Oh Brother (or: 8 reasons I’m grateful to my brothers)

You may have guessed from my kind of bossy, kind of control-freak-y attitude that I’m an oldest child. What you may not have guessed is that my younger siblings include four brothers, all of whom now tower over me. Today, in belated honour of my youngest brother turning sixteen (!!!), here’s a list of things for which I’m grateful to those li’l stinkers. If you have brothers, you can probably relate.

1.  Teaching me to punch…
If you’re going to hit someone, do it right; none of this weak-wristed, limp-knuckled sissy stuff. Lucky for me, I had four growing guys around to ridicule me into learning proper form.

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by GIPHY

2.  …and to take a punch
If you’re going to throw a punch, you’d better be prepared to take one. Fortunately there was no end of surprise tackles, slug-bug games, and rough fights during our formative years. Thanks, guys.

3.  Pushing me past my limits
Whether it was climbing to the highest branch of the mango tree, playing 24-hour Halo binges, or taking the dog for a run, my brothers have always pushed me. I lost the “I’m the oldest” edge pretty early on, and while I might think I’m dying, those boys have made me go farther, faster, and harder than I ever would have without them.

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by GIPHY

4.  Calling me out
I’m a forceful personality, and let’s face it—most people hate confrontation. Here’s to my brothers for listening to my perspectives and still telling me when I’m wrong.

5.  Pretending I’m tall
They’re all about six feet tall. I’m short. They very nicely pretend I’m tall even though they tower over me—in fact, just this morning one of them pretended to think I’m 5’6″, which is simultaneously ridiculous and very sweet.

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6.  Letting me tag along
There was a time when I was the big kid and they tried to follow me everywhere, and I made life miserable for them by doing things like tying them to trees and leaving them there or locking them inside so they couldn’t follow me. Now they’re the big kids, and they let me tag along on their adventures to the shooting range, their college campus, or boys-only(ish) poker night in the living room.

7.  Calling me cool
Let’s face it—nobody is cool 100% of the time, and it’s not really cool to think your siblings are cool, and yet these boys not only let me do stuff with them but also, apparently, tell their friends that I’m cool. One of my brothers is even friends with me on tumblr, so you know it’s a real thing. Me and my fragile ego thank you, kiddos.

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by GIPHY

8.  Protecting me
Whether it’s shooting the guy behind me in Halo (because, honestly, I am video-game-incompetent), loaning me a sweatshirt when it’s cold, or physically helping me scramble to the top of a boulder, my brothers are always there. We don’t talk about it, because it’s cheesy, but they demonstrate it all the time. There’s nothing quite so reassuring as knowing with certainty that no matter what trouble I get into, those four young men have my back.

  • In short, my brothers are the best. I love them.
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This Summer: Love not Hate

This is a summer of heartache.

I find myself grieving afresh almost every day—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, hundreds of people in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Nice, and, I know, more—probably hundreds more that I never see, hundreds that the media never takes notice of.

taken from Wikimedia commons
a memorial for the Nice victims

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post about love, hate, and opposing beliefs. Today I find myself thinking again of the strange juxtaposition, the way love seems to inevitably give way to hatred, the way the lines between them grow hazy and thin until we can hardly tell one from the other.

This is a summer of blood, and voices cry out from every side. We are angry. We are frightened. Most of us want the same thing: we want the violence to end. We want lives to be valued above hateful ideology. We want equality and safety and hope.

We are angry because we love—because our hearts bleed for the innocent ones caught in the crossfires of conflicting beliefs. We are angry because we feel helpless—because we see no solution in the face of unchecked hatred, blind oppression, and ongoing violence.

But when our pain and outrage turn our love to hatred, how are we better? Suddenly we look back and realise that we’ve been so focused on righting wrongs that we’ve forgotten to love the wronged. We’ve so desperately battled against injustice that we cannot fathom allowing justice for the other side, whether that other side is political, racial, religious, ideological…

This is a summer of people—individual humans trying to live through the horrors. We weep over the tragedies, we rail against the unfairness, and we shop for groceries. We protest injustices, we question motivations, and we balance our budgets. We cannot stop the world spinning no matter how ghastly the news.

I knelt at my granny’s feet this morning because she can no longer put on her compression stockings or shoes by herself. Kneeling there, I thought, This is the kind of love we’ve forgotten. Not the kind that fights, but the kind that serves. This, I realised, is the kind of dedication we have lost—the kind that proves itself not by destroying opposition, but by creating goodness.

My granny is difficult to love well. Despite her years of loving me, I find myself resenting the restrictions her helplessness places on my time and freedom. I find myself wishing she could understand or acknowledge the sacrifices we make to care for her. And this, I finally understand—this is what love truly is. To kneel at the feet of someone who cannot see the gift to appreciate it, giving without expecting return, without bitterness.

With new clarity, I see that the fine line between love and hate is merely this: to stand, unequivocally and unflinchingly, not against something, but for something.

I cannot right every wrong, but I can weep with the grieving, and I can stand with the suffering, and I can kneel with a pair of elderly feet in the early morning.

This is a summer of hatred—but I am learning love.

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I Should Not Have an Education: or, Why I’m Moving to Rwanda

What would you think if I didn’t apply to grad school, I texted my mother, and instead moved to Africa to teach English?

I got her answer almost immediately: Can I call you?

To be fair, she handled the whole situation better than a lot of parents might have, and over the next several hours, I laid out my reasoning behind discarding applications to a handful of top-notch universities and banking on a long-shot application to the Peace Corps.

