Archive for November, 2013

posted by Amy on Nov 20

You don’t need to know the details about my home life as I was growing up. It was, shall we say, not optimal. But I turned out pretty well, and that’s largely because of the greatest thing about growing up in the 60s: kids were routinely allowed to run around completely unsupervised and go pretty much anywhere they wanted, including the library. Like tiny homeless people, we could spend the entire day there if we wanted to. We could also hang out in the woods, or down by the river, doing whatever we were moved to do. A more mischief-minded child might have gotten into trouble. But, in addition to riding my bike all around, and spending long, lovely hours communing with trees, rocks, tadpoles and a sweet little stream near my house, I read books. Lots and lots of books.

First I became interested in animal stories. Horses first, of course:  Black Beauty, The Black Stallion series, Misty of Chincoteague and all its spinoffs, and probably some I’ve forgotten. The part in Black Beauty where the hero (horse) nearly died from someone’s ignorance affected me deeply. It made me understand the importance of excellence–of knowing what you’re doing and doing it right. Then it was dog stories. I especially remember one about a cocker spaniel that was a show dog (though not all that well. . . .) Then, when I was in about the fourth grade, it was Little Women, Little Men and Eight Cousins–stories about families. Different from mine. Happy families that actually had conversations and knew one another. Finally, and most formatively, I spent a long time reading biographies of women.

I read every biography of a woman that I could get my hands on: Julia Ward Howe, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Annie Sullivan, Amelia Earhart, Sacajawea, Nellie Bly, the investigative reporter who got herself committed to an insane asylum so she could expose it, Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, and Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House. All of them inspired me. All of them made a difference in my life. I had been told I could be whatever I wanted to be. Those women were models of possibilities for me.

I also read fiction, especially science fiction. I loved A Wrinkle in Time and all the other books by Madeleine L’Engle, as well as the Asimov Robot novels. Later it was Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. I got hooked on fantasy too, and formed a lifelong habit of reading books about alternate realities with dragons, Hobbits, elves, people with leprosy, or people who could time travel.

My parents had a set of Bible stories. I read those. My maternal grandparents had an endless supply of Readers Digest Condensed books. I read those when we visited them in Boulder, Colorado every other summer. They also had tons of old National Geographics. I read them too.

Books opened the world to me. They gave me an escape, but they also sparked my imagination. They made me understand that there were other ways to live than the way I had to live, temporarily, in my crazy family. They made me believe that another life, another world, was possible.

Reading saved me. Reading transformed me. Books and stories were the things I treasured most as a child, and they became what I most wanted to share with my own children. From infancy, when they went to bed, they got three stories and three songs. My husband and I took turns. Every night one of us put the kids to bed while the other did the supper dishes. It was a set, unalterable routine.

One of our sons had a minor reading disability. His second grade teacher told me she was sure he’d keep working to overcome it, “Because he realizes that what he wants to know is in the books.” I remember another son, also in second grade at the time, getting out a book and announcing he wanted to know “all about birds.” I was indescribably happy that they also loved books and of learning.

I treasure the memory of some of the children’s books we read over and over. One son, the musical, poetic one, liked to repeat lovely phrases he heard. From a book called Christmas Bear, he especially liked “Sliding down on a ribbon of morning mist.” (He also, from a very early age, liked to sing the Cheers theme song, especially, “Where everybody knows your name.”) No one had read to me when I was a child, so it wasn’t until I became a parent that I discovered Heidi, and the Little House books, but I also read them beloved titles from my childhood, plus many more recent treasures written for children and youth. Our times reading together are among my favorite memories of family time.

At a rally by and for the Philadelphia Student Union in 2010, a Latina public high school English teacher spoke about the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline®” and how she prepares her students to resist it. ( She said she teaches them from the “approved canon” of reading materials, but she uses it and other supplemental materials to help them see how they are being manipulated and marginalized. Her mission is to give her students the critical thinking skills and awareness they need to become autonomous actors and not the powerless, commodified objects that they are destined, by their race and social class, to become. Stories and books could save her students too.

