Reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Just finished this apocalyptic book, set in the mid-to-late 2020s, in which the American president wants to “Make America Great Again.” It was written in 1993.

The diverse main cast of characters includes a dozen men, women, and children of color. Many books that I read as a child had me creating mental images of white characters. When Parable introduces two white women, they are described as ‘medium size white women with brown hair.’ Hah! A far cry from the ‘flowing [very specific shade, length, and texture of hair],’ beauty-as-virtue descriptions utilized for white literary heroines. I devoured YA fantasy, and the women were frequently headstrong and clever. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lack of diversity and that my mental image was never challenged. I digress.

Parable of the Sower deals in the mysticism of religion in a way that felt practical, but also one that made me mentally push back on Earthseed, the main character’s religion. It made me echo the question that the book asks throughout, about our communities and our country: “What keeps change from trending corrupt?” Considering my copy of the book was published with discussion questions, I think Butler wants us to talk about it.

Parable deals in problems which have historically plagued the country, and that have perhaps never fully disappeared and could return: workforce privatization as monopoly resulting from destabilization, de-facto debtors slavery, water shortages, widespread gun violence and drug abuse, states’ rights overpowering national unity, lack of birth control, lack of education, the precarious future of the space travel program, the way infrastructure shapes communities or doesn’t, and perhaps most interesting to me, homesteading as subsistence survivalism, instead of a bountiful, community-based, anti-capitalist exercise of choice. If any of this piques your interest, I’d recommend that you read the book.

Here are some parts I marked as I read. Slight spoilers, but not much more than above.

All successful life is
Adaptable,
Opportunistic,
Tenacious,
Interconnected, and
Fecund.
Understand this.
Use it.
Shape God.
–pp 124-125, Earthseed poem

The Self must create
Its own reasons for being.
To shape God,
Shape Self.
–pp 259, Earthseed poem

“He nodded. “All right. But tell me, what do people have to do to be good members of an Earthseed Community?”
A nice, door-opening question. “The essentials,” I answered, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny.”
“And why should people bother about the Destiny, farfetched as it is? What’s in it for them?”
“A unifying, purposeful life here on Earth, and the hope of heaven for themselves and their children. A real heaven, not mythology or philosophy. A heaven that will be theirs to shape.”
“Or a hell,” he said. His mouth twitched. “Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.” He thought for a moment. “It sounds too simple, you know.”
–pp 261-262

Your teachers
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you — 
If you will learn.
God is your first
and your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher:
subtle,
demanding.
Learn or die.
–pp 279, Earthseed poem

“We all had to buy a few things, but Emery squandered too much money on pears and walnuts for everyone. She delighted in passing these around, in being able to give us something for a change. She’s all right. We’ll have to teach her about shopping and the value of money, but she’s worth something. Emery is. And she’s decided she’s one of us.”
–pp 313

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
that God has provided.
They are everwhere, 
in everything.
God is Change–
Seed to tree,
tree to forest; 
Rain to river, 
river to sea; 
Grubs to bees,
bees to swarm.
From one, many;
from many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving–
forever Changing.
The universe
is God’s self-portrait.
–pp 315, Earthseed poem

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Reading ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, Part 2

Mental illness and violence in America:
“Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.

In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately put it, ‘When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever its immersed in — the surrounding culture’s illness.’ ” –pp122

Language opening a landscape for change:
“Language is power. When you turn ‘torture’ into ‘enhanced interrogation,’ or murdered children into ‘collateral damage,’ you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let along change it. Vernacular phrases — ‘Catch 22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ — have helped up to describe but also to reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.” –pp129

No violence can be isolated, it also operates in a culture and of degrees:
“Six years ago, when I sat down and wrote the essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ here’s what surprised me: though I began with a ridiculous example  of being patronized by a man, I ended with rapes and murders. We tend to treat violence and the abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realize now that what I’m saying is: it’s a slipper slope. That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.” –pp134

The long journey of progress:
“Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth — and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has nine hundred ninety-nine miles to go and will never get anywhere.” — pp140

Progressive ideas and setbacks:
“What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters.” –pp142

When language limits women:
“And the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a Wall Street Journal editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term ‘female careerism.’ Salon writer Amanda Marcotte notes, ‘Incidentally, if you Google ‘female careerism,’ you get a bunch of links, but if you Google ‘male careerism,’ Google asks if you really  meant ‘male careers’ or even ‘mahle careers.’ ‘Careerism’ — the pathological need to have paid employment — is an affliction that only affects women, apparently.” — pp148

Reading ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, Part 1

On who exactly is so dangerous:
“Someone wrote a piece about how white men seem to be the ones who commit mass murders in the United States and the (mostly hostile) commenters only seemed to notice the white part. It’s rare that anyone says that this medical study does, even if in the driest way possible: “Being male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behavior in several studies, as have exposure to tobacco smoke before birth, having antisocial parents, and belonging to a poor family.

