Saturday, 8 May 2010

Food for thought

It's a blessedly lazy Saturday. I try to keep all Saturdays free so I can hide in my room and read, think and sleep to my own cycles, no one else's. Eventually, I'll wander down and check fb and my email, write on my blogs if so inclined, make myself some coffee, and just *be*. And much as I love my housemates, it's even better if I have the house to myself.

So I find myself on the sofa today, slanketed with my hands around a steaming mug of coffee, writing this.

It all started a couple of days ago, as I was awaiting the arrival of the latest instalment of the Matthew Shardlake series, Revelation. (I'm not sure Heartstone is out yet.) In the interim, I picked up an old favourite, Exile's Honour by Mercedes Lackey, part of her Valdemar series that I fell in love with many moons ago. Definitely a universe I would want to live in.

It tells the story of how Alberich of Karse, Weaponsmaster for most of the series, comes to live in and serve Valdemar, his old enemy. Demanding, incredibly tough, intimidating, challenging, relentlessly hard on his students, yet fair and even gentle, a man of action, honour and a moral code that would place him amongst the saints. Not perfect, of course - there's a darkness in him that means he spoils for fights when he can't act, he broods, he's terribly impatient and fools don't last long around him. He's one of my absolute favourite characters in the series, and as I told one of my friends who would get it, "If I ran a seminary, let me tell you, I'd run it like Alberich. You'd be doing pastoral work within a month, including midnight phone calls/callouts - being able to handle that has to be reflex, like good sword work. And the discipline - you'd be seriously f***ed if I found out you were in places I knew you shouldn't be, on websites you shouldn't be, doing things you shouldn't do. And ja, you'd better believe I'd find out."

I expected it to be a pleasurable re-read. What I didn't expect was how it would help me with my current struggle between what I believe and the organisation I've chosen to belong to. This morning, I hit a passage I'd completely forgotten, between Alberich and his Sunpriest, Geri. And it's really helping me get to grips with things:

"I'm hunting for answers."

Geri regarded him with a somber gaze. "You, of all people, ought to know that you aren't going to find many of those here. Questions, certainly, but precious few answers. Ours is a faith, Alberich, not a map or a guide, and certainly not a set of certitudes. At least, that is the way it should be -"

"Not what it has become...We are the mirror of Valdemar-"

"More like the twin. Or we were, before things disintegrated." Geri sighed. "I've had this discussion with Henrick, actually. He is of the opinion that the long slide began with a will to power. I think it's more complicated than that. I think that the priesthood was corrupted by the congregation."

Alberich blinked. "How, exactly?"

"The laity wanted absolutes, answers, and the priests finally elected to give them answers, the simpler the better," Geri replied. "The Writ took second place to the Rule, and a poor second at that. The answers took away all uncertainty, and what is more, took away the need to think."

Alberich frowned; not for nothing had he spent so much of his childhood under the tutelage of a priest who knew - and lived - the old ways. "Above all, the Writ demands that a man - or a woman, for that matter - learn how to think."

Geri nodded. "You see? The old ways require that each person come to the Sunlord having thought through everything for himself. The current rule requires that men become sheep herded in one direction, following one path, pastured in one field, ever and always, so will it be."

"Sheep." It occurred to Alberich that it was no coincidence that the Sunpriests of Karse had taken to calling their congregations by the name of 'flock'.

"Sheep don't have to think for themselves, do they?" Geri made a face. "The Sunlord was reshaped from the Unknowable into the remote but predictable Patriarch, from the Whirlwind into the windmill that grinds - exceedingly small. Do this - you are gathered unto His bosom. Do that - you are cast into the outermost Hells." Geri shook his head. "Answers are terribly seductive. The simpler they are, the more seductive they become."

Alberich turned that over in his mind, and found it certainly matched some of his own experience. "But that isn't the whole of it," he objected.

