On Leah in Genesis 29.31-35: “The Second One.”

The lectionary has me reading, in a fragile time, the stories in Genesis of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah. It’s almost a subtle touch of mockery that at the same moment, clips of Song of Songs are also part of the reading: poetic confessions of love at the top, heartbreaking stories of patriarchs and dreadful patriarchy to follow. Then the New Testament passages retrace the nature of sin and redemption, and I try to read the intention of the lectionary, or perhaps the wisdom of God, in bringing these pieces of Word together. Especially in this July moment.

Suffering is part of the biblical witness of womanhood. Leah, in today’s passage, Genesis 29.31-35, names her first four children with Jacob. They are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. They are named with Leah’s evolving longing and then resignation/revelation: “It is because YHWH has seen my misery; surely my husband will love me now,” then “Because YHWH heard me that I am not loved, he gave me this one too,” then “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons,” and finally, “This time I will praise YHWH.”

It’s a tragic series of painful names. From Leah. Her father’s trick. Her husband’s undesired, second one. Like Hagar and Ishmael. Esau. Cast-asides.

In a moment of racial reckoning, we are debating monuments and musicals of “slaveholding” (enslaving) men who abused, raped, impregnated, murdered, shamefully dehumanized and exploited others. Maybe the difference here is that in the case of these patriarchs, the Scripture makes clear their ugliness. The American Mythology of Washington and Jefferson vaunts them as heroes. Scripture has few redeeming moments for the virtues of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And instead, the Scripture uses its attention on the stories of the reviled second one.

I feel like the reviled second one.

Today, I read this strange, simple passage, Leah naming her children. And I wept and could not stop weeping. Feeling like always the second son, the rejected one. Unrequited and unreciprocated. Always hoping, this is the one, this is the one that will make them love me now, at last.

And God would have me finally stop. And rest. And say, “This time I will praise the Lord.”

Suffering is part of the biblical witness of Christ. The stone the builders rejected. No stately form or majesty, afflicted and pierced. Judah goes on to have a shameful history himself. Selling Joseph. Tamar. But that’s the line of David and of Christ, the scepter. It’s a brutal, ugly history of desire, dishonesty, dehumanization, individuals birthing a legacy of systemic and cultural rebellion and betrayal. It’s somehow the place where God decides in Scriptures to show up.

It seems too daring or presumptuous to hope that God would be showing up in the profound ugliness of me and my life. It feels like an airless, narrow passage, and God does not appear to be here.

In this summer of sheltering in place, a summer I’d originally planned to be pursuing long overdue projects and finding my creative breath,  I’m instead finding myself overwhelmed with the amount of attention required to simple breathe, survive, exist in my family, inhabit my body…

I feel that I am the second one. And at the end of a long and ugly rope of my life, I hope to finally be able to say, this time I will praise the Lord.

Airbent and Decolonizing

Maya Phillips, New York Times arts critic, joins a chorus of renewed plaudits: “‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Imagines a World Free of Whiteness.” Phillips’ smart piece said much of what I’d been rolling up my sleeves to say– though much more thoughtfully than I’d muster.

What Phillips extols about the 2005-2008 TV series, revived in popularity now that it’s landed on Netflix amid COVID-19 sheltering and antiracism movements, is its existence and quality as a piece of American pop culture not centered in cultural whiteness. Showrunners Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, two white creators, conscientiously mixed cross-Asian influences in everything from animation style to animistic spiritualism, from architectures to social structures. And they pulled off a fun, character-rich, morally and philosophically interesting, and ultimately satisfying epic.

What I’d add to Phillips’ strong case for the show is that, beyond positing an alternative to white- and western-centered cultures, the show also presents a family-friendly but devastating critique of colonizing ideologies that implicates white supremacy, the US, and lots of imperial Asian nation-states too.

I’ve been re-watching the series, which I’d binged on DVDs a while back. I’ve also since been following the ongoing stories in the exceptional graphic novels from Dark Horse, which deftly bridges characters and cultures from Avatar’s end to their continuation in the even more complex industrial modernism of The Legend of Korra, the successor series to ATLA.

What’s different this time… I’m watching the show with my daughter and my wife! And so, for us, this TV binge is a perfect meeting point of a few current circumstances:

  • It’s summer. And for the first time in forever, we’re not working. We’re not just looking for a light distraction, but an immersive world.
  • We’ve been sheltered-in-place for a good while. That means we’ve read many book series, caught up on all the shows, and stood hungrily in search of the right all-ages story morsel that can compel conversations and even grappling about big questions.
  • Specifically, it’s a good time for stories contemplating power and peaceable resistance. While we didn’t go out to march because of our health concerns, we’ve been working in our own modest ways to respond to the movement for Black Lives and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, the cries of Black pain and the resilient struggle against white supremacy and unjust policing.

