Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book review: Halfblood Chronicles

I recently read the Halfblood Chronicles by Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton. I read the first three books, Elvenbane, Elvenblood, and Elvenborn. The fourth book, Elvenbred, has not been published.

I have read quite a few Mercedes Lackey books, but only one other Andre Norton book, so I thought of these books in comparison to other Mercedes Lackey books, rather than in comparison to other Andre Norton books.

Among the Mercedes Lackey books I've read, I liked the Last Herald Mage, the Collegium Chronicles, the Heralds of Valdemar, the Mage Storms, and Bedlam Bard. I did not like the Halfblood Chronicles and the Mage Wars as much.

I think my main complaint about the Halfblood Chronicles was that the characters were not strongly drawn. Sure they each had a different name and a different history, but they did not all have different personalities. Too often as I was reading and a name was mentioned, I would wonder, "Which one was that again?" The reason for that was not because there were too many characters, or because there were many minor characters, but because the primary characters just did not have sufficiently distinctive personalities.

I also felt the books were not well edited. There were typos, and there were some minor inconsistencies, or things that just didn't quite add up.

Also, I was annoyed that while both Alara and Valyn know something of Shana's parents, they do not share it with her. She has to live without knowing who her parents were, even though there are people close to her who have that knowledge.

On the other hand, the books did successfully hold my attention, and they offered an interesting commentary on how people are corrupted by both power and by powerlessness. It was interesting to see, especially in Elvenbane, how the oppressed can become focused on seeking the approval of the oppressor, rather than on questioning the system which they were born into. In systems of power inequality, those on the bottom may just want to get to the top, so they can oppress others instead of being oppressed.

Disparities of wealth and looking for my niche

Yet another NPR story made an impression on me. This one was from September 15, 2011, and the title was Making it in the US: More Than Hard Work. The point of the story is that blacks and whites may come from similar backgrounds as far as income goes, but whites have an easier time getting ahead because their families are more likely to be able to pass on assets. The white woman they interview says, "When I graduated, my mom had enough resources to give me her car so that I had a car to get to work so that I could earn money that I could then save to help put me into the next position." In addition, when this woman and her husband bought their first house, they used a $60,000 inheritance from her husband's great aunt.

I am white, and I did have some advantage growing up. Though my parents had little money, my mother's family had some money. I grew up in a home purchased and owned by my grandfather, and I knew that my grandparents would always make sure that we would not be hungry or homeless.

But, the wealth that benefited my mother stopped there. There is no wealth to be passed on to me. I went to college with people from wealthier backgrounds. I watched as my friends got summer jobs through their parents, got cars given to them by their families, or cars partially funded by their families. I watched as my friends were able to take a risk, to do unpaid internships, to pursue their dreams, because they knew that if things did not work out, they had their parents as a safety net. When I finished college, I knew that living with my parents was not an option. Both lived in remote areas, without public transportation, and I did not have a car. If I went there, I would never get out again. I would never get a job. Unlike my friends, I did not receive old cars cast off by family members. People in my family drove old, broken-down cars. The castoff cars which my friends received from their parents were in excellent shape compared to my family's cars.

My college classmates came from families of professionals. They thought is was normal to be a lawyer, doctor, professor, or businessperson. To me, the world of professionals was an alien world. I did not know how to act or how to dress in such a world. I could not imagine myself in that world.

When I was in my 20's, I thought the reason I was lost was because I was young, because I had not yet found my niche. But now I am still lost in my 40s. There are senators, lawyers, doctors, professors, and journalists who are younger than I am, and who are already prominent in their fields.

Would I have discovered my path by now if I had had the advantages my college classmates had? I don't want to dwell in self-pity. I just want to remind myself that it's not really fair to expect myself to be where my college classmates are today, because even though we came from the same college, there are other ways in which we did not come from the same situation.

Certainly I had more advantages than some people have. Certainly there are people who grew up with less than I grew up with, who have now gotten farther than I have.

I think there is probably no ideal background. Different personality types are suited for different courses in life. Some people are lucky to be born into a situation which fits them, which supports them becoming who they are meant to be. Other people find they need to turn away from the way they were raised.

I don't want to be a lawyer or businessperson. I was raised to detest the pursuit of wealth, and to value living off the land. I have adopted the values I was raised with. Perhaps that is part of my problem. People raised with privilege can afford to be idealistic. People raised in poverty desire to earn money so they can have a better life. Because my grandparents would make sure we were okay, when I was growing up, I did not feel the struggle for survival. Because my mother's family was well-educated, I was raised with idealistic values, values which said the pursuit of wealth is wrong.

