Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lost Childhoods

Say You're One of Them
by Uwem Akpan

It is so easy to divorce ourselves from the misery on the other side of the world. We go about our busy lives, we raise our kids, we run our households, we go to work every day, and sometimes days go by between the times when we think of the people who do not have households to maintain or jobs to go to or children to feed (because the ones they had have all died in tribal warfare or from malaria or AIDS or starvation). Our blindness is not intentional, but cultural. Occasionally we catch a story on CNN or NPR about ethnic clashes in an African country or a famine or an earthquake or some other type of natural disaster that leaves lives shattered. We feel genuine compassion for our neighbors, but not a personal connection to their sorrow.

Uwem Akpan's collection of stories Say You're One of Them makes it hard for us to keep that level of detachment. Akpan is a Jesuit priest who also is a gifted writer - his writing is really an extension of his ministry. I hope that is true for all of us who both minister and write (often the two are intertwined), but Akpan's book is a deliberate attempt to fill a void that desperately needs filling - the voices of children who are caught in the horrors of African religious and ethnic conflicts He decided to write stories from the perspective of children about atrocities in several African countries - including Niger, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.

I don't know that I could choose a "favorite" from these five stories - three of which would probably be called short stories and two are probably long enough to be called novellas. Each is well written, but extraordinarily painful to read. Fattening for Gabon, about two children sold into slavery by their uncle, is haunting. My Parents' Bedroom, told from the point of view of the child of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother during the Rwandan wars of the 1990s, illustrates the complexities of ethnic hatred alongside mixed marriages and mixed blood children. Each story takes us inside one of Africa's bleakest conflicts, showing us how the ones who pay the highest price for the violence are usually the ones who had nothing to do with starting it in the first place. The stories are fiction, but drawn from the experiences of children he has met and talked with.

Akpan's stories make it impossible for us to insulate ourselves from what happens in Africa, Afghanistan, Mississippi, or anywhere else. It's not fun reading, but they are stories we need to hear. Akpan reminds us that we are all connected - we may not know each other personally, but there are ways that we can relate to one another. As a parent, I could identify with the anguish of the parents who see their kids' lives being wrecked - even when, as in An Ex-Mas Feast, a young girl turns to prostitution to help feed her family. Her parents behave in inexcusable ways, but their pain is also palpable. Most of us love our children and want a beautiful life for them - we are blessed enough to live in a place where we seldom have to make the agonizing choices that these parents do. For these children to have to make adult decisions and live adult lives at their tender ages is one of the great human tragedies.

Read this, but brace yourself first. It's rough.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Unlikely Emergence of Faith

by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is just hilarious. I remember reading her memoir The Liar's Club several years ago and laughing out loud in a number of places. It is about her childhood, growing up in a nutty family in hardscrabble Texas. Her second memoir, Cherry, is about her young adult years and her participation in the drug scene of the 1970s. This latest one takes us through the painful days of her marriage, her battle with alcoholism, and her coming to faith in Christ in spite of herself.

Karr (who is also a poet - she might even call herself primarily a poet) has a remarkable way with words. He writing does not plod in the least, it just zips right along. However, you do not want to go too fast because you might miss some of the stunning images or insightful turns of phrase that pop up all over the book. In describing her withdrawal from alcohol, at one point she says that her skin felt like "sausage casing, with the flesh straining to pop out." Ouch. Karr is not afraid to laugh at herself, and she takes total responsibility for the mistakes that she made and the people whom she hurt when she was under the power of booze. Even when she acts like a brat, the reader wants better things for her. Her need for attention and reassurance is understandable, given the inconsistent way she was parented. Her dependence on alcohol likely had a genetic factor (both of her parents had substance abuse problems), but may also have been related to her feeling like a poser in the intellectual, literary world.

In any case, she was headed for a complete physical and mental meltdown (her marriage was already damaged beyond repair) when she finally began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She had always thought that faith in some kind of Supreme Being (or "Higher Power" in AA parlance) was just a bunch of nonsense, and for a long time she was hung up on that acknowledgement of a Higher Power as part of her recovery. Over time, she developed relationships with other people in recovery and found people with whom she could talk frankly about her struggles with the whole concept of belief. She gradually moved from utter disbelief to wanting to believe to finally, deep within the recesses of her heart and spirit, surrendering to the truth that there is Someone who loves and cares for her and wants her to experience life in all its fullness. There is something really powerful about someone embracing faith and making the conscious decision to go through baptism as an adult.

