Brown Bread for Communion

Brown bread for communion

At our last Racial Justice Ministry meeting, a discussion of white privilege led to an examination of white images in our church. Were there any that we could change? We talked about pictures of white Jesus and white doves, but we also looked at other symbols that are typically white, like communion bread. What would the congregation do if we served brown bread instead of white? I decided give it a go last Sunday. As Deacon of Worship, I am in charge of setting up communion, and I have always followed the guidelines in the church binder, which specifies white bread.

I told the minister of my intent and he replied that his only concern about changing the bread had to do with people’s allergies or sensitivities. So my first task was to find bread that would have no more allergens than the bread we always used. Also, as whole wheat bread tends to have less elasticity than white bread, I wanted to make sure I found bread that retained its shape when cut into cubes and wouldn’t crumble.

After some online research, I found two breads recommended for their “tight crumb” and uniform texture: Whole Foods 100% Organic Whole Wheat and Vermont Bread Company Organic Whole Wheat. Even better, these breads didn’t have soy products or chemical preservatives which meant they had even fewer allergens than the white bread we typically used. How pure could I get?

I cut slices of each type into cubes and used my family members for a taste test. I also thought I needed a third bread to round out the sample and so I cut up some of our Trader Joe’s Whole Wheat bread that I had on our shelf.

The Vermont Bread Company Whole Wheat has an complex taste that I knew wouldn’t go over with the kids (I imagined having to clean up spit-out bits of communion bread after the service), so I rejected that one right away. The Trader Joe’s bread has cracked wheat in it, so I wasn’t sure how that would be received by people expecting a uniform texture. The Whole Foods bread seemed perfect, smooth and a little sweet. However, I noticed as I conducted the test with different family members over the course of the afternoon that my cubes of bread got stale sitting out in the air. Not good. Those cubes of bread would have to sit out on the trays at least an hour before the communion service would begin. That meant that the Trader Joe’s Whole Wheat, even with its chewy bits, was preferable to the Whole Foods.

The ingredient that helped the bread stay spongy and soft—the one ingredient that Trader Joe’s bread had in it that the others didn’t—was soy lecithin. So I needed to remove my restriction on soy. Back I went to the store. The only two that I found that didn’t also have artificial chemicals were Pepperidge Farm Classic 100% Whole Wheat and Nature’s Own 100% Whole Wheat. So I bought a loaf of each and conducted a second test, comparing them with the Trader Joe’s bread in their tastiness as well as their ability to stay soft over time.

The Nature’s Own 100% Whole Wheat Bread is fluffier, with more air pockets, so even with the soy lecithin, it still dries out quickly. The Pepperidge Farm Classic 100% Whole Wheat was perfect, having all the qualities that I was looking for. I had found a winner.

Here are the results of my communion bread survey, in order of my preference (best to worst):




Soy or not?


Pepperidge Farm Classic Whole Wheat Uniform tight crumb Smooth, no cracked wheat Contains soy Sweet and mild, yummy
Nature’s Own Whole Wheat Loose crumb (air pockets) Smooth, no cracked wheat Contains soy Bland
Trader Joe’s Whole Wheat Tight crumb Lumpy, contains cracked wheat, spongy Contains soy Smooth, chewy, yummy
Whole Foods OrganicWhole Wheat Tight crumb Smooth, uniform, no cracked wheat No soy Smooth, good taste, but gets stale quickly
Vermont Nature Company Organic Whole Wheat Tight crumb Tough, chewy, no cracked wheat No soy Complex, sour taste: not kid-friendly, gets stale quickly

Early Sunday morning, I sliced up the Pepperidge Farm Whole wheat bread and loaded it on our gold communion trays. I was nervous. It looked so different than the white bread had on those shiny plates. How would the congregation react? I covered the trays with lids and set them out for the service.

Restless, I paced the sanctuary, waiting for people to arrive. I confided to one of the ushers that the communion trays had brown bread under their glistening covers. He raised his eyebrows and told me that ten years ago (before I moved to this town) when the Deacon of Worship had served whole whole wheat communion bread it caused such a stir and protest that “it was like God was dead!” Great. That made me even more nervous.

