Friday, November 27, 2009
In some way that I can't quite articulate, at this particular moment in my life, acknowledging my atheist thoughts has become a necessary part of being a believer. The tension between the two of ways of thinking (believing and not) feels like two sides of the same coin. They arise organically out of each other. I find some comfort in various OT stories: Jacob is blessed by God after wrestling with him all night; David is perhaps more beloved by God than any other character, yet he sins egregiously and repents from the bottom of his heart (Ps 51); Job shouts defiance at heaven, and yet in the end, God is pleased with him and blesses him. It occurs to me that all of those times in the prophets where God says (through the prophet) that it isn't empty sacrifices that he wants, it is human beings' hearts-- all of those times may be a reflection of something very simple: God wants honesty from us, even if that honestly involves speaking thoughts that aren't orthodox.
This is coming very close to me sounding like I'm patting myself on the back for having heretical thoughts and that's not what I mean to do at all. So maybe I should just stop. It's just that some days it feels like an act of faith to stand before God, courage in both hands, and say "I don't believe in you."
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
But even irrational fears are still scary. (wait. are all fears irrational? no, of course not. But probably the scariest ones are.) All of this reminds me of an experience from childhood, when I was probably about ten. We were at a bible conference that was being held at a university, and my family and I were staying in one of the dorms. I took a nap one afternoon. When I went to sleep, the door to our room was open, and there were lots of people around, walking up and down the hallways, talking, etc. When I woke up, there was no one and it was utterly silent. Our room was deserted, the hallway was deserted. I remember walking down the hall and then down the stairs and not seeing anyone anywhere. I finally decided that the Rapture must have occurred and I'd been left behind. I was one part terrified, but another part resigned. I had finally been called to account, I figured; I had always suspected I wasn't quite good enough to qualify for salvation. But then my parents came back from wherever they were, and everybody else showed up, and life went on. I forgot about it for years, but it came to mind recently. I still remember that stark feeling: this is it.
The Rapture, for those of you who weren't raised with it, is the apocalyptic moment when Christ returns with a blast of trumpets, and those who are saved will be caught up in the air to be with Him and taken to Heaven forever, while those who are unsaved are left behind-- what happens to them is a matter of great theological debate, which I will spare you. Just let it be said that depending on whether you are pre-mill, post-mill, or a-mill, you will have a different opinion.
Oh, the joys of theology.
(who is feeling a bit queasy at the moment)
Monday, November 23, 2009
What I've been thinking about recently is atheism. The word has such a slanted, loaded meaning in our culture, especially because of the very vocal appearance of a number of prominent atheists in the last few years (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc). In some circles it seems to mean the same thing as being un-American, immoral, and a devil worshipper, which is absurd, of course.
But honestly, their take on it is not particularly appealing to me-- in part because while their stated ideas are provocative and often convincing, their motivation on a personal level often seems to be something like an inability to forgive God for not being what they expect him to be, and perhaps more obviously, an inability to forgive believers for believing in God anyway. I'll confess that's a pretty biased statement about their work that is based on a very limited reading of their books, and hearing a few interviews. But read the first chapter of God is Not Great and see if you don't find that the prevailing sentiment is not so much the freedom of letting go of religious ideas but anger--even bitterness--at the (perceived) stupidity of people who complacently accept meaningless ideas about God. They seem both angry and gleeful to point out the ways in which God cannot possibly be like what is advertised by the religious establishment, but at the same time they are unwilling to acknowledge that God might be something entirely other than that. In the end, I find them unconvincing. Trumpeting that the God of Sunday School piety doesn't exist is so self-evident as to be boring, if you ask me.
But it doesn't change the fact that atheism has become a viable alternative for me in the past few months. I don't think I mean the term in the same way that they do, because when they use it, it seems to have an automatic pejorative meaning toward religion and spirituality, and I don't feel that. I still can't deny my own experiences with spirituality-- both in the past and present. But neither can I deny the part of me that just doesn't think there's anything out there, and certainly not anyone.
