From the Archives: Dark Money

Following the 2016 election, I tried to better understand what had happened by reading books. Along with the New York Times list of “Six books to understand Trump’s win,” I found that Dark Money brought much illumination into developments that had been decades in the making. Disturbing but essential reading, and I’m sharing my review again during this year’s edition of Nonfiction November because it’s still as relevant as ever. This review was originally published on October 17, 2017.

Jane Mayer, Dark Money (2016)

As my highly non-political brain tries to grasp what is really behind the political and social upheavals of our time, I’m grateful for the books that are helping to give me some insight into these difficult and complex topics. Such a book was the first entry in this series, The Unwinding by George Packer, which created a kaleidoscopic narrative impression of the experience of ordinary and extraordinary Americans over the last forty years.

Packer pictures the economic and social disintegration of our time as a complex web of small and large interacting forces that makes it hard to blame any one person or group. That view has its own validity, but it’s also important to recognize the influence of certain wealthy individuals who have methodically worked to subvert liberal tendencies and swing the government sharply to the right, in service of their own self-interest. In Dark Money Jane Mayer brings this secretive group — centered around the Koch brothers — into the limelight, painstakingly piecing together a story that they would much rather not have uncovered, but that everyone needs to know. The Kochs and their ilk form an incredibly powerful, single-minded, focused force that has already changed our country in manifold ways, and intends to do so even more in the future.

Mayer first delves into the family history and character of the main operatives, most notably Charles and David Koch, two of four brothers born into a fortune built on fossil fuels, but now reaching its ever-expanding tentacles into a dizzying array of companies and enterprises. Rich in material goods but poor in empathy, compassion, and social conscience, the Kochs are typical of an emerging class of American plutocrats who follow their own version of the Golden Rule: The ones who have the gold rule.

For all of their adult lives, the Kochs have been doggedly fighting to eliminate legislation and constraints that would hurt their personal and business interests. A failed bid for a Libertarian vice-presidency and some damaging environmental lawsuits (as well as bitter family in-fighting over their inheritance) formed temporary setbacks, but with the Obama presidency and the country’s alarming swerve towards liberalism, their cohort of conservative donors expanded, and their efforts gained momentum. The 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United tremendously magnified their impact, as it enabled them to pour massive undisclosed contributions into political campaigns and candidates. And as our present situation makes clear, they’ve now risen to unprecedented heights of influence, and are close to achieving the goal of destroying all governmental checks on their power.

Underlying this story is a decades-long campaign to transform the intellectual landscape through the manufacture of radically conservative ideas, which are incubated in think tanks and university programs controlled by the billionaire donors, placed into the culture through respectable-seeming books, and made effective through legislation. The whole process takes place under the aegis of non-profit organizations that serve as tax breaks for the rich while pushing their self-serving agenda. These anti-social institutions mask their true intentions behind benign-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Mayer carefully uncovers this secret history by making connections that others might have overlooked, putting together the existing pieces and filling in the blanks where necessary, always being careful to reveal both her evidence and the gaps where it is missing (which are sometimes just as telling). Her conclusions will surely be challenged by those who are threatened by them, and a number of her sources have to remain anonymous due to the severe repercussions they would sustain if they were named. Mayer herself became the subject of a smear campaign that bore traces of Koch involvement, as usual hidden beneath layers of obfuscation and secrecy. Investigative journalism like hers is under attack, naturally, so we should appreciate it while we  can, and do our best to make sure it can still exist in the future.

Fascinating, chilling, and infuriating, Dark Money is a must-read for anyone who wants to know what is behind some of the more puzzling developments of our time, such as the sudden drop in public concern about climate change, one of the most insidious products of the Kochs’ ideological mill, and the rise of the Tea Party, an ersatz grassroots movement grown in the soil of big money. Mayer methodically and convincingly traces the fingerprints of the robber barons who profit most from our oil-based economy, and provides an essential awareness of some of the hidden forces that shape our lives.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such power, but I keep coming back to the thought that such outward phenomena are given us to try to wake us up to our inner tasks and responsibilities, and to reveal what lies beneath our unexamined habits of thought and action. Just as Donald Trump is the logical president for a society that values money above all else, the Koch brothers are the logical rulers of a system with self-interest and selfish materialism at its very core. Both are symptoms of the pervasive illness of our time: alienation from the true sources of life and the true nature of the self. We can rage against their excesses and blame them for their abuses, but the uncomfortable fact remains that to get at the root causes of this illness, we have to look within, to grapple with it in ourselves. Otherwise, even if we manage to contain and control it in one place, it will soon break out in another.

