Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lessons from Alice Herz-Sommer: "Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one's need to think."

Several months ago, I expounded on a profound statement from Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor.  An unfailing optimist in even the worst of times, Alice kept a positive attitude and chose to look forward to the future rather than dwell in the past.  (The two books I read about her life and her philosophy were inspiring; you can read those reviews here.  She also appears in several youtube videos well worth watching, both spoken interviews and musical performances.)  It's been a while, but I've been thinking about an incident from her life and wanted to explore what it might mean.

Adolf Eichmann was one of the organizational masterminds behind the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to entirely eliminate the Jewish people.  He oversaw the concentration camps and was the "Transportation Administrator" - oh, the euphemisms! - in charge of the deportation of Jews to ghettos and death camps.  He believed so fervently in his work of extermination that even when his superior officer Heinrich Himmler ordered him to halt the work of death and focus on destroying evidence, he refused and continued to send men, women, and children to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.  After the war he managed to escape, and spent 15 years living in Argentina before being captured by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and returned to Israel to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In 1960, Alice was living in Jerusalem and attended Adolf Eichmann's trial.  She took particular note of one portion of his testimony: “I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one’s need to think.”

I've been chewing over this quote ever since reading the books.  Obedience is generally lauded as a good quality.  As a parent, I sure like it when my children obey me right away, no questions asked - in large part, I like it because it makes my life easier.  If my children do as they are told instantly, it's less work for me.  It's also quicker.  I don't have to stop and explain why I want them to pick up their clothes, go feed the chickens, or do their homework.  Of course, there are advantages for them, too.  If they are about to do something dangerous and are obedient when I tell them to stop, they can be saved from pain or trouble.  If they respond immediately when I ask them to do chores, they can develop good habits that will help them later in life.  So obedience to parents is a good thing.

But then there are horribly abusive parents.  Or those who use their children to help them commit crimes.

In the military, following orders is paramount.  You can be court-martialed, jailed, and dishonorably discharged for disobeying a direct order.  Instantaneous and affirmative response is vital to successfully achieving military objectives and is absolutely expected and necessary for the military to function smoothly, to protect our vital national interests.  So obedience in a military setting is good.

But then there's the Holocaust.  Or Abu Ghraib.  Or My Lai.

In a religious setting, we often hear about the importance of obedience, too.  An omnipotent God gives us commandments that He knows will help us be happy, so it would be foolish to disregard them.  And Church leaders are His mouthpiece on earth; therefore, we should immediately follow their guidance as well.  So obedience within the framework of a church is good.

But then there's the Mountain Meadows massacre.  Or mass suicides by cult members.  Or the Inquisition.

Personally, I think anything that encourages one to "reduce to a minimum one's need to think" is dangerous. I'm immediately suspicious of any group, organization, philosophy, or person that attempts to dissuade people from thinking for themselves, or even tries to dampen curiosity.  My first thought is, "What are they afraid of?"  My second is, "What are they hiding?"  Truth and goodness can withstand the most minute examination and have nothing to fear from questions.

If someone else is making all the decisions and we simply do as we're told without question, life would certainly be easier, but then where is the opportunity for growth, the chance to become more than we are, to become better, stronger, more confident in our own abilities?  And isn't the point of this life to improve ourselves, to be a little smarter, a little kinder, a little better than we were?  If the point of obedience is mindlessness and stagnation, then I'm as anti-obedience as they come.

But I don't believe that choosing to be obedient necessarily equates to not thinking.  Isn't it possible to take a look at our options and decide that being obedient is the best choice we can make because what we are being asked to do is good and right?  Do we have to examine every request for our obedience with the same rigorous examination, essentially reinventing the wheel every time?

Another point, being obedient or following orders certainly does not absolve us of the responsibility for our actions.  If we are ordered to do something that we know is wrong, obedience is not an excuse for carrying it out.  For example, the Nuremberg trials codified unequivocally that "following orders" was no defense for war crimes.  Everyone has a conscience, inner voice, angel/devil on the shoulder, the light of Christ, whatever you want to call it, that warns them when something isn't quite right and I believe we have a higher allegiance to that personal, individual guidance than to any external influence.

We shouldn't ever voluntarily give up our need to think, to consider, to ensure that what we are being told to do is in line with our personal moral code.  We cannot abdicate our responsibility to be accountable for our actions, whether we select them ourselves or choose to be obedient to others.  So we need to be extremely selective when deciding whom we should obey, and re-evaluate those decisions occasionally.

I don't have any real answers here, folks.  I've been struggling with trying to balance the see-saw of obedience and personal responsibility for decades now.  But then, I've always had over-developed sense of confidence in my own opinions.  I'd welcome your thoughts on the topic.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

If there is a single genre of written literature I avoid, it would be horror. I just can't get into the blood and guts and scaring-myself-for-entertainment thing at all. And if you were asked to name the quintessential horror writer of our modern times, Stephen King would, of course, be at the top of the list. In fact, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is the first and only Stephen King book I've read. While I still don't plan to pick up any of his others, due to the aforementioned aversion to horror, I found this memoir focusing on his writing life both helpful and surprisingly moving.

Mr. King starts out with a series of vignettes - "snapshots" he calls them, "most out of focus" - from his childhood, youth, and young adulthood, each of which adds a piece to the puzzle of his writing career. He talks about his earliest memories of imagining to be someone else, his childhood illnesses, the first time it occurred to him that he could write his own original stories. "I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think)."

He continues chronicling writing influences. His family didn't own a television until he was 11 years old, and he started submitting stories to magazines when he was 13, collecting pink rejection slips by impaling them on a nail in his bedroom wall. He watched horror movies and science fiction flicks, wrote a serial story for his brother's neighborhood newspaper, became the editor of his school paper, and got detention for The Village Vomit, a satirical take-down of various teachers and staff. The local paper hired him to cover sports, and the editor there, John Gould, "taught me more than any [of my high school or college composition classes], and in no more than ten minutes." Mr. King is not at all shy about giving praise and credit where it is due.

And then this hardened authority on horror actually got downright mushy when he started talking about meeting and marrying his wife. "Tabby never voiced a single doubt...Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given...Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference." I was so drawn in to their relationship that I cried happy tears right along with his wife when he described the day he got the phone call from his publisher that the paperback rights to Carrie, his first novel, sold for four hundred thousand dollars, a lot of money for a high school teacher barely scraping by.

The second section of the book focuses more on mechanics: characterization, theme, plot, symbolism. Quite a bit of this isn't new for anyone who has read about writing before. Avoid the passive tense. The adverb is not your friend. "If you want to be a writer, read a lot and write a lot." "Try anything you like. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."

