Friday, January 23, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 102

~1~

I first read Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind in 2012 and it just keeps coming to my mind over and over.  Really, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

But what brought it to mind yet again, is this article "I Don't Want to Be Right" from the New Yorker last spring.  Scientists were trying to figure out the best way to get people who are anti-vaccination to change their minds and what they discovered surprised and depressed them: Nothing worked.  Not facts and evidence, not emotional stories of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases, nothing.

What it boils down to is this:
If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.
Like Haidt's concept of the elephant and the rider, this process is often unconscious, completely opaque even to ourselves.  Awareness is the first step in combating this oh-so-human tendency to selectively ignore evidence and only embrace that which bolsters our current beliefs and opinions.

~2~

This book excerpt is a refreshing perspective on religion from an agnostic's point of view.  The book itself, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life by Charles Murray, seems to be written as advice to an audience of twenty-somethings, recent college grads, out in the wide world fending for themselves for the first time.

And this agnostic author urges them to "take religion seriously."

I'm fascinated by his description of the Big Bang as "drap[ing] scientific language over the creation story in Genesis."  What a way to meld science and faith together!  And his high praise for many wise religious people "whose intelligence, judgment, and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends — and who also possess a disquietingly serene confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas."

Intrigued enough to have requested from my local library already.  I'll let you know how the rest of it goes...
 
~3~

Grant Hardy is the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon, a book I appreciated for its insights into the narrative structure of the Book of Mormon.  I stumbled across an article he wrote for Meridian Magazine a while back about reading the sacred texts of other religions.

I really like Hardy's take on the practice.  First of all, he says, religion is an important part of many cultures and, therefore, it's respectful as a global citizen to have a passing acquaintance with other faiths.  And then I love this point:
Latter-day Saints are constantly trying to get their friends and neighbors to read the Book of Mormon. It only seems fair that we should be willing to give serious, respectful attention to their scriptures in return. Indeed, it can be a very useful exercise to try to read something like the Daodejing or the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an as an outsider, just to imagine what it might be like to open up First Nephi for the first time and be bewildered by the names, events, and doctrines.
He quotes Alma 29:8 saying "For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have."  He goes on:
This suggests that we should be prepared to hear God’s words in languages and texts from around the world, and I don’t mean only in the sense of recognizing truths that we already know from the Restoration. Just because we have “the truth” doesn’t mean that we have all truths...
I believe that as Latter-day Saints, we can learn religious truths from non-Mormons and even from non-Christians. My spiritual understanding has certainly been enriched by the Confucian notion that we are not autonomous selves, but rather our identity comes from the networks of relationships of which we are a part. I have learned from Daoist insistence that we should live in harmony with nature, from the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and critiques of overly-simple conceptions of the self. I have been inspired by the Jain principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, and the Jewish practice of spirited, intellectually rigorous, faithful debate in the Talmud. And I am deeply admiring of the sort of devotion that leads many Muslims to memorize the entire Qur’an, which is more than half the length of the New Testament.
Let's hear it for "holy envy"!  If you've been reading this blog since the beginning, you'll know that I read the Quran for my pseudo-Ramadan a couple of years ago.  I've also read the Tao Te Ching, and I found beauty and wisdom in both.  I guess I'd better add a few more to my list...

Hardy states emphatically that studying other faiths' holy books helps him be not only a better person, but provides insights on how to be a better Mormon as well.  I'm intrigued by his assertion that there are actually FIVE LDS standard works, not just the four we usually think of.  Read his article and let me know what you think.

~4~

In a Friday Four a few weeks ago, I shared a video of hair and makeup trends by decade for the past century.  Yesterday I found another, similar video, this one for black women.  Fabulous hairstyles and fantastic makeup.  Check it out here!

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 101

~1~

Friday again already??? Sheesh...  It's been a busy week.

~2~

This was an interesting little film, made by Disney, that highlights four different background artists and their varying styles of art, but how they all manage to work together to create beautiful consistent work for the animated film Sleeping Beauty. Really fascinating.

I'm sure there are some lovely metaphors in there about differing perspectives all being beautiful and valid and working together toward a common goal, too, but I'll let you work those out...


