” I Believe in Books”



My granddaughter, who is in year six, at the primary school in her English village, participates in a Philosophy class in which the students, ten and eleven year-olds, engage in complex and difficult discussions. Recently her class was invited to hold their discussion on the stage in an auditorium filled with attendees at a Religious Education Conference held in a nearby town. (This being England and not the United States, there is no separation of church and state. Queen Elizabeth is, after all, called, among other things, “Defender of the Faith,” just as Henry the XIII was.)  These students decided on the question that they would be discussing, “Do people choose religion or does religion choose people?”  At the beginning of the discussion, the children introduced themselves and gave a small description of their own religious experiences.  My granddaughter was the first to introduce herself. She gave her name and then she said, “I have my own religion.” She stopped there and did not elucidate further.  Later in the car on the way home, her father asked her what her religion was. She answered that she believed in books, and then she went on to say that sometimes she asked characters in books to help her if she had questions about something.

Aside from the fact that she is my granddaughter, and I might be prejudiced, I actually think that this is quite profound on a number of levels. First, when children read books that have characters who get themselves out of difficult situations, or solve interesting problems, they see  examples of admirable behavior. I remember reading Little Women and thinking about a passage in which Jo asks her mother if she has ever been angry. Her mother answers that she is often angry but she has learned how to (and I am paraphrasing here) temper that anger, she has learned how to say nothing when what she has to say would be said in anger. This passage has stayed with me much of my adult life.  But we don’t need to read work as didactic as Little Women in order to learn something.  Many children have learned to be resourceful by reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and certainly Harry Potter shows us ways to grow up, even without magic wands.

My granddaughter is also participating in a far larger community than she realizes, since the Abrahamic religions that predate Islam, that is Judaism and Christianity, have both been called “People of the Book.”  Not only does this tell us that these religions have sacred texts, the Torah, the Bible, but also that participants in these religions understand that there is something important to be gained from reading, thinking about, and analyzing texts. Hermeneutics, or the analysis of text for meaning, was originally applied to sacred texts, the Bible in particular, and so what my granddaughter was saying about her religion being books really connects her to a far older tradition.  When we think about the stories in the ancient text, we think about what they teach us. What many ideas can we take away from the story of Ruth, for example, or the story of the Good Samaritan?

My granddaughter’s response reminds me again, as if I needed reminding again, that reading is critical, not only to developing analytical skill and understanding what stories have to teach us, but reading is critical  to developing empathy.  Several semesters ago, I taught three books as part of a second level writing course, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Winter in the Blood  by James Welch. I wanted to teach the two novels by Native  American writers, but I wanted my students to have some background in Native American History before they read the novels, and therefore, I assigned the Dee Brown book. At the end of the course, I asked students to describe what they had learned in the course of the semester. One student wrote that he had learned to think about his own opinions and to decide whether or not those opinions were based on fact or prejudice. I cannot think of a more important thing for a student to learn. While it is possible that this student would have learned that elsewhere, reading books that took him out of his own experience and showed him the experiences of other people, helped him become a more empathetic person.

So, I, too, believe in books.


A Whole New World…. Musing on this month’s topic: technology



My 10 year-old granddaughter, Skye, sent me a video that she made not long ago that she told me was “Epic.”  She provided very little other explanation, so I had to ask her father, my son, to explain this black thing with blinking lights on it.  He told me that she was trying to recreate the partial eclipse of the sun that they had seen recently. He said that Skye was really excited by seeing the eclipse, so she took a black t-shirt, sewed some LED lights in a circle using conductive thread. Then she programmed a computer chip so that it would turn the lights on sequentially. She sewed the computer chip onto the shirt and attached it to the conductive thread. When the lights glowed around the circle, the display did actually look  sort of like the partial eclipse of the sun.

I am not writing this to highlight my granddaughter’s ability, but rather to think about ways that our grandchildren, even more than our children are using and will be using technology. Lots of people talk about the dangers of people too attached to their screens, or so attached to screens that they forget how to interact with real people, but I think that while these fears have some merit, they limit our thinking about children and computers.   We clearly are not going to put this genie back in the bottle. Computers are here, and will get more and more powerful and sophisticated. Our children and grandchildren will need to learn computer coding because these skills will be critical to helping them make many of the decisions they will have to make to help both preserve and protect the beauty and diversity of our planet.

We live on a planet filled with wonders, and a planet that is changing dramatically and it is my grandchildren’s generation that will have to deal with those changes in one way or another. My granddaughter, like many children of her generation, are well aware of pending extinctions, and the effects of climate change. Skye is lucky to have an uncle who has taken a lot of time to introduce her to the wonders of nature.  Young people like Skye  will need all the tools they can find to figure out ways for creatures, including humans, to survive.  These young people will, first of all, need to develop an appreciation of the diverse and beautiful world. This appreciation comes from spending time outside, from spending time watching ants, or breathing in the fragrance of fir trees. All people need to feel fresh air against their skin, need to go walking in a field.   We need to make sure that these things happen because only when people deeply experience the world in a sensory way, can they see that the world is worth caring for.

