Return of the Blogger

Hey all,

Just a brief message post-election. I know I sort of disappeared in the last several months. The election was rough on all of us, and I was volunteering for a campaign as well as navigating some more difficult life things.

But I also have been facing an internal dilemma about whether to retain this blog and even whether to retain my social media presence at all. Is there value to posting my thoughts online? Am I actually contributing to the world or am I joining a larger and larger echo chamber? Are my blogposts detracting from more important articles and posts I could be promoting or more important work I could be doing?  In this election it has become increasingly clear that the world– internet, cell phones, websites, and mail– is now cluttered with information. I don’t like the idea that I might be adding to the mess.

Then there is the question of what I am doing with this blog. Starting this blog was a project encouraged by several good friends and intellectual partners. But now that the project is several years in, I am wondering where my next step is: What does success at this look like? My blog posts are abstract, intellectual, and long… should I submit to the game of writing quick click-baity things with catchy headlines in order to get more readers and followers? Or should I write the pieces I want to write and share the thoughts I want to think? How else could I be developing and implementing my ideas?

I have at least one more blog post up my sleeve– a reflection on this election and the value that no one seems to be talking about. I will try to have it up by the weekend.

In the meantime, happy Thanksgiving! And please know how grateful I am to you for reading all my thoughts these past years.

 

With love.

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Starfish

Last week I read the award-winning piece “Failure Factories,” a haunting indictment of a few local policy decisions that drastically changed the learning environments of the constituents’ children. I’ve been watching Boston go through a funding crisis this year, and I can’t but help think that maybe people just don’t know. People don’t know what happens in schools. People think that my school can handle a budget cut, that public school budgets are elastic things. People pretend policy doesn’t affect us, that it doesn’t really change anything.

All of us vote for presidents– who have very little impact on our day to day existence– but far too many of us can’t take the time to vote in local and state elections for the people who actually decide what happens to our children every day. Policy matters. Local policy matters.

Starfish

Sometimes you care too much.
Too much of the world has turned its back
and there aren’t enough of us,
and there are too many of them,
and they are hurting too much
and sometimes,
because you can see them,
And the rest of the world has
headphones in, windows up, wheels under them, and vacation plans,
you have to carry too much.

The worries of too many children
have spilled open on the shore
and are bleeding out.
“You are cutting them off at the knees,” she wrote,
calling into a muffled abyss where no one would hear,
and I could not help but think of my students,
cut down to their knees,
crying out in pain,
bleeding from the horror;
I wonder if the image is terribly far off.
I teach with this sort of desperation.

I wonder if I, like Obama, will be gray soon.

Horror sometimes is a silent, slow, and subtle thing.

First it is the art classes that disappear,
then the extra janitor,
then the extra nurse and a few of the buses after school,
then the new set of books gets delayed a year,
a few sports teams get cut,
then the copy paper starts to dwindle,
you haven’t had new books in years,
then the rest of the after school program vanishes,
and your two favorite teachers.
Then only half of a nurse is left,
and the library is closed,
the building is dustier, dirtier, never quite clean
only a quarter of a nurse drowning in paperwork
–they are all drowning in paperwork–
the laptops more often being fixed than functional
no latches left on windows,
no repairs for leaking ceilings,
book bindings crusting off,
heaters whose jobs were long forgotten,
unsupervised hallways, understaffed classes,
bored children, crowded rooms, misbehavior,
perfectly meet-able needs going unmet,
the haggard looks on adults’ faces: it’s
too many children, and only a few of us left to
carry them.

You cannot save them all, he said of the starfish.
He gave no moral guidelines for when starfish are not starfish at all but are children.
He kept silent on that subject.

When the good samaritan came by
there was only one bleeding man on the side of the road.
But what was he supposed to do if there were hundreds?
Jesus didn’t answer all my unasked questions.

It is one thing when you live in a world where you are asked for only one good deed, one acknowledgement of neighborliness.
It is another thing entirely when you live in a world where crisis is a norm, where children are unwanted, where children are caretakers, where children are desperate, where children are hurting, where children have only ever fallen through cracks.
Are children our neighbors?

