Centring marginalized voices and decolonizing my bookshelf

books - James Baldwin quote

At the beginning of 2016, I made a commitment to read only books by authors who weren’t from the dominant culture. My intent was to broaden my education and stretch myself by staying away from books written by white able-bodied cisgender heterosexuals. Books have always helped me make sense of the world, and I knew that if I wanted to catch glimpses of the world through lenses that were different from mine, books would help me get there. Though my bookshelves reflect some diversity, I knew there was much more I could do.

It was harder than I expected. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of books by other voices – there are, but I had to dig harder to find them. It became clear, early on, that few publishers and booksellers are willing to bank on books by marginalized voices. They don’t invest in them as often and don’t put them front and centre in the bookstores. Walk through almost any bookstore (or at least those that I’m most familiar with, in North America), or browse through Amazon, and you’ll see fairly quickly what types of books get the most space and attention. Those voices that feel most “safe” for the average bookstore shopper will sell the most books, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the “average bookstore shopper” is expected to be a white person with privilege.

That was one of my first realizations in this year-long quest… It is far more challenging to find a publisher and make a living from your writing if you do not fit the dominant paradigm. Other voices have to work twice as hard just to get a spot on the bookshelf. Like any other space ruled by capitalism, the bookstore centres those with privilege.

It was easiest to find books by marginalized voices in the fiction section, so I started there. Friends gave me lots of recommendation and my nightstand quickly filled with borrowed books. I started with Indigenous authors (in Canada, those are the voices that are often the most marginalized) and moved on to people of colour from the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many of those books were gritty and challenging, and some of them brought up my white guilt. There were moments when I questioned why I was putting myself through this. Reading was starting to feel more like a chore and less like a pleasure. (Note: scroll down for a list of some of the books I read.)

Though I enjoy fiction, I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to, and soon found myself searching for the kinds of books I lean toward – memoirs, books about the human condition, cultural exploration, leadership books, and other non-fiction. These became increasingly more difficult to find. Memoirs were fairly plentiful, once I started digging deeper than the typical bookstore shelves (and I found some great ones by writers who gave me a new perspective on what it means to be gender non-binary, what it’s like to be raised by a residential school survivor, etc.), but the hardest to find were the non-fiction books I tend to read that are relevant for my work.

I’m not sure how to define the books I most love to read, because they don’t tend to fit bookstore categorization. I read a lot of “ideas and culture” books – on leadership, spirituality, feminism, trauma, engagement, facilitation, personal development, etc. When I turned my attention to these books, my quest became the most challenging. Very few of these books are written by people who aren’t from the dominant culture.

And this was my second major realization in this quest… While we may be willing to read fiction, and sometimes memoirs by people who don’t look like us, we very rarely will accept as experts anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm. This is where the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender voice is the most centred. Storytelling may have become a more equal playing field, but the fields of knowledge and expertise are still colonized by those with more power and privilege. And the higher you go up the “knowledge food chain” the more white women are eliminated as well.

In the Spring of 2016, just when I was looking for more of these kinds of books, something happened in my personal life that derailed my year-long commitment and made the absence of these voices even more obvious. As I’ve written before, I hit burnout. A combination of stresses in my life – divorce, single parenthood, home renovations, and the continued high demands that followed my viral blog post – left me feeling wobbly and exhausted. I stepped off social media, pulled away from some of my commitments, and sought therapy to help me get my feet back on the ground.

As is my tendency when I journey through something that shakes me up and requires a deepening of my emotional and spiritual growth, I turned to books for comfort and a way forward. At first I tried to maintain my commitment to marginalized voices, but the effort required felt like one more stressor, so I let myself off the hook. Instead, I read about body healinggenerational trauma, and spirituality from some of the prominent writers in those fields – all of them from the dominant culture.

This healing period in my year is worth mentioning for a few important reasons.

1.) It highlights the lack of marginalized voices in books related to trauma/therapy/spirituality/body wisdom/etc. This begs the question: Where do people who aren’t from the dominant culture turn to find voices like them speaking to the deep healing work that they need to do? If you’ve experienced oppression, it’s very difficult to find healing from among the people who represent your oppressors.

2.) To stay on the quest for a deepening understanding of injustice, racism, etc., and to be able to continue to examine my own place within the systems that oppress people, I needed to turn inward for awhile to find my own strength and resilience. A deepening understanding of trauma, for example, helped me to heal some of my own so that I am more equipped to hold space for others who’ve faced trauma. I can enter into other people’s stories better when I have healed my own.