Having just recently read another book about writing, I found it interesting how frequently Mr. King's process diverged from Rachel Aaron's. For example, she likes to start her first rewrite within a day or so of finishing a book. Mr. King suggests waiting a minimum of six weeks and preferably more. Ms. Aaron outlines her plot and characters in detail before she begins writing and refers back to her outlines frequently. Mr. King likes to start with a situation and characters "always flat and unfeatured, to begin with." He sets this group "in some sort of predicament and then watch[es] them try to work themselves free." To each his or her own, I suppose, and the only way to know which works for you would be to try it out and see.

In 1999, Mr. King was hit by a van while out on a walk near his home in Maine. The final twenty pages of On Writing provide details of the accident and his recovery. While my car accident was not nearly as traumatic as his, there were enough similarities that my heart rate rose and tears came to my eyes while I was reading his story. This section of the book, which has the least to do with writing, was by far the most memorable and moving to me. He spoke of returning to writing almost two months after the accident, when it was still excruciatingly painful to sit in the same position for any period of time. "The scariest moment," he said, "is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better."

Based on his reputation as a master of horror, I have to admit that I was not expecting as much humor as I found in this book. Mr. King skillfully highlighted the absurd in every story he told and lightened the dark with the amusing. For example, during his painful recovery from the accident, he had to relearn how to walk and shared this brief scene that made me laugh out loud:
A day or two after those initial steps [his first after the accident], I started physical therapy.
During my first session I managed ten steps in a downstairs corridor, lurching along with the help of a walker. One other patient was learning to walk again at the same time, a wispy eighty-year-old woman named Alice who was recovering from a stroke. We cheered each other on when we had enough breath to do so. On our third day in the downstairs hall, I told Alice that her slip was showing.
"Your ass is showing, sonnyboy," she wheezed, and kept going.
And then there's this passage, which I'm going to print out and stick just above my keyboard for when I need this reminder: "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
ISBN: 9780684853529
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, hardcover, ebook, 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).

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 24


Sunday before last, my aunt Tanya, my cousin Jenny, and her 7 kids were in a car accident in New York, on their way to a family reunion. Aunt Tanya was killed instantly. Jenny and two of her children were hurt badly, while the other 5 escaped with relatively minor injuries (many thanks to the Good Samaritans who stopped at the scene to help). Please consider including them in your prayers/positive thoughts/good mojo, whatever form of communication with the Almighty you prefer. While they are all making encouraging progress, they have a long road to recovery ahead of them and the entire family and many friends are mourning the loss of an amazing and dynamic woman.

If you are able to contribute and feel so inclined, a donation page has been set up to help with mounting medical expenses.


We spent a week on the Olympic Peninusla earlier this month and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly (until we timed it wrong and drove on I-5 on a Friday afternoon - that was fairly miserable).  Camping is one of our favorite family activities and we had a great time exploring this new-to-us area of the world, hiking, and even learning along the way.  (When I insisted we stop at a Native American museum in Neah Bay, I made the mistake of saying, "Let's go see what we can learn!"  The response was a chorus of groans.  "But Mom, it's summer! We're not supposed to learn anything!"  Au contraire, mon fils.)

Olympic National Park is billed as "three parks in one" because it has glacial mountains:

At the pinnacle of a hike near Hurricane Ridge.

rain forests:

In the Hoh Rainforest.

and beaches:

On Ruby Beach along the Pacific Ocean.

And they're all breath-taking in their own way.  Well worth the trip, if you have the chance.


On our way over to the Olympic Peninsula, we stopped in Seattle for the night at an incredibly busy KOA. (When we arrived at our postage-stamp-sized assigned spot, crammed in between two other already occupied campsites, my oldest exclaimed with disgust, "This isn't camping!  This is crowded camping!")  Then, we surprised our boys with tickets to a Mariners baseball game.  They were beside themselves with excitement and we all had a blast!  (The Mariners even won!)

My boys with the Mariners Moose!

The highlight of the trip was when we hiked out to Cape Flattery, the northwestern most point of the continental United States.  A juvenile gray whale was surfacing right below the viewpoint just as we arrived!  She (he?) swam right around the point, surfacing and spouting several more times until rounding the corner into the Strait of Juan de Fuca out of sight.  We were all absolutely thrilled.  (Of course, that was the precise moment my camera decided not to work.  A couple who arrived just before us took a few pictures and offered to email them to us...Marcelle and Ray, I hope you come through!)
This isn't "our" gray whale, but it was taken in
the Puget Sound, which is fairly close to Cape Flattery,
and it's roughly comparable to what we saw of "our" whale.
(Courtesy jazzbassnorm via flickr)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Walker, Turley, and Leonard

Every people has shady, hidden corners of the past that they would prefer to sweep under the rug and pretend didn't exist.  For Latter-day Saints, the Mountain Meadows massacre represents the very darkest shadow in our history.  The cold-blooded murder of more than one hundred men, women, and children was an inexplicably evil act by those who should have known better, who professed not only Christianity, but a better and purer and more righteous form of it.  It's difficult and uncomfortable for modern Latter-day Saints to think about, so many simply choose not to, or attempt to justify the unjustifiable.

But pretending the ugly parts don't exist doesn't make them disappear.  Ignoring them doesn't make them less visible or less heinous.  Rather, it reduces our credibility and diminishes any moral authority we might have.  We seem ignorant at best, hypocritical at worst.  So it is vital that we learn about our history - both the good and the bad - and are honest about it.

As Justice Louis Brandeis declared, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."  Written by three faithful Latter-day Saints who are professional historians, Massacre at Mountain Meadows shines a bright light on the events leading up to September 11, 1857.  Walker, Turley and Leonard gathered primary sources from across the country regarding the massacre, and were given unprecedented access to Church historical archives.  "Church leaders supported our book by providing full and open disclosure," they said in their introduction.  "Only complete and honest evaluation of the tragedy can bring the trust necessary for lasting good will."

The authors excel at explaining events in the context of the time and culture.  They cover the deep-seated, and not entirely irrational, fear among the Mormons that the U.S. Army was on its way to invade and occupy their lands.  Militant sermons given by Church leaders stirred up a sense of fear and urgency among the members in outlying settlements.  The recent widespread revival, later called the Mormon Reformation, led to a religious retrenchment and a suspicion of anyone even slightly out of lockstep with the Church leadership.  Even simple aspects like the dry weather and poor crop yield, and difficulty of communicating over long distances before the telegraph was available affected the tragic outcome.

1857 was a busy year for emigrants coming through Utah settlements.  After two years of drought, the high number of travelers with cattle led to over-grazing, angering the locals who had to travel farther and farther to find food for their animals.  Church leaders, including Brigham Young, fearful of running out of food in case of an invasion, had ordered their people not to sell any grain.  Likewise, they were unwilling to sell weapons and ammunition to people who they thought may turn against them in the war they believed was coming.

