Tag Archives: learning

My resistance

The first year I was teaching in the writing program Lucia was diagnosed with Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome just a month after her first birthday.  I remember that despite the cake and the guests, there was a somberness to that first birthday.  Lucia couldn’t eat the cake we made, because she’d just begun feeding through a tube a few months prior.  We worried that she’d spit up violently during the party like she often did or that she’d scream in pain most of the time.  But mostly we felt intent to celebrate because we didn’t know how many birthdays we’d have and we were desperate and determined to have that first one even if it wasn’t perfect.

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Lucia’s first birthday party.

Later that summer I began to wonder what God was doing.  

I’d spent years doing research in China studying foster families who raise children with disabilities; disability in China had become so unexpectedly a professional, academic interest.  And then we had our own child with special needs and it all felt a bit too close for comfort.  People wondered about the order of things: surely you planned to study disability because of your own child?  No, it was the other way around?  They’d shake their heads disconcertedly, unnerved, perplexed.  It felt reductive to presume God had been equipping us in China to be Lucia’s parents or a bit simplistic and crass to pronounce that Lucia’s disability and our relationships with families in China had all been a part of God’s plan, but it was also hard not to see it that way either.

But somewhere along the way, I began to embrace what God was doing even if I didn’t gully understand it.  I began to dream that summer about a writing course about disability, but would students want to take such a course, I wondered.  When we develop our writing courses our directors always encourage us to get inside the minds of 18 year olds arriving at college, and so the most popular classes are on madness, New York, extra-terrestrials, and film.  Would a course on disability really be something freshman students would care about?

I’m not sure how popular my course has been, but every semester, two groups of twelve students walk in the door.  Many of them come because they have a family member who has a disability, and they want to understand and talk about it.  Some of them are just curious.  I’m sure for several of them, my course wasn’t their first choice and they just ended up there by chance.

But I try to make the most of that chance.  

The course considers disability as a form of diversity, a form of difference, and challenges the students to think beyond what they thought they knew about disability to reconsider how disability can teach us more about what it means to be human.  At an elite, ivy league university, the thought that people with intellectual disabilities might be insightful when it comes to our knowledge about humanity it a particularly challenging, counter-cultural thought.  For some of my students that dissonance, having a brother back at home who struggles to speak because of his autism, while they are thousands of miles away, toiling for the mere self-improvement of their own mind, is nearly too much to bear.  During a routine writing conference, one such student broke down and told me, “I just had to take your course.  When I look at all the ones on campus, it is the only one that seems to matter.”

I am not a miracle worker, but I do try to offer those students shelter and companionship within the world of academia.  I know just how inhospitable such a world can be to the daughter I love most, the daughter who has taught me more about myself, life, and God than nearly any other human being on the planet–and yet to so many, she is broken, disabled, lacking.  Together with twenty-four students each semester in this small, windowless classroom, we encounter just that kind of prejudice and exclusion toward people with disabilities, and I invite them to see otherwise.

What happens each semester is powerful.  

Not only are there brave, open-minded students who have little contact with people with disabilities but come because they want to learn, but there are students with disabilities in my classroom who find that they are not alone and they are valued.  There are students who leave impassioned to work with and learn more about people with disabilities even though they came in somewhat hesitant.

And at the end of the semester, when I have the students write narratives and Op-Eds about what they’ve learned about disability, I am overwhelmed.  At the end of a semester of rigorous academic writing, they are invited to share their hearts, and I sit there with my coffee and my computer, humbled and honored to be invited into their beautiful, painful lives.  So many students have written about how religious leaders have been so limited in their understanding of disability, hurting their family members, denying their humanity.  So many have written about their own struggles with learning disabilities or mental illness that they’ve often kept to themselves on a campus that doesn’t have time for any inkling of weakness.  Still others find the language of disability and difference a provocative opening to reconsider their experiences of race, class, gender, or body issues.

Every semester these disability narratives blow me away.

