Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beyond the Possible : A Mom & Me Review

Get it at Indiebound, Amazon, or your local
bookseller.  And start planning your trip
to SF and Glide today!
This fast paced dual memoir from the founders of the current incarnation of Glide Memorial Methodist Church will challenge most people's understanding of what a church can or should be.  Cecil Williams is a gifted preacher and his wife Janice Mirikitani is an internationally lauded poet, so the writing feels nearly effortless, revealing both the triumphs and the personal imperfections of our protagonists.  The bigger win is, was, and one hopes will always be the people of San Francisco's once-infamous Tenderloin district, who have been the recipients of the couple's extraordinary efforts for decades now.

Having attended a few Sunday "Celebrations" in the mid-90's, and having experienced what everybody seems to - namely an unparalleled sense of joy and acceptance - I was blithely unaware of the wildly radical brand of liberation theology practiced at Glide from the 60's through the early 90's.  Not for the faint of heart, that's certain, but challenging in a manner that remains necessary today.

Some will likely be offended by a fair bit of the history presented here, but I hope that more will be inspired to consider what manner of unconditional love they would be willing to embrace, what matters of justice or compassion they would champion.   If you can open your heart to this surprising history, you might just find yourself pondering some of the most urgent questions of our age and wondering whether you should or even could open your heart - and mind - just a little bit wider after all.

Looking for a sense of what a Sunday "Celebration" at Glide feels like?  Check out the brief (2 minute) trailer on the book's website: Perhaps it's because I've attended some myself, but I think the sense of intense joy, social justice mission, and acceptance is palpable, even in the brief clips in the trailer. 

Unconventional. Unconditional. Decidedly different. Deliberately different. That’s Glide Memorial in San Francisco. And the Reverend Cecil Williams and his wife, Poet Laureate Janice Mirikitani, made it happen. They might say that the community made it happen but without their vision, persistence, love, acceptance, compassion, creativity it could not have taken place.
From its beginnings, Glide welcomed all. No one was rejected. As Dave Eggers says in the introduction: “The pews filled up with a seemingly impossible cross-section of the city—black, white, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay, straight, wealthy, poor, healthy, and less so. Handicapped parishioners sat in the aisles. There were tourists from all over the world. Always at Glide’s Sunday services there are Europeans, South Americans, people from everywhere who have heard about what happens there.”
But it wasn’t always so. Cecil Williams came to Glide in 1963, a 30-ish pastor from San Angelo, TX, educated at Southern Methodist University, motivated by the injustices he’d felt to make social justice happen in this poorest of the poor Tenderloin section of San Francisco. In 1964, Janice Mirikitani came to Glide for a typing job while a graduate student at San Francisco State College. She was not much impressed by the minister.
They learned together about poverty and how it grinds people down. Cecil says (pp. 187-88) “To do battle with it (poverty) requires equal persistence, not in winning the war but in loving the people under its power….We persist in accepting them and loving them without condition because their humanity is our humanity.”
As Janice says (p. 202): “True leadership, we learned through the years, was about providing opportunities for those who might not consider themselves capable or educated but nevertheless had the passion, street smarts, and commitment to change—to emerge and develop as leaders. People made their own decisions  about how much change they wanted; leaders emerged at their own pace and with their own vision and understanding of power.”
I could go on with the story of Glide but instead I’ll just add that this book is a picture of the times, a history of poverty, race, prejudice against anyone who is ‘other’ in the US. In the New England university town where I lived through much of this period, it was the same for the poor and the outcast, just on a smaller scale. Cecil and Janice give us ideas about how change can begin—with the people.
I recommend this as US history, as social justice history, as inspiration and reflection and especially for those who want to make a difference in the world.
The Bottom Line: Thumbs way up from both of us, for readers ready to embrace mature themes and challenging content.  How often does a non-fiction work challenge your own ethics, compassion, and open-mindedness?  And how often does one inspire you to do more for the people around you, to look the downtrodden and the outcasts in the eyes with open acceptance, to open your heart wider, and to embrace the most marginalized of our fellow beings?
  As often for "Mom and Me", we're grateful to all at TLC Book Tours for offering us the opportunity to enjoy books that challenge and inspire us.

