Women’s work

A few months ago I read a fascinating book, Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (that’s right, it’s rigorous enough to need two subtitles!). She traces the history of textile production — perhaps the quintessential women’s work — from the Paleolithic through to the end of the Iron Age, drawing on archaeological evidence as well as written records and even artwork. It’s well worth a read if you have any interest in spinning, sewing, weaving, or their related arts and crafts… or in how to tease out historical accounts from activities like these that are often very marginal to official records, for that matter. It’s a dense read, but an excellent one.

Something that really jumped out at me, however, comes from the introductory chapter, where Wayland Barber asks what it is about these activities that makes them traditionally “women’s work”? She quotes from Judith Brown’s 1969 article, “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” in her explanation:

Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” that holds a simple key to these questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining the food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon “the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care.” If only because of the exigencies of breast feeding (which until recently was typically continued for two or three years per child), “nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men….” Thus, if the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be “compatible with simultaneous child watching.” From empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and a relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing: repetitive, easy to pick up at any point, reasonably child-safe, and easily done at home. (Contrast the idea of swinging a pick in a dark, cramped, and dusty mine shaft with a baby on one’s back or being interrupted by a child’s crisis while trying to pour molten metal into a set of molds.) The only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food. Food and clothing: These are what societies worldwide have come to see as the core of women’s work (although other tasks may be added to the load, depending on the circumstances of the particular society).

Readers of this book live in a different world. The Industrial Revolution has moved basic textile work out of the home and into large (inherently dangerous) factories; we buy our clothing ready-made. It is a rare person in our cities who has ever spun thread or woven cloth, although a quick look into a fabric store will show that many women still sew. As a result, most of us are unaware of how time-consuming the task of making the cloth for a family used to be.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, pp. 29-30

This jumped out at me because it makes an intuitive sense, and accurately reflects my own stage of life. Women bear and birth children; until very recently on the scale of human existence, only women could feed the youngest members of the species. Women have not traditionally been the cooks and gardeners and sewists and spinners because of an inherent aptitude for that work or an inability to perform other tasks, but because of the biological realities and demands of mothering.

Everything I do at home is mediated by those same concerns and responsibilities. I have three children under seven, one of whom is still nursing; all of my daily tasks have to be fit into the day around breastfeeding, diaper changes, naps, home schooling, squabble mediating, disciplining, reading and playing, and of course the constant, unending cycle of making food, serving food, and cleaning up after having food. I spend 14-18 hours a week putting children to bed. My cumulative breastfeeding time is now up to 4.5 years (and counting!). And so it makes sense that my hobbies are things that fit around these things: reading, writing, sewing, embroidery, crochet. They’re the kind of thing that I can pick up and put down as needed, that can be left on top of the piano for a week before being picked up again, that don’t take more thought or attention than I can easily spare.

And they’re slow. Handiwork takes time: even a small baby blanket can easily take a dozen hours or more to crochet, depending on the yarn weight and pattern. It takes many evenings of work to finish a piece. I don’t mind, really. The time it takes to make something sends its own message to the recipient: that I value them enough to spend my time in order that they would be warm, or that their clothes would be mended, or that their house would be beautiful. And while I’m very glad that I don’t have to make all of our family’s clothes by hand, or spin my own thread and yarn before I can use them, I love being able to feel myself a part of this great historical chain of women working with our hands to make, mend, and care. Women’s work is good work; here’s to twenty thousand more years.

Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

The burning of Notre-Dame

French Christians sing “Je vous salue, Marie” (Hail Mary) as the Cathedral burns last night:

I’ve been loosely following reactions to the news in a few forums I read. Most of the comments are about what you’d expect: shock and sadness at the fire, relief that no lives have been lost (or even reported hurt, last I’ve seen), speculation about the cause, people telling each other to stop speculating about the cause. Some are mourning the loss of so much of the Cathedral as a symbol of Christianity; others are pointing out that the Church is made out of people, not buildings; both parties, of course, are correct.

Notre-Dame is a building, of far less worth than human life. It can be rebuilt –it won’t be exactly the same, but it will survive in some form. Just look at Coventry Cathedral: despite its irreparable losses in the Blitz, the new Cathedral is beautiful and does a lovely job of incorporating the ruins of the old. Even with the loss of Notre Dame’s roof, and its spire, and its beautiful stained glass, the destruction was not complete.

At the same time, the Cathedral is much more than “just a building”. It is a symbol of history, memory, the sacred, of France herself. Its site has been a place of worship not just for the 850 years that Notre-Dame has stood, but for hundreds of years before that, dating back to at least the Roman era. Many Cathedrals have been lost to fire and other disasters throughout history (again: see Coventry), but this is the first that I have witnessed*, and I was moved to tears as I watched footage last night. We have lost something beautiful, haven’t we?