It’s up to us to reconnect to the inexhaustible source of creative energy, to unflinchingly face the ways that unconscious greed shapes our actions and motivations, and to overcome the weakness of egotism with the strength of love and compassion. If enough of us would take up that task with as much energy and determination as these two men have devoted to their dark pursuits, it would create a far greater light, and illumine much more that presently remains unseen.

Nonfiction Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (2016)

When I was asked to contribute a “book I should have read” to Keeping Up with the Penguins, this one sprang to mind. And spurred by that reminder, I did finally read it!

I can now recommend it to everyone for a good dose of actual scientific information, given the current state of anti-microbial hysteria. As you may already be aware, wiping out all microbial life in an area gives a free playing field for aggressive, resistant microbes to grow and become even more resistant, unchecked by the more benign ones that would normally surround them. It’s really, really not a great idea.

We need to find other ways to live with our invisible friends (and foes), other than spraying everything with disinfectant. When faced with a scary and overwhelming threat, that reaction is natural — and sometimes may be warranted — but as an overall policy, it’s already backfiring. (Did you know that 90,000 people in the US die each year from infections they pick up in the hospital?)

We need to learn more about how the microbial world really works, and about the interconnectedness of all life, before wildly destroying what we don’t even understand. The threats are real, but so is the potential to counter them in more life-enhancing ways.

Just a few of the things I learned from this book include:

  • Microbes are everywhere, in vast numbers, and they play extremely important roles in the living world. No microbes, no life as we know it.
  • Their discovery via the earliest microscopes started with wonder and open-mindedness, but then changed to a warlike narrative of “kill the bad bugs” that still haunts us today.
  • There aren’t actually good bugs and bad bugs. The same microbe can play different roles even within the same organism. The key is for larger organisms to develop ways to manage and live with a variety of microscopic life.
  • Symbiosis — living together — is a principle that is rooted within our very cells, the structure of which came about long ago through one microbe absorbing another that then gave it an energy boost and an evolutionary advantage.
  • There are incredibly weird and fascinating examples of symbiosis in the natural world, enabling organisms to resist toxins, fight off unwanted invaders with antibiotics, and even glow in the dark. Biologists are just beginning to understand these relationships.
  • The “microbiome” makes an important contribution to evolution, which is based not only on an organism’s own genome but on the microbes it inherits or acquires — something that can cause sudden and dramatic changes in evolutionary processes that are usually much slower and more gradual.
  • Microbes may play a role in treating mood disorders, obesity, antibiotic-resistant infections, and other ailments. The possibilities are very exciting, but a lot more research is needed, so don’t start doing your own fecal transplants.
  • Breastfeeding plays a unique and surprising role in forming an infant’s microbiome for life.
  • Sterile, microbe-free mice (used for lab experiments) are bizarre and unhappy creatures.

Ed Yong is a fine guide to this complex topic, with a clear and engaging style that can speak to non-scientists without undue oversimplification — something that is unfortunately often done in the popular press. Aggressive calls for extermination and overhyped touting of probiotic health cures  are both too extreme and short-sighted. To counter this, we need to learn more, to have our eyes opened to the hidden world that lies all around and within us. Our life on earth truly depends upon it.


Back to the Classics: The World I Live In

Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1908)

When I read Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, I was intrigued by one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to a college professor who found her compositions too derivative and wondered when she would write of her own unique experiences:

I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any…

The World I Live In could be seen as the fruit of this intention, and it is a remarkable piece of work. Composed from essays published in Century Magazine between 1904 and 1908, with an added final chapter, it is an extended meditation on the sensory and mental world inhabited by a deaf-blind person, and a rebuke to those who believe that because she cannot see and hear she cannot be fully human, perhaps does not even exist.

She responds with Descartes’ formulation, “I think, therefore I am,” and it’s clear that thought is her light, that her ability to think is in no way impaired by sensory deprivation. Her lucid, carefully constructed, and often playful prose guides us through her realm of experience, bringing us to understand how a condition that seems so alien and threatening can reveal aspects of our common humanity, our spiritual core.

Keller defends her choice to use visual and auditory imagery in her writing, arguing that she can by analogy comprehend many concepts related to the five-sensed world — just as we understand non-sensory concepts like love, faith, mercy and justice that we have never seen with our eyes. She can “see” a friend just as we do — not with her eyes, but with the inner vision which is what we really mean by that expression.