MFB from Mom and me,

Mom & Who? 
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.
Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Still I Rise : Poem In Your Post

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

             - Maya Angelou

This is one of the greats by one of the greats.  And a favorite of Poets-Out-Loud as well.

Angelou, a formidable grand dame of American letters, featured prominently in the one-of-a-kind success of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, so you might be reading about her again in our "Mom and Me" review of Beyond the Possible later this week.

She's one of the people I'd most like to learn from right now, so she came to mind again as we dedicated ourselves to expository essays this week.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Vonnegut Scribbling : Poem In Your Post

A Vonnegut print from the '60s. 
 Two little good girls
Watchful and wise –
Clever little hands
And big kind eyes –
Look for signs that the world is good,
Comport themselves as good folk should.
They wonder at a father
Who is sad and funny strong,
And they wonder at a mother
Like a childhood song.
And what, and what
Do the two think of?
Of the sun
And the moon
And the earth
And love.

               - Kurt Vonnegut

I've been reading - and attempting to practice - Vonnegut's "How to Write with Style" with my students this week, and his work has been much on my mind.  Wondering if he wrote any poetry, I hopped back to the fabulous Brain Pickings website and found this little ditty, penned in a letter to a friend.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Secret : Poem In Your Post

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I who don’t know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

            - Denise Levertov

Is there a secret of poetry too?  What's the relationship between the secret of poetry and the secret of life?  Discuss.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

News From Heaven : A Mom & Me Review

Get it quickly by hopping here to Indiebound or
Amazon.  Available on all your likely e-readers too.

News from Heaven, Jennifer Haigh’s most recent short story collection, echoes Sherwood Anderson’s American classic Winesburg, Ohio in that all its stories center around a small town.  In this case, it’s rural Pennsylvania we revisit, and the stories take place from WWI era through to the present day, spanning nearly a century.  If you imagine that such a setting couldn’t produce much drama or interest, Jennifer Haigh will make you think again with this worthy, rich, and accessible collection.

My Take:
I loved it.
From her very first sentences in “Beast and Bird”, Haigh plants you smack dab in the middle of a whole new world, fully featured and populated with realistic and intriguing characters:
Every Sunday morning, at seven o’clock promptly, the two Polish girls crossed the park and walked fifty blocks downtown to church.  Early morning:  the avenue wide as a farmer’s field, the sunlight tempered with frost.  The girls were bare-legged, in ankle socks and long coats, their blond hair dark at the ends from their morning  ablutions.  The younger, Annie Lubicki, was also the prettier.  She had just turned sixteen.
As with so many great fictions, if we look closely enough at this first short paragraph, we can predict many of the themes and even the key conflicts in the story, in addition to grasping a clear sense that we have been plopped down in the middle of the lives of two rural teenagers now living in the city in a time when “ablutions”, ankle socks, and seven o’clock church were quotidian elements.  Pick any of the stories in News from Heaven – even those set in the late 20th century: you’ll find equally adept writing.
            Whatever the era, Haigh’s protagonists are everyday working people from a small coal mining town, and still they fascinate because – without many linguistic flourishes, but with a clarity of purpose and economy of language that are both admirable and expert – Haigh creates a world in whole cloth, and she brings us close into the minds and hearts of her characters without schmaltzy over-sympathy or wildly unusual plotlines.  These are real people (yes, they feel real, even though they’re fictions) with real problems worthy of our attention.  Suddenly I’m thinking of Willy Loman:  “Attention, attention must be paid to such a person.”  That (in this case, unspoken) plea for us to honor regular, work-a-day people haunts this collection as well, and we can’t help but pay attention because Haigh has honed every detail, every word, every glance, every nuance, wasting nothing and giving us a sentence by sentence, moment by moment unfolding of regular lives offering everyday epiphanies.  And because the writing and the writer’s insights into our daily lives offer so much quotidian beauty and depth, I couldn’t wait to return home each evening and read one more story. 
Mom went me one better and read Haigh's novel Baker Towers, too.  She liked them both:

