Archives for posts with tag: beauty

I love how the more I work in the community, the more it becomes a process of mutual sharing. Sharing a song with the youth in a study circle is so much lovelier when they teach me one in return. A gift of my time visiting a neighbor in her home is quite literally sweetened by the tea she serves me. A word in English traded for a word in Spanish, or in Nepali, or maybe just a loving smile.

It sounds so selfish, I know. We’re taught that we should give selflessly, without regard for reward. But I can’t help the feeling that what I’m experiencing isn’t something as petty as tit-for-tat, it’s an emerging environment of equality. We’re just neighbors. Collaborators. Friends. There are no martyrs here.

So I know a prayer in Sanskrit now. I’ve learned to make chatpate from a group of middle school girls and to make origami flowers from a talented boy who used to curse at me in the street. I hoard a collection of construction paper cards that say “I love u Mis Cat” and “Thank you for being a awesome friend.” I’ve been invited to saints’ days and birthdays and dinners and festivals. And I’ve come to understand, most people love the opportunity to share what they have. Knowledge. Art. Stories. Passion. Faith. It brings people joy the same way it does for me. Silly not to have known it all along, eh? But I’m so much richer for having discovered it now.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.


letter b

It’s easy to think of beauty as an extra, something nice but unimportant, when you’re doing meaningful work. But an ugly solution is only ever a band-aid, because it doesn’t inspire. The effort ends with the initiators.

I can’t work with young people without some kind of art. For some reason, the concept of learning + effort = improved results comes naturally to people when the goal in question is beauty, moreso than for science, or community, or anything else. Once they have the experience, it’s easy to point to it as evidence that it could work in other areas of their lives as well.

Whether we’re talking about 5-year-old children with coloring pages, junior youth personalizing their workbook covers with Sharpie markers, youth writing poetry, or adults copying quotations in calligraphy, there is a willingness to strive for beauty that seems to exist in everyone, regardless of skill.

It would be foolish to ignore this gift in the name of efficiency. Where were you planning on getting so efficiently, anyway? And why would you want to stay once you’ve arrived in an ugly place?

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

I first discovered author Nnedi Okorafor as I was skimming the science fiction shelf at the Lakewood Public Library a couple of months ago. I saw her name printed in bold letters on the spine of a yellow hardcover and stopped in my tracks. Nigerian sci-fi? I thought, I’m totally reading that. I grabbed it off the shelf without even bothering to read the jacket. That novel, Who Fears Death, was somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, and altogether gorgeous. It’s rare to find a book that deals with such dark themes without being cynical. Who Fears Death blew it away.

Later, I found out that Okorafor had also written a few young adult novels. If you know me, you understand that this made me CRAZY excited. I’m such a sucker for YA lit!

So I went back to the library and picked up Akata Witch. Now, in addition to having a passion for good writing (which I knew Okorafor would deliver), I also spend a LOT of time volunteering with middle school students. So when I read young adult fiction, I’m not only hoping to get sucked in, I’m hunting for books I can recommend. I’m looking for lessons to ease my young friends’ transition into adulthood. As you might guess, Akata Witch definitely delivers. Here are four important messages I gleaned from this (really great) novel.

1. Sexism, racism, and prejudice are alive and well in the world, but individuals can make a difference.

Main character Sunny is called the derogatory term akata by her classmates at school because although she has two Nigerian parents, she was born in the United States. Once she discovers her magical nature and enters into Leopard society, prejudice doesn’t simply disappear. Some look down on her for being a free agent, one without Leopard parents. Others don’t want to play soccer with her because she’s a girl. Even her friends bicker about which tribe or nation has the strongest juju. Those with magic haven’t necessarily grown out of their outdated prejudices. But Sunny, and others in her world, are able to make small dents in assumptions and injustice, just as in the real world.

2. Knowledge is its own reward.

Currency in the Leopard world is chittim, metal rods that appear whenever one has learned something important. Sometimes, chittim fall when you have worked a new kind of magic for the first time. Other times, they might come when you use the knowledge you have to ask a wise question. While Lamb (non-magical) money can be earned by cheating or stealing, a Leopard person can only become rich through knowledge and understanding.

It’s important to note that Okorafor makes the distinction between intelligence and character. While some seek knowledge for the good of all, others seek it for their own ends. While you can’t fool chittim into raining down on you through dishonesty, the knowledge you have gained is still a tool, which some might choose to use in dishonest ways.

3. The world will go on without you … but your life is still important.

This is a tough lesson for Sunny to swallow. She and her friends are regularly sent out into serious danger by their teachers and elders. They are not the first Leopard people to attempt to stop an evil from occurring. Others have died in the attempt. And if Sunny and her friends die, others will be sent after them and the world will spin on. No one is so privileged that this is not so. And yet … each person has the chance. To make a difference. To learn. To teach. To contribute to the world. Your death is simply one of those contributions. It’s a strange balance, one that Sunny finally comes to grip with as she stands to face mortality on her own terms.

