didn’t the first time through.  Like that something about it rang an inexplicable bell, but through a murky fog.

Native Speaker was like that for me in college, when we first read it in Asian-American Literature class.  Having just read Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, which is so different from this one in my memory, I was driven to take another look at what had attracted me so powerfully to his writing in the first place, in the story of a first-generation Korean-American professional spy.

I didn’t actually remember very much of the plot, still in the grip as I was of my memory of Lee’s fluid, lyrical grasp of the experience of being hamstrung by issues of language and culture.  But, unlike the protagonist of the novel, Henry Park, without any identifiable reason or claim as to why I had always felt like a foreigner, a non-native speaker—eternally and irreparably.  It was baffling.

It probably had fallen into a category of things I once held as “too perfect to let myself get too close to.”

Too close to me in some almost tangible way to risk letting myself know or love them deeply enough to eventually be betrayed or let down.

 

I’m an inveterate underliner and defacer of hard copies of books; it’s something I have to restrain myself from doing when I read library books, and one of the hardest things for me about reading on a Kindle, is the inability to mark pages and take notes by hand.  My copy of Native Speaker was already a several-times used book when I bought it, and there are incidental underlinings and bracketings from several semesters’ worth of Asian-American Literature students before me, in red, blue, and green—ink colors I’ve never used.  Notes so pedantic even I would never write them…more like the kinds of observations they felt like they were supposed to make, the facts they were anticipating being grilled on in a quiz, rather than actual personal thoughts or resonances about what the text meant to them.

Then there are just a few underlinings of passages, in black, in the kind of pen that I used religiously at the time, in what could be a younger, clumsier, slightly more pretentious version of my own handwriting.  Lines that obviously struck me acutely at the time, but I didn’t readily remember the lines themselves, or why; they didn’t form the backbone of my memory of what I loved about the book.

You don’t tempt fate; you ignore it completely.

Our office motto:  Cowardice is what you make of it.

I am the most prodigal and mundane of historians.

It comes flooding back, though.

There are few surprises to my refreshed memory of the book itself.  It is as gorgeous as I remembered on the subject of linguistic alienation.  (I kind of hate to say that I feel like it’s still Lee’s best book, but I do.)  I hadn’t remembered how it ended; I hadn’t had the experience yet for it to mean to me what it does now.  But more unexpected is this cumulative, accidental little self-portrait of 21-year-old me:  what I struggled with, what I was grasping at language for, what life felt like, what I knew clearly and just how much I didn’t know at all about myself.

(Reading a book set in New York City is also a vastly more rewarding experience when you live there than when you have little personal experience of the place.)

More and different passage of text hit me in the heart this time around.  I pick up a pen and start underlining again, this time noting the date in the margin.

In ten years I could be astonished to remember who I was now.

Stranger.  Follower.  Traitor.  Spy.

December 2, 2013

Adulthood, green bean casserole, and cats

Posted in Reality tagged , , , , , , at 1:03 am by chavisory

“What do you suppose it means?” he asked.  “‘DO WHAT YOU WISH.’  That must mean I can do anything I feel like.  Don’t you think so?”

All at once Grograman’s face looked alarmingly grave, and his eyes glowed.

“No,” he said in his deep, rumbling voice.  “It means that you must do what you really and truly want.  And nothing is more difficult.”

“What I really and truly want?  What do you mean by that?”

“It’s your own deepest secret and you yourself don’t know it.”

“How can I find out?”

“By going the way of your wishes, from one to another, from first to last.  It will take you to what you really and truly want.”

“That doesn’t sound so hard,” said Bastian.

“It is the most dangerous of journeys.”

-Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

I’ve drawn this comparison before, but I was thinking about it again a few nights ago as I made myself a green bean casserole for dinner, for no better reason than that I wanted it and I could.

Life is like Cats.  The Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.

One night when I was nine, my parents were going out to see the touring production of Cats that was in town, and we were getting left with a babysitter.  I whined and begged to be allowed to go see the show—cats were one of my principal obsessions at the time.

