Welcome to the Reading Alcove ~ A Place on the Window Seat

This is the official blog of Victoria Adams, a published author.  It has been established as the contact point between the readers and the author and as a “window seat” where we can talk about the books and subjects that we find of interest.  The primary interests here are Caregiving Backstage (because I am one), Humanities for the Unbound Mind (because I love all related subjects), and Natural Science from the Observation Deck (because I am an amateur Natural Scientist whose heroes spend a lot of time thinking). It is the type of place where you can imagine grabbing a cup of tea, a comfy thing to sit or sprawl on and a warm place in the sun (or a quiet place to listen to the rain).  It is a place where we will explore the world of the word together.

Courtesy WANA Commons, Rebecca Burray

Courtesy WANA Commons, Rebecca Burray

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Book Review ~ The Study of Believing

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why it Endures, Nicholas Wade less than $15.00

Faith InstinctNicolas Wade is a science writer. He writes articles so that those without specialized degrees can achieve some sense of what it is that we have learned. I was quite taken with his book, Before the Dawn. I’ve checked my archives and, for whatever reason, I haven’t reviewed that book. Another bit for the to do list. Wade is currently in the middle of a rather public controversy regarding his latest book, A Troublesome Inheritance. He addresses race as a piece of our DNA heritage and shows why he feels it is important to identify who we are at the genetic level. Scientists who developed the work he uses in his analysis are not happy with his conclusions. Whatever the outcome, the argument is a bit like the battles over IQ; we are still not able to accept that some folks are better (or worse) at some things, but that does not make them better (or worse) people. Well, back to the discussion at hand.

One does not have to be a non-believer to subscribe to scientific evidence of evolution. I don’t believe I have seen anything specific on whether Wade adheres to a faith of any flavor, however the book is written from the view point that faith is a social interaction shaped and formed by the requirements of the society and culture in which it grows. Some scientists entertain similar thoughts, others are quite reluctant. Let’s look at Wade’s central hypothesis and see what that tells us about religion, culture, and ourselves.

Wade begins his analysis with what anthropology has learned about the earliest forms of religion, some aspects of which we can see in the few cultures of today that have not experienced the onslaught of modern intervention. Basically, group activity such as singing, dancing, and music making. These activities draw a society together and inspire the desire to risk one’s own life for the safety and success of the group as a whole. Anthropologists are divided on a theory that the development of religion can be thought of as “group evolution.” In other words, did this growing change occur, not as a survival tool of the individual (especially since it often demands personal sacrifice), but as a tool for the survival against other groups which were less cohesive. It is an interesting thought journey.

In addition to the binding of a group into one based on these sometimes very intense group activities, Wade adds the consideration of a moral code. Sometimes, to get folks to obey rules that are structured towards group survival rather than individual survival (don’t steal, murder, sleep with someone else’s spouse), it becomes important to put the enforcement aspect in the hands of a supernatural entity. First, because he/she/it can be given an all-seeing, all-knowing presence, and secondly to remove the punishment of infractions from the hands of a priest or leader who could become the target of retaliation. A study conducted by Jared Piazza at the University of Kent discovered that he could reduce the frequency of cheating in small children of a certain age by introducing an invisible Princess Alice to watch over them. His work is quite interesting in regards to the development and enforcement of moral codes.

According to Wade, as societies became more complex, and knowledge spread, the structure of religion became more complex. Not only did the faith instinct drive the level of warm bodies in the pews, it became a way of preparing young people and nations for the sacrifice required to go to war. By creating and holding the loyalty of individuals to group goals, nations were able to get sizable numbers of their populations to surrender the need to protect self and immediate family to a greater goal of protecting the nation. An unbiased look at our history of wars that involved devotion to one religion or another – or even a sect or denomination within religions – shows us that emotions run highest when our religious beliefs or doctrine are challenged. When religion is not the key element, nationalism (an extended form of family) becomes the glue of society.

Wade develops an interesting topic, and one that helps us understand a bit of how cultures and civilizations manage to meld persons of varied backgrounds into a functioning society prepared to defend whatever the core beliefs may be against “others.” The part that becomes worrisome to me is developed in the last few chapters, most specifically, Religion and Nation.

