Helping without Hurting

'Smokehouse' photo (c) 2000, Don O'Brien - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I just finished Miss Willie by Janice Holt Giles for book club.  It was a book I honestly wasn’t too excited about: a middle-aged woman goes to take on the challenge of being a a school teacher in the poverty of Appalachia.  I feel like I’ve read this book before (Christy, anyone?).  But I ended up getting immersed in Giles’s beautiful language and her portrayal of Miss Willie’s realistic inner life.  Miss Willie also comes to an epiphany at the end of the novel that coincides with another book I’ve been reading — When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.

This book talks about the best ways to help others, mostly the idea of working with the poor, not foisting our “help” upon them.

Miss Willie comes to a similar conclusion and Giles writes this inner process in such a true way that I will quote it at length here:

“She had come to the ridge thinking:  These poor people!  They need help so badly.  They need me, Miss Willie Payne, so badly.  She had been horrified and shocked at conditions, and she had gone about preaching and lecturing. She had known the right way to do all things, and she had never hesitated to say so.  She had pitied these people and patronized them.  And what people of pride ever wanted pity or patronage!

But she had tried so earnestly to help them!  She had tried.  The wrong way, maybe.  But she had tried everything! Everything? Now her heart told her.  Everything…but love! She remembered crying out to Mary: “Where can you start? Where can you start?” You start with the people…and you start with love for the people! ‘The gift without the giver is bare’! And she had never given of herself! Her time, her energy, her knowledge. But not herself! She winced from that thought, but she faced it in all its bitter gall. She had never loved them!

Love was the way.  And lovelessness had been her greatest sin.  Out of a dim, long memory Miss Willie remembered a text of her father’s. ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ The words came back to her now, and repeated themselves over and over. ‘Take my yoke.’ ‘Take my yoke.’ That most perfect One had lived ‘together’ with the people. What did He mean by his yoke? ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ Could He have meant — was it possible His yoke had been living and working with people who never understood Him? Common, ordinary, ignorant people, who didn’t listen and who wouldn’t change? People who didn’t want anything better than they had? People who were dirty, diseased, and foul sometimes, and who were clean and noble and fine other times? People who loved and hated, fought and made peace, witnessed against their neighbors and then stood by them? Could He have meant living with them and loving them just as they were, unchanged and unchanging?

Like the eastern sun flooding the sky with light, Miss Willie understood in a flashing, transfiguring moment what it meant.  It meant to live together…under the yoke, together! Not one standing above, reaching down to pull the others up! Not one saying, ‘I must help these people’! It meant, instead, the banding and linking of people, one to another, in love and pity and yearning. It meant saying, ‘My people’; not, ‘These people.’ It meant getting under the yoke alongside of people, one with them, pulling the load with them.  Not standing aside telling them how to pull! It meant grieving with them, and sorrowing with them, and laboring with them, and laughing with them, and most of all, it meant loving with them. ‘Take my yoke’! He had been yoked with the people.  He had meant, then, live with them where they are.  Love them as they are. Take the yoke, and life it.  All lift together!”

She says it well: words I have thought myself, words I’ve been ashamed of, words of challenge, words of the true Kingdom of God.

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Reading Lately – Winter Edition

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I go through phases where I don’t feel like reading anything.  Then, all of a sudden, I can’t read enough and I start five books at once.  This winter was a “I don’t feel like reading anything” kind of season.  Part of that might have to do with my discovery of all five seasons of Alias on Amazon Prime Instant Streaming.  So I didn’t read many books during this season, but here is what I did read and what I thought:

Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

I have read A LOT of parenting books, trying to figure out how the heck to do this thing called parenting.  So when I heard about this amusing take on parenting, I thought I’d give it a go.  This isn’t so much a how-to as it is a memoir of the American author raising her children in Paris.  She lets us in on how the French raise their children, and how, apparently, it is very different from the American way of parenting.  They are strict about a few things, and then let their kids explore within these boundaries.  They teach their kids to wait — for snacks, for attention.  They aren’t so concerned with their kids getting ahead, but are more concerned with teaching their children how to enjoy life.  Enjoying life is also a big part of becoming a mother.  Motherhood should be balanced between work, home, and play — something their society makes easier by reduced-cost childcare, free preschool, and paid maternity leave.  I enjoyed reading about Pamela’s adventures in raising a Parisian child and found some similarities in how I view parenting.  There are some positive things I took away — especially the part about letting our children explore at their own rate and not flashcarding them to death.  But there are some aspects of French parenting that aren’t all its cracked up to be:  they don’t encourage breastfeeding and there is a lot of pressure to lose that baby weight.  But for the most part, this was just a fun read, seeing how a slightly different culture raises their kids.