My main reason: I should not have an education.

Education is an interesting thing, when you sit down to think about it. For centuries, only the wealthy or religious were educated, and the working classes were kept in their place largely by a lack of education. In some times and places, it simply wasn’t available. In others, it was illegal—consider the way white Southerners kept black slaves under control by limiting their education. Today, we consider education a necessity, but millions of children worldwide either can’t go to school or have to drop out before finishing.

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According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. Of these children, 47% were never expected to enter school, 26% attended school but left, and the remaining 27% are expected to attend school in the future.
(DoSomething.org)

I say that I should not have had an education, and maybe that sounds odd. After all, I’m a white American living above the poverty line. I learned to read and write before kindergarten and maintained high grades from beginning to end of my education, and I never once questioned whether I would go to college (though, as I later learned, my parents did).

But the truth is, I would not have had that education if it were left up to me; I’m only in my position because a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices. I succeeded in high school because my mother devoted time and energy to homeschool six children when the public school system failed us. My parents managed a tight budget to buy me books on my birthdays. I attended a fantastic college mostly on scholarships and work-study, and I studied abroad thanks to generous gifts from family and friends.

“In developing, low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.”
(DoSomething.org)

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Don’t get me wrong—I worked hard for my education—but I started from a position of privilege, and it was the sacrifices and gifts of other people that put me there. And suddenly, a year ago, wading through grad school applications, I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”

Why go to grad school? Why spend that much more money—someone else’s money, of course—to spend another two years revelling in a writing-centred world of my own? Why go on to a career, to make money to pay for a flat so I could live in a city with a job where I could make money to pay for a flat to…? That day, staring at the bright pictures of classrooms and successful grad students, I thought, What a waste.

Not that education is a waste of money. I think education is one of the most valuable things we have—the chance to broaden our worlds, learn new skills, open up opportunities. But taking an education I’d been essentially given and using it merely to make myself a lucrative life? It sounded thoroughly selfish.

“53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.”
(DoSomething.org)

Literature cracked the world open for me. It gave me a place to hide, new thoughts to think, unexpected people to love. It taught me to understand and communicate with diverse groups of people, to consider every perspective, to grieve for every pain. Practically, communication skills make me more likely to get and keep a good job. Literacy gives me the chance to learn outside a formal educational structure, and writing gives me an effective self-therapy option when anxiety strikes.

And, faced with the option to spend two more years either enjoying my education or sharing it, I couldn’t fathom choosing the former.

This leads me to my official announcement: in September, I fly to Kigali, Rwanda to spend the next two years teaching high school English.

I’m thrilled. I’m terrified. I’d love to answer your questions, and I hope you’ll stick around and let me virtually take you with me on this journey.

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*This is a scary announcement because the Peace Corps gives volunteers no guarantee that they won’t be cut from the programme before arrival. My status as a volunteer could change between now and September, although obviously I don’t anticipate that happening.

The BFG: Why Children’s Stories Are For Adults

“It’s a children’s movie,” I heard someone say—but the darkened cinema held only a handful of children.

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I can only assume that, like me, the adults crowding the seats had spent hours of their childhoods in Roald Dahl’s make-believe world and that, like my own, their hearts raced with anticipation.

For two hours in that dark room, we adults gasped and giggled like the children we once were. We again feared the shadows lurking in dark corners. We again knew the solitude of waking when the grown-ups slept. We again felt terror, wonder, and the childhood certainty that the world must be much bigger and hold much more than we knew.

And in those dark hours of made-up giants, trapped dreams, and downward-streaming bubbles, we lost our trepidation and regained something else: the raw desire to see the world beyond our own gates.

We all live, like Sophie, behind walls. We each follow rules, like Sophie’s, designed to keep us safe.

BFG

We avoid our own curtains—questions we choose not to ask, places we refuse to go, ideas we fear to entertain. Like Sophie, we feel certain something important lurks in the unknown, and we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed. We ache to know what more there is, but we dread what we might learn. And, like Sophie, we have favourite blankets under which we hide, knowing they can’t protect us from everything that waits beyond the safety of our walls but still preferring to cover our heads and hope.

But there comes a moment for each of us when we must approach the curtains and, having looked too long into the darkness beyond them, we can no longer hide from the bigger world outside. Something happens—a phone call, an accident, a breakdown, a single line of type on a page—and all at once we’re forced out of our safe beds, carried beyond our familiar walls, and dropped into the unknown.

Suddenly, we are faced with the truth that the world holds people, ideas, and events we never believed existed. Deny it we may, but we are pressed to live a new kind of life. We see beauties beyond our imaginings, but we also see injustices, horrors, nightmares.

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And then, like Sophie, we have to face ourselves—our fears, prejudices, and desires. We have to decide whether to stay hidden in our blankets or to stand up and try to do something, even if that something seems impossible. Even if we feel tiny and helpless against hungry giants and a disbelieving world, we’re given an opportunity to say that enough is enough, to be defined not by whether we succeed but by whether we try.

Adult stories are important. They explore complex ideas, difficult truths, and opposing perspectives. Adult stories teach us to look unflinchingly into the grey spaces between black and white lines. But children’s stories are important, too, and somewhere in between childhood and adulthood, we begin to forget that.

Children’s stories tell us that some things are good and others are bad, that beautiful things must be protected and injustice must be fought, that small people can—and should—stand up against big evils. They remind even adults that we are not insignificant.