Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou

The thing I most appreciate about celebrated writer, Maya Angelou, is her bravery.  She spoke and wrote what was on her mind, never mincing words.  In today’s world of empty praise and false positive affirmation, this poet is a fresh ocean breeze in the heat of summer.  I love her poetry and I teach it often along with her memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  Her work connects back to the Harlem Renaissance writers and other African-American artists.  The title of her memoir comes from a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906).  However, she is not an artist addressing a particular race; she is a poet for the ages and for all people, a true American treasure.

The Washington Post published a piece yesterday by Valerie Strauss that made clear Angelou’s ability to speak the truth.  She was exuberant about the election of President Obama, and he in turn awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.  However, she often spoke out against the president’s education policy known as Race to the Top.  She expressed “concern about the impact of standardized testing” on children.  “Race to the Top feels to be more like a contest,” she has said, “not what did you learn, but how much can you memorize.”  Angelou advocated that kids read widely and deeply, signaling out authors like Tolstoy and Balzac, “because their books help young people learn about the complexities of the world.”  I think her citing of those particular two authors is interesting, and not common choices in today’s classrooms.  I wonder how many students could make it through Pere Goirot or War and Peace.  They would make for ambitious reading.

The Common Core standards promote reading informational literature over the authors Angelou cites.  Many teachers and critics of the standards say exactly what Angelou says:  reading imaginative literature opens the reader up to the world, to various characters, to ideas, morals, and values.  Angelou felt it would be shameful for students to forsake poetry for the study of a business letter or a legal case summary.  Good writing speaks to readers and fosters a world that, while containing more than enough tragedy and emptiness, also contains great beauty and wisdom.  In the darkness of oppression and rape, Maya Angelou lost her voice, as she explains in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but she recovered and survived, and her story evokes strong emotions for students.

Her words, both in print and shared in interviews, always contained startling and evocative themes.  Listening to her speak meant being prepared for a surprise, an insight, a way of thinking that remains vital and unique, yet always clear and piquant.  I have typed out several quotes over the years and pasted them into my journals.  Occasionally, one will fall out and remind me of her power with words:

“If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.”

“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”

“There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”

“What is a fear of living? It's being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself—for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don't know what you're here to do, then just do some good.”

Maya Angelou died yesterday at the age of 86.  I’ll end with a stanza from the poem she read at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, January 1993:

“Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side…”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Latinos and Catholicism

Latinos, with a long cultural tradition of Catholicism in their native countries and in the United States, are turning in increasing numbers to Protestantism or simply leaving religious affiliation altogether.  This is disconcerting for Catholic schools and educators because in many dioceses across the country, Latinos are a primary ethnic group in parish classrooms and in the pews on Sundays.  This information comes from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, out this month and available online.

In the report, 55% of the 35.4 million Latino Americans call themselves Catholic.  Approximately 22% are Protestant and 18% declare themselves unaffiliated with a particular religious group.  According to the report, this means the number of Catholic Latinos has dropped twelve percentage points in the last four years.  “Nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24 %) are now former Catholics.”

Why is this happening?  The report explains that evangelical or born-again Protestants have “very high levels of religious commitment,” which in turn offers Latinos a more engaging religious experience each Sunday along with Bible study groups and opportunities to share their faith with others.  Latinos also tend to be a more conservative political block, and therefore wish to be part of a more conservative religious affiliation.  Although Catholicism globally might still be considered conservative, American Catholics tend to fall somewhere in between liberal and conservative views.

Demographically, the switch involved Latinos under the age of 50, but there is a split within that group.  In Latinos age 18-29, all of the participants in the study identified themselves as having no affiliation with a particular religion while those 30-49 moved “toward both evangelical Protestantism and no religious affiliation.”  When asked, many of the participants in the study (55%) said they simply “drifted away” from Catholicism while 52% said “they stopped believing in the teachings of their childhood religion.”  Those who left said they were seeking “a congregation that reaches out and helps its members more.”  Others left because of a “deep personal crisis.”  There was also some attrition due to marrying someone of another faith.  Three percent specifically mentioned the sex abuse by clergy as a deciding factor for leaving the Church.  About three-quarters (74%) of practicing Latino Catholics said the Church needed to do more to address the scandal.  Many of them also took exception to the Church’s position on divorce, contraception, allowing priests to marry, and the role of women, including permitting them to become priests.  Half of Latinos who attend Mass weekly “support changing the church’s position on these issues.”

Pope Francis merited high marks with 45% giving him a “favorable” rating and 38% giving him a “mostly favorable” rating.  Latinos who remained in the Church found the Catholic Mass to be “lively and exciting,” with 62% saying they felt new immigrants were welcomed into the fold.  However, Pew research in the last decade has detailed the growing appeal of Pentecostalism to Latinos.  Many desire a more “charismatic” experience in their liturgies and worship.  These Pentecostal religions have been “burgeoning in Latin America and other countries in the ‘global South’ for the past century or so.”  The research identifies this sect of Christianity as “renewalists” due to their desire for spiritual renewal by the Holy Spirit.  These believers practice “speaking in tongues, divine healing, and prophesying.  They also nurture a strong sense of God’s direct, often miraculous role in everyday life.”

