Monday, October 05, 2015

Eclipses, exiled librarians and other things to love about 'Jade Dragon Mountain'

I never win drawings, but years ago I won a drawing where I got to nervously accompany the great Salman Rushdie on a short plane ride from Laramie to Denver alongside two fellow University of Wyoming writing students – each of them far more devoted Rushdie fans and just better-read people than me. Before the tiny plane touched down at DIA (and all out of our awkward and obviously over-prepared questions for the novelist), we asked him for autographs. I remember grabbing the one book of Rushdie’s that I’d read and owned – The Satanic Verses – and feeling rather sheepish as the other students on the flight handed him multiple volumes to sign. Then one of them said with a deep, earnest seriousness, “Midnight’s Children restored my faith in literature,” and I knew I was not worthy of this delightful and nerve-wracking trip.

That is all totally beside the point except that the statement comes to mind tonight as I think about the novel I just finished. I can’t say it exactly “restored my faith in literature,” because I’ve never lost that faith. But it did remind me of what real and robust storytelling can be and do in a world where it seems we lazily apply that term (storytelling) to everything under the sun.

The book, Jade Dragon Mountain, is a debut historical mystery by Elsa Hart, and the tale woven across its 300-some pages is alluring and rich like the cover. Exiled librarian Li Du, who is traveling in a western corner of China in the early 18th century, finds himself in the role of detective after crossing paths with a kind and curious Jesuit astronomer discovered dead just days before the arrival of the emperor. As a long-anticipated festival looms, all in honor of a solar eclipse widely considered the work of the emperor himself, time is of the essence. Somewhat reluctantly, Li Du suspends his solo travels to investigate the killing, an inconvenient development in the eyes of the ambitious local magistrate.

I am no mystery aficionado (though I want to read more of them after this!), but I loved this book. Somehow it manages a quick pace and plot alongside sentence-level delights of language. In addition, Hart’s understanding of the history and geography comes across with confidence and care, leaving me with a welcome glimpse of people and places about which I have known so very little.

There are compelling stories within the story, too. Thanks to the presence of the character Hamza, a travelling storyteller who befriends Li Du, the book introduces us to not only the city of Dayan (now Lijiang, where Hart drafted the novel) but to other faraway locales through Hamza's dramatic storytelling. Seamlessly told, the yarns tie nicely into the action of the overarching story, while also hinting that there are many more stories to come from this talented author.

And then of course there are the characters, who for all their no-doubt-carefully-planned-out usefulness to a satisfying story full of twists and surprises, are rendered with delightful relatability and depth.

Lastly, I loved the descriptions of tea, broth, wine and all sorts of tantalizing earthly goodness in this book. Two Sundays ago, I could not have been more happy than I was that afternoon, curled up on the couch with tea, cat, Jade Dragon Mountain and an impending eclipse of our own.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thinking aloud about PP and such

Lately, my feed is a conflicted mix of pink profile photos and metaphorical rendings of garments. I tentatively thumb up the former when I see them, not quite confident enough to place the Planned Parenthood filter over my own picture, but ultimately landing on the pro-choice side of the abortion fence.

I haven’t always been there. I attended many a pro-life rally as a child, and in junior high I regularly volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center, folding baby blankets and sorting diapers and formula in a back storage area. Up front, in the reception area, a chain-smoking, disorganized, very personable and probably not-well-paid director handled the anti-abortion counseling sessions and walk-ins and such.

I am pro-choice now, albeit uncomfortably. My upbringing closely paired religious orthodoxy with vehement opposition to abortion, and these days I’m more fearful of admitting – and of trying to defend – a difference of opinion on this issue than even on something like hell or resurrection. But maybe that makes it more important to try and open up about.

It's difficult to pinpoint what specifically eroded my assurance about the anti-abortion camp being quite simply the right camp. Several moments have stuck with me, though, over the past decade.

