Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: Faitheist by Chris Stedman

In all my recent interfaith activities and efforts and self-education, I'm embarrassed to admit that I overlooked one important group: atheists.

Now, it may seem somewhat contradictory to include those who have no religious faith when contemplating an interfaith group, but in Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Mr. Stedman defends his perspective, and his interfaith activism, well.  As an atheist himself, he says, "we want to be taken seriously, to be seen as equally ethical individuals" in the midst of a "nation full of believers of all stripes."  Mr. Stedman identifies as a humanist who believes in "a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

My first exposure to an atheistic existentialist perspective came during my theatre class in high school when we read Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit.  The basic outline, for those of you who missed it in your high school or college literature classes, is fairly simple.  Three people, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, have been assigned to share a room for all eternity as punishment for their deeds during life.  As is fitting for a hotel room in hell, they make each other miserable.  And they made me miserable, too.

Oh, how I hated this play!  It seemed so bleak and despairing with its "Hell is other people" philosophy.  I struggled through the scenes I was assigned to act in for weeks until one day, after several class discussions and readings, something clicked.  Sartre wasn't saying that other people are determined to make our lives hell.  He was saying that we make our own lives "hell" by our actions, by the way we treat others, by what we ask or demand of them.  By showing us in this play the depths to which we can sink, he was urging us to make different choices, to use our free will to choose other paths.  Because Sartre believed that there was nothing after this life - or perhaps in spite of that belief - he advocated finding meaning and being "good" for humanity's sake, not because there was a God waiting to punish you or reward you, but simply because decreasing the amount of suffering and pain in this world was the right thing to do.

Being raised in a faithful LDS home from birth, it was a bit of an humbling epiphany for my teenaged self when I realized that one doesn't have to believe in God to be a good, moral person.  (And yes, I've met a few people who profess a profound belief in God whom I have serious hesitations about putting in the "good and moral" category.)  Believing in God does not automatically make you a better person than someone who doesn't believe in God.

Getting back to Mr. Stedman's book: sharing our story is vital in making connections with others.  Mr. Stedman explains "I'd like to tell you my story because I think it matters.  Certainly not more than any other story; we all have important stories to tell...In this time of polarization in nearly every area of public life, I want to share my story because I hope it will help build bridges at a time when we need more bridges than ever."  In Faitheist, he chronicles his journey from a child growing up in a non-religious family to finding Christ through an Evangelical Christian church and youth fellowship.  He describes his struggles to reconcile his homosexuality with his conservative Christian religion and the self-hatred and suicidal depression he felt for years. After leaving Christianity behind, he nurtured a hostility against the faith and those who held it.  Gradually, through his service work and interactions with people of many different faiths, his anger began to dissipate.  He began to realize that his "conflicted enmity toward religion was poisoning [his] own well."  Often, his goals aligned with those of the religious people he knew:
"I want to work to build a world where oppression and suffering can be eradicated.  I realize this is already a slightly demanding task, and I believe that it is rendered impossible if I endeavor to do it alone or only alongside like-minded peers.  I know that tackling the world's many problems requires the broadest possible network of resources, so if that requires me to work with people on areas of agreement while knowing we disagree on other issues, it is a promising start." 
About the dangers of black-and-white thinking or extremism, and from his own experience, he warns: "When all you know is dichotomy, there's no way to be anything other than religious or antireligious." And of course, there are more than those two options, but they can be hard to recognize when we've trained ourselves to think only in terms of either/or.  Similarly, he points out that many of the prominent voices of the New Atheism demonstrate the same characteristics of "fundamentalist thinking" such as a "sure-handed certainty and dismissal."  As in many cases, "the loudest voices are the most obvious, and it can be difficult to hear anyone else over their clamor." We need to be careful that we aren't only listening to those who are shouting the loudest, and generalizing our understanding of an entire group from their noisiest members.  He also notes, somewhat wryly, that "the problem of loud, intolerant voices eclipsing voices of moderation and inclusion isn't one exclusive to the atheist movement."  Truth.

Mr. Stedman talks a great deal about service in Faitheist.  Again, from his experience as a direct service professional, he says, "As those who have done direct-service work often attest, it's quite natural to go in thinking that you're only helping others; but if you're paying attention, you'll recognize that you're equally transformed."  Yesterday, Mr. Stedman presented at a local university.  (You can watch some brief clips here.) I wasn't able to attend, but my sister went to his speech in the morning and afterwards was able to ask him a question: "How can we create more effective, more powerful interfaith experiences?"  His response, in my sister's words, was "There are social activities, forums for sharing stories, and one on one contact. And we should be doing all of those. But the most powerful experiences I've seen and had have been bringing people together to do all of those things while working on a humanitarian or community project -- something that helps everyone contribute to our shared goals and core values as a community."  If you want to bring people together, have them serve together towards a common goal.

Faitheist is a call to action, a call for inclusion, for casting the net further afield, and for respecting others' beliefs, whether religious or not.  Mr. Stedman urges an elevated standard of conversation: "I hope more people will begin to act as watchdogs for rhetoric that demeans or diminishes any of our fellow humans."  He outlines "exactly what our world needs--people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments."  The problems we face as a society, as a world, are too big to try to solve on our own.  We need to abandon any arrogance or ignorance that keeps us from reaching out to others, or from seeing them as whole individuals with legitimate life experiences and work together.

Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious
by Chris Stedman
Visit the website for Faitheist here and for Chris's blog NonProphet Status here.
ISBN: 9780807014394
Buy it on Amazon: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, April 29, 2013

Again with the Food! Or, Joining the Interfaith Women's Circle

Yesterday afternoon, I got to be part of a wonderful, diverse group of women.  Let's see, there was an ex-nun mystic, a current Catholic nun, a Christian Sufi, a Hindu, two Sikhs - one Malaysian, one Indian - and two women who attend Unity.  Oh, and two of us Mormon girls.

It was fabulous.

My sister knew one of the women who participated in the Interfaith Women's Circle from her work with the Spokane Interfaith Council and she invited me along to her first meeting with them.  The ten of us sat in a circle in the living room of the South Hill home of one of the women and introduced ourselves, told a little about our spiritual tradition and home, and what draws us to interfaith gatherings.  It was so warm and welcoming and comforting to hear these women's stories, to feel that glimmer of recognition and connection when their stories paralleled mine, sometimes surprisingly with the incredibly different upbringings and lives we had.

After the introductions, we got into the theme of the meeting, which was "Dancing with Spirit."  As we discussed faith traditions that included movement and dance as part of their spiritual ritual, I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets which I read and reviewed a little while ago.  Dancing can tap into a deep well of emotion and spirituality, and when done with others, community, too.  (As a side note, dancing is just about the only form of exercise that I've ever really enjoyed, so I think I need to look at getting back into it, though it's been about 15 years since I did much of anything dance-wise.  A couple of years of ballet when I was young, a couple years of jazz in high school, and a couple semesters of Latin ballroom in college.  And, of course, all the country swing dancing Gene and I did while dating and since.  But I digress.)

