Lucidité

Musings on language, images and life

Category: Words

Forever Young

Last weekend, we celebrated my daughter’s first birthday. Between the domestic work of hosting a party (a pleasure, but work nonetheless) and the parenting work of making sure the birthday girl was rested, fed, bathed, and clothed in a relatively saliva-free dress, somehow the actual event of her turning one had slipped through the proverbial cracks.

There had been emotion, yes. I reminisced about her birth—the moment I felt her leave my body, the first time I looked into those dark, curious eyes— the night before, while rocking her to sleep and planting kisses on her silky mess of auburn hair. My heart filled with gratitude for a healthy, beautiful child. While cleaning the bathroom on the morning of her birthday, I shed tears of sadness over the fact that her great-grandmother didn’t live long enough to see her turn one, and tears of joy that she was able to spend seven months watching her “doll baby” grow. However, I hadn’t allowed myself to feel the swell of pride, to experience the sheer profoundness of my child turning one. Not yet, at least.

When it came time to open gifts, I was somewhat surprised to see a present from my parents— they had delivered a scooter the night before, and I knew they planned on putting money into her college savings fund. As my husband helped the birthday girl rip into the package, my dad reached for his guitar. The wrapping paper was torn away to reveal a gorgeous hardcover copy of Forever Young, by Bob Dylan, with Paul Rogers’ vivid illustrations. My dad started softly strumming and singing “Forever Young” in his warm, resonant voice— the voice of my childhood.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you…

My joyful one-year-old teetered over to her grandpa and helped him strum. Across the room, my mom’s beaming face shed 32 years. As a family, we traveled back in time—as young, idealistic parents, they sang this song to me when I was one, and in the years to follow.

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

The birthday girl made her way around the coffee table, grinning widely at those who had come to celebrate her, and my heart opened. Completely. Her happiness became my happiness.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

As these lyrics—at once simple and profound—filled the room, I felt whole, confident in my parenting for the first time since she entered the world. This is what I want for my daughter. To be righteous. To be true. To be courageous. To be strong. We live in a world filled with benchmarks, titles, and external rewards. Yet, at the end of the day, none of this matters without a strong sense of self, a strong sense of justice and community.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

Maria Montessori, a renowned Italian educator and humanitarian, writes in Childhood and Adolescence: “The human personality needs to be prepared for the unforeseen. The power of adapting is essential.” My hope for my daughter is that she will be able to adapt to the “shifting winds” just as her father and I have— just as her grandfather and grandmother have shown me how to do for many years.

As my dad finished the song, I realized the extent to which these lyrics shaped the way my parents raised me and how, in turn, they impact my own ideals for my child. My job is to help her develop this strong foundation, to help her become who she will be to the world. What an indescribable privilege it is to be entrusted with guiding and loving this luminous person.

Anyone looking in our window last Saturday would have seen a grandpa playing a guitar, a grandma smiling proudly, a one-year-old bouncing to the music, a papa singing along, and a mama with wet eyes. Gifts were being exchanged—the most important kind of gifts, those you feel with your whole heart and soul— music, legacies, promises and love, boundless love.

On Writing and Parenthood: Thèmes du Jour

I have something to confess. Each time I sit down to write a blog post on pregnancy (don’t worry, you won’t be seeing any of those for a while), birth, or motherhood in general, I feel a pang of dread. Dread that I’ll be labeled a “mommy blogger” (you know, the kind that reviews strollers or dedicates full blog posts to spit-up) or be viewed as a monothematic writer (let’s face it, I’ve been called worse). Not that there is anything inherently wrong with either of those labels, they’re just not what I aspire to be.

I’ve always written what I know (standard advice in the field), and this blog serves as a receptacle for all of those thoughts that are either too personal or too obscure for the venues in which I typically publish. The very personal lessons I’ve learned from my daughter are what have caught my attention the past three months. In the days I’ve spent with her, I’ve not only learned who she is, she’s also revealed to me various facets of humanity. She’s reminded me of beliefs I’ve always held that had become buried under years of quotidian concerns. Life has become a celebration, and my creativity has flourished thanks to her innocent revelations and reminders.