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis and Beth Clark

This was a book club selection; otherwise, I probably would not have read it.  I’m glad I did though because it generated one of our best discussions.  We were all in tears at the end!  It’s about 19-year old Katie, who has some serious chutzpa, moving to Uganda, starting a non-profit, adopting a bunch of kids, and pretty much giving up her American life.  To be honest, I had a hard time with this book, mostly because I felt guilty the whole time that I hadn’t given up my American life to serve in Africa.  I know this book is meant to be inspiring, about how one person can do so much, but I just felt disheartened, knowing that I don’t have the faith she has to make the difference she is making.  She seems like such an unreal character, this nearly perfect person, with an overwhelming faith in God that my doubting heart just can’t connect with.  I would recommend it though for a book club.

O, Jerusalem by Laurie R. King

This is the fourth or fifth mystery novel in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, and I found this one to be a bit of a disappointment.  This was less a mystery than it was a traipse through pre-Israel Palestine in the disguise of Arabs, which was pretty enjoyable.  I do like me some historical fiction, especially about places and times I know almost nothing about.  Seeing Jerusalem before the nation of Israel was recreated after World War II was pretty darn interesting.  However, the mystery plot was severely lacking and I just didn’t care.  But the relationship between Russell and Holmes makes up for it — almost.

The Wonder Weeks by Hetty Van de Rijt and Frans Plooij

This is a baby book I have been working through since Henry was an infant, and finished at his one-year birthday.  I enjoyed this book because it helped me explain those unexplainable and frustrating fussy days (i.e. weeks, months) that Henry would have for no apparent reason.  The Wonder Weeks helps you identify what the baby is learning, some new concept or skill that is causing a certain fussy behavior around a certain time frame.  I found this to be true with Henry for each of their weeks.  The book also gives helpful ideas about games or other things to do to help your baby ease through this transition by practicing the new skills.  I’d recommend it, if only for the comfort that you are not alone.  Yes, every child does this.  And here is why.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I bought this book on my kindle a while ago because someone recommended it to me and it was a buck.  I kinda wish I had my buck back.  It is a story told through a dog’s eyes, and while I did enjoy this point of view, it left me distanced from the human main characters.  The racing metaphors were a bit heavy handed, and I could see all the plot points coming from a mile away.  I liked the character of Enzo the dog very much, but I felt like the story we saw through his eyes was uninteresting and, ultimately, corny.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

The subtitle gives a hint of what’s inside the cover of the book (a cute pic of Rachel sitting on a doll house, hair wrapped in a shawl):  “How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.”  Just to stop you right there:  no, these are not the conclusions she came to after taking a serious look at “Biblical womanhood.”  Most of these actions in the subtitle are exagerrated stunts that highlight how we are all guilty of picking and choosing scripture to live by, and how complicated reading and living by the Bible can actually be.  She also highlights how we have used the Bible to silence, to box in.  I very much appreciated this thought-provoking look at how we often use the Bible to prescribe what a woman should be, when the results seem more politically and culturally motivated than exegetical.  A great read for furthering the discussion of women’s role in the church and in society.

Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card

This is the last novel in what is known as the Ender Quartet.  Though there are many more books about the Enderverse, this is the book that brings it most closely to an end.  If you haven’t read them, go out right now and buy Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.  Ender’s Game is a children’s novel with some really big themes:  love, death, xenocide.  It’s pretty deep and really good.  Speaker for the Dead is even better.  As the books in the quartet go on, Card becomes more philosophical, which is okay, except that the philosophizing drags on and on.  I still enjoyed the novel, but the main conclusion we have been building to for the past three novels was anti-climactic (probably because it has been going on for three novels).  I do enjoy Card’s writing though.  I love how his characters read on the page and read each other.  He can also turn a great phrase, bringing you out of some sci-fi gobbledy-gook and into real emotion.  So though this wasn’t his best, it was still pretty darn good.