Shree*, the Hindu woman, lugged a box of tambourines and sticks in from her car for us to keep rhythm as she sang and she showed us a dance in honor of Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles.  Kamal* and Amirjet*, the two Sikh women, demonstrated some traditional dances from their culture, and invited us all to join in, which we did, more or less awkwardly, but enthusiastically.  Miryam, the Catholic nun, led us in a Celtic blessing:

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
And then it was time to eat!  We'd each brought a dish to share.  Veggie tray, mixed nuts, basmati rice with vegetables, couscous with dried fruit, dark chocolate (gluten free!) brownies.  There's just something about gathering around a table with food that draws people together.

The Interfaith Women's Circle only meets once a quarter or so, but I look forward to gathering with these women again, and learning more from them.

* Please forgive the spellings if they are wrong.  I did my best to transcribe the names as I learned them, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if I completely butchered them.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 11


Tuesday marked my fourteenth wedding anniversary.  My sweet husband had three dozen beautiful roses delivered to our home.  See?

Aren't they so purty? :)


As an early anniversary gift, I got tickets for the two of us to go to last Friday's Rodney Atkins concert at the Knitting Factory.  The Knitting Factory is not my favorite venue by any means, and the crowd seemed particularly, well, drunk that night.  There's a spot on one side that's up off the main floor, but alcoholic drinks aren't allowed, so it's never crowded.  We claimed the space along the railing, so we had a great view of the stage and only occasionally had to put up with people yelling and hollering behind us.  (I ignored most of them, but the second time one girl yelled, "Take off your pants!" at Rodney, I turned around and gave her dirty look.  Her companion apologized and they made a quick exit.)

And the sound! Besides being waaay too loud, the balance was totally screwed up for the two opening acts with way too much bass; you could barely hear the melody line.  Luckily they got it fixed by the time Rodney came on stage.

Man, I sound like such a wet blanket.

Anyway, the first opening act was Tyler Farr.  I'd never heard of him, but he had a fairly pleasant voice and did a decent job with just himself and a guitar.  Josh Thompson was the second act.  I really liked him when we saw him a couple of years back at the Spokane Arena, opening for Brad Paisley. (Gene and I even ran into him in the parking lot afterwards, but neither of us had a pen, so instead of an autograph in my boot I got a handshake.  I'll never go to a concert without a Sharpie in my pocket again.)  This time his performance just bugged me a bit.  He kind of seemed somewhere else, not really into it.  None of the band members interacted with each other, or the audience, really.  And the sound problems were really distracting.  I still like his music, though.  Here's one of my favorites, called "Way Out Here." (Warning: it's pretty hardcore, unabashedly country music - steel guitar, trucks, guns, God, and the good ol' U. S. of A. - so if you don't like that kind of stuff, you may want to skip it...)


Rodney Atkins was who we really wanted to see, of course.  We've been big fans of his music for years and this has been our first chance to see him live.  For some reason, Spokane just doesn't get a whole lot of country music acts, which I think is just weird given our geographic location and demographics, especially the rural population in surrounding areas.  Anyway, he's got an honest aw-shucks country boy vibe with a family man strain running through his music, like this song, which always makes me think of my kids and resolve to be a better example for them:

And this one is a call for an escape from the hectic pace of modern life and a return to the "back roads":

Sounds really tempting, doesn't it?


Meet my incredibly
intelligent and competent
little sister, Meredith. I
want to be like her
when I grow up.
(photo courtesy:
Meredith Hartley)
Last night, my little sis presented at the quarterly meeting of the Spokane Chapter of the American Society for Quality.  She was asked to speak on the "generation gap": why the membership is aging and what can be done about it.  Her main thesis was communication; lots of people are doing Quality without calling it Quality, or even recognizing that's what it is.  Quality professionals must be able to discuss Quality principles in layman's terms, without the jargon and specialized tools of the trade, and to connect what people are already doing to those Quality principles.  There's been such a shift in industries over the past couple of decades and if the professional quality societies can't adapt to include technology and entrepreneurs and cupcake shops, in addition to the manufacturing and engineering mega-firms, the membership attrition will continue.

Meredith is a pretty impressive person and I often go to her for her insights and advice.  You should, too.  Check out her business website at at Me2 Solutions.  She also blogs about business and life at The Quality Girl.  And about her family's insane food allergies at The Quality Girl Eats.

Ya done good, Dith.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

It's been six years or so since I was officially part of the gainfully employed masses.  Besides a consulting gig here and there, I've been a stay-at-home mom since before my four-year-old was born, and while it's definitely had its good days and bad days, I'm glad to have the opportunity to spend so much time with my children while they are young,  and to volunteer at their schools and with other organizations I support.  So this book, at first glance, wouldn't seem to have much to offer me.  But as I read I identified with a great deal of what Ms. Sandberg wrote.

First of all, Ms. Sandberg, current COO of Facebook, was clear that she was writing from her experience, and that her path, her suggestions, were not the only viable choices for women to make.  She lauds those who choose to stay home when they are able: "No one should pass judgment on these highly personal decisions.  I fully support any man or woman who dedicates his or her life to raising the next generation.  It is important and demanding and joyful work."  However, she was also clear that she believes - with Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee (read my review of her amazing memoir here) - that "conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns."

The economic realities of today mean that most women will need to work to support their family at some point.  Ms. Sandberg shares data from a 2009 study which shows that 41% of mothers are primary breadwinners who earn the majority of their family's income.  Another 23% of mothers earn at least a quarter of the family's income.  That's almost two-thirds of women with children at home, earning a sizable chunk of what their family lives on.  And in 2006, one in five families was headed by a single mother.  There are plenty of reasons to lament these trends and statistics, to bemoan the breakdown of the nuclear family, the lack of fathers in the home, and so on.  But expending energy lamenting them doesn't solve the problem, and it doesn't help those families or those mothers deal with their daily reality.  These women and their families need more supportive work environments and more guidance on how to negotiate the tricky balance between professional success and personal fulfillment.  This is where Lean In helps.

Over and over again, I recognized my previous working-world self in the self-defeating actions Ms. Sandberg describes.  The "imposter syndrome", or feeling like a fraud, sure that I wasn't worthy of recognition or my accomplishments.    Not "keeping my hand up" and pushing for my questions to be answered.  Being too concerned about pleasing everyone, not recognizing that it's impossible to make progress without change, and it's impossible to make changes that everyone agrees with.  Waiting and hoping for a mentor to find me, rather than developing those relationships intentionally myself.  Being afraid to ask for what I needed or wanted in a position, and then never getting it.  Making choices based on my guesses of what my future might hold, rather than what would be best for my career in the moment, and consequently limiting and hamstringing myself.  I wish I'd had this book ten years ago; I might have made some significantly different decisions that would have provided better opportunities for my future self.