A dear friend of mine (who also happens to be a world-class writer and editor) recently introduced me to an organization called Pen Parentis. The members of this diverse group don’t necessarily write on parenthood (in fact, most of them don’t). Their commonality lies in the fact that they are all parents and writers— a powerful combination. Powerful because, in my experience, parenthood informs my writing (on a variety of topics) and the perspective required to be a writer helps me to better understand the world(s) of parenting, these intimate microcosms we build and exist in each day.

I’ve decided to cast off the yoke of dread I feel when I sit down to write about the creative fodder—gifts, really— sourced from this awe-inspiring journey called motherhood. I will forge ahead shamelessly, unabashedly, as a writer-mother/mother-writer, since I know that someday I will crave anything that reminds me of these intense, beautiful days. I’ll return to writing about some of my other favorite topics soon, but for now, I’ve decided to dedicate the slim spaces in my schedule to writing about what I am living, feeling and learning today. Art, feminism, literature, politics and education will have to wait for the time being. Or will they? As I’m learning, each of these realms informs the views I bring to parenting.

As I reflect on my first three months of being a mother to a babe outside the womb—the strange smells, new sleep schedule, lack of personal time and my painful, shifting postpartum body fade into a nebulous, low-level hum and a select set of crystalline moments remains in the foreground. These are thèmes du jour that captivate me and compel me to write. I will continue to put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop, as it were) and get them out into the world.

Swallowing the Moon

Yesterday, I came across the following poem on one of my favorite literary sites, Words Without Borders.

The Moon

Every time the moon rose, she prayed.
Finally Wol-nam’s mother, at forty, bore a son.
In dreams before pregnancy,
she swallowed the moon.
After her son was born, Wol-nam’s mother
would lose her mind
without fail
every time the moon rose.
Late at night, washing dishes,
she’d smash one bowl-
the moon then hid in a cloud
and the world grew blind.

From Ten Thousand Lives by Ko Un, published in 2005 by Green Integer Press.

Ko Un is a Korean poet and Buddhist monk who writes primarily on pastoral and spiritual themes. My first reaction to this poem was both admiration and frustration. I found it stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, yet disappointingly predictable in its reliance on the trope of female insanity during pregnancy/motherhood. I rolled the words around in my mind throughout the day, trying to figure out exactly why it was speaking to me. I kept coming back to the line “In dreams before pregnancy,
she swallowed the moon.”

In my own dreams before pregnancy, I experienced similar symbolic moments– images that both made perfect sense and were highly impossible. I dreamed of incubating lush gardens in my abdomen and of giving birth to fully formed humans who verbally thanked me in multiple languages immediately after exiting my body. Like the images in my dreams, “swallowing the moon” is the epitome of impossibility, yet it somehow captures the anticipation, trepidation and (metaphysical) appetite I experienced while we were trying to conceive and, to an even greater degree, now that we await her arrival.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard 2011

As fate would have it, I had my first “crash and burn” pregnancy moment last night. In my 33 weeks of pregnancy thus far, I’ve felt nothing but happiness and gratitude. Every day I think about how I am in the minority of pregnant women on this earth– I have access to top-notch healthcare and my in utero child appears to be completely healthy. I have a highly supportive mate, a family that is beyond wonderful, a fulfilling and flexible career, and the intangible and tangible resources to raise my child according to our priorities as parents. Mostly, I am grateful for the chance to be a mother, no matter what the circumstances. These are the thoughts that have prevailed over the last 8 months.

However, last night as I was rounding the couch to sit down, I jammed my hip into a sharp corner, causing me to stumble and (uncharacteristically) burst into tears. I rubbed my bruised hip and slumped down onto the sofa, letting the tears roll down my cheeks and my moral rapidly spiral downward, unable to stop either. Michael moved closer and took my hand. “What can I do?” he asked.

“I’m tired. I’m impatient. I want her to be here. I have deadlines to meet before she comes. I’m clumsy and can’t make it up a flight of stairs without getting winded.” As soon as I heard the words escape my mouth, I felt ashamed. I had become the stereotypical, self-indulgent First World pregnant woman. “But I know that I have no right to be crying,” I quickly added, as if to absolve myself of all that I had already uttered during this state of temporary insanity.