3.) My ability to find the voices that speak to my experience and help me heal is part of my privilege. I didn’t have to look very hard to find a therapist who looks like me and has enough education and training to support me and I didn’t have to look very hard to find suitable books that helped me understand my life experiences. My voice is well-represented and healing is relatively easy to find.

After a few months, I renewed my original commitment. I found I wasn’t quite ready for the heaviness of some of my earlier reading, so I looked for lighter reading. Comedic marginalized voices provided a nice balance and, in a surprising way, helped to normalize “the other” even more. When you’ve entered into the humour of a lived experience that is different from yours, you realize the threads that bind us together and give us common humanity. In a book on growing up Muslim in Canada, for example, I found myself chuckling at how similar some of the experiences were to my own Mennonite upbringing. Just as I felt like an outsider in my small town for the things I couldn’t do as a child (no dancing, drinking, attending community bingo nights, etc.), a young Muslim girl feels set apart for living a more restricted life.

By the end of 2016, I wasn’t ready to quit reading books by marginalized voice. Having worked through the earlier challenges of finding books that interested me, I now have a stack of books waiting for me and a long wish list of ones I want to get to eventually.

I have learned more than I can say from the reading I’ve done so far and I know I have much more to learn. At the beginning, I was learning about what it means to be Indigenous, black, brown, disabled, LGBTQ+, non-gender-binary, etc., but at some point I realized I was learning something that was equally important. By witnessing, if only for a fleeting moment, the world through their eyes, I was learning more about what it means to be a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender woman and what privilege comes from those pieces of my identity.

When you’re a member of the dominant paradigm, you rarely have to look back at yourself in any kind of intentional self-reflection. The world is set up to support you, to centre you, to make you safe, and to make you feel normal, so you don’t have to work very hard at figuring it all out and there’s no need to challenge it. 

I have the privilege of navigating the world with a kind of obliviousness in ways that others don’t, and my reading this year helped me see that more clearly. Since reading all of those books, I am more aware of, for example, how safe a bathroom might feel for a transgender person,  or how accessible a space might be for a disabled person. I am also more aware of how little I’ve had to pay attention to either of those issues, and, more importantly, how I have contributed to the challenges marginalized people face and how I represent that which is unsafe for them.

Two terms came into my consciousness this year and both were made more clear by the reading I did – kyriachy and intersectionality.

From Wikipedia:

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkaɪriɑːrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of what Crenshaw contends are overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather…reciprocally constructing phenomena.” The theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity.

The broad range of my reading has contributed to my understanding of what it means to be intersectional AND someone who benefits from the kyriarchy. My life is impacted not just by one aspect of who I am, but by the intersection of multiple identities. I am never “just a woman” or “just a white person”. I stand at the intersection of those identities, just as every other person stands at their own intersection. My intersection means that I am both oppressor and oppressed, both settler and sexually colonized. Their intersection means something entirely different, and I can’t presume to understand it until I ask and until I sit and listen to their stories. Embracing their stories means embracing complexity. 

Individually and collectively, we need to examine our wounds, our trauma, our privilege, our oppression, our marginalization, our power, and our guilt. As we do so, we need to be conscious of how our intersectional identities might impact other people.

I started out trying to diversify my bookshelf, but what I learned instead was that I needed to work on decolonizing my bookshelf and, consequently, my life. Diversity would only get me part way there. It might give me a collection of stories and ideas about what it was like to be marginalized. But a diversity lens still allows me to centre myself and my story and do little to challenge my privilege. Decolonizing is different – it invites me to examine myself and my place in the kyriarchy, deconstruct my own narrative of domination, and challenge that which allows me to live with privilege while others can’t.

I don’t want to make it sound like it was all drudgery and hard work, though. It wasn’t. Many of the lessons of this year were beautiful ones. Adding all of these voices to my life was like adding colour to a monochrome kaleidoscope – it added depth, beauty and texture to my view of the world and allowed me to see what I’d been missing. I found common threads in the stories that made me feel more connected to the humanity of all of the people I encountered.

Though I started the year feeling like it was my duty, as a white person, to challenge myself and stretch my worldview, I can now say that it is also my pleasure and privilege. I have fallen in love with these voices and I want more and more of their stories and their wisdom. They have challenged me and they have blessed me. They have pushed me past my own fragility and helped me listen more intently to what I couldn’t hear before. My life is richer for what they continue to bring to my world.