Ms. Sandberg hits the nail on the head with this paragraph:
"Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face.  Fear of not being liked.  Fear of making the wrong choice.  Fear of drawing negative attention.  Fear of overreaching.  Fear of being judged.  Fear of failure.  And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter."
And this isn't just about pushing women ahead to the detriment of men; it's about a more equal partnership all around.  Ms. Sandberg states, "As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home."  I have known several wonderful, nurturing, committed stay-at-home dads who experienced many of the same struggles as stay-at-home moms, but felt very isolated without the support networks many moms have.  In addition to encouraging women to "lean in" to their careers, she encourages men to "lean in to their families," and points out that current employment policies often encourage the opposite through minimal paternity leave and inflexible hours.  "Even if mothers are more naturally inclined toward nurturing, fathers can match that skill with knowledge and effort...We overcome biology with consciousness in other areas...A willing mother and a willing father are all it requires."

Lean In  is filled with good actionable advice, but it's necessarily vague.  While she provides many examples and anecdotes from her own career, Ms. Sandberg isn't in your position and can't tell you that Ms. Johnson on the 6th floor would make a great mentor and sponsor, to speak up in the staff meeting on Wednesday morning, or to volunteer to develop the next sales presentation.  Getting the most out of Lean In will require the reader to make an honest assessment of where she is in her career, where she wants to be, her strengths, her weaknesses, and much more.  Blanket statements like "if [you] hear a bad idea...[you] should either fight it or ignore it" should be taken with an eye toward the environment at your workplace.  "Perfection is the enemy" is a true maxim, but only you can decide in which aspects of your life to accept 95% or even 50% in order to give other parts 100%.  Ms. Sandberg's definition of success mirrors this personalization: "success is making the best choices we can...and accepting them."

One of the greatest outcomes from Ms. Sandberg giving her TED talk and publishing this book is that it increases the profile of this important conversation.  As she says, "talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviors, which can transform institutions."  More than that, it's just about the only way that transformation can happen.  Of course, not everyone agrees on the best approach to every issue, even within the feminist movement, but Ms. Sandberg asks that we "strive to resolve our differences quickly, and when we disagree, stay focused on our shared goals.  This is not a plea for less debate, but for more constructive debate."  We are all individuals, making the best choices we can for our own personal situations.  "One of the conflicts inherent in having choice is that we all make different ones.  There is always an opportunity cost, and I don't know any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions.  As a result, we inadvertently hold that discomfort against those who remind us of the path not taken.  Guilt and insecurity make us second-guess ourselves and, in turn, resent one another."  We need to be aware of this tendency, and truly accept that others are making the best choices for themselves, and that those choices may legitimately be different from ours.

One criticism I've heard from men and women who don't sympathize with feminists is that we're a bunch of whiners.  After all, we aren't working 18-hour days for pennies in workhouses and sweatshops like people did a hundred or so years ago.  We aren't being gang raped like women today in the Congo, or even restricted from traveling without a male family member like women in Saudi Arabia.  I mean, we can drive and own property and even vote!  We have it so good now compared to every other group of women who's ever lived, so we have no right to complain about our perceived problems.  Ms. Sandberg's response is perfect: "Knowing that things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better."  So let's all do what we can to make them better for everyone.  Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In is a good start.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
by Sheryl Sandberg
ISBN: 9780385349949
Here's the TED talk on this topic by Ms. Sandberg.
Visit the website here.
Buy it on Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review: Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 2

**I'm cross posting my book review column on Meridian Magazine this week.**

In this second installment of the series, Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman have collected the stories of thirty women (thirty-six if you get the ebook) born between 1821 and 1845 who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its earliest days. As with the first volume, each of the women is profiled in her own chapter, beginning with a brief biographical sketch followed by a longer “Life Experiences” section which provides more details about specific incidents. The stories are often told in the woman’s own words from original journals, autobiographical sketches, or letters. I was glad to see that half of the author contributors were descendants of the woman about whom they wrote. Other chapters are written by notable Mormon historians including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Margaret Blair Young.

While a few of the women included are recognizable names (such as Jane Elizabeth Manning James, one of the first African American members of the Church and friend of Joseph and Emma Smith; Emmeline Blanche Woodward Wells who served as general secretary of the Relief Society for 20 years and as president for 11; and Aurelia Read Spencer Rogers, the founder and first general president of Primary), many of the women included are relatively unknown. Their stories of hope, resilience, and faith are inspiring. I’d like to highlight just three of them here to give you a taste.

Jane Cadwalader Brown was born in 1832 in Ohio and was raised in the Quaker faith. Shortly after her father’s death in 1848, she married William Derby Johnson, who was already a member of the Church, and two years later she was baptized. They traveled to the Salt Lake Valley in 1861 and after ten years there followed Brigham Young’s suggestion that they move south near Kanab. They started the town of Johnson and lived there until 1890, at which point they decided to move to the Mormon colonies in Mexico to be with their children. Jane died there in 1908.

Jane bore twelve children, three of whom died before reaching adulthood. She worked with her husband in their store to provide for her family, as well as running an inn while in Johnson. In her personal journal she documented her progress in keeping the Word of Wisdom, particularly in giving up her tea. She was a Relief Society president and a Primary president, as well. She was aware of and interested in local and national political issues and several of her letters were published in the Woman’s Exponent. Here’s one excerpt:
“Truly this is an age of progression. The ladies’ speeches are good, and I hope they will succeed in their efforts to obtain the suffrage. Let woman stand up for her own rights in wisdom, and help to make man better, that both sexes may become equal in intelligence and influence and assist each other in doing right, and fulfill the mission they were placed here to work out, which would exalt them to a higher sphere and greater honor in the future.” 
Esther Romania Bunnell Pratt Penrose is another remarkable woman I learned of from this book. Esther was the first Latter-day Saint woman to graduate from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She was determined to help more women and babies survive childbirth, as two of her seven children did not. She divorced Parley P. Pratt, Jr., in 1880, and married Charles W. Penrose, known today for his LDS hymns like “God of Our Fathers, We Come unto Thee,” in 1886. She was a strong and independent woman who didn’t blend in very well: “In the east she was an anomaly because of her religious faith. In the west she stood apart because of her secular education. Fortunately, she was sustained by a community of Latter-day Saint leaders committed both to the Church and to the advancement of women.”

Much of her chapter is drawn from articles and speeches she wrote, as well as a memoir she composed to be part of the Relief Society’s “Jubilee Box” on the fiftieth anniversary of Relief Society. I love this quote from an article she wrote for the Woman’s Exponent:
“Our reason, the greatest gift of God to man was given us for cultivation and our life here on earth presents a series of opportunities of transforming circumstances into eternal knowledge. Progress is the keystone of heavenly thought and plan, and for an individual to live and die without the world being the better for it, comes short of the object of their existence. True knowledge no matter of what science or art is given man of God, and every acquisition which advances us one step should only broaden our reason and strengthen our belief (which is simply physical knowledge) in the existence of God, and of our unbounded obligations to him." 
Finally, as a new ward Young Women president, I was drawn to the story of Anstis Elmina Shepard Taylor, the first general president of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (later renamed Young Women). When Sister Eliza R. Snow informed her that she had been selected as the president of the YLMIA, she responded, “I shall not act…I cannot act in that capacity.” I’d imagine many of us, when we first received a call that overwhelmed or intimidated us, have responded the same way. Eventually, “with the wise arguments that always convince a Saint who desires to be one, Sister Taylor’s scruples were overcome, and she was voted in at the afternoon meeting.”

