I’ll start out this post with a story from when we were living in Ireland a couple of years ago. We had taken the children to the park down the street, and while we were watching them play, we struck up a conversation with a fellow parent. We never did get down the Irish accent, so as always, it came up pretty quickly that we were American. He remarked that he had considered visiting the United States. We smiled and nodded, since most people responded to our nationality with either an account of their visit to America, or an expressed desire for such a visit. But our new acquaintance went on to say that he’d decided against a trip to the United States, because he was worried about how dangerous it was.
We tried not to gape. Our country, dangerous? What could he mean? After all, it’s not like we were talking about Colombia, or Somalia, or Afghanistan. This was the United States of America. He went on to say something vague about violent crime, and then the conversation drifted to other topics.
Since that day, I’ve mulled that conversation over in my mind quite a few times. For some reason, it made a disproportionate impression on me. It was the very first time in my life that someone had described my home country as dangerous, and it gave me a weird feeling to think about it.
I’d heard plenty on the other side of the question. When I was preparing to go on a study abroad to Syria during college, the news was met with nearly universal shock and concern. Let alone when we moved to Tunisia last year with our two small children. Such places are so far outside most Americans’ experience, and get such awful coverage in the media, that going there struck many of my well-meaning compatriots as some kind of eccentric death-wish.
But America dangerous? No way. Before my Irish friend suggested it, the thought would never have occurred to me. I think we all view home as a safe place. It’s a natural and healthy human tendency. Living in a place that you believe is unsafe plays with your mind. My friend Annie, who recently moved to Kenya with an NGO to work in the largest slum in Africa, just wrote a great account of what it feels like to live in that kind of constant fear. We function much better when we can convince ourselves that even though bad things can happen anywhere, home is an intrinsically safe place.
My Irish conversation was brought back to me yesterday when I read the following passage in Jason Elliot’s travel memoir about Iran, of all places. The author is talking to an Iranian man who spent five years living with his family in the United States and working as an engineer. They have just moved back to Iran. Elliot recounts:
I wondered why he had given up the obvious benefits of life there and come back.
‘For the children,’ he said.
‘You wanted an Iranian education for them.’
‘It wasn’t that,’ he said. ‘Every week, someone would go crazy and start shooting kids in a playground. In LA people shoot each other for fun. At least here you know the worst that will happen in an argument is that someone will punch you in the face.’ He shook his head. ‘We couldn’t live like that.’
Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, page 90
In the wake of the recent Aurora shooting, I confess that I’ve had some similar thoughts. It was a shocking tragedy. Shocking like the tragedy last year in Norway, where Anders Breivik went on a shooting rampage that killed dozens of teenagers. However, there’s one thing that really sticks out as distinguishing the two. No event even remotely similar has happened in Norway within living memory. In the United States, on the other hand, a similar tragedy happened just last year. And the year before. And the year before that. And so on, back to 1984, according to this report.
When I perused the “International comparison” section of Wikipedia’s article on Crime in the United States, I could see what my Irish friend was talking about. Our homicide rate is among the highest in the developed world, at 4.8 per 100,000. Norway, by comparison, is 0.5. Even more heartbreaking, we also have the developed world’s very highest rate for deaths from child abuse and neglect: 2.4 per 100,000 in the country at large, and 4.05 in the state of Texas. And is it a little frightening that we have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world?
Putting aside all the statistics and the question of why they are so high (except I will include the lovely and eloquent photo above, also courtesy of the state of Texas), I’m interested to know how you, my readers feel. If you live in the United States, do you feel safe? If you’re an international reader, do you think of the United States as a safe or dangerous place?
August 13, 2012 8 Comments
One of the things almost sure to be heard in a Mormon testimony meeting after someone has traveled (whether it’s across the ocean or just to the next town over) is an expression of gratitude that “the Church is the same no matter where you go.” To a certain extent, it’s true. We all sing the same hymns, although every ward congregation seems to have its particular favorites. We all read the same scriptures. Sunday meetings follow the same general format, even if the meetings are in a different order. Sunday School and other lesson manuals are standardized and translated into over a hundred languages, and on any given Sunday the whole worldwide Church is studying the same lesson (give or take a week or two depending on how organized the local Sunday School teacher happens to be).
We’ve traveled and moved around the world quite a bit, and I’ll admit that I do appreciate the general “sameness” of Church meetings. It’s nice for my children (and for me!) to know that no matter how different the country where we live may be, when we go to Church it will feel familiar. But I also deeply relish the little differences. For example, in Italy when I arrived at Church I was greeted not with a handshake, but with kisses on both cheeks (and sometimes the top of my head too). There is nothing like being kissed thirty times in a row as you walk in the door to really make you feel welcome.