My college boyfriend chose a practical major, and had multiple job offers to choose from before graduation. I chose the major that I liked, because I figured that studying what I liked would lead to working in what I liked. I finally got a job offer about four months after I graduated, and accepted it because it was my only option.

To me, acceptable careers would be in fields such as organic farming, renewable energy, wildlife biology, practical crafts, music, education, social work, library science, history, and journalism. These are fields consistent with my values, and yet, I do not have an aptitude for or interest in most of these fields. The challenge for me is to figure out if I have any skills that the world would find useful, and to figure this out while working full-time at a job which drains me of my energy.

Now I can just hear all the advice-givers saying that while holding a full-time job, I can still do things like networking, volunteer work, going to conferences, and taking classes. Believe me, I have been doing all that for decades. I suppose that even if I had had the luxury of doing unpaid internships during the summers when I was in college, I probably still would not have found my niche. Perhaps if I had been born into a family of lawyers, finding my niche would have been even harder, because being a lawyer is so far from what I want to do. Of course, if I had been born into a family of lawyers, I would have developed differently, so perhaps I would have grown into someone who did want to be a lawyer.

When we are young, they tell us that we can be whatever we want, we just have to dream big and work hard. But maybe that's a myth that just leads to bitter disappointment. I dreamed of things, only to find I was not cut out for them. I've worked hard. Now if only some serendipity would come to me. But serendipity comes from others, and as noted in previous posts, I've become more solitary because I've been getting more harm than good from other people. I know that I should go back to the more social life I used to live, because it is through connections that we find our way, and yet I crave more time to relax and reflect.

Too much advice

Another story I heard on NPR this morning was about the new movie 50/50, which is a comedy about how people react to cancer. It is based on the experiences and interactions of the movie's creators, Will Reiser and Seth Rogen, when Reiser was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. Reiser said in the NPR interview, "You have people just giving you tons and tons of advice about books you should read and foods you should eat. People would recommend getting oxygen injections and ... going down to the Amazon, drinking a tea from a shaman. You know, like, just all kinds of advice."

I have never had cancer, but I have experienced the onslaught of advice. When I tell people about any problem I face, they often respond by throwing advice at me. It feels as if they can't accept me in my present state, and so they want to fix me, to shape me into someone more acceptable.

That is why I have become more solitary over the past six years. Because so few people have been able to just be present with me as I am. They all just hasten to try to shape me into someone with more perfect circumstances. Such people drain my energy, so I choose not to interact with them.


This morning on NPR, I heard an interview with John Tierney, co-author of a book called Willpower. The main point was that willpower can be strengthened by practice, but it also can get depleted.

I think depletion of willpower explains how often toward the end of the work week, on a Thursday or Friday evening, I feel the urge to stay up late reading fiction or surfing the internet, and the urge to skip tasks such as exercise. At those times, I feel I have been spending all my time working hard, and I want to rebel.

A point made in the interview was that we can help ourselves by not straining our willpower. One example given was that sitting next to a plate of cookies and not eating them depletes our willpower. I have removed strains on my willpower from my environment. Now it is only the computer and fiction that tempt me to stay up too late. In the past, there were also TV and computer games, but those are no longer available in my home, which has made it less of a strain on my willpower to go to bed on time.

The story also noted that we can strengthen our willpower by exercising it. Examples of exercises mentioned in the interview included maintaining good posture, using correct grammar, meditation, and prayer. I do practice daily meditation, and I think it has helped me with willpower. I don't think of it as helping so much because it takes discipline to do it. I think of it helping more because in meditation (as well as my other daily druid practices), I take some time to be aware of how I feel and what's important to me. I put things in perspective. I remember the long-term consequences, instead of only focusing only on the immediate urge.

It may seem contradictory that we can strengthen our willpower by 1) not depleting it, and 2) exercising it, but the same is true of our physical energy.

What can I do for my willpower? I think my druid practices help to exercise my willpower. I think that allowing some time to relax on a daily and weekly basis helps me recharge when my willpower is depleted.

I think one problem that I have is that the number of things I want to do is about 10 times the amount I have the time and energy for. I do try to set priorities on a day to day basis, but maybe I should apply some of my willpower to setting realistic goals, even though it will require letting go of some things that I really want to do.