Tensions rose between the Mormon settlers and the emigrants as emigrants tried to buy food and supplies, but were repeatedly refused.  Some emigrants were belligerent and insulting to the Mormons.  Some locals were likewise rude and condescending toward the emigrants.  While thoroughly exploring the causes of the massacre, Walker, Turley, and Leonard repeatedly refuse to make excuses for the inexcusable.
There were conflicts on the southern road.  But the emigrants did not deserve what eventually happened to them at Mountain Meadows  The massacre was not inevitable.  No easy absolution for the perpetrators is possible.  Their later posturing and rationalization could never overcome one irrefutable fact: All the purported wrongs of the emigrants-even if true-did not justify the killing of a single person.  The best that could be argued was that during a time of uncertainty and possible war, some of the Mormons, like other men and women throughout history, did not match their behavior with their ideals.
July 24 is celebrated by Latter-day Saints all over the world as Pioneer Day, marking the day in 1847 when Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley.  There is much to admire about these industrious pioneers who carved civilization out of the Utah desert.  There is also much to learn from the mistakes they made, especially in something as tragic as the massacre:  
The southern road in late summer 1857 was not just about miles traveled or events along the way.  It was also about that complex web of fear, misunderstanding, and retribution that prepares normally decent people to kill.  Most everything fit the scholarly pattern: The settlers began to see the emigrants as the 'other' or enemy, believing the outsiders somehow threatened the values and well-being of the Mormon community.  Rumors circulated that were untrue or enlarged beyond proportion, and southern Utah society was vulnerable to this excitement.  The region was isolated from Salt Lake City.  Mixed signals floated down the trail about Indian and emigrant policy.  Civil, religious, and military power was dangerously held in the hands of a few.  Impoverished settlers knew the virtues of obeying.
Don't participate in passing inflammatory rumors along.  Keep lines of communication open.  Clarify policy and ask questions when something isn't clear.  Actively fight against the tendency to see different people as "Other".  Refuse to obey orders that contradict your moral code.

The best way to honor our pioneer forebears is to learn from their lives and to do better.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows
by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Glen M. Leonard
ISBN: 9780195160345
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, ebook, 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).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth

This is Jennifer Worth's third and final installment of her Midwife series.  With advances in medicine, societal and industrial changes, old housing condemned and new housing being built, the face of London's East End altered dramatically and the necessity for the midwives and nuns of Nonnatus House began to wane.

As with the other two books, The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times and Shadows of the Workhouse, most of the stories in Farewell to the East End have already been featured as part of the PBS television series, Call the Midwife.  Interestingly, there were more differences I noted between the stories as Ms. Worth told them in this book and the stories as they were portrayed on TV, than in previous books.  And, as with the other books, Ms. Worth tackles hard topics in this one: "lost" babies, abortion, widespread death of children from tuberculosis, and spousal abuse, to name a few.

It's quite apparent from what Ms. Worth shares, that the 1950s were not the idyllic time period we like to look back on with rose-tinted visions of Leave It to Beaver dancing in our heads.  As Sister Monica Joan, that irascible eccentric retired nun, said, "We were the greatest empire the world had ever seen.  We were the richest nation in the world.  Yet turn the light just a little and you see destitution so terrible that men and women were driven to kill their own babies."  (Another great book to read about this nostalgia-induced false history is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz.)

Jennifer Worth had come from a solidly middle-class background.  Her experiences as a midwife in London's East End opened her eyes to a world she had not known existed except, perhaps, in theory, and living and working with the nuns opened her heart to faith.  Her years at Nonnatus House were a "spiritual journey" and she acknowledges that "I owe to the Sisters more than I could possibly repay...The words 'if God really does exist, then that must have implications for the whole of life.'"  While she served the people of Poplar, her soul was fed as well.

Her admiration for the nuns is palpable.  "The nuns generated adventure.  They plunged headlong into anything, fearlessly: unlit streets and courtyards, dark, sinister stairways, the docks, brothels; they would tackle rogue landlords, abusive parents - nothing was outside their scope."  She continues, "We took our lead from the Sisters, and feared nothing...My colleagues and I loved every minute of it."

This series is ostensibly about mid-century nursing and midwifery in London, and it provides a fascinating and intimate view into a world that no longer exists.  But it is also about transformation and shifting perspectives, about a young woman's growing appreciation for the way others live - and die.  "Life is made of happiness and tragedy in equal proportions," she says.  "A life's work fulfilled and finished is a triumph."


Farewell to the East End
by Jennifer Worth
ISBN: 9780062270061
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Far more thought-provoking than the "chick-lit" label would indicate, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? addresses deeply felt issues of motherhood, class and the art of creation (or is it the creation of art?).

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is written as a collection of documents - letters, emails, blog posts, reports - gathered by Bernadette's daughter, Bee, in an attempt to track her mother's whereabouts after her disappearance, with occasional explanatory interludes by Bee tying them all together.  The story moves along at a good clip and is alternately laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerking with its sincere sentiment.

In some ways, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is a cautionary tale, a warning of what happens to a woman who - voluntarily or not - gives up on actively using and developing her talents.  The mean-spirited destruction of Bernadette's architectural masterpiece shattered her spirit, replacing her enthusiasm and creativity with doubt and resentment.  She feels that she is a failure, "an artist who couldn't overcome failure."  This lack of confidence was only compounded by a series of devastating miscarriages - "I can't make anything without destroying it" - followed by the birth of sickly baby girl.  In a desperate moment, Bernadette bargained with God: "'I will never build again,' I said to God. '...if you'll keep my baby alive.' It worked."  But at what cost to Bernadette herself?

One brief, but poignant, moment stayed with me.  One of the documents Bee publishes is an article about Bernadette in Artforum magazine.  The article's author mentions doing a Google search to try to discover what the elusive Bernadette Fox is up to years after falling off the architectural map.  He finds a listing in a school auction brochure for a tree house designed and built by Bernadette.  That no one bid on.  The one tentative attempt she made to reach out and try to practice her art again was completely unappreciated.

Ms. Semple skillfully juxtaposed the mind-numbing mundanity of domesticity with the depth of emotion that being a parent prompts, which is very much how I experience parenthood. One minute I'm wiping down the table or doing the dishes yet again and the next I'm kissing a boo-boo and hugging a tearful boy, almost floored by how much I love the little stinker.  Ms. Semple captured this particularly well through Bee's eyes.  After listening to "Here Comes the Sun" in the car together, Bee notices her mom tearing up and protests.  "'Mom!' This is why I didn't want her to come to the first-grade elephant dance.  Because the most random things get her way too full of love."  Sorry, kiddo.  It's part of being a parent.

For that matter, it's a part of life whether you're a parent or not.  Bee attends a nativity play with a friend's church youth group and is moved by the humanity and love she feels not only from those joyfully experiencing the play and music in the moment with her, but all those that contributed to keeping her alive as a baby and all of those who have influenced her life since then.
Maybe that's what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place.  I don't know if it's possible to feel everything all at once, so much that you think you're going to burst...I felt so full of love for everything.  But at the same time, I felt so hung out to dry there, like nobody could ever understand.  I felt so alone in this world, and so loved at the same time.
Bernadette is not always likable, however, which I thought was a strength of the book.  It showed Bernadette as a real, three-dimensional person, full of flaws and quirks, rather than just as a victim or heroine.  She is downright dismissive and disdainful of the other parents at her daughter's school - she calls them "gnats" - and I got annoyed by her unexamined privilege and warped sense of reality due to the insane amount of money her husband makes working at Microsoft.  Something's wrong?  Let's throw lots of money at it until it goes away!  That makes it all better!