4. Your imperfections are your gifts.

This stood out to me as one of the most important lessons in Akata Witch, simply because it’s rarely articulated in novels at all, much less young adult books. In Leopard society, individuals all have a natural ability. This ability is often closely tied to a trait that makes the person unusual or unique, often viewed by Lamb society as an imperfection. Sunny, an albino, can become invisible. Sugar Cream, who can turn into a snake, has severe S-shaped scoliosis. Imagine having parents like Orlu’s, who became very excited when they learned their son was dyslexic, because they knew he would have a wonderful and unique ability. Wouldn’t that change how you thought of your own worst faults?

While fantasizing about what my natural ability would be (of course I did this, wouldn’t you?), it suddenly occured to me that this is true in our world as well. While my ligament disorder hasn’t allowed me to work magic, it has given me spiritual powers. Because of the pain I deal with, I am more compassionate. Because of my inability to run, I am more patient. My physical limitations as a teen drove me to books, which in turn gave me a gift for the written language. (And there’s always the great party trick of being able to turn my hand 360 degrees!) No, we don’t live in a world where people with skin rashes can control the weather and those who are abnormally tall can read the future in the stars, but each of our weaknesses has the possibility of growing into a strength, if we let it.

This Friday, youth, children, and adults gathered to practice their choreography for Parade the Circle, an arts-based event in Cleveland. The group’s theme is “Unity of Religion,” and they’ve put together some magnificent large-scale props, inspired by many quotations like this one:

The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Day Star of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.

The religious symbols embedded in each branch of their tree were made to have a stained glass effect. The idea is to show the beauty in the variety of colors and designs, while the source of the light is the same.

I can’t wait until next week, when we’ll get to see the group take their message to the world.

The Gaps in Us

The God of my dream has narrow hands—
He is a violinist, perhaps,
or a scholar who never sleeps.
This God slips His fingers into spiderweb cracks
in sidewalks, plaster, linoleum floors,
memories, teacups, clay,
in between the ribs at odds in my chest.
The bones should feel stranger, I think,
as God lifts us up by the gaps in us.

Most people don’t know I’m participating in Project 333 this year. For those who haven’t heard of it and don’t feel like following the link, it’s an exercise in simplicity: For three months, limit your wardrobe to 33 items. This doesn’t include things like underwear, pajamas, wedding rings, and clothing you only wear while working out or playing sports, but does include shoes, coats, and jewelry. I’ve been going for a few weeks now, and here’s the most interesting result:

Nobody’s noticed.

Nobody’s noticed that I have one pair of jeans, one pair of black dress pants, one long black dress skirt. Nobody’s noticed that I wear the same two pairs of shoes and the same two scarves everywhere I go. Nobody’s walked up to me and said, “Hey, I noticed you only seem to own one pair of earrings! What’s up with that?”

It’s pretty fun.

My clothes fit in one dresser drawer.

I never worry for long about what to wear.

I’m always comfortable. (There’s no room for non-comfy items in my limited wardrobe.)

I never have to hunt for my clothes anymore, although I still have difficulty finding matching socks.

Surprisingly, I never get bored. Because the clothes I have are my favorites. I get to wear my favorite sweater twice a week: hooray!

I thought it would be difficult to plan for both professional and personal life. Because I am SUPER casual by nature (Hoodies! Jeans! Clogs!), and sometimes I need to look like a grown up. But a pair of comfy black slacks goes with six different shirts and sweaters for a professional look, or even with (gasp!) my favorite hoodie. And all those shirts go with jeans. Or a skirt. And I’ve actually gotten used to the idea of wearing fabric other than denim on my bottom half, even if I’m staying home. (Leggings underneath for warmth. This is Cleveland, people.)

An unexpected side effect is that I’ve become more confident with my appearance. My husband and I were invited out with some of his friends, and my first instinct was to ask, “What should I wear?” but then I realized that the outfits I was panicking over weren’t even in my current list of clothes. So I relaxed, put on my one pair of jeans and a professional-and-attractive shirt, my earrings, and black flats. I spent 5 minutes rather than 30 getting ready, which meant that I didn’t have time to get cranky about the way I looked. As a result, I had a much better time than I often do in similar situations. Totally unexpected.

Of course, I have to be a little more careful about timing my laundry now. It takes about 24 hours for heavy items to dry on our rack, so I found myself at one point with no dry pants at all! (Thank goodness I included a long skirt in my 33.) So far, though, the positives have outweighed the negatives. We’ll see how things develop when (if?) the weather turns before April.

Today is Day 2 of my 31 Days of Community project.

I did a lot of things today (the dishes, the laundry, the floors, the toilet … it was one of those days) but my community-building exercise for today is that I am attending a reception for a local artist. Time to get off the internet now, because it’s starting soon.