For the most part, modern nations have developed around common societal goals and history. Common language, common ethics, and common ethnicity. The earliest settlers (invaders) of America along the Eastern Seaboard, were predominately Protestant. Having left behind religious persecution of one form or another, they sincerely believed they were involved in a divine cause. Consequently, they went about life in their new home in a rather Biblical way – clearing the home they chose to create of anyone or thing not included in their vision of a holy land of destiny. Problem is, they were late arrivals on a continent filled with peoples who had arrived over the course of a long history, some nearly as recent as they, and some that arrived in multitudes in the ensuing centuries. The battle for the heart and soul of a new society waged for many decades; and that battle has yet to be resolved. It is important to note, whatever version of American history a Christian may see, by 1776 only 17 percent of the population belonged to a church. Current day evangelical beliefs were not even on the horizon.

Sociologists look to a couple of theories to explain the level of religious participation in modern countries. If a country was born in insecure times, or is still suffering from economic, health, or political insecurity, then the population tends to be more religious. This does, in some ways, fit the American landscape since many of the arrivals on these shores came because of religious, ethnic,  or economic persecution. Another explanation of the rise and fall of denominational loyalty comes with a “marketplace” analysis. Throughout the history of religion, a new idea or doctrine finds enough adherents and structure to become the orthodoxy of the age and then begins to slip in “market share” as new and younger sects become aggressive in acquiring faithful members. Some scholars look to falling numbers in church attendance in Europe as being due in part to established churches. Here salaries and facility maintenance are guaranteed and there is no need to seek new members for fresh cash flow.

But these analyses only go so far on the American landscape of nationalism. Per Wade, “The usual glues that hold nations together are a single dominant religion, language, ethnicity and culture. Until 1850 or so, the United States fitted this mold, being essentially an Anglo-Protestant culture. Many of its people originated from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, and other Europeans became American by adopting at least the language of Anglo-Protestantism.” That is, if we leave out consideration of the nations the new arrivals replaced. As of today, however, there are many ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultural histories. What, then, was the glue the kept Americans from breaking out in multiple civil wars, such as the centuries-old battles of Northern Ireland?

Wade proposes that it is an American Civil Religion, a shared belief in the vision that was America. A country that believed to its core that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Constitution of the United States). For some time, although the road was very bumpy and the price was paid with many lives, we sincerely believed in the vision. Even in times of ignorance, there were those among us that fought for the over-reaching belief in a unified humanity, and a deep-seated respect for individual rights and obligations. We worshiped a vision that always seemed just a bit further down the road. Wade sees the glue of the American nation as a belief in “specialness,” in being the ones that can achieve what human societies have failed to do in the past: equality of opportunity, respect for differences, freedom to express. What Wade does not address, and perhaps did not see coming, was that something happened on our way to the vision.

Sadly, and this is a personal opinion, the vision has morphed into something that the Founding Fathers were most likely trying to avoid. The prevailing “religion” of the country is no longer a faith of giving, loving, and supporting. It is not even a faith of the Puritan heritage of work to eat, monogamy, and respect of a neighbor’s property. Now, we believe it is perfectly okay to enforce our beliefs on others. There are many that fear Sharia Law because it is affiliated with Islam and yet insist similar practices and judgement should be instituted under the name of Christianity. We worship the current resident of the White House as if he walks on water (he does not) and many of us steadily refuse to see any opinion that does not fit in our worldview. Somewhere along the line we decided we were the moral compass of the world and no longer cared about the accumulated wisdom of more ancient civilizations. There was a time when we valued education in order to understand the successes and failures of previous civilizations. America built some of the most prestigious schools in the world. Now statistics indicate that a large portion of us see education as an elitist pursuit and blame the universities for fostering liberal attitudes and “un-American” activities.

Religion, and faith, is a powerful tool, both for and against the members of a society. Belief in something is often what drives us, inspires us, to do our best, or worse. Be ever so careful of just what it is that you place at the center of your faith universe. I leave you with a few quotes from the American philosopher, Eric Hoffer. Author of True Believer.

We lie the loudest when we lie to ourselves.

Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.

 

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Who I Am Yesterday finds Barnes & Noble, and a lot of new friends

Over the past month, I have been working towards a book signing arranged for me by Greta King, a magical marketing agent. My debut run at this activity was at Barnes and Noble on Black Lake Blvd in Western Olympia, Washington. Since my book is about caregiving and the things one must learn to live with a loved one with dementia, I chose to expand my influence.