Notre-Dame is/was a symbol of Christianity in France — it is my prayer that the burning of the Cathedral will not be for nothing. I hope to see it restored and rebuilt, but more than that, I hope that this tragedy moves many in France and beyond to open not just their wallets for restoration efforts but their hearts to God. May these flames spark revival!

* NB: St Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit was also irreparably damaged by fire within recent memory (2005); however, I barely remember hearing about it at the time, so for me it doesn’t count as one I’ve personally “witnessed”.

Newsletters from the Athenian Way

After reading Technopoly last month, I went looking for more Neil Postman material. I got Amusing Ourselves to Death from the library — and then sent it back unread, because I just wasn’t going to get to it (another time, I hope). But there are some articles of his available online and I was very much struck by a short piece entitled “My Graduation Speech”. Here is its introduction:

Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches, I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. One reason, of course, is that the speakers are chosen for their eminence in some field, and not because they are either competent speakers or gifted writers. Another reason is that the audience is eager to be done with all ceremony so that it can proceed to some serious reveling. Thus any speech longer than, say, fifteen minutes will seem tedious, if not entirely pointless. There are other reasons as well, including the difficulty of saying something inspirational without being banal. Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.

If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation.

Now, I don’t expect to be speaking at any convocations anytime soon! But I commend the speech to you. Go read it — it’s only 85 sentences and will not take long. Postman’s argument is that there are, essentially, two types of people in the world: Athenians and Visigoths — or rather, spiritual heirs of either the one or the other. He gets a little more specific in his examples, but a broad way of understanding it is that, in interacting with culture, people who are functioning in the Athenian spirit build up, while those who function in the Visigoth (Visigothian?) spirit tear down.

This is something that I’ve been slowly thinking over in the past few weeks. Are there spaces in my life where I’m functioning more as a Visigoth than an Athenian? Am I feeding my Athenian side with what I do, what I read, what I look at, what I think about? How am I directing my children’s steps towards one or the other?

And of course, because I’ve also been thinking a lot this year about technology, social media, etc., I’ve been pondering the way that those things interact with the Athenian and Visigoth ways. I don’t know whether social media makes people more likely to turn Visigoth, or if it just makes more visible what was there all along, but I don’t think many people need convincing that an awful lot of public-internet-spaces are being quite overrun by Visigoths. But being overrun is not the same as wholly conquered; there are many pockets of the internet where the Athenian spirit burns bright. I’ve been seeking some of them out, lately, and what I’ve found is… newsletters. Seriously.

I mean, blogging is dead, right? Everyone knows blogging is dead (she wrote on her blog). But newsletters — something’s happening with newsletters. Newsletters interest me. I’ve been signing up for newsletters with abandon; I don’t even know who most of these people are, but they got linked to in other newsletters that I already read. It’s some sort of newsletter causal chain, and I am following to see where it goes. (This is the part of the post where I drop a lot of links.)

In no particular order, some newsletters for your consideration:

  1. Snakes and Ladders by Alan Jacobs: for me, this is where it all began. Alan Jacobs is one of my favourite living writers/thinkers right now, and his was the first newsletter I subscribed to. Just look what that started.
  2. Notes from a Small Press by Anne Trubek. Just what it says on the box: notes and interesting bits and bobs about running a small publishing business.
  3. Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis. Ellis writes comic books and novels and things, and this engaging weekly(ish) bulletin.
  4. Year of the Meteor by Robin Sloan. Another of my favourite living writers. Also he has an olive oil business.
  5. The Public Domain Review newsletter. The two best things about the public domain are that 1) it’s full of weird, interesting stuff and 2) it’s constantly expanding. The PDR newsletter is a nice curation.
  6. All My Stars by Joanne McNeil. Mostly about technology, also art, music, books, etc.
  7. Restricted Frequency by Ganzeer. Art, social commentary, storytelling,
  8. Mark Athitakis Newsletter by Mark Athitakis. There’s something that tickles me about just straight-up naming your newsletter after yourself. You go, Mark Athitakis.
  9. The Tourist by Philip Christman. Christianity, culture, reading, writing.
  10. Roden Explorers by Craig Mod. Reading, writing, long walks in the woods (and other places).

These newsletters reflect my particular interests, of course (though I hope they are also working to expand my interests). But I take them as an encouraging token of Athenianism. It’s not all dust and ashes yet… not even on the internet.

Frederick Douglass and D. Watkins: dialogue across the centuries on literacy and freedom

I’ve been really getting into reading memoirs over the past few months. Recently I read D. Watkins‘s The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, the story of his transformation from East Baltimore inner-city drug dealer (and a very successful one, at that) to an adjunct professor and author with three post-secondary degrees. Not long after that I read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the first of his three autobiographies/memoirs; Narrative details his life from his birth into slavery in Maryland, to the time shortly after he obtained his freedom and began speaking on the abolitionist circuit. And then I read Watkins again, this time his first book, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) while Black in America, which is a collection of short essays (most of which were previously published online).

