LIVING BRAVELY

Last night, I had the honor of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction Ceremony; afterward, several audience members asked me if I would share the text of my speech, which I am happy to do here.

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Good evening, everyone.  I’d like to thank Carly and the NHS Board for asking me to speak tonight—it’s truly an honor.  In preparing for this speech, I learned that the Board had asked my colleague, Kristine Varney, to give this speech, but she is currently in Israel with our amazing Safe Cracking Team.  Please know, it is no slight to play second fiddle to Ms. Varney; she is one of the most passionate teachers and dynamic human beings I’ve ever met. And since she couldn’t be here with you and I can, I decided to reach out to her and see what she would speak about if she were in front of you tonight.  Turns out that her suggested topic almost exactly mirrored what I had already thought I might say. So, you can imagine, if you like, that we’re both delivering this message.

 

I’m going to talk about bravery tonight, because I believe that bravery is fundamentally necessary to living an honorable life.  Bravery can take many forms, but I fear that all-too-often we pigeonhole bravery into meaning or looking like only one particular thing, or happening under one very particular set of circumstances.  So I’d like to explore a little bit of what I feel like I’ve learned about bravery, and I invite you to take away value or insight for yourself if what I say resonates.

 

I think a lot about stories—of course I do, I’m an English teacher.  Specifically, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about narratives that we tell over time, as a culture or a nation: whose stories get told?  Whose stories get left out? And how does the framing of those stories impact what we take away from them?

 

A few months ago, my five-and-a-half-year-old, Shiv got a copy of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a wonderful volume filled with the true stories of women from all periods of history, all parts of the world, and all spheres of influences: athletes, politicians, scientists, artists.  Each one-page story is told in “Once upon a time” style and accompanied by a vibrant, full-page illustration. Shiv loves the book, and so do I.

 

The thing that has most struck me is how much I’m learning.  Like, where have these stories been my whole life? Why have I never even heard of the vast majority of these women before?  We know the answer to those questions, of course; those in power craft the narratives, and powerful women tend to threaten patriarchal systems.  (Some things don’t change!) Still, my experience reading these stories is visceral: the pride and awe I feel when reading about these incredible women, and the frustration that follows when I realize that I’m still carrying around an outdated narrative about women in general.  Because of the stories I’ve been exposed to—and the ones I haven’t been exposed to—our dominant culture has successfully fed me the notion that women of intelligence, ambition, and valor have, historically, been the very rare exception.

 

This notion of exceptionalism is further revealed by the number of times that the narratives in Rebel Girls include lines like this one, about Jingu, a second-century Japanese empress: “Jingu was thought to have all kinds of magical powers.”  Or this one, about Lozen, an Apache warrior who lived in the late 19th century: “People believed she had supernatural powers.”

 

The message is clear–the only way these women could have been so impressive or done such incredible things is that they had the powers of magic at their disposal.  It’s the only possible explanation. But what if these women were just unbelievably brave? What if all of the women that history has cried “witchcraft” at were simply operating from a deep sense of integrity, knowledge of their values, and out of a bravery that compelled them to do what they believed was right?  

 

This year, on the last day of World Religions Week, while most of the campus was away on Winter Trips, Emery hosted a Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony honoring the life of Hiram Bingham IV, an American diplomat who was stationed in France during World War II.  Harry, as he was known, helped 2500 Jews escape by issuing entry visas to the United States. He toured internment camps and lobbied the American government for aid, documenting the wretched conditions he saw. I don’t think there’s a single person in this room who would argue with me if I characterized this man as a hero.

 

But here’s what we forget.  Bingham was operating in direct violation of the orders of his superiors.  He broke the rules, and in doing so, risked his job and his family’s financial security.  We hear Bingham’s story and forget that, during his lifetime, he was not considered a hero.  In fact, when the U.S. State Department learned of his actions in France, they abruptly pulled him from his position and relocated him to South America, in what was essentially a professional demotion.  A few years later, after he was passed up for another promotion, Bingham quit the Foreign Service. He never shared his wartime actions with his family, and it wasn’t until after his death that his wife and children discovered the documents that would eventually cement Bingham’s status as a righteous Gentile and earn him his own United States postage stamp, among many other awards and honors.  Awards and honors that he never personally witnessed or received.

