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During my middle school years, the whole world changed. Literally, the whole world. Yes, my personal world was turned upside down—a move across the country, a tiny house in a huge city instead of a sprawling house on the outskirts of a small city, and a traditional classroom with new and more urban peers instead of self-study amid childhood friends—all of those together do constitute the equivalent of a personal 8.4 earthquake. But my personal changes are not what I am writing about today.*

I am writing about how the world itself changed during my middle school years.*

 

[Hint: I am about to wax autobiographical. So: if you don’t have time for a jaunt through personal history followed by multiple reflections, then before you leave this page, you REALLY should skip to the end and follow the link at the * note. That’s really the best part. My favorite part. And the point of the whole thing, really.]

 

I grew up under the shadow of Communism. Grew up watching shows about American spies—the good guys—outwitting the Russian secret service—the bad guys. Grew up hearing about Christians persecuted under Communist rule and reading about the lack of freedoms that people in Communist countries enjoyed. The imaginative games my friends and I played—aside from some creative forays into historical worlds—were infused with Communist bad-guys chasing the good guys and almost catching them. The good guys were captured sometimes but always managed to escape and save the day . . . provided the game didn’t end prematurely when our teachers or parents called a halt to play time. After all, that’s what always happened in my favorite tv show Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

Russia, Communist headmaster of the USSR, was a country cloaked in mystery and competition. Mystery because few people were allowed behind the Iron Curtain and even fewer people allowed out. Competition because Russia was determined to steal all of our secrets and win all the Olympic medals. Not to mention the space race (but that was a topic that went above my the radar of my elementary mind).

I loved the Olympics, especially the winter Olympics and especially the figure skating competitions. I always wanted skaters from “the free world” to win over those from the Communist world, of course, but I couldn’t help but love and admire some of the skaters from the USSR. Their stories, told Olympic style in all their inspirational warmth, gave me a glimpse into the lives of real people. There were real people living behind the Iron Curtain, real people who somehow didn’t get in trouble for thinking and who somehow made a living . . . and whose lives were decided for them from childhood. Just like that. Sergei Grinkov and his partner Ekaterina Gordeeva were my heroes. Sergei’s sudden death in 1995 touched my heart with genuine sorrow. I may have cried, but I don’t remember. My parents bought me the memoir his wife wrote of his life. Their childhood skating partnership had eventually turned into love that led to marriage. They were a Russian fairy tale.

 

All of this feels so long ago and so far away.

 

25 years ago, in fact.*

Spectators walk between balloons of the art project and remains of the former Berlin Wall at the wall memorial Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, Germany. USA Today – Picture by Markus Schreiber, AP

 

This week, the city of Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall that divided Communist-controlled East Berlin from self-governing West Berlin. The Berlin Wall that physically represented the metaphorical curtain that shrouded all of the countries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the watching eyes of the rest of the world. As a child I always wondered what the “Iron Curtain” was—besides one of those things that everyone talks about and everyone knows about and everyone says without explaining what it means to the listening children. I think that somehow I imagined it was a wall like the Berlin Wall, but was never quite sure. Substituting “Berlin Wall” into every sentence where “Iron Curtain” was used did not always bring the clarity I imagined it would. Eventually, yes, I did come to understand that the term was metaphorical for the measures of secrecy and red tape that the Soviet states employed to keep the world out and keep their own people in and behind which the Soviet government ran its powerful schemes of control ranging from semi-absolute to moderately intrusive.

 

As a child, I knew nothing of John F. Kennedy’s mistranslated but heartfelt pledge to the people of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner—nor even what his speech meant to the people of Berlin.

If I did hear about Reagan’s demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “take down this wall” in Berlin, it either went over my head completely or was far less interesting to my child-mind than the latest episode of Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

I had no idea that in the year I turned 10, a mistake was made in a speech by an East German official giving permission for the gates to be opened and East Germans to walk freely through them—and across the former “death space”—and into the West Germany they’d been longing to rejoin.*

I was dimly aware of the news that the Berlin Wall itself had been torn down.