I think another problem is that I don't like my job. Therefore, my willpower gets depleted because I have to spend so much time trying to force myself to stay focused on doing something I don't want to do. I think that's the reason I don't narrow my to-do list -- because what I really want to do is to not have to have a job that I don't like. If I could spend less time on doing what I hate, I would have the time to do the things I want. And of course my to-do list would be smaller if I had a job I liked, because right now a huge chunk of my to-do list relates to trying to get a job I don't hate.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Tribe's relationship to the Land

In The Apple Branch, Alexei Kondratiev wrote that the Tribe must establish a relationship with the Land:
If the Tribe is truly to become her kin, she must be accepted in all her aspects, not just the immediately attractive and 'useful' ones. Spiders, adders, and wasps, thistles, gorse, and nettles, are as much the Land's children as domestic animals and crops or the showier birds, butterflies and wildflowers....While the Tribe's economic needs will necessarily have an impact on the appearance of the Land, care must always be taken that the changes not lessen its variety, that no aspect of its being -- however unattractive or irrelevant to the Tribe's everyday life -- be lost as a result. If the Tribe comes to dismiss such concerns and places its need above that of the Land, the balance in broken, the Land's blessing is withdrawn, and before long the forces that sustain life cease to serve humankind, as we see today.
I like the way this makes clear why nature study and sustainable living practices are integral to druidry.

Spring: the emergence from winter's reflection

In Arianrhod's Dance, the spring equinox is described as the turning point when we move from the dark half of the year to the light half of the year:
The hearth work, the closeness of relationships, and the inner journeys we have made during the six months just passed will have taught us much that we can use to guide us as we step forth into a more physically active part of our lives....Those heady breaths of fresh, clean, spring air we take as we stand in the doorway are intoxicating harbingers of the Mabon -- the solar hero, Arthur, with all the wild budding world before him. There is a great and rising power here. The whole world feels it and celebrates. Each year, at this time, there will be a day when you know from the sunshine and the bird song, from the feel of the air, from the very vibrancy of the Land, that winter is at an end and a new power is coming.
In the past, I viewed the dark half of the year as a time of being cold, a time when nothing is happening, but in my druid studies over the past year, I've come to view it more as described as above. During the past winter, I would meditate by candlelight. When I think of winter now, I think of that candle, with its comforting light. I think of reading while wrapped in blankets. I think of snowshoeing in the woods on a crisp, bright day.

And what I've seen in observing the cycles of the seasons is how they remind us of the seasons in our lives. My life has been in a winter season for the past six years. It has been a very fruitful time. Six years ago, I did not know about either pantheism or druidry, and now both enrich my life greatly. In this time, I have learned to be more attuned to myself, to know when to rest and when to exercise, to know what is important to me.

The past six years have been a lovely time of winter in my life, but I worry that I will stay here forever. It seems to me that after all I learn from reflection, there will come a time to step out into the world again. Will I know it when the time comes? Or will I stay hidden, afraid of change, forever? I feel that I am on the verge of stepping into a spring-time phase over the next few months. However, over the past six years, there have been many times when I felt myself to be on the brink of spring.

One thing is that I have to live within my health. The times when I felt on the brink of spring in the past, it was mainly about hoping to be able to have my previous level of energy and health suddenly bestowed upon me. What I was waiting for was something beyond my control.

Now I see it differently. The way I see it now is that there are just a few more things I want to study, and then I want to choose to step out into the world. I want to step out with the same mind and body that I have now. I want to bring with me the growth from this six year time of winter. I want to live in accordance with my body's limitations. I don't expect to suddenly have the energy to do everything I want to do. But just as I have learned from reading and writing, the time is coming to learn from doing and from interacting with others.

Jesuit eduction

T. Frank Kennedy, Director of the Jesuit Institute at Boston College, made the following comments about Jesuit education in the 2011 Boston College Social Work magazine:
Jesuit, Catholic schools have at their core a mission to educate men and women for others....How do you become unselfish, how do you become a person who has a vision that's really common in the old-fashioned sense of the common good? That is the basic vision of a Jesuit education. It's a kind of spirit: to look at people not just as a job, to take care of them, to see them as our brothers and sisters....The school awakens in us a dimension of care and concern. It is an invitation to love....When you are invited to love, you don't exclude anybody....If you're a Christian or you're not a Christian, you are welcome....When you go through these exercises [The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius], that experience of learning to find love not only in other people, but also in a sunset, in a rock, in the sea, in your life as it is happening around you, you say, well, God is moving here....Finding God in all things is the way to sum it up....We belong to one another. If we could all agree on that, and agree to act that way, we'd be better off.
This Jesuit vision is so much in harmony with my Quaker vision and with my pantheist vision. Father Kennedy describes the ideal I long for. I am still struggling to put it into practice however.