“You can cry about whatever you want and for as long as you want,” he said. “You’re so beautiful and I am grateful for everything that you are doing for our daughter.” I remember hearing his words and feeling him kiss my forehead before quickly falling asleep, my head and body heavy.

This morning I awoke with the sun and a new perspective. Who among us has not experienced a moment of temporary loss of control, the feeling of surrendering to something completely illogical? Instead of self admonishing, perhaps I should focus on the universal aspect of “swallowing the moon”– recognizing that these moments of temporary insanity happen to most of us, pregnant or not, parents or not, across cultural boundaries. Forces beyond our control drive us to mental and physical exhaustion. At times it feels as if the “world grows blind,” but our resiliency prevails. Like the moon, we cycle back around.

Creative Diversification

I in the middle of writing a book proposal, well, actually two book proposals. One is for a collection of essays, the other for a *shap inhale* novel (perhaps a novella). I realized a few months ago that most of my short fictional stories are really about the same person/people, so I am going to try my hand at a novel over the next couple of years. The book proposal for the novel is more for me than anyone else (a game plan, if you will), but the proposal for the collection of essays is one I’d like to show to an agent sooner rather than later.

As I’ve been writing the proposal for the collection of essays, I’ve frequently scolded myself for not staying more focused in terms of topic choice. As it stands, the essays I’ve written (some published in various venues) are incredibly diverse in their subject matter, which makes it hard to shape them into a cohesive collection. What I’ve discovered is that I need to select the ones I feel represent my best creative self (and correspond to one another somewhat), and then put the fingers to the keyboard and crank out others to compliment what I already have.

If you follow my writing on this blog, the range of topics here is indicative of the types of things I enjoy writing about. It’s certainly not a “cohesive concept” blog– “musings on language, images and life” is about as broad as you can get. From a business standpoint, diversification (translation, travel writing, editing, academic writing, curriculum writing, etc.) has been crucial to  accomplishing my goal of making a full-time income as a freelance writer. However, lately I’ve been feeling like my artistic self needs to buckle down and choose a topic, or at least choose a genre.

To distract myself from the fact that I felt unfocused as a writer (like how that works?), I decided to was time to read, to replenish, to fill the creative coffers if you will. I eagerly plunged into Patti Smith’s Just Kids. As I entered deeper into her memoir, I became enthralled by passages describing Patti and Robert (Maplethorpe)’s diverse interests and creative manifestations from collage to poetry to photography to jewelry-making to fashion to installation art. The fact that they spent so much time cultivating such diverse skills suddenly made me feel much better. Patti eventually became famous for her music and poetry and Robert for his photography, but the journey they went on as artists was filled with forays into other creative media.

Conventional wisdom tells us to pick a skill (often to the exclusion of all others) and practice it as much as we possible can in order to master it. But creative wisdom often tells us differently. It tells us to let go, to create what comes to us, to play, to branch out, to emerge. I went back and reread some of my favorite essays last night. It’s true, from a marketing standpoint the collection “as is” would never fly. However, I gained a new appreciation for my body of creative work. In my essay on Frida Kahlo I saw vestiges of my personal meditations on the maternal; in my essay on immigrant art I came across phrases that were indicative of my interest in and research on the creative process as it applies to writers. I realized that, in many cases, I couldn’t have written one essay without the other, even if the topics were very different.

When running my business, it’s OK (and desirable, to some extent) for me to dictate my path, to try my hand at a variety of genres (some more interesting than lucrative, some more lucrative than interesting) to accomplish my goal of being a self-funded writer. However, as an artist, I need to allow myself let go and continue to follow where the muse leads. More importantly, I need to accept that this won’t be a direct path. For me, this is the only way I know how to explore, to push the boundaries, to thrive.

Tiger Mothers, Memoir and Introspection

After reading Amy Chua’s recent book, my understanding is that a lot of the controversy surrounding it stems from some American mothers’ (and fathers’) insecurities combined with the simple fact that they may not have actually read the book, which is actually quite self-deprecating/self-critical at times– and, even more importantly, is a memoir, not a “how-to” guide (hello, genre confusion). The wonderful thing about well-written memoirs (which Chua’s book is) is that they are raw, gritty and honest. I don’t want to read an airbrushed portrait of someone’s life; I want to read the real deal — cracks, scars and all.