It's almost like two separate compartments in my brain: the part of me that believes implicitly in the spiritual experiences I've had, and the part of me that thinks it's all utter nonsense. I'm going to assign this to right brain and left brain, respectively, just because I need something to assign it to, not because I have any proof that's really what it is. It's just what it feels like. When I'm thinking with my right brain, spirituality and connectedness and a wholistic approach to my experience feels completely and utterly right and natural. When I'm thinking with my left brain, that right brain thinking seems absurd. Even silly. Which is one of the reasons I've had a hard time posting recently. It is becoming more and more difficult to overcome that "This is DUMB" feeling.
But I wrote a paper a couple of weeks ago for my Bible as Lit class about the Book of Job. I argued that the reason why God approves of Job at the end of the story is because Job refused to stop asking questions until he was satisfied. He held onto the contradictions until he felt them resolve. Like a Zen koan. And God was pleased with him.
So I'm trying to do the same, and my right brain is trying to trust that God (or What I Think of as God) will be OK with that, because he/she/it was OK with it when Job did it. while my left brain wrestles this out.
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being... (Psalm 51.6, NASV)
Thursday, October 15, 2009
So I've got my i-Pod plugged in and I'm listening to mellow music and thinking of all the things I've halfway wanted to blog about in the past couple of months but just never quite got around to posting. I know I have two new readers this week, so I'll say one thing that I've been meaning to say: please don't subscribe to this blog. Not because I don't want anyone to read it, but because of my really nasty habit of editing posts over and over again, sometimes a dozen times or more. If you subscribe, you'll get each and every version of each and every post--and sometimes it's just a matter of fixing typos or re-wording a sentence. Yuck. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, especially not someone who is kind enough to want to read my blog.
So... let's see, what else. I guess there is something I could get out of the way and that is to fill in the background of what's been going on since school started. (start up cheesy elevator music and cue voice-over: "When last we saw our plucky heroine...."). Well, OK, I'm not plucky. but anyway. So you knew I was headed back to school. They still haven't admitted me to grad school, but they're letting me take a couple of classes, I think just because I was so obnoxious that they didn't know how else to get rid of me. But by the time I got all that worked out, the classes that I wanted to take were full. So I ended up taking two classes that I would never have dreamed of taking otherwise: "Dante" (yup, the 14th century Italian guy), and "The Bible as Literature." Can you believe it? But I have to admit, they are both fascinating, with interesting professors whom I like very much. And even better, they are fascinating to take together. The overlap is amazing, and sometimes a little eerie. For example. In the Dante class, we started the semester reading 13th century Provencal and Italian troubadour love poetry. Today, the Bible as Lit prof went off on a digression about 13C Italian love poetry and its influence on the Western idea of romantic love. Another time they both talked about Zoroastrianism on the same day. So I'm happy. It has been a great experience, except for writing papers, which I always hated and probably always will. Let me just say for the record, though, that when you haven't written a paper in 25 years and you were and are a bit of a perfectionist about them, it is not a pretty picture. If you haven't done it, I don't think it's possible to describe how absolutely terrifying it is to turn in a paper when you haven't written one in more than two decades.
OK, so now I'm caught up, I think, so maybe now I will start posting again and maybe the next one will be more interesting. Because (of course) both these classes have brought up lots of things to think about. The lack of posts has definitely not been due to a lack of things to post about!
Monday, August 17, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
Sunday, August 09, 2009
Monday, July 06, 2009
I thought about some good stuff while hiking (one of the best reasons to hike is that it provides excellent thinking time), but my son and I are leaving to go out of town in a couple of days so I doubt I'll get to type it out before I leave. Maybe later.
(who dearly loves summer)
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
I like to think it's because I enjoy stories, and genre fiction tends to have good stories. Of course I've read dozens of literary novels that were terrifically good, but I've also read more than a few where nothing ever happens. Those books tend to be all about the writing, the Art, the construction of beautiful prose, but I keep waiting for a plot. At its best, literary fiction gives you that moment of recognition, that feeling of "I've had exactly that experience" but here it is so beautifully worded that it is both uplifting and appeals to one's inner sense of beauty, of things done/said exactly right. (And might I add that my own power of words --such as it is-- is escaping me as I'm trying to describe the experience.) But at its worst, it's downright boring.
