Letting God Laugh at Us (is probably a good idea)

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”
– Woody Allen

I started teaching Sunday School this year. A group of 5 or 6 wonderful, wonderful wide-eyed girls (age 7 to 12) stare expectantly at me in our small church clubhouse, every week. Every. Week.

I don’t know why they’re all girls. It just worked out that way. Since my siblings are all capital-D Dudes, this is definitely new territory.

For better or for worse, I can be a wishy washy teacher. I know it, and so do the parents. I’m a goofy, guitar-strumming, United-Churchy-Half-Agnostic-Historian-Jesus-Feminist, so honesty and nuance rule the day: I can teach biblical literacy. I can teach general values. But, no, I don’t know what exactly really happened, or what exactly we’re supposed to get out of these stories. I have no indoctrination-esque end goal, not really. I just teach what I understand, whatever that means. And maybe the girls will be inspired and Jesus it up and light a candle. Or maybe, they will raise their hands and shout “Shauna, that’s craziness.”

As long as they’re using their minds and their hearts at all times, it works for me.

And so it goes: Insert life lesson here. Insert scripture here. We make thank you cards. We celebrate holidays (and normal days, too). We laugh and we read and we use way too much glitter. Money is raised for charity. Songs are written.

And sometimes the lesson doesn’t quite work. Sometimes there’s apathy, or chaos, or I am overshadowed by the air hockey table. (Why is there an air hockey table, you ask? I don’t even know. Because Canada.)

“Okay girls, I’m going to turn away from you for 10 seconds. When I turn back I want to see you all sitting calmly on the couches. 1…2…”

Last week, we were starting the Christmas story. Yeah. I was worried. The whole “Mary” narrative is a difficult subject for a United-Churchy-Half-Agnostic-Historian-Jesus-Feminist (who really doesn’t want to explain the word “virgin” to your 8 year old). My carefully-crafted plan was to talk about how our plans and goals are good, but God is great—basically, it was this article steeped in Bible-talk.

Yeah, my plan was to talk about how shaky plans are. I’m an irony whiz, clearly.

I pulled out the markers and paper, suggesting that the girls draw pictures of their lives 20 years from now. They took to the project immediately, drawing themselves as Olympians, doctors, zoologists, geologists, rebel graffiti artists… the works. Some of them were very careful, drafting their dreams in pencil first. One was hyper-detailed and ambitious, another was just plain goofy. By the time I was ready to explain the point of the exercise, they were too excited by their dreams to really care about my message. I wrapped it up quickly:

“You guys get what I’m saying, right? No? Yes? Good. Okay.”

My plan hadn’t really worked. Their plans were strewn around the classroom in bright, goofy marker.

And somehow, it was all perfect anyways.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”  I used to see these words as an invitation to avoid plans altogether.  But as I felt my classroom shake with the joy of best laid possibilities, I reconsidered.  

What’s wrong with making God laugh, exactly?  

God probably likes to laugh. Laughter is good. Silliness and vulnerability and hope are good.  

Plans are not bad in and of themselves. They’re actually kind of beautiful. Those dream-fueled drawings in my Sunday School classroom were beautiful.  Same with the laid-back, loving lesson plans. Same with your fallible to do list, daydreams, and drive for the future.

Plans happen when our gifts and dreams and brainwaves and feelings manifest into a motivational timeline. And when those plans don’t totally come to fruition, that doesn’t mean they were wrong. It just means something else became right.  It means that life is beautiful in a very different way than plans are beautiful. 

If you can be idealistic enough to plan something, but reasonable enough to not be debilitated by disappointment when that plan doesn’t work out, then do it. Do it. And then change it.  And then change it again.

For my part, I’m going to continue making and breaking lesson plans. The girls are probably going to keep dreaming and suggesting.  We’re all going to keep changing. And that’s okay. That’s okay.

We’re just making God laugh. I’m sure (S)He doesn’t mind.

 
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(Why This Article Is Not Called) “20 Ways to Be a Twenty-Something”

I’m a sucker for clicking on blog posts ordered into “lists.”

It’s so bad, you guys. I hardly ever like them. Those “how-to-be-twenty-something” lists from Thought Catalog are particularly tempting.  “Yes! A guru! Go ahead, stranger on the internet, tell me how to do this right!”

I know they capitalize on my insatiable desire for direction. I know these things are rarely entertaining, never mind enlightening. I know I’m being lazy, looking for life lessons in bite-sized, unemotional lists. I know all that, but I still give the articles a shot every time because–“What if they know something I don’t know?! What if they have the secret?!”

Unfortunately, the list-ers rarely  give me the shot back. They don’t leave room for another right answer. Lists are facts, rules, and deadlines. They are filled with fluffy and contradictory advice, seemingly thrown together by the same eighteen year old on ego-steriods:

Be vulnerable and emotionally available in everything…but don’t go falling in love or expressing your feeling, kiddies.  Get your shit together, and do it now…or tomorrow, tomorrow works too. Screw society…oh, but be gentle, you might need to use it later.