Which is a fitting moment for a show about a world where a particular people’s imbalanced power has warred against one kingdom, subjugated and decimated another set of tribes, and genocidally snuffed out a peaceful other group. (I nearly cry every time the show revisits the remains of the Air Nomads.)

And so, if you’ll allow for some non-malignant spoilers, around the first third of the third and final season, we begin to learn that the Fire Nation has been consumed by a belief in their own rightness, so convinced that the whole world would benefit from their order and rule that they justify death-dealing conquest under a colonizing rationality. A pax incendium, if you will.

The moral, spiritual, political, and social consequences of this arrogance is not only counter to balance and harmony among the world’s four elements and its peoples. It’s counter to the origins and ethics of the Fire Nation itself, as represented by General Iroh (my favorite character, hands down), Prince Zuko’s uncle and purveyor of tea and humble sagacity.

It’s a reminder of the self-destructive nature of white supremacy, how amok power not only ruthlessly takes precious lives, but corrupts the people and institutes who succumb to its falsehoods.

Avatar not only de-centers whiteness. It indicts white supremacy.

Groanings & the Hope of Glory

Our spirits groan for injustices committed against Black lives.

Last night, as Eastertide moved to Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar, I resolved to stop using my phone in bed. Ironically, I haven’t had a night where I’ve had more reason to clutch my phone by my side more in a long time. Sheltered-in-place for months, then called to a citywide curfew at 11pm, helicopters overhead, sirens blaring as cars flew down the street right outside our bedroom window, I stayed glued to social media and the reports from people living nearby us, images of burnt Walmarts and rumors of home break-ins by looters (unfounded, I think… a “telephone” mix-up of actual news of “Home Depot” break-ins). The #SanLeandro trending Twitter posts sprinkled those rumors and reports with retweeted petitions for Emerald Black, miscarried last year after being kicked by San Leandro PD, and images of Steven Taylor, tased and killed by police at the local Walmart while wielding but a bat.

Learn more about Steven Taylor

So with mall break-ins nearby at the same time as nationwide grief over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and more, peaceful protests and social uprisings, my protective dad-vigilance reared into high gear. It’s already been activated, as moral urgency and grief make me feel need to be on the streets protesting despite our household’s tighter pandemic quarantining. Last night, I stayed up, praying and watching out the window, refusing fear or weapons, concerned for our neighbors.

This morning’s lectionary reading came from Joel 2 about the years the locusts have taken and pouring out the Spirit, and Romans 8 about the creation groaning in frustration, longing for liberation from its bondage to decay. I wonder about the young-men-who-could-be-me-but-for-grace, risking something to get out there to that crowded Walmart on a Sunday night, whether spurred by fury or frustration or freeloading or fear, to steal goods and set fires.

We are, I grieve, suckered into a desperate consumerist culture that parcels us into purchasing agents, the only semblance of our significance we can feel. The economic insecurity, already there but now plummeted to fearsome lows, as every one of us knows someone close who is unemployed and scared.

And the rage is real. To listen to Nikole Hannah-Jones listening to men arguing whose anguish and contradictions are as sincere and painful as any people of conscience. I try to listen and learn, and I watch my partner doing that too. We listen to discussions, we read about marchers, we immerse in policy and history and narratives. It’s inadequate; it’s wrenching; it spurs action and restlessness; it’s also just more borrowed valor for those of us who get to choose when to identify and claim solidarity. For the Black, Indigenous, Latinx whose histories of oppression and dispossession at the hands of White American cops and governments and—yes—schools, it is hard to moralize about the righteousness of any actions from that rage. Maybe necessary, but wrong if you think it’s easy.

These pass through my mind as I sit by the window and watch and worry about my daughter and wife, our bed not ten feet from the street where police race to Bay Fair. It is for these sorts of groanings that Paul wrote Romans 8, right in the teeth of empire. For the gritted crises that Joel wrote that God promised God would restore and pour out.

The hope of glory that reminds us each of us are, even in the face of systemic death, worth God’s identification with us and our sufferings, we image bearers. George Floyd, image bearer. Breonna Taylor, image bearer. Steven Taylor, image bearer.

what’s this site about?