Sometimes I just want to escape from my own boring life, or to be entertained, and if escape is what I'm after, I want a really good story in which to lose myself. One where you're turning the pages to find out what happens. I don't necessarily think that having a good story precludes good writing, or realism in the details of character development and experience. But the tidy endings and neat resolutions of most genre fiction are perhaps something that not many of us experience in real life, and maybe that's exactly what I enjoy, especially when I'm just reading for fun.
The book I read on our last vacation-- Maps and Legends, which is non-fiction-- has a number of essays in it that amount to a defense of genre fiction, so I've been thinking about this a fair amount recently. It seems to me that there are two levels of really good genre fiction: books that are the "best of" their genre but that probably still wouldn't appeal to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre, and then a very few that transcend their genre, that are just flat out good novels. In the "best of" category, it's easy to just list my favorite authors. In mysteries, P.D. James, Rick Riordan and Martha Grimes come to mind; in science fiction, the authors mentioned above plus Dan Simmons and Neal Stephenson; in romance, Jennifer Crusie, Loretta Chase, Elizabeth Hoyt and her alter ego Julia Harper. I should say here by way of apology that though I love genre fiction, I haven't read it very widely, and there are almost certainly other authors that should be on this list that I've never tried (particularly in mysteries).
But the list of genre novels that "transcend" their genre is really short, if you ask me. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons' masterpiece (published as two separate novels but really one book), would absolutely be in that category. I remember thinking at the end of one of Grimes' Richard Jury novels, "wow, that was just a good book," although I can't remember which one it was at the moment-- probably the fourth or fifth in the series (which seems to be where all series peak and where nearly all of them begin to fall off, if you ask me, although maybe that should be a separate post). And after months of reading romance novels, I've read only one that comes anywhere close to that level, Crusie's Fast Women, which reads like one of the British comedies of manners (Oliver Goldsmith, maybe? or even Oscar Wilde? It's been so long since I've read any of them I'm not sure which one is apt) with its witty dialogue, elements of farce, and snide, complex commentary on the manners and mores of the age. Though based on the reviews on Amazon, I'm not certain many other readers would agree--it has one of the least likable heroines of any romance novel I've read.
I've also started to think that young adult fiction (YA) is really its own genre, which brings me around to what prompted me to write out all these ideas after having them knock around in my head for several months now. I've been re-reading the 6th Harry Potter book before the movie comes out in a couple of weeks, and finding it somewhat disappointing. Of course, I'm only about a hundred pages into it at the moment, and it is well over 600 pages long, so maybe I'm just being impatient. But previously I would have included the Harry Potter novels in the list of books that transcend their genre-- books that could be read and enjoyed by anyone with enough of an open mind to give them a try. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe they are just good examples of the genre, but still unlikely to be appreciated by someone who isn't already a fan of YA lit. When we were reading and re-reading the series as they came out, I think I was at least partly enthralled by the ongoing mystery of what was going to happen, how all the little details were going to work out. Now that the 7th book is out and has been for some time, that bit of magic is no longer part of the equation, and I'm finding the series is a little flat. Partly because I found the 7th book to be a little disappointing-- it did a more than adequate job of tying up all the loose ends, but what can you say about a seven-novel denouement where the two main participants spend several pages circling each other and explaining in detail the magical theory behind what is happening? shouldn't we already know that? (I should definitely save this for another post, after I've read the 7th one more recently, which should be later in the summer.)
So what would I consider to be YA books that transcend the genre? "Best of" but not transcend is easy-- Tiffany Aching, Percy Jackson, and Harry, among recently published books. Of course there are dozens if you're going back over the years. Transcend?? I'll have to think about it, but I'm not sure Harry makes it.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Ehrman's point of departure from Christianity is over the problem of suffering. He discusses it so well that I won't bother. Listen to the podcast, or read the book. It interests me the things that provide that break, that point of departure, for different people. As I've said before, for me it was prayer, and the inconsistencies in the theology of prayer and my experience of it. For him it was the problem of suffering. Doubtless someone will come along and write an eloquent defense of why what Ehrman calls "God's problem" isn't really a problem at all (as Timothy Paul Jones did with Misquoting Jesus), but I don't think being able to prove or disprove your point is the point, if you'll forgive (as usual) my convoluted grammar. The point is that at some point (sorry), if you are open to it, Evangelical theology breaks down as it bumps up against your experience of the world. As any theology would, no theology is perfect. And you either accept that, put it behind you and keep believing anyway, or you can't ignore it, and you leave your old belief system behind (sometimes slowly). Ehrman and I and a few others I know of are in the latter category. It's a pretty small group, and I'm grateful every time I find someone else who has made similar decisions.
