Monday, July 16, 2007

Being Booksmart

I've always been one of those people who knows better how to answer questions on a school exam than how to use common sense (which, it turns out, isn't all that common after all) in real life. Maybe that's one of the subconscious reasons I pursued the field of education, I don't know. I mean, given time to think through a situation, weigh the options and consider various outcomes before settling on my final answer, I’ll pass with flying colors. But if it’s a question of responding right away, verbal or otherwise, without the cushion of mental/emotional analysis or being able to change my mind and erase my first answer before going on, I’ll fail very nearly most of the time. Anyway, thanks mostly to a gracious God and partly to my sweet husband, for whom common sense seems as natural as breathing, this has been a focused area of growth over the years. (Still so far to go, but baby, we’ve come a long way!)

So yes, I did well in school. I’m a book lover and always have been. I can really, totally, utterly lose myself in a good story. So much so that, once I get into it, unless there’s a super-urgent need like a baby to be fed/changed/entertained or a boy to be fed/entertained/walked to school, I can let the world go by until I’ve read through to the very last page. Since my life is filled with said super-urgent needs most of every day, I don’t do as much reading as I used to, but I can’t go too long without it. I’m an early-to-bed type of person normally, except when I’ve got a good book going. Evenings are prime reading time.

When I lived in Nairobi there was this really fab second-hand bookshop in the YaYa Centre. All the books were in English, and since it was practically a library with rental fees because so many expats from so many agencies bought and sold their books there, I came across several interesting, international books that I wouldn’t have gravitated to otherwise. (Confession: I also became addicted to M.M. Kaye mystery novels for a spell, reading them one after another until I’d greedily devoured them all -- Death in Kenya; Death in Berlin; Death in Zanzibar; Death in Kashmir -- say the titles with the back of your hand to your forehead, in a dramatic swoon, and you get the picture.)

It was at that bookstore that I first picked up Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter, Ursula Hegi’s Floating in My Mother’s Palm and Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Because of the work I was involved in at the time, I also read Bilquis Sheikh’s absolute classic I Dared to Call Him Father. (Haven’t read it? Do yourself a favor and beg/borrow/buy a copy. Then pass it along to all your friends!)

And that was it, really. I’ve been drawn to novels and memoirs by and/or about non-Anglo women ever since. They aren’t exactly easy reading (well, except for the hilarious Mma Ramotswe tales by Alexander McCall Smith) -- but eye-opening, compelling and, at times, heart-breaking. Reading these stories has confirmed what I’ve experienced through my real-life friendships with international women: Underneath our different cultural customs, all women have the same needs and the same longings. As mothers, daughters, sisters and friends, we have a whole lot more in common with one another than we tend to think we do.

So a few weeks ago, when the kids and I had a nasty fever/cold, I snuggled down with a book I’d heard about from Maheesa, a Sri Lankan friend whose daughter is in Jack’s class. We were in the library together one day after dropping the kids off at school, and she was checking it out based on the recommendation of another friend. It’s called Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl.

I’d never read anything about Somali women, although I’d long been curious since one-third of the residents of South C, my neighborhood in Nairobi, were Somali when I lived there. As soon as Maheesa returned the book, I checked it out for myself, reading it cover-to-cover in several big gulps. I couldn’t help myself. Aman’s story was, by turns, fascinating and devastating. It gave me personal insight into articles like this one on CNN.com about the routine genital mutilation of countless innocent girls like Aman every year. (See what I mean? Absolutely NOT easy reading for you and me sitting here with our genitals intact, but a harsh and cruel reality for only-God-knows-how-many girls and women across Africa and living around the world.)

(I should also say that I recently finished Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. While his story is obviously from the male perspective -- he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone -- it was great to read another memoir by someone from an oral, story-telling culture. They have an incredible capacity for remembering the tiniest details of something that happened years and years ago and can often recount the names of their ancestors up to fifteen generations. Amazing!)

I guess all this reading, all this immersing myself in the experiences of women from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems, has impacted the way I think and the way I act. You know how reading, rereading and studying the Bible, asking the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind to its Truth, dramatically affects your inner life as well as (hopefully) the things you say and do? That’s what I’m talking about, in a way.

To be fair, I guess it has also come from living outside America -- interacting with international believers outside the American context and living as a guest in countries that are not my own -- but over time I’ve started to see myself and other people more as individuals with common hopes, fears, desires, frustrations, etc. rather than members of diverse ethnic groups, good guys/bad guys, us/them. I’ve started to consider things from the minority point of view rather than agreeing too easily with the majority (yes, even the so-called Christian majority). And I’ve started to understand that, as a Christian, how I act toward, think about and talk to/about people from other ethnic/religious/lifestyle/ideological backgrounds has the potential to show Christ’s love and joy, hope and peace, grace and mercy more clearly and more powerfully than anything else I may ever do or say.

At least, in the eyes of a watching world.

* * * * * * *
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9 NLT)

My dear children, let's not just talk about love; let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we're living truly -- living in God's reality. (1 John 3:18-19 The Message)

I am the Good Shepherd; I know My own sheep, and they know Me... I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to My voice, and there will be one flock with one Shepherd. (John 10:14-16 NLT)

1 comment:

Cay Gibson said...

Great post!
Evening is my prime reading time as well. :)

And I found it very interesting what you said about how people who come from an oral, storytelling culture can remember things so well.

Fascinating thought...