The first is a statement by an evangelical, adoptive mother who said to me (in a 2007 interview for a feature I was writing about the practice of adoption) something like, "If you're going to be against abortion, adoption is the obvious thing to do." Although I had long admired the adoptive families I knew, this was the first time I’d heard an evangelical so starkly call other evangelicals to account in terms of a concrete commitment (or lack thereof) to this pet issue. She was very matter of fact about it, and it got me thinking.

And thinking (about this and many other issues) got me reading up on such topics. Pieces like this one, offering first-hand accounts of experiences I had never endured, and the heartbreaking testimony of Michael Chabon's wife, about her later-term procedure, pulled at me. This long-lived controversy was more complex, and more personally fraught, than I'd imagined.

Meanwhile, I moved to St. Louis, where I ended up living just a few blocks from the main Planned Parenthood facility in town. My short commute to work took me right past the gated parking areas, offering daily glimpses (while waiting at the light on my bike or on foot) of PP clients, employees and protesters – and of the latter’s strident voices and signs. And it was in St. Louis that studies like this one showed a dramatic decrease in abortions in the context of free access to contraception – something the right wing continued to push back against.

I also started taking public transportation, which among other things frequently offers a palpable and sobering reminder of the poverty and despair around me. Sometimes the children across the aisle from me look happy, well-fed and beloved. But this is not consistently the case. Now and then parents on the train yell hatefully at their children, completely overwhelmed and burdened and impoverished, barely holding on. It's a devastating scene.

On top of all this (and more…this is a bit of a rushed post, and hardly exhaustive) is what I observe on social media. First, the positive: I see adoptive families loving children in need – and, despite having perhaps the most integrity-filled case for being vocal about abortion and PP, not really going there much. I see a single friend fostering and adopting children in need in her own southern state – and again, not outwardly flipping out about PP, but doing the amazing work of offering shelter to unloved children around her. It’s these posts on my feed that bring, rightly, a convicted lump to my throat and motivation to do better, to find ways to help. There is so, so much suffering in this world, and here I am staring at Facebook.

The loudest anti-abortion outrage on my feed, on the other hand, typically comes from those with a number of biological children – children who understandably require the majority of their day-to-day attention. I don’t begrudge them that. But they sometimes come across as seeing their way of life as inherently laudable, above reproach or critique – and as if the only thing the reality of abortion (which, as a reminder, won’t go away if it’s made illegal/inaccessible) requires of them is righteous indignation. (And maybe showing up somewhere to wave a sign in front of someone who has come to different conclusions about this complex issue, or was raped, or may not live if she goes through with the pregnancy…oh and be sure to post pics!).

There's enough hypocrisy and deep inconsistency to go around, certainly. And this post is a half-finished jumble. Maybe I should have just filed it away in a “good try but…no” folder. But I do stand with Planned Parenthood, peeps.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Amtrak adventure

My railroad journey is nearing its end, and this last leg of the trip (Chicago --> St. Louis) includes free wifi, so I thought I’d go ahead and post a roundup of snippets and scenes from the past few days.

I really should have taken more photos in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. There’s an unassuming beauty to the Midwest that is harder to capture but is brilliant nonetheless.

Anyway, instead I caught up on sleep, reading and tatting. I plowed through Albert Camus’ The Stranger and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, two classics I should have read long ago and which Joe lent me for the trip. Five stars to each.

Managing to snag a spot in the popular observation car for portions of the winding trek through the Rockies, I had my camera at the ready more often during this section of the trip.

Two volunteer tour guides (affiliated with the National Park Service) provided a special treat from Denver to Grand Junction, sharing their knowledge of high points along the route over the intercom and via objects we could touch such as pine-beetled wood.

The Rockies never get old, even if you lived in their front yard (the Front Range) for a decade and a half or so.

Maybe the coolest thing was the way the California Zephyr seemed to follow alongside the South Boulder Creek and then the Colorado River (after crossing the continental divide) the whole time.