To my surprise, the communion serving went over without a hitch. Without murmuring or discomfort, everyone took the bread that was served; the spirit in the room was meditative and quiet as the soloist’s soulful singing filling the sanctuary. After the service, I expected that some elder member would chastise me or mention something, but no one did. I even asked a few of my friends if they had noticed. One said she was more focused on the singing. She had noticed the bread, but just chuckled to herself: “Yeah, that’s Betsy, wanting us to eat healthy during communion!”

So there you go, folks. It seems that, in our congregation at least, we are moving away from needing to have whiteness represented in our communion, at least in the bread. The body of Christ can just as easily be represented with brown bread as with white.


Are doves always white?

The email came to my inbox this afternoon. It was from the national office of the United Church of Christ advertising a weekend dedicated to talking about racial justice and white privilege. Why did it make me feel so uncomfortable? I finally figured it out. It was the logo at the top of the page: a white dove against the background of a globe. The picture is encircled by blue arms that look like they are embracing the earth. The large dove eclipses the earth.

How ironic that a conference addressing white privilege has for a logo an image that is predominantly white. However, in Christianity the image of the dove is ubiquitous, harking back to the story of Noah sending out birds to help him determine if the flood waters have receded. He first sends out a raven, which doesn’t come back, presumably because it is happy to just fly back and forth feeding on the carrion floating in the water, unclean bird that it is. Then he sends out a dove, which comes back carrying an olive branch. The dove is the carrier of God’s message that the waters have receded and they would soon find land.

In the Sumerian Gilgamesh flood narrative which closely parallels the Noah story, Utnapishtim releases the birds in the opposite order: first a dove, then a sparrow, both of which come back, finding no place to land. Finally a raven is released and because it is “able to eat and scratch” and it does not come back, thus indicating to Utnapishtim that there is dry land. It seems that the black bird—the raven—is the hero, rather than the dove.

Over the years, white doves in Christian art have been used to symbolize peace, hope, love, and the Holy Spirit. The whiteness of the dove emphasizes the purity of whatever it is that it’s symbolizing. Red and black colors in Biblical narrative or art often denote something evil. I wonder then, will we ever be able to overcome the preference of white over dark in Christian iconography?

White imagery is pervasive in our church. We have white candles, white communion bread, white lilies for Easter, white dresses for weddings. We have white Jesus, who is white (I’ve been told) because we want him to look familiar and relatable. But what about the black people who come to our church: is the white Jesus familiar to them? More importantly, what are we teaching our children by pretending that Jesus had blue eyes and soft golden locks? The historical Jesus, as a middle-eastern Jew, most certainly had swarthy skin and tightly curled dark hair.

Let’s get back to the dove in the logo. What if it were grey? Or brown? That would be closer to how they are in the wild. We have bred white doves for show, for release ceremonies or racing, but in nature more doves are grey than white.

As I learn about white privilege, I am discovering how our preference for the color white elevates those with white skin. And the fact that I am white keeps me from experiencing what it’s like to be non-white, making me blind to the assumptions and prejudices imposed on non-white people. It’s like the child who holds up a blank piece of paper and asks her mom what it is. When her mom says that it’s a blank piece of paper, the child cries, “No, silly! It’s a polar bear in a snowstorm!”

In our white-dominant, white-preferring culture, I feel like a polar bear in a snow storm. I cannot see what it is like for someone who is not white. But I can imagine it. Here are two examples of recent events that are burned on my brain.

The first: when my daughter was in ninth grade, her teacher was instructing the class on analogies. Running through some examples, she said, “White is to good as black is to – .”

The class sat in stunned silence for a moment, and then one of only two black girls in the class of twenty or so said, “Excuse me?”

I would like to say this led to healthy discussion of perceptions of color and race, but it only led to a defensive reaction from the teacher and an erosion of trust among her students.

The second: one evening, not long after that, my daughter asked me, “Mom what happens when you put toothpaste on your skin? Is that bad?”

Why on earth would anyone put toothpaste on their skin?” I asked.