It struck me as I was thinking about these books how similar they are in some respects. These are the personal accounts of two young black men, writing at around the same age, both Marylanders, either born in or having spent significant time in Baltimore. Both are passionate about black emancipation: Douglass from literal slavery, Watkins from poverty and its attendant social forces. And both of them see education and literacy as intimately tied to freedom.

When Douglass was first sent to Baltimore to work for a Mr. and Mrs. Auld, he writes that the wife began teaching him his letters — she was not from a traditionally slave-holding family, and was initially unfamiliar with many of the customary mores of slaveholders. Among the most important of those: that no slave must learn how to read. When her husband found out what she had done, he forbade her from continuing in the strongest terms:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. And Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a n—– an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n—– (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. […] From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. (Douglass, Narrative, 78)

For Douglass, this was a seminal moment, and though he was no longer taught at home, he continued his education in secret, with the help of many of the white boys of Baltimore he met on the streets while running errands for his master and mistress. He would make bets with them that they couldn’t teach him to read a word, or to write his letters, and that was how he learned. Learning to read allowed him to consider new thoughts for the first time, to look at the institution into which he had been born and to start to understand its dynamics and its weaknesses. Watkins recounts a similar awakening in his own life:

I had a professor at the University of Baltimore and we were covering the Reconstruction era and conversations about slavery came up. And through my readings, I came across something that talked about the basic rules for slaves on a plantation. And one of them was that it was illegal for slaves to read. And that made so much sense. I didn’t read for most of my life. I was a slave for most of my life because I didn’t know—no matter how much money I made, no matter what I could buy, where I could go, who I could beat up, who I could put pressure on, I was lost because all my ideas were just somebody else’s ideas. I just borrowed them—and they probably borrowed them, too, because they didn’t read. And they got transferred down to them from another person who borrowed them. So we’re not even working with our own set of ideas. (Watkins, JHU Interview, Sep 2015)

Both Watkins and Douglass found freedom — first mental, then temporal/physical — through reading. But personal freedom isn’t enough to satisfy when one’s friends and family are still in bondage, whether to earthly masters in the slave system or to the grinding forces of poverty and illiteracy. In his essay “My Neighborhood Revolution,” Watkins recounts the moment that he realised that his friend Dub couldn’t read:

“Yo, you sick or something? What’s going on?”

He told me that he had been talking on the phone with his daughter in North Carolina at least once a week. She had the bright idea of them exchanging letters and had even sent the first one.

“So what you want — me to help you write a letter?” I asked. “Isn’t that personal?”

“Naw, D. I want you to read it to me. I don’t know what she talking about. Don’t tell nobody man I swear!”

He looked down at his boots and kicked gravel. I wondered, how could a forty-five-year-old man not know how to read? (Watkins, “My Neighborhood Revolution,” The Beast Side, 74)

For Douglass, this was no revelation: in a world where it was illegal to teach slaves to read, it was a given that the men and women beside whom he laboured were illiterate. When his living conditions changed and he was sent to another plantation, he found that he was able to teach several of his fellow slaves to read — and that he had in them eager students indeed:

Henry and John were quite intelligent, and in a very little while after I went there, I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn how to read. This desire soon sprang up in the others also. They very soon mustered up some old spelling-books, and nothing would do but that I must keep a Sabbath school. I agreed to do so, and accordingly devoted my Sundays to teaching these my loved fellow-slaves how to read. Neither of them knew his letters when I went there. Some of the slaves of the neighboring farms found what was going on, and also availed themselves of this little opportunity to learn to read. It was understood, among all who came, that there must be as little display about it as possible. It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings. My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both [Methodist] class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s — all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing. […]

These dear souls came not to the Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race. […] And I have the happiness to know, that several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free through my agency. (Douglass, Narrative, 119-20, 121)

It’s obvious why Henry and John, and Frederick Douglass himself at one time, were not able to read. But what about Watkins’s friend Dub? How did he fall through the cracks? Watkins posits that the answer is, in part, the legacy of illiteracy and other poor education outcomes left behind by slavery. He notes that it’s hard to discount the head start experienced by the white community at large in comparison to America’s black population:

While African slaves spent countless days cooking, cleaning, being raped, beaten, sweating in the fields, and occasionally lynched, the children of their rich masters were being educated. The 1800s saw schools pop up all over the United States, and by the end of the 19th century, free public education was available for all white children. Blacks have been in America since 1619 and received virtually no schooling until after President Abraham Lincoln decreed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That is a 244-year head start given to whites — 244 years of exposure to scientific reasoning and philosophical thought, hundreds of years to discover the power of books and reading and to shape dreams into reality. (Watkins, “The School of Failure,” The Beast Side, 49)