Among my favorite things about attending church in a foreign place is meeting new and different people with whom I nevertheless share many things in common. Church members are always some of my first friends in a new place. And you don’t always meet the people you would expect. Our branch in northern Italy naturally had some Italians in it. But many of the members there were from Argentina, so while Italian was the official language spoken from the pulpit, there was a lot of Spanish floating around in the halls. We also had some members from Nigeria, with whom I conversed in mutually broken Italian for several weeks. Finally one day we laughed in embarrassment and relief when we all experienced the sudden simultaneous epiphany that we were attempting to speak a foreign language with a native English speaker.
Testimony meeting in our Irish branch was a luscious bouquet of accents. There were Irish members from various cities, someone from Latvia, South Africans in both vanilla and chocolate skin tones, a cute little family from France, a missionary from the English Midlands, and then us. The missionaries had a hard time convincing one young black South African man to come back to church, because he was afraid the white members would shun him. When he finally came one Sunday, my heart was touched to see our white South African family be the first to go up and introduce themselves to him, and then invite him to sit with them. From then on, he was taken in as one of them, and sat with them every week, enveloped in the love of their family.
Our branch in Florence may have been even more eclectic, although it varied a lot from week to week, since many worshippers were tourists just passing through. One sweet woman in the branch really took us under her wing, although we were only there for a couple of months. She was from Peru, and had lovely thick black hair and a dark complexion. Her husband could not have looked more different. He was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and his ruddy face was crowned with a profusion of curly blond hair. I loved the fact that they had both come so far from their native lands only to meet each other in this Italian melting pot and fall in love.
Aside from the obvious surface differences, another fun aspect of Church in different places is the subject matter of Sunday School discussions. General topics like faith, following Jesus, and loving our neighbor, come up everywhere, of course. Lessons on the Word of Wisdom typically revolve around alcohol, smoking, or coffee. In our Filipino Sunday School class, however, we skipped discussing forbidden stimulants in favor of a heated debate on whether we should ever be eating meat at all, since in the Philippines it is never cold, and winter is just a distant fantasy that nobody has ever experienced.
In fact, Filipino Sunday School was always interesting, because they have a lovely cultural tradition of respect towards the elderly. Invariably, at some point in the lesson there would be a venerable old man (a little hard of hearing) with bizarre ideas on every subject, who would lecture until it was time for the closing prayer while the rest of the room sat in reverent silence. The ward we attended in Manila was a downtown one with many English speaking foreigners, and meetings were generally conducted in English. Somehow, though, whenever the speakers in Sacrament meeting told a joke, they thought the punch-line would be funnier in Tagalog. So I’d laugh along with the rest just to be sociable, and then lean over to ask my husband what I was laughing about.
Some of my most spiritual church meetings have been the simplest ones. There’s something about missing all the usual trappings of church that shows you the importance of what’s left without them. One of my favorite Sacrament Meetings ever happened when I was on a semester abroad in Syria. There were of course no local congregations, and our group of BYU students was on a long bus trip that Sunday, so we had Sacrament Meeting right there in the bus. I watched my friend Kyler walk down the aisle, swaying a little with the movement of the vehicle on the bumpy road. His hands were carefully cupped together around a little pile of broken bread, which he offered reverently to each of us in turn. Something about the expectant silence of the usually rowdy bus and the intimacy and humility of the bread coming straight from his hands to ours, touched me with strange profundity. It was as if we had turned the mundane world inside out for a moment and made it suddenly holy. The very incongruity of participating in the familiar ritual in such an unexpected place shocked me into really seeing it, as if for the very first time. I pictured the last supper, and Christ’s hands holding out the bread to each of his disciples in turn. It was a visual reminder of how personal his act of offering the Atonement is to each of us, and I’ve never forgotten it.
We spent most of last year in another country without the benefit of organized church presence: Tunisia. Just like in most Muslim countries, we were cautioned not to be too open about our church membership or meetings. We felt wonderfully blessed to find that there were a couple of other Mormon families in the country too. Every Sunday we took a taxi, then an hour-long bumpy, smelly, death-defying public minivan, and then another taxi to meet in the home of a member for a very simple church service. We would sing a hymn, watch a Conference talk, partake of the Sacrament from the smallest cups in our host’s cupboard, and then sit around in a circle for a Sunday school discussion while one adult rotated out to teach our tiny, five-child Primary.
Our meetings were held in Carthage, a well-heeled Tunis suburb built right on top of the ancient Carthaginian capital and its Roman successor. When we visited the nearby mosaic museum, we found this beautiful tiled baptismal font designed for immersion baptisms. St. Augustine lived and taught in Carthage, and many early Christians met martyr ends in the ruined Roman amphitheater just down the street from where we met for church. My favorite weeks there were our testimony meetings, where it was not a question of if you would bear your testimony, but when. Gathered together as a tiny band of believers in a country full of chaos and unrest, we poured out our hearts to one another and were spiritually strengthened. In those moments, I felt a powerful kinship with the ragged, persecuted members of the early Church, who must have also met secretly in private houses on those same Carthage streets, shared the Lord’s supper, and borne testimony to one another.