 

Bingham’s story struck me for many reasons, not least of which is that I learned that he was directly responsible for ensuring the safe passage of two of my personal favorite historical figures, the painter Marc Chagall and the writer Hannah Arendt.  How is it that my history could be so incomplete as to include no knowledge of this man who essentially ensured the continuation of the lives and careers of these two brilliant people who have influenced me and so many others? I struggle to conceive of the fact that so much can hinge on the brave decision of one human being, and I can’t help but wonder what it felt like for him to live out the rest of his life with these actions known to only a few.  It seems that was enough for him, the knowledge that he acted in accordance with what he believed was right, regardless of what others thought. I am moved by the thought, and aspire to live my life the same way.

 

Those of us in this room may not be called to bravery in the same way as an Apache warrior, Japanese empress, or American diplomat working overseas during wartime, but rest assured, we will all face numerous situations inside which our bravery will be tested.  In our relationships, in our workplace, out in public. And the thing I’ve learned is that trumpets are not going to sound and announce “This is one of those moments! Now is the time! Make sure you choose wisely!” We will not know that we are making history, either inside our own individual life story or someone else’s.  There may be no applause or accolades greeting us when we choose to act with bravery, and it is entirely likely that we will instead face scorn, ridicule, and attempts to persuade us of the wrongness of our actions. I think of the young people who spent their summers in the American South, pushing the American Civil Rights movement forward with their very bodies.  Many of them were exactly your age—16, 17, 18. We forget this, too. We think of them as heroes now, but they were literally spit on, beaten, harassed, and jailed, looked on as agitators by the vast majority of the American public. Freeman Hrabowski, whose story has been documented by the Library of Congress, was arrested at the age of twelve, after marching in favor of school integration during the summer of 1963.   He recalls Dr. King telling him and the other children, during the many days they spent in prison, “What you do on this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.” Dr. King, who himself was considered a domestic terrorist by the FBI.

 

I don’t have a perfect formula for how we cultivate bravery—sorry, that’s what you get for having me and not Ms. Varney—kidding aside, I am definitely still engaged in this learning process, and anticipate that continuing until the end of my life.  But I do have a few thoughts about practices that can support a posture of bravery, so that we are able to access it when it’s time.

 

Students who’ve had me in class or in dramaturgy sessions won’t be surprised to hear this, but I believe strongly in the necessity of knowing your core values.  Right now, your lives are so much about your grades and where you want to go to college and what you want to be when you grow up, where you want to live, what you’ll do; but I’m much more interested in who you want to be.  What do you value above all else?  What do you believe in? Only you can say.  And because I’m a writer and a writing teacher, I’ll urge you to spend some time actually writing down your answers to these questions and thinking through their implications.  There is something very powerful about committing a list of values to paper and then working to live by them. It sounds simple, but how can we expect to be brave in the face of challenge when we don’t know what we stand for?  

 

Because here’s the catch—there are lots of potentially meaningful values out there.  And the most difficult times in our lives are not going to be when we have to choose between something virtuous and something NOT virtuous; those may require some willpower, but probably won’t result in much second-guessing.  The hardest situations are the ones in which our core values come in conflict with other values. Think of Bingham, who chose compassion over institutional loyalty. It’s not that loyalty isn’t valuable—in fact, I think we would all argue that it’s an important quality—but my guess is that Bingham’s core value of compassion outweighed his loyalty considerations during his time in France.  In retrospect it seems an easy choice to make, but I doubt that it was so simple for him in that moment.

 

Which brings me to my next point.  If we aspire to bravery, we must cultivate an inner strength that will allow us to stand apart from the crowd, even if that crowd contains friends, acquaintances, co-workers, or family members.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting accolades from others, of course; that’s simply human. But if we are so dependent on external validation, we will never be able to break away from its source. Work to be your own champion, and your own critic.  Congratulate and acknowledge yourself when you act in ways you’re proud of, in ways that line up with your values; and be willing to admit to yourself when you fall short. This, too, takes bravery.

