the howling.

it may come as no surprise to some of you that i tend to read a lot. as in, i rarely (never) leave the house without a book in some form.  i used to boast that i averaged over a book a week, reading between sixty and seventy books a year. this year has more than doubled that number, and it is not yet over. i will use the term completed instead of read, for many of these books i listened to every word instead of reading every word. i read on the long bus rides, listen when washing dishes, read while walking to university (or anywhere), listen while grocery shopping. no, i don’t remember everything i hear/read, but who, i ask you, does? i have historically read more novels than non-fiction, but there are reasons behind my fiction choices, some part of the world, some element of human experience, about which i want to learn or ponder. or maybe i’m just working through everything charles dickens ever wrote. although it’d be hard to read his novels and not become more socially aware.

if you care, which you may not, i highlight below a handful of the outstanding books from this year’s reading explosion. i will not write about all 140+ books. i include novels i couldn’t put down and the historical or social explorations that blew my mind. i hope you find something that strikes you. i hope you are challenged.

to begin, i will mention that november is native american heritage month. the recent buzz around there there by tommy orange is deserved. i encourage you also to look into an indigenous peoples’ history of the united states by roxanne dunbar-ortiz, being less a straight history and more a look into the structures of european and american colonialism/imperialism that have historically crushed native peoples, which impact mindsets today. the book the new trail of tears by naomi schaefer riley was less insightful than i had hoped, arguing essentially for better routes to assimilation for native peoples into white american cultural norms; perhaps, i would posit, we should question these norms as the only way into so-called civilization. the novel flight by sherman alexie, while a short read, was actually quite emotionally intense and challenging and i rather enjoyed it. but i enjoy most of alexie’s writings.

ok that was this month. on to the rest of the year.

fiction:

God’s bits of wood by sembene ousmane: following the exploits of a railroad workers’ strike in senegal in the middle of the last century, based on actual events, this book is incredible. tragic and triumphant, it captures the destructive layers of colonialism, from casual, racist violence to awful labor practices. but also the courageous fight for rights and dignity. though the strike is long and the situations dire, at each new phase more little heroes rise up. i was awed by their endurance. tense, brilliant, vastly interesting.

the autumn of the patriarch by gabriel garcia marquez: i deeply admire the bizarre excellence in gabriel garcia marquez. as with other works of magic realism, this novel does not disappoint in the strangeness factor. selling away a country’s section of the caribbean to pay off debts, leaving a vast wasteland where once was water? ok, then. this book is just a few chapters long, but don’t expect paragraphs or straightforward grammatical choices. the entire book is a streaming flow of words, thoughts, ideas, stories, conversations, everything and nothing. but we follow in the stream, with some difficulty, perhaps, the seemingly infinite reign of a caribbean country’s dictator. this one’s not for everyone, but i couldn’t put it down. partly because there were rarely any good stopping points.

small country by gael faye: i had the joy of seeing the musician gael faye perform some of his songs and scenes from this book at the edinburgh book festival this summer. this novel is a coming of age story set in burundi around the time of the rwandan genocide. humorous, insightful, and tragic, it is an intensely readable book with deep feeling.

in the castle of my skin by george lamming: another coming of age story, with autobiographical content, this novel explores themes of communal and personal identity during a period of social change in barbados. though with a subtle, slower pace, i still devoured its intimate look at colonial life from a number of perspectives.

the unreal and the real: where on earth by ursula k. le guin: i love le guin’s work because she often offers commentary on our world through science fiction and fantasy. so with the mention of this collection of short stories, i bring her up as one of my favorite authors. these stories, though, if you enjoy good stories, are particularly good. from the strange to the mundane, she crafts her work well and is wonderfully inventive in small and immense ways. i also read her tales of earthsea this year, a delightful return for me to that world.

heroes of the frontier by dave eggers: this one was lent to me by a friend and i have to admit i was skeptical i would enjoy it, though i generally like eggers’ work. but this story about a mother heading to alaska with her two kids, escaping her fractured life, was wonderful, a book of humor and emotion, a series of misadventures when aimless and on the move. and eggers encapsulates the love and frustration and all-around joyful weirdness of parenting incredibly well.