I still have much to learn and many teachers to teach me. For now, I will continue to centre those voices that are not centred on the bookstore shelves, because it is only in doing so that I can see myself and the world more clearly.
Though I wasn’t vigilant in keeping track of the books I read this year, here are the ones I remember and recommend (in no particular order:

The books I read for healing/growth (not from marginalized voices)

Pilgrimage of Desire: An interview with author Alison Gresik

Pilgrimage-Cover-©MFarinellaDesignA few nights ago, I was reading in bed when my husband turned to me and said “It must be a good book. You haven’t taken your nose out of it all evening.” He was right – it IS a good book. It’s called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life by Alison Gresik. Reading it was like getting cozy in front of the fire with a glass of wine and an old friend who knows your thoughts before you even speak them. Let’s just say Alison and I have a LOT in common.

I was delighted when Alison got in touch with me (because she saw the parallels between her book and The Spiral Path). We arranged a Skype chat and then decided to interview each other on our blogs. I love her answers to my questions, because even though we think alike and both gravitate toward labyrinths and the Feminine Divine, we both bring something fresh to the narrative that helps us see things in new ways.

 

1. Tell me about your discovery of the labyrinth and how it helped you reframe your life’s journey.

My first memorable experience with the labyrinth was at a women’s retreat just before I turned 30. I was feeling quite anxious, depressed, and alone — I had been reading some feminist spirituality, Sue Monk Kidd and Carol Christ, and I felt like my image of God had been pulled out from under me.

We walked the labyrinth outside, as the evening was moving toward dusk. I had written down an intention to carry with me to the centre — I wanted God to give me a new name for herself, one that captured her feminine aspect but that also connected to the God of my youth. I was quite fearful that nothing would happen, but I actually had a powerful experience of meeting the Divine there, and receiving a name to call her: Amma.

The ritual around the labyrinth — the pattern marked on the grass, the lanterns, the women walking with me and holding the space outside — provided a strong and visible support for the encounter I had. Actually, I was so freaked out by how powerful the labyrinth experience was that it was a long time before I walked one again — I certainly didn’t make it a habit early on!

I didn’t come to see the labyrinth as a way of understanding my life’s journey until I wrote my memoir. Our year of travel had come to an early unexpected end, and we had settled in Vancouver, BC, where my husband took a job. And I was having a terrible time getting my bearings. It was one of the first major life decisions we’d made without months and years of preparation and choice, and even though it was a good place to be, I felt lost.

I had made several aborted attempts to walk labyrinths when we were in Europe during our year of travel, but something always kept going wrong. And finally, after a year in Vancouver, I was able to walk the Labyrinth of Light on Winter Solstice, which gave me a chance to say goodbye to everything that I’d left behind, to leave a totem of my grief in the centre (actually a lot of snot and tears on my sweater sleeve), and to emerge into this new phase of my life with a lightened heart.

Writing about the last ten years helped me see and make sense of the recurring patterns, the reversals and progress. The geometry of the labyrinth comforted and bolstered me in very tangible ways – physically and metaphorically.

2. Your book is called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life (which sounds a LOT like something I’d write, by the way). Can you tell me about the relationship between labyrinth journeys and desire? What does the labyrinth teach us about desire?

alison gresik-author-photoI think that desire is what moves us through the labyrinth. There must be something that compels us, draws us forward or pushes us on, and I believe that is desire, a deep urge to go from one place to another. If we don’t want something — if our heart doesn’t want to beat, if our lungs don’t want air — then we’re not alive. And the labyrinth channels and directs that movement, that desire, in its mysterious unfolding path.

Just today I was reading a quotation from Goethe that says, “Desire is the presentiment of our inner abilities, and the forerunner of our ultimate accomplishments.” In other words, desire is our drive to unfold to our full potential. So while the object of our desire might take the shape of something material — a career, a lover, a child, a creative work, a travel destination — underneath it’s a desire to become what we can become.

And the labyrinth helps us trust and follow that desire. It holds our faith and helps us feel safe in a process that can be terrifying.

3. In the book, you mention the concept of “containers of meaning” (correct me if I got the term wrong). I haven’t heard that term before and it intrigues me. It seems to me that both you and I see the labyrinth as a “container of meaning” in our lives. First, explain the term, and then talk about how the labyrinth serves as a container of meaning.

