05 December 2013

My Booklist

As a change of normal philosophical pace, I've had several people (students, friends) requesting my book recommendations lately.  This is awesome because I rather selfishly enjoy thinking that I have good enough taste in literature to warrant making recommendations, and also because it gives me the chance to go through my books again and remember some favorites.

To make this list I've separated books into modern and classics categories.  I've also only included books that I've read.  For example - I own a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It's on my reading list.  People I know and love have said it's awesome and I fully expect it to be awesome.  But I haven't read it yet, so I won't put it on the list.  The classics I've included shouldn't be new names to anyone, but they're the ones that I'd recommend first if someone were looking to dive into some of the standards.

Also, this is long, but books are awesome, so. . . deal with it.

I'm sure I've missed some great books that I'll go back later and wonder how I could have missed putting it on this list, but in no particular order, here are the books I think that everyone should read at least once in their life:

Modern

1. The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield): A great book for any book lover, particularly those who have ever loved the gothic romances of the Bronte era (especially if you loved Jane Eyre).
2. Enchantment (Orson Scott Card): A mix of Babba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty, time travel, and religious conflict that miraculously works.  A fun read, but an engaging one too.
3. Matilda (Roald Dahl): Anything by Roald Dahl could be on this list, but if I could only pick one it would be this one.  Matilda is as great an underdog story as you could ask for, and I love books about kids that are smarter than their adult counterparts.
4. Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn): The wordplay in this book is what makes it fun, but it also made me think, which is the mark of a great YA novel.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon): A crazy fascinating narration and powerful (but not emotionally manipulative) story.
6. Anything Khaled Hosseini writes (Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed): They are all insanely beautiful and heartbreaking and wonderful.  I don't know how he does it, but Hosseini's books are all gold.
7. Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine): Every girl needs to read this book.
8. Daughter of the Forest (Juliet Marillier): All of Mariller's books feature a strong female protagonist, but they do get slightly formulaic after a while.  Daughter of the Forest is her best (though the other two in the original Sevenwaters Trilogy were good as well.)
9. Atonement (Ian McEwan): The writing is so ridiculously beautiful in this book that I was half giddy when I read it.  The other half was in a great moral debate over the events of the plot.
10. My Name is Asher Lev and The Chosen (Chaim Potok): Potok has such a brilliant way about writing faithful characters who also doubt and question and push that I wish LDS writers could harness.  The Chosen and Asher Lev are my favorites of his novels, though I think Asher Lev meant more to me personally because of its discussion on the clash of art and religion.  Chosen is a winner each time I read it with my students.
11. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer): This book was utterly delightful.  I've never wanted a book to go on forever so much in my life as I did when I read this one.
12. The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Steadman): I started this book after three hours of sleep right before a flight home after Christmas last year.  I was halfway finished by the time I got home.  I finished the book after reading four hours straight a few days later and didn't realize that I hadn't eaten anything all day.  That is the sign of a great book.
13. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart): I loved how this book allowed each protagonist to play to their strengths when it came to problem solving.  I read this with my students the first year I taught and it was some of the best bribery I could have.
14. The Messenger and The Book Thief (Markus Zusak): Zusak's prose is incredible, and his way of emotionally engaging a reader with words makes reading feel like you're skating on ice (to borrow a friend's description).  Book Thief is a non-holocaust holocaust story, and The Messenger is the more moral version of Catcher in the Rye.
15. The Silver Lining's Playbook (Matthew Quick): The way that Pat (the main character) fought his demons in this book resonated so much with me that I felt like I understood myself better after reading it (though I pray that I am never that crazy.)
16. Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card): It's fun, it's got great discussion opportunities, and it's got super smart kids making the adults look bad.
17. Life of Pi (Yann Martel): Beautiful writing, fascinating story, powerful ending.  My students loved this one.
18. Stargirl and Maniac Magee (Jerry Spinelli): Spinelli writes books for kids that don't sound like books for kids.  There's much to be learned and enjoyed no matter what your age.
19. The Giver (Lois Lowry): This book is always the favorite of students when I teach it.  Even the ones who've read it before love reading it again. (One poor kid read it for the third time in my class last year after failing English a few semesters in a row and he admitted after much initial drudgery that it was a great book.)
20. Whirligig (Paul Fleischman): Slightly lesser known but still great YA novel.  Another one that doesn't talk down.  I hate YA novels that talk down to kids/teens and this one tackles big topics and challenges in a respectful and mature way that is still accessible.
21. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro): This book isn't for everyone.  The stream of thought writing style and meandering tone may bore some but I found it fascinating and endearing.  Maybe it's my anglophilia showing through.
22. The Hiding Place (Corrie ten Boom): Another one of those great inspirational stories that manages not to be too sappy or pedantic in its telling.
23. The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros): I don't usually find myself so engaged in stories like this one but the images and phrasing in this is beautiful.  I loved the way the word play taught me new perspectives.
24. Out of the Dust (Karen Hesse): I read this in junior high and didn't quite get it.  I read it again as an adult and enjoyed it much more.  I've never been much of a poetry girl but this book helped me learn to appreciate modern poetic style much more.  I read poetry more often because of this book.
25. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce): It started out as a quirky adventure story and ended with me trying not to cry in a car full of people heading down to Disneyland.  It's rare that a book gets me so hard emotionally that I forget to analyze structure and plot progression, but this book stunned me.
26. The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling): You're probably wondering why it took so long for this to end up here, aren't you?  The thing about Harry Potter is that it's actually as good as the hype.  Maybe better.  Particularly the last book, which was a bold and powerful reminder that the heart of any good vs. evil story is not the adventure and the battle but the relationships that are worth fighting for.
27. The Hunger Games Series (Suzanne Collins): Again - this one really is as good as the hype and, like Harry Potter, remembered that the action matters less than the relationships in the end.  I can see why people would be bugged by the final book in the trilogy (Mockingjay) - especially if they were super invested in who ended up with who in terms of love triangle, but for anyone with half an eye on symbolism, the end of the book is a pretty powerful reminder about what really matters in our technology and Hollywood obsessed culture.  You can read my review of Mockingjay here.
28. The Sense of and Ending (Julian Barnes): A recent and delightful discovery about people and their flaws and our assumptions of them before we know the whole story.  Booker prize winners/nominees are always great and this is no exception.

