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Archive for February, 2012

I stumbled this last week in dealing with my anxiety, but I’m pulling myself back up.  I have been gearing up to see Casting Crowns in concert this week and while listening to their new CD “Come to the Well” I was struck by a song they sing about God and how He exists outside of time:

All my fears and all my questions
Are gonna play out
In a world I can’t control
When I’m lost in the mystery
To You my future is a memory
Cause You’re already there
You’re already there
Standing at the end of my life
Waiting on the other side

There is peace for me when I cling to the idea that God knows how my current crisis is going to turn out.  I cannot control this world, but it’s okay, because wherever today is going, He is already there and He is waiting for me.  I think if I lived forever I would be more calm because I would have seen every type of crisis at least once and I would know I could handle whatever comes my way.  Since I’m not going to live forever, it comforts me that I’m relying on someone whose experience is eternal.

More than God being in control, this song also makes me wonder, what do moments feel like when you’re immortal?  Novels with immortal characters (usually vampires) always focus on how much ennui they feel when they know they’ll never die.  They are jealous of humans whose mortality gives moments poignancy and immediacy in a way that they have long forgotten.  I think God must exist both inside and outside of time in a way that distinguishes him from angsty teenage vampires and allows him both vast perspective and the ability to savor each moment.  Do you wish you were immortal?  I don’t.

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Today I want to talk about linguistic prejudice.  Many people in America live in bidialectcal households and have mastered speaking more than one dialect of English.  Most often, these people speak a more “standard”* English variety along with a “non-standard” home variety like Southern English, African American Vernacular English, New Yorker English, English that’s influenced by another language like Spanish or Chinese, or even that lilting intonation that we associate with teenage girls from Southern California.   Many successful people in America suppress accents or speaking styles that are considered “non-standard” in order to be taken seriously in the work place.  However, should the fact that this linguistic prejudice exists mean that people with non-standard dialects should change how they express themselves in order to get ahead?

My background in sociolinguistics makes me inclined to support the ideal that people should be able to speak in “non-standard” varieties without appearing less competent.  This belief is normally evident in my interactions with my husband’s little brother, who is now seven.  He comes from a monolingual Spanish-speaking household but acquired English in pre-school.  I am trying to inculcate in him pride for his native language and for the variety of English that is spoken by the bilingual members of his Peruvian-American community.

While I strive to support him as a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, the truth is that I struggle with my own fears for him about his bilingualism and how others will perceive him.  I think I’ve done a good job of hiding from him how much it disappoints me that he’s so reluctant to speak Spanish anymore.  I know the phenomenon of language loss is very common in second generation immigrant communities.  I try to only encourage him rather than being one more voice in his life telling him that he’s speaking Spanish incorrectly or speaking English too much.  I say “try” because I know of at least one occasion when I did not succeed in shielding him from the linguistic prejudices that I carry within me.

When he was four years old I was in the car with him driving him home from Chucky Cheese and he said, “There wasn’t nobody there.”  My reaction was immediate and vehement:  “Don’t ever say that.  You meant to say that there wasn’t anybody there.”  My husband was startled because double negatives are very normal in Spanish and typify the speech of many native-Spanish speakers of English who speak a dialect of English that is influenced by Spanish.  When he asked me what was wrong, I explained without thinking, “People will think he is poor.”

In fact, people will think he is uneducated, but that is often conflated with poverty.  I was afraid for him and trying to protect him from the prejudices that I thought could hold him back in life.  What I should have said was, “No variety of English is inherently better or worse than another.”  I could have said, “You can speak that way at home or with your friends, but in school we always say….”  I missed that opportunity to talk to him about Standard English without making him feel shame for his home variety.

However, the linguist in me bristles in the notion that I would even tell him that the way we speak in school is different than the way we speak at home because it smacks of being  “complicit” in the oppression of linguistic varieties.  When I deliberately or unconsciously try to sound “standard” instead of speaking in a non-standard vernacular like Southern English (or African American Vernacular English, or California Girl English, or New York English, etc.) I perpetuate the myth that you can’t sound Southern and intelligent at the same time.  When I tell a child, “Don’t ever say that again.  People will think you’re poor,” I may be trying to protect him, but I am also telling him that the world at large has the right to judge his variety of English as inferior.

I can’t reconcile the fact that it is morally wrong to be complicit in linguistic prejudice with the role that I have been given in this child’s life to prepare him for life in a world in which people can discriminate against him with impunity because they don’t like the way he sounds.  Do you think we should teach children to be bidialectal to succeed in the work place, or do you think linguistic tolerance will not win the day until people are willing to use their variety in all situations?