The human brain has difficulty grasping big stuff. We have difficulty understanding ecological patterns that take place over many generations.  One of the reasons, I think, for example, that many people have difficulty accepting human evolution is that is an extremely slow process, and even though we can understand development over several generations, we cannot understand development over thousands of generations, but computers can do these calculations. As computers become more and more powerful, they will be able to show us models of what the world will look like under many different kinds of conditions. Computers will be able (in fact already are) to develop models of what the long-term ramifications of certain kinds of decisions will be in a much more nimble way than the human brain can.  Computers can help humans make decisions that will benefit the ants and the fir trees and their human relatives.

Skye’s eclipse project makes me think about this because she started with an experience in the world. She watched a partial eclipse of the sun, through a pin-hole camera. She experienced the wonder of the universe (or at least our solar system).  Once she had had that experience, she translated it into an EPIC  technology/art/ project. (And art is always experience filtered through the sensibility of the artist).  Skye’s project is wonderful, but more importantly she is learning to integrate technology with her experience of the world around her. She doesn’t see a disconnect between technology and the rest of her world, but sees them as connected to each other.  As she continues to develop these skills, she, and other young people like her, will be able to make long-term predictions, develop long-term solutions and ultimately, create and value a world that continues to be filled with wonders.






Fashion After 40

skirtI’m one of those people who like to know the reason behind any action or rule. This is true in my profession as well as in fashion. That’s why when I ran across an article titled “How to Dress After 40 and Still Look Hip,” I mostly ignored the advice.

As a 40+ woman, I worry about dressing wrong for my age. I don’t want to look like I’m trying to relive my teenage years, but at the same time, I feel young, and frankly, after losing 125 pounds, I want to wear fashionable clothes and show off my new body–something I never got to do as a young, overweight woman. So, if I wear something a little “too young” for my age, I’m not going to apologize, and yet, my insecurity screams at me to learn the “rules.”

Today I had the gumption to wear a flowered skirt that sits just above my knees (when sitting). This skirt has been in my closet for more than a year, and it’s taken me this long to finally wear it. In addition to wearing skirts above my knees with prints and bright colors, I’m wearing more dresses and tight pants.

Part of me worries about what my colleagues or my students think of these outfits, but another part of me couldn’t care less. The hard part is balancing these two parts of my brain. This morning, before feeling comfortable, I did seek feedback from my office mates. Because of one person’s comments, I removed the purple flower from my hair–it didn’t really match. It was also a little bit uncomfortable because it kept hitting my ear…so, I was grateful to have another excuse to take it off.

Despite breaking some of the over 40 rules, I did get some useful information. For example, one suggestion was to “try not to be too matchy matchy or too polished.” I like that. I usually try to match my clothes well–sometimes overdoing it in terms of “matchy matchy,” so getting out of my comfort zone in this way is freeing. Like Sylvia says, “It’s nice to mix things up and be a bit more playful.” I definitely aim for this, especially with warmer weather.


I think that fashion rules can be helpful, but at times, it can go a bit too far. For example, Jane was telling me about a site that directed its readers to never wear blue eye shadow. She blinked her blue-shadowed eye lids and smiled. I actually think the blue eye shadow looks good on her. It’s not too blue and she certainly doesn’t look like the classic 1970’s blue eyeshadow. blue eyeshadowInstead, it looks classy and brings out the color of her shirt.

Once again, I find myself thinking that guidelines can be useful, especially if you’re new to fashion. But all-in-all, Sylvia is right: “ask yourself these questions: Does it look good on me? Is the skirt length too aging or unflattering? Does it make me look too young? Trust your own instinct!” And then get someone you trust to give you feedback. If you like it, and you feel confident, go with it!

~ K

Confession: I’m Fashion Obsessed

closet picI’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about how much I love clothes. My mother tells me that I come by the trait honestly – she even apologizes to my husband when I get excited about another new pair of boots. “I made her this way,” she says. Still, I feel like I should learn to back away from the new Anthropologie catalog with a bit more grace. So I’ve made some drastic efforts to break free from my sartorial obsessions.

I’ve purged the closet – three or four times over, once with professional help from a stylist friend. I started shopping in second hand stores. I’ve learned to be systematic about these outings – I can work the racks quickly and spot the junk straight away. My friends and I swap clothes. We’ve held quiet fundraisers that are really just private garage sales. We buy clothes from each other for bargain prices and then donate the pot of money to charity. Voila: new outfits, guilt free.

But my most austere experiment taught me the most.