We’re back in a “normal” American ward now. We meet in a nice chapel with over a hundred other saints in a well-functioning ward with all the requisite auxiliaries and activities. It’s something I missed when we were away, and I love being back in the comfortable familiarity of American Mormondom. But sometimes, sitting in my cheerio-laced, padded pew, I close my eyes for a moment and imagine myself in one of those more far-flung places. Immersing myself in those distant scenes of worship, I touch a little more deeply the core of what it really means to be a Saint, and thank God for the experience of difference that illuminates the familiar with a rich new light.
photo credit: Baptismal font
July 9, 2012 1 Comment
This week’s book reviews (with the exception of #1, which is just an irresistible indulgence) are dedicated to people who want to save the world.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is an absolute delight: witty, intelligent, exciting, and original.
I am addicted to footnotes (I even like reading annotated critical editions of novels), so I adored the abundant tongue-in-cheek scholarly footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I also appreciated the length. No matter how quickly you read, you won’t be finishing it in an afternoon. At over 1000 pages, there is just so much of this book to love.
The interweaving of real history, 19th century British culture, and wild magic was seamless and satisfying. The characters are fascinating, quirky, and eminently memorable (the male characters, at least. The female characters are decidedly stereotyped and mostly minor. For that reason I would not compare this to a Jane Austen novel, as some have).
The book is full of quotable lines (“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.” ). There are lots of hilarious scenes, and it’s deliciously unpredictable. I’m almost ready to pick it up and read it again right now.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While wondering what (if anything) to do with his life, bartender Doc Hendley decided to go to Darfur for a year on a mission to bring clean water to villages affected by the ongoing violence between rival Sudanese factions.
Hendley’s prose is a little rough, but his unstudied informality is actually endearing. Behind the gruff biker rebelling against his straitlaced religious past (his father is a “preacher man”) is a genuine person awakening to what he has to contribute to the world.
Although I enjoyed some of the more exciting incidents, like getting shot at by Janjaweed militias, my favorite parts of the book were Hendley’s introspective moments, and his totally unselfconscious meditations on life, his Christian faith, and the paradoxes of international development.
The organization Hendley formed, Wine to Water, currently provides clean water in nine countries, with a focus on sustainability and local cooperation. If you’re interested in hosting a Wine to Water fundraising party, you can check out the website here: http://winetowater.org/get-involved
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you’re looking for an insider’s account of last year’s Egyptian Revolution, you won’t do better than this. Wael Ghonim was not only an eyewitness to the events of the revolution, but also a key figure in it. An executive with Google, he used his marketing experience to effectively spread the message of revolution to the youth of Egypt, break the fear barrier, and bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets.
A good portion of the book is made up of primary source documents, in the form of posts he made on the wall of the Facebook page he created to mobilize the youth of Egypt. His passionate Facebook appeals work synergistically with his personal narrative to create a riveting, very immediate reading experience. I felt like I was living the Egyptian Revolution along with Ghonim.
Although Ghonim’s at times overblown prose might seem excessive to readers unfamiliar with Egypt and Egyptians, just go ahead and suspend your disbelief and take him seriously, and you’ll be rewarded with an inspiring look into the mind and work of a modern-day hero.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read the first 50 pages of this book in the original Spanish, but then switched over to the English translation because #1 I’m too lazy to spend that much time with the dictionary and #2 it was just too weird to picture this Irish guy speaking Spanish.
I really liked the intermittent flashback format, because it gave the book (and the main character’s life) coherence. Whatever the later controversies of his life, Roger Casement has my respect and admiration for his tireless and self-sacrificing quest to rid the world of injustice. Over a couple of decades, he courageously persevered in exposing the Rubber Barons’ horrific abuses of native peoples in the Congo and Peru, despite death threats, severe illness, and extreme emotional strain.
The last third of the book, which deals with the struggle for Irish independence, is not as readable. Casement’s claim that colonialism in Ireland was essentially the same as in the Congo is not really credible. Still, I have a soft spot for Irish revolutionaries, and I am so glad that he can rest in peace now knowing that his country is free.
The work is subtitled “A Novel,” but it reads much more like a biography. I wish that Llosa had included something at the end to assist the reader in separating fact from fiction. I’d like to know how much the Roger Casement I grew to care about is like the real one.
Although the “Black Diaries” are admittedly an important part of the plot (and I think it’s sick and tragic how the British government made use of them), I didn’t really appreciate reading so much out of them. Llosa’s claim that they were authored by Casement but largely fantasies rather than descriptions of real exploits seemed a little weird, but I’m not really qualified to judge its merits.