I guess I don’t know for sure that it was the whole time – and maybe that’s not particularly remarkable, anyway – but there’s just something about that that’s calming, deep. Perhaps it’s the lack of a need to reinvent the wheel, that the river knows the best way through.

This nearness to the whitewater also meant upwards of 20 moonings by river rafters (a fellow passenger was keeping a tally) – but alas I did not attempt to capture any of those moments.

No offense to the mountains, the streams, the idyllic towns – but my favorite photo during the hours in my old home state is probably this one (above), from the confines of the lower-level cafĂ© car while stopped in Grand Junction.

That’s where the kindly tour guides bid us farewell – but the gorgeous, stunning scenery didn’t end there on the Western Slope. Utah was striking along the rails as well. As one fellow passenger described it, the Utah landscape seemed very “layered.”

The morning after deboarding the train in Salt Lake City (though I’d love to take it all the way to San Francisco, sometime!), I rented a car for the last few hours of the trip to my friend’s wedding in Victor, Idaho. As rain clouds rolled in midday, the combination of sky and landscape was again breathtaking – and surprisingly colorful.

These Idaho shots are looking mostly eastward, toward the Tetons and Yellowstone, if I’m not mistaken.

Despite hardly ever driving a car these days, I’m partial to rearview-mirror photographs, and I like how this one (above) turned out.

The rain stopped just in time for my friend’s wedding ceremony at a scenic ranch venue. The celebration couldn’t have been lovelier, from the parade of cowgirl-booted, pint-sized flower girls to the cozy cocktail hour complete with a fireplace and the smell of fresh rain.

Something about the juxtaposition of the deejay’s setup for the dance and the horses hanging out just behind the shindig made me chuckle.

All too soon it was time to head home. But not before hanging out in Salt Lake City on a Sunday, which, FYI, is maybe not the best plan. Since the downtown Enterprise closed at 4 p.m. and the daily train didn’t depart until the middle of the night, I had envisioned a cool, car-free, play-it-by-ear half day in the city. Let’s just say that’s a better plan if most places (and transit!) in said city aren’t shut down on Sundays.

On the up side, the temple grounds were open and busy and photogenic. I also eventually spotted a Barnes and Noble and a showing of Ant-Man, which carried me through the evening. The movie was quite fun, although I think at that point I was most excited about setting down my duffel bag for two hours or so.

The trip home on the train was enjoyable as well. I aspire to one day invest in a sleeper car, however. Access to a shower and a less-public bathroom sound like true luxury right about now, as I type away here in coach. :) So does home.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The same as an unbeliever

I have sometimes imagined Bertrand Russell actually asking what he said he would ask if, after he died, he discovered that God did indeed exist.

If he really said to God, "Then, sir, why did you go to such lengths to hide yourself?" I hope God at least acknowledged it to be a very understandable question. So many of those who speak with authority about God do not, including prominent evangelical theologian John Piper. Piper sweepingly accuses Russell of playing academic games in the latter's Why I am Not a Christian.

"One great benefit of going to a good Christian college is that you read important bad books with the help of wise Christian scholars," Piper writes in an October 2009 "World" article. "I thank God for wise Christian scholar-teachers who led me through the swamps of academic unbelief so that I could see how inauthentic its play-actors were."

I read Russell's book in college, too. On my own, on a plane ride. And while I still considered myself a Bible-believing Christian at the time, I remember thinking Russell had understandable reasons for his conclusions. And he wasn't a jerk about stating those reasons. He titled his treatise simply Why I am Not a Christian, after all, not something like God is Not Great or The God Delusion. From what I can tell, Russell was honestly seeking to know the world around him. He looked for God, and he longed for certitude, like me. But Piper recognizes in Russell‘s philosophy little worth sympathizing with.

"Yes, we die. And there is darkness and sorrow," Piper writes. "For those who see only that, there will be something much worse than Russell's 'extinction in the vast death of the solar system.' That is not what hell is. But for believers, the despair and futility are swept away in the dawn of Easter Sunday."