“Meaning container” is a term I learned from Eric Maisel, and essentially it’s anything — an activity, a relationship, a project — that we designate to hold meaning for us. What we do and what we have assume greater significance because they are poured into a meaning container, captured and gathering weight rather than draining away.

I love the labyrinth as a meaning container, because it’s not a static bucket — it’s got flow and change. The labyrinth’s cycles can embrace the meaning of one hour, one day, and an entire life. So for me, the labyrinth holds the significance of that first walk and my connection with Amma, and now it holds my memoir and the story of living and writing it, and it also holds the whole history and symbolism of the feminine. The labyrinth shows me synchronicity — like you and I discovering each other! It’s like a code that communicates volumes in a single image. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the labyrinth can mean to me.

4. One of the other things you and I have in common is an evolving relationship with the Divine, starting with the traditional Christian view we were raised with and emerging into something different. How did your journey to the feminine Divine change your faith?

In practice, maybe not too much. I still attend an Anglican church, I sing in the choir, and I talk to God in my journal and in my head. I love being part of a community with traditions that celebrate the seasons of the year.

What did change was the tenor of my relationship with God, when she revealed herself as Amma. Leaving behind the judgmental image of a patriarchal God and identifying with Amma as female and as a mother helped me know myself as loved in a way that I hadn’t before. I never felt the need to please Amma, I just knew she thought I was perfect and wanted the best for me. And of course it wasn’t God who changed, just my perception of her. I was able to let her in and be vulnerable with her.

I found this passage in my journal from just before meeting Amma: “I have a fear of exploring being a woman, that I don’t deserve to. That I might be a usurper. Why should I get to enjoy the healing that feminism can provide, if I haven’t been wounded by the patriarchy? Or am I afraid that if I look to closely, I will find those wounds? And even if I find them, wouldn’t other women laugh at them and say, that’s not nearly as bad as what I’ve been through. Those feelings of undeservedness and fear tell me that there’s definitely something up with this feminism thing for me. To think that I’m undeserving of it means I think it’s a good thing. To fear it means that I see it as powerful and life-changing. So those are reasons to keep an open mind, keep reading, and look for the Goddess.”

So coming to Amma was an initiation into the tribe of women that I’d never seen myself as a part of, and that encounter made me care a lot more about the ways gender affects our lives as humans.

5. In the book, you share a very personal account of the complexity of your relationship with your mom and your own experience of the “mother wound” (something that I was wrestling with as I watched my own mom die). Tell me about the experience of writing that so honestly and then taking the courageous step to share it with the world (including your family).

I knew from the beginning that my relationship with my mother was a very important part of the story I wanted to tell about claiming my right to be a writer. And I gave myself permission in the beginning to put everything I wanted to in the book and then sort out all the details later. I had the confidence to do this because I had a wonderful editor (Brenda Leifso) who I really trusted to help me walk the line between what served the story and what was just petty and unkind.

But honestly, when some of the events of our trip were happening as I was writing about it, particularly this conflict with my mom when we were in Detroit, I thought, never in a million will I write about this. I could never expose myself and her like that. And then the process of writing the book showed me what those events meant, and how they connected to what had happened in the past, and I could see they were part of the whole cloth of the story – I couldn’t cut them out.

I already had my parent’s blessing to write about the more ancient history in our family, particularly because we all saw the book as a means of helping others with similar struggles. So we built on that foundation when it came to working through more current events. In fact, the method we arrived at was that I would read them a chapter a week over a video call, because hearing it in my voice and seeing my emotion helped them process it better. Then they would respond, offer their perspective on events, correct my memory in places.

The saving grace, I think, is that my parents know we all have our own take on what happened, and they believe I’m entitled to tell my version. I feel very lucky that they can be that generous.

(By the way, if you want to read a pair of books that get even deeper into the workings of writing about one’s parents, I can highly recommend Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?)

In the end I suppose I get my nerve to publish from the belief that this book wanted to be a thing. Pilgrimage of Desire came knocking and I signed on for the ride. I’m just beginning to see the impact the book has on its readers, and I already know that it’s been worth it.

 

Alison’s book, Pilgrimage of Desire, is now available to order. Go buy it! Trust me on this – you won’t regret it!

Also, go check out Alison’s post where the tables were turned and she interviewed me.