It’s amusing to me that many moms I’ve talked to can’t simply take this book for what it is: a memoir. Rather, many parents I’ve encountered insist on judging and criticizing Chua for her methods (their rationale for this seems to be that that Chua has affronted them and their personal parenting methods simply by writing the book).

Sure, many of Chua’s tactics are too extreme for my parenting tastes, but that’s not really the point. The interest of this book lies in the journey she goes on as a mother and the one she takes us on as readers. It provides us with the chance to witness the introspection of another human, a mother, trying to figure it all out in a complicated world. It’s an opportunity to step inside another family culture, to witness the struggles and victories of other parents (and their children).

In the case of Chua’s book, the cloud of vehement disagreement that has coalesced around it seems to overshadow the actual point of reading a memoir (as I understand it): to gain a better understanding of a person or a paradigm (and, in the process, understand more about oneself). Amongst those I’ve encountered who have anything to say about the book (mostly mothers), anger and outrage at Chua’s methods have seemed to block any potential for introspection, which is unfortunate.

What I’ve come to understand about myself after reading Chua’s memoir is that I’m incredibly inexperienced (read: non-experienced) as a parent. I’ve also come to realize that some of the notions Chua touches on resonate with what I’ve experienced in my short 32 years interacting with others on this planet. For example, I’m incredibly supportive of the basic notions that 1) competence shapes self-confidence, 2) success and happiness are not inversely related, 3) moderation in all things, especially moderation.

1)   Competence shapes self-confidence. I’ve taught in high school and college settings for ten years now. One trend among parents (and even some educators) that has not shown signs of letting up is that of “self-esteem and happiness first, competence/success second.” To be blunt, this makes no sense and has produced a generation (or two) of entitled individuals. When a parent, teacher, or other adult insists that a student is under-performing or acting out because of low self-esteem, this is an indication that that student is already caught in a complex (and often dysfunctional) cycle (often imposed on him or her by well-meaning adults).

The proclamation that a student has low self-esteem gives him/her an easy out (his or her whims and failures are thus indulged or even rewarded by parents or other authority figures simply because he/she has low self-esteem)…the cycle continues. I know several people my age who are still caught in this cycle and don’t show any signs of breaking it. However, if parents insist on high performance and provide children with all of the scaffolding they need to achieve it (tutors, space and time to study, discipline, counseling, etc.), chances are the child’s own success and competence will engender a sense of self-esteem that’s rooted in reality and will serve them well in the future.

I’ve gone through periods in my life that have felt like legitimate failures— they made me feel like crap, mostly because I knew what success felt like. I wasn’t cut any slack. I wasn’t given the low self-esteem “out.” I was expected to get back on track using the skills I’d acquired along the way to regain my footing. And guess what? I eventually did. Nothing has done more for my self-esteem than these experiences. Moreover, the competencies I acquired early on serve me everyday.

2) Success and happiness are not inversely related. [Commence opening of can of worms.] One of the major criticisms of Chua’s methods is that when students are pushed to be successful, they give up the chance for happiness. The simplistic nature of this assertion astounds me. Are we talking about short-term happiness or long-term happiness? Where is the proof that unsuccessful individuals are happier than successful ones? Etc., etc.

But here’s where it gets even trickier. There are as many definitions of success as there are people in the world. In my opinion, many American conceptions of success are hinged completely on financial gain and power. This is not my idea of success. Nor is putting my life on hold to work for years on an academic degree that qualifies me to compete for one of very few job openings each year. However, there are plenty who would disagree with me on these points, because their definitions of success are different.

The important thing is to help children identify components of what defines success for them early on so that they are able to accomplish their goals in the future. No matter what one’s definition of success is— from running a homeless shelter to becoming a Wall Street banker— hard work and discipline will always be required to accomplish one’s goals. That’s why I believe that instilling these goals in my kids from day one is essential, whether it’s not allowing them to give up on the surf board they’re shaping or requiring them to do all of their homework before going out with friends. I haven’t always known what my specific definition of success was or is, but all of the important pieces have always been in place. Combine this with the work ethic that was instilled in me while growing up and… voilà. It’s no surprise that I’m happy and (by my definition) successful today. I was parented to be this way.