When I read words like Piper's, I too can see only that – darkness and sorrow. Hell. Piper's world is ultimately an either-or one, with no space for ambiguity. It's full of realms that welcome dichotomy, banishing nuance.

Elsewhere, Piper talks about the appropriateness of "holy ostracism" in an online transcript of one of his "Desiring God" radio broadcasts. "Holy ostracism" is a new phrase to me, and I continue reading. He‘s been asked a question about how to interact with a fellow believer who comes out of the closet and starts attending another church where he is welcomed.

Piper‘s advice? Take the now openly gay friend to lunch one last time and explain that unless he repents they can‘t be friends anymore.

Piper goes on to suggest that this is the loving approach with those we know who "claim the name of Christ." He cites an example of friends whose daughter was "living in sin" and how they broke fellowship with her, believing this ostracism to be the correct approach. The family stopped associating with their own daughter. The result? They did the right thing, Piper says, and the reward was great because the daughter became so distraught about the loss of those ties that she soon came around.

"So I've seen it work," Piper concludes, "It doesn't always work. But that's what the New Testament prescribes."

Maybe the healthy response to this kind of authoritative counsel is simply to shrug it off as ridiculous. But it deeply alarms me. So many people regard Piper as a trustworthy guide. He's prolific, and his book aimed for young adults, Don’t Waste Your Life, lit me on fire when I encountered it in my early twenties. He made me think about what it would mean to go all out in following Jesus, to have a sense of urgency and to take up my cross daily.

But there are only two words with which I can describe his approach to dealing with fellow humans whose lives or opinions or decisions don‘t fit a given mold – manipulative and devastating.

For Piper, this approach is an application of scripture's exhortation that if a fellow believer is caught in sin and will not repent he should be treated the same as an unbeliever. The same as an unbeliever. What does that look like?

It looks like Chava. Little bird, little Chavalah from Fiddler on the Roof. It reminds me of the scene where her father, Tevyeh, remains implacable to her pleas for acceptance of her marriage to a man outside the Jewish faith. Before completely turning his back, he reminisces, singing to himself, and implicitly to her:

Little bird, little Chavalah
I don‘t understand what's happening today
Everything is all a blur
All I can see is a happy child
The sweet bird you were
Chavalah, Chavalah...

But his knowledge of his daughter's love for the family, and of his fatherly love for her, does not sway him from his convictions and his beloved, disappearing tradition.

"Accept them?" he says to himself. "How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend, that far, I‘ll break. On the other There is no other hand. No, Chava! No! No..."

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Losing stripes

Stationed somewhere in Europe, months after the Normandy invasion and with Allied victory now secure, my grandfather waited. Like thousands of other American troops, his work here was done, and it was just a matter of getting home. He’d finally see my grandmother again, and she’d celebrate his return with a special chicken dinner following her shift at the veteran’s administration in D.C. For now, he waited.

Grandpa didn’t tell us too much about the war growing up. Maybe we didn’t ask often enough. There was the occasional anecdote about catching sight of members of the royal family near Buckingham Palace, the show-and-tell with a handgun he’d saved after a run-in with a German soldier. There are also snippets that Grandma has shared in the years since his death, like how he broke his wrist trying to ride an English bicycle a few days before D-Day. When it was time for his company to join the effort, Grandpa hid his cast under his sleeve and told the commander he was good to go.

But it was during these mundane weeks of waiting that the event I find most striking occurred, an event that he himself never spoke of. A U.S. Army sergeant, Grandpa was responsible for a handful of fellow soldiers. As he and they anticipated heading back across the Atlantic, sometimes there was little to do. One day, a superior officer ordered Grandpa to have his men clean their guns. Grandpa protested that the guns were already clean – in fact, they had just cleaned them hours before. The officer didn’t care and repeated his command. But Grandpa was equally firm in his refusal to follow it. He calmly told his superior that while he would gladly (re)clean his men’s guns himself, he would not rob them of dignity by ordering them to complete unnecessary busy work. This exchange resulted in swift disciplinary action: Grandpa went home a private, stripped of his sergeant stripes.

