Friday, October 9, 2009

My life story, Holden Caulfield, and a living saint

So, you know I planned to post a blog a day for Great Books Week. Well, I skipped the past two days - circumstances beyond my control, I tell you (and maybe, just maybe, some Chardonnay). But, never are posts for the last three days, all rolled up in one convenient, easy to use post:)

Topic: I'd write my autobiography, but I don't need to because my story has already been told in [what classic book].

This was supposed to post Wednesday, but when I divulge the name of the book that most resembles my life, you'll understand why. Okay, okay, so it doesn't track my entire life, but if I just take a snapshot of my life right at this moment (with one kid home sick with swine flu, important deadlines looming at work, successive dinners from a box or bag, and a stalled manuscript)'s Lord of the Flies by William Golding. (I considered One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with an inmates-taking-over-the-asylum analogy, but thouight my family might take issue.). I don't know exactly when it happened, but somewhere between "we're not going to be too indulgent as parents" and "okay, boys, you string hammocks in the hallway and eat canned frosting for breakfast if you'll just settle down and let me finish my work/work-out/chapter/edit/glass of wine" I lost control of the little three bedroom, 2 bath island we call home. Rescue missions appreciated...bring chocolate.

Topic: I hated [book] when I had to read it in high school, but when I read it on my own later, I loved it because . . .

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. My impression in Senior AP English? Blech. It was about a boy. Bo-ring. And he was whining about college, of all things. I'd just sent off my applications, worried I'd be stuck in my no-movie-theatre, party-in-the-cow-pastures town forever, and Holden was complaining about college? Even the much-hyped "bad word" didn't save the book. I thought he was a whiny boy with no real problems and I didn't understand why I should care about him. I reread the book last summer, after having two boys of my own (and raising a husband). And, it just clicked. Maybe it's our culture, or the benefit of psych 101, but Holden came across as a depressed ADD-addled narcissist. And that, is actually interesting.

Topic: When I want to give someone a special gift, I give them [book] because...

Oh, there are soooo many! It depends on the person and where they are in life. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a favorite. (I tend to even urge strangers to buy it, and I've given it to many, many friends). Another favorite is Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I know someone who sent her copy to President Obama after she read it, because it moved her so much. I'm going to re-post here a blog I wrote earlier this year about the book - it will explain why it is a special gift, and hopefully inspire you to buy it for yourself, or someone you love.

Here's the thing about Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin . . . you just need to read it. No matter your political affiliation, religious beliefs, social status, gender, ethnicity, race, age, or favorite breakfast cereal (mine's Cheerios . . . I'm old school), it will speak to you. Within the pages of the book, "hope" and "change," which have saturated our airwaves the past two years, cease existing as words and take shape as tangible ideals.
The book is non-fiction - a true account of American Greg Mortenson's failed attempt to climb K2 and his subsequent recuperation in a remote mountain village in Pakistan, which spawned his promise to build a school for the village, and led to 15 years of single-minded devotion to educating the war-stricken and impoverished children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I know, I know, it sounds kind of dry. But it is not. It reads less like a factual account and more like an action-packed novel with a daring protagonist who just happens to have integrity running through his veins. It's like the love-child of Into the Wild and a biography of Mother Teresa. There is enough action to induce stomach acid (falling down mountains, kidnapping by a radical sect of Pakistani militants) and sufficient facts, figures, and maps to appease a scholar. But above all, there is the story. The story of impoverished communities in the Middle East whose hospitality toward Greg made me examine my own notions of love and acceptance. The story of children, their villages and parents and siblings destroyed by years of civil conflict, foreign wars, and American missiles, who scratch figures in the dirt because they have no school but want to learn. The story of radical Madrassas sprouting up across Pakistan and Afghanistan, built with blood money, certain to educate generations in the art of terror and graduate scores of Jihadists who hate America, unless the children have the option of attending real schools. The story of Muslim leaders agreeing to educate girls, because they recognize the importance of education for the future of the individual, the nation, and the world. The story of a Pakistani girl (who, ten years ago, had never attended school) now studying to become a doctor for women. And the story of Greg Mortenson who, through sheer determination and love for humanity, began raising money, building schools, paying teachers, and otherwise attending to the real human needs of the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. While living out of his car. The story of hope. The story of change. The story of peace.
I don't presume to know how the book will affect you. For me, it engendered many feelings. I was embarrassed that I had to keep referring to the map at the beginning of the book because I never learned Middle Eastern geography. I was ashamed that in the days after 9/11, I was scared of the turbaned men on the BART train with me--that I considered myself progressive, and yet subconsciously equated Muslim with Terrorist. I was so incredibly thankful for my life in America, for my education and my opportunities, which I admit, I've taken for granted. The book talks about teachers and children climbing a ladder to reach the second story of their school, because the stairs were bombed out. I couldn't help but think about what would happen in America. Here, parents would be outraged if their child's school didn't meet each and every building standard. Here, most kids would be thrilled if they couldn't reach their classroom. I was inspired by Greg. I believe that one person can make a difference. I was frustrated at our government's lack of humanitarian aid, but simultaneously so proud to be an American, because, as citizens, we can be a beacon of light around the world.
It is so much more than a book about the Middle East. It challenges, educates, and inspires. For me, it shifted my perception. It clearly demarcated the notions of "want" and "need." It led me to pick up trash in my neighborhood and seriously consider whether I "needed" to add another pair of jeans to my closet. Given the result of the election, I think Americans are ready to embrace a spirit of volunteerism. Even if you think are not, please, read the book. It exemplifies pioneering spirit and perseverance at its best.
To learn more about Greg's foundation, the Central Asia Institute, or to make a donation, visit: To learn more about Three Cups of Tea, visit:


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