Classics
1. The Anne of Green Gables Series (L.M. Montgomery): These books shaped my childhood.
2. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott): Jo March was my introduction to feminism.  She still gives me hope for finding a balance between independence and dependence in my relationships.
3. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte): In my opinion, most people are either Wuthering Heights people or Jane Eyre people.  I'm a Jane Eyre people.
4. Les Miserables (Victor Hugo): I'll admit.  I haven't finished this one (yet).  But the section I have read (I'm up through the section with the bishop now) is worth reading all by itself if you can't muster up the stamina for the whole thing.  I cannot allow myself to die without having read this book.
5. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas): This book has everything.  Action.  Romance.  Mystery.  Revenge.  Power.  Humor (at least if you've got an eye for making fun of French writing styles now and then.)  It's the book that asks "if you had all the power in the world - how would you use it?"
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith): A powerful coming of age story in a time period I'm maybe a little obsessed with.
7. Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain): Another book you should be ashamed of not having read before you die.  The moral questioning of this book alone is worth the read, but it's an endearing character study no matter how you shake it.  (To be honest, though, I usually stop about 3/4ths through the book.  About the point Tom Sawyer shows up again, the book loses lots of its magic.)
8. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): I wish that I had read this book and appreciated it the first time through when I read it in high school.  I just don't think I was in the right mode to get it when I was in the middle of Harry Potter fever that year.  Since then I've read it several times and each time I do I'm stunned at how much I learn from and adore Atticus Finch, and how endearing Scout is.
9. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien): I can see why people struggle with these.  They're not really stories and the structure is messed up (especially in Two Towers), but if you can push your way through to the end, the result is amazing.
10.  Charlotte's Web (E.B. White): The first story I ever remember being truly obsessed with.  I can't wait to introduce this one to my own kids/nieces and nephews.
11. The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis): The speak for themselves, don't they?  My particular favorites are The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
12. Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder): I will never forget sitting in front of my 2nd grade teacher while she read this to us.  I've never wanted to play with a pig bladder or sit in an attic with dried herbs so bad in my life as when she read this book to us.  And the snow candy?!  Come on.
13. The Lord of the Flies (William Goldman): You don't read this book because it's fun and the characters are endearing.  You read this book because it matters.
14. Night (Elie Wiesel): "And though (it) be but little, (it) is fierce."
15. The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis): Best digested slowly and with pen in hand.
16. 1984 (George Orwell): If nothing else than because everyone should know Big Brother, but also because it is such a potent warning on the danger of obliviously accepting a government.
17. Animal Farm (George Orwell): See The Lord of the Flies.  Same comment.
18. In Memorium (Alfred Lord Tennyson): The only poems I'll include on this list, mainly because poetry and I don't often enjoy one another's company, but In Memorium is incredible.  Those poems say what I can't about my struggles when faith and doubt clash with one another.
19. The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Emmuska Orczy): A great adventure story, a great love story, good v.s evil - what more can you ask for?
20. Peter Pan (James Barrie): People make the mistake so often of presenting this story as though it was Peter's, when the heart of this story really belongs to Wendy - that's when this story stops being a fun story about a boy who can fly and becomes a powerful story of a girl facing a big world.
21. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett): I like A Little Princess as well, but The Secret Garden was a powerful story for me as a kid.  I related to Mary with her exterior prickles but inner heart.
22. Shakespeare: My favorites are Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, The Tempest, Richard III and The Winter's Tale.
23. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald): I can see why people struggle with Gatsby, but to me this is the grown up version of Peter Pan and I think it is stunning.
24. The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton): One of the first books I read in college that taught me how powerfully engaging the classics could be.  This book (and it's sister House of Mirth) made me think and made me excited about reading for school in a way that most books hadn't before this.
25.  Jane Austen (Particularly Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma):  You can't not read Jane Austen at some point in your life.  Fortunately she's hilarious (Pride and Prejudice), great at creating memorable characters (Sense and Sensibility), and a great student of the foibles and challenges of being a mere mortal (Emma).

What am I missing?  What do you agree with?  Think I'm crazy about?  What do I need to add?  Send your own recommendations my way.  I'm pretty sure my bookshelves can handle more.

02 December 2013

100%

I often think of teaching like a play.  The first act is exciting and sets the stage and goes from approximately August through October.  The second act runs from October through February and is where all the bulk of the conflict and drudgery happens.  By March, the weather is changing and with it comes a new invigoration in my students.  By that point they've usually figured out that I'm not crazy and that I'm not a complete moron and that even if they think I am that I hold their future at least partially in my hand (especially if they want a letter of recommendation from me.)

Following the play logic, the big finish should be something particularly memorable and awesome, but thanks to the Department of Education, instead the last month of school is spent with kids pushing buttons in front of computers, mindlessly answering questions to prove that they, that I, that their school and their state is doing something resembling learning.

This year they've changed the test.  One of the parents my students work with is very concerned.  Said parent attends loads of meetings about the Common Core and state tests and everything and sends all of that information to me.  "We need to do this!" parent says.

We?

Sorry, parent.  I intend to spend as much time preparing my students for this brand new shiny exciting state test of awesome in the exact same way I did last year.  And the year before.  And the year before.  We'll spend approximately five minutes before the test explaining that yes, this test is a farce.  It is a waste of time.  I will not give them extra credit for doing well.  I will not put their score on their grade.  I will not bribe them in any way because I do not believe that I could sleep at night if I turned my students over to them.  The test makers.  I won't do it.  I will tell them that in spite of all of this, I expect them to pass.  I expect them to do their best to answer every question well.  I will tell them to do this because they are good, honorable people even though society tells them otherwise.  That everyone around them will believe that I'm crazy and that they are crazy for believing that a group of teenagers would do something well just because they are asked.  And then I'll turn them over to the computers and something magical happens:

They all pass.

Every single one of them.

This is not to say that every one of my students is genius.  "You teach honors students," people will say - excusing their accomplishments.  "No.  I teach students and I expect them to be honorable" I reply.  My students are excellent writers and really crappy writers.  They are students who read ahead and come prepared, and students who can go through an entire unit without a book and not even tell me even though I have extra copies ready.  There are students in my class ready to take over the world and students who still need their parents to make sure they tie their shoes and go potty before leaving the house (metaphorically, I hope.  But you never know.)

All of this proves two things to me:

1. Teenagers will rise to the level that they are asked to reach.  Most of the time, teenagers want to be treated like they are humans who matter.  They don't want to be told that real life is waiting.  Real life is there.  They are old enough to understand when things aren't right at home.  They see their friends struggle.  They experience and start to understand the weight of death or frightening illnesses.  They take their lives seriously.  They do not, contrary to popular opinion, consist entirely of punks who want nothing more from life than to defy authority and waste their lives.  They're not perfect, but neither am I.  Sometimes I'm a punk too.

2. These tests that we're shoving at them?  They're a load of (insert favorite four letter swear here.)  My students who turn in maybe two assignments a semester after a ton of hand holding pass the tests.  My students who turn in everything and are maybe smarter than me pass the tests.  Maybe this changes this year with the new test, who knows.  Maybe this is the year I don't get 100% passing.  It's possible.  But whether that happens or not, expecting every student to reach the exact same level of achievement in every area is not only impossible but also just flat out wrong.  We are wasting precious opportunities to cultivate the genius in every student when we tell them that they can be good but only that good, or when we tell them that - at the expense of a place where they are actually, truly good, they must abandon growing and excelling in that area in favor of matching where their peers are supposed to be.  In theory I don't hate the Common Core.  The desire to teach students how to think, to give them critical thinking skills - I completely agree with that.  But you will never ever get a kid excited about education when teachers aren't allowed or encouraged to think outside the box and when we are so married to the standards that we can't see the writing on the wall: you will never ever be able to get a good teacher or a good class when a teacher's opinion is no longer needed or respected, and their enthusiasm and love of their subject is a waste of time.

Let me give you an example:

My school has an incredible science teacher.  She's spunky and fun and the students love her.  She has fostered a love of science and experimentation in her classes that is truly impressive.  Her students bring her ideas for experiments and they make them happen.  She is, essentially, the closest to the high school version of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer loving Miss Frizzle I've ever met.  She started a Demonstration Team this year.  Their goal is to spread their love of science to other schools in the area.  They got awesome white lab coats and contacted schools all over the area offering a completely free demonstration of tricks and experiments as an assembly for elementary school classes.  Schools should be jumping all over this opportunity.  What gets kids more excited about learning chemistry than watching a group of kids turn pennies into gold?  Or learning biology by blowing up watermelons?  Only no one will take them.  Unless what they're presenting aligns exactly with the Common Core, then it's a waste of time.  It's no longer enough, even in elementary school, to do something that is both fun and educational.  They have to go through the core and point out exactly what they do that links and if it doesn't link they can't do it.  This means they can't present to more than one age group at a time.  It means that until they go through the Core, they're stalled in their tracks.  What a joke.

This year my students and I are studying the founding of America.  That in mind, I am giving them an assignment in a few weeks to assemble the Student's Bill of Rights.  I will also be writing my Teacher Bill of Rights.  It probably won't make any difference.  It probably won't go anywhere.  Heaven knows this blog isn't exactly viral, and I'm ok with that because it frees me to write when I like and what I like without an inbox full of nasty comments.  I get that enough from parents who are mad when I give their kid a bad grade.  But in the next few weeks when these go up and I'm done revising them - if you like it, spread it.  Because there can never be enough voice against what the modern education system is being morphed in to.

22 November 2013

When Mercy Seasons Judgment

One of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays is The Merchant of Venice.  The plot follows Antonio, a merchant who has placed virtually all of his money in some ships at sea that he is sure will be safe.  A friend, Bassanio, comes and asks him for a loan to assist him in the wooing of a woman named Portia.  Antonio instead seeks out a loan in his own name through the Jewish merchant, Shylock.  Antonio has long mocked and made fun of Shylock, who sees his chance to get revenge on the Christian Antonio and tells him that he will give the money so long as Antonio puts down a pound of his own flesh as collateral on the loan just in case his ship doesn't (literally) come in.

