Archive for November, 2010

Melancholy cool

In my perambulations around the internet today (does anyone say “internets” anymore?) I found this video.  A director has taken flashing beautiful neon signs from NYC and made a video of sorts to accompany a video. It’s striking, exciting, pretty, and a little sad for some reason. Maybe because there are no people in it? Maybe because neon always has that Hopper-like shine?

Sometimes when I’m awake at night, I think of all of the people who are already awake and beginning their days. Donut makers. Up early.  Factory workers, starting the 2 to 10 shift. I picture the 24-hour Wal-Marts, and take comfort, knowing that if my anxiety gets really, really bad, I could always go to one of those, and push a cart around, and buy popcorn, and look at things. It makes me feel less three-am-alone to picture those other folks, out and about.

All of these neon signs give me the similar early morning comfort. Action and welcome in the dark, for the insomniacs and restless.


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The photo was taken by Matt. He brought me a bouquet of flowers for my birthday, and in addition to the one large arrangement, I made smaller arrangements for little nooks around the house. This was just a few tiny carnations, in an old harissa container, backlit by a Yankee candle (buttercream) in our tiny bathroom. Old jar, new use.

In The Once and Future King, Merlyn tells Wart that “the best thing for being sad is to learn something new.”

I’m not sad, but I was thinking this evening in the bath about the power of learning things. This summer, my nanny kids taught me chess, and I started playing that for the first time.  I also started taking fiddle lessons.

Three lessons into the fiddling, I practiced for an hour and then had a crying fit of frustration, complaining to Matt about how terrible I sounded.  If I am making something (marzipan animals, a painting, a costume) I can just _picture_ what I want it to look like, imagine what my hands and fingers will have to do, and then do it. When I’m painting, I think about exactly what I want the tip of the brush to do, and hold my hand and push accordingly. It always works.

Fiddling isn’t like that. I can _hear_ what it should sound like, but not recreate it. Amazingly frustrating.  Even if I sang a tune, I could immediately start improvising harmony, and make it sound right. Not so with my bow and strings.

When I started teaching ESOL, I would always learn phrases from the languages of my students (Russian, Czech, and Korean, primarily) and try to speak for them once in a while. It gave them a chance to laugh at me, and smile, and appreciate maybe my gesture. It also gave me a taste for how hard it is, and gave me the opportunity to take a risk in front of my students— which is what, as a language teacher, I am asking them to constantly do.

My fiddle instructor has been asking me if I’ve played for my students yet.  I go straight to lessons from school, and my kids are curious about my instrument. I haven’t played for them yet, but I will.

When I pick my kids up from the yard, I let them get drinks at the water fountain. I count to five for each kid, before sending them into my room. For the one girl who speaks no English, I count in Spanish, mostly to make her smile.  On one very hot day, I gave them all a ten count. For O., I skipped the “seven” in Spanish, “siete.” She jumped up from the fountain, laughing, and chiding me, “Siete! Siete!”


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Enumerated, because I want to blog, but won’t have time if I try to write “properly.”

1. Finally got my teaching certification in NY.  Been working on it in earnest since April.  I always joke that it’s a good thing I wrote a thesis on Kafka, because it prepares me for this numbing bureaucracy.  My salary is about to double, even if they pay me as a “first year teacher [not counting Missouri] with a Master’s.”

2. Tom has been staying with us. Wonderful. Three weeks earlier, and now he’s back, to visit us at school tomorrow, and spend the weekend.  Having him around reminds me of those early teaching mornings in the big house on Delmar, photo-taking exploration in early mornings in graveyards and abandoned houses in St. Louis, and broken-down dinner parties. Tarot card readers, wine in teacups, confessionals.

3. I’m doing _The Diary of Anne Frank_ with the seventh graders and _Romeo and Juliet_ with the ninth graders.  Today, I had college students in for the ninth grade performing _The Importance of Being Earnest._ They actually loved it; it was thrilling to see them love the live performance, staying fifteen minutes past dismissal without even noticing, lingering to ask questions and get close to the actors afterwards.

4. I am so excited to go to Cleveland for Thanksgiving next week. I love Matt’s family, and we have been so busy that we’re looking forward to just being in the car together for the drive, let alone the family time, cooking, dining, and togetherness. And maybe snow!

5. I got my hair cut two weeks ago. It’s shorter than I like, and more layered than I like. I don’t dislike it all the time, but I’m not crazy about it.  The actual hair cut _felt_ wonderful– her hands in my hair, the heaviness dropping, the combing and blow drying.  In the year leading up to the wedding,  I started cutting Matt’s hair, and he mine. I do a great job with his, but he was basically cutting along a straight-ish line at the ends of my hair. Being in a salon and having the full treatment was wonderful.  The ends look great, the hair looks healthy and strong, but I’m not thrilled sometimes when I see it flying around my head in the mirror. I guess it will grow?