My reaction upon hearing of this, about two years after Grandpa’s death, was an eager sort of awe and idealization. The long-ago confrontation seemed to perfectly capture the person I’d loved – brave, unafraid of sacrifice or hard work, and also exceptionally stubborn. Enrolled in a college poetry course at the time, I crafted an ode of pure admiration around the story. But another loved one’s comment on the poem eventually left my easy enthusiasm somewhat dampened. To him, this instance of insubordination, while gutsy and selfless, also suggested a certain recklessness, even foolishness. Why disobey such an insignificant order, however off-putting or ridiculous it may have been? I could see my family member’s point. What if Grandpa had wound up dishonorably discharged and without the benefits of the G.I. Bill that allowed him to go back to school after the war? Was it worth the risk?

That question, and the whole notion of taking a stand, sticking it to the man, has kept me company off and on in recent years. A decade or so after learning how my grandfather lost his stripes, civilian work life has surprised me with the number of moments where it seems right to speak up, write a letter, push back out of a sense of integrity – but also quite risky. Our livelihoods, healthcare policies and futures are at stake, and with the economy the way it is, ultimately the only acceptable posture is gratitude for a job upon which our survival quite literally depends.

The Elijah P. Lovejoy Memorial in Alton, Illinois
Earlier this year, when a friend of mine, Chris, quit a good job in protest of undergraduate admission policies at Washington University in St. Louis, I thought of Grandpa's own gutsy stand so many years prior. I felt a renewed sense of awe for everyday people, including regular people within my own circles, who decide enough is enough and do something personally hazardous about it. I told Chris that I thought he was brave, that his open letter of resignation made important points about class disparities in education, that he should keep writing, keep going, keep on keeping on.

It seems he couldn't, after a while. Like many others who were impacted by Chris, I'm still reeling from his sudden passing several weeks ago. He had offered up so much to ponder in recent months. I don't know what to make of this untimely loss, and I doubt I or anyone else ever really will.

But Chris, whatever else he was battling, wasn't speaking out in vain. Part of me has to believe that, but I really do believe it. In a world where so much is not as it should be, it's worth it to aspire to be like Grandpa, like Chris, like so many other unsung heroes, flawed and complex as they and we are. To keep going, keep fighting, keep attempting to make a gentler, more just world. We'll do it poorly, we'll do it awkwardly and sometimes it won't end well, but we have to try, in small and big ways.


"But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah... It's all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty." -Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty

Monday, May 25, 2015

Locks and Dam near Alton, Illinois

Today I got to watch a barge move upstream through the Melvin Price Locks and Dam near Alton, Illinois. The images below were taken over the course of about a half hour. I'd definitely recommend the free tour, and the exhibits inside the adjacent National Great Rivers Museum were really worthwhile, too.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sights inside Meramec Caverns

Although we couldn't hear most of what the tour guide tried to tell us as he did his best to shout over incessantly screaming toddlers in Meramec Caverns this afternoon, I managed to get some photos. I wish I could share something meaningful about the various formations, but the context-less eye candy will have to suffice.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Dear Emily

Mount Moriah in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Since coming across New Poems of Emily Dickinson (edited by William H. Shurr) last weekend at Dunaway Books, I've set aside a couple other reads to overindulge in this collection of epistolary Dickinson excerpts.

I have to agree with the editor that even though these portions of letters are not included in the traditional canon of Dickinson poems and though most of them were formatted as prose by the poet it's worthwhile to consider them in this poetic, reformatted light as well.

They hold up beautifully under it. Dickinson is strange, unexpected, irreverent as ever.