Of course since this happens within the first act of the play, Antonio's ships all run into trouble or we would have no story.  The climax of the play occurs in the courtroom where Shylock demands justice upon the bond that he has claim to and Antonio begs for mercy.  The lawyer Balthazar (actually Portia in disguise), tries to convince Shylock of the benefits of mercy (not least of which because Bassanio is married to her now and can pay off the bond three times over), but Shylock sticks to his guns.  He is tired of being usurped by the conniving and mean Christians.  Tired of being mocked and used because of his faith.  In the end he stands by the absurd demands of the contract to the letter.  Even when Portia asks him to have a doctor on hand for the inevitable need of Antonio after he's lost a pound of his flesh, Shylock refuses, stating that he does not have any legal obligation to provide one.

So Portia decides instead to give him a taste of his own medicine and says that if Shylock is to take any more or less than an exact pound, then the bond his forfeit.  What's more, should he take anything other than flesh, the bond is forfeit.  No blood - not a single drop - can be spilled.  It's an impossible situation and Shylock leaves the play with no justice - and under court order to denounce his faith and to be baptized a Christian.

Although the play also includes a rather silly (and perhaps even pointless) subplot involving Portia's love life - what interests me most about this play is the way history has evolved our views on it.  In Shakespeare's day, Shylock was a pure villain.  In our post World War II world, Shylock is much more sympathetic.  His demands for justice are read more as the attempts of a marginalized man to gain some respect (even if it is through rather extreme ways) than as the devil himself battling the quality of mercy.  Instead of a pure hero and pure villain, we end up with two men fighting head to head like rams - neither are pure anything.  Both have done good, and not so good things.  It amazes me how easy it was for both men to assume and judge and criticize and demand.  How easy it is for any of us to refuse to see and appreciate the difficulties we place on one another.

I read another essay with my students at the end of the year by Emerson that is called "Circles" that touches on this principle.  It's brain-bending essay that suggests that the truth that we know should always be expanding.  Sometimes, Emerson says, truths trump truths.  Both things are still true - but our understanding of how to act on and apply these truths shifts.  The example I give is of Nephi and Laban in The Book of Mormon.  Nephi, who has been raised to follow the Law of Moses, has been taught that to kill is wrong.  But then he's told to kill.  It is true that killing is wrong.  It is also true that if Laban is not killed, then "generations will dwindle in unbelief" - and the second truth overcomes the need to follow the first in this instance.  So what is the real truth?  The real truth here as far as I can see is that you follow God.  Following God allows an individual to obey both truths, even when they seem to contradict.

I've thought about this principle of following the higher law a lot this year.  When I attend Sunday School and they talk about how the standards of God never change.  When I watch my fellow sisters "protest" with pants or by asking to go to the Priesthood meeting.  When I read stories of the homosexual LDS community and the way that they are striving to live the gospel in a church that, on the whole, still contains a membership that doesn't know what to do with them.  I look at all of the debate and all the frustration and all the holier-than-thou and "I obviously know more than you" on both sides of the table and wish that somehow we could all just stop being so busy being right for one second and understand that ultimately we're all shooting for doing what God wants us to do.  What if we stopped to consider that it is totally possible for God to answer the prayers of two people differently on the same topic?  To tell one person to vote democrat and the other republican.  To tell one person to protest and the other to stay home.  To tell one person to watch a movie and the other not to.

I don't consider myself outside of guilt on this topic.  Only last week I sat through a Sunday School lesson where ideas on topics that I don't share (re: rated R movies and the limitations of the priesthood) were presented as doctrine and I had to hold back some frustration.  What I am suggesting is not that we refrain from all judgement, but that we more often season our justice, as Portia suggests, with mercy.  Give each other the benefit of the doubt.  And, most of all, allow individuals the right to worship "how, where, or what they may".


21 November 2013

Why I listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving

Side note: Do you think some people don't capitalize words in their blog titles (or anywhere on their blog) for a design choice or because they just don't know what to capitalize?

It was Halloween several years ago.  I got into my car and turned on the radio.  The station that I'd been listening to the day before was now joyfully ringing out the tunes of "Jingle Bell Rock".  "Those Utahn's love their Christmas," I thought.  "Surely you should wait until at least Black Friday."

A few weeks later Christmas lights started showing up on houses.  "Understandable," I decided.  No one wants to hang lights when it's below freezing.  But surely you should at least wait to turn them on until after Thanksgiving - the Christmas season is much better enjoyed in small but potent doses.  Too much Rudolph can't be good for anyone.

Then the first snow came.  The first real snow.  The first "I can make a snowman" snow.  The first agonizing Narnian snow that always makes me simultaneously homesick for childhood and for combination creepy/charming kidnapping you but still friendly faun friends.  And I couldn't help myself.  I turned on the radio and was in Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra heaven before anyone had even thought about buying their Thanksgiving turkey.

"This is wrong!" I thought.  "But why does it feel so right?!"

Because, said a little voice in my head.  Christmas is awesome.  But no really - it's full of awe.  And the Spirit.  And Scrooge said we should keep Christmas all the year.

There's been a slew of posts on my Facebook feed lately from people who demand for the official divorce of Christmas and Thanksgiving.  "Stop listening to Christmas music!  You're forgetting Thanksgiving!" People say.  "Putting up your tree before Thanksgiving is just wrong."

I'll admit - I don't quite get it.  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas are so fundamentally different that they can't be mixed?  I understand the special quality of Christmas that is, in part, maintained by its four reserved weeks in a year, and even that is too many weeks for me to hear "Jingle Bell Rock" several hundred times.  (Or worse: "Christmas Shoes".)  But must we be so dictatorial about it?

I believe that Thanksgiving is a perfect segue into Christmas.  It puts into our minds just a little bit longer that the true meaning of the holiday season - all two months of it - rests in a spirit of gratitude.  Gratitude for our country and for the men and women who worked hard and overcame so much to "(preserve) us a nation."  It is about gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, which include the freedom of religion and worship of God in whatever manner we deem best.

So while I totally support not putting up your Christmas decor in July or leaving your Christmas lights up all year ('cause that's soooo white trash), I will fully support the right to bring in the spirit of Christmas (which is really the spirit of Christ) as early as they like.

09 October 2013

But my books? Never.



I'm packing up my room tonight.  My lovely little corner of the world that has been a sanctuary from the stress that has surrounded it for the last several years.  I'm thrilled with the change and excited to set up shop somewhere that will be more mine than this place has been.  Somewhere more friendly.

I'm also reminded of how many books I have when the boxes I procured are quickly filled not with the rest of my room but almost entirely with my book collection.  Putting them into boxes fills me with mixed emotions.  I see books that are worn bare and think that I ought to buy a new copy but the old one is so loved and has such a story to tell and I wouldn't want to hurt its feelings.  I see books that I bought in important places or locations that remind me of trips or lucky finds after wandering through the labyrinthine shelves of a used bookstore.  I see books that I purchased but haven't read yet and want to, books that I was given as gifts.

I'm reminded of lessons in elementary school about how you should have an emergency kit underneath your bed that contains food and clothes in case of an emergency.  I remember thinking as a kid that I would ditch the clothes and grab my beloved copy of Little Women - the first pretty book I ever purchased with my own money.  It was hardback with a ribbon and beautiful illustrations.  I'd also grab Anne of Green Gables and all of its sequels because I'd need them with me wherever I went next.  But what about The Secret Garden?  Or Matilda?  Or Peter Pan?

I am almost certain that, given an emergency situation, I would burn in the fire or die in the flood over the sheer agony of the debate in trying to decide which books to save.  I know they are replaceable. . . but it would feel like betrayal.

It all reminds me of the Professor in Little Women.  Jo asks him if he brought all his books from Germany.  He explains that he had to sell basically everything to come to America.  "But my books," he says with a smile, "Never."

03 October 2013

For Mom

When I was a child and I woke in the middle of the night and was scared or didn't feel well, I would tip toe down the hall to my parents' room, where I would quietly approach my mother's side of the bed (the right - always the right) and stand.

I wanted her to wake up, but I didn't want to wake her up.  It felt rude, knowing how much she was sure to want her sleep and not want to be woken in the middle of the night by me.  But I needed her.  So I stood.  And waited.  Nightgowned and ghostlike and pale-skinned next to her bed like a horror movie.