What am I to do with all the starfish?
I haven’t got enough hands.
I haven’t got enough heart.

 

Project: 26

Today I turn 26 years old. 26 is a relatively unremarkable year— save for an unusually high number of weddings and general day-to-day doings and the termination of dependency on my parents’ health insurance. However, it does mark the end of my being called “18-25 years old”, which makes me feel sort of completed as a human being.

I once heard, long before I was a blogger who saved links to things (and I’ve been searching for the research ever since— let me know if you find it!) that the things that most shape your identity and character in all of life are the people you know and the books you read through age 25. After that, your brain settles into a set of habits and a character that is mostly fully shaped, due to reduced neuroplasticity.

I thought this was super cool— the idea that the people and books in our lives could shape the people we become. And it is undoubtedly true. Research has shown, for example, that readers of literature show more empathy than non-readers, and that the Harry Potter series’ fan base has generally fewer prejudices against marginalized people. And any high school teacher could tell you that teenagers are shaped by what their friends say, do, and value. But don’t trust us— look at research on fraternities, hate groups, and the psychology behind the Civil Rights movement.

So what if a person could identify who and what exactly has shaped who she became?

When I graduated from college, a classmate of mine began a google document called “Five Books.” Widely shared between members of our class, the document let people write the titles of five books that were “important, fantastic, perfect, timely, meaningful, or necessary to you in four years at Yale.” I found it a fascinating practice trying to distill not my five “favorite” books but the five that had most shaped who I was during college, the books that most defined my experience at Yale. It became a question I started asking people I wanted to get to know better, and a question I started asking myself more. While I once read books only for entertainment, I now read them for their ideas, for the values and character they present, and for the ways they can shape and define different seasons of my life.

So too with people. Whether it’s the fact that I say “the bomb” now (thank you, Emily) when something is awesome; or the fact that I value honesty and integrity so highly (thanks, mom); or the fact that I love both eating delicious food and being active outdoors (too many people to name here)– I have been shaped both in language, values, behavior, and priorities by the people to which I have been exposed. In some vast network of human nurturing, all our natures are shaped by the people who invest in us. And then we– in turn– shape others.

* * *

So given that I am finally aged 26, and presumably mostly fully shaped into who I will be, I accepted the challenge to find 25 living people who have helped shape who I am and/or to whom I owe a significant debt of gratitude, and to thank them.

To do this, I had to google the addresses of famous authors and look up the addresses of old teachers, to chase down a few lost people with phone calls and internet. I had to think back through my quarter century of existence and actually note the people who transformed me. By the end, I was amazed, but I was also overwhelmed by how many more thank yous I could have written. I had to give myself grace to be somewhat biased towards the present, and to stop after I reached 25… to not try to thank every single person in my life right now. It’s okay. Gratitude, I hope, can be a lifelong practice.

Perhaps what has amazed me most about this challenge, though, is how weird it felt to do it. So often good happens to us and we say nothing. That is, honestly, probably what makes everybody much more comfortable. Without an occasion to thank, we rarely do it, because it’s hard, it takes time, and often it’s incredibly awkward. After I’d written out the list for myself, it took me several more days to actually convince myself to send out the notes. Despite loads of research that suggests the benefits of practicing and sharing gratitude, it isn’t common in the world, and in some cases, I felt both self-conscious and bad that I might be burdening others with something overwhelming or hard to respond to. From my personal experience, deep and meaningful thank yous are especially most uncomfortable with:

(a) straight men who generally have little to no language for accepting and returning gratitude—which can be hilarious if perhaps a little sad—

and (b) people you see regularly, who are thinking, ‘wait— we were just, like, hanging out, right?’

There’s definitely a time and a place for such depth. People who already tend to be too serious could probably proceed with caution. There are a few thank yous I’m still not sure I should have sent, honestly.

But overall, it was an incredibly fulfilling practice. I suppose you could say that by thanking the people who have made me who I am, I have found a way to snag myself a happy birthday. I have never felt more grateful for the wonderful people in my life, and I am inordinately happy right now, just as my birthday is beginning.