I learn so much from my students.  Indeed, it was with that first class that I began to write about my own experiences–“I’m Not Sorry” was my disability narrative that I wrote alongside them, because I told them that I couldn’t ask them to be so brave if I wasn’t willing to try, too.  These students have made me realize that the collision of my personal and professional life is both a gift and a responsibility.  As I read over these narratives this past week, I realized that students leave my classroom better equipped to appreciate what is sacred in people who are different from them.  And the hope that welled up in my heart when I read those narratives was distinct and surprising and so thrilling, because these students will resist attempts to belittle those who are different and those with disabilities.  I know they will.  These students will use their knowledge for good.  It is because of these students that I can’t help but find purpose in my life and Lucia’s life; the opportunity to serve them and to grow alongside them is just too precious, too unique.

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A few days ago, I snidely posted the following words to my social media account,

“Apparently there’s an inauguration today. Meanwhile, I have rearranged my office for maximum coziness while I get to read the exams where my students explore what they’ve learned about disability and difference over the course of our semester. How’s that for a protest, Mr. Trump? Three semesters (and counting) of students who will value and advocate for people with disabilities: we will make America great with or without you.”

So you see, this class, while it’s not overtly political is a distinct act of resistance in a world that is far too close-minded, cruel, and careless when it comes to the lives of people with disabilities.  It’s resistance that comes from knowledge and hope and love.  It is the resistance that I choose and that has chosen me.  And I will carry on because just a few years removed from Lucia’s first birthday, I no longer question God at all.  Rather all I can do is thank God for God’s incredible vision and a life so humble and yet, so grand.

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On big plans

The woods beside the D&R Canal.  My photo.
The sunny summer woods beside the D&R Canal. My photo.

It’s been quite awhile since I posted anything and to be honest, I’m not sure how much life this blog has left.  It’s been such a joy over the years to write about faith and anthropology and China and life and share, but when that doesn’t come easily or isn’t one of my first impulses, it makes me wonder if there is a new chapter on the horizon.

Lately, life has simply gotten in the way, and blogs that feel they have to make apologies for that have always been (for me) some of the most arduous reads!  So I will be praying and thinking about what this blog may or may not become and be faithful to you by giving an answer sometime in the near future.

For the moment, great changes are in the mix for our family and all in the span of a few weeks: a surgery for my daughter and recovery, packing and moving to a new apartment, my graduation from Ph.D. program, and a trip to the beach with my family.  Sometimes in the midst of all these things when I feel particularly out of control, I’m tempted to cry out, “God, what are you doing?  I’ve got big plans here!”

And then I realize how righteous and petulant and silly that must sound to God.  Sure, I have plans, but God has the present, the future, and everything between in God’s hands.  I’m still working to trust God with the big things rather than struggling to swim upstream and wrest control from God.  And to trust and believe that God’s plans include the impossible, the not-yet-dreamed, and goodness beyond my wildest imagination.

Where are you struggling to trust God these days?  What are you learning?

There are typos in my dissertation

When I finished typing the last few words I set aside my dissertation for about a week.

I was afraid to read it, because I knew there would be typos amidst that sea of words.  It’s just impossible, not matter how many proofreaders, no matter how much time spent, to produce something perfect.  And while I know that, I didn’t want to experience the pang of how those mistakes would mar the crisp, white pages.  I wanted to believe that there was some way that all my hard work would pay off with perfection.

Like I said, that lasted about a week, and then I had to face reality.  I read through it, in preparation for my dissertation defense, and there were many typos.

And it was still okay.

One of my last dissertating sessions.  My photo.
One of my last dissertating sessions. My photo.

In fact, the typos reminded me that I’m not in pursuit of something perfect, but something human, something meaningful.  What’s more, I could see beyond the typos to those people in China who changed my life.  As I read, I was humbled to see and know that despite the congratulations that would be heaped on me and only me after the defense, this dissertation, was truly the work of many hands.  The typos reminded me that despite the perfection that’s so idolized in academic fields, we academics are imperfect people who rely heavily on the minds, kindness, and generosity of others to produce our knowledge.

There were moments where the typos made me wonder whether I had any business defending a dissertation toward a Ph.D., but I’ve also realized that it’s great to recognize that while you have learned a lot, you still have much more to learn.  It’s not so bad to see typos and be humbled and recognize that you’d rather be transformed and human and vulnerable than perfect and magnificent and independent.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful, in all circumstances, for typos, for friends, for family, for foster families in China, for dissertations, for new journeys, for imperfection, for growth, for love, for peace, and for God.