Among those that particularly strike me:

"The career of flowers differs from ours
only in inaudibleness." (388)

Flora at Devils Tower, Wyoming
"Spring is a happiness so beautiful,
so unique, so unexpected,
that I don't know what to do with my heart.
I dare not take it,
I dare not leave it
What do you advise?" (389) 

"Expulsion from Eden grows indistinct
in the presence of flowers so blissful,
and with no disrespect to Genesis,
Paradise remains." (552)

"Consciousness is the only home
of which we now know.
That sunny adverb had been enough,
were it not foreclosed." (591) 

"The little sentences I began
and never finished  
the little wells I dug
and never filled –"  (748)

"Maturity only enhances mystery,
never decreases it." (769)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Voices in the crowd at the Selma jubilee

There were some great speeches today at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, as part of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and all that followed. Here are a few additional thoughts from other everyday people around me in the crowd - which was unlike any other sea of humanity I've ever found myself in, by the way. Incredibly massive, friendly and hope-filled.

68-year-old Erskine McKinnon, who marched 50 years ago, was just ahead of me in line.
"In 1965 I was a student at Alabama A&M University … We were able to come to St. Jude Catholic School and march all the way to the state capitol in Montgomery. So this is something that, after retirement, that I just had to come back to, to reminisce about the time when we were here, in the beginning ... Things have changed, but not changed. I think right now the state of Alabama is going to need to look at more economic development and trying to develop rural communities like Selma and Tuskegee – some of those counties – Dallas, Macon, Wilcox – are some of the poorest counties in the nation as far as minorities. They’re a large population but economic development is not what it should be. So hopefully this gathering at Selma will put a new look at the needs – even though we have the president here, there are some needs that are greater than President Obama as far as economic development and job opportunities."

Olympia Vernon (at right), a high school teacher in Louisiana, brought along three students eager to attend after watching Selma on a recent band trip.

The 11th graders each recited a stanza from Edna St. Vincent Millay's 1934 poem "Conscientious Objector," which begins, "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. / I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. / He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth. And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up."

High school sophomore Terrance Allen traveled in from Demopolis, Alabama, to understand more of the history of the civil rights movement. The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, also spurred him to attend.

"I have to come out and support, because there were people who didn't have the right to vote, and here today I have the right to vote ... we need to move forward and not take two steps back or ten steps back."
Eldridge Allen of Covington, Louisiana, told me he's struck by how "we're still so divided in this country."

"An event like this is great, but you don’t stop for one day. It should happen every day. And every day a person should voice their opinion about the ills in this country. They always say 'black and white,' but I try not to use that, because if you look at each and every individual as a human being,then, you know,  you have more respect for that person.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what kind of job you have, where you live – you're still a human being. When my kids were small, I used to tell them, ‘When you leave out of this door, you're representatives of this family. And you have to treat and respect everybody that you come across. And I think if our whole of society would start doing that, I think we would have a whole lot better country than we have now, that’s divided. You don’t have to look any further than the Democrats and Republicans in Congress."

Beverly Bunting of Slidell, Louisiana, said it was a historic moment for her (at right, below).

"I felt like this would be something I could tell my grandchildren and children about."

Two students from an interfaith group in Boston each described the experience of being in Selma as surreal. The one pictured on the far left, below, called it sacred ground.

"I think that the battle against discrimination, the battle for racial equality when it comes to policy and healthcare policy, educational access, urban development and the disenfranchisement of economically underprivileged folks, and also the criminal justice system and law enforcement – there are a lot of issues still to be tackled. I think it gets overwhelming to think of them all at the same time, but as long as we sort of find our niche, whether it’s through interfaith work, social work, policy related, or teaching, I think everyone plays a part."

Laura Hill, at far right in the picture above, is with the League of Women Voters and met up with friend Carey Cauthen (second from right).

"I was registering people to vote before I turned 18," Laura said. "And the first thing I did when I turned 18 was register to vote. Voting rights is what’s driven me for most of my life ... I am grateful to the people who experienced the trauma and the heartache on this bridge 50 years ago, because it changed the world I grew up in, and it’s a better world … I love seeing all the people here from across the state and around the country. It seems like so many decided like within the past week or two to do it, and it’s just really exciting."