There were a few times I had to suspend my disbelief to make a plot point work, though I'm not going to spell those out in the interest of remaining at least partially spoiler-free.  But on the whole, this book really worked for me as an affirmation of each person's need to do what s/he was meant to do, and of the deep love that can coexist with "the banality of life."

(There's some language in the book, including a few f-words, so be aware if that's an issue for you.)


Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
by Maria Semple
ISBN: 9780316204279
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, audiobook, 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).

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 23


Randy Travis has been very ill over the past couple of weeks.  I was shocked when I realized that he's only 54, because he looks decades older; he's had a rough few years.  My dad listened to country music radio when I was a kid - he still does today - and Randy Travis came on the music scene when I was around nine or ten, so his songs are tinged with nostalgia for me.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Forever and Ever, Amen (One of his earliest #1s, released in 1987.)

Deeper Than the Holler (Another #1 from the late 1980s, sung here as a duet with Josh Turner.)

Ok, just one more.  This is Whisper My Name, a hit from the mid-1990s.  Try to ignore the epic hair.


I am not an athletic person.  Never have been.  I played one season of soccer in (I think) third grade and it was one of the more miserable experiences of my life.  That is the extent of my sports career.  And I'm definitely not a runner.  I feel absolute awe towards those who regularly complete marathons and the like, but I can honestly say I've never been tempted to join their number.


One of my young women from church wanted to start the Couch to 5K program in preparation for a 5K run on Labor Day.  And I wanted to be supportive.  And I've known that I need to get some exercise and get in better shape for a while.  So here was my chance.

I like that the program ramps up slowly.  The beginning of the week is still a challenge for those of us who are out of shape, but it's a manageable challenge and while I can't say that I love running, I do feel better after I finish the day's outlined run.  And it's been fun to spend a little more time with some great young women.

We're at the end of week three now and that's one-third of the way through!  Only six weeks to go!


How is it possible that my oldest child has absolutely NO socks that don't have holes in the heels?  Seriously.  I just did laundry and threw away about a dozen socks because they had holes you could stick a baseball through and realized that left him with one pair, and that one's looking pretty sketchy.  Are they all like that or is there a brand of socks out there somewhere that is at least a little more durable?
They pretty much all looked like this.  Except
he wouldn't be caught dead in Patriots socks...
photo courtesy chipgriffin via flickr

I love running in to people I know when I'm out and about around town.  In one day this past week I bumped into the owner of my favorite restaurant in Spokane, a grad school classmate, and one of my young women from church and her mom.  And it's always nice when their reaction is a genuine, glad-to-see-you smile. :)

And if you haven't been to Cafe Italiano, yet...go!  And tell Vagelie I said hi!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dusting Off: Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess

Ms. Riess is a member of my faith, a Latter-day Saint, and I appreciate her openness to exploring how the practices of other faith traditions can help her spiritual life.  This book, along with Project Conversion and several other experiences I had around the same time, was a major factor in shifting my focus to interfaith outreach.  There's so much to learn from others!


In the prologue, Ms. Riess mentions how when she presented her editor with the result of her year of trying out a dozen spiritual practices, none of which she felt she successfully completed, she felt "dejected" because of her failures. Her editor encouraged her to view her experiences in a different light and shift the focus of the book to exploring the "wild acceptability of failure." Which I like. But after reading the book, I don't think she was a failure at all.

Ms. Riess may not have perfected any of the approaches she tested during the year, but in her own words, she refused to allow the "perfect" to be "the enemy of good." She points out that "numbers don't tell the whole story: I feel closer to God and to the communion of saints. That's got to count for something, because it feels like it means everything." Exactly! All of these practices she explores, whether fasting, generosity, Sabbath observance, or a specific type of prayer, are means to an end: growing closer to God. And if her sincere but imperfect attempts helped her creep even an inch or two closer to the Divine, I don't think it can count as a failure.

I liked the varied sources from which she drew and I've added several of them to my reading list. The quotes from saints and others scattered throughout in sidebars were thought-provoking. And Ms. Riess added her own snarky, self-deprecating little asides on practically every page that were encouraging in their very recognition of the universality of imperfection, the desire for closeness with God and with others, and the human drive for personal improvement.

I do wish that some of the chapters were expanded. 12 or 14 pages hardly seems enough to cover a month's worth of experiences, thoughts, and study of hospitality, mindfulness, or scripture reading. But on the whole, I found Ms. Riess's book enlightening, challenging, encouraging and insightful. It's one I'll read again.


Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor
by Jana Riess
ISBN: 9781557256607
Buy it from Amazon here: (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).

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 22


My oldest had a birthday this past week.  We only do birthday parties every even birthday (because that's about all this mama can handle), and since Will turned 11 it was his "off" year.  But he picked out his birthday cake, helped me deliver Meals on Wheels, had a good friend come over and hang out for several hours, and got to go to a baseball game that evening where they announced his birthday:

and his Papa Frank bought him an elephant ear.

According to him, life doesn't get much better than that.  Happy birthday, Will!


This video made the rounds earlier this week and I laughed myself sick watching it.  The impressions are dead on, both the vocal patterns of the General Authorities and their wording choices, and I think I find it funnier every time I watch it.  Enjoy!

It's unbelievable how well he captures each individual's unique tone and diction.  It's really quite masterful.


I don't usually purchase ebooks, but this one came recommended by a blog I follow, it was cheap, and the title is certainly tantalizing: 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.

Writing used to be fairly easy for me, but it's gotten harder lately.  Maybe it's the fact that I seem to have so many more interruptions (**cough** children **cough**) than I used to.  Or maybe it's that I don't have a secluded place where I can close the door and write without distractions (thank you, Virginia Woolf).  Or maybe it's just facebook.  But this book held out the hope that I might be able to find a tip or two to increase my writing output.

The author writes fantasy novels, so some of what she talks about doesn't really apply to the writing I do: characterization, plot, etc.  And the ebook really could have used an editor.  But quite a few of her suggestions have a lot of merit and I'm going to try to put them into practice consistently and see if it helps.  I'll let you know how it goes.


I just realized that I passed 100 posts last week!  The Friday Four one week ago was #100.  That deserves some sort of acknowledgement and celebration, I think...

100!  Woo hoo!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dusting Off: Amish Grace by Kraybill, Nolt, & Weaver-Zercher

Following-up on the SpokaneFAVS Coffee Talk from last Saturday about forgiveness and my post about it yesterday, this is my review of the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy which looks at the response of the Amish community to the devastating shooting that costs several young girls their lives.  I originally read this book (and wrote this review) in November 2011.