Elmina’s desire was that the YLMIA would help young women to “cultivate every gift and grace of true womanhood…To this end every effort is made to induce independent thought, study, individuality and progress.” Under her leadership, the basic structure of the Young Women’s program was developed, including weekly meetings, the curriculum, and annual conferences, and the YLMIA became a member organization of the National Council of Women. At that time, these church-wide callings were held until death, so Elmina served for 24 as president of the YLMIA.

Jane, Esther and Elmina are just three of the unique and notable women in this volume. I highly recommend you find yourself a copy and become acquainted with them and our other sisters in the gospel from this time period.

** Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Women of Faith in the Latter Days: Volume Two, 1821-1845
Edited by Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman
ISBN: 9781609071738
Visit the website here.
Buy it on Amazon here: (ebook)
Or from Deseret Book here: (hardcover)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Eating (Not Insulting) Encourages Effective Interfaith Interactions

Yesterday I went to the library to try to get as much writing as possible done during the hour and a half my youngest is in preschool.  As I sat down, I made brief eye contact with a man sitting in the carrel diagonal from me, smiled, and started working.

You know how you can just tell when someone's looking at you?  Well, I could just feel him looking up at me every few minutes or so and finally he made a comment about the book I had with me, the second volume of Women of Faith in the Latter Days.  "That looks like some heavy research," he said.  "Oh, it's actually really good," I replied, in what I hoped was a friendly-but-not-interested-in-conversation voice.  Then after a pause he asked, "What religion are you?"  I looked up.  "I'm LDS -- Mormon."

His response?  "I'm so sorry."


Knowing that this would not be a productive conversation, I hoped to end it quickly.  I smiled.  "I'm not."  I looked back at my computer screen, but he wasn't quite ready to leave it alone.

"No, I'm really very sorry.  I've never met a Mormon that gave me any reason to think anything good about that sect," he continued.

"Well, that's too bad.  You haven't met the right ones, then."  I replied, still trying to focus on my writing.  "And then there's that false prophet..." he started.  Just then a friend of mine - also LDS, as it happens - came over and said hi and we had a nice conversation during which the "so-sorry" man left.  He did return a while later, but as he didn't say anything and I had to leave shortly thereafter, it was only minimally uncomfortable.

The contrast with my experience just the day before was striking.  On Sunday afternoon, I joined my mom, my sister and my sister's husband at the first (hopefully annual - or even more frequent?) Faith Feast: An Intercultural Progressive Dinner, put on by Spokane Faith and Values, a non-profit dedicated to increasing interfaith communication and understanding.

I've been interested in interfaith work for years, an interest that was piqued, though not initiated, by Project Conversion (see my posts here and here).  My sister and her husband recently joined the Spokane Interfaith Council at the request of the regional Public Relations representatives for our church.  So when we heard about the Faith Feast, we jumped at the chance to interact with those of other faiths in their holy places.

Mom, Meredith, and me outside
the Spokane Islamic Center
The evening began at the Spokane Islamic Center.  The women in our group of twenty-five or so covered our hair (I need to work on my scarf-wrapping skills as mine kept slipping back) and we entered the women's hall, where we met with three members of the mosque who told us about some of the basic tenets of Islam, including the daily prayers, submission to God's will, and eating only halal food.  (You can read this review I wrote a while back on a book about Islam.)  These three Muslim men were happy to answer our questions and engage in conversation about their faith, their worship, and their beliefs.  We also learned about the Muslim population of Spokane.  There are approximately 1200-1500 Muslims in our area, not counting students, from dozens of different countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  Several hundred attend the regular Friday services at the Center.  They were excited to report that after searching for years, they were finally able to hire an imam for the mosque just this March.

And then we ate.

It was just supposed to be appetizers at the mosque, but the table was practically groaning under the weight of all the appetizers.  Hummus and baba ghanoush (basically hummus made with eggplant instead of chickpeas), melt-in-your-mouth falafel, two different kinds of sambousa, homemade flatbread, a delicious salad, the list goes on and on.  Everything was delicious and I easily could have filled up right there, but managed to restrain myself and leave some room for the next stop.  The conversation - and eating - went on so long that we were late moving on to the second station of our dinner.

This is the only picture of food I got
the entire evening.  I kept forgetting
to snap a picture until I was halfway
through eating and by then it just
didn't look as pretty...
The entree portion of the progressive dinner was at the Sikh Gurudwara of Spokane.  As we arrived we were greeted with a expansive smile and a friendly hug by a man named Dev and everyone was directed to remove his or her shoes and cover his or her head.  We followed the amazing aroma to the langar, basically a community kitchen and dining area, in the basement of the temple.  Members of the Sikh congregation had prepared a full vegetarian meal including fruit, salad, rice, traditional bread and three different main dishes: a lentil soup, a chickpea curry, and a vegetable curry.  Again, it was tempting to go back for more, but I was already so full that it was hard to finish what I'd taken the first time around.  We jumped right in to eating and then had an informal Q&A session.

The Sikh Gurudwara (Temple) of Spokane
Sikhs are among the most visibly recognizable of faiths because adult Sikhs are never seen in public without their turbans.  Unfortunately, this visibility doesn't necessarily equate to an informed populace, and has resulted in Sikhs being targeted by those who are ignorant of their religion or who mistake it for Islam.  In addition to the turban, all observant Sikhs also wear a metal bracelet to remind them to use their hands only for good and righteous actions, and special underwear (Mormons aren't the only ones!).  There are about 150 Sikh families in the Spokane area and they open their langar to anyone in the community to come join in a meal after their services every Sunday.  I find much to admire among the Sikh people and religion, including a work ethic that puts the much-lauded Protestant work ethic to shame, and absolute equality of the sexes.  And you would be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming and friendly group.  With another round of hugs and handshakes, we were on our way to our third visit of the evening.

Millwood Presbyterian, just as the sun's setting
Our final stop was at Millwood Presbyterian Church.  Again, there was an entire table laden with delicious desserts and, even though I was already full, it would have been rude not to try some of, well, if not everything, several things, right?  Cookies, brownies, cakes, pies...it was scrumptious!  Our hosts spoke briefly about their pastor's focus on the spiritual aspects of food and eating together, as well as the many community and interfaith efforts in which their congregation participates, from hosting the Millwood Farmers' Market, to sponsoring a Boy Scout troop, to partnering with others to create a youth community center.  A gentleman shared three poems with us, one by an atheist, one by a Christian, and this one, which deeply moved me, by Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi, a Muslim:

Come, Come, Whoever You Are 
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

All three houses of worship we visited, Muslim, Sikh, and Presbyterian, were warm and inviting.  Every person we met, both our hosts and the others in the dinner group, were friendly, eager to share and willing to learn.  Rather than vague and unwelcome accusations, such as the ones I got from the man in my first story, there was open conversation, with sincere questions and helpful answers.  I'm so grateful to have had a chance to participate.  We need more events like this, more outreach to those of other faiths, more people willing to learn and to share.  Look around your own community for similar events, or perhaps organize one yourself, or simply look for ways to interact humbly and respectfully with those of other faiths.  (Just a hint: accosting busy people in the library and denigrating their religion may not be your best bet.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 10


With all the bad news this week with the Boston Marathon bombings, ricin in letters to senators, a fertilizer plant exploding in West, Texas, and just now gunfire on the MIT campus, I needed some fun and/or good-hearted items for this Friday Four.  So here are some gratuitous pictures of my cute kids and their cute chicks (that seem to be doubling in size every time I blink):

Will & Josh holding (L to R) Rhody, Redhead, Buffy the Third, and Brownie.
Evan smiling next to Niner and Charger.