"Mom!" I would whisper.

"Mom!"

If that didn't work I would touch her arm.  She would startle awake, patiently address whatever issue (however real or imaginary it was), and I would go back to sleep, blissfully unaware of how creepy I had been.

I remember one time sleeping on the floor in her room because I had the flu and was vomiting.  As a certified emetaphobe, I just knew that being with mom would make it less terrifying.  I remember waking and knowing that I was going to throw up - and also knowing that I couldn't bear to do it alone.  So there, on the floor of her room, I puked into the bucket she'd given me instead of going to the bathroom to take care of urgent business.

My mom hates vomit too.

She kindly asked me to please go to the bathroom next time.  But she still came with me while I cleaned out the bucket and waited for me to stop feeling clammy and dizzy.  Never mind that she too hates vomit more than anything.

Now that I'm older and several hundred miles away, I can't creep into my mom's room at night or throw up into a bucket at her feet (not that I'd want to, 'cause that's gross - she was totally right!) but mom still has a knack for patiently and kindly listening to me and helping me with my questions and concerns about the future.  She tells me that I'm wonderful and that she loves me.  She tells me I'm beautiful and that she's proud of me.  She doesn't harp on about my lack of dating life and tells me that she's confident that I'm a good teacher and making a difference in the world.  Like every good mother does, she tells me that I am smart, and important.

Today it's her birthday.  Not a particularly significant one (unlike last year!) but a birthday is always something to celebrate.  Thanks to performing in a show and being sick, I've been delayed in getting her a gift (sorry Mom!)  So for now, I want to thank her.  For paper dolls when I was sick.  For introducing me to Jane Austen.  For taking me to Prince Edward Island and telling me to go to England.  For letting me take the car to the library to feed my love of reading.  For driving a few hundred miles just to see me on stage.  For making breakfast for all of my friends and hosting infinite numbers of game nights and movie nights for loud groups of teenagers.  For listening to every rant about work or dating or politics I can throw your way.  For tickling my back while we watch a movie.  For strawberry freezer jam.  For orange rolls at Christmas and help in unique Halloween costume choices from a bookworm daughter (who would settle for nothing less than Harriet the Spy or Laura Ingalls.)  For hugs.  For loving God and sharing your testimony of Him with me.  For being my escort in the temple and making my dress.  For laughing with me and discussing with me and being the best Lorelai to my Rory I could ask for.

I love you mom.  Happy Birthday.


17 September 2013

Feminism and Faith: A How-To Guide

I've thought a lot about how I'm going to say what I want to say in this post. It's a topic close to my heart for many reasons and I hope that it is taken well no matter where you stand on the ideas of feminism and/or faith.  It's a bit long.  Bear with me.

Lately my Facebook feed has virtually exploded with a resurgence of articles about current issues with feminism in the LDS church, largely related to the Ordain Women movement.  I am fascinated by the commentaries on both sides of the argument, and baffled by how vicious and personal the arguments have been.  "You're just doing this for power and social stigmas!" shouts one side.  "You don't understand what it means to be a woman!"

"No, YOU don't understand what it means to be a woman!" replies the other side.  "Don't you see how oppressive your environment is?  Don't you see the cultural inequalities?!"

I find myself often sitting in the middle of such arguments.  For example, I understand why girls feel left out when they watch their boy companions passing the sacrament.  The boys have a clear, definable task in the overall picture of how the ward functions.  They are thanked every week for their assistance in giving the sacrament to the congregation.  They are also honored with great ceremonies for earning their Eagle Scout Award, while the girls, when given their Personal Progress Award are given little more than a pat on the back and a brief acknowledgement in church.

But I also understand that I am a loved daughter of God.  I have many personal experiences where I have felt that love.  I believe in Him and in His love for me.  I believe that by following the counsel of the living Prophets, I will be blessed.  I have faith that God has a plan for me.  My interest in the movement largely comes from experiences I have had where I feel of God's love for me and trust in me.  My life has not taken a conventional road, but I feel very firmly that I am where God wants me to be at this time.  If it is true that where God wants me to be at this time is not married and not as a mother - then surely I can't be the only one on this planet who has a less traditional role to fill.  Surely God has plans for the women of this church that are not only linked to our ability to get pregnant.  I don't know what the afterlife holds for me, but I doubt that it is a perpetual eternal maternity ward.

There are many who have a difficult time reconciling how these two sides can exist in the same person.  How can you be a faithful feminist?  How do you seek for greater recognition for and understanding of the roles of women in a church that advocates so ardently for recognition of the differences of gender roles?

This in mind, I'd like to present a few dos and don'ts for people involved or not involved but interested in the current Mormon Feminist movements.  These points aren't strictly related to the Ordain Women movement, but do, I think, provide a good framework in supporting greater understanding:

1. DON'T get caught up in the nit picking of the comparisons between men and women.  Although many people compare feminism to the civil rights movement, the simple fact of the matter is that men and women are different from each other in some universally significant ways that aren't just biological.  The church teaches that gender is eternal, and while we may not fully understand how this pans out in the afterlife, God seems to have some ideas on roles set aside for men and set aside for women.  We may not understand all the facets of this in the grand scheme of things yet (which is where some of the confusion is currently coming from), but throwing everything out seems a bit reckless.  There is power in strong sisterhood and strong brotherhood, just as there is power when the two come together.

2. DO: Recognize that there are people in both genders that don't feel like they quite fit the stereotypical mold, and that God may have a plan or pattern for them than is different from yours.  The plain fact of the matter is that not everyone in this life will be able to (or maybe even want to) live the image of a perfect family.  The other plain fact here is that personal revelation exists, and many of these people are active members of your ward aching because they wish they fit the mold and they just don't.  I feel this as a single woman with a successful career and no husband.  A married couple may feel this if they can't have children - or don't want them quite yet.  Or perhaps they do, but they don't want many.  Or perhaps they have, for whatever reason, reversed the traditional roles and find that it's best for their family that the wife works and the man stays home.  There are hundreds of possibilities.  The one clear constant here is that you are not their personal judge, and how they live their life is between them and God.

3. DON'T knee-jerk-judge because of the word "feminist".  The word 'feminist' is such a buzzword in Mormon culture.  It calls back to quotes made years ago during the cultural feminist movements of the 70s-90s where women were burning bras and demanding equal pay for equal work (gasp!).  It reminds people of negative connotations implied over the pulpit in General Conference and other settings.  Although there are surely some remnants of this in the current "Mormon Feminist" movement, most Mormon Feminists I've come in contact with are faithful women of the church.  They are mothers.  Loving and supportive wives.  Homemakers and crafters.  Many of these women would, from all outside appearances, seem to be as Mrs. Cleaver as they come.  The strains of Mormon Feminism are similar to those of cultural feminism, but are not exactly soul sisters.  The women involved in this movement do not hate men, and they do not hate the church.  If they really hated the church so much, then they would leave it.  As it is, they are doing what they can in the only way they know how to support each other and to raise awareness of a concern.

4. DO: Recognize that we are on the same team.  This goes for everyone.  Right now we have people outside the Ordain Women movement who are terrified that these women (and men) are rebelling against God, and that they are making demands instead of asking questions.  We have women (and men) inside the Ordain Women movement who don't understand why something that seems so obvious wouldn't be readily accepted on the other side.  On both sides of the coin are people set in their opinions and beliefs and experiences.  Women and men who are happy with their current situation and women and men who are not.  Ultimately, both sides need to come together and recognize a common goal: trying to do what God wants us to do, and to draw closer to Him.  We talk about the path being straight and narrow, but that does not mean that we walk like lemmings in an identically shaped and formed line.  It means that we walk in the same direction, and through the same basic steps.  When we come from a place of teamwork, then recognizing the differences that arise becomes and opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself, and about others.  It is an opportunity to love as Christ loves.