The War of Art – words of wisdom from Steven Pressfield

“Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” – Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
It’s a pretty good sign that you’ve got a great book in your hands when you can’t stand reading it without a pen close by.  The War of Art is one of those books. It’s a quick read with lots of wisdom packed into its pages.
Steven Pressfield has been reaching out to bloggers, and I got a chance to lob a few questions his way…

1. I’ve only read part of the book so far, but in the part I’ve read, you approach the idea of “life’s work” and “resistance” from the perspective of someone who knows his life’s work is to write. What about those people who have a lot of creative talents and they’re not sure what to focus on for their life’s work? What suggestions do you have for them?

Remember that old Lovin’ Spoonful song, Heather?

Did you ever have to make up your mind?
To say yes to one and leave the other behind?
It’s not often easy, not often kind.
Did you ever have to make up your mind?
It’s really hard when one is multi-talented and pulled in multiple directions.  It was easier for me because I can’t do much of anything except write.  What I would say is this:

If we find that we’re pulled in multiple creative directions–start a business, write a screenplay, move to India and work for the Mother Teresa Foundation–the key question to ask ourselves is, “Which one am I most afraid of?”  Put another way: “Which one elicits the most powerful Resistance?”

I say in The War of Art that Resistance can help us in a weird way in that it can tell us what we have to do.  If Resistance is our enemy (and it is) and if it wants us NOT to tackle Project X, then… 

2. What advice do you have for parents trying to foster creativity in their children? Can we do things to help them grow into adults who give in to resistance less? 

That’s a great question.  I’m not a parent so I can only answer theoretically.  One thing I heard once that made a lot of sense to me was on a disk called “An Interview with the Coach,” which was an interview of Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach by Joe Polish of the Genius Network Interview series.  It’s worth tracking down, this disk, by logging onto “Strategic Coach” or “Genius Network.”

What Dan Sullivan was saying was that our schools don’t teach the entrepreneurial mind-set.  And they should.  Instead our schools regiment our children.  They prepare them to be cogs in a machine, to work for organizations, etc.  Nobody teaches us the skills of self-motivation, self-discipline, self-validation that are necessary to succeed as an artist or an entrepreneur or anybody who follows his or her own heart and who values the work for its own sake and for the joy it brings us, rather than just chasing a paycheck.

I think a parent should identify in her own mind the virtues that she’d like to teach her children and then teach them just like she would anything else–i.e., reward them when they appear spontaneously, reinforce them in all ways, talk equal-to-equal to the child about the reasons why these qualities are virtues and why they’ll pay off.  And be alert to counter-conditioning, to nip it in the bud or to amplify it in the proper way.  For instance, if your kid is on the football team and the coach is hammering him to work hard, be tough, fight till the bitter end (all good things, in my opinion), amplify this by highlighting for your child the difference between externally-enforced motivation (what the coach is doing) and internally-enforced motivation (what the child will need when he goes out on his own.)
What virtues and what skills am I talking about?  They’re the virtues of self-reliance (see the famous essay by Emerson): patience, kindness to oneself, self-motivation, self-discipline, self-validation, generosity toward others, ability to endure hardship, delayed gratification, the talent of listening to one’s own heart and trusting one’s own intuition. 
3. Do you think the proliferation of blogs and social media networks is fostering more creativity in our culture or less? (ie. Do you think this is offering more writers and artists the opportunity to try out their craft or is it just giving us more opportunity for resistance?) 
Great question, Heather!  To me, the qualities of mind that produce really good work (and also, in my opinion, produce happiness) are focus, concentration, the ability to go deep, and perseverance over time.  Things like Facebook and Twitter promote the exact opposites–shallowness, distractability, short attention spans, etc.
That being said, the one person in ten thousand who starts a blog and really goes deep with it may take the skills that she develops from this pursuit and use them at the next level–starting a business or non-profit, writing a novel, getting a Ph.D.

Note: I’ve got an extra copy of The War of Art, so if you’re interested in it, leave a comment by Monday, Nov. 30 and I’ll pick a winner.

What I was reading at the waterfall

You’ve all heard me on my soap-boxes before. I talk a good game when it comes to social justice – at least when it comes to human trafficking of young girls in India, or reaching out in friendship instead of charity to my friend Paulina in Kenya. Those things are all far removed from my everyday life, and I can rail at the machine and spew any manner of righteous anger about what we should be doing to walk alongside those who are hurting – at least those far away.

