Review: Equal Rites

Equal Rites, Terry PratchettIn a small village tucked away in a quiet corner of the Discworld, a dying wizard passes his powers on to the newborn eighth son of an eighth son. There’s just one snag: the newborn is actually a girl.

The village’s witch, Granny Weatherwax, is aghast. There’s never been a female wizard, so why start now? Wizardry is a man’s magic, sneaky and overly complicated. She’s determined to turn the girl, Eskarina, into a perfectly normal witch.

Unfortunately, that’s not how magic works.

The wizards at the Unseen University are the only ones who can help Esk control her powers — but they’re not willing to teach a girl. Can Esk and Granny Weatherwax find a way into the university before it’s too late?

Bewitching

I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, especially the books featuring witches. Granny Weatherwax is a particular favorite, and it was fun to see her introduced (Equal Rites is the third book in the Discworld series, and the first to feature a witch).

Pratchett’s world building is amazing. I love the way magic works — how in many ways it’s more about knowledge than actual magic.

The characters are great, too. Esk is smart and stubborn, and clearly incredibly powerful. But Granny Weatherwax totally steals the show. She’s sharp-tongued, very clever, and in no way interested in being out-gunned by man or beast. She’s who I want to be when I grow up.

Equal Rites is a slow burn kind of novel. There’s plenty of action, but a lot of it is in the characters’ heads. There’s no explosions or shocking twists. It’s cerebral, and I think it’s fantastic. I’ll be dipping back into the Discworld series again as soon as I can.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. December’s challenge was to read the next in a series you’ve been working through — or even finish it up!)

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Want to change the world? Educate a girl.

2016 is almost over, and with it my reading challenges. Normally this is when I look at how I’ve done with the year’s reading, and gloat a bit about completing the challenges. But this year it’s different — this year, one of my challenges helped me find a new calling.

Let’s back up

A little over a year ago I was surfing around Netflix, looking for something to watch on a night when I had nothing else to do. In the documentary section I found Girl Rising. It follows nine girls living in places like Nepal, Cambodia, and Haiti as they stand up for their right to an education and freedom.

Girl Rising opened my eyes to some pretty horrifying statistics:

  • 65 million girls are out of school globally.
  • In a single year, an estimated 150 million girls were victims of sexual violence.
  • In developing countries, the number one cause of death for girls 15-19 is childbirth.

It made me so mad. I loved school so much, and couldn’t imagine how horrible it would have been to not be able to attend just because I was a girl. Everything I am is the result of what I have read and learned, and it infuriated me that so many girls were being left behind.

Especially when I learned things like:

  • A girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult.
  • 10% fewer girls under the age of 17 would become pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they had a primary education.
  • If India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion.

I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to start. I asked a friend of mine who works for Child Legacy International (they do some amazing things, please check them out!) if she knew of any organizations that focused on girls’ education.

That’s when I learned about Camfed. Their mission — to educate girls in some of the world’s poorest regions — is critical to making the world a better place for everyone.

But you know how it goes. You read an article or watch a documentary that gets you all fired up, you follow an organization on Twitter and you sign up for their newsletter…and then you never put your money where your mouth is. And that’s where this story almost ended.

First steps with the Charity Reading Challenge

In late 2015 I learned about the Charity Reading Challenge, in which participants pledge to donate a certain amount per book they read to the charity of their choice.

I liked the idea that my reading could help fund another girl’s education. So I pledged to donate $2 for every book I read in 2016 to Camfed. I signed up and started reading, glad that I’d found a way to give a little to a good cause.

But fate wasn’t done with me yet.

A heartbreaking email

In early September I got an email from Camfed that broke my heart.

Every September we face one of our most difficult decisions. We have to draw a line between the girls who will go to school and those who will not – we simply do not have the resources to help every child who needs support

We are facing a crisis that will condemn even more girls to a life of exclusion. A reduction in funding due to recent global uncertainty has pushed 3,500 more girls below that line.

I imagined what it would be like for those girls to hear that they wouldn’t be able to continue — or start — their education. What would it be like to see your brother head off to school while you have to stay home? What if not going to school meant being married off to a stranger because you are a burden on your family’s resources?

When I visited Camfed’s website, I read that $240 can send a girl to school for a full year.