I’m not one to proselytize, but anyone else turning a fairly uneventful age… I would love to hear about it if you try!

In Defense of Christmas Letters

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I have been writing an annual Christmas letter about my life for six years now. It’s a small publication— over the course of its admittedly brief existence it has ranged from a half of a page of text to a full page front and back. I haven’t done it the same way twice, but it usually includes some pictures from the year and my favorite books and movies and a selection of my favorite memories. It is meant for my folks’ folks, as they say: the awkwardly distant relatives I have never talked to on the phone before, my parents’ friends who watched me grow up, the teachers and professors I have kept in touch with. These people get it as a mailed letter every year. My other friends, well, I sometimes send it to them via email. Sending it as a letter seems a bit much, and honestly, gets quite expensive.

Anyhow, this year, I sent it out to my friends as well— the long distance ones—, buried in a Merry Christmas, let’s catch up sometime sort of email. I don’t know if they say it to be nice, but several people sent me back joyous I love getting this email every year sorts of responses, and this gave me a bit of an ego boost. I flatter myself that it’s the list of book and movie recommendations that really makes my Christmas letter an easy sell.

One of my friends, however, responded several days later with a wonderfully frank text:

“What is this self important bullshit?”

At this I laughed out loud. You must understand how much I adore having this friend in my life… it is a rare person indeed who will call you on your self-important bullshit without being asked to, and he is one.

My friend is right. An annual Christmas letter like mine is absurd, egotistical, arrogant, self-important, and entirely unnecessary. Every year I cringe at the thought of writing another one and having to bear the shame of actually sending it out. If silence is humility and sharing all the good things in my life is pride, then I have indeed sinned— six times over. (Though I might argue that posting statuses on Facebook is only a more passive aggressive way of doing the same.). Yet, every year I decide to do it again, and I would like to make a case for my actions.

To be honest, the annual Christmas letter is mostly for me. The first year I wrote a letter, the man working at the copy shop looked up from my paper— which he had read through as it was being spit from the machine— and said, “You should save these. This is great. One day you’ll want to look back and read them.” I nodded with a smile, taking my precious box of beautiful letters home. He liked them!

He hasn’t been wrong. I never manage to find time during the summers to put together those scrapbooks of college that I keep meaning to work on. But the Christmas letter is always there. It has the pictures, and it tells the stories. Each year I look back and read the old letters, and I am amazed by how I’ve grown and changed, how much I’ve forgotten of what has happened to me over the years and who has mattered to me.

I suppose it’s like teaching. In class, we take time at the end of each lesson to ‘summarize’ our learning for the day. Research shows that if you don’t take time to reflect and summarize, students both learn less and remember less. I guess it’s the same in life. It is in timely reflection that we grow.

Admittedly, my letter tells the story of my life in an odd way. My closer companions know a lot more of the messiness. How many people I asked about the weird light blinking on my car, who it was who helped me fill my tires, how I tried and failed to start biking to work. How much weight I lost— and gained back. Whom I loved and who didn’t love me back, who I waited to text me for days. When I felt broken down by my job and when God seemed to have only silence and a turned back for me.

But for some reason, I don’t have trouble remembering those messy spots. I do know how to fill my tires now, and I know how to live my life fully without waiting for a text from a boy, and I’ve definitely grown in prayer and faith. But it was the small joys and celebrations that I needed help reliving. Perhaps some half century from now, when I have close to a novella’s worth of Christmas letters, I will have a strange, beautiful little narrative of the small victories in life, the books and movies and music that shaped it, and the things I learned and people I loved along the way. I do not think that is so bad a thing.

My second point is that we live in a society that is not only sexist and racist (and all sorts of other oppressive things), but couple-ist. We privilege the married and brush off the single. The other people I know who send out Christmas letters and cards are all couples or families. Every one of them. And this is a shame. Too many young people are simply waiting for their lives to begin, as if the things we are accomplishing and adventuring toward now don’t count, because we aren’t married yet. Because we have no babies. Because we are still paying rent. This is not to knock parenting or childbearing or childrearing (or home buying): all of these are immensely difficult, noteworthy things, and when they happen in your life, trust that I want to be there, celebrating with you and cheering you on. I work with teenagers for a living— I do not take parenting lightly.

