Tonight I had an unexpected opportunity: I got to hear Greg Mortenson speak at Trinity University. He is the founder of the Central Asia Institute and author of Three Cups of Tea. He builds schools for girls in Pakistan. A friend gave me a copy earlier this summer and I was excited to read it because I had been eyeing it in the bookstore for months. Last week, my mom and I heard that he would be in town. Of course I was going to risk missing Obama’s speech (I would record it) in order to go hear Greg Mortenson.

Mortenson is just as personable and inspiring in person as he is in print. This is a man who grew up in extraordinary–or at least, not your typical American–circumstances, is down-to-earth, and works towards the betterment of our world because, well, it doesn’t occur to him not to. This is a man who had brunch with Pervez Musharraf three days before he resigned as president! I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of this book. Read it. Let it inspire you, compel you.

A couple quotes:
“If you fight terrorism, that’s based on fear. But if you promote peace, that’s based in hope.” (In regards to the subtitle to his book. The hardcover said “One man fighting terrorism… one school at a time. The new softcover says, “One man promoting peace…”)

“The real enemy is ignorance, and it is ignorance that breeds hatred.”

We made it home in time so I could still hear Obama’s speech. It’s been interesting watching the DNC in the family room, with my dad in the other room, because he is a staunch Republican. “He’s going to promise the world,” my dad said tonight. “And McCain will next week,” I quipped back. We’ve had mild verbal sparring like this all summer, mainly because I won’t stand for anyone to be spoken badly of, whether I agree with them or not. At least my father stayed in the other room, and didn’t get up to go upstairs.

Tonight Obama spoke about change and what it would look like. I listened. I thought. President Wilson urged Congress to ratify the 19th amendment, and he was a Democrat. President F.D. Roosevelt picked up the pieces of a broken America with the New Deal, and he was a Democrat. The Civil Rights movement was fought during a Democratic presidency, and it succeeded. That same presidency was that of an Irish Catholic. It would seem that Democrats are not afraid of change. When I look at Barack Obama, when I hear the arguments against him, they are mostly from older people, working from a world-view foreign to those of us born in a post-Cold War, post-segregation world. Perhaps it is a good thing for a young candidate to become president. He would better represent the upcoming leaders and workers of this nation, people like me who when she saw him running for president didn’t notice the color of his skin until someone else pointed it out to her. Who saw a person.

In 1962, President Kennedy said, “The Irish were not wanted here. Now an Irish Catholic is President of the United States. There is no question about it, in the next forty years a Negro can achieve the same position.”

We’re six years late, but we’ve made it. There is no question about it: it’s possible. And we should be willing to consider change, and not fear it. In the past, such risks of change brought us independence, universal suffrage, civil rights. We should not fear to hope.

Tonight I also heard Obama say, “We recognize ourselves in each other.” It reminded me of why I read and study and hope to create literature. Literature often brings us face to face with the Other and the unknown; it compels us to see in their face a reflection similar to ours: two eyes, a nose, and a head full of fears and dreams, and a heart aching to be known.

Skin Colored

A plug for a friend-of-a-friend’s blog:

Skin Coloured is intended to be a collaborative, visual exploration of what it is to be non-white in a white culture. Make-up, plasters and tights – even when they’re marked “flesh-coloured” – are not the colour of skin that isn’t white. And whilst white women may have trouble matching these items to their skin, for women who don’t class themselves as white, this inconvenience is symptomatic of a wider problem.

To help illustrate this problem, therefore, Skin Coloured is looking for submissions. Send us photographs that illustrate the inadequacy of provisions for non-white people, and we’ll post them on the blog, and hopefully both those submitting, and those who’re here to learn, will gain something from it.

Further information can be found here.

(I’d appreciate it if this were passed along to anyone who might find it interesting; the great difficulty here is finding other women (and, people of any gender) who deal with this issue. Many thanks.)

To a Candid world

Happy Signing Day, everyone. You [presuming you are American] should read–I dare to hope, reread–the Declaration of Independence today. You really have no excuse not to: I have provided a link for you here, and it is short and quick to read. Instead of [or in addition to] eating hot dogs, getting drunk because we can, and watching fireworks, we should be reading the Declaration in public places today. I say this not because I am a patriotic person [as I am not, really, as evidenced by an earlier post regarding patriotic music], but as an historian and as a citizen. Perhaps if we read the Declaration more often we would remember the purpose of government, of the contract we have made as the governed with the governing, and the rights and duties we have as the governed

Instead of America the Beautiful, I listened to America by Bree Sharp. Instead of going to a cook-out, I’m going to go feed the homeless. Instead of making any big plans for today, I have been rereading Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, and Jefferson. I am reminded yet again of my love for political philosophy and how it stirs in me the purpose of the individual in a larger social organism, of the duties and obligations that individual has to his neighbors and the world. [I had written a rather long post expounding upon these thoughts inspired by Locke, Kant, et al, but I’ve transferred it to my journal instead. If you are interested, I’ll still share.]