We just finished reading On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, last night. As I do with every book we read together, I asked the boys what their favorite part was.  I was expecting they'd say the cool dugout house, or the gross bloodsuckers in the creek, or maybe even the devastating grasshopper infestation.  But both Will & Josh chose the church Christmas party when Laura received a fur cape and muff.  You see, the spoiled bully Nellie Oleson only had a fur cape, and it wasn't as pretty as Laura's.  They were sooooo glad that Laura got the chance to one-up Nellie and even reenacted the scene where Laura walks past Nellie on her way out of the church and says, "Merry Christmas, Nellie."  Though I'm not sure Laura pulled it off with quite as much smug glee and sass as my boys did...


I've been rewatching the TV series Alias on Netflix.  I'm drawn to shows with strong female characters and Sydney Bristow is one of my favorites; she's tough, smart, resilient, loyal, a creative problem-solver, and has a deep commitment to doing what's right.  I was hooked when Alias first aired back in 2001 and I've been a big fan of Jennifer Garner, Bradley Cooper, and Victor Garber ever since.  But I think the folks who really should get props for the series are the hair, makeup, and costume designers.  Thanks to them, Sydney Bristow has thousands of distinctly different looks.  This fun youtube mash-up demonstrates several dozen of them:


A while back I read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. (You can read my brief review on Goodreads here.)  And then for a recent book club, the host chose Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison.  (Again, Goodreads review here.)  Both books deal with the foster care system.  The first is a fictional account of a girl turning 18 and aging out of the system.  The second is a memoir from the perspective of a foster mother of hundreds of kids.  Both books were moving and at times heart-wrenching when describing the incredible odds against these kids.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh co-founded the Camellia Network to help kids who were aging out of the foster system by providing the support network that is currently lacking.  If you're searching for a way to reach out and make a difference to a specific person, take a look here.  You might feel called to help one of these young people:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD

Race can be a difficult topic to discuss, fraught with landmines that well-intentioned people can stumble onto unwittingly.  Dr. Tatum bravely dives right in and, using personal experience in addition to her professional research and perspective, provides a valuable framework towards better understanding others and more effectively broaching these sensitive discussions.

The title of this book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" initially caught my eye, probably because I identified with the question.  The students in my high school in Williamsburg, Virginia, were about half black, half white, and, yes, when you walked into the cafeteria, there was a pretty distinct delineation with most of the black kids sitting on one side of the room and most of the white kids sitting on the other.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a military family, so we moved every few years during my childhood.  My dad was stationed in places from coast to coast including Orlando, Florida; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the Pentagon; and Newport News, Virginia.  As a child, I got to see a lot of the country, and I was exposed to a variety of people of many races, ethnicities, backgrounds.  My parents made a concerted effort to introduce us to other cultures and to help us recognize that there were many valid walks of life.  But I still noticed the natural tendency toward homogeneous groups than sometimes made it difficult to really get to know others who were different from me.  As Dr. Tatum points out, "There is still a great deal of social segregation in our communities. Consequently, most of the early information we receive about 'others'--people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically different from ourselves--does not come as the result of firsthand experience.  The secondhand information we do receive has often been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete."

One point Dr. Tatum makes right at the beginning of her book is her differentiation between prejudice and racism.  "We all have prejudices," she explains, "not because we want them, but simply because we are so continually exposed to misinformation about others."  She continues, "Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society.  Cultural racism--the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color--is like smog in the air.  Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in."  Quoting David Wellman, Dr. Tatum explains that racism is defined as a "system of advantage based on race."  "This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals."  This distinction may not seem like a big deal, but it addresses the difference between an individual's thoughts and beliefs and the structural issues in society that systematically disadvantage certain segments of the population, regardless of the opinions of the individuals involved.

Coming to terms with racial issues is a continual process.  Dr. Tatum describes the process as it often happens for an individual starting in childhood and working through stages throughout his or her life. Specifically talking about how children process racial differences, Dr. Tatum relayed a conversation she had with her own four-year-old son that illustrated the importance of explicitly addressing racism and problematic messages that are sent by media or society with our children.  Prompted by his question, "Am I Black?" Dr. Tatum held an ongoing dialogue with her son.  It started with an explanation of what "Black" means and how it doesn't accurately describe skin color any more than "White" does, then moved onto what "African American" means and how his ancestors were from Africa.  Then he asked, "If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?"  That question led to a short discussion about how and why slavery occurred, in which Dr. Tatum outlined three messages she wanted to get across to her young son.  "(1) I didn't want to frighten this four-year-old who might worry that these things would happen to him... (2) I wanted him to know that his African ancestors were not just passive victims, but had found ways to resist their victimization. (3) I did not want him to think that all White people were bad."  She advocates starting the conversation at a young age, in an age-appropriate and balanced way.  "While I think it is necessary to be honest about the racism of our past and present, it is also necessary to empower children (and adults) with the vision that change is possible."  She suggests, for example, children's books about Harriet Tubman and Peg Leg Joe, both workers on the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Tatum also extended her thoughts on racism to include many other "-isms" as well, and I was startled at how many parallels I found between racism and sexism, for example, while I was reading.  "Clearly racism and racial identity are at the center of discussion in this book, but as Audre Lorde said, from her vantage point as a Black lesbian, 'There is no hierarchy of oppression.'  The thread and threat of violence runs through all of the isms.  There is a need to acknowledge each other's pain, even as we attend to our own...The task of resisting our own oppression does not relieve us of the responsibility of acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of others.'"  This can take some deep, honest, and painful introspection to recognize.