 

non-fiction:

the half has never been told: slavery and the making of american capitalism by edward e. baptist: this was one of those books i could not stop listening to, often with eyes wide and mouth agape. not that much of the history was particularly new to me, but how it was all arranged and processed was truly brilliant. the book brought to light certain heavy aspects of slavery in the states, how it developed over decades, centuries, regions. and how slavery built the america we know, an incredibly important acknowledgement. though i loved many books this year, this may top the list as a favorite. in content, not easy to consume, but deeply meaningful and needed. i can hardly recommend it enough.

teachers as cultural workers: letters to those who dare teach by paulo freire: an incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking little book. freire here hits the big themes i love in his writing, hope and humanization and liberation, delicious topics so closely tied to why i work in ministry and the hope i see in the gospels. he encourages us to see education not as a tool by which we fit children into boxes, but through which we might better assess our world, its structures and changes, and ask what around us, taken for granted, might actually be hindering full human development, what is dehumanizing others, what is shutting out those on ‘the margins’? some say these are radical questions, but i believe they are good questions for followers of Christ to be asking. i include this book also to bring attention to freire, and especially his seminal work pedagogy of the oppressed, which was one of the central books in my recently completed master’s program. he encapsulates in words many of the ambiguous frustrations i had when living and working in rwanda, issues of neo-colonialism, economic development, and western influence over the rest of the world. i would also point you to franz fanon’s the wretched of the earth and decolonising the mind by ngugi wa thiong’o.

orientalism by edward said. this one is for the academics. i suggest you brush up on your french and read everything ever written by a european. just joking. kind of. said describes the pervasive historical mindset that sees non-european cultures and places and peoples as being purely objects of study, of worth in the eyes of europeans mainly because of experience or learning to be gained by europeans, not having inherent worth in themselves. he traces this trend through history and literature and dismantles its dehumanizing core. this is one of the foundational works of postcolonialism, being, very simply put, a method of seeking to understanding the world by listening to the voices that have traditionally been silenced, unheard or unheeded. this guided my framework when working on my dissertation; i sought not to know what the integration of refugees into scottish society meant to policy makers and scholars, but to hear of integration experiences from refugee community leaders themselves, how they structured their realities within changing situations. i cited orientalism and other of said’s works regularly.

we built the wall by eileen traux: this was an incredibly insightful and very recent exploration into the united states’ southern border, from policy to prisons to charitable organizations and personal lives. it gives scope to the issues and names and faces to the people involved. i include this to bring up a smattering of other titles around topics of migration and refugees, such as: violent borders: refugees and the right to move by reece jones; border vigils: keeping migrants out of the rich world by jeremy harding; the beast: riding the rails and dodging narcos on the migrant trail and a history of violence: living and dying in central america by oscar martinez; the devil’s highway by luis alberto urrea. such books, such discussions, are needed more than ever.

managing the undesirables: refugee camps and humanitarian government by michel agier: when working in a refugee camp in rwanda, i was plagued by looming questions i could barely articulate, questions about protracted refugee situations, humanitarian sustainability, agency in the face of oppressive laws and sustained poverty, etc. agier in this work and in on the margins of the world puts in his analyses of refugee camps everything i would hope someone would say. incredibly validating for me, these books are more than that, a great examination of the humanitarian machine that fumblingly maintains camps, especially on the african continent, and the kinds of survival strategies refugees employ, and the success and failures of all. similarly insightful books are in the wake of the affluent society: an exploration of post-development by serge latouche and refugees, conflict and the search for belonging by lucy hovil.

nightwalking: a nocturnal history of london by matthew beaumont: i listened to this book almost entirely while, yes, walking at night, getting lost in glasgow’s autumnal lanes. though walking at night is a favorite pastime of mine, i realize as a white male this is a fairly privileged endeavor, and the book reflects this, following the literary lives of white males and their relationship with changing urban existence over a course of centuries. while the author implicitly criticized laws that restricted movement and personal activity, the book is not an encouragement towards profligate or libertine lifestyles, but rather shows how moods and ideas about ‘nightwalkers’ changed over time, what these changes say about the city, and the literature from eras that show these changes. the chapters culminate in long sections about charles dickens which i loved immensely. this one is more academic, but written to appeal to many. you may hate it. it enthralled me.