She explained that her friend, a black girl, had put toothpaste on her face, and was now worried that she had damaged her skin. I can see the picture: the girl had been brushing her teeth with “extra whitening” Colgate and decided to see what would happen if she spread it on her skin too.

White skin is the preferred color, the default. Black and brown skins mark people as “other.” Just walk into any store and you will see how this plays out. What color is “nude” pantyhose? What color is the “flesh-colored” crayon? What color are Band-Aids? In our church Sunday school books, the children are white except when the story is making a point about diversity: “loving our neighbor/those who are different from us.”

What happens if we change that? What if we take the white representations in our church and give them another color? Can we change the color of our candles and Easter flowers? What would it be like to have images of black Jesus? What if we depicted the dove of peace as brown or grey?

Tomorrow, I am in charge of setting up communion in our church and I will be loading the trays with cubes of whole wheat bread instead of white. How will the congregation respond? Will anyone notice? I’ll let you know.

I will also keep you informed on what the national church office says when it replies to my email. Will they change their logo to a grey dove? Stay tuned.

Who are you calling “deplorable”?

Dear Hillary,

You have no right to call anyone “deplorable”, not half of the Trump supporters, not even a tenth, not one. Deplore their actions or their values if you want, but to call citizens of this country “deplorable” insults them and tramples on their fundamental rights. It is definitely not Presidential.

I am a Democrat, but I have friends and neighbors who are Republicans, and I believe some of them are voting for Trump. We don’t talk much about politics, preferring instead to talk about our kids or cars or the crazy weather we’re having this summer. We don’t see eye to eye on many issues—I may deplore some of their values, but I would never call them deplorable, and I would never want to see anyone—least of all a person who might be their President—put them in a “basket of deplorables.” No matter how odious their beliefs are to me, I still feel they deserve some respect.

I was a Bernie supporter—I still am. But I have put aside my disappointment and am moving forward in deciding whom of the current candidates to vote for. I had been strongly leaning toward voting for you, and was even encouraging others to do the same, but now I don’t know. When I’m in the voting booth, holding that black pen, will I be able to fill in the oval next to your name, knowing how you disrespect so many people in this country? Would I trust you to govern them fairly? I shudder to think about it.

You are clearly the most experienced and knowledgeable candidate. I admire your intellect and your drive, your determination and courage. What I don’t admire, however, and what I can’t imagine in a President, is how you summarily could condemn a group of people—your fellow citizens—as deplorable.

“But she apologized!” someone told me. Yes, you apologized for using the word “half.” That was too many, you said. Mrs. Clinton, you have no right to call ANYone deplorable. NO one. It seems to me that you take for granted that we so-called non-deplorable people will definitely vote for you, so much so that you can forget about those who you call deplorable, that you can put in a basket the bigots and the misogynists and forget about them. Well you can’t. If you are President, you will have to champion their rights, to work for them just as much as anyone else in this country. I expect nothing less.

The Great Surya Bonaly

surya-bonaly-477 no tights

The Great Surya Bonaly

Yesterday while I was ironing, I listened to a Radiolab podcast entitled On the Edge that focused on Surya Bonaly, the French figure skater best known for her daring back flips. No one else has been able to achieve what she has. In fact, what she did is so difficult that it is considered against the rules in skating. One champion skater who was interviewed on the show said that in his attempt to do a Bonaly-style back flip on the ice, he fell on his face and almost broke his neck. You don’t want anyone trying this, he said. It’s dangerous. You don’t want anyone to get hurt.

In other words, because what Bonaly achieved is so dangerous for mere mortals to attempt, it’s banned. And therefore her doing flips as part of her routine doesn’t count in her overall score. But there’s more to the story, I think.

When she was at the peak of her skating career, Bonaly was known for her profound and unsurpassed athleticism. She landed jump after jump—triple axles, triple toe loops, one after the other. For nearly ten years, she was a champion many times, in her home country of France, and in several other meets. But she didn’t win gold on the most important stages: the World Championships and the Winter Olympics. Why was this? An athletic powerhouse and former gymnast, she loved showing off technical feats, but according to the skating judge interviewed in the Radiolab podcast, the panel scored on the basis of artistry as well as technical skill. Figure skating is about circles, not lines, this judge said, and with all her jumping and leaping Bonaly was etching lines on the ice, rather than circles. Moreover, her skates scraped the ice in a grating way, and judges were looking for a clean, slicing sound. And those banned acrobatics! When Bonaly flipped, she landed on both feet, which was not considered proper for figure skating. Elevated moves need to be landed on one foot.