3) Moderation in all things, especially moderation. This is one of my dad’s favorite lines. There will be times in my life when “extreme” action (whether in my parenting or elsewhere) will be necessary. Not allowing a child to back out of a commitment they’ve made, sitting with him or her at the table until all of the homework is done, making him or her to face up to his or her mistakes and deal with them. I know parents who would classify all of these behaviors as “extreme.” Whether they are or aren’t, these are the things that my parents did for me, and I couldn’t be happier with how my life has turned out.

Oversimplification

In a media climate dominated by recycled sound bites, it’s easy to fall prey the practice of adhering to simplified arguments and catchy slogans. While these may serve one well while engaging in small talk at cocktail parties or around the office water cooler, I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if we committed to engaging in more nuanced discussions, even if they prove socially uncomfortable or more difficult.

I recently posted the following as a note on my Facebook page after reading seeing one of the aforementioned oversimplified arguments appear over and over in my news feed. What began as a reaction to my frustration with the re-posted status phenomenon in general ended as a call for a more complete (perhaps more measured) analysis of current events (and, for the love of all that is good, an elimination of the logical fallacies that pervade social media– and media in general, for that matter).

*********************************************************************************************************************

The following re-posted status has been quite pervasive in my fb feed lately (what can I say? I run with a diverse crowd):

“To everyone who is calling for stricter gun laws in light of the tragedy in Tucson, may I offer this little tidbit: If guns kill people, then pencils misspell words, cars drive drunk, and spoons make people fat. Remember: Hold the person accountable for their actions, not the means they chose. Repost if you agree”

Political leanings aside, the “guns don’t kill people, people do” so-called logic is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Guns don’t kill people, people do” is used in logic courses around the country as the perfect example of a logical fallacy, more specifically an oversimplification.

Taken from the worksheet of a jr. high student I tutor:

Oversimplifying. Giving easy, smug, or pat answers to complicated questions, sometimes by appealing to emotion rather than logic. Examples: “Guns don’t kill-people do” is an overly simple but popular argument against gun control. It sounds good but it doesn’t address the complex problem that the availability of guns poses in our society.

——————————————–

Gun control is not a topic that I have researched much, but I would imagine that an examination of current statistics and regulations would lead to a much more complete picture of the situation in which we currently find ourselves as a nation.

I respect differing opinions, especially those of hunters who I know have a strong connection to their guns and who use them safely and wisely (and I love me some venison sausage).

However, in a gesture of respect to those whose lives are lost to gunshot wounds on a daily basis, I would hope that we could engage in a more nuanced, fact-based dialogue about the pros and cons of gun control instead of spreading oversimplified status re-posts or compulsively citing the 2nd amendment.

—- Your peace-lovin’, logical fallacy-spottin’ friend

Wabi-Sabi

Some of life’s most fulfilling moments are the ones when I perceive the imperfect beauty of the objects around me. Wabi-sabi. I was first introduced to this Japanese aesthetic philosophy at a pottery studio I visited when I lived in L.A. Roughly put, Wabi-sabi is the practice of recognizing the beauty of elements that are  imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It encompasses that which is humble, unconventional, or even paradoxical.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

“Wabi” is used to define the type of beauty that relies on its imperfection. For example, an asymmetrical hand-thrown vase versus a mass-produced symmetrical one. “Sabi” describes the kind of beauty that comes with a natural process of age and use, such as peeling paint.

When living in a culture that privileges soulless consumption, newness, youth, uniform perfection and cleanliness, wabi-sabi provides a powerful antidote. It encourages us to consider history, source, and craft. Though it is, in essence, an aesthetic philosophy, wabi-sabi gives us a framework in which to consider the representational value of the objects in front of us as well (if age or signs of use are integral to the object’s aesthetic value, then we are pushed to consider what caused the object to age, what it meant in the past and means to the present). Thus, Wabi-sabi allows for and encourages the intersection of object and narrative.

I won’t pretend that I’ve studied wabi-sabi extensively (though I would like to at some point) or that I consistently practice this philosophy. What I can say is that it has provided a term and a construct to a previously undefined (by me) pull I’ve experienced toward that which is imperfect, gritty, irregular and antiqued in objects, art and literature.