Karr's writing is honest, funny, and moving all at the same time. She still wrestles with some of the doctrinal issues of Roman Catholicism - who among us does not struggle with the abstractness of doctrine at times? But she has grasped the concepts of living relationally with God and with family and friends. She has come to understand that dependence on God and dependence on each other are all part of the same package. She has received and unwrapped that package, and her life is better for it.

Thanks for sharing, Mary Karr. Blessings on your continued journey of faith.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who Is My Neighbor?

The Tortilla Curtain
by T.C. Boyle

Wow. This book blew me away. I read it several weeks ago (that's how behind I am on my blogging), but I still find myself thinking about the story a lot. Don't know how I missed in in 1996 when it was published, but I guess I was not paying enough attention. No matter - it is at least as timely now as it was then, what with all the public debate on border control and illegal immigration. If you have not read this and are at all interested in those issues, you really should check this out. Boyle has captured the plight of the poverty stricken immigrant, as well as the fear, interior conflict, and hypocrisy of the prosperous native born Anglo.

Set in the Los Angeles area, The Tortilla Curtain shares us two parallel stories of people who live near each other and find their lives intersecting in surprising and uncomfortable ways. Delaney and Kyra are white liberals who live in a gated community and initially have a reasonably compassionate attitude toward the Mexican immigrants who are becoming ever more visible. Candido and America (oh, the irony of that name) are illegals hiding in the nearby canyon, picking up work where they can find it, and trying desperately to make a fresh start. Several unfortunate incidents conspire to push Candido and America back into the pit of despair every time they think they are about to get just the tiniest bit ahead. Their frustration and pain is heart wrenching. America is pregnant, and as the birth of their child draws nearer, she becomes more desperate and lonely. The forced isolation of these two people seems so unnecessarily cruel. Yes, they do break a few laws - stealing occasionally to get food being the main one. How many of us would not be driven to do the same if we were starving?

Delaney and Kyra are also pitiful characters in their own way. Due to the power of neighborhood group think, they morph from reasonably good hearted people (although privileged, self-centered, and clueless in a lot of ways) to maniacal, fearful NIMBYs. Delaney's transformation is especially sad, as he begins the story a reasonable person with a compassionate outlook. Like so many of us, as the immigrants encroach on his personal convenience (often through no fault of their own) he takes an ever dimmer view of them. It is fine for them to be hired to build a fence in his backyard, but their visible presence on street corners and in parking lots looking for work he comes to find unacceptable. The hate that infiltrates Delaney's mind as he starts to blame everything that goes wrong in his life on "the Mexicans" is frightening. We think we would never behave that way, but his thought processes and resulting actions are scarily possible. Most of us probably act in these ways every day without even realizing it.

Boyle has included some interesting parallel concerns for Delaney and Kyra that make their dear and hatred of the immigrants even more mysterious and sad. Delaney is an environment/nature writer with a deep reverence for creation (although neither he or Kyra seem particularly spiritual). At one point, Kyra gets into a heated confrontation with a stranger who leaves his dog locked in a car on a hot day. They both totally miss the disconnect between their concern for animals and nature and a lack of concern for fellow human beings living in squalor just a mile or two from their California mansion.

I will read this again, probably several times. It is one of the best narratives of a compelling social dilemma I have ever read. I am planning to preach about it later this summer, so may even post about it again relatively soon. One of the things that moved me the most was the grain of hope found in the final sentence.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Painful Growth

My Losing Season
by Pat Conroy

Conroy is undoubtedly among the best writers of our time (IMHO). I have long been enamored of his novels - ever since I read The Prince of Tides in 1990. This memoir of his senior year at The Citadel, playing point guard for their basketball team, is every bit as insightful and moving as his fiction. It is well known that Conroy's novels are autobiographical - The Great Santini is based on his own father, Don Conroy. The Lords of Discipline is based on his own plebe year at The Citadel. My Losing Season is brutally honest, detailing Conroy's own battles with depression and other demons. In typical Conroy fashion, though, it is also peppered with humor and wit. Conroy is also able to articulate the dark side of any experience while at the same time pointing out the light that pierces through even the worst of circumstances.