But I remember vividly sitting in my 8th grade social studies class and being introduced to a brand new, redrawn map of Europe. Our teacher asked us that year to memorize maps of all the continents, all the countries of the world. None was so interesting as the map of Europe—the map on which we could no longer find some countries (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia), the map with so many new countries that hardly knew what to do with themselves. The map that was history being made in our lifetimes.

All of a sudden, those probably dangerous and definitely mysterious potential-spies dressed in long dark coats and fur-rimmed hats became real people. People who enjoyed owning property, people struggling against crushing economic forces, people trying to figure out self-government. People like us. People who didn’t have it easy but were people again instead of a mass to be ruled and managed.

 

We don’t hear much about Communism anymore. Sometimes I think that may not be a good thing—now that the Cold War is over, now that China is the smiling face of Communism and cheap labor, I sometimes fear we no longer remember or care about the foundational differences between Communism and freedom. And those differences are very important to remember because those differences cost the lives of thousands upon thousands of people—in places and during times that have nothing to do with American capitalist interference. And those differences still cost many lives hidden away in secret places where no one but God can really see them. Sometimes I wish we remembered that Communism teaches beneficial change can only come through bloodshed of the ignorant masses. That Communism does not really see people as people.

But I am glad that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain has taken Communism out of our working vocabulary and away from the forefront of our imaginations (though I do pity the kids who have less perfect bad-guy material to use in their imaginary games—a dark, tricky, and impersonal force from across the world really does make for a good force of evil to fight against). Most of all, I am glad for Berlin because for all the difficulty that reunification brought—and it really did bring a lot of difficulty for every country that had been a member of the Soviet bloc—but for all of that difficulty, Berlin made it work.

The wall coming down was nothing short of a miracle. So many people had hoped and prayed and worked for it. And then it actually happened. It must have seemed like a dream. Like a perfect dream. But it was real life, not a dream, and real life is a lot more difficult to negotiate than dreams are. But Berlin lived up to JFK’s statements about them and embraced reunification so well that today it is hard to tell where West Berlin ended and East Berlin began.

 

And it makes me think about how true JFK’s claim really was—Ich bin ein Berliner—or as his interpreter correctly retranslated for him: I am a citizen of Berlin.* Because I think that all of us are citizens of Berlin.

We all face conflicts and divisions. Sometimes we build walls to protect our interests; sometimes we build walls to try to control what we think we have a right to control in our lives and the lives of others. Sometimes we feel closed in by walls we did not want built or have come to regret; sometimes we are the maintainers of walls, just doing our jobs. Sometimes we are the ones looking at walls that others built and mourning the broken relationships on both sides. We are Berliners. And like the citizens of Berlin, sometimes we see the walls come down.

And like the people of Berlin, when the walls come down, we find that working out the differences, extending freedom to all, and patching up the damage is not an easy task. (Sometimes we wish the walls had just stayed up!). It takes work to see and treat each other as real people. We aren’t born being good at it.

 

But I have to hand it to Berlin—they did it. Like JFK said, the people of Berlin were a model to the world: in his time, they were a model to the world of how terribly divisive and cruel Communism was. And when the wall came down, they modeled to us reunification. Not automatic, not easy, but a task worth doing. A miracle worth receiving.

A victory worth celebrating.

 

Happy 25th anniversary, Berlin!

 
 

*Note: Watch Tom Brokaw’s view of the celebration–he was there in 1989, and again 25 years later. His clip tells stories from multiple angles and is my favorite of all the things I saw and read. It encapsulates it all. Please watch it.

**Note: What JFK really said in German was “I am a jelly doughnut.” A Berliner was a kind of pastry. By throwing in the article “ein,” he changed the German sentence from “I am Berliner” (a citizen of Berlin) to “I am a Berliner” (a jelly-filled doughnut-pastry-thing). I love listening to his speech because when he first says that misinformed sentence, a whole lot of things happen at once: the interpreter catches and rephrases the mistake, a buzz of excitement runs through the audience, Kennedy realizes that he has made a mistake of some kind and enters the general laugh himself by thanking his interpreter for helping him out. Kennedy has no idea what the mistake was, but his gracious poise and interaction with his audience is beautiful and perfect. What is even more beautiful is that at the end of speech when he makes the same ill-worded comment, a buzz of excitement runs through the audience again, but with a very different note than the earlier buzz. Nor does the interpreter need to make a correction this time. The people know exactly what Kennedy is really saying. The first buzz of excitement may have been good-natured laughter; the latter is cheering and connection with JFK’s message: you’re not alone, Berlin, because the whole free world stands with you.
That was a truly beautiful moment.