This is my thirteenth attempt this week to write this review. I've started a dozen previous times only to scrap my feeble first sentences when I can't seem to get any traction. Words fail me every time I try to describe my emotions when I first read about the school shooting at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in rural Pennsylvania in October 2006. Of course, any school shooting is cause for sadness and anger, fear and heartbreak, confusion and worry, but the premeditated murder of these young Amish girls is beyond unfathomable to me.

I can't imagine how it would feel to have a loved one so young and innocent taken away from me so suddenly, so violently. However, what I find even more extraordinary, almost inexplicable, is the response of the Amish families immediately following the tragedy. As a community, they reached out to the shooter's wife and children and to his parents, all of whom lived close by. Many attended the gunman's funeral to offer comfort to his family. The committee formed by the community to choose where donated funds would be spent designated some of the money they received for the shooter's widow. They grieved, felt anger, and wept; they mourned those they lost and supported those who were healing from their injuries, but unanimously reserved judgment for God and God alone.

The authors, Drs. Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher, are not Amish – indeed, the tenets of the faith emphasizing humility and community while denouncing self-centeredness preclude the possibility of a first-person Amish account – but they have interacted with, researched, and written about the Amish extensively. They present the tragic story of the Nickel Mines shooting in a nuanced and respectful context, explaining the Amish faith in the words of anonymous Amish men and women who “believe in letting our light shine, but not shining it in the eyes of other people.”

Significantly, the authors are careful to differentiate between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation. Where pardon would free the wrongdoer from any disciplinary consequence and reconciliation would mean the restoration of the relationship between the one who was wronged and the person who committed the wrong, forgiveness is an unconditional release of resentment, replacing “negative feelings toward the wrongdoer with love and generosity.”

For the Amish, forgiveness is a way of life. It is an expectation, reiterated frequently in daily life and in every religious gathering. Drawing from the New Testament, particularly Matthew's recounting of the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the unforgiving servant, the Amish see a direct link between their willingness to forgive others and their ability to be forgiven by God. One Amish farmer and minister stated simply “The Lord's Prayer plays a big part in our forgiveness. If we can't forgive, then we won't be forgiven.” This doesn't mean that it's always easy to forgive. “Genuine forgiveness takes a lot of work...even after a decision to forgive has been made.” However, Drs. Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher state that “unlike most people, an Amish person begins the task atop a three-hundred-year-old tradition that teaches the love of enemies and the forgiveness of offenders.”

In one interesting section, the authors address a question they fielded from many media outlets in the aftermath of the shooting: “Are the Amish prepared to deal with a tragedy like this?” Their paradoxical answer was “Of course, the Amish were not prepared... – except, of course, they were.” In reality, “no community is ever prepared for such a calamity” and the Amish are no exception. In fact, with their low incidence of crime, extremely selective use of technology (which almost completely excludes violent images from video games, television shows and movies from their experience), and a deep sense of security that comes from living where your neighbors are also your family and long-time friends, the Amish would seem to be less prepared than most for such an event. 

However, the close-knit community of family and friends bound together by a common faith and culture provides an immense well of strength, support and “mutual aid.” In addition, “forgiveness is woven into the very fabric of Amish life, its sturdy threads having been spun from faith in God, scriptural mandates, and a history of persecution.” The forgiveness and grace that the Amish demonstrated were “spontaneous expressions of faith” that sprang from their love of God. If all Christians – all people of any faith – would emulate the Amish in this, our world would be much better off.


Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David Weaver-Zercher
Website: Amish Grace
ISBN: 9780787997618
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, audiobook, 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).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Forgiveness and Anger

On Saturday I attended another Spokane Faith and Values Coffee Talk, this one at Chairs Coffee on Indiana Avenue in Spokane.  The topic up for discussion was forgiveness.

Not ambitious at all...

The conversation was wide-ranging, from discussing the definition of forgiveness, to talking about "big things" like the Holocaust, to asking if anger is ever appropriate, to exploring how forgiveness and justice intersect.  A whole lot of food for thought.  And, of course, fodder for blog posts. :)

The interplay between anger and forgiveness has been on my mind lately.  I recently read a blog post that rejected anger as a source of any good at all and I found myself very uncomfortable with the author's wholesale denunciation of the emotion.

I once heard it said (I so wish I could remember where) that when we feel anger, it's a signal that someone has crossed our boundaries and we don't feel safe.  It's a warning sign telling us to take action to protect ourselves and change the situation.  If we ignore it, or repress it, we will be less able to sense those dangerous situations, and we will be less able to protect ourselves and others.

Anger is also one of the stages of grief.  Whether we are grieving a lost loved one, or dealing with a life change we hadn't expected, or in the middle of a traumatic shifting of our worldview, anger is a natural part of that process.  For example, the aforementioned blog post was at least partially directed at "angry feminists".  Well, many feminists, yours truly included, go through a grieving process during their feminist awakening and the anger helps to deal with the pain of the change.  Most of us don't stay in the anger phase any more than most people who lose a loved one stay angry forever.  Of course, grieving isn't an exact science and doesn't always progress in a linear fashion; it's normal to cycle through the stages or alternate between a few several times, and anger will continue to show up every now and again.  The point is, it's a natural and normal part of a process that everyone experiences at some point in their lives.

Now, that's not to say that we don't have a choice in what we do with our emotions in general and our anger specifically.  It may come unbidden as an instantaneous reaction, but we absolutely can decide whether we want to stew in the anger until it congeals into bitterness, or use it as a motivation to take positive action.  One choice is destructive to ourselves and our spirits, the other can be productive and uplifting to us and others.

A panelist at the Coffee Talk, Amy Rice, talked about how forgiveness is a discipline that requires practice.  As with almost anything, forgiveness gets a little bit easier when we decide to make it a priority and we get a little bit better at forgiving the more we forgive. I don't know that instantaneous forgiveness is possible, or even desirable, in most cases.  But I do believe we can, over time, and with concerted work and effort, becomes less likely to react with anger and less likely to hold on to that anger when it does show up.  I also believe that it's not our place to judge others' reactions, angry or otherwise.  We simply don't know their history, the baggage they may be carrying that has prompted that self-protective feeling.

A large part of my concern with disparaging anger is that women in particular too often get the message - both from society at large and from the culture of the Church - that in order to be "good", we need to be "nice" and "sweet" and "kind" and never rock the boat or cause any ripples or, heaven forbid, show a negative emotion. So instead of expressing normal, healthy emotions, we push them aside, and they get repressed and eventually manifest in unhealthy ways.  But pushing anger aside isn't really forgiveness; brushing legitimate feelings under the rug is just as spiritually and emotionally self-destructive as nursing the anger.  And forgiveness is about becoming whole again.  It's not just an absence of anger; forgiveness fills the void with love and understanding of each individual's identity as a child of God and requires that we are honest with ourselves about our own mistakes and inadequacies and our own need for forgiveness..