I know that this point will read as controversial; some of you just felt your blood pressure tick up a notch! It’s been over 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; is Watkins saying that all of the problems faced by black Americans can still be laid squarely at the feet of white Americans, despite the significant temporal gap between the end of slavery and today? Is that “head start” supposed to account for all educational achievement gaps between white and black communities? What about personal responsibility? I don’t think this is what he’s saying; I’m cherry-picking quotes here for the purposes of this post, but if you read Watkins more broadly it’s obvious that he recognises the challenges of his East Baltimore community as multi-faceted. Racial discrimination is part of the problem, but so are other things. Poverty is a huge factor (and with roughly 14% of American adults functionally illiterate, we can expect to find a large overlap there, regardless of racial makeup). Food deserts are a problem. Family breakdown is a problem. Addiction is a problem. The relatively easy money to be made illegally on the streets is a problem. In his immediate context, the notorious corruption in Baltimore City’s police department is part of the problem. There are a lot things going on here; Watkins doesn’t dismiss them, but he makes an important point: we also need to consider generational patterns.

We understand this when it’s on the small scale. If you grow up in a family where you’re expected to go to school and succeed there, you’re more likely to do so. If your parents have a strong religious faith, you have a higher likelihood of having religious faith. Tragically, generational patterns are even more obvious when they are destructive: If your parents hit you, you have a higher likelihood of hitting your own children. If your parents were alcoholics, you have a higher likelihood of being an alcoholic yourself. It can be incredibly difficult to break free of these family and cultural molds. This is why it’s such a big deal when someone becomes the first in their family to pursue post-secondary education — we recognise that on the student’s part it takes extra gumption to accomplish something that none of the adults around you have done, and on the parents’ part that it’s hard to champion your child through something you’ve never experienced yourself. Now take those family-sized generational patterns and expectations, and balloon them out to community-sized. This does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility. But I think it does illustrate the kind of pressures that personal responsibility sometimes has to go up against.

So there you have it: a combination of poor schools, institutionalized segregation, and minimal funding not only cultivated the deep roots of educational denial, but also strengthened the foundation upon which achievement gaps are built today. The combination of all these historical events led to what I call the Tradition of Failure. The tradition was not self-imposed. Obviously, African Americans can take some personal responsibility for the state of our race; however, many of us do not have a clue because we come from a tradition of people who never had a clue, leading all the way back to the day our ancestors left Elmina, the former slave port in Ghana that launched us on our turgid journey to this new world. (Watkins, “The School of Failure,” The Beast Side, 50-1)

For all that, Watkins is not without hope for the future. He writes of his own experience that reading changed his outlook almost immediately, as he was exposed to new ideas and learned to think critically. As an English professor, he works to give his students the same experience.

“Reading is boring” is a phrase I’ve been hearing at the beginning of each semester from the freshmen at Coppin State University, where I teach English 101. I give them my soliloquy on why it was illegal for slaves to read and how easy it was for masters to control populations of people with limited thoughts — partially due to illiteracy. I usually say, “Being smart and developing complex thoughts without reading is like trying to get Schwarzennegger muscles without working out.”

The I assign books like Decoded by Jay Z, and The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. I also scour the Internet for articles that speak directly to them. I believe that everyone would enjoy reading if they had the right material. Obtaining that material would not only provide the foundation for basic skills needed but also spark a greater interest in literature outside of the classroom.

[…] I wasn’t hooked on books until I read Sista Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Clockers by Richard Price, and a few Sherman Alexie essays. Those books opened up my mind and led to me consuming more and more. My thoughts changed, I developed new ideas, and I was forever transformed. Within months, I went from a guy who solved problems by breaking a bottle over someone’s forehead to using solution-based thinking when resolving [problems] — reading instantly civilized me. And if it can work for me, I believe it can work for anybody. (Watkins, “My Neighborhood Revolution,” The Beast Side, 75-6)

Watkins’s assertion that control of the slave population by owners was greatly aided by slaves’ illiteracy (and the way that illiteracy impedes thought) is corroborated by Frederick Douglass:

When in Mr. Gardner’s employment, I was kept in such a perpetual whirl of excitement, I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty. I have observed this in my experience of slavery, — that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man. (Douglass, Narrative, 135)

But the analysis of the problem also shows the cure: if a man is enslaved through his lack of thought, which stems from his inability to read, then surely learning to read will free him — or at least start him down that road. It worked as well for D. Watkins at the end of the twentieth-century as it did for Frederick Douglass in the early nineteenth. It was fascinating to me to read these two authors in tandem, to see what has and hasn’t changed in their respective communities, and to see both of them naming literacy as such a major touchstone for lasting change. I’ll let Watkins take us out:

 

Life after Facebook

It’s been about two months now since I deleted my Facebook account — not just disabled, but really and truly deleted. On my end of things, there’s nothing left for me to access. On Facebook’s side of things, it will probably be another few weeks before all of my data has been completely purged by their systems, but it’s coming. I hemmed and hawed for weeks before making the decision to do this; now that it’s done, I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s affected my life. What have I gained? And what have I lost?

