Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

remembering the HUMANS in the HUMANitieS

national arts & humanities month logoI spent this past weekend in the company of humanists. It’s a word that’s come to have a negative meaning, and I’m not sure why. The word itself simply means to have a deep concern for human beings, for their welfare. For their right to self-determination. Who could quibble that? Neither liberal nor conservative, if given the definition only.

But to be a humanist in liberal circles appears to mean you think 18th & 19th century values are more important than contemporary ones. And to be a humanist among conservatives seems to mean that you are the worst kind of liberal — financially irresponsible, and prizing a ‘liberal education’ over important things like…business.


Neither is true, I assure you. Of the more than 250 people at the National Humanities Conference this past weekend (a conference put on by the Federation of STATE Humanities Councils, an important distinction from the NEH itself), I bet not a single person there would say business, and work, and governance were not important.

What they would tell you — as the eloquent keynote speaker Dr. Freeman Hrabowski said in his address — is that the humanities is about what connects us, as human beings. It’s about our inner values, and how they manifest in our shared world. It’s about not simply saying we value families, if we’re a politician or a business or a corporation. It’s about what we do: in our classrooms, in our universities, but also in our hospitals, in our armies, in our sciences and our places of worship and our private, singular homes.humanities


Because the humanities are US, folks. WE are the humanities. Our interests, what drives us, our passions and even our fears. I heard session after session, each completely different: one where a panel member, of Yupik culture & heritage (FYI: did you know there’s a difference between your culture & your heritage? more later ~), shared her story that began in a small Yupik village and came to the present, representing Alaska at the National Humanities Conference. Another where new members learned the difference between the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and the National Endowment for the Humanites (the FSHC is housed within the NEH). Yet another was on how to better serve rural citizens in states where Humanities Councils tend to be at state capitols — far more urban.


In other words? There was as much diversity in the sessions — language sessions, history sessions, advocacy sessions, K-12 education sessions, social media and change sessions — as there is between me and the Yupik scholar from Alaska.

humanities 3Which is why I never understand how — and why — anyone can think the humanities are ‘no longer relevant.’ As a board member on our state humanities council, it’s a comment I’m aware of (most folks don’t have the courage to say it to my face!). What is there irrelevant about science? Environment? Religion? History or language or the arts or education? Medicine, anthropology, communication… ALL human endeavours come into humanities, because they’re HUMAN! And they matter because we matter to each other — and must continue to do so.


You’ll hear more on this from me this week, as I process — and share — what I remembered this past weekend: that we are far more connected than we sometimes believe. Certainly than I sometimes believe! And that it is critical in this beleaguered time to focus NOT on what divides us (far too easy, as I know!), but on what unites us. And the humanities are a fascinating, colourful, curious, and necessary place to begin.


sharing stories

imageWhen you go to a national humanities conferences, you hear a lot of stories. Stories of the past (especially in Birmingham, 50 years later…), stories of what-if, stories of maybe and possibly and even stories about stories.

And when you’re a writer — aka someone who collects stories — you may well hear stories from complete strangers. On the plane. Say, from Tulsa to  Chicago. More on that in a moment.

What I have learned — over & over & throughout the duration of this conference, beginning on the plane from Tulsa — is that our stories shape us. What we tell ourselves becomes our reality. I know, I know… What a DUH comment!


But as I watched the woman sitting beside the window, one seat over from my aisle seat, I knew her stories were based at least in part on fear. Because she recoiled visibly as the young woman in the pink hijab asked, in totally native-speaker English, if she might sit between us.

Ms. Fearful cast a disgusted look at the down parka over Ms. Hijab’s arm, then flicked another disgusted look at the student backpack and the large Coach tote. You know you have to put EVERY-THING under your seatshe said disdainfully, in loudly enunciated single syllables. Almost like a cranky robot: you-know-you-have-to-put-ev-er-y-thing….Did I mention that Ms. Hijab spoke perfect, unaccented, English?image


Ms. Hijab flushed a deep shade of red, and stood in the aisle. We had the only seat around. You could tell poor Ms. Hijab just wanted to evaporate. I stepped from my seat and gave her the warmest smile I could muster, and said “Of course! Do you want me to put your bag up?” She shook her head, and said in a very small voice, “I don’t want to be a bother. I can hold it in my lap.”

Ms. Fearful repeated that everything has to go under the aisle. Despite having put her own things in the seat Ms. Hijab was now going to occupy, to deter folks from joining us. (I know this because she told me so.) Whereupon I repeated that I didn’t mind putting Ms. Hijab’s things overhead. Ms. Hijab handed me her big tote, and placed her backpack at her feet, then sat down.


She sat for a bit, and I wrote in my journal (surprised?). After a while she began to visit quietly, thanking me effusively for basic good manners. I demurred, pointing out she would have done the same for me. We exchanged the desultory conversations most folks do on airplanes, while Ms. Fearful hugged her window.

One thing led to another, and Ms. Hijab told me she was very recently divorced. After we discussed her ex’s anger issues, and how she might go forward, she shared that he had told her he was divorcing her BY TEXT MESSAGE!!! Can we say class-A JERK?

imageOh! And did I mention Ms. Hijab was on the way to be with her mother during her mother’s double mastectomy?


There is a point to this: most of us have had relationships fail — many have even lost marriages. And our mothers have needed us when ill, and we have worried and mourned. This kind of grief is universal, whether it wears a pink hijab or goes bare-headed. Perhaps, if Ms. Fearful had not closed herself into the tightly wound ball of fear huddled against the window, she might have made a friend, as I did (I gave Ms. Hijab my card; she asked).

