Thursday, April 28, 2011

Two Ways to Look at a Subject

This past weekend, my husband and I went to Chapel Hill, NC, for a wedding. If this were a different kind of blog, I would tell you what a wonderful time we had (which we did). What a warm, freewheeling, communal feeling this wedding had. How wonderful to see so many old friends and feel the history we've shared. But it's not that kind of blog, so you'll have to settle for that thumbnail and return to the question of diversity and its discomforts.
     Following through on last week's post about the Civil War, I will instead show you what my husband and I saw when we walked for a few hours around the University of North Carolina--a lovely campus in one of those utopian locales called the college town.
     First, the classic--a monument to the confederate soldier, young, armed, alert, and up on a pedestal.
And a more contemporary response--a tribute to the "unsung founders" (as the piece is called) who likely built this campus as well as so much else we see in the South.

 It's a powerful sculpture. Here's a close up of the lower portion.
A lot to think about. Right?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Slavery, Liberation, Exodus

Here we are again, in the season of Passover. Above, you see a map of the Exodus route of the Israelites as they emerged from Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place, and became "a people." I always find a lot of things to think about this time of year, in the context of the holiday and the Seder, even if I am not among the most observant or consistent of Jews.
     One thing I've been thinking about this year is the conversation I heard on the NPR program "Fresh Air"--the wonderful interviewer Terry Gross talking with Adam Goodheart, a historian who wrote a book about the origins of the Civil  War. The book is called 1861. Goodheart said a lot of things, but the one that stuck in my mind had to do with the institution of slavery. I've always understood how deeply slavery was intertwined with the economy of the South, but Goodheart pointed out that being asked to give up one's slaves was equivalent to having someone ask us to give up all our savings or our retirement accounts or all our liquid assets. He kept apologizing for how horrible that sounded, to be speaking of humans as liquid assets, but he was saying it so that we could get a better handle on the threat and panic and anger slave owners felt at the thought of having to give up their slaves. He was not apologizing for slavery or arguing in favor of it, of even saying that we should feel empathy for the slave owners. He was, however, explaining a point of view that I had not heard before.
     At least in part, then, because of the threat to a way of life, the war came, and many died and suffered and lost property of all kinds. And then the slaves were liberated, and the exodus began. As my husband points out every year, however, slavery still exists in many forms in the world. Liberation is far from complete. When will it ever be?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Deep in Conversation

Not much in the mood for a full blog post this week, so instead I'll post something I've had in my hand-basket for a month or so--an interview I did with my friend Tom Montgomery-Fate, a writer and teacher and thinker. For our conversation, we were in the gracious and well-equipped studio of his school--College of DuPage--in Glen Ellyn, IL. The staff and crew were all very professional. We talked about my writing, the thematic connections between my fiction and my nonfiction, and my writing practice. When we finished our conversation, a woman who was working in the control room told me that my novel sounded interesting, and since I just happened to be carrying a few extras with me (something every novelist needs to learn to do, as embarrassing as that may sound), I sold her a book right on the spot.

     Tom, himself, has a new book coming out very soon. I know his work well (we were in a writing group together for years), and it is deeply thoughtful--the kind of reflection I was ruminating over and voting for in my post about Rodin's Thinker.
     Our conversation might not have had quite the celebrity of Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg, but it was pretty damn good nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Passing Over

This past Thursday, my husband and I went to an extraordinarily unusual (for me) event--a Seder at a black synagogue on the south side of Chicago: Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. This is an annual event, hosted jointly by the synagogue and the Chicago Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. The photo above does not portray any of the rabbis from Beth Shalom who helped to lead the Seder, but I do like that photo, the way it unites these seemingly diverse threads.
     This Seder was marvelously incongruous--the black rabbis, the funky-rock versions of "Mah Tovu" and "Go Down Moses" with electric guitars and conga drums but the familiar version of the Four Questions and "Dayenu," and of course, the familiar story of the Exodus and the various foods and rituals (the dipping and so forth).
     This Seder was also explicitly political--with references to immigration issues in Chicago, and the incarceration and hopelessness among black youth, and the plague of foreclosures in the synagogue's neighborhood. We even had a water main break down the street, so we had to rush to finish the Seder because the water was to be turned off at 8:00 (we didn't finish by 8, and the water was not turned off, but we did see the workers and trucks down the street).
      I loved the rocking music, and I admired the energy and voice of the young rabbi as he called out for new Moseses to come forward. I also enjoyed thinking of the four cups of wine as a progression toward community and liberation, each one a named stage in that process.
     As with all Seders, parts of it were boring and/or chaotic. But overall, it was enormously mind-expanding, as I had to keep reminding myself that these people were Jewish, pushing past assumptions, pushing past my own internal limitations. I kept thinking about my old-world, orthodox bubba and zeda, and how this group and this experience would have looked to them. And I believe that from now on, I'll think and think again before I say to myself or anyone else, "Funny, s/he doesn't look Jewish."