Because there have been both: some clear gains, and some clear losses. First and foremost, getting rid of Facebook has drastically opened up my time. When I turn my computer on or pick up my phone during the day, I check my email and a few other things, and then… I’m done. There’s nothing else to do, so I put it away. It’s amazing how much of your day opens up when there isn’t an infinite scroll available. Now, could I have achieved the same effect by being more disciplined with my online habits? Theoretically, yes. Experientially? No.

Another gain is that I feel much less mentally… buffeted, I guess you could call it. There’s no predicting what you see when you’re scrolling through the newsfeed: it’s a mishmash of whatever your friends have posted (as curated for you by the almighty algorithm). Everything appears without context and leaves no context behind it. News is mixed with fundraisers is mixed with baby pictures is mixed with jokes and political opinions and anecdotes and rants and all the rest of it, not to mention the hoaxes and misinformation and flat-out lies, coming at you relentlessly. And everything implicitly (or explicitly) demands a response: like me! share me! respond to me! be happy with me! be angry with me! agree with me! correct me! Frankly, it’s exhausting. Leaving all of that behind has been refreshing. When I want to read the news, I open up a news app. If I want to respond to something, or to learn more about it, it’s easier (and, now, more natural) to take the time to find the context, digest what’s happening, and formulate a response that’s not just off the cuff.

But there’s a price to this temporal and mental freedom, isn’t there? Leaving Facebook has meant reconciling myself (well… sort of) to being out of the loop. I don’t know what’s going on with my friends, not the way I used to. I’m not seeing pictures of their kids — and I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoys seeing pictures of other people’s kids. For some of my friends, Facebook was really the only connection point we had, and when I think about some of those connections I feel a real sense of loss.

But it’s a strange thing: what I’m grieving is maybe not the loss of those relationships, but the loss of the illusion that they still existed. As long as our profiles were linked, there was hope: “Sure, we haven’t talked in ten years — but we could!” And to be completely fair, sometimes this did happen, we did reconnect. I got in touch with a friend from undergrad to return a book I borrowed from her about twelve years ago. I was able to apologize to someone from my past for something that happened when we were young adolescents. But those moments, if I’m honest, were few and far between. I wasn’t using Facebook to connect with people; I was using Facebook to feel as if I were connecting with people. Those are, in the end, very different things.

And so this last comes from a loss but is really a gain: ditching Facebook has reinforced for me the fact that friendship is an active pursuit. There was no real friendship behind most of my connections; there was, at best, a passive acknowledgement of a shared past. But that’s not a friendship, or enough to sustain one. I do miss being in the know. I do miss the ease of the connection that I did have with the people with whom I am really friends. In that case, though, what have I really lost? Just the ease; not the thing itself. In the weeks since quitting Facebook I have been sending and receiving more emails than I have in years. And I’ve been picking up my phone not to scroll through a feed but to actually, you know, call people. It’s been a good change. Yes, I could have done all of this without needing to delete my account — well, maybe. But if that’s what it took to remind me of the work and worth of actively pursuing friendship, then it’s a price I am willing to pay.

Boredom as discipline (a follow-up)

Last week I wrote a post about Manoush Zomorodi’s book, Bored and Brilliant and the value of letting our minds wander in as undistracted an environment as we can regularly manage. (Again: it’s a great book and you should read it.) Since that post was closing in on two thousand words I thought I had better stop writing and publish it, but I hadn’t actually yet run out of things it prompted me to think about. So, here are some further things I’ve been gnawing on.

This book actually meshes well — strange as this may seem — with something I read last month, Sara Hagerty’s Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed. Since I read Unseen I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live a “hidden” life, especially in regard to Biblical language around being “hidden in God” or “hidden in Christ”. What does it mean to be hidden in God? How do we cultivate that private, inner life? I’ve been mulling this over with some of my friends (hi, Heather) via email. Hagerty’s whole thing is taking those moments of our days where our instincts are to distract ourselves, or bury our emotions, or vent to friends, and instead use them as prompts to turn toward God in prayer — particularly when we are angry, hurt, etc., but really (ideally) all of the time. It’s like being a tree — we see the trunk and the limbs above the ground, but in reality the great strength of the tree is in the root system, hidden from view. The inner life of relationship with God, hidden from others, is our root system, and it’s what our flourishing depends on.

How does that mesh with what Zomorodi is talking about it? I have no idea if she is religious or not, but that’s beside the point perhaps. What stands out to me in this context is not something from the book, but an anecdote she related in her interview on the Team Human podcast. Zomorodi takes her show on the road to college campuses, and one of the exercises she has students do is to take a piece of paper and write something down on it — just a thought, not necessarily anything weighty. But then their instruction is to tear the piece of paper up and never tell her, or anyone else, what was written on it. And she’s found that students are aghast, they find it really difficult to do, because we are so primed by our natural drive for connection with others and by the techno-social forces driving our world right now, that it seems completely bizarre to have a thought and not immediately share it. Zomorodi is concerned about privacy in the sense that we often think of — stopping websites from tracking our data, etc. — but also in terms of privacy of thought, being not only able but willing to keep things to ourselves, even to take pleasure in that. Is that a skill that is disappearing? It seems to me that maybe it is.