5. DO accept that everyone has a unique role to play in the eternities just as they have unique roles to play now.  I have a hard time imagining a heaven where every house looks the same and everyone does the exact same thing all the time.  That would be terribly boring, and I don't intend to be bored in heaven.  That wouldn't be heaven.  That would be hell.  One of the key parts of the creation was the intent to make the world both beautiful and varied.  This extends into humans.  We forget this, sometimes.  When we aren't discussing religious things, we accept different personalities and tastes, but when it comes to the gospel, we often seem to expect or imagine that everyone will feel the way we do and apply virtues the way we do and have the same vision of eternity as we do.  Although it is true that Zion is a city where the people are of one heart and one mind, this does not mean that we will all feel and think the exact same way.  It means that we will have minds single to the glory of God, and hearts that are soft and pure.  It means that when we ask God a question, or come to Him with a problem, we have the strength to accept whatever his answer may be.

6. DON'T forget why you belong to the church in the first place.  It is easy to get wrapped up in discontentment.  It is true.  The church evolves and changes over time to help meet the needs that arise.  It is also true that until we bring our concerns to the Lord, he will not fix them for us because it would interfere with agency.  It is also true that there are better and worse ways to bring those concerns to the attention of the Lord and the Presidency of the church.  Making demands of the Lord is a dangerous path.  Prayers are not a "Room of Requirement"that transform our lives into exactly what we need them to be at the time.  This is, ultimately, my concern with any movement that has the strains of protest in the gospel.  When I bring a concern to the Lord, am I really bringing him a concern and willing to accept what answer I receive, or am I making an all or nothing demand?  Am I throwing out everything that has been good because of something that is hard?  The Lord has promised that He will hear and answer our prayers.  He has also told us that He will not answer questions we don't ask.  It is not uncommon for a problem to be brought to the Lord's attention and a solution to be given that is much, much better than we could imagine on our own.  And, miraculously, His solutions are those that will lead to happiness no matter our personality quirks or personal preferences.

Ultimately, my prayer is that we will all learn to get along a little better in the different ways that we express our beliefs. I firmly believe that it is just as important for Mormons to learn how to live with each other as it is for us to learn how to live with our non-Mormon friends.  There is simply no excuse - ever - for blaspheming your neighbor because of their doubts or challenges or weaknesses or questions, and I think this is perhaps even more true when that person is sitting next to you in Sunday School.

27 August 2013

Trains

When I was growing up and imagining train travel it always looked quite glamorous.  People might bring rolling luggage on an airplane, but train platforms were full of trunks and formally dressed bellhop like men carting everything around.  People took your ticket as you entered and bowed to you and you nodded haughtily back because you were on a train and you would go sit in your compartment and revel in your own luxuriousness.  In general, it all looked like this:

So beautiful.  So Edwardian.
My first real train experiences came in England and later in the states.  In England most of the trains we were on were either local or short trips on the national rail.  Most of the trains double as commuter trains and they're industrial and efficient and the only hint of old-school romance comes in the form of a train worker who comes around with a cart every now and then selling drinks and sweets.  (It's as close to Hogwarts as I've ever been - that and going to Christ Church College.)

My train experience in America was the Christmas my parents decided that it would be totally rad (and cheap) for me to take Amtrak home.  "It'll be fun!" they said.  "You'll be with friends!" they assured me.  "22 hours isn't THAT bad." they promised.  So I agreed (what choice did I have?) and met the train at the station at 4:00 AM (aka. the deepest butt crack of dawn.)  The train was a whopping 45 minutes late as I recall - and should have been our first hint that we were going to be on that train for way more than 22 hours.  Train travel in the western US is a joke at best.  Signs in the cars were made using cardboard and sharpie.  The dining room at our disposal served microwaved hot dogs and was positioned in a room that looked like it probably housed several rapists.  To make things even more exciting, I was sitting next to a friend who was literally a week away from proposing to his girlfriend.  I've never tried harder in my life not to touch someone accidentally while sleeping next to them.  Many many long hours later, I got off the train and vowed to get a flight home, even if it meant paying extra money.  

Before going to Germany this summer, I had high expectations of train travel.  I had heard that the German rail system was amazing.  My experience with trains in England compared to the states was enough to convince me that I was about to have the train experience of my life. This ended up being rather true. . .only maybe not in the way I anticipated. 

Picture this: 

1. Hotter than normal summer. No air conditioning.  Windows on the train are locked.

I have no tolerance for people who have air conditioning capabilities and don't use them.
2. Crowded train - standing room only. 



3. Men in lederhosen and/or football team t-shirts (two different occasions, y'all.  This happened twice.) 


No, not like this.  This would have been adorable.
More like this, only on a train.  A crowded one.
4. Lots of beer.

Seriously.  I think this is an accurate representation.
5. And, on one occasion - you combine this with a loud, portable boom box playing "American Idiot" on repeat with increasingly drunken voices that occasionally shoot into horrible sounding falsetto.  Also group team cheers.  And lots of German swearing that I understood about half of.  (Why is it that the vocab words that stick when I study another language are the bad ones?!)

Oy. 

Suffice it to say that if my love life weren't enough to convince me that romance is dead, then a four hour train ride with loud and drunk football fans was enough.  It's stuff like this that keeps me single. It's stuff like this that makes me hug my car a little tighter and blare the air conditioning until I freeze.  Stuff like this that makes me profoundly grateful that I had a mother who taught me manners and how yelling loudly in an enclosed space is annoying and you shouldn't do it.

Thank goodness Europe looks like this:



Or I'd never travel.




08 July 2013

Revamp

Dear Friends:

I am packing for a seriously awesome trip right now.  My clothes are packed into OCD approved little "packing squares".  I have piles of plug adapters and my camera batteries are charging and my guidebook is highlighted to within an inch of its life and my passport is out and I found my pack-now-fill-with-chocolate-later carry on and I am so. excited.  I love Europe.  It's been far too long since I put myself through some serious jet lag.  Bring it on.

But you know what else has been long in coming?

Some legit personal essays from yours truly.

See - once upon a time, this blog was meant to be a place for me to practice said form of writing with the intention of stock piling a set of essays with which to send into the publishing world or the grad school world or the internet world (check!) or whatever.  And after England 2007 I did pretty well.  I was full of ideas and had friends to share them with and I got writing scholarships and I was moving.  And then this thing called grown up life happened.  And now I spend more time reading the writing of other people than I do writing anything of my own, and it feels like most of what I write (while not a complete waste of time - right?) leans on the political/social commentary train more often than it does the interesting personal story train.  The second one is the train I love more.  Unfortunately, everything I've started in that area more or less revolves around my hot topics of the life of the perpetually single, teaching, and the perils of depression.  I have been suffering for creative ammunition because, frankly, I'm kind of tired about obsessing over those topics quite so much in my writing because I feel like I've exhausted all the angles and I am preeetty sure that you are tired of reading about my dating life, because, let's face it, no one cares about it.  Including me.  It's monotonous.

Also I've stopped doing what I used to be so much better with, which is observing and writing about others and my interactions with them (not in a mean gossipy way but in a human interest way).  My writing (in my journal and out of it) has been a basic travel log.  Boring.

So this is my promise to both you and to myself that in the next year, I am going to revisit the writing I love most of all and whip out some real, legitimate essays.  In the next two weeks (and later on my next exciting adventure) I am determined to find some creative muse that will give me ideas again.  It's time.

22 June 2013

The Ideal

When I was in college, I took several ASL classes.  My school required that every student, as part of their general education, take either an upper level math class or another "language of learning".  I decided I'd rather take four semesters of a foreign language than one semester of statistics.  It was totally worth it.

The first three credits for the language requirement were conversation based classes, but the final class was a deaf culture class.  To be honest, I found this class to be a little frustrating.  The ultimate message of each class at the end of the day seemed to be the same: "You are not deaf, therefore, deaf culture dislikes you because you oppress us with your hearing."  It didn't matter that I was learning ASL and supportive of people doing so - I was (am) hearing, and therefore will always sit on the outside of the deaf world.

My teacher explained all this to us using a rather intricate and complicated series of circles.  The outer most ring of this circle consists of people who fight against deaf culture or have deaf children that they give cochlear implants to.  Slightly in from this are people like me who learn ASL and are supportive of ASL but have no real connection to the world of the deaf.  Next comes family members of those who are deaf who speak ASL, and so on to the core of the circles.  The core consists of the perfect deaf individual.  This person is deaf and born to deaf parents.  He or she attends deaf schools, including Gallaudet University where he or she will meet another deaf person, get married and produce more deaf people.