*Please note that there is no such thing as “Standard English.”  America is not like Spain with the Royal Academy of the English Language arbitrating what makes up “proper English.”  When I trefer to “Standard English” I’m thinking of the variety that news anchors use on TV, or that I am careful to use in the office when I speak with clients.  This is clearly a subjective term.

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I practiced meditation for a half hour each day after school as a kid in elementary school.  Sometimes I fell asleep, but mostly my mind raced.  I learned the rosary as an adult to help fight off panic attacks.  Despite not being Catholic, it occurred to me because of movies about exorcisms because panic is like a demon inside of me.  After using this method for more than a year, I discovered that repetitive prayer or actions can actually help meditation.

I have a hard time sitting still and letting go of my racing thoughts when I try traditional meditation, but I’ve discovered that doing certain things at the same time can help me stay in that state of mind.  For instance, if I just think about a bible verse on worry, it’s not enough to hold my attention, and I’m soon pulled under again by whatever anxious thought is stalking me.  However, if I visualize in my mind writing that verse out in cursive, it’s a sufficiently difficult task that I can focus on it.  I have to think hard about how to make some cursive letters, and the visual component of this makes doing it in your mind absorbing.

Another example is the rosary.  I used to just say the prayers over and over again during panic attacks because repeating something I had memorized helped distract me.  Then I learned the way the rosary was meant to be prayed by people who are actually catholic and don’t just suffer from anxiety.  After you say the creed, on the first 3 beads above Jesus’s head you say one hail Mary each for the increase in the world of faith, hope, and love.  That’s my very favorite part.

While your mind is babbling (I prefer to say my rosary in Spanish) the same repetitive prayer, you can hold the intention in your head of there being more hope in the world.  I think of something different all the time – children in armies in Africa who need to believe there is life outside of war, people who’ve made such terrible mistakes that they think no one will forgive them, families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.  I imagine the hope growing in their hearts while my mind carries on with the prayer.  I can hang onto this train of thought without getting sucked back into my worry because saying a prayer in Spanish while you visualize sending hope to the hopeless is complicated.

When you get to the decades of the rosary (the 10 little beads between each big bead in the chain), Catholics meditate on one mystery per decade.  (There are luminous mysteries, joyful mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries…there’s a schedule for each day of the week.)  For instance, if they were doing the joyful mysteries, they would meditate on the first decade about the annunciation, on the second decade about the visitation, on the third about the nativity, then the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and then finding Jesus at the temple.  I don’t know the mysteries unless someone is announcing them (which they do when you pray the rosary in a group), but I like to think about one problem per bead or per decade, depending on how big the problem is.

Thinking about both the prayer and the problem simultaneously helps my mind not to wander off.  I don’t need a rosary to pray this way anymore – I can do it in my head or on my fingers, in English or in Spanish.   I think I associate the litany now with peace and calm, so even if my mind is too full of racing thoughts to meditate, trying to think of two things at once is just my (manic) speed.  When I start to feel panicky, I find myself automatically reciting the words in my head and I begin to calm down.  Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia, el senor es contigo…

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Do you remember when to have a Facebook account you had to be in college?

Facebook came out my freshman year of college.  This was an idyllic time when everyone would go to parties and do crazy things.  The next morning (afternoon) we would stumble to the cafeteria for breakfast (lunch) and then check out Facebook, busily un-tagging all of the unflattering photos that were taken the night before.

During this halcyon era you could travel to Morocco in your semester abroad and have people tag photos of you smoking hookah without worrying that your future employer would assume it was weed and you wouldn’t get a security clearance.  You could put up status updates that included swear words and have profile pictures that involved you holding red Dixie cups.

Now, my mother is on Facebook.  My grandmother is on Facebook.  My boss is on Facebook.  My cousin’s 12 year old son is on Facebook (and he is flirting inappropriately with girls!).  Everything has to be so censored that it’s become a glorified photo sharing website.  I’m sick of Facebook and the way they constantly make internal changes to their privacy settings, trying to force you to tell complete strangers your relationship status and where you work.  I miss those days of Dixie cups and weekend trips to Morocco.

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I think the trickiest part of the verse I’m studying (Proverbs 3:5-6) is the section that discusses “in all your ways acknowledging [the Lord].”  What does “acknowledging” even mean in this context?  I like what Chuck Swindoll said about recognizing that God is “sovereign.”