Reading Lately

Because the little one no longer naps on me, nor takes long naps, I don’t have as much time to read, but here are a few things I have been reading lately.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman  The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This was described to me as “Harry Potter for Adults.”  And it definitely is for adults.  I was actually a little taken aback by how much cursing, sex, and violence was included, but I am, of course, a self-admitted prude.  The story goes like this: Quentin Coldwater is a senior in high school, brilliant, about to interview for Harvard, yet he is not happy or excited.  He always feels like there is something more.  Enter a strange chance to take a strange exam that turns out to prove him a Magician.  He quickly gives up his old life to begin anew at Brakebills.  The magic here is actually not very magical.  It is about hard work and rules and repetition.  And perhaps why this book fell flat to me.  Though the students here do end up doing amazing things and venture out to fantastic (in the true sense of the word) places, I just didn’t really care.  There was nothing here that made me long to stay in this world.  We see the world through Quentin’s eyes, and they are eyes of dissatisfaction.  There is another book in this series, but I think I’ll skip it because I don’t really want to spend more time in this version of the magical realm.

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Divergent & Insurgent by Veronica Roth

These are the next Hunger Games if you want to put it in YA terms.  These are the first two of a trilogy, and though not as poignant and relevant as the Hunger Games, it’s still a good, thrilling ride.  Ted and I listed to this as an audio book, and I have to say that the reader’s voice fit the character perfectly.  Tris Pryor lives in a future version of Chicago where everyone is separated into five factions, based on values: Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless.  She has grown up in Abnegation, the faction that prides itself on being selfless, only she thinks she is no good at being selfless.  Fortunately, when a member of a faction turns sixteen, they can choose to remain or choose another faction.  Which will she do?  You’ll have to read it to find out, but it’s a fast-paced story with a teenage romance written in a way that I would have loved when I was twelve, and a pretty fascinating and imaginative future Chicago.  It’s worth the read, and I’m excited to pick up the last volume in 2013.

O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling by Jason Boyett

I purchased this book because the subtitle is what I often feel like, and I thought it would be good to read someone with a similar faith journey to mine.  And boy, was it.  I loved this book for its honesty, humility, and … I feel like I need another “H” word, but instructiveness will have to do.  Boyett not only tells you his journey, but how he has used doubt to his advantage and what practical steps he takes to not go over the edge.  A must read for doubters and those who want to understand them.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson  242/366 At Home - Bill Bryson

The “Short” in this title must be sarcastic because I don’t consider 512 pages short.  I have been working on this book for over a year because it is that kind of book you can read for a while, put down, and take back up and enjoy right where you left off.  Bryson takes us through the history of home and houses, room by room, using the rectory he now lives in in Britain as an example.  He goes into the purpose of each room and quite frequently takes the tangential opportunity to talk about the history of the spice trade in the kitchen, or the history of electricity in the drawing room.  All of it is fascinating and told in Bryson’s pleasant, witty prose.  But I’d skip the chapter called The Study, which has nothing to do with books and everything to do with those creatures who might eat them.  Yes, definitely skip the chapter on rats and other household vermin, especially when reading at night before bed.  You may encounter a brief bout of insomnia.  And I may be speaking from experience.

Sabbath Saturday #1

So this title might seem redundant, but I’m going with it anyway.  I’m starting a new series of posts all about the Sabbath.  After the awesome church ladies’ retreat I went to last month where we focused on rest and Sabbath moments, I was inspired to read this book: Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller. 

So, I started reading this book – actually the more accurate term would be tearing through the book.  I realized I was reading it to get it finished so that I could go on to the next book.  (Do you see why I need to read a book about Sabbath in the first place?)  I decided to slow down and blog about every chapter each Saturday, the traditional Jewish day for Sabbath rest.  Saturday’s usually aren’t very relaxing days for me — full of errands and events, but I want to make the effort to make at least part of every Saturday a true Sabbath.

