Thursday, February 19, 2015

Who's Responsible for ISIS?

Think Progress and Juan Cole present a well informed, substantiated representation of most of my thoughts on Graeme Wood's article What ISIS Really Wants in the Atlantic.

Jerusha Tanner Lamptey
Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary
By suggesting that Islam is ultimately beholden to specific literal readings of texts, Lamptey said Wood and other pundits inadvertently validate ISIS’s voice.
“[Wood’s position] confirms exactly what people like ISIS want people to think about them, which is that they are the only legitimate voice,” she said. “It echoes that rhetoric 100%. Yes, that is what ISIS says about themselves, but it is a different step to say ‘Yes, that is true about the Islamic tradition and all Muslims.’”
Nihad Awad
Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
“Scholars who study Islam, authorities of Islamic jurisprudence, are telling ISIS that they are wrong, and Mr. Wood knows more than what they do, and he’s saying that ISIS is Islamic?” Awad said. “I don’t think Mr. Wood has the background or the scholarship to make that dangerous statement, that historically inaccurate statement...."
Mohammad Fadel
Associate Professor & Toronto Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto
“Yes, [ISIS is] Islamic in that they use Islamic sources to justify all their actions,” Fadel said. “But I think the question that bothers most Muslims is the idea that just because someone says they are Muslim or that their actions are representative of Islam doesn’t make it so. Just because a group can appropriate Islamic sources and Islamic symbols, and then go around doing all sorts of awful things, doesn’t mean that they get to be the ones who define for the world what Islam means.”

I have much greater respect for Jerusha Lamptey and Juan Cole as experts on Islam and Iraq, respectively, than I have for the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Princeton, which is closely affiliated with the neo-cons who took us to war in Iraq under false/exaggerated pretenses. Wood, in contrast, leans heavily on Princeton's Bernard Haykel. I'm more trusting of the Edward Said school of Middle Eastern studies that Haykel dismisses as 'rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”'

* * *

What I would add that I haven't seen in other articles about ISIS is that the actions of the West in Iraq, from colonialism to Iran Contra to sanctions to invasion and occupation, have created fertile ground for conservatism, fanaticism, retaliation and flat-out fury.

Since about the time that ISIS emerged, I have given myself an entirely amateur self-diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If it's an accurate self-diagnosis, mine is still only a mild, entirely manageable case. Still, coming to terms with my own trauma has changed my relationship to a long-held opinion of mine. I first formed my theory years ago in reference to the Palestinians, especially Gazans. Now I feel strongly that most of the Middle East, especially Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, suffers from the complications of several generations of moderate to severe trauma disorders.

In America, we've all learned since 2001 something about PTSD and how it effects our soldiers when they return home. Right now, PTSD is on trial in Texas in the so-called "American Sniper" case. But our soldiers get to come home. Our soldiers, to one degree or another, chose to enter the fight in the first place. What about the Iraqi kids who came of age during the Sunni Awakening, or the heyday of the Mahdi Army? What about their parents, who watched them die indiscriminately, as collateral damage in the conflict between Islamists and Coalition forces?

ISIL recruited them, but how much of a role did we play in making them recruit-able?

Sure, there are what Graeme Wood in another article calls the Psychopaths. I don't believe - and I don't think Wood believes - that their bloodthirsty enthusiasm for ISIS is really about religious conviction. If not this movement, I believe they would have found another, similarly bloody movement to join. In any case, Juan Cole makes a good case for their importance being exaggerated:

.01 percent of the community volunteered. They are often teens, some are on the lam from petty criminal charges, and many come back disillusioned. You could get 400 people to believe almost anything. It isn’t a significant statistic.

Al Qaeda, Abu Mas'ab Zarqawi, Salafi quietism, ISIL - all of these movements, self-styled resistance or liberation movements, were born at times when the United States and her allies were flexing their muscles in the Middle East. When do we turn from criticizing Islam to a serious critique of our own contributions to what's happening in the Arabian Peninsula?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

People's Climate March

From Peoples Climate March
Manhattan, New York, NYC

I remember being dismayed at how small and sordid Occupy Wall Street seemed to me, when I first visited. Sarah L and I, who had weathered the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath together, went down to see Zuccotti Park on the day Gaddafi was killed in Libya. I was high on revolution that day, with the fall of perhaps the most brutal dictator of the Arab Spring (Morsi and Sisi not yet in the picture). There was, I felt confident, a global groundswell rising. Omar Offendum's anthem #Syria rang in my head:

isqaat an-niDHaam!
The people
will never be defeated!

