Fasting….From People?

For several years now, I’ve been trying to add more spiritual practices to keep myself engaged with my beliefs and to keep myself from becoming bored and stagnant. I’m great at reviving traditions or focusing on something new during a particular season such as Advent or Lent, but the season of Ordinary Time (from Pentecost to Advent) drags on so long it’s easy to be lazy.  It doesn’t help that summer falls within Ordinary Time and without the usual schedule, it’s easy for me to lose track of time and my routines.

Now that school and the fall are here, I’m struggling, and somewhat succeeding, to get back into the routines and to shake off the dust of the summer. As I’m writing this today, it’s cold, rainy, and an all-around autumnal day.  We actually have had a real fall this year with leaves of every shade of yellow, orange, and red.  All the signs are pointing towards my favorite season of the year, Advent.

I love Advent because it’s focused on expectation and preparation, both of which I’m good at. I sometimes expect too much for things and put pressure on myself and the event, item, occasion, etc. and end up let-down and depressed once the occasion/item arrives.  Christmas day used to be one of the biggest let downs of the year for me. Not because I was solely ungrateful for what I had received, but because I had unrealistic expectations for what I hoped my parents and family would think I wanted for Christmas.  I had expectations not just for gifts, but for the day, the night before, the day after, you name it.  My parents, on the other hand, were not festive people.  There were many times the day after Christmas we would start taking down the decorations.  Everything pointed to Christmas day and if the day didn’t deliver you were stuck with 364 days worth of unmet expectations.

Advent breaks down our expectations into four weeks; from November 30 to December 25. Each week focuses on a different aspect of Jesus’s first advent, and subtly mirrors his second.  Christmas Day, then, doesn’t bare the entire burden for the season.  It merely becomes a part of something bigger.

As part of my Advent last year, I fasted.  Fasting during Advent? Isn’t that for Lent? Yes, Lent is typically when many people fast, but there’s a long standing tradition for fasting during Advent as well, it’s just not as popular because it flies in the face of all the glut of gifts and parties that fill the Advent season.  Each Friday during Advent, I didn’t eat from sun-up to sun-down.  Being that it’s winter, it’s not as hard as you might think.  Plus, being a teacher, there’s many days I don’t get to eat lunch. Really it was just being more intentionally about when I did or didn’t eat.

Fasting during Advent taught me about my expectations and the reason why we should fast more.  Not just from food either. The more I’ve fasted during particular seasons, the more I’m taught about the importance of intentionality.  When you give something up as part of a fast, especially something that has become part of your daily regimen, you really have to intentionally give it up.  It starts out easy, but then you get withdrawals.  There’s moments where you question why you’re fasting and whether you can make it the whole time.  Experience alone teaches you that if you push through this part of the fast, you’ll get to the ” bliss” section where you realize you’ve overcome.  By this part of the fast, it’s usually over and then you wonder why you ever missed what you fasted from in the first place.

Besides Lent, and Advent, I’ve fasted from work and regular weekly activities and focused on church, friends, and family ever since I was a kid.  I never called it a fast. I just called it “keeping Sabbath.” Since I grew up with it, I wasn’t intentional about it; it was just the norm. However, in reflecting on my spiritual practices I realized that taking a day to do put away regular things and engage in intentional activities at church or with friends and family I am fasting, in a way.

Recently I’ve gone a step further.  I’ve started taking time on Sabbaths to fast from people. To be clear, not from ALL people, but from large groups or corporate entities.  The last few years I’ve entered into a new phase of my life where I’ve become more introverted than I have before, which is compounded by a diagnosis of depression and anxiety.  There are weeks that the usual Bible study-Church-hang out with friends routine has left me drained more than it has energized me.  I end up starting the week more run down than I was on the Friday before.

