April 14, 2015 - 2 comments
Last night, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction. At the request of colleagues and parents, I am posting a transcript of my speech below.
Good evening, everyone. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to this group of National Honor Society members, their friends & family, and my fellow faculty. I would like to thank the NHS Board for asking me to participate in this special event; it is always a huge compliment when students choose to listen to you more than they are already required to! I hope that what I say in the next few minutes doesn’t have you regretting your choice.
When I was first asked to give a speech tonight, my thoughts immediately turned to a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts within my own religion, Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita, which translates as “Song of God,” is a text within a text and consists of a conversation between Arjuna, an accomplished warrior from a noble family, and Lord Krishna, who has disguised himself as Arjuna’s charioteer. The conversation begins at the outset of a battle between two branches of Arjuna’s extended family. Arjuna, who has lived his whole life as a warrior, despairs at the thought of going in to fight against members of his own family. He starts to question his life’s path and meaning. If you remember, Arjuna’s chariot-driver is Krishna is disguise; it’s convenient when you have an existential crisis and an avatar of the Lord just happens to be nearby.
So Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna and the two proceed to have a conversation about the proper way to live one’s life and what it means to do one’s duty. This brings me to the quotation that I mentioned—at the apex of their impassioned conversation, Krishna assures Arjuna: Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. I have carried this quotation with me since I was in high school, and I want to share a bit about how I have interpreted it and what it means to me.
Most people don’t realize this, but Hinduism and Judaism actually have quite a lot in common. Each tradition emphasizes food, both for use in sacred ritual and in daily life, prescribing rules for proper preparation and consumption of food in observant homes. Hinduism has an incredibly strong cultural and geographic tie to India, while Judaism, of course, is inextricably bound to the land of Israel. And both religions use a modified lunar calendar, which means that our holidays almost always overlap. But the similarity that I love the most, personally, is the way that both religions emphasize the potential sacredness of everyday life. Ritual and goodness are built into the nooks and crannies of our seemingly mundane existence; we aren’t just spiritual when we go to temple or synagogue. Connection to God isn’t limited to one day of the week—every time a Jew says a blessing (which is why there is one for every occasion), or a Hindu chants a mantra silently in their head—they are honoring this emphasis on everyday goodness. Within both of these traditions, there are many different versions of what it means to live a good, noble life. Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way.
I find this notion incredibly comforting. Often, we find ourselves frozen by the idea that there is a “right choice” to make, and if we don’t identify that right choice, our lives will be ruined. This pressure is particularly acute, I think, during the period of life you all now find yourselves in. There is this notion—and I think it’s important to acknowledge that we as adults and teachers often perpetuate this notion, even without meaning to—that your task at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, is to plan out your life, set goals, and then go about achieving those goals. As if it worked like that for any of us! What talk about much less often is the fact that, ultimately, none of us have that kind of control over our own lives. We think we do, but that control is an illusion, an illusion that’s revealed whenever things don’t go the way we planned. We cannot control our circumstances. We cannot—fellow parents, I’m looking at you here—control other people. All we can control is our own reaction to what happens around us.
Personally, I think this is good news. Though I am a recovering control freak and can relate to some (many? all?) of you sitting in this room, I have come to find that many of the best things that have happened in my life have been things that I never, ever could have anticipated: coming to Houston to go to Rice, my relationship with my partner of thirteen years, my beautiful son. Of course, some of the unexpected pieces have been incredibly trying—losing my father very suddenly nine years ago—and these things will happen to all of you, if they haven’t already. In the midst of those kinds of moments, I turn to Holocaust survivor and writer Viktor Frankl:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This is perhaps the most powerful force we as human beings can exercise in our lives. Even when we have lost all other avenues of agency, we can choose how we respond to whatever is happening around or inside of us. To act with intention is, I would suggest, one of the key cornerstones to living an honorable life. Whatever it is that comes to you in your future, choose it. Choose it fully and commit yourself to it. Don’t allow others to make your choices for you.
