Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Insidedness”

What Keeps You Inspired?

Galatians 6:9 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.


Last week, I heard a fairly ordinary woman tell a very extraordinary story. I was in Florida for a conference and one of the keynote speakers was Jessica Jackey. In addition to being a new mother, Jessica is a social entrepreneur. The way she defines it, a social entrepreneur is someone who creates value in the world. Jessica’s brilliant idea was to create a micro-financing organization named KIVA that lends money to people around the world in an effort to alleviate poverty. She connects people who want to help with people who need the help. For as little as a $25 loan, people with the means to make a difference give some capital to people who live on just dollars a day. The stats are staggering. Founded in 2005, KIVA has used the contributions of 687,000 people to lend $283 million in loans to people all around the world. Read that line again. Almost 300 million dollar has changed hands because of this woman’s brainchild. One hundred percent of the money gets to those who need it. And 99 percent of those small loans (most of them averaging $25) are repaid.

Jessica talked about hearing Muhammad Yunus speak at Stanford University three years before he won the Nobel Prize for his work on microcredit and microfinance.

She said, “When I heard him speak at Stanford, I thought to myself: I can do that. I can go and sit next to people and be a really good listener. His stories were not about the poor being destitute and desperate but his stories were hopeful.”

Jessica began to make her own trips to places in the world where people were in great need – of opportunity. While there, she heard some inspiring stories and began to focus “on these details of beautiful change. I saw people with full hands rather than empty hands and I thought to myself: what would it be to share these stories with other people?”

Jessica was asked in the Q & A session at the end of her talk, what keeps you inspired? She answered: “Stopping. Getting out of my own head and not worrying about success and failure and engaging with someone else and listening to someone else’s story. That genuinely inspires me. It’s realizing that everyone has their own set of challenges but they have their own victories, too. If you can listen to someone else’s story, you’ve been given a gift.”


Imagination and Morality

“To me, imagination is the key to morality.  If you can’t imagine yourself as someone else, to walk in their skin, you’re more likely to hurt them or demean them or legislate against them.  The golden rule depends on the power of imagination.”

Michael Chabon

A Village is the Place

I took my Twain class to Hannibal last week for a day trip.  I had given them an assignment this semester to write a paper demonstrating what Mikhail Bahktin termed “insidedness” and what Twain practiced so wonderfully. Using either fiction or non-fiction, the students had to capture character and conversation as if they were ‘”inside” the Other.  As biographer Ron Power describes it, Twain was a “prodigious noticer”.  He had a keen eye for his subjects.  One of the displays at the Mark Twain Museum expresses it well.


The Remarkable Doctor – Janusz Korczak

A few weeks ago, I took a group of students to Europe for a history of the Holocaust tour.  Our travelogue can be found at www.watw2010.wordpress.com  In the weeks to come, I will add some of my photographs and reflections of our trip to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.

In the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw, Poland there is a memorial sculpture to Janusz Korczak.  He is shown holding a small child and leading a procession of other children behind him.  Dr. Korczak was a pediatrician and children’s author and a leading pedagogue.  He also oversaw an orphanage that was forced to relocate to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, after the Nazis assumed control over the city.  In August of 1942, the Nazis came to deport the children and orphanage staff to the Treblinka extermination camp.  Dr. Korczak was offered sanctuary outside the Jewish ghetto but he refused.  He insisted that he accompany the children. He, along with the children and staff, died in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

Korzcak is remembered in The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman. 

One day, around 5th August, when I had taken a brief rest from work and was walking down Gęsia Street, I happened to see Janusz Korczak and his orphans leaving the ghetto. The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children and now, on this last journey, he could not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out in to the country, so image they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play – and so they set off. When I met them in Gęsia Street, the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest infants, who were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story. I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Zyklon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans’ hearts, the Old Doctor must have whispered with one last effort, ‘it’s all right, children, it will be all right’. So that at least he could spare his little charges the fear of passing from life to death."

Helen Keller on Meeting Mark Twain


image“He entered into my limited world with enthusiasm just as he might have explored Mars. Blindness was an adventure that kindled his curiosity. He treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties. There was something of divine apprehension in this so rare naturalness towards those who differ from others in external circumstances.”

The River of Characters – Real and Imagined

Sam Clemens worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River from 1857-1860.  It was there:

I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history…When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before – met him on the river.


Mark Twain and Mardi Gras

With the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl and this, the centennial of Twain’s death, here is a description of the time when Sam Clemens first set foot in the “Big Easy”:

When the Crescent City docked at the New Orleans levee in late May 1857, Clemens was exhausted. But he had more than two weeks to practice something he was already quite good at – sightseeing. Two things particularly fascinated him, the market and the cemeteries. The bright colors, the variety of tropical fruits, the plethora of every kind of produce from the kitchen, the farm, and the sea, sent his senses reeling with delight. The market was as much a display of people as of products, their multi-toned voices, their variety of skin tones, their diversity of languages: ‘groups of Italians, French, Dutch, Irish, Spaniards, Indians, Chinese, Americans, English, and the Lord knows how many more different kinds of people.’ To him the variety was an asset, the differences desirable, the community both tactilely sensual and raucously harmonious, his first experience with the American marketplace as a polyglot, multi-ethnic epitome of the national culture. His sheer pleasure in New Orleans was a step toward his gradual transcendence of Missouri slave culture provincialism and his increasing discomfort with xenophobia” (The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography, Fred Kaplan).

Twain would write to his sister Pam: “It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.”


Finding the “I” in the “Thou”

image In commemoration of Martin Luther King Day – once referred to as “King Lutheran Day” by my then, six year old daughter – here is one of my favorite selections from King’s speeches.  This is from the famous “mountaintop sermon” which he delivered in Memphis, Tennessee the night before his assassination.  In it, you can hear echoes of Martin Buber and his classic work I and Thou

It is also an example of what Mikhail Bahktin termed “insidedness” – the capacity to enter into someone else’s experience, authenticate their individuality, share their woes and listen to their voice. 

In this selection from King’s sermon, he is retelling Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.”

How to Tell a Story: Reservoir Dogs

In the movie Reservoir Dogs, Holdaway (played by Randy Brooks who is pictured below) gives advice to Mr. Orange (played by Tim Roth) on how to go undercover as a cop and gain the trust of an organized crime cell. What follows is Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the art of storytelling. Warning: explicit language follows. Though necessary to the character depictions and the plot of the movie, it contains offensive language.


Read more…

Storytelling the Past

In recent years, I have enjoyed reading Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series.  Here is how he describes his task of researching and retelling the stories of the ancients:

My methods of approaching the past have scarcely changed since image childhood and adolescence. I assemble what piece there are, contrast and compare, and try to remain in their presence till I can begin to see and hear and love what living men and women once saw and heard and loved, till from these scraps and fragments living men and women begin to emerge and move and live again – and then I try to communicate these sensations to my reader. So you will find in this book no breakthrough discoveries, no cutting-edge scholarship, just, if I have succeeded, the feelings and perceptions of another age and insofar as possible, real and rounded men and women. For me, the historian’s principal task should be to raise the dead to life.

Thomas Cahill, Why the Greeks Matter, 8

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