An eclectic mix of topics:

Teaching literacy and language in California schools as critical and emancipatory education for youth of color and immigrant adolescents. (Pedagogy)

Bearing prophetic Christian witness in the midst of an American church that has often betrayed its calling. (Faith)

Creative and critical engagements with culture, books, arts, and media. (Literacy)

Though these seem disparate, they adhere together for me in the close connections I observe between the cultures we inhabit, the ways we imagine and create our social worlds, and the image-of-God-bearing human beings we are.

To find your way around here, you might be interested in my experiences and perspectives as an English educator in a public school district in a diverse California community, shaped by my teaching practice and my PhD research in language, literacy, culture, and society in Education.

Or you have come because of a curiosity, commonality, or perhaps even criticality of my faith as a Christian, one shaped by global evangelicalism but oriented towards renewal, reconciliation, and radical love as embodied by Jesus.

Or you are interested, for some inexplicable reason, in my thoughts about literature, films and TV, comics and graphic novels, and popular culture, as well as their connections to society and community.

I also include assorted other personal posts as well.

If you are only interested in one of these areas, you can subscribe to an individual RSS feed under each category. But whatever the vein of interest that brings you to read my blog, I hope that if you also dip into the other portions, you find resonances and connections between these areas, even amidst contradictions and tensions. I am, like all of us, a continual seeker and scrounger of understandings and truths, groping hopefully at the True which seizes us.

I no doubt have the most blog entries about not writing enough blog entries. Of any blog except maybe a writer’s blog.

Is this a writer’s blog? Am I a writer?

NPR’s LifeKit posted an episode about ‘How to Write a Book’ that condensed the beneficial takeaways of a heap of writing guides, TED Talks, and one million self-flagellating writer’s journal entries of mine. One of those takeaways was that there are countless reasons we aren’t writing. But there’s only one thing that makes us writers.

Writing.

Not being published. Not a tenured position. Not brilliance. Not a project. Not a marketable pitch.

What makes me a writer is that I am writing.

It’s remarkable to me how profoundly I’ve missed that simple truth. It’s routine to add layer of layer of self-definition that inhibits me from the actual act of writing. To be clear-eyed about every obligation and opportunity that can become obstacles to actually putting words down.

It so powerful cuts through all of that to remind myself: the thing you do to be a writer… is to write.

So at the risk of once again turning this blog–supposedly a blog about teaching, about culture, about faith, about politics and society, about literary and visual arts–into a series of yearly motivational speeches to compel myself to actually write…

Here are some things I want to write about this week. They may never materialize. But I will be a writer this week, despite the anxiety pervading our family life, the neglected and overdue correspondences and calls with friends, the work tasks that continue to blare “overdue.”

-Pandemic superpowers: Some promise and perils of distance teaching for public school teachers

-Absorbing violence in BBC America’s Killing Eve and Netflix’s Extraction

-Public health officials as political actors who could pave a way to a stewardship society (Thoughts from watching Fauci and Gentefied.)

-Postcolonial Christian revisiting Narnia with my daughter

Ugly

Good Friday reflections during COVID-19 sheltering-in-place.

We missed our church’s Good Friday service on Zoom, which is hard for me. One of those important things for me. And I’ve been grateful to experience lots of significant moments of human contact and spiritual connection on Zoom. But it’s exactly the fact that everything happens on that channel, where my Zoom account has a default setting to “touch-up my appearance,” those same screens and devices, that led us away from the service tonight. We’re tired. Education, family check-ins, grocery shopping, dilly-dallying, urgently important messages, letters of pleading. All on the same screens.

Our own tiny Good Friday service consisted of a song, a reading, a moment of reflection. Given all the time on screens, the artificiality of that interface in which I keep squinting at the reality outside, of nurses showing up day after day in hospitals despite being quarantined from their kids, of families facing economic and emotional desperation even worse than their prior vulnerabilities, of blustering press conferences and a vast human toll of tragedy…. given all that time on screens, where appearances are so touched up and filtered, I was especially moved by this poetry:

“…no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…” (Isa 53.2b)

Struck always by the paradox of “Good” Friday. I know American Christianity is often debilitated by an obsession with appearances of cleanness, purity, appropriateness. Those illusions keep us away from places where God, who is not fooled by outward appearances, really hangs out. At worst, our disgust compels us to participate in the most hateful forms of dehumanizing activity, the scornful loathing of beings in God’s beautiful image that twists what’s good into what’s ugly.

That’s the perpetually startling thing about Good Friday, the unsettling provocation of Jesus’ crucifixion: God dwelt in ugly. Plenty of people have quipped or marveled that we took a Roman instrument of publicly-shaming torture and execution for rebels and brigands and turned it into pieces of 24 karat jewelry. I’ve mocked it too (even as I’ve tried to pass off as cool wearing some hemp cross or something.) It’s ugly and it’s supposed to be. That was not only the oppressor’s intent. In the Christian episteme, it was God’s as well.