I think I would be one of those unconventional Englishwomen who lived in Paris before the French Revolution, going to salons every night and mingling with Voltaire and Montaigne, supporting the Revolution as it began and then being absolutely horrified at the monster it turned into.

On a similar, side-tracked note: I heard on The World today that Iran is considering a bill that could charge bloggers as being an enemy of the state and of God on earth [full story here]. I am incredibly thankful to have the right of free speech and intellectual copyright.

This is our summer of freedom and civil disobedience.

A drop in the ocean

UN classifies rape as a ‘war tactic’

Huzzah! It’s a step in the right direction. I don’t even know how many petitions and letters over the past… well over a year, I’ve signed to get that passed.

A difference in perspective: on our way home from dinner, I was driving so we were listening to NPR, and the announcer was highlighting various news stories. After one about gas prices and the current state of the U.S. economy, my mom said, “Well that’s annoying.” Meanwhile, I was inwardly seething that the present administration, which has so verbally committed itself to the promotion of democracy, seemed to be doing little to promote democracy in Zimbabwe, when Mugabe is clearly going against the democratic process by vowing that the opposition would not win the run-off, charging the opposition with treason, and already announcing that there would be “war” if the opposition did win. I held my tongue, for a variety of reasons. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

My copy of Utopia by Thomas More has a sunflower on it. I took it out to read a quote from it to Brittn and now it’s on my desk. I want to reread it… Such a good book.

A Higher Love

[I issue a warning before a rather long post, largely due to quotations, but only because Mr. Lewis supports his claims better than I could.]

My parents were watching television in the den and on my way to the kitchen I overheard one of the characters asking, earnestly (though poorly acted), “Did you ever love us? At the end of the day… did you ever really love us?” She went on and on, and I don’t quite remember what the context was, but I was struck at how empty her life must be if whether or not that other character loved her (and whoever “us” were) was the highest meaning in her existence.

Not to be harsh, or to be read myself out of context, as I have just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. The purpose of this book, and of its delineations between Need-love and Gift-love, natural loves and love by appreciation, Affection (familial), Friendship, Eros (romantic), and Charity, is to point out that all earthly/natural loves are finite, limited, and unable to achieve their fullest potential without appealing to a Higher Love, to Love Himself, and, as Lewis begins and ends with: God is love.

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More than ‘just semantics’

Words have worlds of meaning behind them, and often it seems that words are thrown around too easily without any consideration for their connotations as well as their denotations. I am advocate of precise language: use the best word possible for what you mean, do not settle for synonyms that are left grasping at your intended meaning. For instance, “compassion” may be a synonym of “mercy,” but mercy connotes action, compassion feeling. Another synonym is “pity,” but that connotes condescension.

To some, this is splitting hairs over words that have more or less the same meaning. “Just semantics,” they would say.

It was brought to my attention yesterday that C.S. Lewis insisted upon the archaic spelling of “abhominable” in Prince Caspian, when Edmund brings the challenge of mortal combat to King Miraz. I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers thought Lewis was just keeping up the chivalric atmosphere, or was using a quirky British spelling, and that what he really meant was “abominable.” Yes… and no.

abominable (adj.) – repugnantly hateful; detestable.

abhominable (adj.) – obsolete, from ab homine, or inhuman.

“Ab,” out from, or to be cast out, and “homine,” man/mankind. When High King Peter and King Edmund describe King Miraz’s actions — regicide, usurpation, oppression of the Narnians as well as his own people — they are not merely saying that he has done something detestable. No, his actions have been so counter to the accepted chivalric code that he has effectively made himself an enemy against humanity. He has rejected what it means to be human; he has cast himself out from humankind.

In an increasingly postmodern and “anything goes” Western world, do we have the ability to make such judgements anymore? Do we have a clear sense of what it means to be human, to be a part of the fellowship of humankind? With growing awareness of human rights and social justice (another example of similar things, but with differing shades of meaning), should we not reclaim this word, lest we lose the ability to define certain acts as being truly abhominable?

If I had a magic wand…

I created this blog in part to have a venue for some off-line things that I’ve written. From July 2007:

As much as the stability of a suburban, middle-class life is tempting, there is something deeper in me that stirs for fantasy. For a quest, for glory, and grandeur. For a struggle between good versus evil, where the sides are clear. This is the part of me that identifies with Éowyn, with Lír, who wants an Order of the Phoenix that she can join to fight against Voldemort and his Death Eaters. This is the part of me that “fears a cage, a life behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” To stand beneath trees and actually hear the whisperings I fancy I hear. To see things. To know things. To do things. To feel the weight of responsibility that comes with power. To have an end for which to use that power.

