A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Friday, March 9, 2018

Doubt and Faith

I got to see one of my first high school students, Sarah Sentilles, last weekend at Seattle University’s Search for Meaning Festival. I was 27 and Sarah must have been 17 the last time I saw her; now I’m 54, and she must be 44.
I started reading Sarah’s fourth book, DrawYour Weapons, a couple of weeks before seeing her. The book is a poetic meditation on art and war. So far as I can tell, there’s no narrative arc, no beginning, middle, and end. Though arranged in paragraphs, this meditation is more poetry than prose, deeper in its wisdom than sentences with their transitions can reach. The official description is “Through a dazzling combination of memoir, history, reporting, visual culture, literature, and theology, Sarah Sentilles offers an impassioned defense of life lived by peace and principle.” Yep. I taught her that. All of it.
I started reading the book because I wanted a glimpse into the woman she is now. She is smart and strong, deeply curious and moral. I would like to take credit for her intellectual curiosity, but she went to Yale undergrad after I knew her and then to Harvard for a Masters and PhD. So no, I didn’t really teach her all of that.
More than her smarts and strength, qualities I saw in her as a teenager and in her book, at her presentation I was delighted to experience her kindness, gentleness, and soft humor. From her bio I can see that she has weathered some tough times: she was in training to become an Episcopal Priest and later wrote a book called Breaking Up with God: ALove Story. The last thirty years have softened but not beaten her. I hope the same is true of me.
In the (old) article of her on Wikipedia, she calls herself an “agnostic.” Both her book and her presentation emphasized the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.

As I thought about her words, I thought of the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s words: “ A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.” Hanh’s words, it seems to me, are about the limits of language and the importance of metaphor when truth soars higher than words can. They are about not confusing metaphor for truth, about the limits of language and of knowing.

Sarah seems absorbed in this paradigm, as I have been since my teacher’s black light lesson in fourth grade:

Teacher: “What color is this banana?”

Fourth graders in enthusiastic unison: “Yellow!”

Teacher puts the banana under black light: “What color is it now?”

Confused fourth graders: “Blue?”

This weekend, the impossibility of knowing was a theme from the rest of the day and the next day at church, too.

Robin DiAngelo’s presentation, which Ann and I attended next, discussed “white fragility” in talking about race and the importance of we as white people (DiAngelo is white) having the humility to recognize that we cannot know what it’s like to live as a black person in this society. She said, “Human objectivity is not possible.”

Beside this quotation in my notes I wrote, “(Same msg as SS).” I was referring to lessons my first year of teaching American Studies, a junior-level high school course that integrated Language Arts and History. Our class began the year reading Edward Hallett Carr’s 1961 essay, “The Historian and His Facts.” The essay discusses the impossibility of knowing or speaking truth in history because history’s story will always be impacted by the writer’s perspective. The class discussed this essay extensively, applying its ideas to the selection as our national anthem of “The Star Spangled Banner” (a song inspired by the War of 1812).
For their test on these ideas, I copied a paragraph from their American History textbook, written by Daniel Boorstin, a horrible book that presents bigoted comments as factual history. For the test, I asked students to apply Carr’s ideas to the passage. Only one student noted the sentence in which Boorstin said that although America had made some mistakes, pretty much everyone agreed that the world was better because America existed. What a disappointed teacher I was! At the end of the year, however, students studied the economic impact of Texas and California’s state textbook adoptions on history publications for schools and noticed the connection to Carr’s essay. Whew.
The conference’s final presentations were delivered by historian Taylor Branch and Rev. William Barber, who was sick in North Carolina and hadn’t been able to make the trip to the Pacific Northwest. In a discussion between Branch and Barber, whose image was beamed in, Branch said—and Barber concurred — the second amendment, well-known as the foundation of the right to bear arms, was included as a way to get Virginia’s support, and supported the right of their slave patrols to carry guns. (I have done some research, and I believe this is true, though it’s hard to find on the innerwebs. I’ll write about this in a different blog entry.)
This theme of how difficult it is to know the truth continued the next day at church. On the bulletin’s cover is a quotation from the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel Unamuno:  “Faith which does not doubt is dead faith.”
Our minister, Ann Berney, preached a sermon titled “Faith with Doubts.” The sermon spoke to Mark 9:14-29, in which a parent says, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!” Pastor Ann’s sermon addressed the need for doubt as “a time of pause, a time of transition, a time of transition.”
Her sermon reminded me of my first sermon when I was a senior in college. The minister at the time, Mahan Siler,  asked for youth volunteers to deliver a sermon, and my younger sister, his teenage son, and I volunteered. We shared thoughts on “Doubt and Faith” during the sermon time the week after Christmas. I spoke about doubt. Then I fainted (probably a gift from my 21 year-old brain tumor.) After the service, maybe a hundred congregants filed past to wish me well. All were kind, but only one said she’d like to hear what I had planned to say about faith.