After starting to read The Boxcar Children with her son, Dr. Tatum mentioned "how sexist they seemed to be.  The two girls seemed to spend most of their time on these adventures cooking and cleaning and setting up house while the boys fished, paddled the canoe, and made the important discoveries."  (I had a similar experience when I began reading some old Happy Hollisters books to my boys.  I remember enjoying them when I was little, and they are easy, clean mystery-adventures for the early reader set, but the 1950s sexism that pervades them just kills me to read today.)  At this point, she had a conversation with her then-seven-year-old son about sexism.  Her son wanted to continue reading the book, so they did, but with this new perspective he began to notice the gender bias himself.  "'Hey Mom,' he interrupted me as I read on, 'there's that stuff again!'"  "Learning to spot 'that stuff'--whether it is racist, or sexist, or classist--is an important skill for children to develop.  It is as important for my Black male children to recognize sexism and other forms of oppression as it is for them to spot racism.  We are better able to resist the negative impact of oppressive messages when we see them coming than when they are invisible to us.  While some may think it is a burden to children to encourage this critical consciousness, I consider it a gift.  Educator Janie Ward calls this child-rearing process 'raising resisters.'" (emphasis mine)

Another interesting aspect raised that I hadn't given much thought to is the idea of group identity, both it's harmful and helpful effects.  "People of color learn early in life that they are seen by others as members of a group.  For White, thinking of oneself only as an individual is a legacy of White privilege...The view of oneself as an individual is very compatible with the dominant ideology of rugged individualism and the American myth of meritocracy."  While this grouping, when it takes place externally, can feel oppressive and "otherizing," when the grouping is done as a conscious choice by the individual, it can be supportive and affirming.  "As one's awareness of the daily challenges of living in a racist society increase, it is immensely helpful to be able to share one's experiences with others who have lived it...the ability to see oneself as part of a larger group from which one can draw support is an important coping strategy."

Dr. Tatum advocates for conversation, for education, for action.  She says, "We need to continually break the silence about racism whenever we can.  We need to talk about it at home, at school, in our houses of worship, in our workplaces, in our community groups.  But talk does not mean idle chatter.  It means meaningful, productive dialogue to raise consciousness and lead to effective action and social change." Because it's an uphill battle, we each must take on the responsibility of educating ourselves and filling in the gaps in our knowledge and skills.  "Educating ourselves and others is an essential step in the process of change.  Few of us have been taught to think critically about issues of social justice.  We have been taught not to notice or to accept our present situation as a given, 'the way it is.'  But we can learn the history we were not taught, we can watch the documentaries we never saw in school, and we can read about the lives of change agents, past and present.  We can discover another way.  We are surrounded by a 'cloud of witnesses' who will give us courage if we let them."

In light of the difficulties of challenging racism, and any other "-ism," it's easy to get discouraged.  Dr. Tatum acknowledges this:  "The antidote [to feeling overwhelmed and powerless] I have found is to focus on my own sphere of influence.  I can't fix everything, but some things are within my control."  It's also important to find other people to buoy us up and help us stay focused on the value of our goals.   "How can we sustain ourselves for the long haul?  One thing I have learned is that we need a community of support.  We all need community to give us energy, to strengthen our voices, to offer constructive criticism when we stray off course."  Even having just one other person with whom we can process our thoughts and work through our frustrations can be life-saving.

While it's tempting to dismiss charges of racism as something that's relegated to the past, Dr. Tatum asserts that that kind of blissfully ignorant, wishful thinking doesn't solve the problem and only perpetuates the pain of those currently experiencing its ill effect, which is all of us.  "As a society, we pay a price for our silence.  Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society.  Individually, racism stifles our own growth and development.  It clouds our vision and distorts our perceptions.  It alienates us not only from others but also from ourselves and our own experiences."

Naturally, we're not to blame for the society into which we've been born, and many terrible events happened long before anyone alive today could influence them, but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands in despair and give up on change.  Nor does it mean that change isn't needed or that it's not our job to work toward needed change.  Dr. Tatum simply states, "It is not our fault, but it is our responsibility to interrupt this cycle."

"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations About Race
by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
ISBN: 9780465091270
Buy it on 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).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lent 2013 Wrap-up Or, For Boston

This posting is a little overdue, since Lent officially ended, oh, two weeks ago, but I thought it was only fair to give a brief post-mortem on my Lent-lite experience for this year.

As you may recall, I decided that for Lent this year I would "give up" something that was stealthily winding its way into greater prominence in my life.  I would "give up" negativity by replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones, or at least consciously trying to outnumber the negative ones with an overwhelming flood of the positive.

And then, when I started paying attention, my first discovery was that I was consistently more negative than I realized.  This was going to be harder than I thought...

To some extent I think we come pre-programmed with a tendency toward optimism or pessimism.  (If you read either of the books I reviewed earlier about Alice Herz-Sommer, you'll learn that she had a twin sister who was just as consistently pessimistic as Alice was consistently optimistic.)  But I don't think nature vs. nurture is always necessarily an either-or argument.  While there are some things we can't change, we can affect our thinking, our thought processes, our way of looking at the world.  Especially for those of us more inclined to be rain-cloud than silver-lining people, it needs to be a conscious choice and effort to seek out the good.

So I looked for inspiration in the wise words of others, by serving others, through mood-lifting music, by accepting my human limitations and increasing my appreciation for our human expansiveness.  And when I actively looked for the positive, it was fairly easy to find, and it got easier over the course of the six weeks of Lent as I developed that habit.

Just now, as I was in the middle of working on this post, news came in of the bombings at the Boston Marathon.  I handed my youngest the Kindle to distract him and watched the live TV coverage for a little while, refreshing my browser periodically to get the latest online updates, too.  As of last night - and it's changing frequently as new information comes in - they are reporting that there were two explosions about 500 feet apart within about 13 seconds of each other near the marathon finish line.  Three people are reported dead, including - heartbreakingly - an eight-year-old boy.  I can't help but imagine if that were my own almost-eight-year-old boy, and the thought, just the passing thought of it, steals my breath and physically hurts.  More than 140 people are being treated at area hospitals for injuries, some of them severe.  A day of celebration for a great city and for an incredible feat of human endurance, when thousands of people gathered together to cheer others on and recognize their amazing accomplishment, was appropriated by an evil person, or people, as a tool to inflict as much damage as possible.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” ~Mr. Rogers
If you've watched any of the footage of the explosions and their aftermath, you'll have seen there were - and are - so many of the helpers Mr. Rogers mentioned: first responders who bravely ran toward the explosions to do what they could, men in camouflage uniforms (I've seen conflicting reports on whether they are Massachusetts State Police or National Guardsmen) tearing down the barriers along the sidewalk to get to the victims, medical personnel at the hospitals saving lives and treating the wounded, marathon aides directing people out of harm's way and helping them stay calm, people coordinating to get the word out to others across the world that their loved ones in Boston are safe.  I read about physicians that were running the marathon or watching the race that immediately started to perform first aid.  So many people went to donate blood that the American Red Cross in Boston had to put out an announcement that they had received all the donations they could accept and had reached capacity.  There were also dozens, if not hundreds, of security and intelligence workers who diligently searched and swept the area to ensure no further devices would explode.  People are opening their homes to those displaced by the evacuations, and businesses are offering their products and services for free to those in need.

Like the sublime Mr. Rogers, I am comforted knowing that there are so many good, caring people in the world.  One evil person can cause a great deal of hurt, it's true, and they have, unfortunately, again and again.  Sometimes the brutality and inhumanity seem too overwhelming.  But good people, lots of good people, did what they could today to show us that evil is an aberration, not the norm.  They demonstrated that evil is not our default setting.