Wanting to win, Bonaly put aside the showy moves and skated as the judges wanted her to skate, in circles rather than lines, landing her jumps on one foot, forgoing the back flips. Even so, except for in her home country, she consistently got second place and lower in international meets.

Always there is the question: were any of the lower scores because of her skin color? One judge admitted that the sight of black skin against the white ice certainly was exotic and usual. Bonaly’s own coach played up her exoticism, fabricating a story that she was born on a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar. But much as she was loved as a skater, as strong black woman she didn’t fit the image of a willowy skater with white or blond skin.

I remember vividly the 1998 Nagano Olympics, which marked the end of Bonaly’s career as an amateur skater. Everyone was abuzz about Surya. We loved the idea that a black Frenchwoman was a top-ranked contender—how often has that happened? We loved her spunk and rebelliousness, her daring.

I remember being riveted to the TV as she came out onto the ice in a lovely sequined dress, its quiet shade of powder blue making her dark skin rich and striking against the white ice. Her body was stocky, strong, mature, not like the girlish physique so coveted by Olympic gymnasts and skaters. She was different, thrilling, and I was excited to see what this woman would do. Would she complete all her jumps? Most important: would she show us her back flip?

Unfortunately, by that time, Bonaly had had many injuries; she had been patched up too many times. Indeed, at the Olympic Village, she later told Radiolab, she actually had to be carried up the stairs because she couldn’t walk. Her trainer pumped pain meds into her before her performance, but it didn’t help her enough. In her short program that night, she fell. And fell again. When she realized that she had no chance of contending for the medal, she started considering her next moves.

What she ended up doing that night will perhaps be remembered more vividly than any medal she might have won. Not only did she do the back flip, but she landed it on one foot! That had never been done before. Perhaps her deciding to land the jump on one foot was a last-ditch effort to make her jump count.

Needless to say, I was blown away. Never had I seen anything like this on the ice, and probably never will again. There’s even a name for that move now—it’s called the Bonaly. And to my knowledge no one else has succeeded in doing it.

Sadly, the judges that night were not as impressed. Their scores put her in tenth place.

Would Surya Bonaly have gotten more first-place wins if she had fit our stereotype of a figure skater? There’s no way to know. I can count on one hand the number of black female figure-skaters who have succeeded in competition. Some of the most notable are Debi Thomas, an American who won bronze at the 1988 Winter Olympics, and Vanessa James, a Canadian who is now a citizen of France. According to her Wikipedia page, James began skating after the 1998 Olympics, which makes me think Bonaly had a positive influence on her ambition to skate. James is now a pairs champion, though gold medals on the international stage elude her.

The question remains: will a black skater ever win Olympic gold? Perhaps the question should be when? How long will it take for the sport to accept a black woman as the face of figure skating?

I do definitely think there is an inherent racism in an event that is judged so subjectively. How do you judge artistry? Perhaps “artistry” is a cover for judges to pick skaters based on looks and style, rather than purely technical skill.

I know that artistry isn’t as central in the scoring now as it once was. It has been modified to be more objective because of accusations of favoritism. Perhaps if Bonaly were competing today she would win gold.

Even so, I think of the wider issue that I as a white person will probably never understand, by simple fact that I am white: What does it feel like to be in the skin of a black person who experiences racism on a day to day basis? How does it feel to always be wondering: did this happen because I was black, or am I truly not as good as the next person, who just happens to be not black?

When Bonaly won a silver medal at the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan, her skating had been flawless and superb and she knew she had skated a clean and perfect program. The final skater of the competition, Yuko Sato, was not ranked as high as she. A Japanese woman, who was perhaps more artistic in her skating, she was not as daring as Bonaly, nor did she include as many of the challenging elements that Bonaly performed. The final score was a tie between Sato and Bonaly, but since two gold medals could not be awarded, the judges considered the various elements of each skater’s performance and after much deliberation, awarded the gold to Yuko Sato, citing her artistic superiority.