But when it comes to social justice in my own back yard, I admit, I falter. When it comes right down to it, I don’t like to trip over a drunk man sleeping off his demons in my office doorway. I don’t like my bus-stop solitude to be interrupted by the young man trying to bum a cigarette or a few bucks for food. I don’t like to be inconvenienced by the poverty in my own neighbourhood. I know it sounds self-centred and uncompassionate, but it’s true.

So when my friend Steve handed me the book Bent Hope and told me I would love it, I was skeptical. How could I possibly love a book full of the stories of people living on the street? How could that be an uplifting experience that would leave me feeling anything other than guilty about my lack of compassion?

I took the book along on our recent weekend at the lake none-the-less. So far, I’ve never gone wrong reading something Steve recommended, so I thought I should at least give it a try.

What can I say? Steve was right. This book is nothing short of brilliant. You should ALL read it. Really. It will change you. It will change the way you look at the “drunk” sleeping in the office doorway or the “punk” trying to bum a cigarette. It will make you want to sit down beside someone on the street and listen to their story.

Tim Huff has an uncanny way of bending words into incredible stories and undeniable wisdom. More than that, though, he has an uncanny way of seeing through the dirt under the fingernails, the smell of yesterday’s alcohol, and the bitterness of a life gone off the rails to the nugget of truth and beauty underneath. He doesn’t sugarcoat life on the streets – no, it’s raw and real and ugly – but what he does is recognize the tiny light of hope – even if it’s badly bent out of shape and barely recognizable – shining through each person he meets.

Here’s the thing – more than just a powerful set of stories, this book renews my desire to believe in God. This book reminds me that if we set aside the many failures of the church, the messed up legalism and hate disguised as “WWJD”, the narrow-mindedness and judgementalism – if we set all of that aside and look to the pure and unadulterated message and life of Jesus, we will find what we’ve all been aching for – hope. Tim Huff is out on the streets trying to live out that message of hope in a way that few pastors, televangelists, or social justice soap-box shouters have ever done. Not only that, but he’s letting the light of hope shine through the stories and lives of messed up people to teach those of us who’ve let cynicism blind us that it really is okay to dream of a different future.

Bent Hope will give you hope.

Books

A lot of books get read in our house, especially this month when it’s TV-free month. There are books in every room of the house, and where there are bookshelves, they are overflowing. Stacks of books rest on nightstands in every bedroom, books pile up on the table or the piano, and occasionally books get left behind in the bathroom. Marcel and the girls make a trip to the local library at least once or twice a week. Everybody loves books. Books, books, books. Yes, it’s a happy thing.

We don’t all like the same kind of books, though. Each person in the house has his or her own unique taste, so it means that we rarely share books.

Marcel reads mostly historical books, political books (and magazines), biographies, and occasionally a Tom Clancy novel for a little variety. He’s a history buff, so he’s got lots of war books, books on Hitler, Hoffa, you name it. He’s currently reading a biography of Randy Bachman.

Nicole’s a little like her father. She loves to read biographies and true stories. She can spout off details about the day John F. Kennedy died, the day Princess Diana got married, where Einstein grew up, when Anne Frank died, etc. She reads fiction occasionally, but prefers fiction that has its basis in truth. No fantasy or sci-fi for her. She is currently reading her second or third biography of Princess Diana, someone she is particularly enamoured with.

Julie is the most voracious reader in the house. She can get through almost any book in a day or a day and a half. Marcel had to change her library card to an adult card so they’d let her take more books out and he wouldn’t have to go back as frequently. She reads almost any kind of fiction, but her favourites are in the fantasy genre. She breezes through series like Harry Potter and Narnia, and usually ends up reading them a second or third time when she runs out of new things to read. The last I checked, she was reading a couple of Nancy Drew books (after finishing the latest Harry Potter), but she’s probably on to something else by now.

Maddie is on the cusp of reading. She’s definitely ready to be a reader, and I think it frustrates her when everyone else in the house is reading and she can’t. (I tried to get Julie to take it on as a summer project to teach Maddie to read, but I don’t think it’s caught on yet.) She loves to be read to, though, and doesn’t show any particular preference in books yet. She’s rather fond of anything by Robert Munsch – I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Stephanie’s Ponytail. The last few nights, we’ve been reading through a fairly lengthy version of the Lion King together.