It was accidental at first, when I would just say no to church and friends and just stay home.  I would just read, reflect, relax, maybe not even leave the house from sundown Friday until Sunday afternoon.  These times left me feeling recuperated and ready to tackle the week on Monday. Reflecting on these people-fast days made me more intentional about when I scheduled them.  It’s too easy for me to let this become the new norm.  After teaching all week and going to the many after-school events, it would be easy for me to rationalize a people-fast every weekend. Instead, planning a people-fast at least once a month has given me the energy and the affirmation to fast from interacting with people when the time comes.

As with all of my spiritual practices, they change and they morph.  Some I retire, never to use again.  Some never retire.  Others I improve on each year and become even more meaningful on the repeat.  I’m curious to see what will come of this people-fast. Is it just a phase or the beginning of something new? Only time will tell.

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in a future Southern California, “Parable of the Sower” is a dystopian (apocalyptic) view of what happens when politics and the economy unravel in the United States. Violence and poverty are rampant and it’s not if, but when you’ll have to kill to survive. The story almost in media res; we don’t know what has caused the collapse of the nation.

There’s an impending crisis in the form of pyro, a drug that makes the users turned on to fire. The users of the drug say that watching a fire, and lighting a fire, feel better than sex. This is where the apocalyptic element comes in. The users of pyro (and the other names for the drug we come across) take the users by storm, cause them to shave and paint their heads, a makes them extremely violent and vicious. It’s sort of the equivalent to the virus that sometimes overwhelms the worlds of other apocalyptic books.

I liked the main character, Lauren, because she’s a fighter and a survivor. She determines that she’s going to do what it takes to survive. She shuns the denial of many in her community and identifies the skills she’ll need to survive outside of her community’s protective walls. This comes into play when she does find herself out in the wilds. Some of her fellow travelers at first think she’s cold and vicious, but she’s not. She’s still humane in her actions, but she’s also driven by the drive to survive and conquer any conflicts.

What confused me is that she relaxes her survival instinct towards the end of the book and she starts trusting people willy nilly and there’s no consequences. There’s no explanation for this sudden shift in her character and it really feels like poor writing. I’m ok with her being trusting, but I think there should’ve been an explanation for this new development.

I’m disappointed that I took this long to read this book, but it’s really a precursor to books such as “Station Eleven” and should be included in the canon of dystopic/apocalyptic literature.

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Rising Strong

Brené Brown tackles the tough topic of what to do when we are faced with one of those I’m-a-failure-at-life moments, when you feel like life has thrown you into a pretzel in a wrestling ring. Ms. Brown uses personal experiences as anecdotal evidence that she builds off of using her expertise as a social worker and her research and shares how readers can face these moments head on, process and analyze, and then become better prepared to face what life throws at us next.Rising

There’s a lot about this book that taught me how to face these on-the-mat moments. She points out that many times when we are faced with that moment where you feel like you can’t do anything right, we tend to ignore the emotions and try and move on as quickly as possible. The problem is that when we move on quickly, it tends to be adrenaline driven-fight or flight. When we don’t process what happens and affirm what we are feeling we are building up negative feelings such as aggression, resentment, denial. When we have these negative feelings weighing us down, it’s hard to move on from these experiences and feel prepared to face these moments again.

Having faced a few of these moments in my life, I found that a lot of what was shared in the book was relatable. I also realized that some of the suggestions for rising strong I have been doing subconsciously, but now I can give them a name and know why I’m doing what I’m what I’m doing. She has a lot of useful metacognitive methods for dealing with confrontation and discussions with people in our lives who cause us to feel like we are worthless. I found these very useful especially as a teacher when sometimes it’s hard to validate my own feelings as well as having to model good confrontational behaviors for students (and, sadly, parents).

I liked the idea behind the book as well as the memoir aspects of the book. I got a little lost in the philosophy and research sections as I felt she was repeating the same information in different ways. That could also just be me as I tend to prefer more bare-bones non-fiction. Regardless, this is a valuable read.

Sea of Poppies

Sea of PoppiesSea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. I’m trying to think of another book that introduces several different characters, makes me care about each one in different ways, somehow brings them all together without seeming too coincidental and leaves me wanting to read the next two books in the trilogy.

