Witness to a Year: Diverse Book Challenge-January

“Books. People write books because they will forget otherwise.” Dad joked.

“Yes,” I nodded to myself as I sat on the step to tie my winter boots. But, I was not joking. I did worry that I would forget.

Forget what I was.

What came before what I was.

What I wanted to be.

What I still want to be.

Since I had no idea of how to get where I should go next, I feared even more forgetting what got me this far. Always entranced by the idea of mentors. I challenged myself to write a post each month in 2019 guided by excerpts from Ariel Burger’s book, Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom.* Diverse storyteller. Educator. Jewish heritage. It was a logical person with whom to start, even if it was only on paper. Only on paper. What a thing to say! My best self, my deepest breakthroughs come often with the swish of bleached leaves and superficial cuts.

Unsure how best to organize my posts, I opened a new document and typed the not to forget quotes to break the ice of blank pages. While Eli Wiesel was an expert in Hasidic texts, religious texts. Religious texts were never the stories that called me. Once upon a time academic held the keys to the fairy tale kingdom until the enchantment wore to rubble carved stone.

Ariel Burger described a term I had never known before, rebbe.

“The word rebbe is translated variously as ‘teacher’, ‘saint’, ‘guru’, but the rebbe is something else; he is simultaneously traditional and creative; rooted in Jewish text and practice, yet wild and iconoclastic. . . But a rebbe, unlike a rabbit, is more than an authority figure—he is a friend, a guide, a supporter of each student’s spiritual journey. Where a rabbi builds community and emphasizes its norms, a rebbe builds souls and nurtures individuality. . . According to Hasidic legend, a rebbe sees your past lives, the ‘root of your soul,’ the essence of who you were before you lost your way, and he helps you get back to that essence and the road you are meant to walk.” (42)

I saved my borrowed words under the heading, “Witness”. Then, I waited for guidance. The next week my friend and mentor, René forwarded me an invitation for a Diversity Reading Challenge. I measure myself as a reader and an author to this standard each time I select a story. However, what I did not hold myself accountable to was sharing the stories I read, unless of course, I counted the deluge of e-mails I sent to René recommending titles. A witness who speaks, not a witness who hides, that was my proposed goal.

If I were to ever be a Rabbi, what an ironic turn of life events, but a rebbe. . . If I were to construct a narrative to the choices of my life beyond what authoritative texts asked of me, there was something to becoming that. Inspired to remember the stories of others I never forgot because I never heard them, I find not an excuse, but instead a reason to stand witness, witness to a year.

I decided I would be friends with characters as Wiesel suggested. If I would believe that what was in the book was always meant to be there to teach me something, a belief I was never able to accept in high school when the idea of analyzing story began, than I could move beyond history to memory, for self, for myself, for ourselves. Through story, I would work through my lost faith in education, by transforming it into what Wiesel called a “broken faith”.

Tales My Father Never Told Me: Book Reviews

The books below are the first of many groupings to come around non traditional themes. In the books below, I am a listener to the tales my father never told me. To me this means, hidden stories, ignored stories or layered stories of one’s life may remain unspoken.

Islandborn is a picture book that follows Lola in her search for a story from “The Island”. She, along with her fellow classmates, are assigned by her teacher to retell a story about where each is from. Lola is worried at first because she has no memories of the “Island”. Lola asks various members of her neighborhood to tell her stories and turns these stories into a beautifully illustrated book to share in class.

Islandborn is a wonderfully descriptive book both in the everyday sensory memories that Lola’s family and neighbors share but also in the layered themes of immigration, political unrest and identity that Lola must inevitably see more clearly as she grows up. Although “The Island” is unnamed, it is implied to be the Dominican Republic and I would recommend for adults continued reading of Junot Díaz’s works such as The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

In contrast to the realistic fiction of Islandborn, The Cartographer’s Daughter is a fantastical hero’s journey guided by folklore of the Canary Islands in which the heroine is unexpected and the expected heroine does the unexpected as pieces of buried history become lived experience. Isabella lives on the island of Joya, once a place of songbirds until ravens that accompanied the Governor drove them out. Isabella is the daughter to the only mapmaker who dresses like a boy to lead a group of the Governor’s men searching for his daughter as legends of the island come to life.

Like Islandborn, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s middle grade novel uses metaphor to address social inequity, class discrimination and autocratic rule. It is the two main characters, Isabella and her friend, the Governor’s daughter, who illustrate the human connections possible through relationships that social institutions attempt to restrain. The strength of the book is its foundation in the way in which context shapes who we are and what we see, but also the unexpected truth of forgotten legends and truth of the human experience that we can respond to in order to be our better selves.

My father said he never wanted to live on an island, but in this case our agricultural existence is an ever shrinking island in many ways not unlike the islands in the two fictional novels listed above. For-Profit Democracy: Why Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America is not a tale he never told, but one he never heard, that is until now. The people described our more our community than those assigned to us by proximity or township assignation.

For-Profit Democracy: Why Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America is a study of the social, cultural and historical metaphor of private property, how institutions dispossess, how those who are dispossessed react, and the result on the environment as a cyclical hero and villain in the pioneer/Manifest Destiny narrative central to American history. Loka Ashwood’s field work illustrates connect and disconnect amid the people she interviews in both expected and unexpected ways.

Diverse book reads blog posts applied to my own life.

How a Development Worker Becomes a Vegan

Shiny Paper and Apple Skins Part I and II

Weight to the Edges

Because. . . Actually, just because

American? (Hi)Stories

*Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston.

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