If children love to read, and if they are given the run of any decent library, they can become liberated, educated, humanized, and empowered. But if you make them hate reading with stupid, boring or senseless books, you risk condemning them to the stultified, dumbed-down, unimaginative life that people who don’t care one bit about them think is the best they can hope to have.

For more ideas in this vein, see this article (which is satire) on why Neil Gaiman should be the U.S. Secretary of Education. My nice hot link tool isn’t working in WordPress today for some reason, so you’ll have to cut and paste the URL:

Want to help save education? How about volunteering at a school to go read to kids? Want some inspiration for how that can work? Watch Princess Bride.


posted by Amy on Nov 2

I am a naturally optimistic, cheerful person. I have always had a sunny disposition. I’m also highly skilled at denial. Those traits and that skill have gotten me through plenty of rough spots in my life, but lately I’m coming up empty. I spend too much time reading things I find on the internet, and not enough time on assigned reading. I lurch from one obligation to the next with insufficient preparation or attention. I’ve been faking attention, faking interest, faking enthusiasm. People are starting to notice.

I’m questioning whether this really is how I want to be spending my time. I rarely question commitments I make. I decide and then I carry through, usually without a backward glance. I decided at age 10 that I wanted to be a lawyer, and so I became a lawyer. Four years of college, one year off, then three years of law school, then 28 years of nearly-full time law practice. There were setbacks. I had many reasons to question the decision, many bumps in the road. But I stuck with it all that time.

Then in 2008 I decided to go to seminary in Philadelphia and, while there, decided I’m being called to teach, so I transferred to Boston University School of Theology, where I finished my M.Div. in 2012 and immediately started on a doctorate in social ethics. I did that despite being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in May of 2011. The initial decision was made in the context of having excellent health and a robust genetic endowment for longevity. One grandfather lived to be 89; the other made it to 99. One great aunt lived to be 100. I have relatives in their 80s who are still going strong. Obviously, my diagnosis changed things. I thought about it, prayed about it, and consulted wise ones, including pastors, mentors, fellow students and my oncologist. Above all, it was personal. Study and academic work and my BU community fulfill me. I am, at heart, a scholar. I am committed to learning and teaching. I have things to say, and a burning desire to find out more, and a mission to pass on what I know.

But I don’t really feel at home in Boston. Frankly, for those of us living in cancerland, it’s tough to feel at home anywhere, but every day I am reminded that I’m a stranger here. I still don’t have a good mental map of this place. I don’t know how far apart things are, or whether it’s better to walk or take the T. Most of the new friends my age that I’ve made are in my support group and they, like me, are living on borrowed time. Four women that I had grown quite fond of, and enjoyed seeing once a week in group, have died recently. That takes a huge toll.

The real issue is that I don’t know how much time I have. If it’s ten more years, giving me time to finish the doctorate, do some other writing, finish being ordained, start or add to a ministry, then I want to stick with it. It’s great being a student, with the nice breaks between semesters and all the intellectual stimulation of being in an academic community. That’s good for me, and it spurs me on to leave an intellectual legacy of some kind.

If it’s two more years, that’s a different equation. Now, while I still have plenty of energy and feel good most of the time, I should be doing things like organizing photos and videos, discarding unwanted documents and papers, spending time with my kids, traveling, and writing. But would I? Or would I just fritter away the time?

I was talking to a family member on the phone last night, and I realized that I don’t have to decide anything right now, and probably shouldn’t. The days are getting colder, darker, and shorter. I’m feeling stressed, depressed, and anxious, and it’s an especially tough semester. But there’s reason to hope for a turnaround. One of my classes is only meeting one more time. That will free up 7 or 8 hours a week to devote to other work. I’m going to see family in Harrisburg soon, and I’ll be back in Denver for Thanksgiving. Those trips will fortify me and cheer me up. I’ve been on Kadcyla for six months, and although it hasn’t brought about a remission, it does seem to be keeping me stable, with tolerable side effects. For now I can stay the course, count my blessings, practice good self care, do the best I can, and let myself be imperfect and human. Maybe, after all, that’s a good legacy too.




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