My Losing Season frankly discusses the intra-team rivalries of the Citadel's players, as well as the psychological and emotional manipulation that their coach, Mel Thompson, used to keep his players obedient to him. His tactics were successful in that his players were all utterly submissive to his will, but the same tactics kept the players from trusting each other. They did not really develop friendships until long after their playing days were over, and failed to jell as a team as a result. Conroy readily admits that his own basketball skills were limited, but he loved the game and wanted nothing more than to play it. It was basketball that gave him some incentive to survive his own father's brutality, and the sport provided a ticket to higher education for him.

My only complaint about My Losing Season is that the detailed play-by-plays of so many games get old (and I like basketball). The story comes much more to life when Conroy lets us into his own emotional wrestling and eventual growth that came out of that ill fated 8-17 season. Conroy was not the best point guard at The Citadel (by his own assessment), but he played a lot that season and served as co-captain of the team, largely because of some grudge the coach was holding against a more talented player. There were moments of pure magic when Conroy made exactly the right play at the right moment, or when he sunk a beautiful basket at just the right time. Even though the team was not doing well as a whole, Conroy writes that he had "never before felt so alive and so necessary." Who does not need to feel alive and necessary? What makes you feel that way?

Conroy has long had a love/hate relationship with The Citadel. After he wrote The Lords of Discipline, he could not go on the campus for more than 20 years because of death threats. However, My Losing Season brought much needed reconciliation with his basketball teammates and even led to some uneasy truce with the school itself. He hates the degradations and humiliations of the plebe system and refused to participate in it as an upperclassman. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the school helped him find his way as a writer and as a human being. His statement that we learn more from the losses in life than we do the wins is powerfully wise, and a welcome antidote to the "win at all costs" ethos that surrounds us in our culture.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hidden Person

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret
by Steve Luxenberg

Imagine finding out as an adult that you had an aunt whom you never knew about - or any hidden family member. Wouldn't that blow your mind? About a year ago, I heard an NPR interview with Steve Luxenberg in which he described such an experience, and his quest to find out about this mysterious woman - his mother's sister, long deceased, who had been kept hidden from him and his siblings.

A few years before his mother's death, one of Luxenberg's sisters overheard her mother (named Beth Cohen Luxenberg) say that she had had a handicapped sister who died as a child. The siblings were all incredulous about this, as being an "only child" had always been a major part of their mom's identity. However, due to their mother's failing health and some fear about rocking the boat, they all chose not to ask her about this vanished sister. It was after his mother's death that Luxenberg began pursuing the truth about what had happened to his aunt. What he discovered was stranger than he had ever imagined.

Beth Cohen and her parents had colluded in keeping not a child, but a grown woman, hidden - for over 30 years. With the detailed, meticulous technique of a journalist (which he is) Luxenberg gradually put together the pieces of the puzzle. Beth's sister Annie had been born in 1919, with a deformed leg and some intellectual impairment (the reports over the years varied, giving Annie's intellectual age as anywhere from 5 years to 12 years). As a young adult, she apparently developed some sort of mental illness. Her leg had to be amputated when she was 17 years old. Some understanding that she was not "normal" and could not look forward to living independently and raising a family of her own caused Annie much depression and grief, which probably contributed to the erratic behavior that led to her institutionalization.

Annie became a patient at Eloise Hospital in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 22. Except for a brief stay in a nursing home at the end of her life, she never lived outside the hospital from that time on. Her mother visited her for the first few years that she was there, but after her mother's death, there was really no one to even acknowledge this person's existence, except for the hospital staff. When Annie died, her chart showed that she had not had a visitor in at least a decade.

In addition to finding information about Annie, Luxenberg also probed the question of WHY? Why would Annie's parents and sister keep her existence a secret, and how did they do it for so long without suffering some kind of mental collapse? Luxenberg investigated the immigrant past of both his maternal grandparents, his mother's social and academic history, and the cultural attitudes towards the mentally and physically disabled at that time, trying to understand what prompted them to take such a drastic step. The family lived in the Detroit area both before and after Annie went to Eloise. In an effort to preserve their secret, they moved to a whole new neighborhood and made a different set of friends, severing ties with people who had known Annie.

