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.

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.

Vives allí

The other day, leisurely, we wandered into Books on B, a treasure if there ever was one, which we’d heard about and long wanted to visit: a real, live, brick and mortar book store.

Being an English teacher in Hayward since fifteen years ago, watching bookstores come and go, this was something precious. We had to buy something. All of us.

I remember the bookstore that used to be on B Street. You can still see the remainder of its old sign. I remember riding into there when EJ was very little, her on a trike with a handlebar I’d push, which somehow seemed acceptable at the time, to just ride in with a baby girl. We bought a pile of books, stuffed them into the rack on the back of her red bike, rode out. Felt like the last time.

During this summer, I’ve taught English Methods at Cal State East Bay, the Hayward hills, where EJ’s school is, right by the flatland areas where Elaine teaches and where the school’s community lives. (I work in Southwest Hayward.) Given the chance to assign a text to plan lesson around, I chose the first one I taught, thirteen or so years back, English 9, hoping to find something to pave the expanse between my kids and me.

I saw it there, at Books on B, but in translation. I want to get better at Spanish, to learn to speak without flinching at my sentences, to add subtlety to my replies when someone graces me with their comfort in Spanish.

Image result for casa en mango street

Reading The House on Mango Street, or La casa en Mango Street, with my frail and forgotten Spanish, is a teeny bit like living in those thirteen year old’s shoes when they sat in my class, unaware that their insecurity was deep but mine was old and wide and also gaping and hungry.

Somehow, again with Esperanza Cordero/Sandra CIsneros’ tender frankness, I’m entranced again.

“Una vez, cuando vivíamos en Loomis, pasó una monja de mi escuela y me vio juganda enfrente. La lavandería del piso bajo había sido cerrada con tablas arriba por un robo dos días antes, y la dueño habia pintado en la madera SÍ, ESTÁ ABIERTO, para no perder clientela.

“¿Dondé vives? preguntó.

“Allí, dije señalando arriba, al tercer piso.

“¿Vives allí?”

-Cisneros, traduzca por Poniatowska, La casa en Mango Street

That longing, those aspirations, that dissatisfaction, that restive desire that comes from the mix of shame and pride, those dreams. Esperanza says of her family/self, “éramos seis,” we are six. The distinctions blur and maintain at the same time, and the same will be true of her and this neighborhood.

And I start to feel it to be so with us three and Hayward.

Writing Lessons as I Dissertate

I once thought I was a decent writer. Then I tried to write my dissertation.

While I believe I can adapt to writing a variety of kinds of papers, this is the only kind of dissertation I can imagine writing. You want the work to stand for who you are and what you’ve learned, how you study and what you have to offer the world. I’m drawn to, and now I come from, qualitative research, social research, research into culture and human phenomena, research that attempts to speak alongside people and practitioners, that invites subjects to talk back to the research, that winds down unexpected paths and has to be reined back in. The description is thick, the theory is too, and the ambitions far outpace the funding, let alone the comfortable boundaries of positivist certainty.

Writing this dissertation has been a cruel slicing, again and again. It’s a necessary cutting process, cutting away until I make sense, until the pie is small enough to consume, until the writing is not a firehose that no reader has the patience for. I try to do justice to people I’ve spent hours, days, months with; try to do justice to a diversity that stays animated and irreducible in the varied kids I studied; try to be methodical, and reasoned, and balanced, and curious, and pragmatic. One paper cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Three things I take away as essential to my writing:

1. A community. As much as I want to hole away and face the solitary task, bearing my own cross for the writing choices I make, each time I’ve had a watershed revelation, a point of inflection in my slow toil towards the right decision, it came with an audience of incisive and generous peers. Foremost, my advisors. Sometimes, my wife. Often, my peers in writing and research groups, stretching to think my arcane thoughts with me, offering incisive questions and generous speculation. I still have to face the lonely keyboard myself, but my good ideas have all been birthed (or stolen? borrowed?) from contact with thinking partners, even if they were just a listening forum for me to clarify myself in front of, but often as a fount of fertile ideas and clarion thinking. And when the community motivates you by the intense quality of their own writing and work, it’s possible to get intimidated and feel inadequate, but impossible not to feel wiser for having spent time with them as thought partners.

2. Tools to “Notecard” My Ideas. I recently became a convert to Scrivener.  Before then, I was repeatedly falling apart under the weight of any revision, so that pieces disappeared into the ether or held on stubbornly to their shape and position, refusing to budge from their lodged positions, like recalcitrant homesteaders before my hurricane of rethinking. Now, not only can I not imagine writing without Scrivener, I am excited to create just because of the invitation to architecting ideas and stories that Scrivener’s tools affords me. Moving seamlessly between the “notecard” birds-eye view, where chunks can move as needed among each other, and the lost-in-the-sentences text view… it affords a wonderful executive control. I still have a lot to figure out how to use probably two-thirds of its functions. But even with what I’ve acquired, the tool has reshaped the user.

3. Forget it. I have to be able to forget it. I have to be able to let it go. I have to take naps. I have to walk away. I have to submit pieces, discontented as I might be. There’s always another pass I could do. Always another frontier of improvement. Always a better turn of phrase, a more complete reassessment of structure and rhetorics, of evidence and presentation. But I just have to forget it. I’ve been lost for weeks in paragraphs that ultimately wound up ruthlessly cut– and am still likely bargaining for more of that. I’ve given hours that have no count to analyses that might burn like fire in my mind, but they will bloat the final product, so they’re left in the memo that won’t fit in any chapter, the paper that might one day spin off, the faint hope of a future project or forum to see the light of day.

I’m not done yet, which I’m relieved for, to be honest. As relieved as I’ll feel to finally be done, I just know there are parts of this process that haven’t finished their work on me yet. I feel great insecurity about my writing, and the scary thing is, it’s not just my writing. It’s my voice. It’s my contribution. It’s great insecurity about my belonging in this work that I’ve been doing for years.

But that unbearable hopefulness must succumb as well to the ticking hands of time, and soon my deadlines will defy me and my accumulated wisdom, and I will scamper to submit My “Good Enough” Dissertation, submit it to my mentors who have ridden this writing rollercoaster a million times more than me, who will offer the loving shatterings that will return me gasping to these chapters. Somewhere out the other end, I have faith a better writer waits. He will laugh at my hand-wringing. He will forget that he earned who he is.