I read a fair bit of literary fiction, but lately I’ve been more interested in memoirs of all kinds. Travel memoirs (like Honeymoon in Purdah), spiritual/personal journey memoirs (like anything by Anne Lamott), or memoirs of interesting life challenges (like Left to Tell). I have a bunch of leadership and creativity books on my shelf too, because that’s where I often turn for professional/personal development inspiration. I’ve also become quite interested in non-fiction books that are about the social condition (like The Tipping Point, for example). I’m currently reading The Paradox of Choice, a fascinating book that argues that the overabundance of choice in our western society is not actually good for us.

So there you have it – what books are YOU reading?

Three books

I’ve read three books lately that have all had “staying power” in one way or another. I find myself thinking back to all of them now and then. They’ve also all become the kind of books that get mentioned in conversation, as in “I read something in a book once…”

Honeymoon In Purdah – There wasn’t much about this book that would have made me want to snatch it off the bookstore shelves. It’s not particularly well named, nor does the cover design draw me in. Good thing it was referred to me by a friend whose opinion I trust, or I probably never would have read it. I didn’t expect to, but I LOVE this book. I devoured it like candy. It’s a memoir of a woman who travels across Iran “just because it’s the only country that scares her, and she doesn’t believe in fear.” Alison Wearing is a seasoned traveler and free spirit. Though she normally travels alone, she takes along her “husband” (who’s really her gay roommate with a fake marriage license) on this trip because it’s the one country she thinks it’s best to travel with a male companion.

Wearing has the most amazing experiences in Iran because she is completely open to them. She lets strangers take her places she would never find if she were merely a tourist. She spends time in people’s homes, and embraces the culture of Iran. In return, she is embraced by almost everyone she meets. Though there are many frustrations with traveling in a country where there are so many restrictions, she learns to embrace even the wearing of the hejab as it allows her a certain freedom to blend in with the locals.

This is the kind of book that should be assigned reading in our high schools. It opens your mind to the humanity that is behind the media stories that taint our views of certain cultures and countries. It shows the many shades of brilliant colour behind what is too often painted as black and white.

Of This Earth – Reading this book felt a lot like spending a relaxed Sunday afternoon at my parents’ kitchen table in the old farm house, listening to my Dad tell stories of his childhood. It’s the story of author Rudy Wiebe’s Mennonite boyhood in the Boreal Forest in Saskatchewan. He grew up in much the same environment as my dad – a place and time where hard work, honesty, and a good singing voice (to belt out the hymns) were the highest virtues.

His retelling is poetic though not romanticized. He paints a stark picture of the harshness of life in those early days on the farm, yet his memory of it is not one of bitterness or judgment. He was clearly molded by the values he was taught by the good, honest people who raised him and watched over him. Though the adult version of him doesn’t necessarily understand all of their choices, he honours them for the place they held in his life.

He slips in occasional low German phrases that wouldn’t mean much to the average reader, but were fun for me to try to translate before reading the English. (My low German is weak at best, and since it’s not a written language, his capturing of it was purely phonetic.)

This book has found a warm spot in my heart. I only wish that I could pass it on to my dad.

Running With Scissors – It was rather surreal reading this book after reading Of This Earth. Both are boyhood memoirs, but that’s where the similarities end. While Rudy Wiebe’s upbringing can be defined by the “virtues” that molded him, there is not much in Augusten Burrough’s upbringing that can even loosely be defined as “virtuous”. Augusten Burroughs is quite possibly the most shockingly honest and bold memoirist I have ever read. I’d read one of his later books, and was rather intrigued by it, so when I spotted this one at a thrift store in Toronto, I didn’t hesitate to fork out $1.25 for it.

Most of you are probably already familiar with this one, since it made a fairly big splash when it came out and has already been made into a movie. It’s the story of how Burrough’s mother gave him up to live with her eccentric, free spirited, and morally bankrupt psychologist. Anything goes in this household. Children are allowed to make their own “rules”, even when that includes cutting holes in the kitchen roof to put in a sunroom, or having sex with the psychologist’s adult patients.

Reading this book makes you feel rather voyeuristic, as you peer into the life of the most unusual “family” you can ever imagine meeting. Much of it even borders on the offensive, as Burroughs goes into great detail describing his encounters with the pedophile who lives in the shed behind the house. Despite that, however, it is absolutely intriguing reading what I would consider rather brilliant retelling of a twisted, perverse childhood. Burroughs has a masterful way with words.

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