 
 
 

Other Berlin Wall and Communism resources:
Berlin Wall —
1) BBC/Wikipedia History of the Wall — http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/places/berlin_wall
2) History lesson links and Berlin Wall quiz — http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/text-to-text-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-reporting-in-1989-and-remembering-25-years-later/?_r=0

Communism —
(these are books, not sites; very retro, I know, but they did a good job of helping me get a picture of it . . . a consistent picture, even though none of the sources were connected with each other)
1) biography: God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew (first-hand experiences)
2) classic fiction: Animal Farm by George Orwell (explores the natural end of the ideology . . . in fairy-tale form)
3) play: Letters to a Student Revolutionary by Elizabeth Wong (this comedy/drama is about Communism in China)
4) children’s book: The Mystery of the Smudged Postmark by Elizabeth Rice Handford (this one touches on the reasons people wanted to leave, from a child’s point of view)
5) historical fiction series: The Russians by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella (Last 3 by Pella alone)–this series is pretty long, but by the end of book five, you have a pretty good idea of what Communism sounded like and what it looked like in actuality. It’s like watching a train wreck.
By now you may have noticed that none of these are treatises on Communism. Those are readily available through an internet search, but sometimes it’s a biographical or fictional story that helps us to really see what is going on. And piques our curiosity to search. And no, none of these are the sensational Hollywood spy-style-stories I loved as a kid. (Ok, so the only one that gets close to it is so true, it’s stranger and more amazing than fiction!) 😀

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From Max Lucado’s book Traveling Light (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001):

“Do you feel a need for affirmation? Does your self-esteem need attention? You don’t need to drop names or show off. You need only pause at the base of the cross and be reminded of this: The maker of the stars would rather die for you than live without you. And that is a fact. So if you need to brag, brag about that.”

Lucado echoes the apostle Paul in Galatians 6:14 where he says “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”

To be honest, such boasting is totally and completely unthinkable! How dare I boast that the God who made the stars should love me so very much? That’s akin to saying that Bill Gates is my best friend or that the king of Spain chats with me online every day. Yes, the Bible makes it very very clear that God’s love really is that big, but it’s really not something I can believe easily, especially since human love can’t and won’t and doesn’t fill every need.

It seems audacious to boast of God loving me so much He didn’t want to live without me. So much He would give up His very life for me. It really seems much more humble to boast about my own petty accomplishments. Deep in my heart, I realize they’re petty. In fact, that’s part of why we boast, isn’t it: to raise ourselves off of the dirt floor where the superiority of others has cast us? And so we boast, feeling that others view us as inferior, trying to give ourselves an “ego boost” (sounds like an add-in at a smoothie shop: “I’ll take an immunity boost, an energy boost, and an ego boost in mine, please.”).

Reading Lucado’s words, I realize that I’ve never really understood Paul’s ability to boast in the cross before. What kind of boasting is that? Doesn’t it sound a bit heartless to the rest of the world to tell about something that they don’t have and might never be able to obtain–a love like that? And if they could obtain it, wouldn’t it make my possession of such love less significant? I’ve wondered about how in the world the apostle John could have the presumption to call himself “the disciple Jesus loved”–didn’t that cheapen the relationship the others had with Jesus? Wasn’t that a slap in the face to them and their relationships with Him? And if I were to boast in such love, I would be sure to find out very quickly that someone else has more of His love to boast about.

And so I boast about everything else but the one true possession I have that gives value to my little life, the thing that God has reiterated over and over that no one will ever be able to take from me, the thing that He has promised is mine forever, the one thing that He has given me permission to boast about. Why don’t I boast about it?

I have to believe it first.

It’s late. I should be in bed. But before I go to bed, I need to touch base with HIM, and I don’t feel ready to talk to HIM just yet.