Ehrman no longer attends church. He stopped when he realized that he could no longer say the creeds, and he began to feel that his continued attendance was almost a slap in the face to those who are true believers. I've felt this before, but I still go to church. This may be partly because of the nature of the church I attend. I don't talk about my beliefs very often: I don't enjoy controversy and I have no desire to stir it up. But it comes up occasionally and I don't lie when it does (although I do word things carefully). And no matter how outrageous the things I say, no matter how surly I become about (what I perceive as) people's complacency about the contradictions of Christian theology, the people of our church still seem to accept me and want me to be there. I've said things in my women's group that I thought would get me tossed out on my ear, but they still seem to like me. And miss me when I'm not there. It's remarkable. And humbling.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
A Baptist preacher is sitting on the roof of a house during a flood. It's quite a flood, and the water is rising rapidly. The preacher is praying loudly in a voice meant to carry, "Oh, great and loving God, look down on me, a poor sinner, and have mercy! Save me from the terrible waters of this flood!" A man in a canoe comes by, and stops to pick him up. But the preacher waves him off. "Don't worry about me, God will save me!" the preacher shouts. A few hours later, the water has reached the roofline. A woman in a motor boat comes by and stops to pick him up. But he waves her off, crying loudly, "Don't worry about me, God will save me!" The water continues to rise, until finally it is lapping at his feet. About this time the Coast Guard comes by, and stops to pick up him up, but the preacher waves them off. "Don't worry, God will save me!" he calls after them as the boat motors away. And he continues to pray loudly as the water inches up. Finally, he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he stands at the pearly gates with his hands on his hips and says to St. Peter, "What happened? My faith was strong! I prayed! Why didn't God save me?" And St. Peter says, "What were you waiting for? we sent a guy in a canoe! we sent a woman in a motor boat! we sent the Coast Guard!"
The other story is, I believe, Hindu, and probably everyone has heard it. But it's worth repeating.
Three blind men stand before an elephant. They have never been near an elephant before, although they have heard it is a fearsome beast. The first man touches the elephant's tusk. It is smooth and hard and cold. And curved. The man thinks, "Ahh, an elephant must be solid, and long and smooth and as hard as a diamond!" The second man reaches out and touches the elephant's hide. It seems to be tough material, pebbled and rough, and is warm to the touch. "Ahh, an elephant must be made out of armor, hard and leathery! He must be nearly invincible!" The third man reaches out and touches the end of the elephant's tail. "Ahh," he thinks to himself, "The elephant is not big and tough at all! He is soft and feathery! He is like a brush!" Were any of the blind men entirely right? were any of them entirely wrong?
Monday, May 25, 2009
So at our local library, they had on the shelf Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and a more recent one which is something along the lines of The Yiddish Policeman's Union. So I came home with those, plus The Jungle Book, so I could read that before reading Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book in context (more about that in another post). They didn't have any of Waldman's mysteries checked in, although they did have her more recent literary fiction novel (the name of which is escaping me, but it's about a mother dealing with the death of her child), which I decided to pass on since it sounded too depressing.
But I was still taking classes, and time was at a premium, so the books just sat there for a couple of weeks. Then, through a series of odd coincidences which are at the same time quite bizarre but utterly uninteresting, I found myself the winner of a Facebook drawing to receive a free copy of Waldman's new book of essays, The Bad Mother. Waldman has created a bit of a stir with her bracing honesty about her experiences as the mother of four children. So my autographed copy of the book arrived on Tuesday of the week when I had a take-home exam due on Wed, another one due on Thurs, and a gazillion other things to do. I left it out on the counter, as my reward for making it through the week. When I woke up disturbingly early on Saturday morning, finally done with school and (of course) unable to sleep, I started reading--about 6:30 a.m.