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magic mirror.

and in the drowsy crispness of autumn, we welcome another child.

iona was blessedly born to us, a successful vbac, on october 17th. she procrastinated in arriving, a week beyond the due date, but when she finally chose to make her move, the evening before labor was to be induced, she came faster than we would have expected. before the doctors could numb the pain, stephanie awesomely delivered her. in the solemn early morning, weary and amazed, we held our new child.

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iona is the name of the island where christianity first came to scotland, and, by a stretch through other languages, it is a female derivative of john, my mother’s father. her middle names, allyn and marie, both reference family names from other branches. in these we make connections to those who came before, in our own families and in the global body of Christ.

parents of two. it is a simple concept, really, and in reality, dreamlike. approaching the due date i failed in attempts to wrap my mind around what this means, what adding another child alongside ivy would be like. yet ivy provided something small, simple, in its way, incredible, the thing that brought the fact of another child home to me. recently we acquired a duplo set including four farm animals, and ivy gave them names. the cow became daddy, the pig mommy, the cat was ivy herself. i think, hope, the designations were based on size alone and not on some subtle commentary about us. it was quite cute to see her playing with our family in toy form, having adventures, singing songs. but there was one more animal, and together we deemed the little chicken baby sister. and there before me, before it was a reality in human form, was our family of four.

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our family of four. it is still strange to say.

the addition of iona to our family, while requiring learning, adjustments, creates some feeling of completeness. we enjoy a period away from other obligations, welcome visiting friends (and the delicious meals they bring), enjoy autumn in all its glory.

yet, as discussed in our previous post, iona’s arrival comes at a strange time. after locking myself away from much social activity this summer, maintaining a very part-time work schedule, to finish my dissertation (for which i received an delightfully high grade), i began to reengage in work more thoroughly in september. but october’s blooming signaled the end of the pregnancy, a bustle of preparations, the baby, more time away from ministry.

with the stale newness of parenting a lone toddler, the acclimatizing to a new city and culture, scattered work schedules, grad school, and the pregnancy, the last fourteen months, work-wise especially, have felt disjointed. false starts, stumbled plans, missed connections. i feel as if there was potential, is potential, but that we were never able, one way or another, to fully realize it, take advantage. every week something was planned, something else would come up. every choice laced with guilt over an opportunity abandoned. such is life, i suppose. such is ministry.

yet the potential remains. the ministries with which we are connected are growing, changing, developing in ways exciting to see. but with the growing impossibility of our staying in glasgow, visas contingent on very narrow work requirements, we booked flights to the states for christmas. it would be easy, now, to cut ties, fade away into parenting and plans for the future. we are fighting this urge. we seek to be faithful, consistent in the time we have remaining, a regular presence, as we have always sought to be, spending our time wisely, efficiently, helpfully, in the last projects, meetings, relationships, connections.

and as iona adds to our family, she adds also some new element to our presence here. we connect with our egyptian friends who also have two daughters, the sudanese mothers who have diligently asked about stephanie’s pregnancy progress at each english class, the church community around us, many of whom are building families of their own. this will be the end of another season in which we will attempt to sit comfortably in known surroundings, preparing for new endeavors. and blessed with our newest family member.

