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.

February 29, 2012

If I only had a heart.

Posted in Reflections tagged , , , , , at 3:07 am by chavisory

The whole time I was watching this:


Moriarty: If you don’t stop prying, I will burn you. I will burn the heart out of you.
Sherlock: I have been reliably informed that I don’t have one.


Moriarty: But we both know that’s not quite true.

…I was thinking of this:


The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.  “You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart
, and so I must be very careful….”

***

Now would you like to see something incredibly eerie…?


Wizard of Oz: As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don’t know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.


Mycroft Holmes: All lives end.  All hearts are broken.  Caring is not an advantage.

***

How often do the people we say have no hearts, in fact have the greatest ones?

Who are the people who tell us that they’re not worth having?

January 29, 2012

The Darkness of Oz

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:47 pm by chavisory

“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie

So I got a Kindle for Christmas.  I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.

I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect.  A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked.  Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.

I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50.   Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.

So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Baum includes a note at the start of the book:

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal.  The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.  Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900].  It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me.  Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.

But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery.  Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for.  The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.

There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.

Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.

It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children.  Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.

When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things?  And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?

Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage.  Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does:  examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.

I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.

The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.

In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties.  Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger.  Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous.  There is no escapism here.  Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache.  Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.

If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside.  It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets.  And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise.  (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)

When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.

What happens in a book can’t hurt you.  What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it.  People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to.  Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time.  That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.

“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature.  But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.

November 9, 2011

Reality: Ur doin’ it wrong.

Posted in City life, Lists, Reality tagged , , , , , at 10:48 pm by chavisory

On Fantasy

 Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

-George R. R. Martin, author

**********

I feel much the same way as GRRM about fantasy—that it connects us to a deep internal knowledge and history of our own psyches, and recalls something huge and eternal in us.  Epic fantasy, when I was in middle and high school, assured me that there was so much more worth living for than my schools and community were trying to tell me.

But I’m not sure about his dim view of reality…as opposed to the disposable and shallow nature of much of what is sold to us as “reality,” and told we have to accept as the scope of our adult lives.

May I suggest, that if strip malls, plastic and plywood define your reality, and you don’t like it…you’re doing reality wrong.

Because reality is all that stuff, George, but reality is also—

The whistle and rumbling murmur of an early-morning train.

Reality is the first pale green shoots of peppermint pushing up through the dirt in March.

Reality is the guy who plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” on Peruvian pan pipes in the Times Square subway station.

Reality is the stunning silence of a great blue heron taking flight.

Reality is the old Hispanic men in my neighborhood who sit outside in the summertime, playing an eternal sidewalk game of dominos with their boomboxes turned up loud.

Reality is sunset over the Hudson River.

Reality is moonlight, starlight, candle light, lantern light.

Reality is creaky old bookstores, and the thrill of reading a forbidden book hidden between the shelves.

Reality is the feel of sand as soft as cake flour under your feet.

Reality is the smell of wood smoke on the first cold night of fall.

Reality is stained glass, dark coffee, red wine, rosewood incense.  The brush of a fat cat around your ankles, the way evening light moves over the Brooklyn Bridge and tops of the sycamore trees, rooftop Fourth of July parties with the sky on fire around you, waking up on a foggy morning in the Catskill mountains, the sound of the concertmaster tuning an orchestra, tiny cemeteries behind old churches, hidden waterfalls, thunder in a snowstorm, the way deer’s eyes shine in the dark in a flashlight beam.

Nurture magic, wonder, and beauty wherever they occur in your life.  They are real—far more real than strip malls, suburban office parks, and Disneyland—whatever anyone tells you.

July 8, 2011

Where I am, where I’ve been, and remembering a book

Posted in Reflections tagged , , , at 11:23 pm by chavisory

I have not meant to take such a long break from blogging.  I wish I could say I’ve been accomplishing something immense and impressive, but I have not been.  I’ve been job hunting, resume-updating, and finally filing for unemployment, thinking, cleaning my apartment, getting ready for an upcoming dance tour, and doing a lot of coffee shop sitting and reading.