But I’m second-guessing my own mockery now. Maybe making that symbol of death into a venerated object of beauty is profoundly beautiful, and I’m the ignorant lout for laughing it off. Someone somewhere with simpler and sincerer faith than mine brushes the gold cross on their necklace as their hands reach out to comfort the sick, to reassure the prisoner, to clean an other’s human waste. That bit of worn symbolism, by their faith, reminds them that God, yes God, shows God’s self most in this Ugly.

The literature that has always shocked and then changed me most… The films and shows that have been most compelling and often most stirring… The performances of philosophy, the essays, the speeches… They did not always stay in the Ugly forever, but they always, always went there. They often stayed there for longer than we were comfortable, most of us who would ogle for a while at the unfortunate man on the cross, and then wander away to think about happier and more comforting things.

Storyteller’s Yearning

Couldn’t stop laughing tonight as I tried to read a “Star Wars” 5-minute story to the kid to help her fall asleep. We are huddled together in one bed at a hotel, staying the night out of town to visit my brother and his soon-to-be-bride. I try to make Chewbacca’s Wookiee speech noises. It’s a miserable failure. But what makes me laugh uncontrollably is when my wife keeps trying to do her Wookiee sounds and insists how much more accurate her equally ridiculous moans are than mine. All three of us are in stitches.

My life consists of so many more moments like these than they have. I’m filling up much less of my time these days with late night anxieties and pressure to produce and procure. Much more of it is filled with bits of unforgettable, drawing pictures with my daughter, listening to kids as they work out their crazies, giving thought to a book I’m reading or a film I just watched.

I continue to teach graduate pre-teacher classes and to coach teachers. But I also find, at last, after so much striving, some space to breathe. And think.

And to write. I hope.

I need to tell stories. My daughter, thankfully, still not ten years old and very slowly approaching the adolescence around the corner, still wants to hear my stories. Still wants to make them up with me. And I find this hunger that’s been around for as long as I’ve been conscious to write and draw stories, bubbling up, looking to come out.

It’s been waiting, a very quiet but growing discontent with the busyness of my life. To be sure, what I’ve been busy with has been storyteller’s trades. Teaching, reading, preaching, writing, talking. I’m not laboring in any fields or lifting any shovels. There’s no pity deserved here for the worn and oppressed worker, longing to break free. I’ve had it good. I’ve lived my dreams.

But once you’ve done that, what do you do? Ten years ago, I think I felt some sense of that satisfaction, and then I started graduate school. Ten years later, after finishing that doctorate, after raising up the kid, after mom’s cancer and passing, after trying out near-academia and realizing I wanted something different… what now?

Here is where the laughter that brought my family peacefully to sleep brings me now to this late hour. I face the quiet, asking God what I’m supposed to do. I am supposed to learn to tell stories, as my Teacher did. They are to be stories that tell the truth about who we are, as well as stories that imagine the truth we can’t see of who we are supposed to be.

With all the gifts I’ve been given, it’s the last I should do.

The Gap We’re Minding

Do yourself a favor and watch Minding the Gap, the documentary by Bing Liu about his skateboarding buddies from Rust Belt Illinois and their stepping into (and out of) adulthood. Your reasons for not watching this skateboarders’ documentary are exactly why you should watch this skateboarders’ documentary. It is about skateboarding, and it’s about friendship, love, race, class, masculinity, family, and violence.

It’s on Hulu right now, which is where I watched it with gratitude that the same subscription bringing us escapist sitcoms and NBA games also serves up some media that actually feels like a medium… a conduit between lives that I wouldn’t otherwise feel nearness and empathic connection with.

The thing everyone says about this film is that it’s about skateboarding but it’s not about skateboarding. I think there’s something to how we perceive skateboarding— particularly skateboarding that’s being filmed— that screams all the reasons certain segments of “us” don’t want to pay any attention to certain segments of “them.” Skateboarders, if you aren’t one, obnoxiously shred up ledges, fly through our same sidewalks and public spaces with reckless, child-threatening speed, and generally carry an affect of total disregard of you for the sake of their thrills. And when a camera is involved… oh, you better believe I’m not interested in hanging around with those guys and what they’re up to. I’ll be over here, protecting my daughter as she rides her bike.