In a very Dickensian manner, Mr. Ghosh introduces us to Dheeti, Zachary, Paulette, and Jodu. They serve as the four main characters in the book. The supporting characters are so strong and well developed it is tricky to determine who the protagonists are. For me, a character-driven reader, this was like eating at a buffet. There were characters developing, evolving, surprising, and failing, throughout this book that it propelled me to keep reading.

What unites the characters is the opium trade and British colonization of India. This connection was very subtly developed that I didn’t feel Mr Ghosh was being heavy-handed with revealing the horrors of the opium trade and the unethical system of colonization. While I thought I knew about the opium trade, I also thought China was the base for it. Not so. And to see the colonial system in action gave me several moments of eye-popping horror. Not that I’ve ever been pro-colonization, but I’ve seen the system in play, mostly I’ve just heard about it.

While this is one of the longest books I’ve read in awhile, I never felt tired of the book. There was never a slow moment. It had everything I was looking for, not only for entertainment but for intellectual stimulation as well. There’s now several topics I would like to look up. This rarely happens for me when it comes to reading fiction. I’m glad that there’s other book in this series because these characters have endeared themselves to me and the cliffhanger of an ending is killing me.

I HIGHLY recommend this book for all the reasons above. I don’t know why more college professors don’t teach this in a global literature or post-colonial course. It’s also great for book clubs because of the deep bench of characters there’s a lot to discuss not including the topics, themes, and actions throughout. What can I say? It’s just a great piece of writing.

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Traveling Light

Traveling Light: Releasing the Burdens You Were Never Intended to BearTraveling Light: Releasing the Burdens You Were Never Intended to Bear by Max Lucado

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re familiar with Psalms 23 and are looking for an encouraging devotional book, “Traveling Light” is the book for you. Taking Psalm 23 almost line by line, Max Lucado unpacks the promises found in Psalms 23. I’ve heard few sermons on this famous psalm, but the depth to which Lucado goes to reveal some of the tiniest lines of hope was inspiring; it gave me a new appreciation for the verse.

The sections that impacted me the most were on verse 4. It’s the “valley of the shadow of death” verse and it’s one that brings a dark tint to what would be a very pastoral, cheery tone. One of the things he points out is that while God doesn’t say we won’t go through a valley of death in our lives, he does say we will go “through” it, not “live” or “stay” in it. It sucks when you’re in one of those valleys of life, whether it’s death of a loved one, loss of a job, or even losing a friend due to circumstance or geography. It affirms the feeling of being overcome by darkness that overtake a valley even while the rest of the surrounding geography is sunlit. It also affirms that this is only one part of a journey, the journey itself. It gives some context to grieving. Too often I feel we are quick to make people forget how they feel instead of just being there with him or her and letting them feel the pain of their loss. It’s only once they’ve reached the end of the valley do they need to be reminded that there’s sunlight at the end.

Oddly enough, there were a lot of facts about sheep I never knew. Obviously this psalm incorporates a lot of shepherding language, but not being a shepherd I never realized how much a lot of the verse has a deeper meaning for people familiar to sheep. For example, did you know that unless the sheep are calm, like the whole flock, they won’t sleep? Or that there’s a snake that bite the sheep’s noses while they graze but there’s an oil that repels them? Sheep are high maintenance and my hat’s off to shepherds.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this cover to cover. It becomes too repetitive and the main points don’t have time to sink in. I recommend reading this chapter-a-day style.

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We Are Okay

We Are OkayWe Are Okay by Nina LaCour

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We Are Okay” explores grief, discovering a dark secret about someone, and transitions in life. Heavy stuff. In fact, I was worried I would hate this book because I tend to read for entertainment not to be confronted with topics such as these. However, Nina LaCour weaves characters, emotions, and a mysterious plot into a very good read. The book is organized in which we start in the present and then flashback to the past until towards the end we’ve basically caught up to the present again. For me, this helped me try and figure the pieces out and I felt it kept the book focused not just on reactions to events, but on the events themselves.