Bonaly was devastated. The Chiba competition had been hers to win. Other world class skaters who might have provided stiff competition—Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, Chen Lu—were out because of injuries. Yuko Sato was not ranked as high.

Why, then, did the gold slip out of Bonaly’s grasp yet again? Was it because of Bonaly’s race?

When the medals were given out that night, there was a bit of a kerfuffle as a tearful Bonaly first refused to receive the silver medal. Even after she did finally allow the judge to put it around her neck, she took it off, tearfully telling an interviewer, “I’m just not lucky.”

Surya Bonaly might have been considered—indeed, I do consider her—one of the greatest figure skaters ever. She was a top athlete who executed moves that no other skater has been able to do. I am no judge of figure skating, so I can’t say for sure, but I wonder: is it because of the bad “luck” of having black skin that Bonaly isn’t remembered as a world champion, but rather is known as that girl who did the back flip at the Olympics?

How many others—athletes, actors, public figures—have we ignored because they don’t have the proper look and don’t fit the expected mold? Our unconscious stereotypes truly limit our vision.

As I think about racism, I feel like I have blinders on sometimes, because I can’t understand what it is like to be a black person in our society. But if I allow myself to slip into conventions that have been decided by others—the way to judge figure skating for example—it’s like I am willingly putting even deeper blinders on, and I will never see those at the periphery, out of my line of sight, who are truly great.



Buffy Deals with Death

Buffy and her mother

I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes recently and have become a huge fan. I love the show so much that I cannot bring myself to “binge” watch it. Instead, I savor one or two episodes a day, like squares of fine chocolate.

Today, I found myself sobbing through the 16th episode in season 5, “The Body.”  Fans will know that this is the one where Joyce, Buffy’s mother, dies. The way the episode deals with death and its aftermath is brilliant. Unlike in previous episodes where death is dealt with from the perspective of slaying—person dies and vampire must be hunted down and killed—in this episode grief is given its full due, with lengthy scenes showing how each character processes Joyce’s death. This being season 5, we know the main characters intimately, and thus go through our own grief as we watch each of them.

The episode opens with Buffy coming in the front door of her house. Seeing a bouquet of flowers on a table, she smiles when she reads the card: they are from her mother’s new boyfriend. As Buffy calls for her up the stairs, we see the mother before she does, slightly out of focus, lying on the couch, legs askew.

What happens after that is very realistic, and exceedingly well acted. In a panic, Buffy tries to revive her mother, then calls 9-1-1 and lets the operator coach her through CPR, then panics again because she thinks she has broken one of her mother’s ribs trying to revive her. “She’s so cold,” Buffy says to the 9-1-1 operator. Her expression is stiff, wooden, as she holds in her pain.

“Cold?” says the operator, before repeating that the paramedics are on their way. We know this isn’t good, but Buffy still begs the paramedics once they come to “do something!” The irony is not lost on us that Slayer has seen plenty of dead people, but cannot accept the death of her own mother.

No word is out of place in this scene: every detail feeds our understanding of how Buffy processes her grief. Emotions are raw and exposed. Having always been the strong one with nerves of steel, Buffy is now struck numb, wandering aimlessly through the house, fielding memories that flash through her mind, and then vomiting on the carpet. The scene is drawn out to maximize the emotion; however, the camera doesn’t focus on the grossness of the act of throwing up, but rather on the heaving of Buffy’s back. Later the camera frames the paper towel Buffy puts down over the vomit and we watch the towel slowly absorb the liquid, as if it is sopping up Buffy’s outpouring of grief.

Our perspective then switches to Xander and Anya in the car, driving to pick up Willow and Tara to take them to the morgue, where they will meet Buffy. Willow, ever the strong logical one, is paralyzed with indecision about what top to wear, wishing she could find her blue sweater–“Joyce liked the blue one,” wondering if her purple sweater is symbolically appropriate, despairing again that she cannot find her blue sweater. Tara tries unsuccessfully to comfort her, then escapes by saying she will go try to find the blue sweater.