Now I’m sort of out in the country, just outside the village of Pawling, New York.  It’s about two hours away from Grand Central Station by train, and a world away in other respects.  I’m dogsitting for a very sweet Australian shepherd named Patches, who, true to his sheepdog breeding, will not let me go anywhere alone, even just to the kitchen for another cup of tea.  He enjoys Parmesan cheese on his food, understands mostly words that start with ‘b,’ and doesn’t understand why we would go outside for any reason–like reading by the pond or pulling weeds in the garden–other than playing frisbee.

It’s raining softly outside while fireflies wink over the grass, which I just stood outside on the porch watching for a while.  The humidity is nearly tangible, and the entire small world of this little community is a deep twilight blue-gray color.  I’m writing and listening to the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After.  I’ve determined that it’s actually impossible to get anything else done with the TV on in the background (I’m way too visually-oriented)…I’ve probably watched more ludicrous television this week alone than I have in the entirety of the last 8 or 10 years (My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Intervention, House, The Matrix Reloaded) and remembered why I do not have and do not want one in my apartment.  Actually, I’m semi-seriously developing a hypothesis that depression is so rampant these days because American television is depressing…I swear, even the commercials for anti-depressants are depressing in their absurdity, to say nothing of the commercials for household cleaning products.

I see deer and rabbits in the yard almost every day, and get almost no usable cell phone signal.  I realize how much I miss seeing stars.

I’ve made cupcakes and given myself a very unfortunate and painful sunburn across my lower back while out working in the garden.  I didn’t think to put sunscreen where there was a gap between my jeans and tank top when I was leaning over.

I’ve become certain, from the distinctly purposeful-sounding rustling and crinkling sounds, that there’s some kind of small nocturnal creature making a home in some stacked grocery bags of junk in my corner of the living room.  The dog is not roused to do anything about this situation for me.  And I don’t just move away, because this is the only place in the house where I can pick up a wi-fi signal.

And I’m wondering out of nowhere if anyone else remembers a certain children’s book.

I remember this book from the year I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, but I’m sure the book was much older than that.  It was on the classroom bookshelf, and I was totally entranced with it.  I read it over and over again.  And yet cannot remember the name of it.

It was told in the style of a series of fables, about a very wise old legal adviser in the Japanese royal court.  People brought seemingly impossible cases to him, and like Solomon, he always had the fair and clever solution.  One case was about a wiseguy trying to circumvent a progressive tax law that taxed people based on the number of doors their homes contained by building a house with only windows.  One was about a court servant who accidentally broke a priceless vase, for which the normal penalty would be death since she couldn’t hope to repay the cost with all the money that she’d ever earn in her life, and one, my favorite, was about a poor man who lived above a noodle shop.  He was starving, but said that as he ate his plain white rice every night, he felt like he was eating a more substantial meal because he enjoyed the smells of the cooking from below so much, they flavored his own meal.  So the noodle shop guy wanted to charge him for the food he hadn’t eaten, since he claimed he had enjoyed it just as much as if he had.

I don’t even remember the actual resolution of any of the cases.  I don’t remember the title of the book or the author.  Googling “children’s book wise old japanese guy” gets me nowhere.  So for my blog friends and pen pals old and young, a crowdsource question:  Does anyone else recall this book?

April 25, 2011

Innocence

Posted in My neighborhood, Reflections tagged , , , , , at 1:18 pm by chavisory

I just finished a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, which I picked up after I saw it referenced in two different places within a short period of time.  I don’t believe in coincidences; it’s been my experience that when the universe presents things so plainly and repeatedly to me, it’s because they’re going to mean something significant to me.

I requested a copy from the library first, but returned it and went and bought a copy after I loved the first chapter that much.  My apartment is small; I have to be selective about buying books.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is written very much in the heritage of Thoreau’s Walden.  In 1971, Dillard lived near Tinker Creek, in Virginia, and wrote about finding immense significance in the abundance, intricacy and violence of her ecological neighborhood over the course of a year.  It’s a wonderful book to read in the spring.

I was particularly struck by what she says about the human quality of innocence:

Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time….It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds persue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurtling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs.

What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object.  It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.