I stood on the corner of Broadway with Sarah L, facing Zuccotti Park in silence, feeling my shoulders droop. A few hundred people standing around in white man dreadlocks and grunge, some bedraggled tents, signs leaning against trees, bits of rubbish on the ground. There was noise, but no energy. Not like Tahrir Square. We looked at each other, shrugged. "There's this great French place around here with amazing crepes," Sarah said, pulling out her smartphone.

Nearly a year later, OWS announced a march to reboot the movement, on May 1, the great socialist holiday of International Workers' Day. I expected the same desultory showing, but I was unemployed and at loose ends; I couldn't job search 24/7, and the exercise would be good for me. Some people from All Souls Unitarian Church and Fourth Universalist Church would be marching with Occupy Faith, so I decided to meet them at the Ghandi statue in Union Square.

Marching with All Souls' Asst Minister Lissa Anne Gundlach and Director of Religious Ed Taryn Strauss was different, immersive. We discussed the issues as we walked, photographed people's signs, and Taryn led us in "This Little Light of Mine." We shouted, "The people / united / will never be defeated," and people cheered us from fourth and fifth floor windows and fire escapes. It was a transformative experience that eventually led me to my job at All Souls, which came to include organizing with Lissa around the People's Climate March.

This was entirely different again because this time it did feel like a movement. I remember first hearing about the march back in May at a screening of Groundswell Rising at All Souls, an anti-fracking documentary. " wants to top the biggest climate protest in history, 85,000 in Copenhagen. We're aiming for 100,000." I thought it was a pretty number but I didn't know how realistic it was.

Then I was attending a free summer concert in Prospect Park: Janelle Monae, the series opener. Young people were going up and down the long line of waiting concert-goers with quarter sheets of paper, encouraging the hipsters, rock fans, families and neighbors to the People's Climate March. "I've already got one. I'll be there," I said, but I wondered if that many people really cared about the climate, even in liberal New York, even so soon after Superstorm Sandy.

After we started talking about it at All Souls, though, I began to have hope that this really did move people. The Unitarian Universalist regional district was organizing homestays for UUs from across the country. There were dozens coming down from Vermont, a couple hundred traveling together by train from California. We were the second largest faith contingent at the march, behind only the Catholics!
From Peoples Climate March

Saturday, August 23, 2014

We Will Not Go Back

March for Eric Garner
Staten Island, New York, USA

You may have heard various accounts of the march and rally organized by Rev. Al Sharpton and the family of Eric Garner. When the Racial Justice Initiative at All Souls decided to march, I went, too.

It wasn't that long ago that I was teaching in Canarsie, Brooklyn. All of my students were black, Latino, Caribbean Islanders, and other minority identities. Many lived in Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, Flatbush and other designated high crime neighborhoods where police presence was strong and stop-and-frisk was a fact of life. Any one of my boys could have been Ramarley Graham. Many lived in low-income housing where armed NYPD are authorized to walk the halls of high rise buildings seeking out infractions. We didn't talk about it, but I knew that, statistically speaking, most of them had been stopped-and-frisked multiple times. They all distrusted the police.

Even at school, all students were subjected to full-body scanning each morning as they entered the building, and school safety officers in the hallways who are employees of the NYPD. Even excelling, well-behaved students were not exempt from these indignities. I know how insulted and degraded I feel taking my shoes and belt off for screening at the airport. As a white woman speaking in an educated register, I know that I will never be profiled and chosen for "random" additional inspections, even with 20 pages of Arabic in my passport. I could only imagine what it felt like for my students to know that they were subject to this treatment every day, in school and on the streets, regardless of their academic, athletic or other achievements.