Anya, the emotionally-challenged 1100-year-old former demon, watches as usual from her position slightly on the edge of the group. Her growing sense of agitation is evident. “I don’t understand how I am supposed to act!” she says, wringing her hands as she flings herself back in a chair. Xander lashes out at her for her apparent lack of sympathy. Then, to our surprise, Anya delivers some of the most poignant lines of the episode:

“But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I knew her, and then she’s—there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And… and Xander’s crying and not talking, and… and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why!”

The speech is so sudden, so unexpected from this emotionless demon girl, that I was totally caught off guard. Before this, as I was watching the episode, I was working hard to control my tears. But at that point, with Anya’s unexpected explosion of emotion, I just started sobbing.

There’s a loud bang and Xander discovers that he has punched his fist through a wall. I can understand that. Watching this episode, we experience all the emotions the characters are exhibiting:  nausea, rage, helplessness, numbness, sadness, disbelief.

The scenes with little sister Dawn are wrenching. Ever the schoolgirl, she is sobbing when the camera first homes in on her in a school lavatory, and we think she is reacting to her mother’s death, Soon we find out that the tears are caused by taunts from the school bullies. This makes us all the more sympathetic when Buffy finally delivers the news, making Dawn nearly hysterical.

Lest the plot get too maudlin, the final scenes of the episode bring us back into the Buffy-verse.  In the hospital, where an autopsy has just been performed on Joyce, the gang–Willow, Xander, et al.–gathers in the waiting room.   Dawn slips away and sneaks into the morgue. Dark lighting and suspenseful music help us remember that Dawn is the “key” and even though we don’t know what that means yet in the plot arc, we hope that she is the key to eternal life and will make Joyce alive again.

We almost believe it is true when one of the stiffs on another gurney rises up under a sheet. He casts off the sheet, and we see that he is a common vampire.  He attacks Dawn, but is easily dealt with by Buffy, who comes into the room in the nick of time to slay him. The scene is a coda, a bracket, to remind us that this is, after all, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and not a Hallmark Hall of Fame special.

Just before the scene cuts to the credits, we see Dawn reaching a trembling hand toward her mother, and we wonder, will she dare to touch Joyce? What will happen when she does? Will her power as “the key” make her mother rise, zombie-like, from her deathbed?

Though there are many writers for the show, this particular episode was written by the creator himself. Joss Whedon took responsibility to write, direct, and produce this very important episode and it shows. The episode from start to finish is pure genius, by a master storyteller.

I would use this episode as a perfect example of how we grieve the death of a loved one.  The depictions are real and honest, and were cathartic for me, as I recall my own experiences with death, dying, and grief.


Perceiving sounds


28 April 2016

I’ve found out something very interesting in sound perception. When I am not actively listening to music, I can tune out annoying sounds pretty easily. But when I am listening to a piece of music, especially something classical or finely tuned (that is, not rock music with electric guitars), I start noticing sounds on the periphery. This morning, I am sitting in a Barnes and Noble, planning to do some focused writing. I have my classical music (my “playlist” so to speak) organized in the Music folder on my computer and ready to go. So I fired up the Brandenberg concertos in Amarok and inserted my earbuds.

It was then that I heard a most annoying beeping noise. I thought it was part of the music recording, because I hadn’t heard it before I started the music. I took my earbuds out and put them in several times to try to figure out where the sound was coming from. When I took my earbuds out, all I heard was the din of the store—music, conversation, etc. But when I put my earbuds in, I distinctly heard the beeping. When I turned the volume up on my computer, the music got louder and the beeping also got more noticeable.  I couldn’t tell if the beeping was louder: it just became annoying. It wasn’t a regular beep beep beep like a timer, but more of a random sound. Like….yes…a cash register, scanning in merchandise. Or recording inventory. I took my earbuds out and heard it clearly. Oh. Yes. Of course. I’m in a store.

You know, that sound never bothered me before. But now I realize that when I want to listen to my music—to attend to notes—I awaken something in my brain that makes me perceive other sounds. Though I can use my music to blanket the soft din of conversation, my listening only serves to heighten my perception of other sounds, like cash register beeps.