The enemies today are political and corporate leaders, acting out human rights abuses and what have you, and the only way to fight them is on their political playing field. I have no heart for politicking. I have already tried. I would rather a sword, or a staff, or my voice with which to inspire others, and have my own grit and worth determine success, not the system.

I have to hope for the potential of mankind, in our ability to love and work toward the best of things. Yet every day I encounter utter selfishness in the people at work and just in normal people—well, they just don’t care. Maybe they’re jaded. Maybe they weren’t raised and instilled with the belief that we should be considerate and kind to all people simply because they are people, too. Fellow human beings. And not to be nice just because someone is making us or for our own self-interest. I care so much about having a purpose or doing something great—not for my own sake, my own glory, but just to do something for the greater good. But my hope that there are others like me is dashed every day.

What creature is man? So like an angel, so like a god, but so like a devil and beast as well. That we have such capabilities and potential for goodness and kindness, but how many of us choose selfishness and apathy instead. I see the rampant disease of apathy and it causes me to despair to the point that I become apathetic, also.

I firmly believe that the best heroes—Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Lír and Molly Grue, Ender and Valentine—did not ask to be heroes. It happened. The circumstances were set and they had to make a choice. They could only make the best choice from what they knew at the time. That is all I can hope to do, too. If what I do helps to steer the world in the right direction, ever so imperceptibly, well, that is all I can hope for, isn’t it? And I will ever have an unrequited love for the glory found in fantasy novels.

Justice, Mercy, Humility

Yesterday I sat through four hours of presentations on Fair Trade Coffee, Gender Violence, Genocide, Civic and Sex Education, Palestinian Refugees, Keats and Negative Capability, and I can’t remember what else (but which of these does not belong? Just kidding…). Hearing so many Human Rights presentations during this week of the Transforming Virtues symposium refreshed a lot of what I already knew and fleshed out what I didn’t.

The problem I am faced with at the end of the day is not whether I am motivated to do something or not (because I am, and I do), but how to reconcile my life with the knowledge that I have. To accept that my life, here, in Shawnee, America, with my three bedroom house and Bachelor’s degree, is still valid. That my aspirations to study medieval literature in Scotland and postcolonialism in science fiction literature and to write novels are still valid. That when I walked out of those lectures and went home, that curling up in bed with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere was still valid, when children are being abused and dying, when farmers are being exploited, when people around the world are being deprived of their right to vote, love, live.

I am intensely aware of how privileged I am. Like someone from the past transported to the future, I am still astonished by electricity and that we have it everywhere. By running water, both hot and cold. By supermarkets and medicines. A roof over my head. The ability to read and write. That my greatest worry at this moment is how I’m going to pay back my student loans for graduate school in a few years. A day does not pass where I see something in every day life and say, “Wow. How is it that I have this, and others do not? And how dare I take it for granted?”

In another strain of thought, Saint Louis University in Madrid has assured me that deferral of enrollment is possible and that I could actually guarantee my place for Fall 2009. It is a dual-degree program; I would earn a Master of Arts in English from Saint Louis University and a Máster en Estudios Culturales y Literarios Anglo-norteamericanos from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. I had joked with friends for years about how I would be a collector of degrees if I could, and it is actually possible: three masters degrees from three different countries, no less. But I am torn between excitement and apprehension: the last time I was in Spain, I was miserable, utterly alone, and suffering from untreated rheumatoid arthritis. But it would be different, this time. Totally different set-up. The faculty are extremely kind and encouraging; I’m already on a first-name basis with who would be my adviser. It’s the apprehension of the unknown. But prayer, pondering, and a great deal of trust will be put into making this decision.

The Word for World is Forest

Yesterday I read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s unfortunate that it is now out of print because I would recommend it to anyone interested in speculative fiction, sci-fi, or the idea that literature explores humanity. Because that is what Le Guin does: explore humanity. She’s a master at it.

Humanity is the overarching theme in the Novels of the Ekumen (a.k.a. the Hainish Cycle). What is it that makes us human? How can “they” from this other world be as human as I am? In The Word for World is Forest, the issue is complicated by that the Athsheans don’t look human–the humanoids from the other worlds at least look more or less the same. But the Athsheans are a meter high and covered with green fur. It is easy, then, for the Colonists to treat the Athsheans as animals and for the Athsheans to cultivate fear and hate for the Colonists. You see all sides of this issue, even the side of the two people who do manage to form a friendship, bridging the gap between “two languages, two cultures, two species of the genus Man” (100).

I’ve tried to find the best sentences or passages that exemplify her use of language, but it is difficult, because the book has to be taken as a whole. The power is in the complete story. (Quotations are found below, click ‘Read More’.)

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