So here’s the intersection of hiddenness and boredom/stillness and the delight of not saying it all: the secret place of prayer. Our days are filled with all these little cracks of time — waiting in line, pausing between activities, settling down before bed, taking a tea break — and we so easily reach for things to fill them: to books, to our phones, to the internet perhaps above all. (Quick, internet! Amuse me!) Zomorodi reminds us that those cracks are where, if we surrender to “doing nothing”, our brains find their most creative space. Hagerty reminds us that those moments are where, if we surrender to “doing nothing”, our hearts find their rest in God. If we never allow ourselves to be bored, to be un-distracted, to be still — we lose not only those chances at productive creativity, but we lose those chances to reorient our souls, to go to the hidden places with the Lord. We lose our roots.

I have been trying to leave myself more cracks in my day… with varying levels of success. It seems to depend a lot on how well I’ve been sleeping, actually. If I’m overtired, all I want is the self-soothing ritual of a blog post (or a dozen) to read or a game of scrabble against the computer. But I am trying — to learn to do this, to discipline my mind, to learn to want to do this more than I want other things.

I feel like this post isn’t quite fully formed — well, my thoughts on this are still not quite fully formed. But I wanted to put it out there anyway, and invite you to mull with me. What does it mean to cultivate a hidden life? To hide yourself in God? What do you do with your cracks?

My desert island books

You know the question: if you were going to be trapped alone on a desert island, what book, or five books, or ten books would you want to take with you? I decided to make a list —  allowing myself ten, because I’m feeling generous, and also anthologies, because ditto, but no cheats like a magical solar-powered Kindle pre-loaded with the last thousand years of bestsellers. Paper books it is, though I am willing to imagine in this instance that they’re all waterproof and bugs won’t eat them.

I had two main criteria when I was picking my books. The first is that each one should be already proven as very re-readable; I wouldn’t want to pick a book that I’ve only read once and then find out that it’s no good when you go through it again. I already read many of these books on about a yearly basis. The other quality is that they be written with a certain richness and depth of thought, such that even reading them very frequently (and who knows how long I’ll be stuck on this island, anyway) will continue to give me new things to think about. And so, in no particular order, here’s the list:

1: The Bible: I know, I know, way to be a cliché, Christine. Well: whatever. I’m a Christian; I read the Bible. Though if you think this is a clichéd pick, just wait until you get to:

2: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: If you’ve been around here for a while you probably already know that I read The Lord of the Rings yearly, in December. I started doing this in 2003; I wanted to read the whole thing before viewing the final installment of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. So I know the story pretty well — one certainly hopes I would, after fifteen read-throughs (reads-through?) — but every time I go back to it I find something new: some new details, some theme I hadn’t twigged on before but can suddenly see everywhere. Plus, if I want a desert-island memory challenge I can work on getting all of the poetry by heart — yes, maybe even the Elvish.

3: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: Sometimes it still surprises me when I remember that the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, I didn’t like it at all. I was too young, I think; when I went back to it a few years later it quickly shot to the top of my favourites list and has remained there ever since. It’s a brilliant book; Austen has a satirist’s eye for the absurd, she’s terribly funny, and it’s a great story. Sometimes I go back and just read my favourite scenes: Elizabeth’s interview with Lady Catherine at Longbourn, for instance, or when she receives The Letter.

4: The Complete Shakespeare, by William Shakespeare OR English Renaissance Drama, ed. David Bevington and Lars Engle: This is a tricky one. I really enjoy plays from this era, so much so that I once applied to do a master’s degree in the field. (I didn’t get in. Which meant I did other things instead. So that all turned out all right.) My dilemma is this: all of Shakespeare but nothing else, or none of Shakespeare but a lot of other wonderful things? Probably I would choose the Shakespeare, but it’s a tough call.

5: The Book of Common Prayer, with Hymns (Canadian 1962 edition): Since I assume there will be no church on this island*, the Daily Office will give me some spiritual/liturgical structure, and the hymns in the back will give me something to sing. I don’t know all of the tunes (they are not included, just words), but since I can count meter perhaps I can pass the time by composing hymn settings as well.

* Joke: There was a man who was trapped on a desert island for many years. Finally, he saw a ship passing by; he built a smoky fire and managed to hail the ship and was saved. The captain of the ship came aground to see how the man had kept himself healthy and occupied for so long.

The man told the captain how he hunted for food and found fresh water, and then pointed to three buildings he had constructed on the hillside. “That is my home,” he said, “and the one beside it is my church.”

“What is the third building?” asked the captain.

“Oh,” said the man, “that’s where I used to go to church.”