It’s exactly because of that distance– the separation from our assumptions– that skateboarding itself is integral to this story’s power for us viewers on the other side. Because Bing Liu, the documentarian, cinematographer, fellow skater, and friend of subjects Kiere and Zack, is also able to gently show through his camera what they run from when they flee to their skateboards, why they might find such release from coasting on the open road or grinding the city or landing an inconceivable leap.

And what they skate from is the stuff of American lives in the mid-2010s, especially that part of the country that feels most distant from my West Coast, Silicon Valley surroundings. Economic insecurity. Generational violence. The sense of narrowing opportunities in post-industrial middle America.

For me, it was especially intriguing to meet Liu, who puts himself, his family troubles, and his mother in the documentary alongside the skating friends he grows up with and depicts. He is not voyeuristic about others’ pain. He is there as well, part of the painful subjects in question. But his documentarian’s tone is searching, compassionate, willing to probe uncomfortably but unwilling to look away at his subjects’ humanity, even as he does not shy from their dark sides. Liu renders them, and himself, with a wondrous kind of observer’s eye. It’s not static, it moves as the subjects move, and it is ready to for a crash. But it’s also ready for the bracing beauty of people coasting along, trying to find their way to peace, to wholeness, to the freedom of the wind.

38

lakechabot2018.jpeg

Instead of mountain walking up

I circulate a lake

this year my birthday quest ends in

a journey I can’t make

For once imagining my years

more behind me than before

I contemplate my daughter’s stay

Where I’m just a visitor

I opt to live with wiser stakes

In how I eat and live

Creative time and dancing nights

Determined to forgive

Days move fast, they barrel quick

And plunge toward a quick fate

I walk in circles, don’t look up,

And now I’m thirty-eight.

Displacement and Freedom

Mold and Moving

The last four months have been the most stressful of my life. It’s culminated in an October where we’ve had to move from the rental home that we’ve loved and our daughter’s grown up in. Mold. Parts of our family unit stopped being able to breathe at night and in the house. The scary lingering of mold spores meant we had to divest of much of our furniture and possessions. Not sure where to go, trying to reach a settlement with the owner while feeling very unsettled in ourselves, and worst of all, fearing that we had to say goodbye under sad circumstances to a house and area we had grown to love.

When we moved here, we were fleeing an underwater mortgage post-financial- and housing crisis. Stress had layered on stress and our family, new kid only a little more than a year, had to get out of our first beloved home, the one we owned in the town where we taught. This house was a refuge. Larger than we thought we could get, a rent that we could afford despite my graduate student’s poverty, walking distance from a great library and downtown, every bit a dream house for us. We could not imagine leaving it.

Suddenly we had no choice but to.

Instability and Schooling

Somewhere along the way of taking time off work, bleaching all the non-porous things we determined we could take with us, shuttling to and fro from my blessed father’s house far several towns away and our vacating house, we forgot to attend to my daughter’s second grade homework the way we normally did. She didn’t do great on a quiz. Didn’t do horrible, but didn’t do great, given all the instability. It was a reminder, just how this tiny instability– we are relatively well-off, and most importantly have very generous and resourced friends and family to hold us up and help us– could so drastically change a kid’s school experience. How much more those kids for whom ongoing instabilities compound their challenge week upon week, year upon year.

It makes me all the more awed and moved by the kids and families I’ve taught, whose “instability” became a norm. Separated by immigration policies. Captive to the criminal justice system. Shaken by violence. Tense with economic insecurity. And yet these kids, while stress ate their edges, did not lose their hearts, their hopefulness, their longing for actualization, their ambition to do good. Their families persisted too.

While we were unloading our home of furniture, a friend helped us locate a refugee family from Southeast Asia who was happy to receive some of our beds, shelves, and chairs. Their circumstances considerably different– our new rental equates to the size of maybe three of the four small homes their lived in, four full families, maybe five or six times the number of people in our little trio. The kids played outside, looked with curiosity at what we brought, clearly looked out for each other like family. They’d traversed the world and left behind all kinds of instability.

I thought about how much we own and how little it means. I thought a lot about what we really need to provide for our kids, and how much we fool ourselves about that.

Free

It’s been painful. But I realize something I’ve been pleading for desperately, for years, now has an opportunity for a pivot, a point of inflection. For years I’ve been caught up in an increasing and out-of-control accumulation and spending habit.

I don’t know much, but I know enough from other addicts of other things that you don’t shed your pathologies so easily. This remains an issue for me. For life.

But I’ve been given an opportunity to clear the decks. This weekend, I have to finish cleaning out the old house. Sell, donate, dump. We have a chance at a fresh start. I’m trying to carry into the new place a sense of that simplicity and freedom. We lack nothing. We’re free.