While anger can be destructive if allowed to fester or if not acknowledged and dealt with appropriately, there is no shame in feeling angry when someone doesn't respect your boundaries.  (I wish we had a different word for those two distinct phenomena: the initial, unbidden emotional response, and the long-lasting, seething choice to cultivate and foster the anger.  Darn ambiguous English language.)  There are legitimate and appropriate uses for anger, but we need to constantly check ourselves to evaluate how we're using our anger and determine when our anger has passed its useful life and become detrimental to our spiritual growth.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

I have three sons, ranging in age from four to eleven.  Reading aloud at bedtime has been a tradition since the oldest was born, so I'm always on the look out for books that will interest them while teaching good lessons and engaging their minds, too.  (Among many others, we have under our belts Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the entire Harry Potter series, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, L. Frank Baum's original OZ series, A Christmas Carol, and we're currently making our way through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.) Consequently, I read quite a bit of juvenile lit and young adult fiction.

But sometimes, among all these books directed at kids, I find exquisite stories that, while written for the younger set, entrance me as well.  Starry River of the Sky and its predecessor, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, both by Grace Lin, are some of those books.

A young boy named Rendi has run away from home and ended up trapped in a tiny, remote village called Village of Clear Sky with no way of traveling on.  Taken on as a chore boy by the village innkeeper, Rendi's negative attitude and seething anger sour his potential friendships, but he's noticed something odd.  The moon is missing!  He also seems to be the only one who hears dreadful moaning, groaning, and crying sounds all night long, which make it impossible to sleep, not helping his short temper at all.

One day a beautiful, mysterious woman shows up to stay at the inn.  She befriends Rendi and the innkeeper's daughter and starts both the village and Rendi on the path to healing from anger, selfishness, and pride.  As Rendi tells his story, at the grand lady's gentle insistence, he recognizes the roots of his anger in his relationship with his father and learns that "sometimes the best decision is a painful one, but it is never one made out of anger."

Perspective plays a large role in the story as the tale of how a mountain disappeared from the village's landscape is told from two different points of view, one at the beginning of the book and one at the end.  Rendi's willingness to change and let go of his anger starts when he sees his reflection while in the middle of an angry tirade, and gains a new perspective on himself.  "'I look like...I look like...' Rendi gasped, 'my father!'  He felt as if a searing knife had been stabbed into him, the reflections in the water revealing a likeness he almost could not bear.  For a moment, he was blinded by a mix of memories, pain, and regret."

Ms. Lin takes inspiration from the folk tales of her Chinese heritage, telling several distinct but linked stories-within-the-story, each set off from the main text by a colorful header and different font.  Each chapter includes gorgeous, full-color illustrations, that match the evocative prose perfectly.  She taps into a powerful tradition of storytelling that entertains while communicating important lessons.


Starry River of the Sky
by Grace Lin
ISBN: 9780316125956
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out from your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 21


I hope everyone had a great Fourth of July!  Ours was a quintessentially American celebration: family barbecue, baseball game ("our" team not only won, but we also got coupons for free pancakes and free tacos and a rebate on batteries!) and, of course, fireworks.  You can't get more traditional than that!


Cornelius Peter Lott
One of my more illustrious ancestors is Cornelius Peter Lott.  We're descended through his daughter Melissa, who was one of Joseph Smith's plural wives, and her second husband, Ira Willes.  If you've heard the story about Mary Fielding Smith crossing the plains and the mean old wagonmaster who didn't want her to come and told her he wouldn't help her and then left her behind when her oxen got sick...yeah, good ol' Corny was that infamous villain.

But, it turns out, there's more to the story.  As Cornelius pointed out, Sr. Smith really wasn't outfitted to cross the plains, and was only able to gather together (barely) sufficient supplies and oxen by begging and borrowing from others.  And he did provide her and her family with assistance as they traveled together.  Apparently, the major source for the "mean old wagonmaster" angle was Mary's protective oldest son, Joseph Fielding, who was only nine-years-old at the time, and was outraged that Br. Lott was being "mean" to his mother.  So it's quite possible his version isn't unbiased.

I've also recently learned that the Lott family was at Haun's Mill when the massacre occurred there, though they all survived, and that Cornelius was one of the very few men that Joseph Smith wrestled and couldn't throw.  Cornelius's skills at farming and caring for animals made him a valuable leader during the Nauvoo period and the trek west.  Interesting character all around.

If you'd like to read more, Cornelius has a facebook page and a blog and, of course, a wikipedia page.


On Wednesday I had a six-hour dental appointment.  Six.  Hours.  Impressions, prepping for veneers, temporary veneers, and one tiny filling while I was all numbed up anyway.  It was not my favorite way to spend a day.  But I'm that much closer to being DONE with all this dental work and having pretty teeth that actually stay in my mouth and do what they're supposed to do.  So that's a plus...


Spokane weather is notoriously unpredictable, but this has been crazy!  Remember, back in May, we were 20 degrees above average, and then in June, we were 20 degrees below average.  Well, now that it's July, we hit 20 degrees above average - again!

The back and forth is what's killing me; my body just hasn't had time to adjust.  Less than two weeks ago, the high was in the 50s and now you can practically fry an egg on the sidewalk.  I'm fine with either weather pattern, really, but let's try for a more gradual build-up next time, m'kay?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 237th Birthday!

Photo courtesy of mrsdkrebs via flickr
As we celebrate Independence Day, I'm finding my thoughts returning to our interdependence, and our dependence on each other.

In this day and age we are so proud of our supposed self-sufficiency, our ability to do it all ourselves.  I'm afraid that we neglect to recognize how intertwined our lives really are.   No one is an island, as John Donne said centuries ago, and I believe that's only gotten truer since then.  Much of our ability to navigate this life successfully depends on others, both those we know and love, and those we've never met.  Whether it's loving parents who gave us a solid start in life, a teacher who saw something special in us and encouraged us to pursue a particular path, good citizens who pay their taxes that fund roads and other public works projects, or air traffic controllers who ensure that the plane we're traveling in lands safely, other people influence us and our lives in too many ways to list.

We often think of dependence as weakness, and taken to extremes it certainly is, but I believe that being able to rely on others and have others rely on you is not only a strength, but a necessity for building a healthy community.  Even the concluding sentence of the Declaration of Independence itself gives a nod to this imperative as the signers "mutually pledge to each other" their lives, fortunes, and honor.

"We, The People" isn't some nebulous, theoretical monolith.  It's us.  It's made up of millions of daily small interactions between individuals: a supportive smile to the mother with her four active children at library story-time, a bank teller helping a frazzled customer solve a problem, a busy nurse spending a few extra minutes with a patient, a family taking a plate of cookies over to a new neighbor.  These interactions create a web of interdependence and reliance, and are what creates community.