But it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.

In the NYRB Classics edition, the essays along with their coda, the prose-poem “A Chant of Darkness,” are followed by the earlier essay “Optimism” (1903) and the autobiographical sketch she published at the age of twelve, “My Story” (1894). An introduction by Roger Shattuck explains the circumstances of publication and points out elements of note in each work and in Keller’s thought as a whole.

At under 200 pages, it’s a compact but rich encapsulation of the life and ideas of an individual whose true achievements have been little understood or appreciated. I hope that it may become more widely known, and spark our own rehabilitation of the senses we possess but do not fully use, guiding us toward the practice of joyful creative activity that Keller so beautifully demonstrates.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author



Doctors playing God: Awakenings

Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (1999/1973)

Of course I’ve heard of Oliver Sacks, author of many books with intriguing titles (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, etc.). But  in spite of hearing that Sacks was a terrific writer about fascinating topics out of his practice as a neurologist, I managed to avoid actually reading these works for many years.

Until, while questing for something short and inspiring to read this summer, his little book Gratitude — barely even a book, just a compilation of four brief essays that originally appeared in the New York Times — caught my eye. I polished it off in an hour, was captured by the intelligent and compassionate mind that spoke there, and looked for more.

Awakenings, his second published book, was one I had heard about; I had vague impressions from when the Hollywood movie came out, with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. I haven’t seen that either, but the premise of patients coming out of a decades-long pathological “sleep” sounded interesting. So I checked it out and dove in.

The edition I read in e-book form is the latest of many incarnations. A preface explains some of the transformations the book has gone through: adding footnotes, removing them, putting them back in again; going back to the original stories after further developments; weaving in further developments in neurology, science, and medicine, including chaos theory; adding notes on the stage and film incarnations of the story; and more.

It’s an unwieldy mass of material, and exactly the kind of book I prefer to read in print versus the electronic version. With all the footnotes, cross-referencing, and a glossary of medical terms, it would have made it much easier to flip back and forth, and to maintain awareness of the place of the parts within the whole. If it hadn’t been such a fascinating story at the core, I probably would have gotten frustrated and given up. Probably I will buy a print copy, because I want to go through it again and take it in more thoroughly.

“When is she going to get to that actual story?” you are probably asking. Yes, like Sacks, I am making you wade through a lot of prefatory and explanatory material — probably because that’s how I experienced the book. Pushing all this aside, at the core are twenty case studies of individuals who went through a bizarre, little-remembered epidemic of “sleepy sickness” that erupted worldwide along with the more famous influenza epidemic in the early twentieth century. This viral disease fatally disrupted their brain activity, pushing them into states of torpor and/or of manic inability to sleep; many died, or were left permanently disabled. While some seemingly recovered, later they began to display symptoms of Parkinsonian syndrome, particularly disruptions in movement and speech.

As they became less and less able to function, often needing round-the-clock nursing care to survive, these people were placed in institutions for “hopeless” cases. To one of these institutions near New York City Oliver Sacks came as a young doctor in the 1960s, and there his work with these post-encephalitic Parkinsonian patients changed his life.

In a stroke of fate, Dr. Sacks was present at the moment when a “wonder drug” was discovered that roused these patients out of their decades-long fixation and immobility. L-DOPA, which works to elevate dopamine levels in the brain, at first seemed to promise total, almost instant recovery. People leaped out of their wheelchairs and sang and danced with joy.

But then so-called “side effects” set in, as the medical establishment likes to call unwanted or adverse drug results that are fully as much a part of the treatment as the results they are aiming for. Pulled between extremes of manic and torpid behavior, the patients felt themselves to be walking an ever-narrowing path that became a tightrope over an abyss. Different titrations and schedules were tried, and sometimes a precarious balance was reached that allowed some individuals to have a higher-functioning life for their remaining years.

When that didn’t work out, though, the results were often terrible and tragic to behold. Patients who had to be taken off the drug were left in a state far worse than they had been in before. Frequently they lost the will to live, or went mad, descending into a hellish hallucinatory state. Some were quietly euthanized, mercy killings that also meant the doctors need no longer observe the results of their tampering. One has to wonder to what extent the risk of doing such damage is warranted by the desirable results that sometimes, unpredictably, come about.