[On a side note, talking with Jesus is just like talking with others who know and love me in that sometimes I don’t want to do it because I’m trying to be ok and don’t want to deal with not really being ok at the moment because then I won’t be ok. On the other hand, talking with Jesus is not like talking with anyone else because He already knows that and already knows what is bothering me and knows exactly what to do or say to make me comfortable in His presence.]

So here I sit at my computer, hoping for something . . . hopeful? Not that everything is depressing, just a drab shade of dreary.

And then I run across her blog and her account of nannying her “small fry” as she calls them. She writes so simply that it’s like being there and like being part of a children’s story–you know the kind? the ones that tell about a day at the park or a day of shopping. And suddenly, I remember just a little of the wonder of being a little kid. I smile. The sun comes out (yes, even at midnight). That was part of my something.

And I can thank Him for things again: thanking Him is like re-enjoying the things that have happened today; it’s like going back to exclaim over the gifts He gave me that I already unwrapped and got excited over. It’s a little like having Christmas or a birthday party in a quiet way.

“Thanks,” my heart says, “for a foot massage today–I didn’t know how much I needed it.
“for Langston Hughes’ poem about rainbows.
“for a piano and the desire to play it.
“for getting things done.
“for the chance to discuss literature–to actually TALK about it and about what it says and means and about the people in it and what we learn from them . . . I love literature!
“for giving me a love for literature. =)
“for extra hours at work and the chance to learn more job skills.
“for the chance to discuss my grading policy–sorta. and for someone taking the time to give and take reasons rather than getting frustrated and not wanting to listen. and for the clarity that came because of the discussion.
“for my car.
“for a tank of gas.
“for another time of sorta getting lost to smile about.
“for someone carrying my HEAVY backpack.
“for someone else remembering that we’d talked about exercising together.
“for blessing someone I have prayed for.
“for replies to e-mails sent long ago and forgotten about.
“for Charles Dickens and A TALE OF TWO CITIES.
“for Grandma’s wonderful cooking.
“for family Bible-sharing time.
“for working unseen by me to do wonderful things that You will show me later.
“for stories about small fry and how much fun they are.
Thanks.”

Now I think I can finish getting ready for bed.

I’m currently reading Isaac Asimov’s I, ROBOT (the book upon which Will Smith’s sci-fi thriller was loosely based). It’s a frame-tale of robot stories held together by the reminisces of aging robot psychologist Susan Calvin. I do find it funny to read of things that have dates on them such as 2008 and to think of all that Asimov predicted that hasn’t happened–nor is likely to happen. Still, I have to applaud him for his ability to weave a story and for the fact that many of the ideas he came up with still exist in modern science fiction: “positronic brains,” for example, are still part of many sci-fi stories, movies, and television shows.

The stories he tells are easy to connect with. I am moved as I read about Robbie, an early nurserymaid robot that could not talk but served his young charge Gloria with a dedication that looked more like love and friendship than enforced servitude. Speedy amuses me as he responds to situations he can’t handle by quoting snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan operas–now there’s a robot I could like! (maybe I should try his technique!) Then there’s QT-1, or “Cutie” for short, the robot whose dedication to reason begins where Descartes began (“I think, therefore I am”) and develops an entire religious cult based on false presuppositions. Wow! What a comment on pre-suppositions and the way we interpret facts through their lenses (reminds me of my college class with Mr. Janke in which we examined presuppositions and the way that they make us see the facts!). I love the two scientists that end up field-testing the newest robot models and finding themselves the victims of the major quirks each robot has–they make me laugh! But Herbie is the one that I pity the most: Herbie the mind-reading robot.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS A RESPONSE TO THE STORY AND WILL UNDOUBTEDLY GIVE AWAY ITS MORE SURPRISING ASPECTS. SHOULD YOU WISH TO READ THE STORY UN-SPOILED, STOP READING NOW, GET A COPY OF I, ROBOT AND READ “LIAR” BEFORE CONTINUING TO READ THIS POST!!!