$240. That’s less than my monthly car payment. I donated that night.

Since then I’ve imagined over and over someone from Camfed telling a girl in Ghana or Malawi or Tanzania or Zambia or Zimbabwe that she will be able to go to school this year. How did she react? What’s her name? Her favorite subject? What does she want to be when she grows up?

Then I remembered that the company I work for matches charitable donations — I’ve submitted that paperwork already, which means two girls get to go to school.

Just getting started

I’m still planning to donate $2 to Camfed for every book I read this year, but that won’t be the end of this adventure. I’ve found something that ignites my passion, that makes me want to participate in something bigger than myself.

I don’t know exactly what that participation looks like yet, but I do know that it includes others. If you’re passionate about girls’ education and empowerment, or think you could be, I encourage you to:

  • Read Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky. Take at least one of the actions they list at the end.
  • Read more about Camfed and the other organizations Kristof and WuDunn describe.
  • Consider donating to Camfed so they can meet their goal of educating 1 million girls by 2020.

Today is Thanksgiving. This year I have more than ever to be thankful for. I’ve found a calling, a cause, and I hope you’ll join me in this fight.

Update: Donations from people in September and October got 343 more girls above the line and into school. So badass.

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Review: Working

Working, Studs TerkelWhat is work? Is it just something that gets us a paycheck, or does it give our lives meaning? Is some work better or more valuable than others?

In 1974 the historian and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel published Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book contains dozens of transcribed interviews with miners, sex workers, waitresses, caregivers, executives, paperboys, and housewives.

Each interview is a peek into a different life, a snapshot of each person’s experiences and hardships and joys and fears and worries.

At the heart of each interview is the idea that life is difficult, and that finding meaning in your work is what makes that life worthwhile.

The dawn of a new era

Working was published at an interesting time in America’s history. Mechanization and computerization had just begun its takeover, unions were experiencing a resurgence, and the entire country was finally coming to terms with the Civil Rights Movement.

The interviewees’ stories reflect these unique feelings and experiences. But they also feature themes that have always existed: the importance of finding meaning in your work, the challenges of being a small wheel in a big machine, and the inevitable “young people these days aren’t interested in hard work” complaint.

In their own words

The book is divided into nine big chunks, each focused on something like “Working the Land,” “Communications,” and “Reflections on Idleness and Retirement.”

For me, the most interesting interviews happen near the middle of the book. Terkel interviewed several activists, and their words ring as true today as they did in 1974.

The white-collar guy is scared he may be replaced by the computer. The schoolteacher is asked not to teach but to babysit. God help you if you teach. The minister is trapped by the congregation that’s out of touch with him. He spends his life violating the credo that led him into the ministry. The policeman has no relationship to the people he’s supposed to protect. So he oppresses. The fireman who wants to fight fires ends up fighting a war. People become afraid of each other. They’re convinced there’s not a damn thing they can do.

And this:

The problem with history is that it’s written by college professors about great men. That’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for themselves and their kids.

Most of the interviewees do not have jobs that we consider glamorous or engaging or even particularly valuable. But many of them are so passionate about what they do, and get the greatest joy from what others might consider the smallest things. Like Babe, a grocery store checker:

I use my three fingers [on the register keys] — my thumb, my index finger, and my middle finger. The right hand. And my left hand is on the groceries. They put down their groceries. I got my hips pushin’ on the button and it rolls around on the counter. When I feel I have enough groceries in front of me, I let go of my hip. I’m just movin’ — the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register…You just keep goin’, one, two, one, two. If you’ve got that rhythm, you’re a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you’re turning your head back and forth.

And Dolores, a waitress:

Some don’t care. When the plate is down you hear the sound. I try not to have that sound. I want my hands to be right when I serve. I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. I get to be almost Oriental in the serving. I like it to look nice all the way. To be a waitress, it’s an art. I feel like a ballerina, too. I have to go between those tables, between those chairs…It is a certain way I can go through a chair like no one else can do. I do it with an air. If I drop a fork, there’s a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I’m on stage.

Neither of these women feels demeaned by their works — in fact, they have some choice words for those who see them as “just” a checker or “just” a waitress.

Looking back…and forward

Many of the interviewees compare the past to the present; some make predictions about the future of work and their industries. I see some of those predictions coming true.

