Dog Sledding Through Social Issues

Photos of bouncy happy dogs ended up in my Twitter feed one day. Who can resist photos of happy dogs? It was Blair Braverman’s feed — they were sled dogs, and she had written a book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Eventually I bought it and, a further eventually, I read it.

Great decision. Not only is Braverman a dogsledder with interesting Arctic experiences that developed her skills and interests, but she is clearly a writer as well. I would read beautiful sentences or note how she skillfully alternated between timelines and I would be increasingly impressed. Then it was revealed that her first year out of high school she had a capstone-type project of writing a novel and that her undergraduate degree was in English or journalism or something similar. “There we go,” I thought. “Now I see how this all came together.”

In writing about falling into a pit during a race and then getting back out:

“And [the dogs] were so happy, every muscle in their bodies bounding with excitement, smiles wide, not wolves at all–they were sled dogs, and it was a perfect ten below, and there was nothing in the whole world as fun as running and racing and tumbling into pits and getting out of them again.”

pg 270

Oh, to be sled dogs!

“The noontime sunset cast the water in shadow but lit the mountaintops gold.”

pg 263

“Our breath trailed behind us like footprints.”

pg 67

But, as beautiful as the descriptions of working with the dogs, of Norway, and of the glacier in Alaska, were, this book was a tough read for me. I was not entirely prepared for it, despite the subtitle that starts out Chasing Fear. Braverman uses her skills as a writer to perfectly capture, in all its nuances and manipulation, what women face all the time when dealing with men.

Immediately, I was thrown back into my own “normal” experiences as a woman when some men have thought they were entitled to my space, my body, and my decisions:

  • The guy my first night of college who thought it was perfectly fine to crawl into my dorm room twin bed. Luckily he was too drunk to be too much of a threat.
  • The coworker who would sit and watch me doing a task and make suggestive sounds and motions repeatedly and I was too young to really know how to handle it. I have randomly pondered how it was that someone from the company eventually came to interview me privately if this had been going on. And during the interview, as professionally and kindly as it was handled, I experienced a weird guilt and embarrassment?! It was only years later that I realized that one of the chefs had probably reported it, putting his neck out for me. (Sexual harassment reporting was fairly new at the time and he was African American and I and the harassing co-worker were white – I think there would have been social dynamics he must have considered before he reported it for me.)*
  • The paramedic who would always follow me out to the bay at night when I put my turnout gear next to the ambulance, even when I specifically waited until he was not in the room to see me leave to do so. I eventually just quit volunteering with that shift.
  • The guy I was semi-dating who, when I suggested we go for a run at my favorite park, agreed but then never got out of the truck and instead wanted to make out. When I called him on it, I said, “When I said I wanted to go for a run, that’s what I meant.” He just laughed and said, “I know.” He’s also the one who suggested that we do some martial arts practice together and then came out of the changing room stark naked. Semi-dating turned into no interaction. We eventually became friends again and to this day he randomly tells me he has always loved me. I actually believe him. But, how do you trust someone when the relationship begins like that, before it is even a relationship? The confusing part is that he has other great qualities.

Braverman captures that aspect well, too–how these kinds of interactions (and worse) make women doubt ourselves and leave us with a sense of confusion and shame that does not belong to us.

Although I was not prepared for it in her book, it is important. These misogynic/disdain-for-women-as-full-humans secrets should be dragged out into the light.

Another thread gently and unobtrusively woven throughout the narrative addresses how we care for each other as a society and in community.

Around the same time I started the book, we were having Gene Nichol as a guest lecturer at my place of work and he was speaking about his book The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina. I was quickly trying to read his book before the lecture. In it, he writes of the devastating poverty that exists in our state while our state and local governments and our general population make a studied effort to be totally blind to it. So, at the same time that Nichol’s words were ripping out my gut and dragging my battered heart along behind it, I was reading Braverman casually mention that in Norway,

“. . . their poverty was less about need than class, less about money than the facts that they were both northern and rural.”

pg 19

The immediacy of the contrast, coupled with my own personal experience in the past of seeing how easily we cast off people, brought me to tears. Why do we do this here? Why are we so committed to not caring for one another?

Braverman does not spend a lot of time on the formal social support systems in Norway, but woven throughout the narrative is her experience getting to know Arild, the local shopkeeper in a northern rural part of Norway. In the rural areas, it has long been the social role of the shopkeeper to be an additional safety net. The shopkeeper knows everyone in the area and checks in on people if they had not been seen in a while or are generally homebound. While Braverman was living there, she saw that this included the local alcoholic. They never let him go hungry. They made him use his own funds for the alcohol and, when he ran out each month, he ran out. But, they never let him go hungry or unseen.