First, I want to start off with Muller’s definition of Sabbath.  It’s so much more than a day or moment of rest: “Sabbath is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands.  It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true.  It is time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.”

This book is really more of a devotional to meditate on rather than something to finish.  It comes complete with chapters about different aspects of Sabbath, poems for reflection, and even Sabbath practices you can try.  I will (readers hold me to it) attempt each of the suggested practices each week, quote a section I find meaningful, and give my overall thoughts for that section.

More on the next chapter next Shabbat, but now it’s time to rest.

Traveling Mercies

Just finished Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott.  And yes, I am about 10 years late on this one, but I don’t think I would have appreciated her irreverant, but wise humor at 17.

I love the way she writes.  I feel like her writing style is similar to my own, but ten times better.  I definitely have a mentor to look up to.  Luckily she’s already written a book about writing:  Bird by Bird, which is fantastic.  She has the greatest analogies and a way of just emotionally sucker-punching you with a phrase.

But back to the book at hand: Traveling Mercies is a collection of moments in Lamott’s life that make up the surprising Christian she has come to be.  She is not your grandmother’s Christian — that’s for sure, but I think that is what is so appealing about her — she’s an absolute screw-up, but that is also exactly the reason she is a child of God.  Traveling Mercies really is a book about opening yourself up to new possibilities and new ideas of yourself, new ideas of others.

So come read this dreadlocked Christian’s memoir of becoming a spiritual person in all aspects of her life.

*Warning: Does include some profanity-laced prose, but all profanity was used for good humor.

Say You’re One of Them

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan is a book of short stories all narrated by or about children in various African countries.  Akpan is a Jesuit priest and an amazing writer.  He has a great ear and a great eye, a way of describing this world that completely fits the context, but also makes it relatable to Westerners.  But I wouldn’t recommend you read this book unless you want your worldview or your heart to change.  Because it will.  And then you will feel like you need to do something about it.

This is Victoria who was my special friend while I was at VOH

This book is a hard read, and I’m a fairly hardened reader.  The language can sometimes be difficult because Akpan writes in dialect, but that is not what I mean by hard.  It is hard to see children being mistreated or learning the ways of this world sooner than they should, but I think that is Akpan’s point in writing this book.  African children endure and survive what most Americans adults could not.  He wants us to know about these children’s lives and to do something about it.

Most of these short stories end with despair, a look at a world turned upside down by violence and hatred.  The point is not to see the state of African nations and exclaim, “How sad!”  Akpan wants us to all stand up together and say, “No! The world should not be like this!”  I think Akpan is inviting us to rewrite these endings, bringing redemption and justice to children in Africa.

Ted and Francis, best buds

I’ve been blessed to meet some of these children who have been redeemed, taken away from slavery or difficult family situations.  Look into sponsoring a child at the Village of Hope in Ghana, West Africa.  Is $100 a month, less than some people’s internet bills or phone plans, too much to ask to feed, clothe, and educate a wonderful, beautiful child?  I’ve actually been to the Village of Hope, met the teachers, the house parents, the kids.  This is truly a great place with some of the most amazing, faithful people I’ve ever met.  It sounds cliché, but it’s really true.

This is our cutie, Elizabeth

Go out and read Say You’re One of Them today.  Be inspired to help a child halfway across the world.

Crazy for Maisie

I love a good mystery, and I hadn’t read one in a while — a good one that is.  I like mysteries with character development, a historical fiction element, and a twisty plot.  Enter in Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Weaver!  This series has been around for a while, but I’ve just stumbled on to it.

Maisie is a Psychologist and Investigator, working in London in the years between the great World Wars.  She started out as a maid, but due to fortunate circumstances and kind people, was educated at Cambridge and taken under the wing of another helper/investigator/doctor.

Maisie is one of those amazing characters that is so deliberate in movement and thought, you’d think she might be psychic.  But she’s not — she’s just observant.  I loved being in her world and in her head, surrounded by colorful and interesting characters.