“No honey, you don’t want to see this,” my parents told me.  “It’s not really about cats.  You’ll be bored.”

For many years, I tacitly accepted this—that the musical Cats was not really about cats.  I never even questioned what Cats was really about.  Something for adults, and therefore opaque and boring.  Not cats.

Then in my senior year of high school, I took an acting class.  And to give us an easy day one class period after a long week, we got to watch the PBS video recording of the musical Cats.  “Oh great,” I thought, “I’ll finally see what Cats is really about.”

It was a somewhat mind-blowing moment when those actors, in cat suits and gorgeous cat makeup, started to creep onstage.  Because let me tell you something, in case you’re not familiar with the show…

Cats, the musical, is really, literally, about cats.

It isn’t not about cats just because it’s also about life, death, faith, loyalty, and memory.  Like Watership Down isn’t not about rabbits, just because it’s also about persecution, oppression, idealism, and hope.

Likewise, I was told a lot that “Adulthood is not about just doing whatever you want.”  As if the freedom and autonomy to live and work in a way that was acceptable to me was some trivial, stupid thing that I was just going to have to get over.

I decided I would never be an adult, then.  Because if that’s what it meant, that wasn’t something I was capable of.

And then I grew up.

As it turns out?  Adulthood actually is about doing what you really want.

Adulthood really means making your own decisions about what kind of life you want to lead, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of mark you want to leave on the world.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not work, that there are no consequences or costs to those decisions, or that you never have to do anything you don’t want to do, or face things you don’t want to face.  It doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles or hardships.

But the decisions themselves, about what you’re doing on this earth and why—those belong to you.

So that’s how adulthood is like the musical Cats.

For some reason, people tell you that it’s not really about exactly what it is really about.  It’s just that the truth is both harder and better than anyone wanted you to know.

January 7, 2013

What everyone gets wrong about Susan

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:53 pm by chavisory

The Chronicles of Narnia have been some of the most formative books in my life, a situation in which I know I’m not alone.  I got my set as a Christmas present from my grandparents when I was 11 or 12.

There’s a common criticism of them, however, out of many quite reasonable ones, that’s irritated me for a long time.

He may not have been the first to think it or to say it, but author Philip Pullman’s articulation of what he finds wrong with the books, encapsulated in the problem of what happened to Susan Pevensie and why, when she does not return to aid Narnia in the final book of the series, may be most responsible for a now widespread interpretation that Susan is cast out of Heaven because she grew up and embraced her sexuality.  Indeed, I think I have hardly ever had a conversation about these books since college in which “The Problem of Susan” didn’t feature prominently in their criticism:

Susan isn’t allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she’s growing up. She’s become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: ‘She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’ This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here’s a child whose body is changing and who’s naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings. She’s doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.

And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It’s a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done – she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex.

It’s tempting and convenient, because it echoes charges so commonly made against Christianity as a whole–that it’s intrinsically set up to punish natural human sexuality, among other things like critical thinking and self-determination.

It’s too bad that Pullman’s interpretation is practically unsupported by the text.  You’d have to take the passage in question completely out of context of the entire rest of the series for it to be even remotely plausible; indeed, even by quoting it incompletely, he leads his listeners in a nearly complete distortion of the reasoning behind Susan’s exile.

Here is the incident, from The Last Battle, which Pullman cites:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these.  “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another.  Has not your Majesty two sisters?  Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have!  Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Susan is not just doing what she needs to do to grow up.  The reason given is not that she’s growing up; the text itself refutes this.  Lady Polly, the speaker after Lucy’s now-infamous line, denies that growing up is what Susan is doing at all.

She is pretending that her previous experiences in Narnia never happened.  She denies the people she knew there, who she loved and who loved her, people who died for her and what they meant to her, what she’s been through and everything she’s done up to this point.  She calls all of it a childish game.