Status Anxiety

Last night on The Colbert Report, writer Aaron Sorkin succinctly articulated a phenomenon that has interested me ever since I went over to the “dark side” and signed up for Facebook in 2008. When asked by Colbert why he wasn’t on Facebook (a fact that many consider odd, since he wrote the screenplay for the recently released film “The Social Network”) Sorkin responded “socializing is to socializing on the Internet as reality is to reality TV.” In essence, Facebook is a performance (rather than a reality) that many of us willingly participate in daily. Of course, one could argue (as Colbert did last night and I did in this post) that we are constantly performing (in our jobs, in front of our friends, etc.). However, Facebook takes this to a new and more intense level for several reasons.

1. A wider audience. It is both thrilling and daunting to think that anything we put on Facebook (or anything that is written about us on Facebook) is available in some cases not only to our “friends,” but to millions of viewers. I was recently contacted by a journalist from the Star Tribune. She was  requesting a quote regarding a Facebook page for which I was one of 20 administrators. Since I make most of my living by writing online, she was able to quickly locate my contact information and left me messages at various emails and my Facebook account. We don’t always have control (in fact, we have less than we may believe) over who views our performances. They are, for better or for worse, in the public sphere.

2. Time lapse allows for more control when crafting one’s image. Since one has to physically type something on Facebook for the message to appear, one’s “performance” can be carefully planned out or edited if need be. (Of course, those who are partial to drunk Facebooking willingly relinquish this control, which could also be part of their intentional “Facebook identity”). I’m not trying to suggest that every Facebooker thinks like a marketing MBA, crafting his or her message with razor-like precision and consistently defining him/herself throughout his/her page. However, we are all aware of how we want to appear to our “audience.” A certain level of pre-meditation goes in to planning and articulating one’s Facebook status updates and posts. The online buffer allows one time and space to define (or redefine) oneself.

On a related note, I have friends who experience performance anxiety when it comes to updating their statuses. Because they can be planned (and not just blurted out), they feel like each status has to be an ode, a stand-up comedy routine, or witty publicity statement in 420 characters. This pressure to perform is overwhelming, and keeps many of them from updating their statuses on a regular basis. The flip side of this, of course, is your “TMI” friends who share every single move (yet another version of performance).

3. More opportunities to advertise your “status.” Keeping up with the [insert names of friends who bring out your inner competitor] has never been easier than with Facebook. For most of us, the social status anxiety felt by our parents’ generation has given way to a variety of ways to define success (and anxieties to accompany each one). Whether your source of pride is your children, marriage, worldliness, job, athletic achievements, etc. for many, the “status update” has become the new “status symbol.”

I’m sure there are many more categories for analysis that I haven’t covered here, but I’m out of time… it’s already 11:05am and I haven’t updated my Facebook status yet.

(Un)Scripted

Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us have certain expectations when we enter into social situations. These expectations are typically the result of lived experiences or (un)spoken rules set forth by some sort of social paradigm or setting (a classroom, someone else’s home, a place of worship, etc.). Our expectations are shaped by our moral and intellectual framework, which serves as a sort of script for our social narrative, providing boundaries and, to a certain extent, a sense of social order.

Even the best professional actors have (intentionally or unintentionally) gone off script at least once in their careers, causing others around them to react to this shift in the “order” of the scene. Likewise, as humans interacting with one another on a daily basis, at times we (willingly or unwillingly) go off script or disturb the expected social narrative. When this happens, even our most predictable counterparts have a way of surprising us with unexpected reactions.

These moments are simultaneously scary and liberating. They hold within them the power to disturb the social paradigm (whether profoundly or at a surface level). They force us to react differently, and sometimes to rewrite the script. They also open up the potential for change.

To some, the script provides comfort. To others, it is viewed as a restriction. In our society, when individuals go off script “too often” or for “too long,” they are labeled crazy. Likewise, a single bold unscripted statement can land an individual in the crazy camp forever.

Indeed, this is how most of us view the individuals who have supported the burning of the Koran. For compassionate and critical thinkers, this behavior (and the reaction of the media—I’ll get to that in a moment) is preposterous. Often, we view these types of actions and statements as existing totally off the script of human decency, an extremist “aside” if you will. Gail Collins’ article on the 5 Percent Doctrine unpacks this reaction quite well.