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I spent some time in the offices of Council on Aging in both Aberdeen and Olympia, and collected a substantial amount of literature about support groups, resources, and organizations. That collection followed me to the signing, and will become a permanent part of any signing or speaking engagement I secure in the future.

In addition, I put together a short resource guide that included several book titles, and links to sources of clothing, medical equipment, and care supplies. That guide is available here. My list of reading material includes the literature provided by the Council on Aging, along with links to acquire additional information. Even if SW Washington is not where you live, the list is broad enough it will provide a starting point to locate support closer to home.

My local newspaper also published a brief article about the event and something about my book.

For this event, Barnes and Noble used my resource list to locate titles within their store that might be of help. These became part of my display. The store management was very gracious and mentioned several times how happy they were to be a part of my mission to inform, to comfort, and to share.

Then, of course, the event. Yes, I sold a few books. The store will continue to stock my book, at least for a while. I also had a chance to talk with people who needed and wanted what I had to offer. One group of ladies had traveled to hear me speak and when they realized I was not speaking, asked for contact information so that they could invite me to speak to their group. They left well supplied with materials, a signed copy of my book, and a few answers I could offer based on my own experience.

Another lady stopped in mid-stride as she came through the door and announced she had just decided she needed a cup of coffee and had no idea why; until she saw my table. Again, after having a cup of coffee and reading through a few things, she left well supplied with information, and a signed copy of my book.

John McBride, from the office of the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Council on Aging, stopped by with his wife to get my autograph on the copy I had left with his office. From what I hear, both his office and Aberdeen may be contacting me about acquiring more copies for their people and to share. There are also hints of a speaking thing or two in the future.

I would say, all in all, the event was a success. I know I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the people that stopped to say hi and talk (or grab a bit of candy). I think I will be a welcome guest at the store in the future, and I have made contacts that may well expand my reach and my ability to share. Not a bad start; not bad at all.

Choose to Dance – find the way that clearly defines your needs as a caregiver, and the needs of the person being cared for – and dance to your own tune.

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Reflections ~ All the way home

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My new commute.

This past April has been a monster roller-coaster ride in my life. A ride that was, at times, rather unsettling in the deep, dark corners of my bi-polar brain. I have cried, I have danced, I have laughed, and somehow made it through to a quiet moment before I begin a new chapter in my life.

Two years ago, in April, I moved forward with plans to purchase a home in Aberdeen. With my beloved gone, I made the move without him. One weekend was spent getting my office/library painted and carpeted. The following week, two trucks pulled into the driveway with the detritus of two lives lived in books and research. I still have a bit more to sort, but I have made substantial progress.

During the past two years, I have fallen in love with my home, the town, and the people I have met. Except that I wasn’t all the way home just yet. Me and my various adventures were scattered half way across the continent and all the way into Canada. My dream was to work and sleep in the same time zone; to center my life in the community I had chosen as my “forever home.”

The past two years have not been easy. Trying to adjust budgets, keep things moving along with commitments I had made, and dealing with an “uncomfortable” exchange rate — but, I managed to keep my boat afloat. Last fall, I decided to make the move to take on hours after 5 and on weekends. With a bit of an adjustment to my resume, I was able to secure work as a cashier on some nights and weekends; and, when the time came, I locked on to some hours with a local tax service. For a number of months, I was working up to three jobs at a time (plus all those extracurricular activities). I never left my desk during office hours with my day job (other than for job interviews and doctor things), but I also had to ensure that whatever was necessary to meet deadlines was worked into my expanded work schedule. I’m an accountant – deadlines are part of my DNA.

This exercise was something I chose to do for more than a bit more financial security – it got me back out in public, face to face with real people. While, for the most part, communication with my co-workers in Canada was very good, it is oh so much easier when you are fully present and engaged. It also yanked me out of my fast-hardening shell and revived my need to learn how to learn again. It has always been my belief that you “fill the job you are in,” doing your best at what is required without making yourself a pain about what you should or could be doing. I found the whole experience rather invigorating, even while it could get exhausting. As it happens, it was a chance meeting at one of those moonlighting spots that may have helped secure the path to my new adventure.