Advisory: For those who, like me, are prudish to some degree, be aware that there is some sexual content (i.e. the contents of said “black diaries”) in this book.
July 6, 2012 2 Comments
In honor of the holiday, I thought I would share some of my favorite photos from the summer we spent in Ireland.
For sheer beauty, I’m not sure if any countryside can compare to Ireland’s. It is so, so lush, even in the dead of summer. The quaint low rock walls everywhere, the charming steeply-sloped roofs, and the green, green, green of everything make you feel like you’ve stepped into a fairytale.
All that green does come with a price tag in precipitation. So rain boots were standard attire when going out.
I believe the fields of Ireland were the origin of Axa’s frog-catching obsession.
We met an assortment of other small creatures in the long, wet grass.
Our friend Rory is an amateur history buff, and knew all the cool sites in the area, like this gorgeous decaying Regency manor house.
He led us on all sorts of illicit expeditions. Here he is helping me under the fence at one site,
And in the window of another.
Nearly every town seems to have its own monument to the potato famine. This is one of the more haunting, along the River Liffey in Dublin.
Here’s a less sobering shot of the River.
One of our favorite pastimes was picnicking by the 200 year old Royal Canal. Yes, that’s authentic Irish soda bread that I made myself.
They still use the canal today.
A friend at Church asked Tony to baptize him. The baptism was performed in a nearby Loch, and it was one of the most beautiful ceremonies I’ve ever seen.
Happy St. Patrick’s day to all our Irish friends!
March 17, 2012 1 Comment
August 10, 2010 1 Comment
I’ve been asked to teach Axa’s Primary class at Church today. The lesson is on obeying the laws of the land. One of the activities is to tell the story from Matthew 22 when the Pharisees and the Herodians go in to trick Jesus with a question about whether they should pay taxes or not. On another tax paying occasion when His disciples were worried about having the needed funds, I remember Him sending them out with their nets to catch a fish with a coin in its stomach. It was better than a fairytale.
August 8, 2010 2 Comments
I have one great regret about homeschooling. School uniforms. I would love to dress up Axa in plaid skirts and sweaters and Raj in ties and knee socks. And they would love it too. (Really, they would. In fact, for her school the other day, Axa dressed both herself and Raj up in dresses, crowns and veils. My fantasies are much tamer.) I have considered dressing them up in school uniforms even though they don’t go to school. But the way we do school is so messy. It involves bread dough, mud, snails, and other things incompatible with starched white collars and shiny black shoes.
August 7, 2010 2 Comments
We were at Lough (Lake) Ennell yesterday, and it was beautiful. It barely rained on us at all. And, I discovered the macro button on our camera (actually, Tony showed it to me). What joy and delight! I snuck up on every bug in sight, not to mention dozens of very obliging flowers. Maybe I really could do a nature journal. I’ve been stuck on that point for some time, as my repertoire of feminine accomplishments does not include brush drawing. I was just about to capture a slug when the camera battery finally died. From above, the slug looked as sedentary and blobby as slugs are wont to look. But from below! He was ravenously devouring a leaf. His prodigious lips engulfed it alarmingly. Raj and I had been watching him for five minutes when Axa came over to investigate. I pointed out his sharp tooth, of which I had caught several glimpses. In fact, we could even hear the little snip as he cut off each piece of leaf. Axa said, “I read in a book that slugs cut leaves with their sharp tongue.” She’s right, of course. She knows all sorts of things like that. I looked it up when I got home. The tongue of a slug is called a radula, and it’s covered in tiny teeth.
August 5, 2010 No Comments
We walked down the canal again today. It’s my favourite walk here in Mullingar. Although it’s over two hundred years old and no longer serves as a conduit for goods and passengers coming up and down from Dublin, they still keep it cleared for the occasional motorboat. I was very pleased the first time we walked down it to demonstrate my extensive knowledge of canals and those who work on them (derived entirely from the verses of The Eyrie Canal, which my mother taught me). Just a couple of weeks ago I read some more about bargees in The Railway Children, which is our current daytime readaloud. At night Tony and the children are still making their way through the Little House books. We’ve been enjoying the contrast between life in England and life in the United States during the same time period.
July 30, 2010 No Comments
In Ireland, “mixed spices” is a fascinating blend of garam masala and pumpkin pie spice. It made delightful cinnamon rolls the other day. But we will not be remaining long-term in Ireland. Tony has accepted a position at a company in Italy, in the same area of Piedmont where we lived before. So in a sense, we feel a little like we’re going home. Of course, we felt like that the first time we moved there, never having set foot in Italy before. Life can be deliciously unpredictable.
July 28, 2010 2 Comments