Great moral questions indeed are raised by this story. For me, frequently it resembled a horror story, a Frankenstein-tale of men enchanted by the Godlike powers they can achieve through the intellect, without the deeper knowledge of what will result from their experiments. Is it right to tinker with human subjects like this? What truly is the nature of consciousness, of life and death? In our quest for a better life on earth, what harm do we do through unawareness and egotism? Is it enough to have good intentions, or should we also be striving for higher knowledge, for the wisdom that sees the whole and not just isolated, disconnected parts?

For Dr. Sacks, there are no easy answers, but as he portrays his own struggle and his own “awakening” we gain a sense of how one morally striving person has engaged with these questions.  He speaks against the tendency of modern medicine towards a mechanistic view of the human being, and movingly describes his own human encounters with his patients, encounters that inspired in him an awareness of the person who lives beyond statistics, beyond symptoms, beyond paralysis and speechlessness. He is filled with wonder when he observes the strange experiences his patients are subjected to, and humbled by what they need to call up in order to face their existence day after day.

Such an attitude is one we can all strive to emulate, even if we are not physicians. We will all do harm at times, often out of the best intentions, but let us not obscure the real, living human being with our fixed, mechanistic thoughts. The call to awaken to this power and this responsibility was for me the real message of the book.

I’ll certainly be reading more by Oliver Sacks; there is so much to learn from these kinds of stories, pushing us beyond our “normal,” safe ways of experiencing the world. Have you read anything by him? What is your favorite?


Beyond the gender wars: Three books by Terrence Real

Terrence Real, I Don’t Want To Talk About It (1997)
Terrence Real, How Can I Get Through to You? (2003)
Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage (2007)

After going through a major relationship crisis last summer (now thankfully resolved), I was searching for solace in the used-book section of my favorite bookstore and came across the title I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. I devoured it in a matter of days, and quickly sought out psychotherapist Terrence Real’s other two books, amazed at the light they cast upon not only my immediate dilemma, but on larger familial, cultural, and indeed global issues. These are some of the most helpful “self-help” books I have ever read, and have been real game-changers for me at a difficult time.

Real’s argument is that boys are systematically discouraged from experiencing the nurture and connectedness that all humans need in order to become psychologically healthy and strong. Even without overt trauma in their lives — which is all too common — the cultural expectations for males in our society tend to leave them inwardly wounded and emotionally inept. The symbolic image for this is “separating from the mother,” which is forced upon most boys much too early. There is so much fear in our culture of being consumed and engulfed by the female realm that boys are subjected to shaming, criticism, and outright abuse for not being strong and independent at far too young an age.

In adult life, these men carry a burden of depression that is not recognized or treated — depression itself being considered a “female disease.” They carry on a cycle that was generally handed down from their fathers, and pass it down to their children, who often act out the dysfunctionality that they refuse to recognize and heal. And their marriages frequently fall apart, when their women have had enough.

Because men do not learn how to be intimate, connected, or emotionally aware while still remaining appropriately themselves, they can’t understand why their wives are unhappy with them. Trained to mask their underlying sense of inadequacy and shame with grandiosity and belligerence, they may frighten women and children into silence or flight, or trade a difficult spouse for a more admiring and compliant one. Or they may simply retreat into a confused state of baffled hurt. Through multiple case studies, Real describes how men and women in his therapeutic practice have been able to come through this impasse, when they bravely take up the work of facing covert depression and the underlying trauma that created it.

How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women extends this view, focusing on methods of communication and interaction that build intimacy within male/female partnerships. Real reiterates the message that the bifurcation of human experience into two mutually incompatible categories serves no one. For true healing to take place, we need to recognize and honor needs that are universally human, even though they may present differently in male vs. female experience.

And we need to recognize the abusive legacy of “false empowerment,” through which men are encouraged to cover up a core of buried shame, fear and rage by keeping themselves in a position of dominance over others. This is not a man-only phenomenon, of course; women, too, are now able to empower themselves out of relationship and intimacy as well. The problem is not in either gender’s tendencies, but in the imbalanced relationship between them, the deeply ingrained contempt of one side for the other.

In fact, the traditional privileging of masculine over feminine qualities is one of the most destructive forces in our world. Feminism has made great strides in allowing women opportunities traditionally granted to men — which was necessary, but not enough. The opposite, equally necessary movement has not taken place, for obvious reasons. What man wants to give up his grandiosity and privilege to become “downwardly mobile,” to become humble, receptive, and vulnerable? What person in a “one-up” position wants to give up that power, in order to receive the greater gift of true intimacy and connectedness?

