Books to See the Other

I was reflecting on books that have helped me to understand those we have labeled as The Other. Whether from a different socioeconomic background, a different culture, or a different political viewpoint, I think it’s important to read books that challenge our own worldview.

img_3774I’ve referenced many of these books already, but in case you’re looking for something new to read during this season, these are five nonfiction books that have helped me understand a different point of view a little better.

Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah
Working through the Old Testament book of Lamentations, Dr. Rah reminds prosperous countries that, without the recognition and practice of lament, we cannot truly experience joy. Without going into a doomsday prophecy, Rah links similarities between prosperous Jerusalem and prosperous America. How can we practice a destruction of ideology and how we read the Bible? (Another good essay about this is by Tanya Marlow for SheLoves Magazine: Blessed are the Overdramatic.)

Assimilate or Go Home by D.L. Mayfield
I read this memoir at the end of last year and appreciated Mayfield’s commitment to learning from rather than about refugees. She and her family have chosen to live side-by-side these families and her compassion and empathy have helped me see this “Immigration Issue” as far more complex and meaningful.

Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour
This is a memoir of a Palestinian Melkite Christian. What I appreciate about this books is that Chacour shifted my view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from one of Jews-Muslims to one of deeper, wider spreading origins. I gained new insights into this conflict that took it far from the black and white point of view I had been raised with. (Also, this is our Red Couch book club discussion for March. I hope you’ll join in if interested!)

Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn
This is my winner for Books that Have Changed My Life. These stories are hard but necessary. It’s so important for us in comfortable homes with some sort of access to healthcare and assistance to remember what most of the rest of the world is experiencing. It’s also a reminder of why women’s issues here in America are so important to address.

Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield
This is a timely book for anyone looking to go beyond helping the poor institutionally. How do we actually  live out the idea of opening our homes and learning to love our neighbors? Greenfield describes the highs and lows of living out this messy theology.

These are just a small handful of powerful books. I’d also suggest reading an author who looks different from you or who comes from a different background. A friend and I were talking about the need to read and know more about Native Americans. I’d recommend starting with Richard Twiss for a Christian perspective or Louise Erdrich for powerful novels.

What are some books that have helped you shift your worldview? 

I Am Not Orlando

I am not Orlando. I will never know what it’s like to face hatred and discrimination in my own church, in laws meant to protect, in the way I live my life. I have no idea what it’s like to have my family disown me, to have to announce my own identity to the world.

I am not BlackLivesMatter. I will never know what it’s like to get in my car, worried about being pulled over for a minor offense. I will never know what it’s like to face discrimination based on the spelling of my name or the origin of my family. I have no idea how hard it is to break out of the systemic oppression our laws and aide put on others.

In these moments of shock and outrage, I don’t know what to say or do. I grieve that we have not been able to learn from millennia of mistakes. Rape, mass murder, systemic discrimination are part of human history. And, while I do believe (or fervently hope) we are inching forward, I am still shocked that we as a human race have not been able to learn from the past, to take what we know about inherent human nature and try our hardest to pass laws, to make policies, to live our own lives in a way that moves forward.

I am shocked that with each death – whether one person by one gun or fifty people by one gun – we turn to fear rather than hope. That we use our fear to keep our ideals firmly in place rather than stepping back and living in hope for change. That we use our fear to blame a people group rather than looking at our own selves and wondering what we can do to change this system.

It’s hard for me to accept, but I’m learning more and more that my role as a mom is just as important as my vote for the people who represent my values. I’ll admit, my hope in top-down policies is dwindling and I wonder if they will ever change.

But my own small grassroots efforts? I am more committed to raising my daughters to hope, to love, to see without hate. It’s small, but we read Ezra Jack Keats’ books. Books about kids being kids. Kids who represent all cultures but books that are not about those cultures. They’re just about kids.

I am forever grateful for our church. A place where our girls are loved by people who may be gay or straight or trans or married or divorced or single. People who they see as safe and who don’t need labels. A place where, when Bea asks if two women can get married, they don’t just say yes, they show what that marriage actually looks like. (A lot like our own marriage.)

So, I can stand with those who suffer in Orlando and because of Orlando. I stand with those who face daily discrimination and hate.

But I am not them. I am privileged and am learning that I am not helpless with this privilege. I am learning that my own small acts are laying a foundation for my privileged daughters.