We’re so accustomed to thinking of innocence as a negative state: as a lack of knowledge, a lack of sexual experience, a lack of maturity, something to be overcome.  Even in more desirable terms, “lack of guile or corruption; purity,” in the phrasing of my New Oxford American Dictionary, innocence is defined by absence, by lack.  In Dillard’s conception, by contrast, innocence is a positive, nearly palpable state of intensity, a potentiality, a spark, not only the absence of self-consciousness but a presence–devotion–and the capacity for active pursuit of joy.

I wish that we valued innocence more in this way, rather than infantilizing and dismissing it.  For example:

A picture of devotion, fittingly, to a man who gave us so much by pursuing it himself.

April 18, 2011

Why unschooling….

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:35 am by chavisory

I’ve sort of been looking out for an excuse to write about this topic, and lo and behold, I got a request (thank you bbsmum!).

One day in college I was sick in bed, and asked a friend to bring me over some tea and books.  One of the books she brought me from her personal stack of library books was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life & Education.  As evidence of how much she said she’d loved it herself, it was already weeks overdue.

I’d never heard of unschooling before, but I was a convert.  I mean, I sort of understood, with that book, how people become religious zealots.  It so succinctly and vividly captured everything that I felt was Wrong with the public education system.

At its most basic, the concept of “unschooling” contests the premise of the traditional school system that children best learn what they need to know by being forcibly confined to a classroom for 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 13 years, and mandated to learn all the same things at the same time in the same way as everyone else for most of those years.  I’ve come to think of it as “factory-style schooling.”

Rather, the premise of the unschooling movement is that children come as they are desperate to learn, they don’t much have to be coerced or threatened into it, that people learn best by doing first-hand what they’re truly interested in.  That the wide world is full of educational opportunities free for the asking and people should be able to use whatever resources work best for their own purposes.  And that, intrinsically, children deserve no less than adults to be taken seriously as people worthy of respect and of having a say in the conduct of their own lives.

Some caveats: I’m speaking of the American compulsory public school system in its predominant form.  I’m not against the idea of any schools ever, at all.  I have no personal experience of charter schools, specialty schools like Montessori or Waldorf or schools designed to accommodate specific disabilities or special interests, so I don’t have any basis on which to make generalizations or criticisms of them.  I know that people choose those educational options for a whole variety of reasons (the operative word being choose).  And I know that some public schools are doing really wonderful things (one of the coolest in my opinion being the New York Harbor School) to give their students greater opportunity for self-direction and creativity.

I’ll try to be brief (ha), as there are many good books on this subject, about some of the reasons I think unschooling is worthy of consideration as an alternative to how we currently educate most of our kids:

1. The school system does not have students’ best interests at heart.  It can’t.  It’s incapable of having any respect for individual learning needs, life needs, passions or ambitions that fall outside the narrow parameters it’s designed to allow.  Because the system isn’t designed to give impassioned minds as free a reign in their own highest development as possible, but to keep as many young people under control in as small a space as possible.  The convenience of the system will always take precedence over individual well-being.

2. The school system is dishonest.  It lies to students about what life is really like and what will be required of them.  The traits most required for success in school are obedience and credulity, whereas the traits most required for success in life are creative problem solving, courage and critical thinking.  Rather than discouraging immaturity, ignorance and short-sightedness, it exploits those traits to keep students under control with fear of the future.  Adults with any self-regard wouldn’t put up with a fraction of the disrespect, humiliation and absurdity that school kids do every day only because they don’t know that they have a choice.  By isolating students from working adults and from the world as it really is, schools create the impression that the knowledge they offer is all there is, and the way they require learning is the only valid way.  The system calls people failures who simply can’t do things the way it demands.  It says that education is something separate from real life by cutting students off from the world around them and from genuine experience.  It says that life is something you’re preparing for, that you’ll be qualified for upon graduation, not something that you are living.

3. Age grading reinforces immaturity.  It deprives kids of older classmates to be role models and mentors, younger classmates to be models and mentors for, and pathologizes healthy and helpful relationships between students of all ages as developmentally inappropriate or undesirable.  It demands that there’s a right or a wrong age to learn any given subject or skill.