Have a happy weekend!

Today I took a field trip to the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Or, to be more specific, Mrs. Peter’s second-grade class took a field trip to the museum, and I tagged along. I wasn’t exactly sure how an hour in the art museum was going to go over with a bunch of 7-year-olds, but I was interested to find out.

It was even more interesting than I imagined. Our guide, Lucy, had the class hang up their coats, then led them into the gallery. She sat them down on the floor in front of this painting:

I was a little surprised at the choice of a religious work for a public school class of very young kids. How was she going to explain this to them?

Revelation of the day: she didn’t. After asking them to examine the painting for a moment, she said, “So tell me what you see here.”

“It’s a bunch of guys, and they’re having a party.”

“So what do you see that makes you think they’re having a party?”

“They’re eating food, and they’re wearing hats.”

“So you think they’re having a party because they’re eating and wearing these … hats? Good. What else do you notice?”

“They’re eating different kinds of bread.”

“Can you point to where you see different kinds of bread?”

“There, and over there, and that round one over there.”

“So you see they’re eating different kinds of bread. Good. What else?”

“The animal on the table is a ess … essc … estinct creature.”

“This animal here? What do you see that makes you think this is an extinct creature?”

“It looks weird. It’s not like a normal animal.”

“Okay, so you think it’s an extinct creature because it looks different from a normal animal? Good. What else?”

She never contradicted their statements, even when they contradicted one another. Again, “What do you see that makes you think that?” Again, “What else?”

They noticed that none of the men were wearing shoes. They noticed that the windows were open, and they noticed the trees and the building outside. A girl noticed that they were eating healthy food, like bread and vegetables, which earned a pleased response from Mrs. Peters. One boy noticed the fancy robes, and thought that the men were kings from different countries who were having a feast together. Another thought that one of the men was sleeping, because his eyes were closed.

And when there were no more observations forthcoming, Lucy had all the kids stand up, form a single-file line, and move on. They looked at three more paintings this same way. Never did she offer any explanation to the children. All she did was encourage them to look closely at art and articulate why they thought the way they did about each piece.

Sometimes they invented stories, like a painting they decided involved three children who had been bugging their mother to buy them a dog forever, and they finally found one and fed it donuts to make it want to stay with them. (What do you see that makes you think they were bugging their mother for a dog?” “Her face looks annoyed.”) Sometimes they brought in ideas from their lives, like when they thought a painting looked like a maypole dance, or people getting on a ride at Cedar Point (both, hilariously, interpretations of the same painting).

18 kids, four paintings, one hour, and almost zero problems. And one lesson in helping children see and think without the knowledge and stories of adults getting in the way. Thanks, Lucy. It was a fabulous morning, and one I won’t soon forget.

Sore Thumbs

Poets are contrary creatures,
always in search of sore thumbs.
We like the shock of hototogisu
or red wheelbarrows,
a sudden host of daffodils,
a collapsing pleasure-dome.
Little is said of a corn-colored girl
in a corn-colored field,
or the unremarking cars that pass her
on the freeway, sounding all the same.

This is a dream I had when I was 17. I have never written it down, and I have never forgotten it.

In the beginning, I am little, wearing a party dress. I run from my backyard because two grownups, amorphous in the way all big people are when you only come up to their waists, are chasing me.

I run for a long time.

I end up in a tunnel, deep underground. The grown people are still chasing me, but I have gained ground and they are far behind. I am myself now, my teenage self.

I turn a corner, and suddenly I am in my older brother’s room. In real life, my parents had a boy named David before me who died shortly after being born. In the dream, though, David grew up with us, then disappeared as a youth. This ordinary blue bedroom underground was apparently his hiding place from those who were chasing him.

There are papers on top of his desk, in his handwriting, which I recognize. I read them, and from them learn the secret of walking through the earth. No longer afraid of being caught by those who pursue me, I smile and pass through the wall, and into the earth.

On the other side, I come out into a large room like a school cafeteria. At the other side of the room is a large table at which a number of people are seated. One, an enormously fat woman, stands up and gives me a hug. “Welcome!” she says.

Then she puts a hand on her hip and chides the others: “Well, aren’t you going to welcome the girl?”

One man stands. He is thin, with dark hair and a crooked nose. Looking at his eyes, I realize he is blind. Next to him is seated a frail looking, ancient woman. This is his lover.

He explains to me that there are brief times when he is able to see. When this happens, he is unable to look at his love, because he becomes overwhelmed by emotion and the shock of it drives him immediately back into blindness. Instead, he reads everything she has written, as fast as he can, for as long as he is able. He tells me, “When you love someone, read what they have written. This is how you will know who they are.”

I woke up feeling weighted down by responsibility.

I have remembered every detail for 10 years, and I don’t even know why.