I have been searching for a position with varying levels of intensity and hope since I arrived here in Aberdeen. My direct supervisor at Strategic knew of my search, and was supportive in every way as I stumbled through a process I had not engaged in for many years. Although I found a number of positions that were of interest, and a few I am told I missed by a hairsbreadth, somehow I couldn’t find that right combination of me needing the job as much as the job needed me.

One day in February, my neighbor (as he was prone to do) knocked on my door with a job ad he thought I might be interested in. Thoroughly intrigued I applied — and heard nothing. Then, after a particularly stressful day, I drug myself to my cashier job and bumped into one of the staff who worked in the agency where I had applied. She was delighted to meet me and announced to anyone that was near that she would love to have me as her boss. You have to laugh, considering I was standing behind a cash register.

I kept in touch a couple of times, emailing the HR department with a note that I was still interested in the position, and I managed to get another interview or two. One interviewer with the State called me and told me how close I had come to getting a job I had applied for in Olympia, and she offered to provide some advice. Feedback! Of course, I’d like feedback! I feel that this, too, was a contributing factor in making my presentation more polished, more specific to the position.

In mid-April, I received a call for a “meet and greet” with the staff as a preliminary to an interview with the council. It was on Good Friday (a Canadian holiday) and I was clear from trying to fit it in to my duties at “my day job.” The whole staff was there, from the interim director to the maintenance crew. I found an incredible group of folks dedicated to their jobs, their culture, and their agency…and coveted the position even more. Early the next week, I received the call for an interview that Wednesday. My day was brightened as I received calls and emails from everywhere as my friends, clients, and business connections reported hearing from a very nice lady seeking recommendations.

I am told the interview with the council went well; however, the deciding factor by the hiring committee was the support I was receiving from the interim director and the staff. That support was evident in the welcoming email I received from the president of the council after I accepted the offer. I have arrived fully home. I am the new Executive Director of the Quinault Housing Authority. I am dancing on air.

I am terribly sad to leave Strategic Group; they have been an amazing company to work for the past nine years. While in-country, my supervisors kept me engaged with new challenges, and moved me to wherever I could contribute the most. When it became necessary for me to focus on caregiving, they supported me in-country with a program that allowed me to work from home part of the day – and, when I moved us back to the States, they kept me on as a remote, contract employee. They waited patiently (at least as far as I could tell) as I searched for a local position. They are a company with a compassionate heart and it shows in the support they give to every community they touch.

Threaded into the bits and pieces of a transition from a long-held position to a demanding and rewarding new spot, my computer blew up (one hour after I received the offer of employment). That caused all kinds of snap decisions to keep me functional as I completed open projects for Strategic before my previously scheduled vacation began. I also had to keep an eye forward to make sure I was prepared to step into the new position. My transition became an international negotiation as the end date in Canada was synchronized with the Tribal start date. My poor night job was caught in the gears and it took a bit of dancing to cover the two weeks’ notice I felt obliged to offer.

Then, not the least of my adventures, there was a book signing. An event I will describe elsewhere, but certainly another landmark in my writing career. I had been preparing for the event for a month, but suddenly things were re-prioritized to handle this major change. It’s a good thing I’m well practiced at handling multiple jobs, eh?

Now, I must go about the business of adjusting my schedule to a whole new world. Although the new position may be a demanding master that ignores the limits of an 8-5 job (not exactly something new), I am certain I will find a new rhythm of life that includes writing, management of a few “extracurricular” activities, and caring for my home. Besides, how could I possibly turn down a commute through Pacific Northwest forests and along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean?

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Review ~ When the chains of dogma keep us from seeking truthfulness.

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, by William Paul Young. Available for $7-18 (movie released this month).

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There was such a hullabaloo about the whole thing. There were people excited it was finally going to be on the big screen, as well as people resurrecting the battles over the theology and doctrine portrayed in the original book. As I attempt to do with at least some controversies, I let most of it flow on by. I am, after all, still an avid fan of Oh, God, a movie some evangelicals considered downright blasphemous. I was finally enticed to view the trailer; and I fell instantly in love. I had to have the book, sooner rather than later (and will watch the movie). Every spare moment this week, Kindle in hand, I devoured Young’s tale. Then, I spent a bit of time poking around on the Internet attempting to determine what all the fuss was about. You would have thought the story was a Doctorate Thesis, submitted to the public for vetting. On second thought, maybe it should be. Here is my take on the emotional and spiritual punch, and theological challenge, delivered by this lovely little book.