My Lent-ish experiment this year is not one that I'm allowing to end on Easter.  I will continue to seek out the good, the positive, the virtuous, the praiseworthy, and more importantly, to try to be one of the good ones, one of the helpers, as so many were yesterday in Boston.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I Am Not Omniscient and Neither Are You Or, Confessions of a Facebook Junkie

Yes, I'll admit it.  I'm a facebook junkie.  I've never played any of the silly farming or whatever games, but I am on facebook every day.  (I did live without it for six weeks for Lent 2012, and that was a valuable experience, though not one I'm likely to repeat any time soon.) I love having an easy way to connect with people around the world, folks I met or shared an experience with years ago, as well as people I know today.  (Not to mention that lovely warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see the dozens of birthday wishes on your wall that one day a year.)

But facebook has a dark side.  It's too easy.  Too easy, for example, to hit "share" in the heat of the moment and continue the insidious spread of misinformation. A few weeks back I posted a rant on my personal facebook page about those ridiculous posts that are read and shared, without even a momentary hesitation regarding whether they're accurate or not.  (No, Robin Williams did not come up with that foreign policy plan, nor did Bill Cosby say he was "tired" of "spreading the wealth".  Posting that privacy notice on your wall isn't going to do a blasted thing for you, and the children of members of Congress don't have their student loans automatically forgiven.)  In my rant I warned all my facebook friends that as long as they posted such things, I would continue my annoying practice of commenting on all of those posts with the appropriate link to Snopes debunking it.  Since then, I've noticed a marked decrease in the number of those kind of posts in my news feed, and only one unfriending.  (Maybe all my remaining friends are now blocking me so I don't see those posts, but I like to think that perhaps a few of them listened and are being a little more discriminating about what they post without verifying.)

It's also too easy to be mean, to shoot from the hip in the heat of the moment and broadcast divisive opinions far and wide.  While this heightened and inflammatory rhetoric on political, social, and religious topics is certainly not limited to facebook, I see more and more links to opinion pieces that mischaracterize opponents' positions (often by taking their words out of context), that insult the intelligence or question the goodwill of those who disagree, that employ logical fallacies like the "slippery slope" argument or the ever-popular "strawman."  More posts are written with the unspoken implication that "of course, this is the only possible way any truly intelligent, well-meaning person could view this issue, so if you disagree you must be either willfully ignorant or have malevolent intent."  And then, of course, the reactions to such a post are just as polarizing, either on the order of "Way to go!" and "I completely agree!" or "This is complete rubbish!" and "You're a $*%(@#$!"

This is not conducive to a productive conversation.

Perhaps it's because seeing multiple sides of an issue, and giving others the benefit of the doubt, is a skill I've worked hard to cultivate, but I just don't understand.  Do we really believe that those who disagree with us are either stupid or evil?

Are we so devoid of imagination and empathy that we honestly can't see the issue of gun control or public education or social security or gay marriage from an even slightly different angle?

Do we have to insist on a world that is so black and white that we can't acknowledge a tiny smidge of gray somewhere in the middle?

Are we so convinced of our own omniscience that we can't conceive of the concept that we might not have all the pieces, that there just might be something we still need to learn about an issue?  Or are we just so self-assured that if there is something we don't yet know, we're confident that it couldn't possibly contradict our current position?

What we believe makes perfect sense to us - our opinions develop as an outgrowth of our individual experiences, that's why we believe what we do - but what about someone who grew up in a different country, or in a family that looks different from yours, maybe in a different socioeconomic class or a different religion?  Are we positive that what is crystal clear to us from our experience is applicable across the board in every other situation?  If you've never been self-employed, can you be absolutely sure that you understand all the issues for entrepreneurs regarding health insurance, business taxes and safety regulations.  If you've never been a single mom with three little kids holding down two part-time jobs, are you absolutely sure that you completely understand the difficulty of finding good-quality, affordable child care, and what constitutes a reasonable sick leave policy?

To some degree, I get it.  It's scary to consider the possibility that someone else so different from us might be right, because that means that, maybe, we might be wrong.  And if we're wrong about this one thing, we could be wrong about something else.  And then, what else might we be wrong about?  Our whole worldview could crumble down around us before we know it.

But it doesn't have to.

Acknowledging that someone else has a valid point, and that you don't have all the pieces to the puzzle, doesn't mean you're wrong or that your worldview is null and void.  And it isn't the beginning of the end.  It's simply a beginning.  It's a humbling, vulnerable, frightening and wonderful beginning.  That beginning is the space where growth and learning can happen.

That's one reason I read so much, so that I can catch a glimpse of other people's lived experiences and maybe understand the world just a little bit better by trying to see it from their perspective.  I want that growth and learning, and that only comes when we accept that we are not omniscient and we may not have all the answers.

If we want others to listen to our opinions and recognize the validity in them, we need to be willing to extend the same courtesy to them.  I don't have the right to tell you that your lived experience is not valid, anymore than you can tell me that mine is not valid.  This doesn't mean we back down from our beliefs, or that we're silent.  On the contrary, I think it means more heart-felt conviction, more openness and honesty, and more conversation is needed.  But it also means giving others the benefit of the doubt.  It means asking sincere questions and really listening to the answers, and it means making a commitment to search for the common ground and build from there.

Maybe I'm delusional, but I, like Anne Frank, truly believe that most people really are good at heart.  Unless we're psychopaths, we all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones; we just have different ideas of how to get there.  Some pathways can be objectively shown to be better or more effective than others, some are simply a matter of opinion.  But no one's mind is going to be changed by vitriol from those they feel are misrepresenting and insulting them.

Being passionate about our opinions and beliefs is a good thing.  But refusing to consider other viewpoints, deliberately misrepresenting those with whom you disagree, and seeking to widen, rather than shrink, the gap between you and other reasonable, well-intentioned people is not.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 9


We bought more baby chicks on Wednesday afternoon, making us the proud owners of an even ten(!) chickens.  I can't remember when I've seen my boys more excited than when they each got to pick out their two baby chicks! Evan went with a Silver Wyandotte he named "Forty-Niner" and a Black Sex-Link named "Charger".  Josh settled on two (more) Buff Orpingtons and called one "Buffy the Third" and the other one "Brownie".  Will chose a Rhode Island Red and a New Hampshire Red, and they have been christened "Rhody" and "Red-head" respectively.  They are safely and warmly ensconced in a large box in our laundry room until they're big enough to go outside and the boys were up at 6:00 Thursday morning to play with them and, even with the extra half-hour of late-start day, they were so distracted they almost missed the bus.  We had one close call when the cat got in the laundry room (I warned the boys that Scrimper would view those cute little chicks as a delicious snack of chicken nuggets), but were able to get her back out without any harm done.  So we should be drowning in extra eggs sometime this summer.  If anyone's interested, let me know and I'll put you on the list...

Aren't they so cuuuuuuuuuute?


For my Spokane friends looking for a nice restaurant downtown, put Herbal Essence (yes, just like the shampoo) on your list.  I love supporting locally owned businesses, and especially stand-alone restaurants, and we discovered this small establishment several years ago, almost a decade now, I think.  They're just a block away from the INB Performing Arts Center, and while they're not the cheapest place in town, they are competitively priced for the high-quality food and a pleasant experience they provide.  Many of their dishes are Northwest-inspired and are often sourced locally.  I still have daydreams about a huckleberry-glazed salmon I ate there a while back.  And oh my goodness, their crab cakes...sorry, let me clean up that drool really quick...  Wednesday night we stopped by before going to a concert (see below) and it was delicious as always.  Of course, we ordered crab cakes for the appetizer.  Gene had a bacon-and-date-stuffed pork chop and I had prawns with linguine in a butter garlic white wine sauce.  Oh my yumminess!