For this and for so many other indignities to the inherent worth and dignity of people of color in this country, I marched. I listened to this group and that chant, bearing witness to their anger and needs. We carried signs from SEIU 1199, the health workers union of which Eric Garner's mother is a member and organizer.

Kelly was interviewed on camera about why a white person would march for black lives. In part she said that, as a school social worker, these are her children who are being stopped-and-frisked, profiled and harmed. She acquitted herself with exceeding grace, and made the cut for the evening news.

At the end of the march, there was a rally hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton and the extended family of Eric Garner. I was very impressed that every speaker began by thanking the NYPD for the graciousness with which they greeted and shepherded this march, and for the important service they do for our city. And then they all called for reform of the bad apples in the service, and for legal action against officers who take a life like Eric Garner's. Every member of Eric Garner's family spoke, and they all encouraged us to make our voices heard, but urged us to do so without violence. We also heard from city officials, religious leaders, the Nation of Islam, and my hero/girl-crush Debbie Almontaser of the Arab American Association of New York.

It was a powerful day. A beautiful day for a march, a powerful crowd to march with, an important message to tell.

And we all got our picture in the Village Voice online and on Facebook.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Most Beautiful Nephew In the World

and his favorite yoga mat, my brother Ben
"I'm leaving now to go to the hospital and meet him," said Mom, "but I already know he's the smartest, most beautiful baby in the whole world."

Of course he is. He's related to us!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Honoring Margot Adler

New York, NY, USA
I was more deeply moved than I would have expected by the death of Margot Adler: journalist, priestess, lover of vampires, and fellow member of the great family of All Souls Unitarian Church.

I knew Margot Adler’s name and voice long before I ever met her. My father literally sets his watch by All Things Considered, and he always has his favorite reporters: Baxter Black the cowboy poet, Scott Simon, a few others, and Margot Adler. When their voices came on the air, the volume went up and we stopped to listen. I am an NPR junkie myself now, with my own list of favorites -- Soraya Sarhatti-Nelson, Robert Krulwich, Laila Fadl -- but Dad and I still have Margot Adler in common.

So in the fall of 2012, when she was going to preach in the pulpit of All Souls, where I was newly employed, I was ecstatic. When I was proofreading the Order of Service and saw her sermon title, “Why We Love Vampires,” I was enraptured. Even though she had preached at All Souls a few times before, I got there extra early that morning in case she needed anything.

When I walked through the parish house door, there she was, shorter and more stooped than I had pictured for such a giant of journalism, but with a radiant smile you can't see on the radio. The other worship leader wouldn’t arrive for almost an hour, so I walked Margot upstairs and we stood at my desk and chatted, just as if we were old colleagues.

I had loved vampires for at least a dozen years longer than Margot, but of the 260 vampire novels she had read while researching her e-book Vampires Are Us, we had settled on most of the same favorites for mostly the same reasons. I had probably also been pondering why we love vampires longer than she had, but she had come to all my conclusions and taken them a step further.

Eventually, from vampires, we turned quite naturally to witches in popular literature. I have long said that if I were any kind of theist, I would be a Wiccan polytheist, and Margot Adler remains the Wiccan priestess most admired by the practicing pagans of my childhood church. In conversation, I learned that both Margot and I were impressed by the representation of witches in bestselling romance novelist Nora Roberts’ work.

We were interrupted by the arrival of the assistant minister, but I made time to sit and listen to Margot’s sermon in both services. Two years later, chatting with Margot is still one of my best memories of All Souls.

After that, she always had a hug for me when I saw her in church. Through Superstorm Sandy, New York mayoral politics and more, I always stopped to listen when Margot Adler’s familiar voice came on the air.

This past spring, I was walking through Central Park, listening to All Things Considered on my iPod, when Margot came on the air. It was a story about new super skyscrapers on the west side of Central Park that were stealing the sunlight from some of the park’s trees. I almost logged into the church database right there in the park to email her about how I had enjoyed the story and that I couldn’t recall seeing her at church recently.

Now I never will and wish I had.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Skyline Drive

Virginia, USA
From Skyline Drive
A romantic interlude along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains on my way home from "church camp" with someone special.