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mercury and lightning, part 2.

after months of consistent work – the slow, grinding, fumbling shuffle through heaps of articles, books, interview transcripts, emails, my own abundant, scattered notes – the research finally coalesces into readable paragraphs, arguments, a (hopefully) critical synthesis of scholarly assertions woven with my own research and analysis. and, after rounds of edits, with unassuming normalcy the dissertation is submitted and i complete the requirements for a master’s degree.

school finished, for the next few months we will continue working as we have been, spending time with refugees and asylum seekers in various capacities, from sewing to english classes, football on fridays, meals shared at a kurdish community center. the patient processes: making connections, building relationships. and, though my school practice placement with our church ended with the month of may, i have continued my involvement with the leadership team overseeing the opening of a new community space, which, it was recently decided, will become a church plant. steph and i are considered as part of the core team currently, but our continued presence in glasgow is tenuous at best. it is a project we would love to be a part of, as we love the church from which this plant would grow, their vision and heart for their community. yet, as with many projects full of promise, we tend to be there to build a beginning and then are pulled away. i think of bringing solar power to the kiziba community library, a dream our efforts saw realized mere months before our departure from rwanda.

to what, we wonder now, will we be drawn next? our student visa-allowed time in glasgow winds down, the january cut-off fast approaching, and we ponder the future.

there seems an emptiness here, a void unfilled, though fillable, perhaps. this is not the first time we have felt we were walking blindly towards something new. and so we talk, make unsupportable plans, pray, try to feel some sense of calling to some part of the world, some line of service, some possibility held in the next page of job listings. i look back on the last decade of my life, more, and see one step leading to another, a progression of service, experience, a development. i hope that these steps lead somewhere, that whatever follows builds upon the work God has led us through over these years, particularly the recently completed graduate program. more time, perhaps, is needed, time for prayer, for space to grow between one step and the next.

but time is short, in its way. a month from now we welcome our second child. this month will be one of strange preparations. as we reimagine ourselves post-school, post-glasgow, we also reimagine our family.

so what comes next for the watsons? a child, a departure (most likely) from glasgow, and then…

well, that to say, we’d appreciate your continued prayers. and thank you all for being a part of this journey with us so far.

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land locked blues.

a good friend of ours fled kiziba refugee camp a couple weeks ago, on the move again after fifteen years. we have been messaging through facebook, and that first night, after signing off with him, i thought: having a friend who is a refugee is talking to him on messenger while he and his family have fled a place that should have been safe and are struggling to find food and shelter in a new country and trying to get as much information from him and to him before his phone dies and you don’t know when you will hear from him again. and then you have to go wash the dishes and finish your reading for class.

i have stitched the following together from numerous correspondences with friends in kigali and kiziba, as well as news articles and posts made by protesters themselves on twitter and facebook as the events unfolded.

this past summer, the world food programme (wfp) switched from food rations to cash allowances in kiziba, the camp in which i used to work when we lived in rwanda. the switch worked well, at first. lots of positive changes, lots of new businesses. but in november the cash was cut by ten percent. in december the warning came that it would be cut a further twenty-five percent. many wondered, reasonably, if they could even survive on twenty cents a day.

recently, new integration initiatives were aimed at allowing refugees opportunities for work and citizenship. but to the often nationalistically loyal refugees, frustrated by and distrustful of the rwandan government, such plans made them feel they were being forced to become rwandan citizens, which to most is not desirable.

a few weeks ago the camp leadership said that if their concerns were not addressed by the unhcr they would all walk back to congo. better to die on the way or in that broken country, they said, than starve to death in the camp. no answer came from the unhcr.

and so on tuesday, february 20, a few thousand refugees left kiziba. they were stopped at the top of the ridge outside of the camp by the military and police. despite guns fired in the air to disperse them and a couple people wounded, the refugees continued their two-plus hour march to kibuye and the unhcr offices, where they camped out for two days, speechifying, singing, booing police officers using bullhorns, demanding the unhcr to talk to them. which they did not.

on thursday, allegedly because some refugees were throwing things, the cops and troops opened up to disperse the protests. tear gas first, then bullets. hearing about this, many refugees rushed from kiziba to join them in kibuye, but were stopped by police near the camp. the military denied any use of bullets, while, interestingly enough, acknowledging that some refugees had ‘succumbed’ to their wounds. by the end of the day the military said that five refugees were killed. later the claim was that eight bodies were buried. news outlets are saying eleven now. some refugees are saying twenty-two.