"Of course not. I just suggest that this was where the corruption started," Geri replied. "Then came the will to power, power that came from giving people what they wanted instead of what they needed, and power is just as seductive and even more addictive than any drug. Now - I don't know, Alberich. I don't know how it can be fixed. Or even if it can. It would take the Sunlord Himself in manifestation, perhaps. And someone as the Son of the Sun who is willing to hold the hard course and be disliked. Even hated."

"And loved."
--Exile's honour, pp. 239-241

And not hold the hard course by protecting the status quo, or blaming non-believers for the state of the world, by insisting that those who will not follow the easy answers offered them are guilty of heresy and should be ostracised.

That is the easy course, and has been followed for far too long.

The hard course is insisting that the laity learn to think for themselves; that they come to the temple to find more questions that will help them grow in their faith and come to their own decisions, not easy answers or dependence on a priest; develop their own relationship with the Creator - one that changes, ebbs and flows as all relationships do. That they develop an organic faith capable of growth and able to deal with all situations - from the mundane to the life-changing.

As my current status says,
The Truth is not afraid to be questioned. The Truth wants you to question it, so it can remove all your doubts. Only then can you be free. ~Stephen Edwards

Absolutely. So if someone has issues with you asking questions or challenging them, then you know one thing: no matter what they claim, they do not have - or are not sure they have - the truth.

But even if they do, they should offer you only these instructions:

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Thursday, 6 May 2010

About Election Day - and Life

If you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. So too is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people.

For four years at Michigan, you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars; professors and students. Do not narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with some who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your race or your ethnicity or your religion, broaden your circle to include people who’ve had different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and in the process, you’ll help make this democracy work.

– President Obama

And if you're a conservative Catholic who defends the institution, listen to those of us who won't. We drive you crazy, but it's how you engage. And yes, that means those of us who are pro-choice, pro-women priests, pro-married priests need to hear you out.

True engagement and real empathy are the only ways to grow, learn and move forward.

I know I'm in trouble when I won't let myself be challenged on a point of view: it means I think it's weak, or deep down, I know I'm just holding onto it b/c it's what I know. That's where I most need to be challenged. The views I put out to be challenged, I test, I make sure have a strong line of argument and that feel right - those views are rock solid. The ones I keep back - well, they're the ones that need to be at the front of the line.

I'll never forget my friend Catherine wanting to discuss the death penalty when I didn't. I was pro, she was anti, and that was it. But I made myself open it up, discuss it with her.

Halfway through, I looked at her and said...

"I don't actually believe this."

She smiled - she'd already guessed.

That's why engagement with those who are not like us, who don't believe what we believe, whose beliefs make us go "WHAT THE FUCK?" is so important. Comfort generated by surrounding ourselves with those like us, who mirror our beliefs, who hang on our every word, is a dangerous place to be - perhaps the most dangerous.

As Kahlil Gibran once said:

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.

Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.

It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh.

It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.

Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

Stop. And listen. And remember that being uncomfortable is a very good thing to be. Growth needs resistance - they're not called 'growing pains' without reason.

And so - crouch. Touch. Pause...

And engage.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

To Bob Tupper on his 40th anniversary teaching at Holton

We were asked to send in memories of Bob Tupper, chairman of the History Department and "It's Academic" coach, by 3 May. Trust me to struggle through it at the last minute.

It's not much, but here we go...

Dear Mr T.,

There's so much to say, so much of it beyond words, and so little space to say it. But here goes - and as you taught me to, I'll start at the very beginning.

We first met when I was a 13 year old freshman, when I tried out for the "It's Academic" team - and to my utter shock, made it. Evening and Saturday practices meant that despite the fact that I was a year away from having you for MEH (Modern European History), you quickly became a huge part of my life at Holton.

Like so many good coaches - and you were a phenomenal one - you became more surrogate father than coach. My relationship with my own father was difficult and fraught, to say the least, so it was in those four years with you that I learned that no matter how difficult I was (and yes, I KNOW I was, and still am, to some extent!), I learned that I could still be safe and cared for; that an argument didn't mean the end of a relationship - that it was a chance to work things through; that 'failing' was an opportunity to learn and do better next time, not a catastrophe.