From Skyline Drive

Friday, July 25, 2014

Virginia Hike

Radford, Virginia, USA

From Virginia Mountain Stream
In which I spend the last day of "church camp" hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, swimming in a quick little creek, and starting my photography project of images suitable for making memes for a social media campaign.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

We Didn't Mean To Break the Boat

South Bridgton, Maine, USA
From Boats and Beaches
The wind was up, the boats were in the water, and it was warm enough not to worry about an accidental tip-test into the lake. My friend Stephanie had come up with me from New York for the holiday weekend, and I don't think she had ever been sailing. "Don't worry," I said, "I'm a certified sailing instructor. I can teach you in an hour." It's true, I've done it.

Still, it had been a few years since I had been sailing on my own. Last summer, I let my brother Ben do all the actual sailing when we went out briefly on the Sunfish, because I wasn't sure I would still have the feel for it. So before I put Stephanie on board, I took the Sunfish out for a spin on my own. It turns out that sailing small craft is like riding a bike -- actually, better, because I falter an awful lot more when I haven't been on a bike that long! After a quick jaunt out and back, I ran aground on the much shallower-than-expected lake bottom, picked up Stephanie, and headed out to "sea."

Meanwhile, Dad was having a great time on his "new," "free to a good home" Force 5 sailboat. The father of his old high school buddy had this boat sitting around that he hadn't used in a long time, and he recently gave it to Dad. He and my brother had to re-fiberglass some large sections of the hull, and the missing top third of the mast had to be mail-ordered, but now it was ready to sail, and Dad was more than willing and able!

Stephanie and I launched at about the same time in the Sunfish. A few fishermen out in a small boat shouted, "Great sail!" across the water before powering quietly out of our way. Passing Dad, I shouted an old family favorite, "Swallows and Amazons forever!" He was definitely having a great time, heeling up on edge and flying over the water. We couldn't get going nearly as fast in the fickle wind of the small lake.

After awhile, Stephanie and I brought the Sunfish in, and I hopped on the Force 5 with Dad to try his new "go-fast boat." It certainly gave the feel of speed, the wind in my hair, the heel of the boat. We were hit with a particularly strong gust of the inconsistent wind, and I felt sure we had reached that critical angle that you can't recover from and were about to flip her over. As the sail inched closer to the water, I braced my feet under the lip of the cockpit opposite and leaned back as far as I could manage.

Then, all of a sudden, the hull was flat in the water, so was the sail, and Dad was gone, flown off into the water behind me. The mast had snapped clean off near the hull where someone had redrilled an extra pair of holes to reattach the boom. It only proves what Dad always says: "A free boat is the most expensive kind!"

For dinner, we went out to the sea in Portland for lobster. It was a great weekend away from the city, everything the Swallows might have wished for!
From Boats and Beaches

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Van Cortland Hike

Bronx, New York, USA
From Van Cortland Park Hike
One of the things I love best about New York City is the abundance of public parks and green spaces, a wealth that is growing in quantity and quality as I live here. For the third summer in a row, it is my intention to see some parks this year that I haven't visited.

It's also my goal to do some Saturday hiking this year, to get in slightly better shape, but more for the renewal of a little time in green and nature. While I love New York, I'm not actually a city person by nature.

So when I saw that the Friends of Van Cortland Park was doing a highlights hike of the park on my day off, I jumped at the chance. Van Cortland is a huge park up in the Bronx with lots of more or less untouched woods, cross country and bridle trails, cricket and soccer fields, and some historic buildings.

There's a couple of golf courses with a swamp in between that I'd love to come back and spend more time exploring the edges of.

All in all, it was a nice little hike in the big city.
From Van Cortland Park Hike

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Beacon Mountain

Beacon, NY, USA
From Beacon Mountain
Wow. Am I ever sore! At the top of the first switchback, David said, "Is everyone okay? Does anyone think they're not going to make it?" I almost raised my hand and said I'd meet them back in town after. Call it pride, chutzpah or the "stoic Maryah act," I couldn't bring myself to raise my hand. And I would have regretted it.

The views were spectacular, the clouds perfectly fluffy and just the right amount, the company delightful, and we stopped often to drink it all in.