I’ve come to realize that though this type of behavior (and the underlying philosophies that inform it) seems like a radical form of improvisation to me, it is written into the script that many Americans have chosen to follow. When one is performing a script shaped by bigotry, hierarchical religious judgment, or ignorance, these “Koran burning” moments are not unscripted blips, they are an integral part of the narrative.

How are our scripts established? What elements play into our perceptions and expectations? These are incredibly complex questions, and not ones that can be answered in the confines of a short blog post. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

1) Religion plays a large role in shaping personal narratives, frequently so much so that when others don’t meet certain moral expectations (or are simply part of a different faith), they are shunned or judged. Other followers of organized religion view their religious beliefs as a starting point for their script, but recognize the importance of taking into account other narratives, other ways of perceiving the world, and end up creating a more inclusive script (which leads to more realistic expectations). Moreover, the scripts of those who do not follow a specific religion are perhaps shaped by another philosophy, a humanistic or secular view of the world.

2) How much do we allow the media to shape our scripts? Jason Linkins does a wonderful job of describing how 3 unrelated events have become conflated in the minds of the American public as a result of irresponsible media coverage. Sure, the media reported flat out lies regarding the “mosque” near Ground Zero and the supposed meeting between the Koran burner and the Imam heading up the Park 51 project, but is it the media’s fault that this information creeps into our personal scripts and taints our views of reality?

Yes and no…mostly no. At the end of the day, we are responsible for writing our own scripts. Like a good playwright, we must do the research to make sure our scripts are accurate and that our expectations are at least founded in reality (whether or not they are met is an entirely different story, and depends on the scripts of those around us). Like a seasoned actor, we must allow ourselves the liberty to go off script from time to time, to try out new words and new ways of thinking. These unscripted moments can help us to re-evaluate the scene, and perhaps cause us to change our script altogether.

3) Parents and educators have an especially big job. Not only do their words inform the scripts of kids and students (perhaps more than they will ever know), they give them the skills to find the correct information and to continue building their own narratives as they grow into adults. It is for this reason that I am led to believe that this young man has some pretty wise adults in his life.

Whether they manifest in the form of David Mamet’s Realism or Eugene Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd (or somewhere in between), our scripts our unmistakably ours. It is our responsibility (and hopefully our pleasure) to cultivate them, to edit them, and ultimately, to perform them…because the show must go on.

Revealing

“What do you think of my sexy new nightie?” Grandma said slyly, scooping a heaping spoon-full of noodle salad onto my plate.

“Hello!” I responded as I picked up the brand new purple silk lingerie set that was draped over her kitchen chair. “That’s cute… it’s short!”

“Yes, but still appropriate.”

“Yes, obviously, it’s classy.” I recovered, wondering what exactly she meant by “appropriate,” considering I’m pretty sure nobody sees her in her nightgown (though I guess one should never assume too much).

As we sat down to lunch, I was reminded of the time we went shopping together 2 weeks before my wedding. We picked up the accessories she needed for her outfit and were making our way back to the car when she suggested a stop in the “intimates” department to “pick up a new robe” (or so she said). Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a conversation I never thought I’d have with my (at the time) 82-year-old grandmother.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to wear on the big night?”

“Umm….”

“Think of your future husband. What would he like?”

“Ahhh…. I seem to do pretty well with cut-off sweatpants and a tank top.”

“Suit yourself. But I’ll tell you, I still remember the nightie I wore on my wedding night… it was so lovely…”

To be completely honest, I can’t really remember the rest of the conversation (part of me wishes I did). All I know is I left the mall that day with a silk “pyjama” set unlike anything I’d ever owned before.

We giggled about this memory the other day while finishing up our noodle salad. Eventually, the conversation turned to what section of her memoir we should work on for the next hour.

“I think I want to talk about dating and my wedding,” she said.

“OK, like when you met Grandpa and the period of time leading up to your wedding?” I clarified.

“Well, I dated people before your grandpa!”

“Right, of course, so you want to talk about them, too?”

“Yes, I think I would.”

“Perfect, here we go, pressing record……”