And by 11:30 I had finished it. Waldman is amazing. First of all there are her refreshingly candid stories about being a mom, wrapped in none of the cotton candy that most maternal stories are, and yet still managing to convey her utter devotion to her children. Even though I haven't had an abortion and I'm not bipolar (yet), her experiences more closely match up with mine than any other mom-lit I've read (possible exception: Anne Lamott). And on top of that, she's a terrific writer. Or at least, the kind of writer of non-fiction essays that I enjoy reading: funny, sympathetic, argumentative in a garrulous sort of way, occasionally snarky, always intelligent. I loved the book. Of course I had to send her an e-mail thanking her for the autographed copy of the book, in which I was entirely too gush-y, and to which she replied quite kindly and graciously. So, I will be finding more of her books as well. Maybe I will even attempt the depressing one.
But none of that prepared me for starting The Mysteries of Pittsburgh last Thursday. It was a revelation. I haven't read many good novels recently, so maybe this isn't saying much, but it is the best contemporary novel I've read in years. How had I never heard of it? I knew about Kavalier and Clay, and the Wonder Boys, and I'd seen the Yiddish one, but until I saw Pittsburgh on the shelf at the library, I didn't even know it existed. It's the story of a summer told from the point of view of a young man who has just graduated from college. Much of the novel is taken up with his sexual coming of age, but that makes it sound more lurid than it reads. You ache for the narrator, a sweet, somewhat naive Jewish boy, who is at the same time a brilliantly verbose storyteller and an oddly laconic keeper of secrets (do laconic and lacunae come from the same root? I tried to fit both in here but couldn't pull it off). Chabon has the most amazing facility with language. On nearly every page, there was some turn of phrase, or some image, or some extended metaphor that had me shaking my head in awe. It's not a perfect novel; it's uneven, for one thing. And it loses momentum toward the end. I immediately started reading it again, and on second reading, already what sounded original and fresh the first time through was sounding a bit over the top and self-conscious. But it's still astonishingly good, especially considering that it was his first novel and he was barely out of college himself. I'll put a few excerpts in a comment, but they don't do it justice. You'll just have to read it. And re-read it. There are certain details that just aren't apparent the first time through (e.g: toward the beginning, he describes a picture of his girlfriend; toward the end, he mentions taking the picture. I didn't catch it the first time through but it's a lovely single moment with a gap--lacunae!--in between).
Sunday, May 10, 2009
I loved Star Trek. The tribbles, and Joan Collins dying in soft focus, and the Vulcan wise woman saying in her croaky voice, "Sometimes having is not so good a thing as wanting" while bells chinked in the background (my spouse and I can actually do a pretty good team imitation of that scene)(it cracks us up, even though no one else is laughing). In fact, ten years later when my spouse and I met during our junior year of college, one of the things we bonded over was watching Star Trek reruns at five o'clock every night in the lobby of the row house where we lived. We slogged our way through all the movies (and still joke about things--like Star Trek movies and children-- that are better in even-numbered years than odd), made our peace with the Next Gen after boycotting it during the first two seaons (then watched it just as avidly as the original version), watched some of DS9, and then sort of petered out, although we did see a few of the last series.... which I can't remember the name of at the moment.
So we were pretty excited to go see the new Star Trek movie last night, and for once, it did not disappoint. We had four boys ages 10-12 with us, and they liked it, which is remarkable since with one exception, none of us Trekker parents have ever been able to get our kids hooked on the show. But those boys weren't in Trek nirvana like the four of us forty-something classic Trekkers were. I admit to even getting a little misty eyed when they played the classic theme at the end. It was great. And didn't you just know the guy in the red jumpsuit was gonna die? I'd say it's easily the best Trek movie ever, but that 's not saying much since the movies have never been very good. Sure it had some improbable plot twists, but what Trek tradition is more time-honored than that? I loved it, and I'm hoping that (in another time honored Trek tradition) sequels will abound.