Of course, this isn't a purely American trait; in fact, there are several cultures around the world that take care of each other much better than those of us in modern American society do.  But we Americans claim to believe in improvement and advancement and in being exceptional.  Sometimes we believe that we already are exceptional and that blinds us to our faults, but on the whole we are a people who recognize that we can do better than we've done in the past.

So if you'd like to give the United States of America a birthday present this Independence Day, my humble suggestion is to find a way to contribute to building your interdependent community.  Get to know the names of the children in your neighborhood, or volunteer at the local homeless shelter. Maybe simply give the grumpy cashier at the store the benefit of the doubt and a smile, or offer to take care of your friend's cat when she's out of town.  Recognize and acknowledge the impact that others have on your life, and be grateful that we can depend on each other.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

(Don't miss my review of the first book in this series, The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times here.)

After reading The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, I picked up this sequel expecting to read, as I did in the first book, some fairly graphic childbirth scenes, even perhaps some upsetting stories where either mother or baby died, as well as many humorous and uplifting vignettes, too.  Shadows of the Workhouse has some of all of those elements, and is in many ways a continuation of themes from The Midwife, of course.  But what I found heart-breaking in this second installment had little to do with birth or even death. It was, instead, the way people lived that broke my heart and the goodness and joy they found in spite of horrific conditions that gave me hope.

Unlike the previous book, which tells many shorter stories of both life in the convent and medical cases in the community, Shadows of the Workhouse, focuses primarily on three overarching stories, told in succession.  The first describes the workhouse system, predominant in the later part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries.  While workhouses can be seen as "the first attempt at social welfare" in the United Kingdom and "in this respect it was nearly one hundred years ahead of its time", they way they operated in actual practice was almost always degrading, dehumanizing, and impossible to escape from.  Families with no other option than to enter the workhouse were separated, not only husbands and wives, but children from their parents, literally to never see each other again.  The conditions Ms. Worth describes are deplorable and heart-wrenching.

For example, in The Midwife, Ms. Worth tells the story of a Mrs. Jenkins who went to the workhouse after her husband's death had left her unable to provide for her five children, all of whom died in the workhouse before reaching adulthood.  Her experiences in the workhouse left her out of touch with reality, frequently addressing her dead daughter and refusing any hygiene or medical care.  Shadows of the Workhouse shares many more desperately sad stories including the story of a little girl named Jane who is brutally beaten for holding on to the dream that her rich father will some day rescue her from the bleakness of the workhouse.  Her spirit is broken and the bright, eager, and exuberant child she was is replaced by a perpetually nervous and terrified one who still as an adult struggles with debilitating fear.

In the midst of the bleakness, however, there are hopeful rays of light.  A young boy, Frank, is placed in a workhouse with his younger sister, Peggy, after their mother's death.  When he turns seven, he is sent to a different workhouse to be with the "big boys", leaving his three-year-old sister behind.  Both are devastated by the separation.  A few years later, Frank is fortunate enough to be apprenticed to a costermonger, or fish seller, and escape the workhouse.  As a teenager, he tracks down his sister and, after saving money for several more years, convinces the workhouse's Board of Directors to allow Peggy to leave the workhouse and come live with him.  They spend the rest of their lives together, taking care of each other.  "Love permeated every nook and cranny, every corner and crevice of that little house.  You could feel it as soon as you entered the front door, like a presence so tangible you could almost reach out and touch it."

The final narrative in Shadows of the Workhouse concerns Mr. Joseph Collett, an old, lonely man.  Jenny Lee meets him when she does a home visit to care for his ulcerated legs, and gradually their friendship grows as she visits on an almost daily basis for many weeks.  In the course of their conversations, she discovers that he was a soldier in the Boer War in South Africa, where more than three-quarters of his division was killed.  And then he lost his two sons, both in the trenches in World War I.  His wife was killed in a firebombing during World War II and his last surviving child, Shirley, died a couple of years later when a rocket destroyed the headquarters where she was stationed.  He was left utterly alone.  As Mr. Collett says, "War brutalises a man" in unfathomable ways.

As Jenny listens to his stories, she comes to care for this gentle, lonely man.  She visits him in the evening frequently, just to enjoy his company and a glass of sherry.  His delight at these visits buoy Jenny up as well.  She accompanies him to the Old Guards' reunion dinner where he is recognized and honored for his service. When his building is condemned and he is evicted from his bug-infested apartment, she promises to visit him at the retirement home where he is being moved, only to be horrified at the impersonal conditions and the downturn his health has taken.  One of the nuns, Sister Julienne, tries to comfort Jenny explaining, "The tragedy is loneliness, not the surroundings."  When he passes away shortly thereafter, Jenny grieves for him as she has for few other patients, and I grieved with her.  The stark loneliness Mr. Collett felt was lightened by Jenny's friendship, and her life was impacted for good by his.

"Nursing is one of the most satisfying jobs in the world," Ms. Worth declares.  Being a nurse and midwife, present for both first breaths and final breaths, must provide such an intimate window into people's lives, and real human connections and insights that can be gained in few other ways.  I'm grateful Ms. Worth shared her stories with us.  They move me to be more aware of and more compassionate toward others, perhaps especially those I'm least inclined to reach out to at first glance.


Shadows of the Workhouse
by Jennifer Worth
ISBN: 9780062270047
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
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, July 2, 2013

Book Review: The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I picked up Jennifer Worth's The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times because I have so thoroughly enjoyed watching the PBS show inspired by her writing.  Many, if not all, of the cases included in the fifteen episodes shown thus far are chronicled in this book and its sequel, Shadows of the Workhouse.  However, knowing what was going to happen didn't make the stories dull and predictable as I'd feared.  Instead, I found myself even more drawn in to Ms. Worth's life, searching for the added details and background that couldn't fit into the hour-long episodes and appreciating her very personal descriptions of the lessons she learned.

After World War II, the United Kingdom created the National Health Service, which provided medical care free of charge to its citizens.  This was a marked change for the poor, and for the first time, many women were able to receive pre-natal care and to have trained assistance in delivering their babies.  This was a boon that caused a huge drop in both maternal and infant deaths, and also a huge demand for nurses and midwives.

Ms. Worth was a licensed district nurse and midwife in the 1950s in London's East End.  The population of the area was working class and often poor.  Large families lived in small two- or three-room apartments, often sharing communal bathrooms with other families, and conditions were rarely up to modern sanitary standards.  Few people had telephones in their homes; if you wanted to make a call, you had to walk to the nearest public phone which was sometimes several blocks away.  Many building damaged by bombings during World War II were still standing, and tenements that had been ruled unfit for habitation were often occupied regardless.

 Ms. Worth, or Jenny Lee as she is known in the book, starts her career completely out of her element.  The environment is a stark contrast to her middle-class upbringing on the other side of London, and at first she is barely able to conceal her confusion at the Cockney dialect everyone speaks, and her contempt and disgust for some of her patients and the living conditions that surround them.  Jenny Lee, who describes herself as uninterested in religion, was also flummoxed to find herself based out of a convent instead of the small, private hospital she was expecting.