THAT’S what the Humanities are about: sharing our humanity. Through stories. And it was the best possible warm-up to the conference I’ve been bedazzled by all weekend. Well, except for Ms. Fearful (and clueless…).




the proper study of human beings…

national humanities conference

I’m going to Birmingham tomorrow! And my posts — if I break free to make them :) — will be from there for the next few days. I have the IMMENSE good fortune to be part of the Oklahoma delegation to the National Humanities Conference this year. How cool is THAT?


And to be going to Birmingham, this anniversary year, the city where so much civil rights history has been made…wow. How humbling. Speakers, sessions, activities… they all sound like the best possible history lessons. For someone whose master’s focused in part on African American literature, to get to see Nikki Giovanni, for instance… Another big WOW!

It’s Alexander Pope who said the proper study of mankind is man. I don’t think even cranky Pope would mind me being a tad more inclusive with his epigram ~ The proper study of humankind is the humanities. Medicine, history, literature, philosophy, film, scholarly research… The humanities are a rich smörgåsbord‎ of human endeavour. And I get to spend a three-day weekend immersed in them!

So check back over the next couple days. I promise you a ringside seat to what I learn.


no one loves a complex story, or, what no one is telling you about the Affordable Care Act

obamacare pie chartThis is by way of good news. It’s also a counter-narrative to all the horror stories about the Affordable Care Act.Because once a journalist, always a journalist, I guess. And someone needs to put some honest facts into the conversation, so far dominated by scarey demagogues.

To the left is Jonathan Gruber’s pie graph about the Affordable Care Act’s impact. Jonathan Gruber is the MIT economist behind the architecture for both Romneycare in Massachusetts, and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare (sometimes even affectionately). Gruber may be the one person who really understands the ACA inside & out.


If you look, you’ll notice something that will probably surprise you: only 3% of Americans are potential ‘losers’ under the ACA. Meaning, only about 3% of Americans will have to buy a more expensive (but also higher coverage) insurance plan.

I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but please bear with me. You’ll also see that 80% of Americans are pretty much unaffected by the ACA. They get to keep their current plan. Another 3% may have to buy a new plan, but it won’t be much different — in price or coverage — from their current plan. Surprised? You certainly don’t hear this much, do you?

Now here’s the real kicker: 15% of Americans who are currently uninsured will NOW be able to buy insurance coverage. Children with birth defects — pre-existing conditions — men & women with asthma, people whose insurance has lapsed, college-age children who are going to class instead of working a FT job with benefits… All of these (and many more) now will have affordable medical care reform


Why aren’t we hearing THESE stories?? Where’s the coverage of Debbie Basham or Marlane Cygler, both of whom now have health insurance? What about Richard Streeter, who may die because he couldn’t afford health care until the ACA? Or the anguish of his doctor, who had to tell this man who’d put off a colonscopy (because he couldn’t afford it) that he has advanced colon cancer? You have to WANT to find those stories: media isn’t making them easy to locate.


Digression: I was a journalist at a top-50 daily newspaper for 5 years. During that time I did everything from take copy hither & fro, to obits, to city desk, to various beats. I even won a few state prizes, and attended a couple of national conferences.

Which is by way of saying that I actually know a little about journalism. :) And a little more about writing. But I do NOT know why we only hear about the 3% of Americans who are having problems with the ACA.

In Oklahoma, that figure may be higher. But it’s not the fault of either Obama or the ACA. Lay the culpability at the door of those responsible: the state ‘leaders’ who refused the Medicaid expansion. A recent Tulsa World article noted that the state’s rural hospitals are in rural hospitalsserious peril. You have to wade through the article to paragraph #38 or so before you find out what would be the biggest help to these imperiled hospitals: Rick Snyder, vice president of finance and information services for the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said the biggest single thing Oklahoma could do to help rural hospitals would be to expand Medicaid.


Why isn’t THAT bigger news? Surely a VP of the OHA is a credible source?

A follow-up editorial to last week’s article notes that more than 140,000 Oklahomans will remain uninsured because OK Governor Mary Fallin refused the federal Medicaid expansion. Oklahoma can’t afford the 10% or LESS costs that don’t even BEGIN until three years from now. But we can afford to cut taxes for the wealthy — something that has no impact whatsoever on the thousands of Oklahomans uninsured. Many of whom are women, children, the elderly. The most vulnerable of our citizens. Who will be unable to pay their bills when — not if — they require any medical care. Why isn’t THAT news??


Not to mention horror stories, like ‘the doctor shortage is because of the ACA!’ No. As Dr. Reid Blackwelder, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says, “the Affordable Care Act didn’t create this crisis.” Or the people who complain they now are forced to buy insurance. Well, yeah. So that the rest of us don’t finance your inability to pay your medical bills. Remember the rural hospitals going broke? You’re the reason.

Not to mention insurance companies sending out scam notices that warn clients their coverage will lapse. Where’s the coverage of this kind of hysteria-inducing fraud? Or conservative columnists making up stories just to scare people.


Here’s a quick & easy guide to all the GOOD that comes from the ACA (courtesy of my husband, the amazing Internet researcher). And don’t ask me why this information isn’t more readily available. Again, you apparently have to WANT to find it. But it IS out there, and you should go look it up yourself, just to be sure.

The ACA: Affordable Care Act

There used to be a term for the kind of journalism that didn’t bother with facts. That cared only about sold papers/ sound bites/ commercial time. Yellow… Yellow journalism. Meaning it had no real grounding in facts. It’s back in vogue, I guess. I wish people would do the research the media elides. I wish folks would take the time to find reliable — credible — sources.  I wish they wouldn’t fall for cheap sensationalism. But after years of teaching research to incoming freshmen, I’m not counting on it. :)  Still, we can dream…

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