Only the truly courageous ones, many of whom are profiled in Real’s books. They want to reconnect, they don’t want to lose their wives and children, and they are willing to work hard to make this happen. They embark on a journey of facing their own early trauma, learning new skills and techniques for workable, respectful relationships, and recovering the heartfulness they lost in childhood.

It’s not only men who have to do the work, although women have a head start in recognizing and trying to do something about the problem. (Nearly all couples’ therapy is initiated by the woman.) There’s a therapist’s catchphrase: “Everyone is either blatant or latent.” If men in general tend to be the “blatant” ones, acting out with more overt behavior like addiction, battering, and infidelity, women tend to be the “latent” ones whose sharp perception of the faults of others often functions like a screen protecting them from their own unhealed wounds. Once a man has begun to change, they need to learn how to accept and adapt to that change, and not continue to punish him in lieu of others who have hurt them in the past.

When such unhealthy patterns can be transformed, an amazing kind of inner alchemy takes place. As Real puts it, “vicious cycles” are turned into “charmed circles,” with one partner’s positive steps reinforcing and encouraging the other’s. The New Rules of Marriage is a manual with systematic steps for creating such a relationship, through wise and loving practices that leave each partner feeling heard, respected, and empowered.

Even if you are not married and never plan to be, I think these books are worth reading. If nothing else, they shed light on the phenomenon of the wounded, falsely empowered child-men who are currently running our country and our planet — and on the premature, misguided separation from our great Mother (the Earth) which is driving us into the coming environmental catastrophe. We all need to learn that we can be intimate and strong, independent and connected. Each of us, whatever gender we identify with, needs access to the full range of human capacities, if we are to stop the cycle of destructive rage which results from the split into polar opposites. It may have played a role once, but that time is over.

Books like these give me hope that a better world is possible, that change is in the air and that we can move in a positive direction when we commit to living with honesty, integrity, and love. Marriage, with all its trials and challenges, is the goal of life — marriage to our true selves, to one another, to our world. I’m so glad to have encountered these helpful guides along that path.


From understanding to action: The Art of Waging Peace

Paul K. Chappell, The Art of Waging Peace (2013)

After reading seven books to understand Trump’s win, I knew there still remained much to understand, but I was also hankering for some ways to enact positive change. I turned to a book that was recommended by a friend soon after the 2016 elections: The Art of Waging Peace by Paul Chappell, a West Point graduate and veteran of military service who now serves as a peace activist. Chappell’s main argument is that while war endangers our survival on the planet and needs to come to an end, there are strategic principles and disciplines developed by means of warfare through the ages that we can learn from while working for peace.

While I found Chappell’s style somewhat wordy and repetitive, and had a hard time quelling my editorial wish to reorganize and cut down his text to make it more streamlined and effective, his ideas are fascinating and extremely valuable. They do not only apply to large-scale international relations, but to our everyday lives; waging peace with my husband and coworkers is something I struggle with on a daily basis. And when the world situation seems hopeless, it’s the small actions we can take in our own families and workplaces that make us feel change is possible. Chappell’s suggestions have already provided me much food for thought, and I’m excited to see how I might apply them toward healing and transformation, one day at a time.

For example, he points out that from ancient times military strategists have known that self-defense is the first priority. Escalating conflicts unnecessarily, being arrogant, and feeling invincible are recipes for disaster. Therefore, respect for one’s opponent is the “infinite shield” that can stop many conflicts before they start, and help to reduce the berserker rage that is the most dangerous element of combat. It’s essential to calm people down and remain calm oneself, increasing empathy and respect as the situation becomes more volatile. This gives the best chance of engaging in a nonviolent way, or if violence ensues, of minimizing the casualties.

See what I mean about these ideas being applicable in daily life? I know this cycle: I disrespect someone, their hackles go up, they stop listening to me, and I get into berserker mode and my brain shuts down. Instant conflict. The strategy recommended by Chappell, and supported by military thinkers from Sun Tzu to General Douglas MacArthur, actually calls on us to develop an inner spiritual discipline that can rally us against the forces of disintegration and chaos. This discipline was once used for outer warfare, but we now need to use it for peace — and it alone can give us the strength we need for our peacemaking to be powerful and lasting.