Over the course of her time and work with the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus, Jenny Lee grows up quite a bit.  At first aghast at living in a convent, fully staffed with nuns, she says, "convents were for Holy Marys, dreary and plain.  Not for me."  Then, as she becomes acquainted with the sisters, she begins to admire them each greatly.  "All nuns, by the very fact of their monastic profession, are exceptional people.  No ordinary woman could live such a life.  There must inevitably be something, or many things, that are outstanding about a nun."  Even those with whom she doesn't get along particularly well, she highly respects for their individual skills and talents.  Her attitude toward religious life changes, too.  By the end of the book, Jenny often sits in the chapel while the sisters sing their offices and finds peace and comfort in their faith, if not her own.

Jenny also has many opportunities to learn compassion for others and that life isn't always as black-and-white as we'd like it to be.  In one heart-breaking story, she meets a young pregnant girl, Mary.  At the age of 14, Mary had been tricked into working as a prostitute, eventually became pregnant, and ran away to avoid having her baby forcibly aborted by her pimp.  After a chance meeting, Jenny befriends Mary, and helps her find a safe place to stay and have her baby, a home dedicated as a refuge for prostitutes.  Unfortunately, with no family to help Mary, and no means of support for herself and her baby, Mary's baby is taken away and placed for adoption.

When Jenny learns of this she angrily stalks into the Reverend Mother's office to demand the baby be returned, only to have the Reverend Mother share her sorrow at separating Mary and her baby, but her conviction that it is best for both the child and mother.  The child will be raised in a good Catholic home, she says, and without a baby, Mary will be able to find a post working in service.  Otherwise, she will have no way to earn money, other than to return to prostitution.  With the social realities of the time, they would not be able to survive together, but separately, they each have a good chance.  This harsh truth is hard for Jenny to swallow: "I could, perhaps should, have said many things, but I was silenced by my own knowledge of the statistics of child mortality, by the depth of understanding in her worlds, and by the sadness in her eyes."

Again and again, Jenny learns that people are not one-dimensional caricatures and that first impressions can be wrong or misleading.  She tells of a woman, Lil Hoskin, whom she found, well, revolting would not be too strong a word, at their first meeting.  Lil's lack of hygiene and loud, brash behavior was off-putting, but the nail in the coffin of Jenny's good opinion came when Lil hit one of the children she had in tow at the antenatal clinic.  "I hated her from that moment," Jenny said.  The next day Jenny dreaded doing a home visit, only to realize that the Hoskin family lived in a building which had been condemned for demolition fifteen years earlier, had one a single tap for water and a single lavatory on each floor.  She had a realization:
Lil seemed different in her own surroundings.  Maybe the clinic had intimidated her in some way, so that she had felt the need to assert herself by showing off.  She didn't not seem so loud and brash in her own home.  The irritating giggle, I realised, was no more than constant and irrepressible good humour.  She pushed the children around, but not unkindly...In her own surroundings, Lil was not a disgusting old bag, she was a heroine.  She kept the family together, in appalling conditions, and the children looked happy.  She was cheerful and uncomplaining.
Yes, The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times is about the women whose babies the midwives delivered and their families.  But primarily it's about a young woman facing a world that is different from what she expected, opening herself up to serving and learning from it, and finding the beauty and joy that exists in even the darkest, harshest situations.

(Stayed tuned for my review of the second book in the series, Shadows of the Workhouse, to be published tomorrow.)


The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times
by Jennifer Worth
ISBN: 9780143116233
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, ebook, 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, July 1, 2013

Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Adolescence is rough.

Every stage of life has its challenges, it's true, but I think those of us who survived the pre-teen and teenage years tend to forget just how intensely we felt our emotions during that time, how we consciously tried on various personalities and cliques in a desperate effort to pin down our tenuous sense of who we wanted to be, how lonely we felt on such a frequent basis.  The benefit of a few years of perspective can make the daily adolescent roller coaster seem preposterous, if not mildly contemptible, to some adults.  I don't think most grown-ups intend to cause youth pain, but reacting to anyone's distress with indifference, even well-meaning, minimizing indifference, is a perfect recipe for distance and separation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower captures this gulf between teens and adults, as well as the turbulence of adolescent identity and emotion.  Charlie, who is just starting high school, writes a series of letters to an unnamed, but - we assume - sympathetic recipient "because she said you listen and understand".  This epistolary format is intimate and reveals Charlie's motivations and confusion in a way I don't think any other format could have.

Right from the start, Charlie describes the tumultuous nature of life and particularly the teenage years: "I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be."  Over the course of the book he deals with the suicide of a friend, the homosexuality of another, grief for a favorite aunt who passed away, alcohol and drug abuse, and the beginnings of his own sexual exploration while navigating the highs and lows of family relationships and budding friendships.

I appreciated that his family, while not perfect, was there for him and expressed their love through both words and actions.  Too often parents and siblings, especially older siblings, are made out to be the villains in adolescent drama and I'm glad Mr. Chbosky chose a different route.

What struck me throughout the book was the hopeful, optimistic tone of Charlie's letters, in spite of his difficult and painful experiences.  Over the course of the year that Charlie writes these letters, we can see him growing in his understanding of others, trying to develop a more nuanced view of the world that recognizes complexity.  People we love and that love us can do terrible things.  Sometimes we make stupid mistakes that aren't easy to fix.  But in spite of it all, he knows that he will be okay.  It will all work out.  "Things are good with me, and even when they're not, they will be soon enough."

Even while grappling with complex issues, Charlie approaches life with guileless and earnest integrity.  A common theme that runs through the letters is advice he received from Bill, his English teacher, to "participate" in life rather than simply observe.  In his last letter, it is apparent that he has taken this counsel to heart.  "I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons.  And maybe we'll never know most of them.  But even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.  We can still do things.  And we can try to feel okay about them."  For Charlie, it's about the future, not the past, and what he will choose to do starting with being present and participating.

Charlie has remarkable compassion, both for himself and for others.  "Even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn't really change the fact that you have what you have.  Good and bad...It's just different.  Maybe it's good to put things in perspective, but sometimes, I think that the only perspective is to really be there...Because it's okay to feel things.  And be who you are about them."  Closing the book after finishing the last letter, I knew Charlie was going to be okay.  He'd struggle and wonder and continue to try to find his place.  But with his optimism, his integrity, and his compassion, he's going to be okay.

** Please note: This book deals with many heavy topics including suicide, domestic abuse, sexual molestation, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, rape, and adolescent sexuality.  It has foul language and depictions of underage drinking, drug use, and sex.  Definitely consider your comfort level with such material before picking it up.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky
ISBN: 9780671027346
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperbackhardcover, 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).