All of this research backs up the idea that the Church is in a state of flux and change, and this puts the focus on Francis and his ability to bring back Catholicism as an instrument of spirituality and renewal in the world.  While the number of Catholics continues to grow in Asia and Africa, those in America, always more liberal socially and politically, want their needs addressed as well.  The Church must adopt a more transparent and definitive procedure for dealing with sexual misconduct among clergy, and study ways to adjust Church teaching to address issues in the LGBT community, to increase the role of women, and on social issues like birth control and same-sex marriage.  Francis has made overtures in his letters, sermons, documents, and statements to the press, and he has backed up his words with actions to reform the Vatican bank and to appoint advisors and officials who might offer a fresh approach to Church teachings.  The danger is in not moving fast enough to stem the tide of Latinos and other ethnic groups, long a staple of the Catholic faith, from leaving their childhood religion behind for something new and more dynamic.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

This Notebook Will Save Your Life

There was a point, a long time ago, when I had no idea what I would do with my life, but I was writing stories.  The urge was insistent, always bubbling underneath whatever was happening.  And little did I know, I was preparing for a future I had yet to imagine.  I was improving my writing skills, and I did not know it.

I worked in a parts warehouse for an aerospace firm, a job I got through connections.  We were all college kids trying to earn money for tuition, for a beat-up first car, to try to get out of whatever hell we were trapped in.  The job was easy and paid well.  For four to six hours a day, we pulled parts—washers, nuts, small diodes and circuit boards—which would be packaged into kits and sent to another area of the plant to be assembled into cockpit displays in fighter jets, or radar consoles on a Navy ship.  We had no idea where those tiny bolts and grommets and electrical detritus were headed, or what they would become, but the job involved a lot of counting and monotonous work, but the hours could be managed with classes, so it was fine.  Unbeknownst to us, we were assembling our future lives while assembling parts for something far more powerful.  Weapons of war.  Instruments of destruction.

We had to package up the disparate parts in a box, check the list to make sure everything was there, and then place it on a conveyor belt to be pushed down to the shipping area to be padded and taped up and labeled:  a complete kit ready to be sent to wherever it was that they assembled those weapons of war.  Most days, the number of orders I had to fill was in the hundreds, but if I ran through them as fast as humanely possible, I could finish with time to spare, and then I could climb up into the rafters next to the arc of the roof and read or write in my notebook.

The warehouse containing all those college kids was like a living soap opera.  We dated each other, had crushes, double-timed, cheated, argued, loved, hated.  At break we regaled each other with horribly perverse stories, tales so raunchy that we laughed hard while fighting back the urge to projectile vomit.  Some Mondays we would arrive to find paper packing blankets spread in a sheltered area of the shipping bay surrounded by used condoms.  Some of the passion had boiled over into a tryst over the weekend.  We looked at each other suspiciously.  Who had left the evidence behind?  No one would fess.

I smuggled in notebooks so that I could scribble away in stolen moments.  At first, I wrote about my life, my hopes and dreams for the future, but when those idealized moments in the sun seemed too far away and even hopelessly impossible, I turned to the stories unfolding all around me.  I turned every worker into a character, and the workplace became the stage where I set my scene.  I sketched out hundreds of episodes or chapters.  I was heavily influenced by my television viewing:  Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.  My reading included copious amounts of Dickens’ dark Victorian stories in all their episodic glory.  It got so I could not wait to come to work to compose another few moments of my seemingly endless story.  Like real life in the warehouse, my characters fought, had sex, faced crises, worried about the future, and sometimes, they died.

Now, from the distance of years, I know what I was doing.  I was becoming a writer.  I was learning the craft of story from real life, and often, the reality of our existence was less believable than anything I could make up.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  I was also improving as a storyteller.  There was a disconnect, however, between my college coursework and the writing I was doing—I saw no improvement in the classroom.  Writing academic papers did not get any easier.  There was no story to tell, in my immature mind, regarding the analysis of a poem.  After one particularly bad grade, I complained to my instructor, a man I much admired.  I bemoaned the fact that the school literary magazine had recently accepted one of my stories, yet I could not write a decent essay analyzing a poem to save my life.  He looked at me with sad eyes, knowing I just didn’t get it.  “Writing is writing,” he said.  “Just tell the story of your analysis.”  It took me awhile to wrap my brain around that concept.

Those moments years ago made me a writer, and they also made me a life-long lover of notebooks.  I keep one to this day, scribbling down notes, snippets of dialogue, potent images, special moments when planets seem to align and all is right with the universe, or when all seems dark and lost.  I never go anywhere without something to read and a notebook to write.  Standard equipment in my kit.

Over the years, moving from apartment to apartment to house to apartment, that story notebook of the warehouse world got lost.  We all grew up and went on with our lives.  Somewhere along the way, I decided stories are everywhere.  There are always more of them if you look.  And those early imaginings, although youthfully urgent and necessary to compose at the time, consisted of practice, of me learning to tell the tale.  Still, I wish I’d kept them.  They would probably be good for some laughs today.  My overwrought imagination of heated love affairs and unrequited angst.  Funny stuff, no doubt.

If you want to learn to write, practice it like a craft, because it is.  You can’t give someone something to say.  If you lack ideas, well, go and do something else with your life.  But if you are intrigued by story, hopelessly in love with arranging details on a page and bringing a world to life, then you can become better at writing with practice.  But you must write all the time, morning and night, rain and heat, through exhaustion and exhilaration.  Write like it is a drug habit you can’t kick, the monkey you can never get off your back.

I can’t stop, even when my mind tells me there is nothing there to bring out.  I know if I keep scratching my way across the page, something will come.  Ghosts will rise up.  I fill my notebooks, page after page.  The stories keep coming, and in their birth and fruition, they save the life of the writer.  The notebook, ready and willing to receive my words, saves my life.