Monday, May 04, 2009
But I thought I sounded a little too pathetic in my last post to just leave it hanging. Apologies for perhaps being a bit too "all-roads-lead-to-Rome" here, but it did occur to me that my fundamentalist background might have something to do with how easy it is too intimidate me into feeling like my opinions aren't worth expressing. more on this later. I think. Right now I have to get back to programming Battleship. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But it's surprisingly complicated.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
So I started e-mailing the extremely nice and extremely helpful people at our state university, and quickly became overwhelmed by how out of the loop I am. I still love to read, and I still love to read criticism, which I think is something that not many people can say. But I had forgotten about academia. Just reading the course descriptions for the graduate seminars was making my stomach hurt. Do they write those things specifically to make you feel intimidated? Because if so, it was working. I'm now feeling like one of the world's six dumbest people. But I haven't given up yet. If they'll let me in, I'm going to at least give it a shot. It's going to take me six months to a year just to get my application together, because so much of what they require is no longer available to me. If any of my grad school professors are still alive, would they be willing to write a letter of recommendation for someone they barely knew more than 20 years ago? I think not. And a ten-page sample of critical writing? I think my four posts on reading Lolita are not quite going to do the trick.
So I'm no longer feeling competent to comment on Mr. Chabon's Maps and Legends (I did find out how to pronounce his name, though: SHAY-bon. I was sort of hoping for something down in your throat like Chaim, but that's not it). I really enjoyed reading it. It was the perfect travelling companion for some reason that I'm not sure I can explain. I always have a terrible time with jetlag, so I have many hours awake in the middle of the night-- so I usually make sure I have a stack of interesting books, a flashlight and a lot of batteries. This one book, even though it is quite slim, kept me happy through a whole week of sleepless nights-- it was practically a page turner. "The Receipe for Life," one of the essays toward the end, was like finding a kindred spirit at 3 a.m. Beijing time a world away from home. It's such an odd thing to find someone who can articulate so clearly an experience similar to your own, and yet they don't have the faintest idea who you are or that you even exist on the planet. But that's one of the cool things about reading, yes? Maybe I will revisit it later, but that's all for now. Well worth reading, if you enjoy reading about books and writing.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
But there are a few things to say before I move on (in the next post, which I hope will be soon) to the Michael Chabon book I read while we were gone, Maps and Legends. Sometimes you just want to pick up the phone and thank someone for writing something, and that's the way I felt while reading several of his essays. And that's saying something, because I hate talking on the phone and I almost never want to pick up the phone and call someone. But that's another post.
So back to the topic at hand, which is the trip to China. A friend once told me her approach to vacations: rather than expecting the whole time to be a mountain top experience and inevitably being disappointed, try to be on the lookout for particular moments that are good. It's an approach that has worked well for me. So in that spirit, I'll describe a few moments from our trip.
There was climbing on the Great Wall, of course, which happened the first full day we were there. It was far steeper than I was expecting, so it was a lot of work, and since I was with my husband and my son, of course we had to go up the steep side. I sent them on ahead and kept toiling along by myself, but there was no way I was going to stop until I got to the top. My quads were quivering, my knees were aching, my heart was pounding, and since it was quite warm, I was, um..., glowing, as they say. Not exactly the time to expect any great spiritual insights. But about three-quarters of the way up, I sat down on one of the (ramparts? I'm not sure the right word to use) to catch my breath, and got sucked right into one. Not an enlightenment type thing, I won't make any claims to that, but a moment of complete, utter peace. It was lovely. And that was just the first day. :-)
The third day we flew to Shanghai, and then drove to a town called Suzhou. After lunch we visited a former Buddhist temple turned public park called Tiger Hill. It was the only time on our entire trip that I was able to find a spot to be alone while we were out and about. (There are an amazing number of people in China!) I found a low wall to sit on in an out-of-the-way corner and watched the breeze move through the bamboo for about fifteen minutes (we didn't get to stay anywhere very long on this trip). And the same thing happened. As I sat and stilled myself, I was met by a vast sense of peace and deep silence. I wanted to stay right there for a very long time.
That deep sense of peacefulness was something I sensed several times on our trip, and I'm not sure how to explain it. My sense was that it was something to do with China-- the land and the Chinese culture. But I'm not sure. It could also have been as simple as being away from all the everyday chaos and stress of my usual life. But whatever it was, it was lovely. Delicious, even. I would be willing to pay the money over again just to go back and see if it would happen again. But I would want to stay longer next time.