War has a strong, deceptive hold upon our minds; we’ve been told over and over again that we need to employ violence to make ourselves safe, while the opposite is actually true. Waging peace is not only morally preferable, but more effective than violent responses to the challenges of our world. Comprehending this requires us to discard some of our preconceived notions, and gather the strengths of war while turning them to a new cause. The great nonviolent activists are not weak, passive types, and great military leaders are not bullies. An effective fighting unit is one in which the members love and will die for one another. Our current challenge is to turn this force from pitting groups of people against each other toward the service of all humanity.

Developments since the book was published may make some of Chappell’s premises seem questionable. For example, he points toward the gains made by the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement as proof that a cultural mindset can be changed through peaceful action. The current resurgence in white nationalism and anti-feminist rage could make it appear these achievements were illusory.

However, I think that Chappell would see these as signs that nonviolence is actually working, causing the deceptive war-forces to try to provoke us into violent action (a serious mistake, as he points out in relation to the aftermath of 9/11). It’s just that we’ve gotten too complacent in recent years, depending on dead, fixed laws to protect us, rather than doing the constant, living work to keep transforming our society on a deep level. Let’s use this as a wake-up call to take up the fight for peace, in whatever way we can, and small actions toward a common goal will make a difference.

Chappell’s military background allows him to write as one who knows of what he is speaking, and inspires confidence in his message. He has also been through discrimination due to his multiracial heritage, and domestic violence from his own combat-traumatized father. His experiences have given him insight into the psychology of abuse, while convincing him that the cycle of pain and revenge originating in these and other wrongs must be broken.

I’ve heard that he’s a dynamic and powerful speaker, and that might be an even better way to experience his ideas (his very full speaking schedule is here). But failing that, I can recommend The Art of Waging Peace as a thought-provoking, inspiring catalyst for change.

What other books might you advise reading on this topic? I’m very interested in more suggestions.


I’m on the Ruminate Blog

Ruminate Magazine is a wonderful publication I’ve recently discovered, which explores the creative and contemplative aspects of life through fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art.

I’m honored that a book review of mine was accepted as a guest post on the Ruminate Blog! You can check out my review of The Sixth Extinction there today.  I hope you’ll have a look, and come back here to let me know what you think.


New Release Review: Walking with Our Children

Nancy Blanning, Walking with Our Children (2017)

Purchase Walking with Our Children from the WECAN bookstore, and you’ll benefit a wonderful organization. The book is also available on Amazon.

During the ten years I served as managing editor for the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN), I had the privilege of working with and learning from many amazing early childhood educators. One of these was Nancy Blanning, a longtime member of the WECAN board and for the last several years editor of the journal Gateways. I worked closely with Nancy on realizing her vision of making the journal a richer and more useful resource for Waldorf educators, and was blessed to experience her humor, her knowledge, her humility, and her deep, compassionate concern for the healthy development of the young child.

In order to fully address this concern, we must go beyond the child to the family, and indeed to our entire world, which is so tragically confused about the very question of who we are as human beings, and thus can hardly be expected to provide healthy learning experiences for our most tender and vulnerable members. But how to meet this confusion with knowledge that enlivens and inspires, rather than creating more confusion and defensiveness? How to connect the spiritual principles that alone can bring healing, with the practical needs of everyday life? It became a wish for us in the WECAN publication program to move in this direction, expanding our mission from that of purely supporting Waldorf educators, in order to reach out to a wider audience of parents, families, and others who shared a concern for young children as representatives of our human future.

It was with this goal in mind that Nancy took on the task of writing a series of articles for LILIPOH magazine, very short, practically oriented essays that were yet grounded in her deep spiritual practice and years of experience. We didn’t at the time necessarily intend to compile them into a book, not knowing how long the series would last or what direction it would go in, but after several years it became clear that this was a treasure which needed to be made even more widely available.

Walking With Our Children: The Parent as Companion and Guide is a slim volume collecting all of Nancy’s articles, accompanied by beautiful monotone illustrations by Sheila Harrington. Arranged in four thematic sections — Quality Time with Young Children, Work and Play, Supporting Healthy Development, and Guiding Childhood’s Inner Life — it covers a wide range of topics including storytelling, transitions, discipline, practical work, touch and boundaries, technology, addiction, gender identity, and much more, including the question many harried parents never feel able to ask: “What about me?”