Marin and Mabel are best friends but have recently had a death that has impacted their friendship. We start with Marin preparing to host Mabel in her college dorm room. Throughout this visit, we get flashbacks to the past that explain why Marin is grieving and feeling the way she is, and why Mabel wants to be there for her too. While there’s some heavy topics, it was in such a way that I was feeling for the two women without feeling like I was being sucked into it too.

Even though it’s a heavy book, topically, I do recommend this book. I felt it was about the power of friendships and having people in your life to support you and not give up on you, even when you’ve given up on yourself.

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Arena (Arena, #1)Arena by Holly Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Arena” is set in a future Los Angeles in which virtual gaming has overtaken live (real?) sports as the main attraction. This new virtual gaming takes VR to a new reality. The players have to actually workout and train because the sensors that take them to the virtual world carry over the players’ actual abilities. If you sprain your ankle in the real world, it’s still going to be weak in the virtual. There’s also a crossover from the virtual to the real. While dying in the virtual world doesn’t actually kill you, you can still feel pain from the wounds inflicted in the virtual battles. The protagonist, Kali Ling, plays for one of the top teams in the RAGE tournaments which is basically an epic battle of capture the flag, just with towers for flags and actual weapons.

One of the main takeaways from this book is the idea of having to distinguish between virtual and real. It’s a topic that I believe has become prescient to our times. While we don’t quite have virtual games, we are close to it. Just look at the League of Legends championships that book stadiums around the world. Even on a smaller level, think about how people ignore the real for the virtual. Instead of enjoying food for food’s sake, people are more interested in Instagraming it. Instead of enjoying a vacation it’s now about recording every moment of it. One of the conflicts that arises in the book is what happens when you lose your grasp on the real and find yourself feeling “whole” in the virtual. There’s also sorts of problems that arise.

The author, Holly Jennings, does a great job of making the reader also question what is real and virtual. Sometimes when we’re in the virtual and come back to the real, I was wanting more of the virtual. By the end of the book I realized this wasn’t about immersing us in the virtual but giving us a peak into what these athletes go through. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels to this book because the world and the characters are interesting and complex. It’s a good read.

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Future Home of the Living God

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Future Home of the Living God” is told in an epistolary style set in a future U.S. in which nature is turning on itself and going through some sort of evolution. Animals are changing into new species and for some reason most women are not able to get pregnant, carry a pregnancy to term, or deliver a baby that can live. There’s a small group of women who are able to achieve a viable pregnancy and this becomes the main conflict for our protagonist, Cedar. Intermixed with this ongoing evolution (de-evolution?), Cedar is discovering her roots. She grew up in an adopted household in Minneapolis with White parents, but she is of Ojibwe heritage. Because she’s pregnant, she wants to meet her biological parents to find out if there’s any genetic issues she should be aware of.

The plot unfolds as diary entries Cedar writes based on her experiences with the issues I’ve mentioned above. The diary is something she compiling to give to her baby. One the one hand, it made the book stand out telling us the story from a limited, disjointed chronology. On the other hand, it made me frustrated and didn’t pay out the way I was expecting. By keeping the diary there’s a very personal feel to the book and it makes an empathetic read. You know all about Cedar and what she’s thinking or feeling. It makes us feel like we are the baby she was writing to. On the other hand, because it’s such a limited perspective, there’s things happening in Cedar’s world that didn’t make sense to me, but because they did for her, she doesn’t take the time to explain them. It’s like watching a movie of Cedar’s life, while she’s standing right in front of you. You get to see some of the world, but the main focus is really just on Cedar herself.

One of the themes I appreciated about this book is that we get to experience Cedar’s Ojibwe family as people. I’ve said it before but I don’t think there’s a good representation of Native Americans in literature. Too often they’re portrayed as victims and something that White liberals should pity and cry over. In “Future Home” there’s no victimization. Cedar and her family use their situation and do what they can in their chaotic world, and do it very well.