But all my single ladies (and gents) should feel our lives are no less full at the holidays. We are not half people. We are not missing anything. We have canvases of life we’re making into masterpieces too.

Honestly, far too many people are complicit in this couple-ist nonsense. How many churches have boards of elders made  out of married couples? How many times have you or your female friends been asked by relatives if there is a special someone in their lives yet? How many people do you know who married more because of the pressure to fit in and fear of not being alone than the desire to be with a specific person? In fact, if you think about it, single people are essentially second-class citizens. We pay higher taxes. We are treated with less respect by society (at least women are). And we wait around to tell our stories until our big days, as if marriages are the only things worthy of celebrating.

I simply refuse to participate in this waiting. I have a life full of stories that I am ready to tell now, and I will tell them.

All this letter writing was first prompted by my parents. My elder brother was sending out these incredibly long emails about his college life once a quarter to people he and my parents cared about, and my parents said, Juliet, make sure you do the same. I thought about this, and I thought that it was ridiculous. (A) Four times a year is way too often to write to people you don’t know that well. (B) One day I’ll stop doing this and it will be awkward. (C) Who really wants to read this?

So I decided to do it my own way. I started a tradition that I hope I can keep up the rest of my life. And yes, I feel absurd writing a Christmas letter about myself the length of most families’ letters, when grown parents are bragging on their (grown and un-grown) kids. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of us did this? Wouldn’t it be great if we were all exchanging books and movies and music and recipes and lessons learned and people loved and memories lived? Christmas letters shouldn’t be resumes of a perfect American family, they should be accounts of real lives, filled with stories of adventure and growth and accomplishment and personality. I would love to read about my distant friends with photos and fun details, to see their big moments, the best things they learned, the people they loved. I want to keep up with them, so that I know if I show up on their doorstep halfway across the country one day, we still have plenty to talk about, we have real questions to ask, real worries to share.

And this is the crux of the matter: we live in a world where friendships and families span great distances and even generations. My closest friends are between 2 and 26 hours away, by car and plane. My relatives and parents’ friends span the country. And the families and people I have befriended throughout my life literally span the globe.

I have no desire to give up my connections with any of these people. They are dear to me— whether it is because they have welcomed me into their home once, or we had a great car ride conversation, or because they raised a child who become one of my dearest friends, or because we sat at the same dining table or sang in the same choir in college for years. Maybe they babysat me as a child or taught me a seminar in college. Regardless, I consider them friends.

I know it is uncommon in this day and age to consider people outside of your generation friends, but I think now more than ever, we need those friends most. And perhaps that is why I believe in Christmas letters: they are not for the young. They are for the older friends. I went to the movies yesterday with an 84-year old lady (an annual recipient of my letter). For twelve years of my childhood, she taught me piano. This time I drove her to the movies as she told me of growing up in Tampa and helped her down the steps as we discussed Stephen Hawking’s wife. We have a date later this week to listen to some Schubert recordings. There are amazing things to be learned by watching and listening to other people’s lives, especially lives outside of our generation. We need to hold onto these people, and if my absurd little Christmas letter helps, I do not mind making myself a fool for it.

I am a teacher, and there is nothing I would love more than to see the adventures and joys and accomplishments of my students’ future lives come back to me on a regular basis. Perhaps I am too optimistic about the generosity in people’s spirits, but I imagine the people who have invested in me would wish the same.

Friendships change with time and distance— it is true. But in the end, it’s been wonderful. Each year, I send out a little, ridiculous account of my current life. I’m like a child again, asking people to celebrate with me. It’s embarrassing, and it’s a bit self-important, and it’s definitely full of some bullshit. But in return, people start writing me back. They tell me of the baby coming, of med-school next year, of their trip to Brazil, of their holiday vacation. I get calls and texts and Facebook messages. Coffee dates. Next year’s trips and vacations. Invitations to people’s homes. And my life feels so wonderfully full.

We remember each others’ existences, and we celebrate.