As a reference point for most of the criticism, I used a fairly prominent Christian blog, www.boundless.org. The article was articulate, and summarized most of the points others were making at various levels of ability and understanding. I found the criticism telling.

First there is the accusation that the story as presented seeks, in many subtle ways, to undermine The Faith. In my opinion, what the author is gently pushing against is the dogmatic doctrine of the church. A structure that believes, somehow, that the interpretations of the early Church Fathers are every bit as holy as the original text penned who knows how many millennia ago. The author points to a particular passage where the character of Jesus states that he is not Christian. Well, as it happens he was not. He was Jewish. Subversion of the “orthodox” view started a couple of millennia ago, I seem to recall the image of Jesus turning over tables in the temple courts.

Since folks like to quote things, let’s look at Proverbs 2:1-5 (ESV). “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” As far as I can tell, scripture here, and in other places, encourages us to seek insight and understanding – not to accept it as a God-wrapped treasure from those who declare themselves our leaders and sole interpreters of ancient manuscripts.

There is also the issue of how we know God. Many Christians look to scripture as the beginning – and the end – of the discussion. They feel that messages, commands, and admonitions written for people in a different time, different country, and under far different circumstances, should be adhered to without fail today. There are two problems with this approach.

First, it is okay to hold tight to the letter of the law as long as it fits within preconceived notions. Many Christians have problems with the idea of an adulteress being stoned in a Muslim country – and yet that is scripture. Scripture indicates that we should not divorce and that if we do remarry, we are committing adultery. These may sound like old, worn-out arguments, but at the core is this issue: understanding what scripture is trying to impart about the duties of a person that follows the first and foremost command – to love – often comes to blows with modern science, understanding, and culture. The Bible is a living breathing text and should, by all accounts, serve us well whatever the century or however advanced the culture. Look for the message – not the letter – of the law. This is something that The Shack tries to drive home.

And while we’re on the subject, as much as the reader may wish that the Bible was God breathed in every syllable and comma – that is just not a possibility. We do not have access to the original, inspired texts, and we have pushed what we do have through centuries of cultural, personal, and faith driven interpretations. This, of course, it the purpose of the reference to the King James Bible in the book. The challenge to see beyond a specific translation, or interpretation, of scripture and to look for the message that sings the whole way through.

It seems hardly right to devote a short paragraph to the subject of Salvation and what, precisely, it was we see accomplished on the Cross. I keep it short because this is a subject which has been debated since the nascent church began to spread throughout the population of the early Middle East. All the more reason to ponder the thoughts suggested by Young. After centuries of having the hell-fire of sinners pounded into our heads and our souls (a vision we owe more to Dante than the Bible), it is difficult for Christians to see beyond that vision into the conundrum they have created. Simply labeling something a “mystery” is no more than a cop out. We cannot reconcile a loving Creator with an eternal fire – a really eternal fire – for the least of the possible infractions against a code. A code, by the way, we are quick to say was done away with on the cross. If we continue to lock ourselves away in these labyrinths of theological conundrums, we will awaken one day to find we have not done the most important thing we were commanded to do – love. The possibilities discussed by The Shack are thoughts and theories presented by many outstanding scholars within the field. Why would God expect us, no – command us – to forgive whatever the response from the target of our forgiveness – if He was not prepared to do the same?

Oh, and last but certainly not least – how do we portray God? This was a point well brandished in the article I read. According to that author, scripture tells us not to make images of God. Except – scripture does provide images of God and it is those images we defend the most. One is of God as some grandfatherly figure in long robes. And we read that as a white male. When was the last time you saw a portrait of Christ in a church that actually looked like a native of the Middle East? Personally, I was delighted at the portrayal of a functioning, interactive, personification of the multiple aspects of God as defined in scripture – including that of Sophia. I was delighted because that presentation challenges us to break our preconceptions down into the ludicrous assumptions that we defend. Who are we to describe what God would look like as He spoke from the burning bush? Can we really grasp what Daniel, John, or any other author saw in their visions? Would those visions not be based on the people and culture they knew? Do you know without a single doubt, how the Creating force of this universe operates and relates? If The Shack does nothing else – maybe it will break that fragile shell of how we perceive something which we can only grasp in brief and finite thoughts.