Right now, they have a Groupon special going, for $20 you get a voucher for $40 off your total bill.  I don't know how long it'll last, so snatch it up while you can!
This is their signature salad with pears, gorgonzola, walnuts, and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Yum!
And it's pretty, too!


After dinner at Herbal Essence, we went to our final Historic Homes concert of the season, put on by Allegro, Baroque, and Beyond.  Allegro is a non-profit organization here in Spokane that produces period music and other arts events.  Gene and I have subscribed to their Music in Historic Homes series for a past few years and it's a perfect outing for the both of us.  I enjoy hearing a variety of beautifully performed classical music in a small, intimate chamber setting, and having a set-in-stone fancy date night at least those four times a year.  He likes that it's short (the concerts only last about 30-45 minutes) and that he gets to wander through some of Spokane's historic homes and admire the craftsmanship of an earlier time.  We both have learned tons about the history of Spokane from the brief presentations the homes' owners give after the concerts and before touring the houses, too.

The concert this past Wednesday was incredible.  Nancy and James Schoepflin performed on the piano and clarinet respectively to great effect.  They closed the program with a beautiful piece by Richard Rodney Bennett called "Ballad in Memory of Shirley Horn."  It was written in 2005 in honor of the amazing jazz singer (I just spent waaaaay too much time on youtube listening to her music - she's stunning!)  It was a gorgeous, moving ballad with just a hint of a jazz flare.  Wonderful way to finish out the season!


Have you ever been arguing with someone - in person, over the phone, on the internetz - when they make some ridiculous argument that you just can't even respond to because of its sheer level of ludicrousness? (That's totally a word, right?)  You need to bookmark Your Logical Fallacy Is....  I love, love, love this site! It provides brief explanations and appropriate examples for 24 fallacious arguing tactics from "The Gambler's Fallacy" to "Bandwagon" and "Ad Hominem" to "Burden of Proof".  Being able to put names to these commonly used methods has helped me to recognize them in real life, to strengthen my explanations of my own positions and root out some arguments I'd been using that don't hold water as well as I initially thought they did.  (There are definitely some that I am more likely to fall prey to than others.)  You can even purchase (or download for free) a poster that shows all 24 logical fallacies, if you like, perhaps as a passive-aggressive gift for that special someone?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lessons from Alice Herz-Sommer: "We all see only what we want to see."

In my column published on Meridian Magazine today, I highlight two books about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor.  She spent almost two years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp from the summer of 1943 until liberation in May 1945.  Despite the horrors she saw and experienced there, including the loss of her dear husband and many friends, to this day she maintains an almost unearthly sense of optimism and love for her fellow human beings.  Go read my reviews here, and I'm confident you'll add Alice Herz-Sommer to your list of heroes.

After a hundred-plus years of life, she has some very astute observations about people. There are a couple in particular that really got me thinking, beyond what I could put in the other review, so I'm going to take a post or two to type out my thoughts on them.  Here's the first:

"We all see only what we want to see."  

Alice said this regarding the Red Cross workers who came to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and bought the Nazi propaganda that Jews were being treated well.  In anticipation of their visit, the Nazis had shipped out several thousand prisoners to death camps so it didn't look as crowded as usual, cleaned up the barracks and surrounding area, printed fake money and created a fake bank, staged false businesses including a bakery complete with delicious baked goods the prisoners weren't allowed to touch, cleaned the streets, planted flowers, installed playgrounds, and instructed the inmates to be cheerful and assure the Red Cross that they were happy.  They then carefully herded the Red Cross visitors through a precisely orchestrated dog-and-pony show designed to minimize their contact with any of the prisoners who might let the pretty facade slip.  And the Red Cross bought it.  They saw what they wanted to see; people who may have been confined to one place, but certainly weren't being treated like animals or, unthinkably, exterminated.  Of course, after the outsiders had left, conditions at the camp returned to their normal, bleak, dehumanizing condition.

But it's also a statement on how Alice survived those deplorable conditions.  She saw what she wanted to see, and that was that through the ugly reality, beauty still existed.  She saw the goodness and courage and humanity displayed by her friends and loved ones, the strength and passion of the music she played and heard.  She also consciously chose to look ahead, rather than behind.  Instead of dwelling in the dark of her horrible time in Theresienstadt, she decided to look to the future and see what she wanted to see there: a productive and fulfilled life together with her son.

When I was in high school, I attended a part-day magnet school for the arts and studied theatre.  One year we developed our own original play based on a collection of poems written by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, called "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."  As a teenager, it was deeply affecting for me to learn in depth about the Holocaust and Hitler's unimaginable Final Solution.  After each performance we had a question & answer session with the audience.  One night, my high school German teacher asked how we felt about the German people after studying the Holocaust, and with my teenage arrogance and self-assurance, I raised my hand and said some incredibly poorly-worded and impolitic version of this:  "I've been learning the German language for a couple of years and have grown to love the German people and culture.  A lot of the regular German people didn't really know what was going on.  They didn't realize what the ultimate plan was..."  At this point another audience member cut in and basically dressed me down for being a Nazi apologist.  It was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life.  If I could go back, I'd say something like this:

"It's human nature to see only what we want to see.  Many of the German people saw that Hitler was offering them a scapegoat in the Jewish people and grasped at it with both hands.  After all, if they could blame all their problems on the Jews, if it was someone else's fault, they wouldn't have to face hard truths about their reality.  They took advantage of their Jewish neighbors, former friends, hovering like vultures, waiting for their forced evictions, confiscating their property and their homes, refusing to stand up for them out of fear or indifference.  They allowed themselves to see their Jewish neighbors as less than people.

"While Hitler's Final Solution was kept a secret from all but the highest levels of German leadership until the very end, as a whole, the German people at the time, as well as many others around the world, didn't open their eyes to see the injustices being committed because they didn't want to.  It was easier not to.  There is a responsibility inherent in truly seeing, in claiming accountability for one's own actions.  If you acknowledge something terrible is happening, your humanity, your very soul, will demand that you do something about it, or your choice not to act will fester and haunt you, and change how you see yourself and even who you are.

"There were some Germans, and those from other nations, who courageously hid Jews, or refused to participate and resisted every way they could.  And we all hope that if we lived during that time, we would have been among those who would have resisted, who would have stood up and said, 'No, this is wrong,' even at the expense of our safety or our family's lives.  But the only way to know that for sure is to act that way in our own lives now.  We need to decide that we will be among those today who strive to see things as they are; who refuse to accept the easy, placating answers; who will acknowledge and even embrace the hard, sometimes ugly, truths, but will also look for the goodness and beauty that still exist; and who will then work to make the situation better however we can."