It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.” –pp24

On the freedom of women as liberation for all:
“Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together of slaves together. Surely the mindset of those who think they need to win, to dominate, to punish, to reign supreme must be terrible and far from free, and giving up this unachievable pursuit would be liberatory.” –pp35

On women historically losing personhood during marriage:
“The British judge William Blackstone wrote in 1765, in his influential commentary on English common law and, later, American law, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” Under such rules, a woman’s life was dependent on the disposition of her husband, and though there were kind as well as unkind husbands then, rights are more reliable than the kindness of someone who holds absolute power over you.” –pp56

on same-sex marriage equality rocking the gender-unequal foundations of heterosexual marriage:
“…even people who weren’t particularly nasty were deeply unequal in the past. I also know a decent man who just passed away, age ninety-one: in his prime he took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision. Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.” –pp59-60

reflection on erasure/assertion of female presence, viewing Ana Teresa Fernandez’s Telaraña:
“To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sign and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.” –pp75

Reading: The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” –Leonard Bernstein, composer, as quoted on pp 188 of The Defining Decade, why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now by Meg Jay, PhD

Intent on healthfully jump starting her readers, Dr. Meg Jay explores which choices, made in your 20s, engender future greatness and satisfaction. Lingering past 25 in the service industry or retail often doesn’t. I cringe a little; this isn’t a universal truth. But for Jay’s therapy patients, who are used as case studies in the book and who struggle with work and love, underemployment surfaces repeatedly. A poor attitude, failing to make choices, and not taking chances are other examples that fall short.

Jay advocates for a determined, future-oriented mindset, based on a sense of self. Though it seems counter-intuitive, this isn’t so at odds with “living in the present,” an idea enjoying its moment of grace in our public consciousness. In fact, a lot of Jay’s book seems aimed at destroying the idea that fulfillment comes from the black and white separation of your 20s (present) and 30s (future): That you should travel and party in the 20s to find your True Self, root and focus in the 30s; Focus exclusively on friends in the 20s to avoid marrying too early, find committed romance in the 30s; Explore identity through odd jobs in the 20s, so as to not get stuck in a consuming office job, start a career in the 30s.

But, Jay says, the 20s are a time for rapid brain development. Considering the 20s a decade detached from your larger life path, and opting out of long term commitments and challenges, could be a huge missed opportunity during this period of growth. Jay argues that while some exploration is good, investments will be bountifully returned and you cheat yourself out of your own time by not employing focus and goal setting. Jay advocates for making bounded choices that further personal development, so that limitless possibilities don’t become flat dead ends. That your 20s to 30s are a continuum makes sense. Committing to and taking yourself seriously, personally or professionally, doesn’t turn you humorless.

Until American work culture includes the month-long summer holidays of the French, it will seem hard to advocate jumping in as though work is a silver bullet to the challenges of personal development in your 20s. But Jay still says to go for it. I don’t think she’s saying ‘do what you love,’ but to challenge yourself to engage long term in places you can grow. Jay argues for creating “identity capital:” investments in ourselves and our knowledge base through which we gain a pathway to connect.

To clarify the focus of the book, I don’t think Jay is trying to blame people who stall because they have a hard time gaining work, being fairly compensated, finding time for themselves, or meeting people because of the economy or other circumstance. It seems more about the ways people do and do not self-support when possible. Overall, I found it to be a thoughtful read, from someone who wants people to succeed, that made me want to reflect.

Reading: Quotes from The Handmaiden’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

“And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.” –pp226

He was not a monster, she said. People say he was a monster, but he was not one.

What could she have been thinking about? Not much, I guess; not back then, not at the time. She was thinking about how not to think. The times were abnormal. She took pride in her appearance. She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, offkey, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation. A big child, she would have said to herself. Her heart would have melted, she’d have smoothed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him on the ear, and not just to get something out of him either. The instinct to soothe, to make it better. There there, she’d say, as he woke from a nightmare. Things are so hard for you. All this she would have believed, because otherwise how could she have kept on living? She was very ordinary, under that beauty. She believed in decency, she was nice to the Jewish maid, or nice enough, nicer than she needed to be.

Several days after this interview with her was filmed, she killed herself. It said that, right on television.

Nobody asked her whether or not she had loved him.
What I remember now, most of all, is the make-up.” –pp145-146

“As they did no doubt with Janine. “That’s terrible,” I say. It’s like Janine, though, to take it upon herself, to decide the baby’s flaws were due to her alone. But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.” –pp215


“I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are the tests, and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.” –pp109

“But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person.” –pp103

 

Reading List: Hillybilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

“I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t believe in transformative moments, as transformation is harder than a moment.” –pp173

“I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself–that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” ” –pp177

“The incredible optimism I felt about my own life contrasted starkly with the pessimism of so many of my neighbors. Years of decline in the blue-collar economy manifested themselves in the materials prospects of Middletown’s residents. The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession. … Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage. … [If] G-d was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion. The tie that bound … my neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished.”–pp188 – 190

I’d describe this book as a charismatic read. It was colorful. That said, I disagreed with some of J.D. Vance’s implications. (Perhaps my interpretations were incorrect.) I disagree that the Democratic party is no longer the party of the working class, and I believe that taxes can create an important pool of money for social safety net programs, including SNAP, medicaid, and other welfare programs. I think that even “hillbillies” benefit from white privilege. I do agree with Vance that our definition of family is perhaps too small to accommodate contemporary family structures that are disjointed through migration, incarceration, or drug abuse. Overall, I appreciate the community portrait that Vance painted with compassion, and the room for reflection it created.

 

Edit: Meryl Steep’s Golden Globes win acceptance speech briefly ran parallel to why I think this is an important read. She said, “an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.” The more we understand each other, the better.

Reading: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

“I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one. I imagined that I felt the calling and prayed that it be so. But one night, while watching The Song of Bernadette with Jennifer Jones, I was struck that the young saint did not ask to be called. It was the mother superior who destined sanctity, even as Bernadette, a humble peasant girl, became the chosen one. This worried me. I wondered if I had really been called as an artist. I didn’t mind the misery of a vocation but I dreaded not being called.” –pp11-12