End joke.

6. The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold: This is a favourite, favourite, absolutely favourite fantasy novel of mine, and I read it at least once every eighteen months or so. It’s not the elves-and-wizards type of fantasy: more of politics and intrigue and gods and demons, set in a lightly-disguised medieval Spain. Bujold has created a really fascinating universe for these novels (The Curse of Chalion is the first in a trilogy, but the books are bound together chiefly by their setting and stand alone very well). The inhabitants worship a pantheon of five gods — Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Bastard — and part of why The Curse of Chalion appeals to me so much (besides being a rip-roaring good story) is that it grapples with some pretty complex theological questions. I dig it.

7. Possession, by A. S. Byatt: This is another one of my yearly re-reads; I tackle Possession every November. It’s a very November-y book, really. The story follows two parallel tracks: the first, two nineteenth-century poets named Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte; the second is set in the 1980s and follows the story of Roland Michell and Maude Bailey, an Ash and a LaMotte scholar, respectively. But it’s so much more than that — Byatt has crafted an incredible pastiche novel that roves through time, with all sorts of mystery and romance and literary theory and a bajillionty small thematic details you can follow through the course of the novel. It’s fantastic.

8. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Sixth Edition), ed. Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall, and Mary Jo Salter: Okay, so I haven’t read this particular anothology before, but I do enjoy reading poetry, and at 1,200+ pages I figure that it would suit my purposes admirably: plenty to read, plenty to think about, plenty to memorize. The Norton Anthologies are pretty solid in general, and I love Mary Jo Salter’s poems and so am willing to take her editorial judgment on faith.

9. The Best of James Herriot, by James Herriot: I love these stories. James Herriot (real name Alf Wright) was a country veterinarian wrote about his practice in Yorkshire in the 1930s and 40s. They’re charming stories, and this is the largest collection I could find at 543 pages (I’d rather have the collected works, but since that comes in eight volumes I ruled it ineligible for this particular island scenario). Herriot’s stories make for wonderful feel-good, comfort reading. I love how deftly Herriot paints a portrait of life in this very a particular time and place.

10. A case of blank notebooks and pencils: No blogs on the island, of course — but I need to write just like I need to read! So I will allot my tenth slot to blank books. Is it cheating to have notebookS, plural? Maybe. I don’t care. (If you object, feel free to make your own imaginary island and enforce the rules as stritctly as you’d like. I’ll be over here with my notebooks.)

Those are my picks. What are yours?

Meet Alia

Lest this blog become all technological gloom and doom all the time, let me quickly point out something very cool I heard about yesterday — a counterweight to my last post, if you will.

I’ve started listening to a podcast called Team Human, hosted by Douglas Rushkoff. My introductory episode  — 93: Palak Shah: Who’s Going to Care? — immediately grabbed my attention because of its subject: domestic workers (nannies, elder care workers, housecleaners, home healthcare providers, etc). This is a field I know relatively well. I worked as a nanny for several years. My mother cleaned houses for a time when I was a teenager. One of my sisters-in-law does some work in the home assistance field. So I know a little bit about domestic work from my own experience, and when I was a nanny I often ran into other nannies and sitters (and occasional housecleaners) during the course of my days.

In her interview segment, Palak Shah, the social innovations director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), called domestic work the “invisible backbone” of society — and if you think about it, that makes sense. If you have children and want to go to work, you need someone to care for those children. If you have elderly parents you can’t care for, somebody else needs to fill that role. In many respects, domestic workers are the ones who let the “regular” workforce get to work. But it is a largely invisible field because the work happens in the privacy of other people’s homes. And although domestic work is everywhere, it’s not a particularly respected field, and certainly not a well-paid one. When I was a nanny I was very fortunate in that most of my families treated me fairly, and my main clients (hi, Bruce and Steph!) registered as a business so that I would also be getting/making contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, etc. But many (probably most) domestic workers, especially in America, lack the worker protections and benefits (pensions, health plans, paid sick days, contracts, etc.) that the non-domestic workforce often takes for granted.

But domestic work does have something big going for it, which is that it is what we might call “future proof” — which is to say, domestic work is not something that can be automated or outsourced. We’re a long way from robots that can clean a bathroom. You’re not going to skype in a nanny from India to watch your children while you work. Domestic work is going to be around for a long time, and so the question is — how can we as a society make it better? If it’s important work — and it is important work! — what can happen to make working in people’s homes more tenable, sustainable, dignified, etc. for those who do it?

These are the sorts of questions that Palak Shah and others like her are asking. And one of the potential answers is a cool little app called Alia, coming out of the NDWA’s Fair Care Labs, which functions as a “portable benefits plan”, currently being beta tested for housecleaners. The idea is that a housecleaner will sign up and get her clients to do so as well. Each client pays a premium into Alia of $5 or $10 per cleaning. That money accrues in the cleaner’s account and can be used to provide paid time off or go toward insurance costs. Because the benefits are tied to the worker rather than to the job, she doesn’t have to worry about losing them with a change in employment. I think it’s a very cool concept; here’s a nice write-up in Wired Magazine. (And if you clean houses or use a housecleaner, consider signing up for beta testing.)