After we had rested a bit at the top, we hiked across to that fire tower, which looks pretty far away in this photo, but was a pleasant walk, mostly fairly flat. It was worth it for the misty view of the New York City skyline over sixty miles away.

From Beacon Mountain
New Goal
I started using the step counter on my phone again on the first. My commute plus lunch averages out to about 3.5 miles of walking all told (home to subway, subway to subway, subway to work). My new fitness goal is to walk 5 miles a day, even on Fridays and Saturdays when I'm not working. Today I gave my average a good head start with 14.1 miles, doorstep to doorstep (by which I mean the apartment doorstep in my third floor walkup!)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Prodigal Magnolia

New York, NY, USA
From Finding Magnolia
I'm delighted to have my friend Magnolia back in New York, even for a brief visit. We are, as Anne Shirley would say, "kindred spirits." Between our Unitarian Universalist roots, and our crazy travel histories, we have such similar stories that we understand the parts of each other's lives that are hardest for some of our other friends to really empathize with in the same way.

Not everyone wants to hear the details when you come back from Somewhere. I've been fortunate to have a lot of friends and family who are not only willing but eager to hear all my long, sometimes rambling, often mundane stories about living abroad. What is much harder for many of my friends and family to understand is the emotional underpinnings of this addiction to multiculturalism. Maggie gets that, too.

While I was looking for Maggie, I took a nice stroll through Central Park. I've started using the step counter on my phone again with the hope of walking 5 miles per day (my average is 3.5 at this time). I also got some nice photos of the new set of flowers in bloom this week.
From Finding Magnolia

Friday, May 30, 2014

#YesAllWomen, #NotAllMen, Peace Corps-style

It's probably June, 2004. The phone rings in the middle of the night, waking me out of an exhausted sleep. I grope for it, check the display. It's about three a.m. and I don't recognize the number. I mute the ringer and try to go back to sleep.

The phone rings again. Same number. I'm pretty sure I know what this call is, but there's an outside chance it could be someone from Peace Corps Jordan or the U.S. Embassy. I'm a warden, which means four other Peace Corps Volunteers would consolidate at my house in the event of political unrest or natural disaster, and I would be responsible for calling them all with the consolidation order. Just in case, I pick up. "'Allo?"

"Hello-oo! What your name?"

"None of your business. Don't call again." I hang up.

My phone immediately rings again. Same number. I mute the ringer and save his number as DoNotAnswer3. It rings again. I let it ring till it stops, then it rings a fifth time. I grab a notebook and start a tally. Six. Seven. On the eighth call, I pick up but don't speak. I'm cross-legged on my comforter, phone by my knee, but I can still hear him.

"Hello? Hello? What your name? Hello? Hello? Why you not talk me? Hello?" The phone goes dead.

He calls again. I hit the green button but leave the phone on the bed. "Hello? Hello? Why you not say hello? Hello?" After a few more tries, he hangs up and calls again.

In Jordan, it doesn't cost me anything to receive a call on my cell phone, but it costs him money if I pick up. I hear him getting angry. "Hello? Why you do this me? Hello? I spend money this call. Why you not talk me? Hello?"

All told, he calls me thirteen times in under an hour. The moment he or I hang up, he calls back. It's four a.m. on a Wednesday, and I have to leave for school at seven to teach, but I'm not angry. Not this time. I'm actually pretty pleased with myself, because I had never thought of picking up without answering, running up his phone bill. It feels inspired, and it feels righteously vindictive.

I have only recently begun saving these numbers in my phone as DoNotAnswer, so even though I'm calling this one #3, there have been dozens. They usually happen in the middle of the night. Sometimes, though, we Peace Corps Volunteer girls get these calls when we're with a Volunteer who is a native Arabic speaker. He'll take the phone and demand, "Who do you think you are, calling my sister?" That number, at least, will never call again. A male relative's authority carries extra weight in Jordan, where honor killings happen about a dozen times a year.

Before I leave for school, I call Samir, the Peace Corps security guy. I tell him what happened and give him the number of DoNotAnswer3. Samir says he'll take care of it, and I trust him to do the culturally appropriate thing. Peace Corps trusts Samir, and the U.S. Embassy trusts him, so I trust him more than any Jordanian man I know.

