I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala translated by Ann Wright and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray

I first learned about Rigoberta Menchú when I was getting my undergraduate minor in Spanish. I think I might’ve even read excerpts back then, but I was a few pages into this book when I realized I had definitely never read I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

I Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala

image from powells.com

At first, I thought it would be too painful for me to read. Lately, I’m always on the lookout for books that substantive, but aren’t too stressful–a difficult balance. But the book drew me in as a voyeur of indigenous life. I was fascinated to read about perspectives and beliefs so different from the world I live in. Like a typical imperialist, I even felt nostalgic for some of the rituals, customs, family, and deep commitment to and love of community (I write this all self-critically). I was also moved by the extreme poverty and suffering these people endured.

As Menchú grows up, the political climate in Guatemala becomes increasingly violent. Unbelievably violent. Once I was committed to the book, I was also committed to reading through the deaths, gruesome tortures, and murders of her loved ones. I was also struck by how recent this history is. Menchú is still alive today, and Guatemala doesn’t seem so far away. These human rights violations felt real and close to me as I read. I couldn’t help but think of the protests and violations that have played out over the last year here at Standing Rock. I couldn’t help but think of the political discord in our own country and the fear surrounding the newly elected leader and how quickly political systems can turn.

To have the firsthand account of someone who lived through this struggle is an unbelievable gift to humanity, so that we all might be  to be able to understand how politics, governments, war, and economies can change and be changed.

The political influence is clear in the retelling of her story. She becomes much more radicalized throughout her life as a direct response to her incredible suffering. As I read, I thought of the power in naming something. She doesn’t really learn Spanish until she is in her 20s. That kind of illiteracy makes a person vulnerable to radicalization from a church or a government. In this case, the reader can see how Menchú was exposed to the language of Communism while acquiring the Spanish language. At the same time, the ancient way of her home culture has some very…communist…ideals. The community is the family. Family and community are prioritized over all else. Each family has their own land and their own food, but they share very generously with the community, even when their own livelihoods suffer. This is their ancient way, but her literacy also emerges as Communism takes hold in South America, and the reader is left wondering where the community mindedness ends and the political influence of Communism begins.

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading two books back to back with such a clear connection between Catholicism and Communism, but I did, and it was fascinating, and heartbreaking, and Rigoberta Menchú’s story is a “must read” for all informed citizens of the world.

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

As usual, I’ve had a hard time finding the right thing to read lately. I want something that’s light and easy–a break from difficult scholarship. But, I also want it to be substantive. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day was the perfect solution during the holiday break. First of all, I had to read it with a title like that. (When I saw her face on the cover, I also knew I had to read it.) Secondly, I am always fascinated with and inspired by women who are doing things a little differently than the status quo, and Dorothy Day certainly has. The book is about her experience with community and the sacrifices she’s made in pursuit of her beliefs about the best way to live.

image from amazon.com

The first two-thirds of the book was of the most interest to me personally. In the first third of the book, she writes extensively about her childhood, about her friendships, her family life, and the reader can see the subtle ways these experiences influenced the choices she made later. Her descriptions of various little girls she befriended seemed tedious at times, but I think it helped make her larger point–that these connections and interactions we have with people are the stuff of life and far from inconsequential.

Next, she wrote about being a young women, her unconventional “marriage,” the birth and joy of her daughter, and the decisions she made to convert to Catholicism. In this section, I was deeply interested in her relationship with her partner and her response to her baby. I identified much with those very human experiences, even though I haven’t had them myself exactly.

The last third dragged on and I had to force myself to finish. I didn’t identify quite as strongly with her decision to convert to Catholicism. Like much of her thinking and decision making, as a reader, I sometimes had a hard time understanding her motivations. She’s very matter of fact about everything, and I found myself responding, “Yes, but…” That said, I love her unapologetic descriptions of joy and love earlier on, and I don’t need her to explain “why.” Still, the social activism, the writing, and the experiences with various people are a part of her story, but I was less interested, in part, because it was less about her and more about them.

Here are some insights I gained from reading the book. Day is unfaltering convinced that we must live together. After living alone for the bulk of my adult life, I am feeling ready to not live alone. I have felt loneliness and fear–something that was quite rare for me throughout my twenties. That’s fine. I was pursuing other things. Now I’m in a new stage, and I want to live in meaningful relationships. I have a much stronger urge to connect to other people and invest in them. In this way, Day’s message really resonated with me at this time.