There: technology being used for something useful and pro-humanity. See? It’s not all bad. Some of it is very good indeed, which I need to remind myself whenever I have one of my regular Luddite fits.

The timing of “greatness”

Our family has had some fairly long drives recently, and my husband and I have been enjoying listening to National Review‘s The Great Books Podcast in the car, hosted out of Hillsdale College in Michigan by John J. Miller. Every week Miller hosts a guest — generally a professor of English from somewhere or other — and they talk about one of the great books of the Western Canon. We’ve listened to podcasts on Beowulf, Pride and Prejudice, Augustine’s City of God, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, The Aeneid, and many others. As far as tech/sound goes, there are occasional volume-balance issues, particularly when Miller is being joined via telephone, but overall it’s been a pretty enjoyable listen. I’ve made mental notes of books that I’ve never gotten around to but would now like to pick up, as well as some, like Farenheit 451, that I read long ago and didn’t enjoy — but which would probably read very differently to me fifteen years on. It’s definitely spurred some great conversations, and we will often pause the podcast to discuss a guest’s interpretation of a work versus our own. I dig it.

The whole thing, though, has made me think about the idea of a “great book” or a canon of literature, both of which seem to have fallen rather out of fashion. I had an English teacher in high school who railed against the very existence of a Western Canon — “It’s nothing but dead white men!” — as well as the idea that we should be studying it with any seriousness. It is true that The Western Canon as we have inherited it is overwhelmingly the words of said dead white men. Do we regret the lost voices and perspectives from the years when they were either going unplublished, or not receiving enough reader traction to have survived the intervening years? Of course. But to my mind, that makes the canon a candidate for supplementation rather than destruction; if it is a shame to have lost those other, unknown voices then surely it would be a shame to lose the ones we still have. We don’t need to stop reading The Odyssey just because we also want to read Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But what most interests me is the charge of being dead. Well, the poor dears can’t help that, can they? Death may have snuck up on them decades or centuries or eons ago, but they were all living and writing on the razor-thin edge between their present and the future, just as we are now. Refusing to read authors simply because they lived before we did strikes me as particularly foolish, and smacking of what C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called chronological snobbery. In effect, it is the assumption that the past is inferior to the present simply because it is the past. It is easy to look at the ideas and assumptions of the past and think ourselves well past all that — and in many cases, we may be right. But if we assume that the present is always superior to the past, we end up in the intellectual weeds. Lewis writes,

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (Surprised by Joy, ch. 13)

Miller opens every podcast with the same question: “So, Professor So-and-So, what makes XYZ a ‘great book’?” Naturally, the answers vary, although there are some common themes: the books highlighted on the podcast have something profound to say about the universal human condition, or give us a clear window into a particular time and place, or were influential on another author or a country or a movement, or what have you.

(Aside: Giving us a window into a particular time and place is not always seen as a positive quality; many books are challenged and pulled from library shelves because they are seen as too different from our more enlightened age, too rooted in their contemporary mores. The American Library Assosciation recently struck Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s book award because her books contain “dated cultural attitudes” — nevermind that Wilder’s portrayal of the conflict between American Indians and white settlers is a nuanced once, overwhelmingly steered by Pa’s good-hearted acceptance. Chronological snobbery has won that particular battle. End of aside.)

But a great book isn’t a Great Book just because it shows us something about humans or influenced a movement — there’s a larger link between them, which is that these books have all stood the test of time. Something about them means that they have stayed in print, that readers are still buying and reading and enjoying them, and not just because they can be found on university syllabi (although I’m sure that helps!). Despite their temporal and cultural remove from us, there is something compelling about them, some quality that has ensured their survival even while other books from the same periods have been lost. They have survived the literary sorting contest that, over decades and centuries, removes the dross from the gold.

Above all, greatness takes time. I read a lot of books that have been published within the last decade or two, many of which have been bestsellers. Will they become Great Books, in time? Some will; many won’t; popularity today does not mean popularity tomorrow, never mind in 50 or 100 or 250 years. I love John Grisham’s novels. Will people be reading John Grisham in 2218? I don’t know, but I bet they’ll still be reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Dante and Homer. I certainly hope they’ll still be reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the ALA’s recent smackdown. We certainly shouldn’t abandon all contemporary reading in favour of exclusively browsing the past (that’s the other side of chronological snobbery, the fetishization of what’s gone before), but neither should we abandon these older books. Instead of challenging them, let us allow them to challenge us — to illuminate the unquestioned mores of our own age even as they expose their own. To do otherwise is to lose a great deal of our ability to understand the world in which we live today (as well as to understand the past), and that would be to lose something very precious indeed.