Personally, I believe that in order to choose most powerfully, we have to know what we value. Some of the students sitting here may remember the Moral Courage unit from my eighth grade class. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we also studied historical figures who had taken incredible risks in order to stand up for their beliefs. The key is that they had to know what they believed ahead of time, so that they could identify when those values were being compromised in a way that they would not tolerate. We can all-too-easily lose our focus in the heat of the moment; that is why it is important to articulate and commit to one’s core values ahead of time. Focusing on our core values can offer a very powerful framework for our daily lives. The code of the ancient Japanese samurai states that one should be able to make any decision “in the course of seven breaths.” A warrior—or a student, or a parent—who is deeply rooted in and committed to their values is able to assess each situation in light of those values, allowing decisions to be make not merely quickly, but thoughtfully. There is tremendous freedom in this.
One more ingredient that I will assert as key to living honorably: managing one’s integrity. Often, we speak of integrity as a moral virtue, one we certainly wish to possess but which we can’t really define. We know it when we see it, and we can identify those who have it, but we’re not sure how to get it ourselves. As an English teacher and writer, I am fascinated by the way words can have multiple meanings. So while one definition of integrity is “the quality of being honest or having strong moral principles,” the lesser-known definition is the one I find most compelling: “the state of being whole and undivided.” We use this second definition more to think about buildings and machines than people—does the roof have structural integrity, will it hold, will it do what it’s meant to do?—but I have learned that a similar principle is applicable to each of us as well. Have we done what we said we would do? Are we dependable? Is the structure of our selves whole, or are we saying one thing and doing another? Just as a roof will eventually go out of integrity—losing some shingles and causing a leak—we will, too, inevitably, act in ways that are “out of integrity”—at odds with what we say or believe. But we do not despair over the moral infirmity of a leaky roof; we simply do what we need to do to fix it, put back shingles, clean up the mess. And so we, too, as human beings are responsible for cleaning up our messes. When we make mistakes, we must acknowledge them. When we screw up, we apologize—genuinely—and work to be better. We put systems into place to restore integrity to ourselves.
As a culture, we don’t do mistakes well. We expect our celebrities and public figures to never make a misstep, and we often shame each other publicly for poor choices. It’s impossible to overstate the damage this does to all of us. When we aim for perfection, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure—I say “we” because this is one I’m still very much working on. There is no day on which you are going to look around your life and say “Yep, today’s the day, I did it, I’m done growing!” That may be something you have to accept over and over again—I know have had to—bu you have to give yourself room to get it wrong. Certainly, there is work we can do to minimize our messes, but we are all going to make messes. The important thing, and the thing that will distinguish you from others, is how you take responsibility for those messes. Beating yourself up doesn’t actually make a difference, as it turns out. The most powerful response you can offer when you are out of integrity is to acknowledge it and to take action to restore that integrity. This you can do. It is both incredibly simple and the hardest thing.
Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. Choose deliberately, honor your values, and manage your integrity. These are things you already do so beautifully, which is why you are sitting here today. Hold onto those pieces and trust yourselves. Everything you need is already inside of you.
A friend of mine became a father last night When he spoke, in his voice, I could hear the light Of the skies and the rivers, the timber wolf in the pines And that great jukebox out on Route 39.
–Bruce Springsteen, “Valentine’s Day”
You were born today, ushered to the outside via fluid and effort and love, cheered on by a village full of people obsessively checking phones and laptops for email updates from your dad. The framework of you turned this day from ordinary to extraordinary.
I listened to Waylon Jennings with new ears, thinking how you will get to hear him for the first time someday, the way his voice opens and echoes with knowing, like a well-worn piece of leather: full of feeling, but never sentiment. After the dreariest morning, the sun finally came out and the day of your birth became one of the best that a Houston spring has to offer, breezy and blue; I thought of you someday, barefoot in the grass, giving name to cloud shapes, face sticky with popsicle. I thought of all of what’s ahead. You don’t know what pineapple tastes like. Or what it feels like to fall in love. You haven’t yet felt your stomach drop out on a roller coaster. You’ve never read a poem! Or been to a baseball game! Or seen the ocean! Baby peanut, there is so much good stuff ahead, you don’t even know.
Of course, the world you just arrived in is inexplicably ugly sometimes, and the work of being a person inside of it can be daunting and draining. Your little tiny personhood is so fresh and so new and so miraculous, but the fate of human hardship is your birthright and eventual destiny. There is, I’m afraid, no way around this. But the good news is, so too will you inherit the astonishing beauty that this existence has to offer—moments that will take your breath, full of finger-tingling connection and warmth that spreads through your chest, feelings that cannot be explained. It is our most ordinary and our most precious miracle, this life, and it is what we have to offer you.