I hope that they will never have to stand with minority groups. That somehow in the next twenty years, we’ll figure it out. But I’m not naive and I have a feeling they’ll feel this same anger and helplessness time and again.

Until we can finally figure out how to truly love without condition, I’ll remember this from A Room with a View:

“We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”

E.M. Forster

Will you stand with me, facing the sunshine? How do you teach your kids these big things in small ways?

Don’t Ask Me About Sleep

Frank and I ate breakfast in semi-silence the other day. His offense? He asked if I had a rough night’s sleep.

Don’t even ask me about sleep until Elle is five years old!!!! I grumped.

Even on good nights, when both girls go down easily and sleep (mostly) through the night (What does “through the night” even mean? Until 6:00? 7:00? What time do you go to sleep to count it?) I think it will take a decade of beautiful, elusive, uninterrupted sleep to make me feel like I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep.

A friend who’s pregnant with her first asked which sleep book we liked most – BabyWise, Happiest Baby, Sleep Solutions? I laughed and said, If someone has figured out the magic cure for sleep, there’d only be one book for sale!

IMG_0963It’s funny how much emphasis we place on sleep, especially during the first year. Something I learned from Bea is that, once we got into a routine, something would throw it off. Teeth… Growth spurt… Big kid bed… Potty training… Anything and everything would disturb her sleep. Elle has always seemed like a better sleeper, but it may be that our standards for good sleep are so much lower this time around.

Before he left for work, we briefly talked. It wasn’t about the sleep so much as it’s about me. I would have responded so much differently if he had greeted me with a simple Good morning or I love you or something similarly meaningful-yet-benign.

I recently read an article on NPR about parents who sleep poorly. Apparently, they tend to think their kids are sleeping worse than they actually are. I get that. We project our own restlessness onto the times our kids get up. (Though, to be fair, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect a three-year-old to stay in bed during the night. I could be way off, though.)

The article – and our focus on sleep these days – had me thinking about how we project our own frustrations or worries or stresses onto others. How we can magnify these own areas in our lives onto our children.

When we’ve had a super-busy day, if dinnertime seems chaotic. When Bea has held it together so well for others, she falls apart with us. When Frank is stressed about work – either when he comes home or because he hasn’t left early enough – it seems like the girls are moving slower or requiring extra attention. I’m sure it’s about the same – it just seems different because we’re projecting our own frustrations.

I was talking with a friend about sleep recently. We were saying how frustrating it is when the baby sleeps through the night and the big kid is the one to wake up with a need. Our shot at sleep ruined from the one who should know better!!

We were talking about people we know with kids in the next stage – that magical age when they can brush their own teeth, take their own baths, get ready without prompting or hand-holding. It’ll be here before I know it and I’ll look back on the days of one more story with fondness (I hope!)

Until then, I need to recognize that it isn’t just about good sleep or bad sleep or sleeping “through” the night. It’s about seeing the bigger picture. That sleep is an indicator of well-being. That our kids can take out their stresses in sleep and rather than be frustrated, I need to stop and look at indicators.

Maybe, if I’m more attuned to the possible whys behind the girls’ sleep patterns, perhaps I’ll view my own sleep patterns differently, as well.

And to parents in the midst of newborn-baby-toddler-preschooler-whatever-challenge-comes-next sleep challenge: All I can offer is solidarity. Rumor has it, we’ll get through this and onto new unknown challenges.

Were your kids good sleepers or did you look for help from books and other parents? Are you a night owl or early riser – did your kids match up with you?

Art Creates Empathy

One of my favorite memories growing up is sitting in front of my dad’s reference books in his home studio, looking through his Jansen’s History of Art while he drew. It was from his college days and the photos reflected its publication date. I remember looking at an image of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and talking with him about the restoration process. I couldn’t wait to one day travel to Rome myself to see the newly refinished vivid colors of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

Browsing those reference books changed my life. In a very obvious way, they sparked an interest in art history that took me to Paris for four years, which in turn fed my love for travel and exploring different cultures. This worldview spilled into my second grade classroom, provided opportunities to work at a museum here in Denver, and has guided how we parent Bea.

In a more subtle way, those books gave me deeper empathy for the world around me. By looking at images of history, I looked through new eyes at what I was learning in school and reading in the newspaper. From Greek Antiquity and the Renaissance to Monet’s early picnic scenes and Duchamp’s ready-mades, I saw my own world through a new lens.