Here are a few lines and ideas worth further consideration:

  • One hundred years ago, there were free medical clinics. If you were not poor, there was also affordable medical clinics that were a little nicer.–I can’t imagine how freeing it would be to go through life knowing that, should a major medical event occur, you could go on living without being forever indebted to a financial institution. We are living in fear or modern slavery.
  • Much of Day’s life’s work is in writing and writing for The Catholic Worker, and she understood what I am only being forced to understand now, which is just how crucial freedom of the press is and how important it is to communicate with the masses in this way.
  • “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore” (285).
  • “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that that only solution is love and that love comes with community” (286).

By the end, I sort of just wanted to rise with the sun, and garden and bake bread, and pray and read and meditate, and wake the next morning to do it all over again.

last summer

At the end of each year, I update the last of the pictures from my phone that I want to add to the yearly album I keep on Facebook–this year labeled “2016.” Each year, I scroll back through the photos and reminisce about the previous year. This time I came across a few photos of the gardening I did last summer, and I thought I would share here–an update to the “gardening” post I did at the beginning of the summer.

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flowerbed near the end of the season

Plants that struggled:
The zucchini. This poor little thing was transplanted at least twice, and it just never succeeded. I also think I crowded it, which didn’t help–that, plus the cool summer and the somewhat shady location meant this little plant tried to bloom, and made a few tiny zucchinis, but nothing much.

The hostas. I’ve had lots of good luck with my “sum and substance” plant, which I’ve written about here, here, and here. When a hailstorm destroyed my big hosta for the season, I was missing those big, beautiful leaves. So, I bought and planted more. Many more. But, they never seemed to flourish. I’m hoping they’ll pop up in the spring for a fresh start.

The honeysuckle. This plant might’ve been crowded, and I’m hoping it will flourish in the coming year, but it promptly lost it’s petals and was nothing more than a few fronds of leaves for the entire summer.

The coleus. I want to like coleus because all of the garden gurus seems to love it, and it’s a splash of color, and yadda yadda yadda, but they don’t really speak to me, and anyway this year’s coleus got leggy, couldn’t stand even the mildest cold, and then died.

Plants that thrived:
The sunsatia lemon nemesia hybrid. I didn’t really want to like this plant because it’s a hybrid, and I tend to like traditional plants that have stood the test of time, but I have to admit that this plant was perfect for last summer’s conditions. It bloomed all summer and offered a bright burst of color to the flowerbed.

The strawberry plants. These hardy little plants had bright green leaves, sent out feelers, and made lovely berries (that the birds and grasshoppers usually got to before I could), despite a rough transplant. The little berries were tasty, and I’m hoping they return next year, even bigger and better than before.

The yarrow. There was already some yarrow in this flowerbed when I began, and so I planted more, and sure enough, this hardy herb did just fine. They also inspired some nice photos!

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pink yarrow

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yellow yarrow

Plants that are doing okay:
The dianthus. This is a hardy plant, and I think it will thrive next year, but this year it was completely average looking.

The pansies. These are cold hardy, and they’re going to thrive here, but they weren’t very inspiring this year. I’m sure I’ll be grateful for them in the spring when they’re the first thing to pop up.

The black-eyed susan. This is another plant that should thrive here. They didn’t do much last year. They plant wasn’t very full. They bloomed. Maybe next year they will do more.

Plants from container gardening:
Thanks to watering help from my Very Generous Neighbors, I also enjoyed several months of delicious zucchinis and tomatoes as seen below:


Right now, it’s the middle of winter. The temperature is -8, and there’s a windchill that’s making it even worse. Meanwhile I am dreaming about sun-warmed soil, and fresh chard, and garden vegetables, and raspberry bushes too, of course.

2016: the year in review

My 2016 “best nine” according to IG.

2016 was a whirlwind year. I loved. I worried. My heart shattered. I got sick. I figured some things out. I remembered “authentic self” stuff that has helped me re-engage with my values and interests. And so I got better at being me. I worried some more. I got better. I loved.

Now, as with most December 31sts, I feel quieter, more restful, more peaceful than celebratory, or loud, or exciting. These are long, cold days. As a species I think we’re supposed to be lying low, eating root vegetables, and conserving energy to get through winter. Still, in a little while, I’ll probably pull on my giant fuzzy snow boots and be with the smiling, happy people.

In 2015 I traveled. I felt blocked creatively, and so to occupy myself, I tried to say yes to all of the people I loved, and even liked, and ended up making a few long road trips and even made a solo detour on a trip to visit my best friend and ended up seeing more of the Oregon coast than I’d ever seen before and felt small next to the tsunami warnings and did wheel pose in the warm sand with my mom, whom I love so much.