I enjoyed this book very much, it just didn’t live up to what I was expecting from the beginning. It’s definitely a very unique book and great for book clubs as it spawns a lot of discussion.

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Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat (Creekwood, #2)Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Leah on the Offbeat” is the “sequel” to “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.” It doesn’t take the plot forward so much as delves into the lives of some of the other characters from the first book. Leah had a minor role in “Simon” as his best friend (although for a best friend, she didn’t appear in a lot of the book). In her titular book, we get to see her conflicts as she feels pressure to come out as bi, now that Simon has come out and the world didn’t end.

The problem is that Leah is one of those people who doesn’t process conflict or adversity well. Instead, when things don’t go the way she wants them to she goes with the scorched earth method and shuts everything and everyone down. She also has a very low self-esteem so she never believes anyone would want to do good things for her and assumes people are lying when they compliment her.

I read this book in one sitting, not because it was engrossing, but because it was like watching a reality show. It was just interesting that wanted to know how it ended, but I stayed for the drama. And there was a lot of it! It almost becomes comical at the end. Leah has a crush on one of the members of the friend group and she does not handle it well. By the end of the book there’s hints this person might reciprocate her feelings but it seems so orchestrated and convenient that it doesn’t feel sincere. Then there’s a whole manic pixie girl trope that shows up and it just spun out of control.

We may have had a friend in our lives who is like Leah. That friend was probably not always easy to be around, but was very loyal. They may like this book and can relate to a lot of it. You, however, may be too triggered to really enjoy the book.

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Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your NameCall Me by Your Name by André Aciman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elio is the son of two professors. His father is a famous historian who hires a summer graduate student to join the family on their Italian Riviera estate (who wouldn’t want that gig) and help sort research and correspondence. As the book opens, Elio is preparing to welcome the newest intern, Oliver. Oliver arrives and Elio gives him a cool reception. The frigidity between the two continues for a period before they finally confront each other. Suffice it to say there’s an attraction between the two. There’s no clear explanation why they treated each other with cold shoulders, but in Elio’s case it’s probably because he’s seventeen. As for Oliver he’s twenty-four and should’ve been more mature.

Let’s take a moment and address the elephant in the room. Oliver is twenty-four and Elio is seventeen. Due to events that transpire later in the book (I won’t go into details in order not to spoil the book or the movie), but this age gap made me uncomfortable. I never felt that Oliver was taking advantage of Elio. However, I do think that Oliver, as the adult in the room, should’ve done more to help Elio process his feelings. Instead, Oliver tends to let Elio figure it out on his own. The problem is, Elio is seventeen!! As Elio is the narrator, we get his first-person limited perspective and it’s clear he’s both scared and curious about how he feels towards Oliver.

While the movie did it better when it comes to one of the most powerful speeches in the book, there’s an important moment where Elio’s father has a talk with him that makes Elio realize, his father knew what was going on the whole time. The father never once mentions the word “gay”, although there’s room for interpretation of what he’s suggesting, but instead he cautions Elio to not generalize about his life based on this one moment. I feel this is a powerful message because too often society is quick to label people. But who at seventeen could say that she or he fit into perfect boxes? Instead, the father encourages Elio to let what happens over the summer be a moment in time and process the good and bad that comes a long with it.

This was a frustrating read in places because of its limited point of view, but the idea behind the text is powerful. It addresses what happens when, during out teenage years, we first encounter the tricky emotion of desire. This is very psychological in parts and I won’t lie and say there’s things that Oliver and Elio do in the name of love that seem pretty far out there, but the author handles it in such a way that it doesn’t stain the rest of the text. There’s also a layer of culture thrown in as several languages are spoken by the characters and the setting of events shifts between places in Italy and the U.S. The cultural elements tend to temper the psychological elements and makes for an artistic tone.

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