Over the course of the book, it seems that she may be suggesting that this tradition is fading as modern life continues to creep into the livelihoods and ways of those in rural areas. But her descriptions of the role Arild played are a glimpse into how communities can care for each other, even when the shopkeeper is just as human and imperfect as the rest of us.

“During visits [traveling out and around] he kept careful track of what people needed, whether it was a new belt or a refrigerator or just human company, and he did what he could do to provide it.”

pg 40

* Yes, there is anonymous reporting, I believe. But, the location I was cornered into to do my work would have been in the line of sight of only one person. If I figured it out when I thought about it enough, so could anyone receiving the report or learning of it. I never told anyone about the company interviewing me, mainly because, again, I was embarrassed that any of it had occurred in the first place. Now, I am glad I never told anyone, for this other reason. And, if it was him, I wish he would know he did the right thing and that I am grateful.

Legion: For We Are Many

[I originally posted a longer version of this review on another blog in June 2017.]

Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts is a compilation of essays written from various perspectives – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and civil. Some of the essays resonated more with me than others, but that is generally to be expected in such a work.

In the Christian Bible, remember the man who lived among the tombs, who gave his name as Legion? Michael Yandell offers a unique but coherent treatment of this story. He imagines a scenario in which this man’s suffering is from moral injury that resulted from his experiences as a soldier and from shouldering the mental/emotional/spiritual burdens of his entire legion. When the man approaches Jesus, he is seeking out a representative of his victims from whom he seeks forgiveness but also interacting with a benevolent religious figure. The healing is neither instantaneous nor completed by the end of the narrative. Rather, he is given work to do within his community to continue the process of healing and reintegration.

My reaction to the essay written from a civil perspective was interesting. I initially recoiled at the term civil religion, even though this is not a new term. If religion is supposed to have some hint of the divine within it, then equating secular activities with the sacred can feel like an affront. But, Daniel C. Maguire makes a powerful case for how the one has been co-opted by the other. He explains the power that is intentionally built by using themes and techniques found in the Bible, in sermons, and in religious music, intensifying national fervor and patriotism. He also notes a troubling result: Our culture is so overwhelmingly patriotic that thoroughly questioning the morality of a specific (or all) military action is immediately interpreted to be at odds with this national moral code of patriotism.

Additional essays I found particularly interesting were:

  • “Division of Spoils after Battle” by Brad E. Kelle, mainly for highlighting the community’s responsibility in sending soldiers into battle.
  • An essay discussing our sacrificial language and imagery by Kelly Denton-Borhaug, including recent literary examples capturing its effect on returning soldiers and on the communities who remain at home.
  • “Peter and Judas: Moral Injury and Repair” [or failure of repair in the case of Judas] by Warren Carter. This is an excellent contrast of outcomes.
  • The story of Aṅgulimāla as told by John M. Thompson, mainly for contrasting the Buddhist focus on “how to respond?” with the Western question of “what is just?”.

I think anyone working with moral injury, particularly moral injury resulting from military service, would find this book thought-provoking.

“Yeshiva Girl” by Rachel Mankowitz

[I originally posted this review on another blog in May 2019.]

The author of Yeshiva Girl, Rachel Mankowitz, navigates several delicate lines, and she does that well.

Most prominently, Ms. Mankowitz captures the emotional chaos that results when an adult (here, the father) persistently and aggressively manipulates his child, his spouse, people at his work, and his religious community. In the novel, that manipulation coexists with additional sexual abuse and threatening physical behavior, but Ms. Mankowitz does not dwell on graphic details of these events. Rather, it is the resulting fragmented thoughts and perceptions of his victim and the distorted reality experienced by other adults that is the dominant, and important, storyline. Graciously, the author rescues us from overwhelming despair of such a disturbing topic by including characters who are genuinely caring and good, despite also being human.

Additionally, Ms. Mankowitz explores religious questions that surface when people interact with sacred texts. Because her main character, Isabel, is a teenager, it is natural for her to challenge conventional accepted scriptural stories in a way that seeks for God to make sense and to be approachable. Isabel both demands this possibility and desperately needs it to be validated. These explorations of thought give the novel an added thread of interest to follow, especially for those who have experienced their own faith crises and have, themselves, demanded more of religion than what has been presented for their acceptance and obedience.