What about you?

10 Things I Learned from 2013

I admit that I sometimes go back and read my blog posts.

I don’t think it’s because I’m a narcissist(?), but more because I’m woefully forgetful!

Rolling hills over Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Rolling hills over Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ. Photo by Evan Schneider.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that I often have to revisit the same lessons many times to make sense of who God is and where God is calling me, and thank God, God stays faithfully the same.  So with November waning, December looming, and 2014 on the horizon, I wanted to take a moment to revisit some of those lessons.  

Perhaps you’re like me, and it takes a few times for something to stick.  Perhaps you’re like me, and reminders of God’s grace and provision, can never be too frequent or too poignant.  So I invite you to revisit some of these posts from 2013, and share your lessons in the comments.  What have you learned?  Where are you growing?  And where are you headed?

1.  “Called to this life.”  Jan. 25, 2013.

I’m reminded that it is in God that the multifaceted call I’ve received finds its unity.  This gives me confidence and reassurance when others question, or I begin to question the integration or the practicalness of my own call.  It is we who often put limits on God, not the other way around!

2.  “Cracks are all there is.”  Feb. 1, 2013.

I’m reminded that there are really only two ways to live in this world–the one in which we try to prevent others from seeing our imperfections, and the other in which we lay them bare and resolve to love others and ourselves just as God made us.  How liberating it is to live into the second truth and to let God shine through the cracks.

Evan and I buying lamps in old Cairo.
Evan and I buying lamps in old Cairo. Photo by Ben Robinson.

3.  “I’m not busy.”  Mar. 15, 2013.

I think this may have been one of the greatest revelations of my year, and I’m so glad it came relatively early!  I find myself repeating these words to others and myself when I am tempted to let the competitive, swimming upstream tendencies in my career or my life to get the best of me.  And I find deep wisdom and comfort in never being too busy to listen to those in front of me.

4.  “Holy everything”  April 6, 2013.

Thanks to yet another excellent sermon at my church, I began to reflect on what it means to be Easter people, to undergo profound internal change, and yet to still experience great brokenness, pain, and death in this world.  For me, holy everything amounts to witnessing and testifying to the holiness of the cross, and the holiness in you and me, in the triumphant and the everyday.

5.  “Outside the walls” May 9, 2013.

Yong River. Guangxi, Nanning.
Yong River. Guangxi, Nanning.

I wrote: “Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.”

6.  “On community” June 4, 2013.

I reflected on how deeply our new church community had ministered to me despite the lines I’d been trying to draw between experiences of God in China and back in the United States during our transition.  

7.  “Each other’s miracles” July 13, 2013.

I wrote: “What if instead of contemplating the origins of disease, asking how the bus driver got lung cancer, or quibbling with the details of disaster, wondering why people bother to live in Oklahoma which is so prone to tornados, we contemplated the length that Christ went for us on the cross, the underservedness of our own grace, and the abundance of grace in a world that’s often so graceless?  And then what if we committed to being not the one who speaks, but the one who prays, not the one who solves or fixes or even heals, but the one who recognizes, beholds, and reveres deep need?  What if we found a way to acknowledge great hurt, but live with great hope?  What if we were one another’s comfort, one another’s grace, each other’s miracles?”

8.  “The God of all of us” Aug. 3, 2013.

A mosque in Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I realized that I often give up on those closest to me, friends and family who have been burned by the church and believe that God is not for them.  If I believe that God truly is the God of all of us and doesn’t give up on any of us, how do I reflect that with my life?

9.  “Learning contentment” Sept. 10, 2013.

I reflected on what it truly means to be content in all circumstances, to find a deep acceptance of what God has given and an even deeper praise for all that God has gone, no matter the ups, downs, or delays in life.

The D & R Canal in Princeton at the height of summer.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The D & R Canal in Princeton at the height of summer. Photo by Evan Schneider.

10.  “Redefining Success” Oct. 17, 2013.

Along those lines of learning contentment, I thought about how empowering, meaningful, and important it is to redefine success in a world in which its often bound up with pride, trampling others, and being number one.  I believe that even in academia, it’s possible to live with the sense that being a child of God and doing one’s best constitute the ultimate contentment and satisfaction.