Jennifer Haigh definitely has a way with words. Her way with words took me back to my own growing up days in a small town in Illinois. My town wasn’t totally a Bakerton—but in several ways it was near enough for me to connect the two. For example, it had coal mines; it had the one street main street though it was really 4 blocks built around a square since it was the county seat with a courthouse as its centerpiece; it had its boys going off to war; it had the farmers who supported the folks who lived in town with eggs, milk, cheese and helped the war effort with the wheat, corn and soybeans they grew. So the reminiscence factor was there for me.
Aside from this very personal aspect, I repeat, “Jennifer Haigh definitely has a way with words.” She brings not only the setting but more importantly the people to life from the very start. Reading the first story in News From Heaven captured me as she described the almost instant growing up of a 16-year old, totally unworldly girl from Bakerton as a maid in New York City. Imagine her innocence about nearly everything, her fear about making a mistake and being sent home, her first experience on a date.
After reading this first story I decided to read an earlier book Jennifer Haigh wrote,  Baker Towers.   Baker Towers takes the reader through the ups and downs of residents of  Bakerton,  the little town totally dependent on coal mining for its existence. News from Heaven returns to some of the characters from the earlier novel, and fleshes them out with what happened to them later in life.
For instance, in “A Place In The Sun”, Sandy Novak leads a vagabond life—leaving home to work first in one city, then another, finally moving to California.  He rarely returns to Bakerton, but remains beloved by sister Joyce, a character who figures prominently in the next story, “To The Stars”.  Here is how Haigh describes one phase of Sandy’s life, as he – in a moment of serendipitous generosity – prepares to give away his entire, and much-needed, winnings from a trip to Las Vegas:
Flashes don’t last, of course, and that one didn’t. After his Jesus year had come and gone, after Marnie went back to Canada and Myron Gold was looking for him and it wasn’t safe for Vera to take his calls, he would remember his one moment of grace.  The wallet swollen in his pocket, a feeling nearly sexual, as he crossed the street to Western Union and wired fourteen hundred dollars, the sum total of his earthly wealth, to Rebecca Rose Hauser, the mathematical miracle. The baby girl (Joyce’s daughter) who shared his birthday.
Welcome to the world.
When I finished reading the two books I felt that I had really been absorbing two sets of history: one book is the story of a coal mining town, typical of all the coal mining towns that existed and continue to exist somewhat similarly today, the second story is that of the human race with its happy and sad moments, good and bad activities, life and death as it comes.

Go, Jennifer Haigh. Keep feeding us your wonderful, evocative prose.
The Bottom Line:  Buy it.  If you're seeking high quality American short stories, or if you'd like to be convinced of their merits, you couldn't find a better place to begin.

And thanks once again, TLC Tours, for introducing us to this stellar collection.

MFB from Mom and Me,
p.s.  Hop here for a pod-cast with Jennifer Haigh hosted by Book Club Girl: .
Mom & Who? 
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.

Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fairy Tale Logic : Poem In Your Post

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks, 
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

                                    - A. E. Stallings

Thank you, once again, A.E. Stallings.  From Homer to Dante to Rowling, all seem to get the nod from this lauded contemporary poet. 

I am drawn to the concreteness of her images (and symbols), and her use of the sonnet form to contain centuries' worth of dire risks, fell bargains, and transcendent magic.

I hope you find yourself rereading it a few times, enjoying its subtle balance of humor and gravity, returning in memory to all the fantasies and fairy tales that shape your consciousness and our shared culture.

And perhaps you'll be tempted to explore twenty-one of her poems, here on her page at the Poetry Foundation website.

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