The same thing happened to me earlier this week when I was in a theater to watch an arts program season preview. Snippets from several of the plays coming in the 2016-2017 season were showcased either as short videos or live performances. The fourth act was a chorus who came to sing a few pieces from a modern opera that they will perform this fall.

As I settled in to listen to the pleasing and dissonant harmonies, I was aware of a constant hum, in one pitch, unwavering. I thought it might be a custodian running a vacuum cleaner or a floor waxing machine on a floor above. It was very annoying because it clashed with the singing and I wanted to tell someone about it.

But when I went out to the quiet lobby, I didn’t hear the hum. I told the house manager who was standing in the lobby and he said it might be feedback from the speakers.

Because of my schedule, I had to leave the concert early so I don’t know if the problem was resolved, but what is interesting to me is that the feedback hum was probably there through the earlier acts: a comic monologue performed live and two film clips with electronic music. It was only when the chorus started singing in the particular pitch of that hum that I noticed it.

This morning at Barnes and Noble, I have decided not to listen to music after all. I can better tune out sounds if I don’t try to smother them with music. When I attend to sounds, I can hear them: the cash register beeping, a folk singer on the store’s sound system, the girl a few tables click-click-clicking on her laptop keyboard, the clerk chatting with customers, two women conversing intently at the corner table, an oven timer, a mobile phone. I can choose to listen to them or I can tune them out.

It does give me a new awareness, though, of children who have a hard time tuning out sounds. I now know how they frustrated they must feel. Imagine not being able to tune out sounds! I wonder how they are able to concentrate in a noisy classroom.



I woke up this morning remembering the time I saw the happiest person in the world: a woman with long blond braids, clutching a book and smiling so widely that she set the room aglow.

It was several years ago at a mini library housed in a building that also had a medical clinic and other social services for low-income families. The library was so small that each category of books had just a few shelves or a small corner of the room.

In the children’s area, racks of picture books surrounded a rug and a low table with chairs. When a small busload of mentally challenged and differently-abled adults arrived, they immediately went to the colorful children’s corner. The one with hair in yellow braids clasped a book to her chest, her eyes shining. As she sat down at the table and leafed through the pictures in her book, I thought she would burst with happiness.

What makes books induce such joy? I know why they make me so happy. When I read a story, I engage my imagination, filling out characters and places with my ideas. The act of reading begins a dialectic back-and-forth between the author’s narrative and my own interpretation, resulting in a synthesis that is uniquely mine. No one reads a book in the same way, no one visualizes the characters and settings in the exact same way I do.

I fear this act of reading a book for the sheer joy of it is getting lost in the next generation.

Over a decade ago, when my kids were young, I volunteered in the library at their elementary school, helping the librarian when classes of 30 or so students came in for a an hour-long class period. The children delighted in going through the stacks, choosing their books for the week. But instead of using the rest of the class period to read, they had to leave their books closed on the table in front of them and do a learning activity that usually involved filling out a worksheet. Sometimes the children would lean their heads sideways and open the book a crack, peeking at the story that was waiting for them. “Not now!” the librarian would say, guiding them back to the worksheet activity. I feel very sad when I remember how hard it was for the children to focus on the activity when all they wanted to do was dive into their new book. I suppose the librarian wanted to control the class of thirty kids by engaging them in a uniform activity, but at what cost? Control and order comes at the expense of joy in learning. And what better example for those few children who might have been unruly if they had seen their peers reading?

Now children read less. With the prevalence of touch screens, they prefer social media and YouTube to books. And we are not helping to stem this trend. I have since moved to a small city in a different state, and although we are an affluent community, I recently learned that the elementary school libraries are so poorly funded that they are staffed by parent volunteers, not librarians.

The high school does have a librarian, but she checks out more Chromebooks than actual books. A recent construction project at the high school replaced most of the bookshelves with computer workstations.

Is this the future of libraries? Replacing books with screens?

I can’t change trends. Young people refuse to give up their touch screens, and young people are our future. But I do lament the loss of joyful engagement with the printed page.