I felt like my urgent travel mode was coming to an end in 2016, but I still ended up traveling a lot. I flew to Louisiana. In February, I road tripped back to Utah through Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado (in the snow!). Then I flew to Houston for a conference that ended up being a good bonding experience with my colleagues, even though I was also really emotionally raw during that trip. I made a quick trip home for my nephew’s birthday (a date I rarely get to make because of my work schedule). Later in the month, I attended another conference in Atlanta. The conference was great, but the trip felt a little solitary. When school finished up, I took off to the high mountains of Idaho, and then made my annual trip to Oregon, came back to Idaho, and then I did another quick trip to Utah.

Before school started, I road tripped to Phoenix by way of the Grand Canyon (a first for me!), Flagstaff and Sedona. In Phoenix I ate some of the best pizza of my life, drove on to the Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, where I had last been 15 years earlier on my way to a school trip to Mexico. That trip, and the saguaros, left an indelible mark on my psyche, and my return to them did not disappoint. After having my face melted off by a lovely little jazz quartet, I went on to Las Vegas, where I ate at the Peppermill because it’s iconic, and I had recently seen Jerry Seinfeld interview George Wallace there for his show.

After school started, I did a quick long weekend in Seattle to visit the loveliest of people, where I felt the humid, highly oxygenated air wash over me, and after that I went back to Las Vegas for a nice little conference that also felt quite solitary, and after that I went to San Diego for another conference, but this time I also got to walk along the warm California beach and see some of the city and just detoured (quite) a bit in general.

So, there was a lot of travel, and I was grateful for the good company I was able to keep, and I felt highly motivated at times, editing, grading, book reviewing, and proposing all manor of scholarly work. I also rested. I ate tomatoes and zucchini that I grew myself. I knitted, and I read, and I put seeds out for the birds. There’s more of course, but for now, this is probably all I need to say about 2016.

feeding the birds

Gardening and feeding the birds are two things that provide me with a greater sense of “home.” Home for me is a feeling of connection. In the past, this has meant feeling connected to people–my family and the small community where I grew up. Since I don’t always have access to that community anymore, I’ve had to find a sense of home in other ways. This winter, it means feeding the birds. I’ve kept a bird feeder at one of my “homes” that is really messy. I always fill it with black oil sunflower seeds because that’s what the birds seem to like the most. (I also like the volunteer sunflowers that grow under the feeder, although those never seem to last.)

This year, on the solstice, I decided to mark the wintry occasion by putting out new bird feeders. I bought two small suet cages and a couple of suet blocks with seeds in them. It’s cold, and so a high-fat food seemed appropriate. The pictures on the packages showed finches and woodpeckers and orioles and all kinds of beautiful birds.

I immediately traipsed through the knee-deep snow and hung one feeder in the front yard (in front of the window where I work) and one in the backyard.

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new suet feeder

Within 48 hours, the magpies found the suet cages and have been working on the feeders alone and in teams ever since. I briefly saw a flicker and a small bird that came and went before I could get an ID. A crow also did a flyby, but mostly it has been magpies. I grew up believing these birds were mostly pests. They are plentiful, and they eat the eggs of smaller, less common birds–not ideal.

In the days that have followed, I’ve resigned myself to feeding the magpies. They’re not the rarer birds I had in mind, but they are birds, and they found the feeders right away, and they are enjoying the suet, and I’m glad they are here.

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magpie at suet feeder

 

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem has been in my peripheral for years now. She’s lovely. She’s a feminist journalist. We both have a penchant for large sunglasses. She did waitressed for Playboy to write an exposé. She’s an iconic feminist figure. Sometimes her politics and approach seemed too bland for me to really deeply identify with her. Other times she seemed too out there.

I read her latest book, My Life on the Road, and here’s what stood out to me. Because of her known beauty and brains, she could have chosen a conventional path: marrying for love and money, children, soccer games, and charities–all meaningful work, but too often requires the sacrificing of the self for the good of the others (family). That she chose not to pursue a more conventional path, one that so many women value and judge themselves against, is powerful. Steinem had a choice, and she chose feminism. (I’m fully aware the this observation might seem less than feminist, but I think her beauty is part of her particular feminism, and I’m treating it as such.)

image from amazon.com

The book itself if full of important feminist history. I tend to be exposed to more “high theory,” academic feminism. Steinem’s history is a political one, a public one. She’s a journalist after all, with a wide readership.