On the downside, the trip was pretty well scripted. It was never outright stated, but it seemed clear that the trip had been subsidized by the Chinese government. They are unabashedly trying to improve the image of China in the world's eyes, as you could tell during the Olympics. So they've arranged these trips jointly with American Chambers of Commerce, and apparently thousands of people have visited China this way. It's not the kind of travel we usually do, but given the difficulties of travelling in China, we figured it was the only way we'd ever go.
My spouse and I had a very interesting conversation with our tour guide about human rights during the tedium of a long bus ride. He is 34, and has been a tour guide for about ten years. He seemed exasperated by the insistence of the foreign press on human rights. "Human rights, human rights, human rights, it's all we hear from them," he said at one point. "But we don't feel like we don't have human rights." His voice seemed honestly frustrated. He was very clear that he didn't like the way his government controls information, but he seemed to think that the human rights issue wasn't as big as all of us wanted to make it. There were more than a few very pointed questions from members of our group about Tibet, Tian'nanmen Square, etc, and he answered them all with what felt like a fair amount of openness, although it was clear that he was wording things carefully on occasion. It was very interesting, and thought provoking. He also spoke with a great deal of pride about the people of China, and how proud they are of how far their country has come. I had a brief but distinct picture of an ancient people with a long, long history, to whom the current government is simply another flash in the pan. They aren't all that disturbed by it, they are just waiting it out. (I got a bit of the same sense when my Chinese teacher told us that he feels many of the government's more repressive policies will change once the two remaining, elderly hardline party members pass away; no one wants to change any of their policies while they're still alive out of respect for them)(which is bizarre by American standards, but makes some sense when you understand a bit about the Chinese respect for tradition, their ancestors, and their elders.).
When I've tried to talk to people about this since we got back, there's been a fair amount of gently disdainful disbelief, as if we had naively succumbed to the propaganda of the Chinese government. And maybe we did. But I did come away from it thinking that the situation was, as seems always to be the case, far more complicated than we would like it to be. We want to believe that a Communist government is necessarily bad, and ignores human rights, and that's that. But like I said, having been there, it seems more complicated than that.
Anyway. I think that's all I have to say that I can put into words. It was a great trip. I knew I would be interested, even fascinated, by the different culture, but I didn't know I would fall in love, if it is possible to fall in love with a country. There is a warmth, a loveliness, that underlies the surface that draws you in, makes you want more. There's also a great deal of cruelty, both in the current government and their past history, but we'd be hypocritical indeed to hold that against them given our own record. I hope I get to go again, and next time stay several weeks.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
So last fall I decided to take a programming class and a foreign language. The programming class made sense in terms of possible later usefulness-- although I was an English major, my first job out of school was as a technical editor, and when I showed an aptitude for computers, I was quickly adopted by the IT staff. I've done database programming, SAS programming, CAD, desktop publishing, manned the help desk, done phone support, all sorts of technical stuff. But I'd never actually done real programming, and I'd never taken a computer science class-- most of my technical education occurred on the job.
The foreign language was just because I wanted to challenge myself. Up until the night before I registered, I was trying to decide between Russian and Chinese. Russian made more sense because there is a sizeable Russian population in the area where we live and it could have actually come in handy-- schools and the hospital are always looking for volunteer Russian interpreters. But I was intrigued by the idea of learning Chinese, and Russian was only offered at night (which is difficult if you have a family), so I found myself standing in line last August registering for the first semester of Programming in Java and Elementary Chinese.
It was the usual routine, register for your classes first, then go to the financial office and pay up (which at our small community college means walking about fifteen feet across the hall). As I was paying, the woman who was taking my surprisingly hefty tuition check said casually, "So, are you going to go on the trip to China next April?" Which I knew nothing about at that point. "It's an incredible deal," she continued, "Less than $2,000 for an eight-day tour all-inclusive." All inclusive?? Yup, airfare, meals, hotels, bus, and entrance fees at various different attractions. Even my fiscally conservative spouse agreed that it was too good a deal to pass up. So we signed up-- me, my spouse, and my eleven-year-old son. It was such an incredible opportunity that I couldn't quite believe we were doing it.