Nor is there any defiance of the will of Aslan here, who has never in this entire story forced any of these people into any task or burden or mortal danger against their own free will.  Who has in fact, repeatedly, stood by and let them actively make bad choices.  She doesn’t hear an order from Aslan and say “no,” “I don’t want to,” “not this time,” or “fuck you, I’m not a plaything.”  She denies that she ever knew him.

Some other points of Narnian history further illuminate the absurdity of Pullman’s claims:

1. That time in Prince Caspian when Bacchus showed up for a romp…

The crowd and dance round Aslan (for it had become a dance once more) grew so thick and rapid that Lucy was confused.  She never saw where certain other people came from who were soon capering about among the trees.  One was a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair.  His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild.  You felt, as Edmund said when he saw him a few days later, “There’s a chap who might do anything–absolutely anything.”  He seemed to have a great many names–Bromios, Bassareus, and the Ram, were three of them.  There were a lot of girls with him, as wild as he….

“Is it a Romp, Aslan?” cried the youth.  And apparently it was.

And it’s a delightfully saucy good time, for a god who supposedly hates life and is into damning children for sensual exploration.

2.  Susan herself, in The Horse and His Boy, is described as having multiple suitors.  She’s being courted for marriage by Prince Rabadash of Calormen…

“Now, Madam,” the King was saying to Queen Susan (the lady who had kissed Shasta).  “What think you?  We have been in this city fully three weeks.  Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?”

…but she’s awfully sweet on Corin, Prince of Archenland (though here she’s mistaken a runaway slave named Shasta for the prince)…

But he had no time to think of that before the most beautiful lady he had ever seen rose from her place and threw her arms around him and kissed him, saying:

“Oh Corin, Corin, how could you?  And thou and I such close friends ever since thy mother died.  And what should I have said to thy royal father if I came home without thee?  Would have been a cause almost of war between Archenland and Narnia which are friends time out of mind.  It was naught, playmate, very naught of thee to use us so.”

There is no condemnation whatsoever stated or implied for her romantic activities.

3. Lasaraleen

A minor character who also occurs in The Horse and His Boy, Lasaraleen is a childhood friend of Aravis, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of my favorite characters in the series.  She’s a party girl, socialite, and trophy wife…and perhaps the most totally and unabashedly herself of anyone in this world.  She loves luxury, being seen, and having a good time.

[Aravis] remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip.  Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming.  You will guess that each thought the other silly.

We’re supposed to see Lasaraleen as doofy and shallow, but she’s also affectionate and loyal.  She helps her friend escape from being caught and returned to an arranged marriage at serious risk to herself, and no further particularly harsh criticism is made of her life choices.

4.  Other adults have come and returned to Narnia before.

-King Frank and Queen Helen

Former London cabbie Frank and washerwoman Nellie become Narnia’s first king and queen in The Magician’s Nephew.  They are already adults when brought to Narnia (albeit accidentally in Frank’s case).  Aslan treats them with trust and respect and is clearly not expecting chastity, but children and grandchildren from them.

“Rise up King and Queen of Narnia, father and mother of many kings that shall be in Narnia and the Isles and Archenland.”

-Digory Kirk and Polly Plummer

The first human children to stumble into Narnia, they return as adults (probably in their 60’s or 70’s) with the others for the Last Battle.  Peter and Edmund, wearing beards at their reappearance, are also young adult men by this point.  Presumably they’ve all done what they had to do to grow up, and it didn’t include betraying the memory of everyone they’ve ever loved.

Nothing in the world of this story indicates that any of the other protagonists who have grown up either in Narnia or out of it, did not go through “naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings.”  Nothing.  Because, as Pullman correctly observes, these feelings and explorations are fairly universal.

The gravity of Susan’s sin is not in her embrace of superficial frippery, or in any normal adolescent desire on her part for adulthood, sexual experimentation, maturity, or self-determination.  It’s her betrayal of her true self.  It’s her denial of her own emotional history and experience, and what a lot of other people went through by her side.