First–and this blew my mind–she began the book by dedicating it to her abortionist. Her abortionist. I found this to be completely provocative and outrageous and wonderful and true. And for that I loved it.

Here are some quotes from the book that I thought were of interest (with page number):

On violence against women and a healthy society: “We might have known sooner that the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself—or will use military violence against another country—is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence” 43.

On the economy and the environment: “pressuring women to have too many children is the biggest cause of environmental distress, and economic courses should start with reproduction, not just production” 100.

On our Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: “she was potentially, as one said, “a great girlfriend” who had their backs” 160.

Cultural problems: “Women are always better liked if we sacrifice ourselves for something bigger—and something bigger always means including men, even though something bigger for men doesn’t usually mean including women” 165.

This one’s just a good line: “Laughter is an orgasm of the mind” 181.

These song lyrics:

It’s a rainy night in Georgia
and it looks like
it’s rainin’
all over the world

Just another great line: “Surrealism is the triumph of form over content” 189.

This is going to take forever: “According to the wisdom of Indian Country on my own continent, it takes four generations to heal one act of violence” 202.

Here’s why it’s so important to me that Hillary Clinton received the presidential nomination: “…when God is depicted only as a white man, only white men seem godly” 205.

A great chapter title that has me thinking about my relationship to Truth: “What Was Once Can be Again” 211.

Truth: “YOU CANNOT THINK YOURSELF INTO RIGHT LIVING. YOU LIVE YOURSELF INTO RIGHT THINKING. –Native  Elders 234.

On women: “Women elders were keeping the rhythm of life” 241.

Something to remember in regards to politics: “Anybody who is experiencing something is more expert in it than the experts” 245.

Parting wisdom to remember: “My father did not have to trade dying alone for the jobs of the road. My mother did not have to give up a journey of her own to have a home.

Neither do I. Neither do you” 251.

Be well, my loves.

round 5: knitting a baby blanket (with pattern!)

Through the winter months, on road trips from Utah to Louisiana and sitting on couches in Oregon with family, I knitted this baby blanket. It’s one of my favorite blankets to date (and I know I keep saying that), but I’m getting better at the knit stitch, and this time the yarn also made a huge difference. I used “Ocean” by Paton Colorwul, which is 100% wool, and I absolutely loved it. Wool yarn is expensive, and it can be scratchy, but when it’s done right, no other yarn compares. As I am wont to do, I ran out of skeins and had to frantically track down the last one from a Michaels across the valley. I’ve been trying to be more careful about buying skeins with matching lot numbers, but when you run out of yarn, you aren’t left with many choices.

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close up of knit stitch in “Ocean” by Paton Colorwul

The blanket was finished just in time to serve as a gift to a friend who gave birth to her son last month. I have identified somewhat with her journey to motherhood (i.e., she’s had love, life, travel, education, and a career before she very actively chose motherhood), and so I liked giving her an extra special gift.

The Materials:
-6 skeins of “Ocean” by Paton Colorwul
-Knitting needles, US 10.5

The Pattern:
-Cast on 76 stitches.
-Knit purl, knit purl, purl knit, purl knit until the row is finished.
-Then reverse it: purl knit, purl knit, knit purl, knit purl until the row is complete.
-Continue this pattern until you’ve got a few inches of a ribbed border.
-Then, knit the rest of the blanket until the last few inches or so.
-Finally, repeat the pattern from the beginning (knit purl, knit purl, purl knit, purl knit; then reverse it on the next row) to create a ribbed border again at the other end.

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nearly finished baby blanket

The finished product should be rectangular, with a ribbed border at each end. I’m getting better at making even stitches, and so the wobbly edges of my previous blankets are starting to disappear (though not entirely).

My idea for the ribbed border on the ends was actually difficult to keep track of. There is an easier way to do ribbing, but I wanted the ribs on this border to be a little thicker. Normally, I like very absent minded knitting (for which baby blankets are perfect). But, these borders were knitted and torn out a few times before it was all said and done. It still ended up a little uneven in places. The take away: if you’re looking for an easier border, there are easier patterns out there. If you’re looking for the perfect yarn for a baby blanket, look at the Paton Colorwul selection.