But (to take things in sequence), I had to get through fall semester first. Both classes were a great experience, even though (or maybe because?) I was the only student over the age of about 21 in either class, not to mention being older than either of my teachers. I felt like the den mother. In fact, it was so much fun that in January I signed up for the second semester of each class, plus Discrete Math, better known as math for computer science majors. I hadn't taken a math class since I took calculus in my freshman year in college (and you've heard me harangue enough about how old I am to know how long ago THAT was), so it was pretty intimidating. But it had occurred to me that it might be useful to actually have a degree in computer science, and Discrete Math is a requirement, so it made an odd sort of sense as well.
And at our community college, once you get up to a certain number of credits, the next four are free, so I figured what the heck? I might as well sign up for something else as well, since it would be free. Who needs free time? So I signed up for a one semester class in C++ programming. It was nuts. I was busy enough before I took any classes at all, and here I was with my usual life plus 17 credits. Which is why the night before we left for our long awaited trip, I was up until 3:30 a.m. finishing a take-home test for my math class (well, and packing, too) and was unable to write all this out before I left so you, my loyal readers, would know what was up. In fact, things were so nuts that I ended up dropping the C++ class, even though I really like C++. Better than Java, in a lot of ways, but it didn't make sense to drop the second semester of a two-semester sequence. I might be able to pick up C++ again some other time, I suppose. And (hallelujah!) I didn't have to take the C++ test which was scheduled for about 16 hours before we were supposed to leave.
to be continued.....
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
In context, if I remember right, he was making the point that to choose Christianity, to choose Jesus, is to choose life. I know him (our pastor) pretty well, and I know that is true for him. But in my past, Christianity was not about life, it was about dying inside, a little at a time, every time someone cut me off, ignored my questions, acted in a way that was patently not "Christian" and yet confidently claimed the label "Christian" for what they were doing.
I don't think choosing life is always exactly what we expect. Sometimes it depends on the situation. Sometimes choosing life might mean ending something-- a relationship, a job, a commitment-- which is a death of sorts. I can imagine a time when choosing life would mean rebelling against repressive authority with a blaze of anger, but another time when that same act would be destructive and deathlike. Maybe sometimes choosing life would mean eating healthy foods that promote physical well-being; other times, choosing life might mean eating a big slice of flourless chocolate cake drenched with real whipped cream and raspberry sauce. (not that I'm prone to do that sort of thing, of course). Sometimes it depends on your personality. Maybe for one person choosing life would mean dropping everything and travelling the world, where for another person, choosing life would mean deepening one's ties with the people where you are, choosing to commit to actions that renew your current situation.
And in a way, I think you can apply "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," here. Sometimes you choose a "death" of some sort in order to help or support the people you love, which renews your commitment to life.
I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently in connection with getting older. My friends and I are all approaching 50. Some of us will reach it sooner than others, but we're all getting there at exactly the same speed: one day at a time. There's no doubt here: you lose a lot as you get older. Your knees start to go, or your back, or whatever. Your stamina disappears. Taking care of your skin goes from 30 seconds of slathering on some moisturizer after your shower to a twenty-minute routine that still doesn't do enough.
But the thing that has bothered me most has been the loss of potential. When you're twenty, you can go in any direction. Almost all paths are open to you. But by the time you're in your late forties, the number of paths you can still choose has dwindled to a very few. It has been very hard for me to let go of some of those paths, to realize with contentment that this is it, this is how I've chosen to live my life and many of those other paths are no longer available.
But there are also some things that you gain. When I was in my twenties, and even for the better part of my thirties, I didn't really know how to choose life. I didn't know myself well enough or the world around me. But now I do. I'm still learning, of course, but I have a pretty good idea of what things will feel life-giving to me, what situations will nurture my soul. It's a good feeling. I can't exactly claim that it makes up for not being able to do the treadmill without aching knees, but it comes pretty close.
I typed this last weekend while out of internet range, using notepad. You can tell. on re-reading, it sounds a bit disjointed and lacking in coherent thought. But I'm posting it anyway since it's been awhile.
p.s. Whatever choosing life means, as far as I'm concerned it doesn't have much to do with abortion. I can imagine a situation in which choosing to complete an unwanted pregnancy would mean choosing life, but I can also imagine situations where there are no good alternatives where choosing life would mean ending a pregnancy. just thought I should say that to clarify since the phrase "choose life" is so often bandied about in that context.
Monday, February 02, 2009