Luxenberg's book is interesting - the detective work reminded me of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, about a journalist's hunt for members of his family who perished in the Holocaust. The analysis and intellectual chances that he takes are an interesting story in themselves. However, even though Luxenberg was able to find out enough about Annie to give us some idea of who she was and what her life was like, the person who remains hidden is his mother, Beth. Since he did not talk with her about this deep secret while she was alive, he inevitably winds up relying on conjecture to try to figure out what she could have been thinking. I never felt like he came to any firm conclusions about what his mother hoped to gain by hiding her sister, or how she suppressed that information for close to 70 years. All of his digressions about immigrants having to be in good health or risk being turned away at Ellis Island, social perceptions of the mentally challenged, cultural stereotypes about mental illness, and many other avenues that he explored still ultimately leave us with a sense of emptiness.

It is difficult to comprehend shoving a person into a warehouse for unwanted humans and forgetting about them. One astounding thing that Luxenberg discovered on his sad quest is that this happened to a lot of people. "Defective" persons were sometimes seen as the result of parental sin or bad genes - some thought it was best to just erase such individuals from their family history. People like Annie paid the price for that kind of thinking, and I believe that as a society we were diminished for treating our most vulnerable people in such a way.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, June 3, 2010


When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
by Peter Godwin

Apparently, in some parts of Africa (including Zimbabwe), when a solar eclipse occurs, folklore says that a crocodile has eaten the sun. Such an eclipse is believed to be a terrible omen. I do not share that belief, but reading Godwin's work has helped me understand how the Zimbabwean people need something to blame for the misery that has befallen them. Eclipses are a natural occurrence, but there is enough tragedy in this one small country to make one believe in supernatural instances of evil.

I wrote a post about Godwin's first book, Mukiwa, at the end of December 2008. It is a memoir of growing up as a white Zimbabwean, trying to straddle the gap between his European ethnic and colonial heritage and the only home he had ever known. Godwin's parents were the rare Anglo expatriates to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) who supported the end of British rule and the turning over of the country to the native Zimbabweans to run for themselves. When that finally happened (early 1980s), there was widespread optimism, and the new president, Robert Mugabe, managed to raise the standard of living for the native people.

The sad thing, though, is that Mugabe has become one of the most vile dictators in Africa's history. Well into his 80s, he is still in power through the use of torture, intimidation, and countless cold-blooded murders. The man has a record of human rights abuses much longer than a crocodile's tail. Periodically, when the people of Zimbabwe rise up and demand democratic elections, Mugabe loses. The election results have no effect, though, because Mugabe just sends his thugs on a killing spree and no one else ever assumes power. As Mugabe has grown more paranoid and senile, he has thrown the country into an economic tailspin that has made their currency almost worthless. It is a terrible situation with no end in sight.

Godwin's book lets us into his own love/hate relationship with Zimbabwe. As a journalist, he has written material that is critical of Mugabe, and has been banned from the country at times. He lives now in New York City, although he discreetly visits Zimbabwe as often as he can. In Crocodile he tells the recent history of his homeland alongside his changing relationship with his parents, George and Helen Godwin. The elder Godwins elected to stay in Zimbabwe as the nation descended into chaos. Helen Godwin was still a practicing physician until a few years ago, and she did not want to leave her patients. George Godwin had adopted Zimbabwe as his home after he fled Poland during World War II (a secret that only came out in Peter Godwin's adult life), and he had no intention of leaving. Peter Godwin's anxiety and sadness about his parents' health and safety is palpable throughout the book.

Zimbabwe's story is a sad one, but Godwin also does an excellent job describing the beauty of the land, the warmth of many of its people, and the hope that many of them still have for a better life against all odds. He is an excellent writer with an important story to tell.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Really Productive Flake

Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan
by Greg Mortenson

Perhaps you have read Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson's previous bestseller about his efforts to bring education to some of the most remote areas of Pakistan. I liked that book, but I think Stones into Schools, which chronicles the expansion of his efforts into Afghanistan, is even better. One thought that kept coming to me in Three Cups of Tea, was "This guy is a flake." I don't mean that in a pejorative way, really - just that he was not someone who had a lot of resources at his disposal to begin with. He lived out of his car for a time while he was raising the money to build his first school. He was quite naive about the logistical difficulties of getting supplies to some of these outposts. Everything took a frustratingly long time to get accomplished. His preoccupation with the work "over there" took some toll on his having things all together here.