Samir is a small, compact, nondescript man. He's quiet, soft-spoken and gentle. I don't always notice when he's in the room. He doesn't talk about what he does for us, except to say, "I'll take care of it." Word gets around, though.

"Now, brother, is that how we treat guests in our culture? Is that the culture of hospitality the Prophet Mohammad taught us? Shame on you, brother!"

* * * * *

It's nearly midnight the next night when the phone rings again. It's DoNotAnswer3. I ignore it, but by the fourth ring, I am getting angry. "What do you want?"

"Why you tell him about me? I just want be friends." When I hang up, he calls back, again and again. This time, I don't bother to run up his phone bill. I just cancel the calls as they come in. I text Samir and tell him DoNotAnswer3 is calling again.

* * * * *

Friday morning, I'm yanked out of bed by a very angry gut. I spend more than an hour in the bathroom with food poisoning, and then collapse back into my bed. The phone rings, and I pick it up without looking. "'Allo?"

"Good morning, Maryah. I'm in Faiha', and I'm coming to see you." It's DoNotAnswer3, and this time he knows my name and the name of my village. From somewhere below my heaving stomach, I find the strength for outrage, and fear. I call Samir and tell him everything. He tells me to stay home and keep my door locked. I'm too sick to go anywhere anyway.

* * * * *

That afternoon, Samir calls. "The plainclothes police are coming to get your statement," he says. "They say they're in Faiha', almost to your house. Just tell them what you told me."

I can see the nondescript beige sedan pull into my neighbor's driveway, up to the gate of my garden. I come out on the porch as two men get out of the car. I can't invite them in, as a single woman living alone, and in fact they come no closer than the middle of my yard. They want me to explain what happened, but my Arabic isn't good enough and they don't speak English. Finally, I call Samir and pass the phone down so he can explain again for me.

We're three or four meters apart: I, standing up on my porch and they, standing down in the yard. All around us, the neighbors have come out on their porches, staring shoulder-to-shoulder, making no secret of listening to our conversation. It makes me feel safe today, knowing that my neighbors are watching out for me.

After the police return my phone and leave, the headmistress of my school sends her 18-year-old son to find out what's going on. I explain as well as I can, since her son doesn't speak English, either. When he understands, he grins and shakes his head. "You didn't have to call Peace Corps! You should have told him to come on over." He plants his fist in his palm with a loud slapping sound. "We would have taken care of him!"

* * * * *

DoNotAnswer3 is arrested the next day. They don't need me to press charges. He had already been arrested five times for the same harassing behavior.

Often, when Peace Corps Volunteers gather, we swap horror stories. Male Volunteers had their own kinds of horror stories, but they frequently ended theirs with, "But it's so much harder to be a woman in Jordan!"

One day, a married Volunteer pushed back. It was much harder for her husband, she said. It is the imperative of the woman to ignore her harasser, protecting her reputation by not responding, and her security by not further antagonizing him. Men, on the other hand, are compelled to respond. If her husband didn't confront every epidsode of misogyny with outrage, she explained, then they both lost their respect in the community. Her husband is a reticent man, quiet and gentle, and it was extraordinarily troubling for him to have to react with anger and implied violence every day.

Jordan has the highest attrition rate in the Peace Corps. It seemed to me that more men than women cited gender-based harassment as their reason for leaving. Their empathy for our experiences impressed me from the very first week on the ground. They took every misogynistic statement or action seriously and personally. They regularly called out their male colleagues and even strangers on the street. "Is that how you would want me to treat your sister?"

Looking back, I think it was harder for the men in Peace Corps because they weren't prepared. No one was talking about "rape culture" in those days, at least not where I could hear them, but I had internalized it like all the women I know. Before we even arrived in Jordan, we women had already developed some of the defense mechanisms we would need to ignore misogynistic micro-aggressions. We had developed the internal monologue to refute what we heard. "I'm not a baby, my worth doesn't depend on your sexual needs or aesthetic preferences, I'm not a bitch just because you're not getting what you think you deserve."