This ideal, the teacher admitted, is incredibly rare.  The majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents.  Most deaf parents have hearing children.  But the ideal is still there, and still the dream of any proud deaf individual.

I've been thinking quite a bit about this analogy in the last year and how it could, perhaps, be used to explain other cultural conflicts.  For example, in my corner of the world there is a different ideal: A child is born to Mormon parents, who were born to Mormon parents, and so on back to what would, ideally, be Mormon Pioneers who have really interesting conversion stories and were home teachers to Joseph Smith.  (It is also acceptable to be a first generation convert to the Mormon church, because it is a romantic novelty.  Second generation is somewhat more culturally problematic.)  This child will have parents who attended a culturally acceptable Mormon university (or, if they are slightly more rebellious, the other two major universities in Utah, but this is because playful rivalry is the spice of football season and where would we be without it?)  The child will attend one of these universities, where they will marry their eternal companion before graduation (but after a mission.)  If they are female, it is expected that they will be pregnant when they graduate, or that they will work for a year or two after graduation before leaving work to raise their children (like they should.)  If they are male, they will pursue a stable, respectable career.  They will have a decent number of children (somewhere between 4-7 seems to be about average), participate actively in the church and other related programs, and carry on down the line to future generations.

I don't know that I have too much beef with this ideal.  Truthfully, I was raised in it more or less.  My family have been good, church going people for several generations.  I attended one of those previously mentioned "appropriate" schools - as have both of my parents, all of my siblings to date and most of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.  For most of my childhood, my dad was a member of the Bishopric in our congregation, thus making our family one of the "best" or "most prominently known" families in the area.  Rock on.

There is that little hitch in the perfect ideal of my plan, though: as has been widely discussed on this blog, I am perhaps the world's worst dater.  I despise dating.  I don't despise men - I actually really like men.  I am totally open to the right kind of relationship.  I just suck at getting them going and, for the time being, my future looks to be a very single one.  I don't meet that ideal.  The longer the ideal slips away from me, the harder it will be to fit.  And, somewhat more problematic, comes the part where I admit that I don't have a desire for a large family.  Never have.  Both of my parents come from small families, growing up with two siblings each.  (My dad had a third sibling who died when she was quite young.)  And things get even more complicated when I confess that I don't have any desire not to work.  I enjoy working.  I love my job.  I'm not opposed to working part time instead of full time - I do think it's important for parents to actually be involved in the lives of their children - but I also know that I will go absolutely stir crazy if I spend all my time with them.  Small children are cute and fun but I get bored by them quickly and I hate bodily fluids and waiting for kids to sound out words makes me impatient.  What's more, it's quite literally in my genetics to need lots of plates spinning at the same time to be happy and content with life.  I need to be involved in the world around me or I'm a depressed mess.

But this post isn't really about me.  Not entirely, anyway.  Lately my Facebook feed has been filled with a number of posts surrounding a presentation given by the owner of a swimwear line that is anti-bikini.  A portion of the argument that is made is that how a girl dresses can positively or negatively impact the thoughts and behaviors of men; therefore, girls should cover themselves as a favor to their male counterparts.  Now, I have major beef with this argument from any way you phrase it.  I simply cannot condone an argument that suggests that a girl should be responsible for the agency of a boy.  That's a load of crap.  It reminds me of an advisor I had during my first year of teaching who told me once that I should never "unintentionally offend someone".  Unintentionally offend someone?  What the heck does that even mean?  If I were to spend my life completely paranoid about unintentionally offending others I would never get anything done.  Ever.  The most productive people in the world are those who act knowing that they probably will offend or bother others and then they decide that they don't care.

The bigger problem with the responses that I've seen to this video, though, go back to that cultural ideal.  For some reason, people in my corner of the world wear their non-Mormon friends like a badge on their arm.  A sign that they are good and accepting of those who do not share their beliefs.  This is what it is.  But we are, as a culture, far less tolerant of those who are different within our own boundaries.  We can tolerate the friend who drinks or has a tattoo who doesn't come to church with us, but we cannot tolerate the woman who dresses her infant daughter in a sleeveless dress in the middle of summer because she should know better than to allow her baby to project an image of immodesty.  We can support our friends who have extramarital sex because they "just don't know any better", but cannot tolerate the woman who comes to church in pants to support gender equality, or the woman who has questions about why she can't be ordained into the priesthood.  Why is it that we are so intolerant of our own kind?  Those who are coming to church because they need so badly to have the support and understanding of those who are supposed to, in one form or another, share their beliefs?  People who have covenanted to lift the burdens of others - even when they don't understand those burdens.

The fact of the matter is, the Utah Valley Ideal is just not going to happen for everyone and, frankly, shouldn't happen for everyone.  One of the primary factors in the creation of the world was the need to promote variety.  A variety of climates, topography, animal life and - yes - people.  We need traditional, comfortable families just as much as we need less traditional lifestyles in the culture of the church.  It's time that we stop punishing people for applying their worship differently than we do.

This post has gone on long enough.  But if you're still up for more reading, then check out this article.  It says so much of what I've tried to - only much better.

14 May 2013

25 in 25

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today I give to you 25 things I've learned in the last year in order of how I think of them.  This will, I hope, make you as wise as me someday:

1. Healthy food tastes better when you're 25 than it did when you're 20.  In fact, it tastes so much better that given the choice between ice cream and red peppers I will almost always choose peppers.

They always welcome me like this.  No joke!
2. Night is still infinitely preferable to morning, but there's a switch that goes off in your brain on your 25th birthday that suddenly makes 2:00 AM very very late.  Also, several years of a regular work schedule will make it impossible for you to sleep in past 8:00 AM, which, when you're still childless, is just unfair.

3. Sometimes you still don't feel like you could possibly be a responsible adult.  Like when you walk around your old college campus or when you go to IHOP in your bloomers after a show.

4. The stranger the food combination looks on the menu, the better it will probably taste.  (Pear and gorgonzola cheese on pork.  Trust me.)

5. That being 25 and single with (two) good jobs means that you have the incredible luxury and privilege of traveling wherever you want, including Disneyland.

6. Also, going to Disneyland is always fun, and no matter how old you are the Peter Pan ride will always make you want to cry a little and walking down Main Street will make you want to skip.

Still pretty sure my letter got lost in the mail.  That's alright.
I'm fine getting it late.  
7. Flying a kite is magical.

8. How important it is to shut down your email when you leave work.  People will understand if you don't answer until morning, and if they don't, they're probably going to be just as big of a jerk at 10:00 PM as they are at 8:30 AM.

9. That seeing a teenager succeed and say something awesome or do something kind or have ridiculous amounts of potential is incredibly rewarding.

10. Also - that I definitely picked the right career path.

11. That a part of me will probably always live in Neverland, Hogwarts, Narnia and Avonlea.  I'll never completely say goodbye to Sherwood or Camelot exactly.  Also I'm not going to try to.  I like my imagination, thank you very much.

12. That not all adults act like adults in the good way.  There are still plenty of oddly petty and grudge-holding people out there.  I don't want to be one of them.

13. That I have some serious work to do if I'm ever going to get to all the books I want to read and re-read before I die.  Also, that there better be books in heaven.  There is no end to the number of times I want to read Anne of Green Gables.  Or Little Women.  Or Sense and Sensibility.  Or. . .

14. There is almost nothing better in this world than hearing beautiful music played live.

15. That I have a pretty incredible set of parents and siblings and extended family.  For the most part, we all get along.  That's so, so rare.  And so lucky.
Alarm = little panda.  Me = big panda.

16. That your work environment can be a living hell with the wrong boss - and heaven if you have the right one.

17. That letting go is sometimes more important than holding on - especially when it comes to annoyance.

18.  That spending all morning devouring a good book is not wasted time, even if it means you're behind on a hundred other things.  You'll be happier doing the rest if you took the time to get away.

19. That my day is infinitely better when my bed is made and I feel pretty.  Taking the time I need to get ready in the morning is worth it, even on Saturday when no one really sees it.

20. That I will probably never be anywhere on time in the morning.  Mornings are the devil.

How I read books.  No joke.  More than one at once.
21. That taking yourself on a date somewhere you like is time and money well spent.  The company is infinitely better (and better looking) than the jerk who ignores you at the symphony or the boring one at the bookstore or the creepers.