The thing that is both weird and amazing about being a baby is that people love you before they ever know you. I am one of those people. I love you because I love your parents—because I know that they are two of the absolute best human beings this world has to offer, that they make an incredibly good pair, and that they will give everything that they have to the raising of you. I have watched them nest and prepare and worry and ask questions and beam with joy at the thought of you. I may or may not have screamed and cried and literally jumped up and down when they told me that you existed, tiny zygote of hope and uncertainty and life-altering potential. Honestly, I’m crazy about you, and we haven’t even met yet.
Welcome to the world, sweet peanut. It is a wild, strange, and woolly place, but you’ve got yourself some excellent tour guides, and I think you’re going to like it here. I’ll be the auntie who gives you books on your birthday and who always has snacks in her bag.
“It’s too good, Ms. Mehra,” they said. “This one’s just too good.”
They were talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a five-page stunner of a short story with a dystopian premise that, though it was published in 1961, still feels all-too-imaginable. Set in 2081, Vonnegut imagines an America in which all are finally “equal,” an equality achieved through whatever means necessary by the United States Handicapper General. Any citizens with above-average strength, intelligence, or talent are weighted down (in some cases, literally) by handicaps that keep them from achieving anything beyond mediocrity. It’s a brilliant piece, and my Creative Writing students—seventeen high-school seniors—balked at the notion that they were being asked to imitate it.
“Don’t worry about trying to be Vonnegut,” I told them. “What I’m interested in seeing is whatever your vision of a plausible dystopian future looks like.”
Dystopia is by no means a new genre, but it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, particularly within the world of young adult (YA) literature. The Hunger Games series is the most well-known, with the Divergent trilogy close behind; Lois Lowry’s The Giver is older (published in 1993), but was recently made into a film. And there are plenty of others: the Legend trilogy, the Uglies series, the Delirium trilogy, Matched and its sequels, Feed, The House of the Scorpion, and The Maze Runner series are among the best.
Personally, I don’t think this popularity is an accident. Since my first year teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to eighth graders, I’ve been convinced that there’s something about our particular time period that creates the need for dystopia as a genre. All good literature is reflective of what is, of the truths of the human condition and human behavior, but good dystopia goes beyond simply holding up a mirror; it holds up the mirror and it issues a warning.
It may sound hyperbolic to say so, but I’m pretty sure the reason dystopia has become so popular is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between it and reality. A large chunk of Antarctica is melting, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and there are giant TV screens in Beijing that project virtual sunrises because the air is too thick with smog for residents to see the actual sun. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We could talk about the fact that, by 2016, it’s predicted that the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more than the remaining 99% .We could talk about the militarization of the police force. We could talk about the (lack of) internet neutrality and privacy. We could talk about our intense dependence on technology and pharmaceuticals. We could talk about species extinction. We could talk about human overpopulation.
I have received such wonderful feedback on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” an essay I wrote for Guernica Magazine, which was linked to on NPR (!) over the weekend. People have written me to tell me that they saw their family in mine, their lived experience in our lived experience, and reading the piece was tremendously affirming; others have written to say that they found the piece confronting, and that reading it was uncomfortable and forced them to examine and reevaluate their own perspective. Both categories of response are gratifying, as I could not ask for anything more than for my words to both uplift and challenge. This is what I want when I read, so it is truly moving to hear that I have done this for others.
At the same time, I know there are lots of people—many of whom, I’m told, have made their opinions known in the public comments section the NPR website (I’ve followed the first rule of the internet and kept myself from reading any of them)—who want to write me off as an easily offended, holier-than-thou, fill-in-the-blank. This is the byproduct, I was reminded by a very wise friend, of “directing attention to things many, many people would just as soon ignore, and some will openly deny in spite of empirical evidence.”
My students rocked their assignment, like I knew they would. Because, contrary to popular belief, teenagers pay attention. They are keen observers—and critics—of the world around them, and the adults in it. I am heartened by their willingness to look at, and talk about, unpleasant things. I am inspired by their sharp-sightedness and ability to self-critique. Spending class time with them, reading their work—I am humbled and hopeful. Because nothing can even start to get better until we look the ugly stuff square in the eye.