 

At the same time, I encourage you to surround yourself with others who share your values.  Keep those people close, lean on them when you are faced with those difficult decisions, the ones that require courage.  They will remind you of who you are when you are struggling to remember, will support you when others turn away, will keep you from second-guessing yourself when it’s time to put your neck out for what you believe.  

 

It’s likely that none of us in this room will receive public accolades for our brave deeds, though it would be pretty cool to someday buy stamps with a former student’s face on them (if stamps still exist.)  But if, at the end of the day, you know in your heart that you have lived according to your values, to me that’s an honorable life, and one well-lived. Thank you for listening, and congratulations.

MONDAY MIX – 3/12/18

Spring has sprung in Houston!   I know friends in other places are bracing for snow, but down here the pollen is coating everything in sight, rendering cars yellow and noses runny.  Still, the glorious showy azalea blooms and budding trees make it seem worth it…not to mention the gorgeously cool days we’re basking in.  As seen above, we celebrated Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, a few weeks ago on our friends’s farm.   I loved Holi as a kid, and so did Shiv; the raucous joy of throwing colored powder at friends and family translates across place and time!  It felt good to celebrate life and aliveness with loved ones.

-I’ve got a few things to share this Monday, and I’ll start with this fascinating piece in The Washington Post by a professor of social psychology at Yale, John Bargh.  He writes about research that links the presence of fear for one’s physical safety to conservative political attitudes, and how researchers have attempted to manipulate those attitudes by reducing fear.

-Though my personal experiences do not mirror the authors, I felt so much resonance with this Slate piece by Alison Spodek Keimowitz.  Keimowitz is both a cancer patient and a professor of environmental chemistry (with a specialty in pollution) at Vassar College; she writes beautifully about how her experience with cancer allowed her to relate differently to the realities of climate change:

“Many students come to my classroom already knowing about carbon dioxide, sea level rise, and mass extinction. What they don’t know, because none of us really do, is how to move forward, how to breathe, and how to live with the knowledge of our own personal and planetary mortality. But perhaps I can offer them tools to endure with some grace.”

-Last but not least, this New York Times recipe is a winner: Garlicky Chicken with Lemon-Anchovy Sauce.  ANCHOVY HATERS GO HATE ELSEWHERE.  My only tweaks were to wait to add the capers before putting the chicken in the oven, and to bump up the lemon juice.  Served this with risotto for maximum sauce-soaking-up purposes and Shiv told me, “Mama, you make the bestest chicken.”  Who can argue with that?

 

MONDAY MIX – 3/5/18

Back in the saddle with Monday mixes!  The last few weeks were so full -namely because I was making enough carrot cake to feed 200 people for a dear friend’s wedding (hence the photo above) – that I let it slide.  And to be totally honest, part of why is that I started to think it was silly to keep writing these, because only, like, ten people read them each week, but then I realized a) so what?  ten people are not inherently less valuable than ten thousand people, and b) I enjoy having these posts for myself, as an archive of the things I’m thinking about and reading, as well as the recipes I’m making.  So, now that I got my mind right about it all, let’s go.  (And if you’re one of the ten people reading these posts, hi and thank you!)

  • I haven’t willingly watched a horror movie since that unfortunate time I saw The Shining at a friends’ house, so some of the references in this piece were lost on me, but I loved it anyway.  A timely & thoughtful piece of commentary about the role of the genre and the very real consequences of disregarding women – The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror and the Intuition of Women:

“Horror exists as a genre primarily to reflect the ugly and the despicable parts of our world back at us through a funhouse lens that makes the trauma digestible…Some of these lessons are cautionary, which explains all the teenaged kids making bad spring break choices. But some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.”

 

“But the Mississippi I grew up in, the Mississippi that I live in now, that I’m raising my children in, resists this broadened understanding of what it means to be a human being. It resists the desire to rise above the circumstance of caste that we are born into and to never worry about the next time you’ll eat or whether your children are hungry. The desire to avoid having to feed your children the cheapest, most filling food you can—beans and rice one day, hot dogs the next—and still see them openmouthed. This Mississippi insists that there is a natural order to this arrangement, that if you are poor or wanting, you’re to blame if you starve. That you deserve your poverty, your squalor, your suffering, and that you do not deserve help or, as this Mississippi likes to say, “handouts.'”