Did I agree with everything in the book? Of course not. But I found the story a real attempt to reach people where they are, in the middle of their pain, and carrying years of baggage, some of which they have nothing to do with. One of the most telling bits within the story for me was that Mack never realized that his older daughter blamed herself for the loss of her sister. He was so wrapped up in his own pain, he never thought that someone else may be suffering from the same burden. If you take anything away from this book – know these things. Creation meets us where, and when we are. Our pain is a part of an evolving universe, we are neither the worms beneath our feet, nor lords of the universe. Sharing our pain is how we love one another, and how we help those who also suffer, while healing our own hurt.

Before you attempt to doctrinalize (like that word?) this story into Gahanna – see if you can find some small bit of insight you can work into your own inquiring soul. Or use it to open your eyes to the vast, creative force behind and throughout the universe in which we live.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Fiction

A review, and a challenge, by a master

This post is shown in its entirely as published by David Gerrold on Facebook along with my comments. If you are not familiar with the name, perhaps you will recall the Trouble with Tribbles, a Star Trek episode. Or, The Martian Child. David knows how to spin a tale and has made a career of building worlds, and dissecting this one. First, my comments.

“Absolutely and unequivocally on point. While in college I talked a professor into letting me write a term paper on science fiction. Not literature in her opinion – but I wrote well enough to make my point and she conceded. In fiction, sometimes most effectively in science fiction or fantasy, we have the freedom to take a social or civil issue and put it far enough away from the reader we can challenge the person without being confrontational. It is a way to engender thought by leading. David Gerrold points this out beautifully below. Hopefully he won’t mind if I publish this, with credit, on my blog.”

I think Sarah Pinsker is a marvelous writer. I admire her ability to paint a picture in words. Most of all, I admire her ambition.

In the current issue of Asimov’s, she has a story called, “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going.” It’s a beautiful piece of work and I would not be surprised to see it ending up on various award ballots.

It’s intended to be read as a sequel to Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

If you have not read the LeGuin story, go do that now. I’ll wait.

If I had to pick one story to represent the entire SF genre, possibly the most memorable of all tales anyone has ever written, it would be “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Omelas is a beautiful city, filled with joyous people living joyous lives. But … its serenity and splendor depend on the eternal misery of an unfortunate chld, kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.

When citizens are old enough to know the truth of Omelas’ success, they are shown the true price of the city’s glory — that this single child must be locked away in a cruel dungeon. Most of the city’s citizens accept this as necessary to the continuing elegance of Omelas. But every so often, a few citizens cannot. They walk quietly away from the city. The last line of the story: “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

What occurred to me immediately, the first time I read this story was that the wealth and success of the United States depends on foreign labor — child labor, peasant labor, and in some places even slave labor. The braceros who pick our vegetables, the Chinese factory workers who assemble our iPhones, the children in Bangladesh who sew our clothes. We don’t think about them. We simply accept that the low prices of goods at Walmart are a sign of our national success, our splendor, our wealth — but in truth, our denial of the facts about the world we live in is a sign of our cultural sickness.

The trap — the real trap — is that we cannot walk away from our own Omelas. We don’t know how. We can’t survive without the technology we’ve constructed and all the hard work it takes from so many people to keep that technology functioning and to keep us fed and clothed and amused with electronic toys.

Never mind that for the moment — the point of the story, as I see it, is that we as humans always have a choice: whether to accept injustice and live with it or reject it and refuse to participate in it further. And this is why I think it is one of the greatest stories ever written — because it isn’t about Omelas, it’s about the reader.

And that brings me to Sarah Pinsker’s marvelous tale.

I hated it.

Not because it’s a bad story, not because it’s badly written, not because it’s wrong — but because it is a philosophical and emotional reversal of LeGuin’s story. Where LeGuin leaves us troubled, Pinsker wants to let us be okay.

SPOILER ALERT.

If you haven’t read Pinsker’s story, go do so now.