~3~

As I mused in my post on obedience eons ago, I am extremely uncomfortable with the concept of instant, unquestioning obedience.  I don't think it's healthy for an individual or for a relationship; I don't think it promotes growth and understanding; and I don't think it's entirely in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But this post "A Sea Change: Obedience Is Not the Goal" says it better than I did.  One excerpt:
Growing children with an inner compass that guides their steps toward kindness and compassion and generosity of spirit is far, far and away superior to training children to operate on automatic pilot...Training children into instant obedience is the equivalent of disabling their inner guidance system and strapping on a remote-controlled rocket. The end result may be adults who are easily controlled by others or adults who are deeply divided, constantly fighting the external controls, but hampered by an erratic, immature inner compass that never had the chance to develop properly...
A thoughtfully questioning, passionately curious, and humorously resourceful child who delights in inventing ‘compromises’ and who endlessly pushes the boundaries tends to become a thoughtful, passionate, resourceful adult who will change the world rather than being changed by the world.
And then this pithy statement:
Obedience is doing what you’re told, no matter what’s right.
Morality is doing what’s right, no matter what you’re told
I'm going to have to think on this one for a while, and figure out how to shift my parenting techniques a bit.

~4~

This is a post from almost a year ago, but it's stuck with me.  I think there's a great deal of confusion among members of the Church regarding what "contention" is (besides "of the devil"), with some people figuring that anything that makes them feel uncomfortable - like expressing disagreements or divergent opinions - must be interpreted as the Spirit warning them off the topic.

I disagree.  (See what I did there?)

It has a lot more to do with our own pride and with the assumptions we make about those with whom we disagree and the charity that we are willing - or not willing - to extend to them.
Good, faithful, intelligent, thoughtful, prayerful, and honestly diligent members can disagree with each other. I mean that in two ways: 1) disagreement is okay, and 2) just because someone has an opinion I find dead wrong doesn’t mean any holder of that opinion is less good, faithful, intelligent, thoughtful, prayerful, or honestly diligent.
So what do apathy and certainty have to do with contention?  Read the post!  I love the hope and optimism the author exudes.
Escaping contention and giving each other the benefit of the doubt leads to the most exciting of all Christian possibilities: helping make this world better: “One can only imagine what might happen if despite our theological differences, we felt compelled to work together rather than to persuade others that we are right and they are wrong” 
I echo Pastor Meyers with all the feeling a blogger can channel through a keyboard: “I have grown more than a little weary of arguing about doctrinal differences while people starve to death.” And while people suffer. And mourn alone. And feel judged, or ignored, or unwanted.
Amen.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 100

~1~

100!!

Huzzah!

That's a big, round number, isn't it?

(And in four weeks, I'll celebrate 104, two full years of Friday Fours!)

~2~

If you've followed this blog, or my goodreads page, at all, you'll know that I always have a book that I'm reading aloud to my boys.  I started reading to Will when he was a baby and just kept picking up books that I thought would interest him.  We're a lot busier now, with three boys and all of their activities, but we're still working our way through a book at a time.

In large part, I started doing this because I love reading and I wanted to pass that love of reading on to my boys, But it's nice to know science is backing me up.  Again.

~3~

I recently read The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl & Fiona Givens and even counted it as one of my "top books" of 2014.  (I'll get around to writing a review, promise, but I want to re-read it first and chew on it a bit more.)  So I was drawn to this TEDTalk entitled "The Doubt Essential to Faith" by Lesley Hazleton, the author of a biography of Muhammad.  She shared some beautiful thoughts about the necessity of doubt and faith to the existence of each other.  I love this part:
We have to recognize that real faith has no easy answers. It's difficult and stubborn. It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in a never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes in conscious defiance of it.
And this:
Abolish all doubt, and what's left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You're certain that you possess the Truth -- inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T -- and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism. It has to be one of the multiple ironies of history that a favorite expletive of Muslim fundamentalists is the same one once used by the Christian fundamentalists known as Crusaders: "infidel," from the Latin for "faithless." Doubly ironic, in this case, because their absolutism is in fact the opposite of faith. In effect, they are the infidels. Like fundamentalists of all religious stripes, they have no questions, only answers. They found the perfect antidote to thought and the ideal refuge of the hard demands of real faith.
While doubt and faith are often described as opposites that cannot co-exist, I don't believe they are.  The greatest faith is often demonstrated by continuing to believe and, more importantly, act in the face of doubt.  The absence of doubt is frightening to me, because it can imply an absence of humility - the recognition that we are imperfect and we might be wrong - and because it can imply a lack of openness to new information and new experience.  Either of which deadens progress, stifles growth, and can manifest in horribly violent acts, like those in France earlier this week.