Each of these themes is touched on with incisive brevity, not superficially, but with a penetrating understanding of the central core of the matter. Each one can become a springboard for further pondering and exploration, and the many examples from Nancy’s life as a teacher, therapist, mother, and grandmother give living pictures that can help readers find ways to apply her experience in their own lives. There are occasional references to Waldorf education in particular, but it is not necessary to be a Waldorf parent to benefit from the ideas presented, which arise from closely observing and learning from the nature of the young child rather than from any dogma or “system.”

Nancy seeks to inspire in us a vital sense of the challenge presented to us by our children, who ask us to wake up to a new sense of responsibility, and to be willing to change ourselves in order to care for them. And to our surprise, when we do change ourselves — taking the time to do a few things well rather than many things quickly; learning to read subtle, nonverbal cues; becoming conscious of the importance of transitions and rhythm; filling ourselves with warmth, positivity, and joy — we may find that it is we who are being healed and transformed by these small messengers, who remind us of what is truly important in life.

This book is itself a companion and guide that can help us as parents to undertake our mighty, incredibly challenging task, for which almost none of us has any training or support. There’s nothing we need more than a wise, empathetic friend, who can point out our mistakes without blame and give us the courage to try again. Thank you, Nancy, for putting yourself into this book, which I hope will become a such a friend to many.

(Note that I am no longer an employee of WECAN, was not involved with the production of this book, and receive no compensation for this review, or for purchases via the link above.)


What makes a nonfiction favorite?

This week’s topic for Nonfiction November, hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, is Nonfiction Favorites:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

Fascinating facts

This may seem ultra-obvious, but when I read nonfiction I want to learn interesting things. I’m not obligated by my job or studies to do this, so any topic will do as long as the author brings out something relevant, unusual, surprising, beautiful, or mind-blowing about it. My favorite books leave me with a life-enhancing sense of wonder and amazement.

Good storytelling

I’m admittedly mainly a fiction reader, so in order to hold my attention and help me retain information, it’s helpful to tell me a story. Not every subject is suited to this method, but the ones that do lend themselves to storytelling are the most likely to become my favorites.

A minimum of speculation

On the other hand, there’s a danger that when the facts are thin on the ground the author will fill them in by speculating about what might have been. It annoys me to read lengthy passages discussing the possible color of somebody’s hair, or postulating about piss freezing in the chamber pots on a particular morning. Even worse is inventing incidents or characters without identifying them as such to the reader. If you don’t know something, say so…and if you want to indulge your imagination, write a novel!

My favorite nonfiction is firmly based in reality, even if that means the book has to be very short.

Well-crafted language (but skip the flowers)

Many nonfiction writers are journalists or academics, whose writing style may be serviceable at best. This is fine for conveying information, but my favorite nonfiction books will have phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that resound with a distinctive voice. The danger is that some writers seem to be trying too hard and end up writing terribly purple prose, which is also irritating. Writing can be simple and clear, but still artistically formed, and that’s what I really gravitate towards in nonfiction.

An uplifting spirit

Some books are important to read, but depressing. I’m grateful that they exist, but unlikely to count them as my favorites. I will take more to my heart the books that leave me with some hope, comfort, or inspiration to carry me into the future, even when (or especially when) they grapple with tough subjects like injustice, war, and death.

Here are some of my favorite nonfiction titles that I’ve read since I started blogging:

What are your favorites, and what criteria help you to select them?

Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016)
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)

This is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land  Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Also posted as part of Nonfiction November, hosted by JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Doing Dewey, and yours truly. Please visit these blogs for tons of wonderful nonfiction reviews, discussions, and more!

White Trash is subtitled “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which I find misleading. This is not primarily an overall history of class structures and conflicts throughout the entire United States, but a study of the origins and development of a particular group generated by a peculiar intersection of ethnicity, economics, and geography. Variously called white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, mudsills, and other derogatory names, this distinctively Southern underclass is an uncomfortable part of our national heritage. Through the years it has been reviled or celebrated, ignored or grotesquely exaggerated, but never integrated into our American self-image in a constructive way.

So, overlooking the grandiose subtitle, what does the book have to say about where this group came from and how it has developed? Starting with the early days of European settlement, it’s an absorbing and appalling chronicle of how our country was seen in part as a repository for the “waste people” of Europe, who were relegated to substandard, badly managed land and grew into their own caste alongside the institution of slavery. Shadowing the imported black race was a home-grown white race of uncivilized, illiterate, violent, promiscuous, lazy throwbacks, who had to be kept down so that the more palatable elements in American society could rise to the top.