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In Pinsker’s story, someone has left the door to the dungeon ajar. The child, bruised and hurting, laboriously climbs the steps toward the dazzling daylight, wondering about the beauty that lies above, and speculating on how long it will take the city to collapse after the escape.

But by the time the child reaches the tenth stair, he or she (never specified) stops and turns around and heads back down to the dungeon. And we are told that this is not the first time that the child has made this journey toward dazzling freedom and then returned to the sanctity of the darkness.

Now, if the point to be made here is that the child cannot deal with freedom, is afraid of freedom, that’s horrifying enough — but that’s not Pinsker’s point. No.

Instead, this child is acting out of altruism, nobility — returning to the dungeon so that no other child will have to suffer the same fate. And again, this is not the first time this child has made this great moral choice.

And as a reader, I can feel good, I can feel proud of this child for willingly martyring herself/himself for the good of —

No. I can’t.

There’s an old joke. “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb.” “None. Don’t worry about me. I can sit here alone in the dark.” That’s also the short version of this story.

And this is why I take issue with this story. Both philosophically and emotionally.

Philosophically: Where LeGuin was saying underneath the glory of this civilization, its foundation rests on a crime, an act of profound cruelty and injustice to another human being — where LeGuin was making a profound plea, Pinsker is now excusing the cruelty and injustice. It’s all right, because the child is there willingly, the child is making a noble sacrifice.

And emotionally — it’s all right, you don’t have to feel bad. The child is doing a good thing. He/she wants to be there.

Um, no.

There’s this thing called “the victim racket.” It’s where you give away your power to others so you can feel good about never getting what you want. It’s about being right about being miserable. It plays out a lot of different ways, “I have to sacrifice for my children,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “It’s okay, I didn’t want dessert anyway.” (Or even, “I deserved the award, but the vote was rigged.”) The victim racket is about excusing injustice.

Now that might not be what Sarah Pinsker intended. Unfortunately, that’s how I read it. And as much as I try to find another interpretation, I’m stumped.

I’m not against sacrifice — every good parent makes sacrifices so his/her children can grow up to have a life they love living. But that’s an informed consent. The child of Omelas isn’t there because he or she has consented, isn’t there because of a higher purpose, isn’t enduring a noble imprisonment — the child of Omelas is there because the people of Omelas prize their splendor too much to give up the injustice.

Still with me?

Do I think Pinsker was wrong for writing this story? Hell, no. I’m glad she wrote it — because it will start the kind of discussion that all good stories must start. It invites the readers to argue about the nature of Omelas as well as the plight of the child. It invites us to consider the very real implications for our own society.

I’ll add this — the LeGuin story is necessarily incomplete. It invites the reader to decide for himself/herself about the morality of this situation.

In the hands of another writer — not me, not today — a sequel to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” would be about those who walk away.

Those who stay are accepting responsibility for the injustice, they’re owning it the same way the Germans who profited in the days of the Third Reich owned their atrocities. They decided not to care.

But those who are walking away, they’re rejecting responsibility. They’re leaving without trying to change anything. They’re fleeing the responsibility of rescuing the child. They’re unwilling to trigger the revolution that would surely occur if the city’s success were threatened. They’re unwilling to take a stand, unwilling to say, “I cannot be a part of a civilization founded on injustice. We must find another way. We must bring that child up into the light.” By walking away, they are running away.

And to my mind, the ones who walk away are just as detestable, maybe even more so than the ones who stay.

Whatever the case, I believe it is wrong to ascribe nobility to the child. It’s wrong to assume nobility among the oppressed. That’s a convenient fiction — that torture and oppression, discrimination and victimization somehow confer wisdom on the sufferers. Hell no. Torture and oppression mostly inspire outrage and hatred and counter-violence. Gandhi and Mandela and King and Frankel and Weisel are exceptions. Everybody else likely has a lifetime battle with PTSD.

That assumption of nobility through oppression — that’s why we have “the magic Negro” and the wise old native American and the sassy black lady and the insightful old Jew and the noble Asian and the spontaneously clever drag queen in American movies — because we’re afraid to acknowledge the real hurt and bitterness that our own Omelas has created, not in a single child, but in whole populations.

Perhaps there is a worthwhile sequel to be written to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I applaud Sarah Pinsker’s ambition in this effort. And I wish I could celebrate this story as a worthwhile sequel. Any writer this ambitious deserves applause.