I scavenged the first of the series from a closing Borders and found all the rest of the series there as well, but I didn’t buy them.  I could kick myself now for being sensible, waiting to buy the rest until I was sure I would like the series!  If you like mysteries, pick up Maisie Dobbs today — just stay away from my Borders.

How to Read the Bible

I just finished reading The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. I learned of this book from my former preacher’s blog, who always gives great book recommendations (and of course his review of this book is much better than mine, so you should probably just read his).

This is the best and easiest to read book on hermeneutics I have ever read. (Of course, this is the only book on hermeneutics I have ever read.)  So, take my review for what it’s worth – just a humble opinion.  And of course, the point is, that this could be your first book on hermeneutics too.  By the way, if you don’t know what this term means, no worries, I shall explain.  (I wish someone would have explained it to me earlier, so that I wouldn’t have had to nod my head in fake understanding for all those years).  Hermeneutics  is a fancy name for how to read or interpret a text, usually the Bible.

So here’s what I learned about how to read the Bible:

  • We should always read the Bible in the larger context of Story.  According to McKnight, here’s the basic plot of the Bible:  oneness (Adam and Eve and God together), otherness (the fall, until…), oneness again (through Christ and the church).  We are currently continuing to live the text, creating oneness with God and the world.  We are part of a continuing story; part of a book!
  • We should also recognize that we all “pick and choose” what scriptures we listen to the most. One verse can be more important than another.  The trick is in discerning what bits to apply to our lives today.  McKnight likes to say that God speaks to everyone “in their own day, in their own way.”  We must determine, with (not through) the Great Tradition, the Holy Spirit, and our community how to interpret the word of God for us today.
  • And this discerning of what to apply to our lives today is murky. Everyone will have a difference of opinion, and I’m starting to rest in the diversity of Christian thought.  For instance, we all pretty much agree that it’s okay to wear Polyester (at least we did in the 70’s), but not everyone is so sure about allowing women the right to teach and preach in church (a subject that McKnight uses as a case study for discerning).

As I am trying to determine how to read and apply scripture today, I feel that McKnight has given me a good primer, a good lens through which to read God’s word.  However, McKnight also boils our reading of scripture down to this lovely and challenging quote:  “If you are doing good works, you are reading the Bible aright.  If you are not doing good works, you are not reading the Bible aright.”

It basically comes down to that, so let’s get to work.

How do you go about reading the Bible?

A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers

I have a Masters in English Literature, so I should really be teaching a class on my favorite books in African-American or Southwestern Lit.  But I don’t teach classes in literature; I teach developmental writing — two very different subjects of study.

So, I am in the process of learning how to teach writing in the most effective way (it’s harder than you think).  This is why I’ve just finished A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers by Erika Lindemann.

This book covers theory (creating a paradigm for how and why to teach writing); practical methods for teaching every aspect of writing; and a history of rhetoric, linguistics, cognition, and the “composition” class, which was extremely illuminating.  Did you know that the ubiquitous (and in my opinion limiting) five-paragraph essay comes from a strange transformation of Aristotle’s four and Cicero’s six views on how to structure on argument?

I learned much from this book — mostly that I’m not structuring my class in the best way.  I focus too much on errors and not enough on improving an individual writer’s strengths.

I only teach one class in addition to my full-time job, so I, fortunately, can afford to experiment.  Next semester, I will try to implement some of what I’ve learned, especially the idea of writing more in class, structuring assignments step-by-step, focusing less on errors and more on different and effective ways to create sentences. I might not even use a textbook — simply show the students writing from professionals in magazines and books and also previous student writing in my class.

As a new-to-teaching-writing instructor, I’d recommend this book to anyone who teaches writing, particularly at the college level, but also to experienced teachers who have always taught in one way (grammar drills – which research has shown to be an ineffective way of teaching students how to use grammar correctly in writing).  Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Wish me luck as I design a new course for next semester!

I’m hoping to read Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaughnessy next, but I have to wait to buy new books in April.  I already used up my book budget this month!

Do any of you writing teachers have recommendations for other books I could read to make me a better writing teacher?