22. That no one is immune of an identity crisis.  No one understands themselves as much as they pretend to, and generally you win out by giving people the benefit of the doubt.

23. That I can keep learning without the help of professors and assignments and classes, but it takes more discipline and it's important to surround myself with smart people who can help me talk through ideas.  I still can't learn as well as an island as I can with a group.

24. There is very little in this world that a fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookie can't solve.  (Especially with the ratio of cookie to chip is in favor of cookie.)

Now I want one.
25. I am more capable, more smart, more kind, more gracious and more talented than I sometimes give myself credit for.  I can do hard things.  I can do more and be better.  I am not a failure.  I am flawed, but not wasted.  Weak, but not powerless.  I have the power to be better than I am, but what I am is still pretty good.

09 May 2013

Oh Say, What is Truth?

The word "true" gives me a headache.

Growing up, I used the word like I was handing out Halloween candy - freely and to anyone (or anything) that came to the door.  "I know the scriptures are true" I would say in testimony meetings.  "I know the church is true".  "I know the prophet is true".  The word "true" was applied to dozens of things and ideas and people and I felt it.  I felt it.

As a child, I designated truth as anything that was not false.  It was a clean, nice, straightforward definition.  The answer was either right or wrong.  The choice was either good or bad.  There was no middle ground when it came down to it.  No room for a "but what if. . . ?"  There was no grey area in which truths and falsehoods could co-habitate.  It was all or nothing, baby.

When I was in high school, I took a World Literature class from a fabulous teacher.  One unit that still stands out in my mind was a unit where we read several creation stories and flood stories.  Nearly every corner of the world has these stories, we were taught - and our job was to guess why.  We read the story of Noah and the Ark compared to folk tales involving turtle shells and Zeus' angry flood to get rid of the extravagant Bronze Age, and others.  The flood stories fascinated me especially.  It made sense that so many cultures would want to know where the beginning of everything fit - but flood stories?  According to how I'd been brought up, Noah and his family (and their menagerie) were the only survivors of the flood.  Shouldn't there be only one story?  Only one truth?  What if there had been many different flood interpretations - were those stories still valid?  Were they also true?

Later, in college, I took an Anthropology class from a professor who had grown up more or less in a mortuary.  Her father was the mortician and she had found the experience so interesting that she had gone on to study birth and burial rights with an emphasis on East Asian experience.  She told dozens of stories including one about a family who had a dead body in the back room of their house for ages until they could afford an expensive funeral for her - they had ancient royal blood in their family and, though they were impoverished now, had to provide a certain standard of funeral.

The story that stood out to me most, though, was one about a woman she met who had converted to Christianity.  Christianity was rare in that particular location where Buddhism and other local belief systems reined supreme, so my professor had asked the woman what it was that had told her that Christianity was right.  "I had a great pain behind my forehead," the woman had responded, pointing to a spot between her eyes.  "And I knew it was true."

Come to find out, the woman had been raised to believe that great spiritual experiences give a person headaches.  It was a far cry from the "warm fuzzy feelings" I'd been told about all my life.  But since I, too, believed in Christianity - could I also stretch my beliefs beyond fuzzies and into headaches to conduits of truth discovery?  Where were headaches in scripture?

Then there were bigger problems: what about truths that weren't "real" per-say?  If truth and lies are the equivalent of non-fiction and fiction, then it suggests that anything that doesn't exist in the concrete, tangible places isn't true, or at least cannot promote or produce truth.  This doesn't seem quite right either - Christ himself taught through parables - fictional stories that represent good virtues.  I had myself seen hundreds of movies and books, listened to hours of music, pretended to be someone else in theater - some of these experiences made truths clearer to me than any "real" experiences.  Were the truths taught via. Jane Eyre or Ender's Game or Charlotte's Web any less valid than truths learned from the time I spent not reading?   

One of my classes has just finished reading Life of Pi, a book based on the premise that the stories we tell - about our own lives, and about our faith - are part of what bring us to God.  The character Pi Patel is thrown into rather horrific circumstances that involve being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger.  At the end of the story when Pi has finally reached land and the authorities are questioning him, he tells them two versions of his story: the one he's told the entire book, and a rather more disturbing one.  Although it is never verified - it is suggested that this second more awful version is the "true" version.  The version that has been told the entire book is the version that Pi has been telling himself to help cope with the awful things he has seen.  It is a story that enables him to try and move beyond tragedy - it is the story that allows him to understand the meaning of his experience and what he can learn from it.  In much the same way that we, when faced with things we don't understand, try to predict why God might be "doing this to us", Pi has constructed a highly symbolic tale that he determines is more true than reality because it is the story that changes him more.

One parent disagreed with this analysis.  "Pi's fabrication does not relate a more profound reality," he wrote.  "The story was not about truth, but about storytelling.  The problem I see with it is that if the truth doesn't matter, then any story is as good as any other story.  Or any story is as meaningless as any other."

"No!" I wanted to shout.  "The truth does matter!  It is everything."  And then I would, if I could, tell him how much I need stories in my life.  How much we all do.  How stories of Mormon Pioneers remind me of my heritage, and stories of my childhood make me laugh, and how stories of a desperate prostitute doing all she can to save her child inspires me to never give up and how stories of magical wardrobes teach me about the purpose of my life.  I would tell him about how the Book of the Dead teaches me not to fear dying, and the writings of Confucius teach me to be patient with myself and others, and the stories of Peter remind me that even flawed sinners like me can become great. That the Olympics remind me of the essential qualities of human goodness and that Claire de Lune taught me how to feel.  I would tell him that the story of springtime bursting into life again after an awful winter is awe inspiring to me.  And I would tell him, more than anything, that all of these things have brought me closer to God.

I don't fault this parent for being frustrated with the end of Pi, but I do ache for him.  I ache because, from my perspective, the world is full of stories.  From how we interpret the events around us to less spontaneous, more artistic and refined variations - they matter.  And they change us, and they make us better.  And they teach us to empathize with perspectives that are not ours.  Is that not a less limiting definition of truth?  Truth is more - so much more - than simple exact reality or total fantasy.

24 April 2013

Read the Instructions Exactly

Dear World -

Today my students are sitting in a nearly silent room taking a state test.  It's very exciting.

Yesterday we had ethics training on the proper way to administer a state test.  For example, I'm not allowed to distribute colored candies to my students suggesting correct answers to them.  I told them this, and they laughed.  I'm glad they laughed - it meant they know me well enough to know that I wouldn't ever do that.  I hope they see me as an honorable person.  So no candy.  I am, however, encouraged to bribe my students with bonus points or prizes for doing well on this test.  "They won't do well any other way," the government says.  "Teenagers need to be tricked into learning" is what I hear.

I was livid.

I also had a conversation recently that bewildered me a bit.  "You don't have your class rules posted," the individual said.  "No, I don't." I replied.  "I don't need to."

"They should see the rules.  It's helpful for them because then they know what is expected."

I don't need to post rules in my classroom.  I don't have class management problems.  Instead of posting rules, we post values.  Each year we select a quote from a poem or essay that matters.  We post them in the classroom and every year we add a new one.  This year the quote is 'Carpe the heck out of your diem.'  Last year it was 'I am a part of all that I have met'.  One year it was 'Live like a champion today'.    I don't want to set a ceiling on expected behavior, because I want them to do the unexpected.  They don't rip up my room because that's not the kind of student I expect them to be.  But sometimes the administrative world of teaching doesn't quite get that.  "If rules aren't posted, how do they know?" I can see them thinking.  "Teenagers are always looking for a way to goof off.  Posting the rules fixes that."

Clearly these professionals don't see what I see.

I told my students about those thoughts today.  Reminded them (as if they needed reminding) that there are people in this world that think very little of them.  That think they have so little integrity and honesty that they won't do anything without a cheap, tangible, sugary or point laden reward.  I told them that I think better of them than that.  That I trust them.  That I love them - each of them - for the wonderful individuals they are.  I told them to kick the test in the face because they are the kind of people who should do everything to the best of their ability because it's right, not just when they feel like it or when they care, but all the time.  Even during state tests.