I look around me now and I see that all the men I trust implicitly, different as they are, all have the qualities you taught me to value in those four years: integrity, honesty, an ability to challenge and be challenged, a wonderful sense of humour (most especially being able to laugh at themselves), warmth, a love of teaching, a passion to make the world a better place.

So when friends say how remarkable it is that my friendships with men are as strong as they are, I tell them I had a fantastic teacher at the right time.

Luck isn't ALWAYS the residue of design.

After that first year came MEH. Having thought I was totally a science/math girl, with the odd tendency towards literature, I found otherwise. I know I didn't work as hard as I should have done, especially on those essays that had lots of red stamps on them - I can still hear your frustrated "Yes, but HOW did you get to those conclusions?" - but everyone from Cromwell to the Habsburgs to Winston Churchill came alive in that class. I will say, though, I've never used anything I learned in "The Prince".

I developed a lifelong love of history in MEH - the snapshots; the big picture; understanding how where we came from tells us so much about where we are; discovering the complex interplay of factors; knowing that things weren't always what they seemed. To this day, I visit the memorials for WWI dead in every town I visit. I'm not sure whether my historian friends dread or relish my endless questions on their specialist areas, but I do know that my friend Asta was bewildered by my enthusiastic reaction when she started talking about her childhood in wartime Berlin: "OH MY GOD. YOU HAVE TO TELL ME ABOUT IT - WE NEED TO WRITE THAT DOWN - that's SO important. Those of us who grew up in the Allied Countries have NO idea - it isn't in any of our history books!" I'll tell her to blame you and Jack Caussin for that.

Hard as I may have seemed to resist it, I learned to develop a proper argument, to challenge and be challenged - and, much to the chagrin of many of my acquaintances, to be able to tell when an argument has more holes than a fishnet. Unfortunately, I've never been able to develop the tact you showed: I've been known to gleefully say, "Wow, you could drive a lorrie/Mack truck through THAT argument!" Ok, maybe I'm slightly more tactful than THAT stamp of yours...

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of how you made a difference to me.

So, when you told me at the end of my senior year how much I'd grown, it was because you had made it safe for me and offered me the tools to do so.

You started teaching during Nixon's first term - a year after the moon landing, 2 years before he opened the door with China, during Vietnam, before Watergate, the bicentennial, Khomeini, Reagan, 9/11 - a time of psychedelic colours, flares, wide ties and a sense we could change the world. The computers we use today, mobile phones, ipods, the internet - none of these were even on the radar screen where Super Pong was developed several years later.

To quote the Virginia Slims advert of the time: we've come a long way, baby.

But I bet you still have that typewriter and those library file cards with "It's Ac" questions. Because history and tradition matter. They're the foundation on which our future possibilities are built. And that's what you and the other teachers at Holton gave us - a foundation on which to build anything we wanted.

I can only speak for myself about what a difference you made to me. But I know you made a difference to so many around me - and thus, I can imagine what a difference you made to the thousands of girls who have walked into your classroom door from the age of flares and flowers and punk, through the age of shoulder pads and big hair, through the age of hip hop and today.

There aren't words to express how incredible that is - and how your single classroom has made a difference around the world.

Oh, and one last thing: I finally understood why it was such a big deal to follow my argument through properly; why HOW I got there mattered. It was never really about the exams, was it?

It's about integrity: about what is right; what is true; what is real. It's about listening to and looking at all sides, thinking it all through, considering all possible factors, understanding your biases - and knowing that only then can you trust your conclusion. Even then, you have to be open to new information and be able to change your mind. Because once we've drawn a conclusion, we act. And when we act on the wrong conclusion, it's not just that we can fail exams; we can destroy lives - ours and others'.

In the end, like everything else you taught us and the example you gave us, it was about how to live. I'm sorry I didn't get it then - but I do now.

And so, from across the pond and with all the love and gratitude in the world, congratulations on your 40th anniversary at Holton: long may you continue to teach and know just how much you've changed our world for the better - thank you, thank you, thank you.