Some people are hopeful about the future, others aren’t. But they all wanted readers to know that what they do matters. I don’t think that desire will disappear anytime soon.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. November’s challenge was to read non-fiction book.)

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Writing Prompt #11: Promise to Yourself

Writing Prompt(This month’s writing prompt is Promise to Yourself: Write about a promise you want to make to yourself and keep.)

I’ve always put a lot of effort into being perfect. I spent more time studying than being with friends because I wanted perfect grades; after getting let go from my job at 10am I worked for four more hours so that my boss and co-workers wouldn’t have to finish out my tasks; I’ve spent my whole life trying to take others’ advice to “be positive” or “fake it till you make it.”

It’s hard for me to accept that imperfection is part of being human. Getting into therapy helped, but I think I’ll always be a little bit crazy and too Type-A for my own good.

I’m not making many promises these days — I save them for the big stuff like fidelity and honesty — but here are some things I want to try in 2017 and beyond.

I will try to be myself, anxiety and all

In the last year I’ve been more open about my anxiety than ever before. It was a little scary at first, because I wasn’t sure how people would react. But so far the response I’ve gotten most is, “Me too!” Which is both great (yay, I’m not alone!) and sad (why are we all so fucked up?).

I have good days and bad days, but usually I’m able to use my anxiety to my advantage. Being open about my challenges and who I am makes me feel happier and healthier.

I will try not to let my anxiety control me

Accepting and talking about the fact that I have generalized anxiety disorder is not the same as giving into it, or letting it dictate what I can and can’t do.

Thanks to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have the tools to manage my anxiety. I recognize that these feelings are part of me, but I don’t let them stop me from trying new things.

“Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.”

I will try to think more about others

While I don’t believe I’ve meandered into narcissist territory, I think I’ve got a noticeable selfish streak — possibly because I’m an enormous control freak (and an only child on top of that).

I want to be more aware of and empathetic toward those around me. I need to think beyond myself and my needs, and try to help others. I want to be a kinder person. That’s something the world really needs right now.

What would you like to try to do better in the next year? Let’s chat in the comments!

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Review: Lincoln’s Battle with God

Lincoln's Battle with God, Stephen MansfieldThe debate over whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a “real” Christian began before he was elected to political office, and continues over 150 years after his assassination. He was an avowed atheist in his youth; yet Mary Lincoln said that her husband’s last words were a whispered longing to travel to Jerusalem and walk in Christ’s steps.

Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America is author Stephen Mansfield’s attempt to trace the development of Lincoln’s faith throughout his lifetime. What caused him to distance himself from religion as a young adult, what brought him back to a belief in God, and what could that journey mean for us?

A new angle

Lincoln is one of my heroes, and I’m always excited to read anything I can about him. But I was surprised to see Lincoln’s Battle with God on the shelf at the library. Most of the Lincoln books I’ve read don’t focus on this aspect of his life, and it never really mattered to me whether or not Lincoln was religious.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that Lincoln wrestled with religion. His mother’s death when he was still a child left him at the mercy of a dictatorial Calvinist/Baptist father, and he lost two young children to horrible illnesses. He was elected to lead a country that was coming apart at the seams, and presided over the deadliest years in American history.

The early years

Lincoln was raised in a faith that decreed everything pre-ordained. God was distant and detached, allowing bad things to happen simply because they were “supposed to.” Lincoln believed from a young age that he was both gifted and cursed — that he had been granted knowledge and ambition so that he would be forced to experience humiliation and degradation.

Lincoln spent his young adulthood in New Salem, Illinois, where he gained a reputation as an “infidel.” The poetry of Robert Burns and the writings of Thomas Paine reinforced Lincoln’s opinion of Christians as arrogant and hypocritical, and pushed him further away from religion; friends heard him call Jesus “a bastard,” and he called the Bible a book of contradictions.

A fascinating journey

How did Lincoln go from “infidel” to expressing a desire to visit Jerusalem? Mansfield believes it was a gradual process, informed by Lincoln’s reading, thinking, and life experiences. Lincoln came to believe himself to be God’s instrument, placed on earth to fulfill God’s purposes rather than man’s.

I’m not sure Lincoln ever became a Christian — but his faith is something I would love to emulate.

(I read this book as part of Non-fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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