~4~

The time has come for me to openly declare a part of myself that I have long denied, that I pushed away and ignored for years, that I hid because I was ashamed.  I am ashamed no longer.

My friends, I am a cat person.

I mean, look at this face:


Really.  How can you not melt?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 99

Would you believe with all the hullabaloo of the holidays and kids home from school for winter break, I neglected to get my first Friday Four of 2015 up on time!  Sheesh! Not a smooth start to the new year!

~1~

Way back when my husband bought me my Kindle (for Christmas a couple of years ago), I remember it took quite a while to get used to it.  The first book I read entirely on the Kindle was an exercise in frustration.  I just didn't feel like I was retaining as much of the information I read as I usually did.

So I was thrilled to see that science backs me up.

Reading 30-45 minutes a day, particularly with a "real" book as opposed to on a screen, increases empathy, reduces stress, improves concentration, and decreases your chances of developing Alzheimer's as you age.  Fascinating stuff!  Go read the article here. And check out the links for relevant studies and more information, too.

~2~

I've always been one of those who believes in getting up and getting dressed, even if it's going to be a pretty lazy, stay-at-home kind of day, just so I'm ready for whatever the day may bring.  But this winter break I've spent more time in my pajamas - and my kids have spent more time in their pajamas - than I can remember in a long time.

The day after Christmas we literally stayed in our pjs all. day. long.  It certainly helps that I got brand new pajamas that are the softest  fabric on earth and so incredibly cozy.  (My middle child calls them my "furry pajamas".)

You don't get to see my pjs, 'cuz I'm taking the picture...
I'm a little worried about our new church schedule that starts this Sunday (9:00! Yay!!!) and getting them out to the bus stop on time on Monday when school starts up again, but I've got to admit I've enjoyed the more relaxed attitude toward getting dressed. Guess there's a time and season for everything...

~3~

One of the things we did on this winter break is we finished Taran Wanderer, the fourth book in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, which means we only have one more to go to finish out all five.  And then we need to find something else to read together.  I found this list with some good suggestions - and some we've already read - but I'd love to hear from you what read-aloud novels you've enjoyed.

In the past five years or so we've done the Harry Potter series, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series, Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, The Hobbit, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, several Gary Paulsen books, the Narnia series, and assorted others.  Maybe it's time to re-read Harry Potter?

~4~

This is a fun video - grossly simplified, of course - but it gives you a quick overview of hair and makeup styles over the past century. Fun!


Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Reading Round-up

Happy New Year!

Over the course of 2014 (according to goodreads), I read:

94 books 
(95 if you count finishing reading the Book of Mormon out loud with my kiddos again)
63 of which were fiction (more than twice last year's number),
25 of which were non-fiction (less than half last year's number),
5 of which I read aloud to my boys,

which all together amounts to 28554 pages,
an average of about 78 pages a day
or almost two books a week.

I read just a couple fewer books than last year, but a few more pages.
And my ratio of fiction to non-fiction completely flipped.
It's been a good year.
Thanks for following along!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My "Top Books of 2014" List

As I mentioned last year, I started compiling an annual "Best of" list a few years ago for my now-defunct Meridian column.  Whittling down to a manageable size the list of books that had a profound influence on me over the course of a year is difficult to say the least, but here I am, yet again, giving it a shot.

And again, a reminder that unlike other "Top of 2014" lists, the only limit on mine is that I read the books during 2014. Most of them were not published this year. I refuse to limit myself to 10 or 12 or any other random number. And I can't possibly rank them.

These books stuck with me long after I read the last page.  Many of them changed the way I view the world or challenged my preconceptions or shook me up a bit.  Some allowed me to relive happy memories, or find like-minded individuals and feel a little less alone.  And that's why I love them.