 

  • This was a hilarious delight – New York Public Library reference cards from the 1940s, essentially the old-school analog equivalent of today’s Google search.  My favorite: “Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce?”  See more here.

 

  • Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks is a reliable source for vegetarian meals that help break me out of my cooking ruts: this green falafel recipe is a recent favorite.  They weren’t at all hard to make (and were convenient since I already had all of the ingredients on hand), and all three of us loved them browned in a pan and then finished in the oven.  I served them with a yogurt-lemon juice-garlic-salt sauce, hummus, and some za’atar roasted carrots.  Next time, I’ll make a double batch so I can freeze a dozen!

 

  • Last but not least, I am offering a new writing course!  Several folks have previously indicated interest in a memoir/personal writing course, so I developed Crafting Personal Narrative, a course that will run in two parts: Part I this spring, Part II this summer.  Registration for Part I is now open and will close this Friday, March 9th; read more about the courses and/or sign up here.

 

MONDAY MIX – 2/11/18

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

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So…there was no Monday Mix last Monday – I got sick and the week got away from me.  But I’m back, with a couple of things to share:

 

-I’ll start with the most serious – this New York Times Magazine piece about the impact of online porn on teenage sex and desire.  The mom of a former student recommended the piece to me using the phrase “required reading for all parents,” and I have to agree.

 

-If you, like me and Jill, spent last night watching Mirai Nagasu landing that triple axel and swooning over Adam Rippon’s gorgeous long program and sitting in stunned disbelief over the perfection that is Virtue & Moir, then you might enjoy listening to this Radiolab episode about Surya Bonaly:

“Surya Bonaly was not your typical figure skater.  She was black. She was athletic. And she didn’t seem to care about artistry.  Her performances – punctuated by triple-triple jumps and other power moves – thrilled audiences around the world.  Yet, commentators claimed she couldn’t skate, and judges never gave her the high marks she felt she deserved.  But Surya didn’t accept that criticism.  Unlike her competitors – ice princesses who hid behind demure smiles – Surya made her feelings known.  And, at her final Olympic performance, she attempted one jump that flew in the face of the establishment, and marked her for life as a rebel.”

 

-Also topical, this fascinating interview with the head of Black Panther‘s hair department about the various styles and processes employed by the film, which celebrates, among other things, black hair in its natural state.  The article also comes, helpfully, with a list of recommended products.  (Have already ordered the scalp soothing serum for Shiv!)

 

-Last but not least, I made these pancakes on Friday night (breakfast for dinner to go along with the Olympic Opening Ceremonies), and was reminded that I have not yet recommended them to all of you.  They are light, fluffy, and very simple to make – no separating eggs, no fuss – just make sure you have some plain yogurt & apple cider vinegar on hand.

MONDAY MIX – 1/29/18

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

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-Here’s your reminder that reporters are heroes and that local newspapers are important; this New York Times piece details the painstaking investigative work that Indianapolis Star reporters did, ultimately leading to the arrest and now conviction of Larry Nassar.

 

-I made this bread on Sunday and it is really freaking delicious.  In general, I have great success with recipes that Tim (of Lottie & Doof fame) recommends, and this was no exception; not at all difficult to put together, super gratifying to pull out of the oven.  You’ll probably need to go to the store for bread flour, heavy cream, & nonfat dry milk powder, but I can promise you it’s worth it.  Most decadent Monday morning toast ever.

 

-My wife, Jill, is offering an online course on Eastern Religions!  Content will include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism & Shinto, so if you’ve been intrigued by these religions in the past or have always wanted to know more about them, I highly recommend this class.  Obviously I’m biased, but Jill has a reputation as a teacher for bringing complex ideas to life and making them relatable for her students.  She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and over twenty years of experience teaching on these topics; registration is open through Wednesday, January 31st, so sign up now!