Finally, because Ms. Mankowitz expertly chooses and develops characters who have varying ways of expressing their Jewishness and who are all, in their own ways, trying to understand what being Jewish means to them personally, she is able to help readers seamlessly navigate this world, even if it is not that of their own culture or belief.

Clearly, the abuse and manipulation that is the foundation of this story is a content warning for those who desire to approach such topics with awareness and care. Once that concern is acknowledged, the story is skillfully told and worth the read.

* * * * *

“I was seven years old at the time and I did believe in God. I was pretty sure he looked like Grandpa and had butterflies flitting around his head, whispering secrets about all the people he needed to help.”

“I couldn’t help smiling at him [Grandpa], but he was the good kind of smile, the one that warms your belly and makes your shoulders relax out of fight mode.”

Discussing the stoning of women (but not men) for adultery in the Bible: “‘But, . . . how did they get the women to stand still and allow themselves to be stoned?’ . . . ‘Or,’ I said, ‘Maybe the society has so convinced her of her own guilt, teaching her what it means to be a good wife and teaching her how much God hates her, that she just stands there and lets them kill her.'”

One of the boys in Isabel’s class writes, “I feel like the rabbis are trying to bottle up my soul . . . and sell it back to me piecemeal because they are afraid of what I will do if I breathe God, without their guidance on how to use the resulting power.”

One of the rabbi teachers, in response to Isabel’s question about the story of Esther, “We study Torah every day, and in these stories women are used over and over again for the sake of their families’ desires, righteous or otherwise. Have you noticed that? You sit here and I wonder if you hear any of the words you read out loud. . . . My point is: these are not lessons to be followed as is. More often than not we’re reading stories about the pitfalls our forefathers, and foremothers, fell into because of their human weaknesses . They were jealous or lonely or selfish or just plain stupid. You are adults, or you will be. If something sounds wrong to you then maybe you’re the one who’s right.” [Underlining added by me.]

Barnhill’s “When Women Were Dragons”

The image-sound-emotions that arise when I think of this novel are an amalgamation of the screaming-yell of Eleven when she channels every spark of power within her against Evil in Stranger Things, a pastoral scene from an intentional community, and a refrain from Hamilton, the voices coming together to sing, “Rise up!”

That’s not by accident. That is art.

A friend of mine recommended the book in a post the day after the Uvalde massacre (May 24) (which occurred on the heels of the leaking of the draft Dobbs decision (May 2) . . . and everything else). In her Acknowledgements at the end of the book, Kelly Barnhill says one of the things the book is about is rage. My friend said that it is also about “what you can do when you imagine more and push beyond accepted limits of society.” First comes rage, then imagination, then, hopefully, the doing that leads to change.

It is a wake-up call to rouse us from our sleepy complacency in a Dickens style. Barnhill tells us a story of dragons that is engaging and fascinating and, at the same time, she holds a mirror before us. Her characters wrestle with socially sanctioned silence and self-applied blindfolds. Through her story, we hear the call to not sit down, to not be quiet, to not continue floating with the tides set in motion by others.

For, “[w]hen power belongs, not to the violent, and not to the wealthy and well-connected, but to the people, a different sort of future begins to present itself.” pg. 332

Make sure you read the Acknowledgements once you have finished the book. This is a story born of and for our times.

The Bookshelf 2022

Books I read:

  • When Women were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill, fiction, finished July 9, 2022, my review
  • Field Guide to the Haunted Forest, by Jarod K. Anderson, poetry, finished July 16, 2022
  • Upstream, by Mary Oliver, selected essays, finished July 22, 2022
  • Sooley, John Grisham, fiction, finished July 29, 2022
  • The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, translated by Thomas Merton, Shambhala Press, Boston, 2004, finished August 19, 2022
  • Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman, HarperCollins Publisher Inc., New York, NY, 2016, memoir, finished August 26, 2022, my review
  • Rooted, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, nonfiction, finished October 1, 2022, while there was no electricity after Tropical Storm Ian, some thoughts
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin, HarperCollins, fiction, finished December 18, 2022, rather appropriately, I think (nearing Sunreturn and the Fallows). Her afterward is almost better than the book itself, I think.

Current Personal Spiritual Canon Content/Explorations* (alphabetical):

  • Bible (Christian)
  • Bible (Hebrew)
  • The Book of Certitude
  • (The Tibetan) Book of the Dead
  • Hidden Words
  • Book of Mormon
  • The Promulgation of Universal Peace
  • Qur’an
  • The Gathas of Zarathustra

*Some of these, I am more familiar with – others, this is my first time reading through them. I spend time with each of them on a recurring basis in the current year.