I know this is ostensibly a food blog, and I still love—and love to make—food as much as I always have. But, let’s face it, NPR or no NPR, I have a very active two-and-a-half-year-old who wants to choreograph my weekend (“Dance, mama!” “Hide, mama!” “Run, mama!”) and I want to let him. I swear we could—should a windfall of extra cash magically appear—employ someone full time to do laundry and keep our house even marginally clean. There is always so much grading, and there are friends to whom I wish to give attention and none of this is a complaint, truly, rather an explanation for why you’ve got a picture for one, but not both, of the recipes mentioned here, and why I am linking to them like a lazy-bones instead of recreating them in my own words. Maybe next time?
The more important thing to know, though, is that I have made this ratatouille recipe twice and it’s brilliant. Aside from a lot of chopping, it’s very hands-off, as it cooks slowly in the oven and makes your house smell amazing. It’s dreamy with bread, of course, but also works well as a side to whatever meat you might be grilling or broiling or pan-cooking. Shiv liked it mixed in with “noo noos,” a.k.a. noodles, the beloved food of all toddlers.
Speaking of noodles, I had a half-container of mascarpone that a friend pawned off on me and wanted to use it for something savory. This baked pasta recipe proved a wonderful starting point for a few substitutions: first, I subbed in cooked broccoli for the mushrooms, and second, when making the sauce, I added a bit of flour to the pan after browning the onions but before adding the mascarpone, to thicken it and add a bit of body. Jill loves non-tomato-sauce pasta, so this was a big hit with everyone. I actually pre-made the pasta the night before we were going to eat it, let it cool, then covered it with foil and stashed it in the fridge. Heating it back up in the oven the next night made dinner very easy, and we had leftovers for a few days—always a win!
Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.
It seems straightforward enough, the injunction to “Love thy neighbor.” As is true of all oft-repeated phrases, we hear and speak it without pausing to think about what it actually means or entails. It sounds good, so it must be right, must be something we can all agree to, can all agree to do, and to teach our children.
Loving my neighbor is doable enough when it looks like being gracious with my colleagues, patient with my students, and forgiving of the sins others commit in traffic. But all of that’s the easy stuff, the “givens.” Not being an asshole takes effort, to be sure, on some days more than others, and for some of us so than others, regardless of the day. But not being an asshole is kind of the baseline for living inside of society and relationship; “love thy neighbor” in its fullest expression asks us to go past the bare minimum of human decency. Way past.
I am in the midst of teaching Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” surely one of the most impeccably crafted pieces of writing in American history. (If you’ve never read it, you should. Find the full text here.) For King, loving his neighbor meant affirming the humanity of those who refused to acknowledge the humanity in him. All men created equal meant equal on all sides, meant not falling into the trap of those who opposed him and resisting the temptation to demonize or lash out while still—and this is important—doing his utmost to highlight and bring an end to the injustice all around him which was, of course, put into place and perpetuated by his neighbors.
This week has been full of news stories that make it really, really hard for me to think about this loving-thy-neighbor business. I want to indulge in the feeling of hatred instead, or at the very least, a sense of superiority and self-righteousness. I want to draw dividing lines, “us” and “them.” But even if and even when those feelings are justified, I know they are not productive. They do not provide a way forward. They are not going to help me or anyone else grow. They are not what I want to model for my son.
I’m still, and probably always will be, working out what it means to love my neighbor while also being mad as hell about things that matter. What it looks like to be heartbroken by the actions of some of my human neighbors and at the same time remind myself that their lives have as much inherent value as mine. That they are just as human as me, as my loved ones, as my child. I know this to be true even if I don’t always believe it.
HAZELNUT LINZER COOKIES
These beauties were made using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen; I haven’t reproduced it here because a) there’s no way I could get the wording/instructions any better than Deb, and b) the only adaptation I made was to use jam (some strawberry, some apricot) to sandwich the cookies instead of chocolate-hazelnut spread, since I am apparently the only person on the planet who does not care for Nutella.
Love, of whatever shape, nature, or structure, is probably the best thing we humans have going. It’s this unaccountable miracle, and I, for one, welcome the chance to celebrate it. As silly of a holiday as Valentine’s Day has become in the mainstream, I am happy to use the day as a chance to take stock of all the things love has given me, the ways it continues to expand my human capacities, and how grateful I am for the gift of its presence in my daily life.
Shmoopy as it sounds, this weekend I hope that you feel present to the love in your own life, no matter what you are or aren’t celebrating.