i don’t know how many were actually killed or wounded. but i’m in contact with a handful of kiziba refugees. i know that one of the deceased was a former english student at the library and had participated in our sports programs. and many people are still missing or hiding. and some refugees are combing the camp, trying to put together an accurate total. while things are calmer now, tension remains. the police are investigating.

the violence used does not surprise me, unfortunately. it matches the heavy-handedness rwanda has exerted in other areas, as well as the level of oppression found in the camp. i know we need to be thankful that these camps exist, keeping people alive, and i am, and acknowledge that the unhcr in rwanda is honestly, severely underfunded. but that doesn’t mean we can’t be dissatisfied with the conditions in the camp, or how, after two decades of everyone holding on to an untenable situation, making sustainability impossible, the unhcr and wfp have had to make tough decisions that lead to protests.

and this is why the work of jcm and our friends in the library was always so amazing to me, that refugees in that ‘open prison’, denied rights as citizens, caught in a mire of hopelessness, worked to build a better future. working with them, seeing their dedication, impacted me so much that i’m writing a dissertation on refugee-led community organizations in glasgow. i believe that if the world is ever going to figure out how to deal with refugee situations in ways that don’t create more kizibas or overwhelm countries, then we probably have to start listening to refugees more. and we will probably have to start changing what the terms ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ mean.

in conclusion, i’ve had a terrible couple of weeks. while i have been productive in many ways despite it all, i destroyed my fingernails, and lived several days in a shaky state somewhere between wanting to weep and wanting to puke. all the while frantically refreshing twitter and facebook and messaging everyone i know in kiziba.

this recent message from one of the librarians sums up much:

‘hello my friend how are you now ? but for kiziba now not good. I am alone at library… keep praying for refugies in Rwanda .bye we are hungry and no peace in [kiziba] camp.’

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every power wide awake.

the autumnal season passes into deep winter darkness. christmas creeps up and passes us by. the constancy of school considerations and assorted events/classes with refugees/asylum seekers keep us busy. and only mere days before the glorious, holy celebration, we realized how late in december the days had reached. and then a new year comes.

these months have seen us becoming involved in the functions of three churches, an integration network, and a night shelter. while i’m in class on tuesday, steph hangs out with asylum seekers and refugees at a church drop-in cafe, and helps with the charity shop afterwards. she is back there on wednesdays for a sewing group while i watch ivy, and i sometimes help out with an afternoon english class when schoolwork isn’t piling. thursdays sees us both out at parkhead nazarene to help with another english class. we share a meal with refugees and asylum seekers before the lesson begins. it’s a long bus ride, but we are growing into the community there to such a degree that we regularly contemplate relocating.

a couple weeks ago, one of my favorite musicians, local washingtonian john van deusen, released new music. after a decade of hearing him sing about relationships, nuclear war, and drug use, this album is a drastic change. he has often explored and struggled with religious themes in his music, but these songs are nearly church-worthy, born from his morning prayers, and very, very christian. ‘Jesus is alive, His reign will never end. oh hallelujah to my God and my friend’, is the line swimming about my mind recently, for an example. there is an honesty in this music that is almost awkward to hear, but such passion is striking, moving.

as i study community development in a secular environment, it is easy to get swept into a very secular view of the world. we toss around the weighty, vague terms like anti-discriminatory, counter-hegemony, criticality, praxis, problematizing, consciousness-raising, social justice, empowerment, etc., but the struggle to implement lasting change continues. i read book after book of how the people with power are slowly but surely making life harder for everyone else on the planet with tragic impunity. we want, and work towards, a different world than the one being made for us. but even when discussing the world we want to see it is easy to be hopeless.