Two summers ago I lived out of my backpack for 30 days. Fashion was the last thing I expected to learn about in the backcountry, but in retrospect living with one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, and one sports bra was empowering. The obvious is true: there are no clothing decisions to make when you only have one thing to wear. Clothing is about utility in the backcountry – what works and what gets in the way. At a certain point, I forgot what I was wearing – there were too many other things to worry about. Like where to dig cat holes.cody and sj backpack

But something else happened too. There were ten women on my trip – we outnumbered the guys by one. Alliances formed quickly, and though they weren’t always along gender lines, the women bonded in a predictable sort of way. We scrubbed our faces with minty, biodegradable soap. We shared hairbrushes and moisturizer (worth every ounce of their extra weight). We washed our hair in the creek and compared hairy armpits. One of the toughest women tried to shave her legs with a knife. Even our instructor – a woman who has logged more backcountry time than I can even contemplate – admitted to mailing herself nail polish just so she could “do something girly in the mountains.”mountaintop fashion

Not all women bond over fashion and beauty, and there are many men who love clothes and makeup and fashion week. But I learned that there is something distinct about the space we carve out to take care of our physical selves. It is not just about how we look. On day 18 of a month-long expedition, everyone looks gross. It’s not about exercise or strength. Anyone willing to carry a heavy pack that long is strong and fit. It’s about identity and self-knowledge, about shared and intimate space, that for me is distinctly feminine. I don’t dress or wear make-up for anyone but myself. I like to feel good so I run and lift weights and wear high heels. I put on make-up because it is fun and it makes me feel good. When it’s not fun, I skip it. My obsession with fashion isn’t about how many clothes I have in my closet; it’s about reminding myself of who I am.

I sometimes worry that I won’t be taken seriously if look like I care about my appearance. But I think I’ve learned that the opposite is true. I have never felt more comfortable in my skin than I did in the mountains two years ago. I didn’t have fashionable clothing or makeup with me. I didn’t even look in a mirror for thirty days. But I did make time for myself in the daily rituals of personal care, and I shared that space with strong, diverse women. Dressing for the day helps me know what I need to accomplish – whether it’s climbing a peak or teaching contemporary poetry.

I try not to feel guilty anymore. The fact is I love clothes and makeup and shoes. I love fashion magazines and nail polish. I also know that I can live without all of the trappings of the industry. Like most people, I am full of contradictions and every day I get up and try to do my best – with every part of myself. Getting dressed is just the first step.  ~ Sarahjules and sj dressed up

What do I know about fashion? Not much!


Not long ago, I came into the Writing Center on the way to my office, and suggested forcefully that I thought an English Department uniform would be a great idea. I was, I announced, totally tired of having to decide on what the wear every morning, and if we could just decide on a uniform, I wouldn’t have to make that decision. ( An aside, I confess, I can’t make decisions when I am looking at a menu either and have to see what other people are having before I can make a choice. I think it’s some kind of character flaw, since I can make big decisions with relative ease.)

I was thinking along the lines of jeans and white shirts or black pants and blue shirts, something like that. My colleagues, thank goodness, laughed at me. When I ran this by my graduate -student son, he said we should all wear our academic robes every day. This would definitely have been noticeable in our small community college.

However, not long after this announcement, I was showing one of my classes video clips of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, and realized in that moment what uniforms can do. The young people in those pictures had no individuality, and moved with a uniformity that made them seem robotic. We are all familiar with Communist Chinese dress. But look at pictures of any military unit and the same thing happens. There is, purposefully, no sense of individuality, no sense of individual personhood. This is a necessary part of the indoctrination process.

As I was thinking about uniforms, and realizing that they can serve a frightening purpose, I also realized two things: 1) I did not want a department uniform. (The idea of all of us, very different individuals dressing identically actually became hilarious and material for some kind of bad skit sometime.) and 2) I already had a uniform, my uniform, that I had been wearing for most of the school year.

My uniform consists of blue jeans and a plain t-shirt of some kind, long-sleeved in the winter, short- sleeved as it gets warmer, plus some “accessory”, a scarf, or a necklace. I have worn the same pair of earrings for about the last two years, so I didn’t have to make a decision there and the scarf/necklace decision is usually easy. I choose from several favorites.

The day I made that announcement in the department was probably a day when my two pairs of jeans were both in the laundry and I had to choose the black pants, or heaven forbid, a skirt. It’s easy to tell from this that “fashion” is not really part of my life, convenience and comfort are.

But I realize that what I want is not a department uniform, or a school uniform, but a way to make clothing decisions easy and I realize that I have found that.. jeans, t-shirt and scarf/necklace. It works for me. Sometimes I will break out of it. Today I wore a skirt and dangly earrings. My colleagues noticed (or at least the fashion-conscious ones did, and I like the way it felt, but tomorrow, I will probably go back to the “uniform.”

It’s my uniform. I am not part of a larger “uniformed” collective, I am using clothes as I wish, not as some authority dictates. What could be more fashionable?