And even for that, nobody bars the doors of the Stable to Susan as she begs to go through to eternal life.  She is not in Narnia, because she, for her own reasons, chose not to get on the train whose demise brought her siblings and former mentors back to Narnia for the Last Battle.  Susan may have saved her (earthly) life by not getting on that train, but at the ultimate cost of her own authenticity.

Ability to return to your true home requires acceptance of who you really are.  That’s not something that Aslan, or the Emperor Over the Sea, or all the forces of Deeper Magic are capable of doing for her.

October 6, 2012

Irony on the Mississippi

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:45 pm by chavisory

Some people have a thing against writing in books; I don’t.  I love a book best that is obviously well-loved and well-marked.  It’s one of those things that I thought would irk my romantic self about the Kindle, even as my practical self couldn’t really argue against free books that take up no space.

In this manner I came to be reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi on my Kindle…somewhat bittersweetly.  It’s largely about the heartbreak of the loss of the entire occupation of steamboating–its skill set, way of life, and all of its romanticism–to superior and more cost-effective technology–the railroads–in a stunningly short amount of time.

But lo and behold, the Kindle preserves at least some of the functionality, if not the rough beauty, of other readers’ notes and underlinings.  This is probably not news to very many people but me, but I’m still figuring this thing out…but you can not only make your own underlinings and clippings of text, but see how many other readers underlined a passage for saving.  And reading backstage one night, I found that five other readers, at least of this digital edition of Life on the Mississippi, had underlined the following:

De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542.

Disappointment for my fellow readers swelled, for the paragraph from which at least FIVE of them had extracted that fragment as the vital piece of information actually reads:

To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;–as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t see the sunset.  It would have been better to paint a picture of it.

Teh irony it hurtz sometimes.  I wanted to smack my forehead on something in frustration, the way you would with a normal book, but I was afraid of hurting the Kindle.

Twain attempted to convey the sheer insufficiency of factoid to describe the age and majesty of the river when compared to the ridiculously small amount of time for which European settlers had been taking it for granted, and the significance that all of my fellow book underliners took from it…was the barest factoid, without context, that could be extracted from Twain’s vivid warning simile, in his long love song to a thing incomprehensibly old and powerful when compared to human civilization and understanding.

I seem to recall Twain having sardonic things to say about human intellectual density.  I could nearly hear him sighing from his grave.

June 11, 2012

What faith is

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:21 am by chavisory

It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith.  Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them–and then they leap.  –Yann Martel (Life of Pi)

There is a common conception of what faith is, even among the religious faithful, that has always really bothered me:  That to have faith is to believe in something irrational, without evidence, just because you’ve been asked to, or taught from a young age that you should, nevermind any subsequent experience or reasoning to the contrary.  That to have faith is to choose to believe against any logic or evidence, to refuse any rational questions about what you say you believe because it falls under the title of “faith,” that you reap some kind of reward or approval for the purity of thought with which you uphold a logically indefensible position.

I don’t believe that’s what faith is anymore.

Because when I saw this picture, I thought, “that’s what faith feels like,” and I knew that feeling.

 

It was exactly like this.

I am alone, under the open sky, on a footbridge across the ocean.  I have no supplies, no shelter, no map, no help, no possible escape to one side or the other, and only the vaguest idea that the home I’ve never seen could, improbably, exist at the other end of this, if there even is an other end of this.

Faith is not irrational certainty; faith is pursuit in the face of utterly rational uncertainty when you have no remaining acceptable choices.  When knowing what you now know, having seen what you’ve seen, you can’t do otherwise anymore, even in the face of overwhelmingly probable failure.

Faith is closely related to hope, but also to exile, and exhaustion, and desperation.

There is nothing behind you.

There is no way back.

There is nothing there you’d go back for even if you could.  And you can’t, really.

So you go forward.  Because there might be something that you barely even know how to dream of.

Faith is not deliberate ignorance or irrationality.  Faith is just what you do when you can’t do anything else anymore.

Faith is when survival means giving up on everything you thought you knew.

And I think to call on faith this way is an ability that most humans possess, regardless of any belief system that we do or don’t claim.

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