i’ve been reading this season of God’s working in this world, and eventual workings. passages such as isaiah 40:4 (‘every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low’), or luke 1:52-53 (‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty’.) help me to remember that this desire we have in the community development world to work for a more just and equitable society is not just hopeful talking, or a good idea, but the very movement of the Kingdom.  i think of what my friend grodya from kiziba once told me: ‘if it is true that the Spirit of God is in our churches, then we have to be changing our communities.’

i see too much correlation between the driving motivations for secular community development and the themes the gospels show us are important. such themes are what gave me passion in past work, though that passion sometimes seems lost in academia now. though i am gathering skills and tools with which to attempt to enact change, transformation, the problems in this world are still too looming.

yet, i was encouraged yesterday by friends speaking in church about God as refuge in the madness, about intentionality in the coming year. and when i settled down this morning, after coffee and bible time, to read of nicholas nickleby’s ongoing adventures, i read the following:

‘Hope to the last…Always hope, that’s a dear boy. Never leave off hoping, it doesn’t answer. Do you mind me, Nick? it doesn’t answer. Don’t leave a stone unturned. It’s always something to know you’ve done the best you could. But don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope, to the last!’

in someway i feel this sentiment reflects the call of the gospels. no, we won’t change everything, people will still be jerks, but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop!

a new year, friends. let us hope to the last.

 

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no country.

a week and a half ago, after five nights with new friends, we were handed the keys to our new flat. and four busy days and an ikea trip later we had just about everything unpacked, built, organized, ready. though it still seems unreal, i can confidently say we live in glasgow now.

and we settle into life here. we walk, ride the bus, explore old churches, buy cheap necessities at the ubiquitous charity shops, visit parks, acquire library cards. the little things of life, of learning a new place.

and school. all week i’ve been attending orientations, meeting folks, making connections, all giving a clearer picture of what happens when classes begin on monday. i’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. the program director spoke to the assembled community development cohort of the overall aims of the course, the work that follows, of seeking out the marginalized, undermining oppression, and all those heavy, incredible things to which i feel the pull. i tried not to tear up as he spoke. i am not daunted by the long reading lists, i embrace them. i am glad of the chance to read not only because i am interested in the subject (and would probably do all that reading in my own time otherwise), but also because it is necessary for my academic advancement. i hope i do not regret these words in the following months.

and ministry. paul and emma showed us around this week to a handful of the various outlets to meet and support refugees and asylum seekers, the churches, organizations, individuals involved. meals, assistance to the destitute,  english classes, women’s groups, sports, the ever-present opportunities to simply meet people who may need a friend. we saw one long-established church operation that felt a lot like the food and clothing distributions of my former work with salt and light in champaign. and we met with the dynamic leader of another church offering services to asylum seekers and refugees, had a wonderful conversation on what they do, hope to do, how things might develop, our possible places. we are excited for these opportunities, for the friendships and connections to be formed, and interested also in what possibilities there are for community involvement in our own diverse corner of the city. emma gave us the rundown on the legal side of things. it is a curious, confusing, sometimes cruel system of hoops and paperwork asylum seekers must navigate. we shook our heads at the little injustices, fumbling attempts at support, the restrictions on everyday life, and how these things affect in myriad ways a family or individual.

all that to say, we won’t be idle this year.

before things really get busy i am still reading voraciously, immersing myself in texts that fuel and inform my coming research, based, often, on my inability to shake myself of our previous rwandan existence. i’ve read through the brilliant rage of fanon’s the wretched of the earth, ngugi wa thiong’o’s piercing decolonizing the mind (my first book checked out from the university library), the satirical plays of wole soyinka, freire’s wonderfully insightful pedagogy of the oppressed, and even the depressingly informative a people’s history of the united states by howard zinn. these things deepen the unease i feel in this world. and this is good. as we hang out with broken people we need this perspective. we need to see the cracks, large and small, to patch them. we must be, as tiring as it is at times, constantly unsatisfied with the way things are, which empowers us to challenge the oppressive structures around us, change them or tear them down, rebuild. i like life, i like to laugh, but i don’t think i would be doing my duty to the world if i wasn’t righteously angry at least some of the time.

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