6. I’m getting ready for the Sunday school Christmas pageant. Once again, I’m hearing from the tots what animals they want to be, and teaching old carols (I love the old carols best.) We had a Cookie Walk last Sunday, to raise money for a charity– the kids will research and learn about different charities throughout Advent, and then choose one and donate the money they raised.

7. My Mom and one of her friends was in town for four days. It was actually pretty nice.

8. I’m applying to PhD programs again… more soon on that.

Swedish sugar cookies (a classic in my childhood home) for the Cookie Walk.


Birthday tulips.


Cookie Walk!!


Light and shadows on the cathedral floor, St. John the Divine.

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Josh and me walking up a hill in Atlanta, towards our panel.

My panel went well.  After months of preparation, planning, worry, and details. In the weeks before that day, everything else was on the back burner. I could barely keep up with non-AAR related phone calls or e-mails. I took three days off from school in two weeks (probably all I will take in the year) to keep caught up.  It was a wonderful weekend, and the panel was fantastic.

We spoke on the “challenges and promise of inter-religious dialogue” and have heard back that what we’re doing is truly radically inclusive and the cutting-edge kind of work in which people are interested, but don’t always make work.  We had a packed room at several points during the talk, and a camera crew from a major Muslim cable channel.  I was inspired by several of the voices on our panel, and truly enjoyed moderating the questions and answers.

Several in the audience commented on how inspiring it was to see as many women on the panel as men, and on the fact that Josh and I together have a collaborative working relationship. We are what we say we do.  Others noted that a decade ago, this panel wouldn’t have existed, and expressed excitement that our work is part of a growing movement.

Here are the introductory remarks I made, to introduce myself and our project:

“I’m Stephanie, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary. I’m a co-founding editor in chief, with Josh, of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and I teach middle school in a public school in the Bronx. Academically, I’m interested in writing and piloting a curriculum for multi-religious studies for secondary school students.

Two and a half years ago, I got an e-mail from a rabbinical student in Israel. He said, ‘What are you all doing with interfaith stuff at Union?’ I was in my third year at Union and as it happened, there was a great deal of energy around interfaith work, and I e-mailed him back with lots of news and ideas. We began swapping ideas, and imagining a network for seminarians, a newsletter, a publication.

As we began to call for staff and board members, though, it came to our attention that there were few academic journals focusing on inter-religious dialogue. At every turn, with every new conversation, we discovered energy around the idea for our project.

We raised money, pulled together an esteemed board of scholars to serve as our reviewers, and found a staff. We issued our first call for submissions before our website was up.

Our mission has always been to foster difficult and fruitful conversations amongst those from different backgrounds and faiths. We ourselves come from different traditions, and we collaborate as co-leaders. This is not easy—it has taken many, many conversations—often difficult—about our vision, our ideas and experiences. One of the reasons we believe in the power of dialogue is because we know firsthand how dialogue with one another powerfully informs our ability to lead this organization.

One of the things I’ve learned in this work, that is directly tied to our mission, is the power of listening. Especially: the one with the most power must take the position of listening, and of speaking last. One challenge of creating opportunities for dialogue is that many of us—here in the West, educated, literate, elite—are very comfortable sitting at a table and criticizing one another, and offering point and counter point, and engaging in this kind of conversation.

Not only is this not true for everyone, but when we engage in dialogue, aspects of power differences and cultural practices change and charge expectations.

In our very first conversation, Josh and I talked about this. We said, ‘How can we invite everyone to this table, and how can we ensure that we’re not lead by our blind spots to ever think we’re being as inclusive as possible?’ This is a conversation we continue to have, after every issue, during board meetings, as we continue to grow.

It’s uncomfortable to be constantly asking, ‘What are we not? Where are the voices that still need amplifying?’ but we cannot fulfill our mission unless our posture is truly attuned to listening to others.

Finally, I want to mention an idea that I learned when training to become a schoolteacher. Vygotsky teaches us that whenever we encounter something new, we encounter disquilibrium—the sensation of something that doesn’t fit with what we already know. Children experience this all the time, every day—one can’t truly learn something until it’s experienced–it’s part of the learning process. Adults, however, don’t like this feeling; we like to think we know everything already.

As you know, there is so much conflict, and energy, and pain, and interest around religion right now. For some people, exposure to other religions is frightening, or threatening, or dangerous. Even in communities that welcome dialogue, misperceptions and confusion happen.  I believe, and we believe that teachers and preachers and leaders and pastors must learn how to shepherd their students and congregations through this disequilibrium, through it with the knowledge and understanding that it is part of human development, and part of a possible development towards increasing peace and understanding, and true relationship.  It is the mission of the Journal to provide resources for those leaders.”

Other recent Journal links, in case you’re interested in my work in this field:

A series of interviews and a written piece I recently did for an historical Muslim-Jewish conference: “Tending a Cooperative Spirit,” with four interviews, and “Seminal Moment at JTS.”

A review of an evangelical graphic novelization of the Bible, “‘Good and Evil,’ the Graphic Bible, Considered with Dismay.”

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