The whole image of human waste, going along with the laying waste of the environment, rang true to me as something that we need to face up to right now. The so-called New World was once seen as a limitless field for exploitation, where people and resources could be discarded or pushed aside in order to create new possibilities for a certain portion of the population. But as we now know, our world cannot be exploited indefinitely, and human waste is as problematic as any other. The illusion of the “classless society,” Isenberg argues, was actually a way for those in power to mask their fear of class mobility and solidify structures that benefited them. Regarding the rural poor as a race apart was key to keeping them in their place.

An eye-opening point, which Isenberg traces in detail from its origins at the very beginning of colonization, is that the antislavery movement was strongly founded in the observation that slavery was pushing out and paralyzing the white laboring class. For many abolitionists, the goal was not to uphold the human rights of black people, but to give work back to the white underclass who were squeezed out of the Southern aristocracy. They, in turn, fought back against what they saw as a degenerate Northern rabble who would upend the social hierarchy within their own race. They argued that slavery at least provided a class above which poor whites could feel superior, and thus satisfied with their lot at the bottom of the (white) social ladder. Such cruelly tangled thinking is incredibly difficult to root out of the American soul, it seems.

Another striking section was about the eugenics movement that flourished here only a century ago. The solution to the problem of America’s “strange breed” was to be found in better breeding, in people of good blood choosing the right mates and in sterilization or even euthanasia of the bad seeds. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics, among many other prominent voices. Though we Americans like to feel we are on moral high ground compared to the Nazis, it’s important to realize that with a little push over the edge into mass hysteria, there could have been a kind of Holocaust here in the middle of the last century. There still could, as it feels as though we are treading very close to that edge right now, and any number of groups could be targeted.

Unfortunately, soon after this the final part of the book disintegrated into a confused muddle of reflections on trailer parks, Elvis Presley, LBJ, Dolly Parton, Deliverance, Sarah Palin, and other topics without a clear focus or conclusion. Perhaps that is not inappropriate, as there is certainly no way to wrap up this problematic segment of society in a neat intellectual package. But it proved something of a letdown after some of the earlier insights.

Isenberg herself starts to seem ambivalent in her view of the actual human beings behind the “white trash” label, distancing herself from them by only discussing public figures and pop culture phenomena, rather than ever actually talking to real people. In her over-the-top descriptions there is a certain amount of disgust and repugnance, even as she tries to point our attention toward an unjustly neglected population. Thus she demonstrates the very contradictions that have plagued our country from the start, the tension between fascination and repulsion that has prevented any meaningful change from taking place. Where do we find the compassion and true humanity to bridge the gap, and fully encompass this part of our being?

For this endeavor, a first-person account like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy can be a help. Vance grew up in Ohio, but his family was from Kentucky and retained strong emotional and cultural ties there. Vance movingly depicts his troubled upbringing with an unstable mother, the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and hopelessness, and the saving grace found through the love of his grandmother. “Mamaw” is an unforgettable personality, tremendously flawed but gloriously human. Her power to make a difference in her grandson’s life shows how love can bring transformation into the most unlikely places.

Vance is less successful when he tries to interject some political and historical commentary into the narrative. He often seems underinformed, and at times harmfully naive — as when he argues that his conservative social group were repelled by President Obama not because of his race, but because Obama was an Ivy League graduate who “didn’t talk like us.” (I doubt they would have quite the same reaction to a white person with the same credentials; antagonism aroused by people of color gaining education and social status is a very pervasive feature of racism.)

Though his early school career was difficult, after a stint in the Marine Corps Vance became a lawyer and thus made it into the promised land of the rich. Some find this an inspiring trajectory, but I had mixed feelings about it. Why is it that everyone who wants to “make it” has to become a lawyer? Vance doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field other than its money-making potential, and his description of his time in law school focuses mainly on how he had to negotiate the social hurdles of being with an elite population for the first time, bluffing his way through until he gained the knowledge and skills he lacked. Very likely there’s more to his inner life that he didn’t express, and I don’t want to unfairly denigrate his very real achievement, but as presented in the book there was something hollow about it.

A conversation between Nancy Isenberg and J.D. Vance would certainly be interesting, and maybe someday that will happen. In the meantime, both books are worth reading, especially in tandem. In different ways, each sheds light on a part of our national character that is hard to face, but dangerous to ignore.



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