I picture entering the audience chamber of some liege lord where his people can bring their problems to him for judgment.  I imagine the relief at saying, “I can’t pay off my debts,” and him listening carefully and then saying, “I’ll take care of it.”  What would it be like to know someone so powerful that he really could just take care of it – someone who ruled the entire realm so thoroughly that he could pay your debts or make a deal with your debtor with just a word to some lackey?  Obviously feudalism wasn’t romantic like that, but I’m fantasizing about that notion of absolute power.

This week I have been practicing being mindful of the idea that God is sovereign over my problems.  That word – sovereign – is exactly the word I needed.  I’m running late…but it’s okay, because God is sovereign over this traffic.  He will clear it up, or he won’t, but whether I arrive on time or late, he owns this land and this car and this problem and he is powerful.  Maybe this sounds like echos of Nectar in a Sieve.  Maybe you’re thinking it smacks of defeatism and I should care more about my own agency.  If that’s what you’re thinking, I’m pretty sure you don’t have the kind of anxiety they’ll give you the good drugs for.

My life feels like it’s spinning wildly out of control all the time.  I don’t trust other people to do things the way they should be done – it’s probably easier if I just do it myself.  I’m not arrogant – I’m afraid.  The concept that this chaotic world is in someone’s control, and it’s not in my control, helps me slow my racing heart and unclench my fists.  It’s a trust like falling.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “just” recently.  When we use this word, we’re often using it as a marker that minimizes whatever phrase comes after it.  For instance, if someone offers you a bag of candy and you say, “I just need one,” you’re telling this person, “I [this request is really trifling] need one.”  The way that this word is used by clients, by women at work, and by evangelicals while they pray is fascinating.

Client requests:

Nothing pisses me off more than when my clients say, “Can you just [insert crazy request here].”  It’s almost as though they think that by adding the word “just” they are somehow making their request last absurd and labor intensive.

If I had to gloss the way they are using the word “just” here, it would be something like, “Can you [this idea isn’t insane – it’s something you should be able to do quickly and easily] send me a new dataset in the next 10 minutes?”  I’d like to forbid them from using this word because it’s insulting to those of us who are going to have to fulfill their requests.

Women in professional missives:

I often find that when I draft emails, I insert “just” liberally in places to soften the impact of what I’m requesting.  However, when I re-read my emails before sending I invariably delete out 3 or 4 “justs” because I think it makes me sound less authoritative.  There’s a whole argument here relating to whether women sounding authoritative really means women speaking like men (who traditionally dominated the work place), and the double bind of women who speak like women being weak but women who speak like men being pushy.

That topic is a post for another day, but in the meantime I can’t seem to break myself of the habit of starting an email, “I just wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”   In this context, I mean “I [please don’t be offended by what I’m about to say because I don’t think it’s that serious] wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”

Evangelicals in prayer:

I find that young evangelicals are often contemptuous of formulaic prayers.  They have a personal relationship with Jesus and they don’t need anyone to intercede for them.  They value speaking from their heart and think there’s nothing rehearsed about their style when they pray out loud.  I listen to a lot of prayer like that, and they actually all sound very similar.

“Father God, I just want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I just pray that you would grow us as disciples. ”  Here, the repetitive (almost every sentence) “just” is marking how great we think God is and how small we are in comparison.  “Father God, I [the only thing I can offer is amazement and praise] want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I [I’m asking for something that’s easy for you since you’re almighty and the only thing I can do is request your help] pray that you would grow us as disciples.”  And yes, “grow” is a transitive verb when you’re evangelical.

I think it’s fascinating that we’re all using this word, but that it doesn’t  have a lot of intrinsic meaning.  It’s more of a flag that says – pay attention to what comes next, and know that I’m minimizing it somehow.  Maybe I’m asking for something I think is easy, or trying not to offend you by downplaying the gravity of your oversight, or what I’m about to say comes from a humble place of recognizing your power.  It’s amazing that this one word can mark so much depending on who is using it.

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I’ve been working on a series of posts relating to anxiety because I feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job of coping with my anxiety.  The strategies I mention in the posts I’ve written have been helping me a lot, but today it feels like nothing is working.  Today feels like one of those days where despite all of the progress you’ve made, you still fall flat on your face.  Since all else has failed today, here’s what I’m going to do:

(1) I am going to take a lunch break.  A radical notion, right?

(2) I am going to put off some unpleasant tasks until tomorrow.

(3) I am not going to work late.

It’s kind of sad that that’s all I can think of since prayer just doesn’t seem to be helping me today, but I think this is going to pass.  I think giving myself this permission to rest is going to helpful and tomorrow will be better.  What do you do when you’re struggling with worry and you can’t seem to let your problems go?

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