Best General Non-fiction
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Best LDS Non-fiction
Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 3, edited by Richard Turley and Brittany A. Chapman
The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl & Fiona Givens
Women at Church by Neylan McBaine

Best Spiritual/Religious (not LDS)
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans

Best Fiction
Purple Hibiscus and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Best Historical Fiction
Esther the Queen by Heather B. Moore
The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
The Care & Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Best Children's
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Girls Who Choose God by McArthur Krishna & Bethany Spalding

Best YA
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
John Cleaver series by Dan Wells

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

History is endlessly fascinating to me.  Learning about how real people lived decades, centuries, even millennia ago - so different in so many ways to our lives today, yet so similar in others - makes me feel connected to those who have gone before.

I'm also fascinated by the process historians go through to better understand the past.  It seems obvious to me that whether in science or history or any other area of study, as new information is discovered, as new data is gathered, as new connections are made, as distance provides broader perspective, our understanding will change, sometimes radically.  I've seen the phrase "revisionist history" thrown around as a condescending epithet to describe new interpretations of historical events that challenge the traditional interpretation, but shouldn't we constantly be revising our understanding of history?  Shouldn't it be a goal to replace our mistaken assumptions or misunderstandings with a better picture of how it really was, or to try to fill in the gaps a little more, even if that challenges previous conclusions?

Early on in her introduction to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich mentions that several other historians have been aware of Martha Ballard's diary and even quoted parts of it in their histories of Augusta, Maine, but "those few historians who have known about the diary have not known quite what to do with it."  The repetitive structure, the rhythm of domestic chores and seasonal planting, growing, and harvesting cycles of life on a farm, were dismissed as unimportant "trivia".  "Yet," Ulrich claims, "it is in the vary dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard's book lies."  She goes on to explain :
The problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed...Taken alone, such stories tell us too much and not enough, teasing us with glimpses of intimate life, repelling us with a reticence we cannot decode.  Yet, read in the broader context of the diary and in relation to larger themes in eighteenth-century history, they can be extraordinarily revealing.
Martha kept her diary for more than twenty-seven years, "9,965 days to be exact," a remarkable accomplishment itself in a time when it was not common for women of her station to be sufficiently educated to do so.  Ulrich extracted a wealth of information from the "trivia" of Martha's daily life and helps to complete the picture of what daily life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was like for people in New England, and particularly expanded our understanding of the practice of midwives at the time.

Her results alone demonstrate to her abilities as a midwife, aside from her deep devotion and care for her patients.  Her diary records 814 deliveries she attended; 768 of them were apparently uncomplicated deliveries notated as "delivered" or "safe delivered".  She recorded complications in only 5.6% of the births. Not a single mother died during delivery, and only five died during the "lying-in period" shortly after birth.  Of the 814 deliveries, 14 were stillbirths, and five newborns died within a couple of hours.  While that's still high compared to today's standards, it was remarkably low for the time compared to physicians and particularly hospitals in large cities.  "In some eighteenth-century London and Dublin hospitals, maternal mortality ranged for 30 to 200(!) per thousand births, compared with 5 per 1,000 for Martha."  

And the stories Ulrich mines!  Hasty weddings and babies born just three months later, a mass murder just up the lane of a family by the father, the politics of small town New England, the factions lining up for and against the new preacher, the worry over a son's imprudent actions, the marriages and "going to housekeeping" of two daughters, who goes to debtors' prison and why.  Using transcribed sections of Martha's diary, Ulrich reflects on not only Martha's life, but that of her family, her community, and her society at large.

Aside from her diary, Martha is almost completely absent from the records of the time.  Without her commitment to keeping a record of her daily tasks, and Ulrich's commitment almost two hundred years later to combing through the rich record to extract a sense of who this woman was, Martha Ballard's legacy would be lost.  If left up to previous historians, Martha's life and accomplishments would be almost entirely unknown.  Instead, she has been ensured a type of immortality rather than perpetual anonymity and obscurity.

This is the best kind of "revisionist history".

***************************
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
ISBN: 9780679733768
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).