I think we need more flakes. He may be a bit of a doofus, but his heart is in the right place and he has gotten some amazing stuff done. One aspect of flakehood is to be able to step forward in faith, believing that you can make something happen before all the details are figured out. Mortenson has been able to penetrate some of the most reserved and conservative enclaves of the Muslim world and form relationships with some of their most seemingly inflexible leaders. By working within these relationships, he is providing education and opportunity to hundreds of kids, the majority of them girls. I absolutely believe that education and jobs are the way to address the hopelessness and despair that lead to Islamic extremism. Mortenson is banking on that, and I think we will see positive results from his work sooner rather than later.

Mortenson has gotten more savvy as he has learned "how things work" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has learned to work around some of the most egregious roadblocks, and he is extraordinarily patient and persistent. He does sometimes give in to a corrupt system, and seems to have no qualms about bribing people do what he wants/needs them to do. That part bothers me, but I suppose he has decided that the ends justify the means, and he will do whatever it takes (within reason) to get schools built. The corruption is troubling to me, but I am not sure that in his shoes I would not find myself compromising some of my standards if is meant providing another village with a teacher and a schoolhouse. He is living with and working out some of the ethical dilemmas that for so many of us never get beyond the hypothetical stage.

Stone into Schools is a great read - hopeful and inspiring. It also causes me to prayerfully consider what I can do with my one puny and flaky life for the good of people in need.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Art Reflecting Life?

Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh

I had never read this, and frankly did not know much about Waugh's work, but came across an article in Vanity Fair a couple of months ago about this novel that intrigued me, so I decided to read the book. The novel is about an upper class British family in the years leading up to World War II (with flash forwards to the war itself), and the friendship that a less blue-blooded young man (although certainly not a pauper, kind of a middle class guy) forms with them. Apparently, Waugh really did have a long relationship with a similar family as a young man, and the novel is at least partially based on that experience. Ever since the book was published, Brits have been trying to figure out which pieces of the story really happened and which ones Waugh made up.

Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, starts out being friends with the young scion of the family when they are at Oxford together. Charles does not have much family of his own, and Sebastian's family kind of adopts him. Charles and Sebastian both like to party, but it quickly becomes clear that Sebastian's drinking is more than just youthful antics. Charles gets caught in the middle of Sebastian's unacknowledged war with his family. The family is concerned about his alcoholism, but rarely discuss it for fear of being "unseemly." Charles does not want to make it easier for Sebastian to get access to alcohol, but he also does not want to lose his friendship, so he finds himself in an awkward place on several occasions.

Two aspects of the story especially intrigued me. One, when Sebastian does experience a recovery of sorts, he returns to the Catholic church after years of disdaining her practices and doctrines. In fact, he becomes a religious ascetic, although one who still occasionally falls off the wagon. It was at this point in the story that Sebastian became transformed (in my mind at least) from a spoiled playboy into someone with no sense of entitlement who recognized his utter dependence on God. Sadly, he apparently felt he had no other option than to turn his back on his family - it was as if he could not take even tentative steps into a new way of being as long as he was under their eyes.

The other piece that was sad but oddly redemptive to me was Charles's love for Sebastian's sister Julia. Julia is married to someone else, but she and Charles fall in love. They both make plans to divorce their respective spouses and marry each other. Julia is Catholic but has been in a long state of rebellion and estrangement from the church. Charles thinks that all faith and doctrine is utter nonsense. Nevertheless, as Julia's father is dying, she comes to the realization that she cannot separate from her faith, even when there are things about the church that seem absurd to her. "I am not sure what I believe, but I cannot purposely cut myself off from the possibility of God's grace," she says to Charles. The reader aches for them, for their love is clearly real. The book ends with the possibility of Charles coming to faith as well. When he understands how important it is to Julia, he begins to open himself to the possibility that there is something to it after all.

I had some discomfort with the story - being a Protestant, the idea of excommunication is anathema to me, and it was off-putting to me how that threat cost Julia the possibility of happiness. While I do not condone the sin of adultery, I kept searching for some way that Julia and Charles could still be together and be within the circle of the church as well. It bothered me that there was not any room for that possibility. But, I also was touched by the ties that Julia had to her faith that she could not, in the end, relinquish. Because we know we can be welcomed back at any time, I think we Protestants are too quick to walk away. There is a sadness that Julia and Charles cannot be together, but a glimpse of hope that their decision to part might open the way for each of them to find a sustaining (and even fulfilling) relationship with God.

Reverent Reader