4.  I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll truly keep it short here: the main values instilled by the school system are obedience, conformity, and fear of authority.  Those are not the traits we most need citizens to have to fix our democracy, our economy, and our environment.

5. The real world is so much better, so beautiful, wondrous, strange, astonishing and so full of things to learn to do.  Thirteen years is too long to spend locked up.

Though I’m tempted to try to anticipate and preemptively answer some of the more common objections to the unschooling movement, I’m curious to see what will naturally come up in discussion.  So comments section, take it away!

March 29, 2011

Remembering the girls of Triangle

Posted in Reflections tagged , , , , at 11:01 pm by chavisory

For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls.  Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them.  I could never call myself a feminist.  I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”

I was bitterly disappointed.  It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species.  Not me.

Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book.  I ran out to buy it.  “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.

Nope.  It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves.  But I recognized myself nowhere among them.  I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all.  I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”

And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.

***

I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months.  It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week.  On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps.  The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.

Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.

Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.”  And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me.  I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle.  Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them.  I was there to be on their side.

***

In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead.  The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line.  It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.”  I teared up.  I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.

I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.

And they were all my girls.

***

More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage

Remembering the Dead as They Were (NYT City Room blog)

Dept. of Commemoration: Echoes (The New Yorker)

March 13, 2011

Blogging is fun when it turns into book club.

Posted in Lists tagged , , at 9:07 pm by chavisory

I’ve had my first blog award, and now I’ve been tagged in a meme, by Rachel at Journeys with Autism.

I think at some point this meme was to post the books that were in actuality physically by your bedside, but for me, that would be all of them…since my bedroom is very small, so the bookshelves which occupy two walls of it are, necessarily, very close to my bed.  Luckily for all, it’s now a more general “what are you reading” meme.  And these are the rules:

1. Take a picture of the books you are reading currently and add them to your post.

2. Describe the books and if you are enjoying them

3. For every book you are reading, you have to tag one person.

4. Leave the person a comment letting them know you tagged them.

I used to have a personal rule that I couldn’t be reading more than one book at a time.  At some point, I had two books (and I don’t even remember what they were) that I wanted to read with equal desperation, and my usual respect for delayed gratification was so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do.  Then I realized that that wasn’t a real rule, it was one I made up, and I could be reading as many books at a time as I wanted.  Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading:

1. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle.  An exhaustive but very readable history of the causes and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, this book contains much of the background and source material for the production I’m currently working on, a dramatic choral music piece called From the Fire in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event this year.  The fire was New York City’s worst workplace disaster before 9/11/01, in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant girls, died because, for an evil confluence of reasons large and small, they were locked inside a dangerous factory.  I loved reading this, both because I enjoy having a fuller understanding of the background and origin of the shows I work with, and because the Triangle tragedy was one of those things that I vaguely remembered being mentioned in passing in 8th grade history class, but we were never really taught its importance as a turning point in American history, for women’s rights and workers’ rights among other things.

2. A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin.  This is the first installment of a fantasy series which came highly recommended by a friend, and my intrigue was sharpened by the visually gorgeous previews for the forthcoming HBO series.  I was totally hooked by the end of the prologue.  It’s the story of a land on the brink of war where nothing and no one is quite what they seem at first, and Martin plays around very unsettlingly with big ideas about power, love and trust, morality, and what we think we understand about the natural world.

3. Rachel’s own book, The Uncharted Path.  Rachel, I’m going to cherish this as part of my growing “survival manual.”  Before I read this, I thought that I had actually hit some limit on my ability to be stunned by recognition of my own experience, or having to keep saying “good god, I thought it was just me.”  Nope.  Knocked speechless.

4. Saint George and the Dragon, by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.  One of my favorite picture books as a child, it’s an adaptation of the most famous episode from Edmund Spenser’s Middle English epic poem The Faerie Queene.  It had been on my mind a lot lately and I considered asking my mother to mail me the copy she still has, but then figured I might as well have my own since I could get it for $3 on Amazon.  Its completely enchanting watercolor illustrations have not lost their power to entrance me in the 25 years since this book was first read to me.

5. 1776, by David McCullough.  I actually haven’t started this one yet–it’s next up.  My dad and I tend to like the same kind of history books, so he passed this one on to me after he finished it.  He says it’s an intensely human, personal account of the first year of the American Revolution; it sounds almost impossible that I won’t like it.

6. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver.  I’ve made a habit of re-reading things I’ve loved to wind down before bed.  This is the one I’ve gone to for much of this past year, and is a book that will amply reward re-reading.  I love this book on so many levels, and it’s kept blossoming and unfolding to me the more time I’ve spent with it.  Typically I say that it’s impossible for me to name one “favorite book,” because so many have meant so much to me but in very different ways or times or circumstances.  But this one’s in serious danger of being my favorite book for a very long time.

And now, for my six victims!  You!  I want to know what you’re reading!  Because I either like your writing or think you’re interesting, and not because I, like, need more stuff on my list of things to read or anything….

1. Amish, at The Trivedi Chronicles.

2. Amy, at experiment in a new life.

3. Jess, at This has become a weakness.

4. Leigh, at An American Girl in Cambodia.

5. Susan, at Three Cats on a Sofa.

6. Bruce, at Born 2b me.

Does anyone else find themselves quietly hoping that hyperlexic people are more likely to get reincarnated, because we need more time to read?

Anyone?

March 10, 2011

Why I’m a Muslim today, too, Peter King

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , , at 3:30 pm by chavisory

Today, Republican Representative Peter King’s congressional hearings on radicalization within the American Muslim community begin.  And I would say that this blatant and apparently un-self-conscious re-enactment of the McCarthy hearings, this repellent attempt by Representative King to use collective blame to make us view our Muslim fellow citizens with fear and suspicion or as somehow less than fully American, makes me ashamed to be an American, or makes me ashamed that King represents my state.

Except that everywhere, I read about people standing up to what King’s doing, speaking up in defense of the Muslim community, pointing out the hypocrisy of the very premise of the hearings, and drawing comparisons to the McCarthy hearings and Salem witch trials.  And it makes me proud, and makes me wonder if we might finally actually be learning something as a country, even if our leaders aren’t yet.  Which is that, while any of us are in danger of persecution or officially sanctioned injustice, all of us are.

In illustration, one of my favorite articles of the week, shared by a Facebook friend, comes from the Washington Post and chronicles the relationship of support built between the Muslim and Japanese-American communities on the west coast in the years since 9/11.  (Japanese Americans: House hearings on radical Islam ‘sinister.’)  The Japanese-American community remembers the internments of World War II, based on nothing more than suspicion of their ethnicity.  They remember that it can happen to them, and it can happen again.

I have a theory, which is that people who instigate and support this kind of targeting and suspicion of others based on group identity, are people who are themselves pretty sure that the same tactics will never be turned back against them.  People who have never been excluded or abused or marginalized based on who they are, have an easy time believing that they never will be.  People who have always been able to take their place in society, or even humanity, for granted, have a hard time imagining not being able to do so.

But people who have been marginalized instinctively identify ourselves in every marginalized person, and see the danger to ourselves in injustice against anyone.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite books, which I’ve written about before, World Without End, in which a serf named Wulfric and his family have run away from the lord who controls their land, to another community where they have a chance to be independent and escape the grinding, perpetual poverty of feudal life.  Sir Ralph comes to force Wulfric to return, as was legal in those days: the lord who owned your land effectively owned you.  Another man tries to defend Wulfric, who says “Be quiet, Carl.  I don’t want you killed for my sake.”

“It’s not for your sake,” says Carl.  “If this thug is allowed to drag you off, next week someone will come for me.”

And that’s why King seeks with his hearings to get Americans to see American Muslims as not truly us, but “them,” some alien and hostile force among us.  Whatever his ultimate aim is, and I don’t believe for one second that it’s really just to determine the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community, it depends on us seeing Muslims as something other than and less than ourselves.

And that’s why I say that today, I’m a Muslim too, or might as well be, because anything that can be done to anyone–like being presumed guilty of collusion with terrorists and investigated by Congress for your religious identity–can be done to all of us.  Every single one.  Never pretend that it can’t.

More:

“Congressman defends hearing on radical Islam” (NYT)

Representative Keith Ellison’s testimony at King’s hearing:

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