Wiener Dog by Todd Solondz

In late spring/early summer, I saw the preview for Wiener Dog and wanted to see it. (The trailer’s great.) I didn’t imagine I would be anywhere near an independent theater during the release date, but as luck would have it, I did happen to be at the right place at the right time and got to see the film last weekend.

image from ca.picclick.com

An woman, possibly a volunteer, taking movie tickets warned us that it was a weird movie, not for everyone, she didn’t really like it, and on and on. She also started explaining the plot—but nothing that wasn’t already implied in the movie trailer.

Then, before the movie began, I watched as she deterred several other movie-goers from seeing the film. In doing so, she also explained the plot of the film and this time she definitely gave away major spoilers! Fortunately, since plot doesn’t usually engage me all that much, spoilers don’t necessarily ruin a film for me.

Shock over a theater working handing out spoilers aside, the film was actually pretty great. My favorite scenes were with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Burstyn (not shown together), but the other sections are worth keeping as well. The film follows the wiener dog’s impact on various lives as it gets adopted, handed off, and so forth. Each section offers some unique, horrifying, and beautiful glimpse at human nature—not an easy task, but achieved here.

In terms of depth and complexity, the movie delivers. However, I did have some trouble with continuity. I don’t think I give away too much when I say that the movie starts off showing how the dog is transferred from one scenario to the next, but mid-way, that transfer is no longer documented. By the end, the viewer can’t tell if it’s supposed to be the same wiener dog. And I think it matters because my interpretation of some of the meaning in the film would have been altered by knowing if it was supposed to be the same dog throughout.

Next, one could argue that the final scenario moves outside of realism. Since the film seems solidly based in realism up to that point, the shift seemed more distracting and accidental, like the film was breaking its own rules. Sure, the filmmaker broke the rule for a purpose, which was effective, but I think the film would have been more consistent throughout if it could have found a way to make the same points without delving outside of the rules of our realm.

So yeah, it’s a good movie. Normally, I would probably call this dog a dachshund, but the movie will have you saying (and singing) “wiener dog.” Wiener dog.

Willfull Disregard by Lena Andersson

At last I’ve found a book that I really, really like. (!). It’s Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, and I can’t remember how I found it, but I’m very glad that I did. I read it quickly because it’s a library book, and I’m at the end of summer semester, and so I’m busy grading, but also busy getting ready to hit the ground running, which is what I do every summer since adulthood and even now in order to escape my current city and state. (Gorgeous state. Currently insufferable.) So, I only had a week to read this thing.

image from amazon.com

When I first learn of the title, I knew Willful Disregard was going to be my kind of novel. It is funny and smart and good in exactly the way that title is funny and smart and good. It’s the kind of book that makes me glad to learn that the author (Lena Andersson) exists in the world. It gave me hope for humanity.

It’s funny, but it’s also devastating. It captures the analysis and the over analysis and the helplessness of unrequited love. It captures how long it takes. It captures the intense meaning read into every single event and adverb and sideways glance. You think you’re better and smarter than all of this, only to see (years later with the clarity of hindsight) that you were insane, that your precious friends and onlookers were gentle with your…willful disregard of all evidence and reality suggesting otherwise than your well laid plans, intentions, and interpretations.

And even if you have been strong enough or numb enough to have never fallen into this type of stupid, full-body kind of love, you’ll probably still enjoy the deep insights into humanity, the smart philosophizing, along with mocking pretension that Andersson offers up in this novel. It’s her fifth book and first translated into English. With any luck, we’ll get more from her.

M Train by Patti Smith

It’s so hard to find a good new book these days. So when I find one, I tend to spend as much time in it as possible. That’s what happened with Patti Smith’s new book, M Train.

image from amazon.com

I read Just Kids a few years ago and loved it. In her rock and roll heyday (which is still now for many of us), Smith was known for brilliantly blending poetry with rock and roll. So it makes sense that she is a writer and also a fan of writing, which, in part, is what this book is about. It’s also about coffee. It’s about strange rituals and missions dreamed up by an amalgamation of literature, dreams, conversations and her own notions, which has her leaving stones at gravesites of people she knew or didn’t know, caring deeply about a small idea, about a small token, a small memory, a spirit.

I’ve always identified deeply with Smith. Her dreamy, creative way of moving through the world is similar to me at my best self. On some existential level, I know the deep love she knew with Fred, and the deep loss, and the new existing in this strange world, but hers is deeper, more, and a guidepost for us all.

I don’t know that I would like her. The day in/day out of her life seems sometimes boring, and dusty, and littered with cat hair, but there’s something about what she produces as an artist that opens me up, reminds me, shows me something new. So I stay in her books for as long as I can, and then hold on to them again afterward.