The men we served with likely didn't see these micro-agressions as often as we did back home. They had the luxury in America of choosing whether to get involved. I don't blame them for that. I think it made it all the harder for them to become the powerful feminist men they became in Jordan, among the strongest voices speaking against rape culture on my Facebook Newsfeed today.

I thank them for their support.

Monday, May 26, 2014

No Swimming at the Beach!

Arverne by the Sea, Queens, NYC, NY
From No Swimming at the Beach!
When Hannah proposed a day at the beach for Memorial Day, I jumped at the chance. I love the water, the sun, the waves.... We took the A Train out to the Rockaways to our usual beach spot in Arverne.

This is our third summer going to this same spot on the beach: the summer before Hurricane Sandy, and now two summers since. It gets busier and busier each time we go, first with surfers and now with sunbathers, too. Next time probably we'll head farther up the island.

It's also the first time we've been yelled at for going in the water. The reason I love the Rockaways is because they have real waves for jumping and body-surfing and just general interest. I wasn't intending to really swim today, just get wet and jump some waves for a bit. No sooner were we hip-deep than the park police started blowing her whistle. "There's no swimming here," she says. "There's no lifeguard."

"What about the surfers?" They go out farther, and closer to the rocky jetties, with surfboards heavy enough to do some real damage in a collison with someone's head.

"That's different. There's no swimming."

One more reason to go farther up the beach next time!

From No Swimming at the Beach!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

2 Wilderness Memoirs

Brooklyn, NY, USA

I'm working on two major writing projects right now: a set of novels about wilderness conservation and wolf preservation in Montana, and what finally seems like a successful attempt to write a memoir of my Peace Corps service. One morning, perusing the popular East Village McNally Jackson Bookstore, I found myself in the memoir section. I spotted some phenomenal memoirs I had already read, like human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. I walked out with two memoirs I could consider "research" for my current projects: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors, and Here If You Need Me by Rev. Kate Braestrup.

In Fire Season, Connors leaves the urban jungle of New York City journalism for a short vacation with a friend serving as a lookout in the Gila National Forest, and quickly finds himself with a new career: fire-spotting by summer, bartending by winter. I picked it up because one of my novels takes place mostly in a fictional disused Forest Service cabin like the one Connors spends his summers in (except mine is in Montana), and I thought I could pick up some good atmosphere. I did that. But along the way, I got absorbed into his world, seduced into the idea of a long, golden summer alone on a mountain peak, a man and his typewriter and his mostly-loyal dog.

I live in New York, as Connor did, but I grew up in the countryside. I appreciate the yearning for the open trail, of wilderness and wild as far as the eye can see, as I experienced it backpacking the Appalachian Trail with my Girl Scout troop. Even in the depths of the Central Park Bramble at midsummer, you don't get that. But like Kerouac and the college kid who was supposed to be Connors' once-a-fortnight relief, I don't think I would last. I found myself envying Connors' ability to be completely alone with himself and not lose himself.
From April Flowers
I think Kate Braestrup's world is far more manageable, though it emerged from tragedy instead of ennui. I bought Here If You Need Me because I'd heard her speak on the WNYC program On Being. When her husband, a Maine State Trooper, dies in a car accident, she takes up his dream of becoming a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, eventually becoming the chaplain of the Maine Warden Service. What started as following her husband's dream turns out to be exactly what Kate needed for herself. As she writes about waiting with families, accompanying wardens on their rounds, and locating the occasional body, she learns what it means to be present. Being a chaplain, she finds, is only sometimes about praying together or confronting grief. Sometimes it's just about listening with an open heart. It's not about making sense of the world so much as being in the world and really seeing it, feeling it, appreciating it.

Kate's book is about grief, and I did cry. It's also about finding humor, and I laughed more than I cried. Most of all, it's about living a life of faith that is gentle and nonjudgemental, that opens the heart. When she references scripture, it is to bring the text alive in new and unexpected ways, lending it direct relevance to the simple things in life. She writes in a free associative style that should be confusing, especially after the more traditionally linear narrative of Connor's Fire Season. Instead, Braestrup's Here If You Need Me flows from scene to backstory to scene to theology and back to scene so seamlessly that I had finished the book much faster than I was ready for it to be over.
From Lake in Maine