I've been aching for them lately.  For me too.  Because although I carry myself with confidence, I feel like I'm still flying by the seat of my pants most of the time with this teaching thing.  There are still many topics that I don't present as well as I could.  Subjects I'm a little more vague on than I would like to be.  Ideas that I struggle to communicate well.  I'm still learning, still so new at this teaching thing.

It's hard, teaching.  It's such a strange balance of instinct and study.  Every now and then I get emails from parents wondering why I don't teach a certain topic a different way.  "Clearly," they tell me, "This would be so much better".  Maybe they're right.  "You should start an after school writing club," another parent suggested.  "Not everyone is as good at writing as you."  Yes, I think.  I know that.  I read more of their writing than you do.  Maybe I should start a writing club.  Maybe that would fix it.  Or maybe your kid should pay attention in class.  Or maybe I picked vocabulary the day I taught certain lessons that just didn't connect.  Or maybe the kid came in from lunch tired from a full stomach or frustrated because of an argument with a friend, or tired from a late night baseball game.  Or maybe my instructions were confusing and I could have been a little more clear.  Maybe somewhere between the kid and me it's just going to take a few more tries.  Maybe it was a perfect storm of all of the above.  Who knows?

Oh, how I wish that teaching were as easy as giving a state test.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all I had to do was read the instructions exactly on how to teach a topic?  How to understand each student?  How to communicate with each parent?  How to talk about each book?  It would be so much easier.  So much less stressful.  It would make so many more parents happy.  It would produce wonderfully predictable results.  "If you take my class," I could say, "I will turn you into THIS."  But it isn't that easy.  I'm an imperfect person still trying new things.  Sometimes I connect better with one student than with another.  Sometimes my class changes lives.  Sometimes - hopefully not as often - it stresses and frustrates them instead.  Is that a sin?  I don't think so.  It's unfortunate and inconvenient and downright frustrating - but that's life.  I can't be everything for everyone.  I'm not that good.

In the mean time, I keep trying to move forward.  I pray that my students will be patient with me as I try to figure things out.  That parents will forgive me my imperfections and that God will help students to learn when I fall short.  I do my best.  I try to learn from mistakes and get better each time, because I owe it to them.  They deserve the world.

Please - for me - the next time you see a teenager you know, please tell them how wonderful they are.  And remember that with few exceptions, their teachers are honestly trying to do what they think is best.  Maybe what the teacher is doing isn't best.  Maybe for some it is and some it isn't.  It happens.  But they mean well.  No one in their right mind would enter this profession otherwise.

23 April 2013

The Young and the Beautiful

My birthday is coming up.  It isn't an overly significant birthday other than the fact that it marks a decade of dating failure to celebrate.

When I was sixteen I had my future figured out.  I'd go to college and get good grades, of course.  But I would also date regularly because I'm hott like that and I would have my pick of the boys because I'm smart like that and I would be married when I wanted because I plan like that.  And I would be young and beautiful and fresh faced in all of my pictures and everyone that came to my wedding would congratulate me on my wonderful success of graduating head of the marriageable class.  A++ to me.  And years down the road my beautiful, smart, well planned children would look at pictures of that day and talk about how awesome and young and Audrey Hepburn-esque I am.  Extra credit, small child.  Extra credit.

Reality, as you know well oh regular reader, has turned out somewhat differently.  I'm at the point in my life where the Mormon community will breathe a sigh of relief if I ever get married at all.  "That was a close one!" they will say.  "Dodged a bullet!!" they'll add.  "Thank goodness they found each other.  How wonderful."  If I do get married, it won't be purely an occasion of celebration.  It will also be an event tinged heavily with relief.  "Glad that's over." they'll think.  "You finally made it!" they'll write on the cards.  And my pictures will feature an "older" dress because the younger styles will look weird and pretentious on me.  (Business suit, anyone?)  My friends with their 3-4 children will come and I will smile awkwardly back.  From where I sit now, I totally wish that elopement was a culturally acceptable option for an overaged Mormon woman still navigating blind date waters.  Then I could disappear for a year and everyone could just forget the whole thing ever happened and treat me like normal.

So.  In the name of trying to forget not really significant birthdays that are still a little bit significant in the not so great way: I am laughing at this, very appreciative of the advice offered here (especially the part about giving me dating advice if you got married at 18.  Completely different ball game now, y'all), and thanking my lucky stars that I am, on the whole, happy as a social menace (thanks a ton, Brigham).  I'm quite content with my independent ability to grow old while traveling instead of changing diapers and cleaning up vomit volcanoes.  Look on the bright, bodily fluid (and fart) free side of life, right?  Of course right.


18 April 2013

Justice

When I was a freshman in high school, I remember walking into choir one day and hearing rumors about one of the cheerleaders.

"I hear she's suspended," one person said, pointing to her empty seat.

"No she's not," another student nearby piped in, shaking her head with an all-knowing scowl.  "She's pregnant.  She's going to that special school."

Pregnant?  "Well!", I thought, "I wouldn't put it past the girl."  She'd always been a bit of a pain to work with from my estimation.  Didn't seem that bright.  Didn't seem that put together.  Of course she'd managed to wind up somewhere stupid.

Fast forward a few months.  I'm on an overnight trip with my show choir and there's a girl vomiting.  As a certified, life long member of the emetophobia society, I'm freaking out.  I'm steering clear.  "I don't want to get sick!" I say to another choir member.  "I'm washing my hands like crazy."

"She's not sick," my friend tells me.  "She's hung over.  Don't feel sorry for her."

I didn't.  I was furious.  How could she be so stupid?  She totally deserved what she got.  Hung over and whining about it?  What a moron.

When I was a teenager I had a decently simplistic view of bad things happening to people.  I wasn't quite so extreme as Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest who claimed that the good end happily and the bad unhappily ("that is what fiction means!").  I knew from my own life that bad things happened to good people.  No one is immune.  Some people were stupid and brought troubles upon themselves more often and more readily than others, but that was their fault.  Some people just had rotten obstacles to overcome and that was just a testament to God working in mysterious ways. . . whatever that meant.

To be honest with you, the justice in the universe hasn't ever really eaten at me as much in my life as it has this year.  I can study Holocaust literature and, perhaps horribly enough, find the poetry in the story that God is weaving in his universe.  Sure, the Holocaust was horrible; but how wonderful that the world now has so many examples of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of incredible odds, right?  Isn't that a blessing?  It's so easy for me to write off the crap of the world as just another step on the hero's journey.

But it's getting harder.

This year has been, more than any other, full of inexplicable injustices on people around me that I know and love.  It's been an especially hard year for some of my students.  I've seen so many of them struggle with illnesses and family drama and friendships that aren't easy any more.  I've seen them given challenges that adults would crumble under.  That I would crumble under.  It's breaking my heart to watch.  The world is in front of them and so full of possibilities.  Or it should be.  "Why is this happening to me?" one student said, looking completely exasperated.  "I'm going places with my life.  I have plans.  I am smart.  Shouldn't this be happening to someone who is destined to a life of flipping burgers?!"

Yes.  Yes it should.

To have students come into my office seeking refuge, understanding, help, a listening ear - I feel completely unprepared and unqualified to offer anything.  Every time I open my mouth to try and offer whatever advice I can I feel young and inexperienced and completely moronic.  What do I, with my healthy, safe, convenient life know about helping them with their struggles?  With my family that is whole, with my finances that are secure, with my job that I didn't even apply for?  How can I help?  Everything comes out so trite and pithy and easy.

But I can't turn them away.  I can't pass them off to some counselor.  Because, somehow - and I'm not entirely sure how this happened - they learned to trust me, and I can't give that up.  I can't break that. I owe it to them.

They don't prepare you for this in school.  They don't talk about this on the stupid state test I had to take to upgrade my license.  They'll warn you a little about how you'll love your students and want to do anything for them.  They don't warn you at all about how they'll worm their way into your own dreams and heartaches.  How their successes and failures will hit you too.  How an uncertain future for those who deserve so, so much more will make you wish that you had done more with your own life and question the judgment of God.  I heard all these stories about your biological children.  But what about the other ones?

In Memorium 55 - Tennyson

The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife, 
That Nature lends such evil drams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life,

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds, 
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope through darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust to larger hope.