But … I wonder if LeGuin’s original tale has left us with an unsolvable challenge. We are damned if we stay, we are damned if we leave. I can’t walk away — but I have no idea how to get that child out of that dungeon either.

That’s the story I want to see someone tackle.

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Reflections ~ Thoughts on a Holiday in Transition

This has been a rough year on a several levels for myself, and the world around me. Icons that we looked up to have left us. Emotional and heart-rending votes were taking place in a number of countries, and violence continues to take so many in circumstances few of us really understand, or stop to figure out. When the world is jumbled up around us, we sometimes seek peace in the smaller things, the smaller world, that we know. All the hubbub of this year drove me back to basic ideas, places where I knew compromise was not an option. It also walked me through the morning after. These are my vaguely connected thoughts on a Christmas in transition.

This blog started with a desire to explain something of why Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah means so much to me; what it says to me that touches me so. Leonard Cohen, a Canadian musician, song writer, and novelist, acquired several prestigious awards. He is one of those we lost this past year. One of the magical things about this piece is the flexibility it provides. Cohen provided a framework with references to King Saul, King David, and Sampson, and led us through one of life’s mysteries: how can love be so precious and yet, sometimes, so painful. There have been dozens of lyrics added to the framework and the melody, some by Cohen himself, some by others. It is a melody and a theme that touches many, perhaps even with some understanding. My favorite line (if a favorite is possible): “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.”

Why? I don’t see it as a bleak condemnation of genuine relationships, I see it as an honest admission that however passionate we may be, however perfect our union may be, life can and does interfere, and yet we find the joy of a hallelujah, and when things are not as hoped, we find a way to move on.

The final scene in the play J. B. by Archibald MacLeish has the characters picking up the tossed stage props and beginning to restore order. The play is a free-verse modernized interpretation of the Biblical book of Job. After all the devastation J. B. and his family face, the near loss of his wife, and the heart-rending self-examination of “where did I go wrong,” J. B. and his wife pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild. That’s who we are as human beings, when everything is taken from us, we begin again. It is only when we are honest with ourselves that we can admit, whatever praise we offer is a broken hallelujah.

That leads me to my Christmas, which I spent alone, in my own cocoon. Due to the fortunate convergence of a Christmas bonus and a radically priced clearance desk, I decided to restructure my office. First of all, I am not very good with change, especially in my workplace. This was a major deal for me. Second, the desk that was going away had been a birthday present from my husband. It is old, it was battered, it needed to move on – however difficult that might be. As I assembled the new desk, I found that a few screws for knobs and handles were missing. That means a few pieces of the old desk are with me still. I also made the choice to begin using my husband’s office chair. It took me three days to complete the transition and it was a journey of fond, and painful memories, of moving forward, of broken hallelujahs.

before

To me, the thought I wish most to hold on to from this brief reflective time is that we can learn from where we are, and then move forward. We cannot surrender simply because things didn’t work out as we hoped, we re-visit who we are and stay true to that image, picking up the pieces, and moving forward.

after

I have no idea why the picture is tilted – perfectly square on the wall. 🙂

Fair journey, my friends. Know that the universe does not revolve around our own special views, wishes, or even needs, and that is okay. Because we are human, with reason, logic, and passion, we can pick up the pieces and begin again.

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Journey with Job, Personal Journeys

Reflections ~ On the Season

The sentiments expressed in Max Ermann’s timeless words never cease to touch me – may your holiday season bring some ray of light, some moment of peace, while we prepare ourselves for what the new year brings.

Victoria Adams' Reading Alcove

Each holiday season I tend to spend a bit more time than usual reflecting on our world.  Where we are, where we appear to be going, things mankind might strive to do, if only…  It is a time when I experience joy, and sadness.  It is a time when I wish for our world a true sense of brotherhood for all our differences.  For whatever creed, nation, tribe, geographic location, gender (of whatever persuasion) or station in life; we all, each one, contribute something miraculous to the universe.  The existence of the human spirit.

I want to challenge you this season to look at one thing – just one – that bugs you.  Something that you don’t like.  A person, a place, a thing, an idea, a group of people.  Find a way to see that “thing” in a different light.  Not necessarily to change your mind or your convictions…

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