Our house is filled with art and we’re hoping to add to our collection. Most of the pieces we own were bought on travels, created by artists we know personally, are prints of exhibitions I went to in college, or murals my dad painted. The art in our home tells our family’s story – one of relationships and exploration.

Instructing Grandpa on her bedroom mural.
Instructing Grandpa on her bedroom mural.

This art is not only a tangible way to tell our own story, but I hope it plants the seeds of curiosity and wonder as our girls learn to recognize the places and artists they represent. I keep my art history books on low shelves around the house and Bea has her own small collection of books for children. She recognizes some famous artists and the idea of creating a mural or project is part of her daily vocabulary. As she creates, she narrates the story of her day or recent events – on some level, she already understands the storytelling aspect of art.

One of the most important things I learned when studying art history was how to stop and look at a painting. I might not know all of the deep symbolism or exactly what was happening during that time, but I did learn to “read” a painting: To start in a corner and let my eye move across the canvas. I learned to research the questions I had and how to find the answers that helped make the art come alive.

I wonder if we looked at the world in the same way if we could avoid many conflicts. Perhaps we need to stop, take some time to really look at a person or a situation, go find the answers to our questions, and then come back again. If we slowed down and really took the time to know others, to know stories, would we be as quick to jump to our own conclusions?

Art builds bridges – between whole cultures as well as individual stories. One of my favorite moments when I’m talking with a group of kids about the art of Clyfford Still is when they suddenly make a link to their own lives. They are no longer seeing a large canvas filled with color, but an emotion in which they can relate. Part of the Abstract Expressionist movement is helping the viewer look inward – that art doesn’t have to be a specific moment in history but can be a specific moment in your own life. It’s not taking the art or artist out of context, but bringing your own life experience into a more global idea. What I love most about that movement is the ability to see our own story in the work of an artist.

I’m learning to translate those ideas to my relationships and the way in which I read the world around me: To stop and find my own story within a larger context.

How has art affected your worldview? What have you learned from someone else’s creation?

Linked with The High Calling’s community theme: Art Matters.

Other

When I decided to attend college in Paris, I went with four years of German language classes and absolutely no knowledge of French. I was told not to worry – that I would quickly pick it up through required classes and from interacting with Parisians through daily life. About a month after my arrival, I was sitting in French class, struggling through To Be conjugations when my professor stopped, singled me out, and demanded to know why on earth I would consider moving to France without understanding the language. She questioned my motives, my intelligence, and ended the rant with a surprise conjugation quiz, which I quickly failed.

My French classes were like a scene out of David Sedaris’ memoir, Me Talk Pretty One Day. My teachers were anything but nurturing and I became so paralyzed by failure that even grocery shopping and interacting with Parisians became highly stressful. It wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior years that I found success by volunteering on a small farm in the Dordogne region in southern France, where only French was spoken.

View of the farm
View of the farm

Growing up white, educated, middle class, I could never consider myself Other. Even now, I fully realize my privilege: I understand how to navigate systems in place here in America; I not only can fluently read but also know where to research items that I don’t understand; I have friends who are experts in their fields and feel comfortable asking for help and advice. The list could go on…

Even though I wasn’t ethnically or physically the other while in France, I did learn a small bit about how language and culture can be an other-ing experience. I learned how difficult daily routines can be when a system is unfamiliar and when a phone call requires hours of practice with a dictionary. I learned how lonely such an experience can be and how easy and necessary it is to find others who are similar. It became a survival for me to have English-speaking friends – people I could relate with immediately and not have to worry about correct vocabulary.

While my experience was still one of great privilege, the lessons I learned have carried me to a place of greater empathy. As a teacher, I understood why some parents had trouble learning English or why, after working several jobs, just needed to speak their native language. I had an inkling of how overwhelming and lonely and frustrating it can be to move to a new country, to try to navigate unknown systems, and to connect with new people. I can’t imagine trying to do that with children – it was difficult enough as a single person!

Now, as we raise Bea, I struggle with how much privilege she has. Our daughter already has the appearance and vocabulary of a child whose parents value independence, inquiry, and education. While I wouldn’t want to deprive her of that privilege, I do hope to pass on the empathy I have gained by living outside my comfort zone. And, I hope as she grows older and creates her own life experiences, that we can encourage her to pursue opportunities of otherness, so that she gains her own empathy.

How are your experiences as the Other? How do you find ways to connect and empathize with people outside your normal circle?

Linked with SheLoves Magazine’s We Are The Other synchroblog.