The First Law of Robotics ingrained into each robot states “a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow him to come to harm.” But what is the definition of “harm”? Such a small word! Since Herbie can read minds, he can see the things that will hurt the humans around him at an emotional level, so he does his best to protect them from being hurt. The clues are all there, and as I read, I begin to piece together what he is doing: telling them what they want to hear. The trouble is that they do not want to hear the truth in its entirety, and when two people with conflicting desires about the truth of one item are asking him for an answer, he can say nothing without hurting one or the other. Caught, stuck, pinned between conflicting desires of humanity, he lies to them. He is betrayed by his very purpose–serving humanity–and by his very attempts to protect the humans around him. And I can empathize. There come times when I know that I can’t win. No, I do not lie; I try so very hard to recognize the truth and to speak it in the right time and the right way. But which is better: to speak what I know will hurt when I could swallow it even though it’s true? or to swallow it even if it hurts? Perhaps I am setting up a false dilemma. All I know is that I saw myself in Herbie’s pretending that he could not do math well so as to allow the brilliant human mathematician to continue to believe in his own superiority; I saw myself in Herbie’s willingness to be the confidante of the humans around him; and I see myself caught in the same net he was caught in.

My empathy raises a very good question, a question I have had without knowing exactly how to name it: how are we to be “harmless as doves” to those around us? Each day, with each action, I have the potential to hurt someone around me. Sometimes an action that helps one person seems to mortally wound another. As a Christian, how am I to navigate these waters? How can I lead my life as the person I am to be when who I am might stifle who another person is?

I guess the obvious answer is that I was not put here on this earth to please everyone, just One–Jesus Christ my Maker, Master, and Savior. But how am I to judge success at this task without seeing it through the eyes of others? I guess I am seeing that, as Donovan and Powell (the field-test scientists) learned, field tests don’t usually go the way that the laboratory tests did–things look different in real life than they do in theory. I guess I can see myself in other robots, too: like Speedy, I don’t know how to function when duty and self-preservation balance each other out, neither being more important than the other (maybe I ought to start quoting English comic opera more often!); like Dave I short out under pressure and revert to something a little less stressful (like typing on the computer at odd hours of the night–*sheepish grin*); and like Herbie I can’t handle the thought of hurting those around me–and someone is always getting hurt.

Robbie had it easy: he lived to please just one person, and it worked out just fine for him. Cutie reasoned through the facts and came to some very wrong conclusions, then just lived by the rules and procedures, quite willing to not have to understand their purpose; he lived quite happily, blissfully ignorant. But God has not called me to live ignorantly; He has called me to the truth. So, how am I to fulfil my function in this crazy world of danger, duty, unexpected dilemmas, and fragile humans? Is it an impossibility?

As I logged onto Yahoo, an article caught my eye: an article on burning books. How many kids haven’t wished at some point to burn a text book at the end of a school year? There have been some that I have though about setting ablaze, but a certain respect for the written word has prevented me–even from burning those that perhaps ought to have been burned for content’s sake.

I can understand the point that this man is making–fewer people are reading books. There is something to be said for the act of picking up a book and getting caught up in it. There is something to be said for the portability of the printed page and skills acquired in reading those printed pages that are not picked up by scanning a screen. His point–that not reading books is akin to setting them ablaze–is valid. Ray Bradbury, in his book Fahrenheit 451, made a similar statement, going further to say that reading the printed page fosters a freedom of thought that nothing else does. In today’s day of computers and the transient nature of the information they link us to, how are we to know if we have the thoughts as the authors originally thought them? The printed page provides an objectivity to knowledge that our world is quickly forgetting. I can’t say that I disagree with his message.

I also appreciate his method of protest. He is damaging no one’s property but his own, and he is planning on going about his protest with full attention to the law and to the safety of those around him. Moreover, while burning books may seem to be excessive, it is in no way a slam on our country (as flag-burning is) nor a vicious personal attack. It effectively draws attention to his message. . . . and his business. He made some sales, didn’t he?

I have to admit that the thoughts of his burning books that are antiques and that are old classics, especially hard to find ones, brings a little knot to my throat. And if I were there, I’d probably succumb to the impulse to rescue a book from the pyre, even if it means that book will be relegated to my own dusty shelves.

I hope he chooses the common trash to burn first as he continues his protest. Maybe the good stuff might have a better chance of survival.

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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