I’ve often thought about that. Maybe doubts are more interesting than faith. (For sure, fainting is. Another blog entry for another time.)

Maybe doubts are more universal than faith. Maybe some people stop in doubt, and others continue to a faith with doubts. Maybe. It's hard to know.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Dad and I discussed his upcoming 81st birthday on our week-end phone call”: “old” is anyone fifteen years older than you are, and you’re old when there is no one fifteen years older than you are. “I’m getting’ close!” he laughed.

Today (March 2) is his birthday. He’s getting closer!

Dad and I have similar senses of humor, so we find one another amusing. Both Southern-raised, we tell our lives and our truths in stories.

Dad grew up in the small North Carolina town voted most like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.  His father and “Unca” Johnny owned a downtown hardware store, and Dad went to school with the white kids who lived in town and on country farms. (African-American kids, who lived, literally, on the other side of the tracks, led separate lives.)

Dad was small town cool. When his teenage friends wanted to look wealthy one August day, they drove a convertible to Chapel Hill, the nearby college town, with the top and windows up so that the college girls would think they had air conditioning. (I’m guessing in North Carolina’s heat and humidity, the pretty girls thought those were some sweaty boys and probably stank. In my day, convertibles were cooler than air-conditioning, but this was their day.)

That’s my favorite story about Dad’s childhood home. Another favorite story is about the first time he remembers seeing my mom.

“I looked up the stairwell and saw this woman on the landing above me. ‘Golly,’ I thought, ‘That’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw.’” (Golly, in case you didn’t read that right, is a three-syllable word or at least stretches its first half an extra beat. If you ever heard Gomer Pyle talk, he said it right.)

Mom was a big city beauty, and Dad was a small town “hottie” (according to my much more hip younger sister.)

Dad tells good stories, and loves poetry. He learned his favorite from a fraternity friend, and decades later was befuddled to learn it was “a real poem.” It’s not a long poem, but I can’t remember the beginning, and Professor Google doesn’t know it. It ends like this:
White folks hogs
Eat ‘em all.
One-eyed black snake,
Tearin’ through the bushes.
What a terrible thing,
A terrapin are.
He also loves Andy Griffith’s early stories. I’ve heard pieces of one so often I remember them and love them as well. The snippets come in handy. Whenever my partner Ann and I pull into the garage after being away, I say,
            That’s the end of the ride.
Pete and his gang are waitin’ inside.
At night, Ann says, “I hope Pete’s not there. I’m tired. If he’s there, I’m telling him and his friends to go home.”
            I continue:
            [voice one] “I hope you know what you’re talkin’ about.”
[voice two] “You just count ‘em while I throw ‘em out.”
[fighting noises] bing bang bam shwoom…
[voice two] “One!”
[voice one] “Stop countin’. It’s me.”
[Raucous laughter]
Only after the performance do we get out of the car and go inside. It can take a long time for a poetry-lover to get in the house.

Dad loves history as well as poetry, so he also loves Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address:”
            For score and seven years ago…
The tone’s a little different in that one, and though it’s older than the others, Professor Google knows it.

I’ve inherited some things from my father that I’m not so pleased with, like his inability to find something in the refrigerator unless it’s on the front of a shelf. However, I’m glad to have inherited his love for poetry and his sense of humor.

Happy birthday, He-who-is-getting-close-to-being-an-old-man!