To save you the reading, I’ll sum ALL the articles up for you:

Build yourself, and be self-aware. Keep calm. Everything in moderation. Be good to people. Be good to yourself.

You’re welcome.

Outside of those pseudo-commandments, I’m beginning to think that there is very little deep advice that we can fit into lists like that. I also think that one-size-fits all advice is rarely a good call, especially in the twenty-something circuit. After all, this is the period in your life where you’re supposed to be learning how to question rules and step-by-step guides, not blindly march towards them. This is the time to realize how different everyone is, and how the same everyone is, and how relative everything is.

How do you list out the ideal reaction to any of that?

You don’t. You twist through your own complicated, beautiful story of “LET’S JUST TRY THIS.” Sometimes you will find friends to join you, even if it’s just for a night. Sometimes you’ll like them, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll like yourself, sometimes you won’t.

And sometimes it will work. And sometimes it won’t.

These lists try to make things logical, when they are not.  I think that’s what kills me. They try to sell us on the idea that there is a right and wrong way to do things, when there are about a million of both. The ambiguity of “twenty-something” territory is far better suited to awkward songwriting, 2 am storytime, uncomfortably honest prayers, and radically number-less blog posts.

So what, then, are lists good for? They certainly make sense for practical stuff. Studying tips. How to navigate University. Finding an apartment. Cleaning your kitchen. Planning a trip. Getting a job. Quick tips, man.

I have a few of those myself. Perhaps I will write a list some time.

But it won’t be a list that tells you how to feel about your life. It won’t be a list of premature “tips” which are really just jaded rants, personal regret, and #humblebrags.

(Unless the regret is genuinely practical.  Like, say, don’t go a year without glasses if you really need glasses. Or, don’t buy a shitty laptop.)

I hope that you can be a blogger without having to pretend you know everything–or worse, having to pretend you can put that “everything” into a list.  I hope imperfect people and listless lifestyles can fit into the conversation, because…well, because imperfect people and listless lifestyles are the definition of Conversation. And Conversation is what we really need, isn’t it?

Perhaps Sarah Bessey put it best:

I’m not too interested in telling anyone else how to live their lives anymore, let alone in six steps with a pinnable graphic.

Yeah. I’m not too interested in that, either. But I sure am interested in talking about it, and hearing about it, and writing about my tiny/young/fallible/idealistic corner of it. And maybe, sometimes, that will fit into a list.

But, mostly, my life isn’t about quick tips. Neither is yours. It’s about celebrating and mourning, sometimes at the same time. It’s about getting confused and getting the giggles. It’s the word “Oops,” and it’s the word “Love,” and it’s feeling unsure.

And I’m sorry, but there’s no number on any of that.

Life, Learning, and “Windowless Cave Education”

I just typed a big, ugly rant into my Facebook status box.  It started with  “I know this is a first world problem and all…” and tumbled down from there. The rant was well deserved, if spoiled; it targeted my University’s summer course selection (which sucks). I think it sounded something like “afnv;fdkvldnklv;dfnvdf!!,” but now I’m paraphrasing.

I didn’t press Post. I deleted the rant.  I don’t know if that signals maturity or defeat.

My soul is pretty much owned by “learning” right now, something that clearly takes many forms–mostly interesting ones, but not always. Sometimes, it feels like  “learning” feeds my stress levels more than my brain.  My eyes glaze over, and all I can see are schedule frustrations, lost notes, dull readings, “shi-it, did I just fall asleep during that lecture?”.  This kind of “learning” is often done in temperature-controlled windowless caves;  As if not being able to see the world will somehow help us learn about it. Why is it that important places like study rooms, lecture halls, churches, government institutions and courts so often lack windows?  Are we really expecting people who can’t even see the sky or the ground to be responsible authorities on the world’s direction? 

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This is where you are supposed to learn about the world, while totally cut off from the world. Because THAT makes sense…

Let me be clear: I don’t think that University is a bad thing, and I certainly don’t believe that I’m “too smart” for all this traditional school stuff.  I appreciate my windowless cave education, I do. Absorbing important information hand-picked by a well-studied mentor (read: professor) seems like a worthy investment.  Of course I learn things.  It’s not a grossly unproductive system; we are tested, we write stuff, and some of it does stick.

Classrooms are good. I can dig that. But if classrooms are the only place that I’m learning? Then we have a problem.

Windowless cave education is best when it is supported by side projects that supplement the “learning”–extra-curriculars, excursions, experiences. Real-world stuff.  But there are only so many hours in a day, only so many dollars in the bank account.  During school terms, I am barely able to get those forgettable papers written, juggle my minimum wage gigs, and see my friends on the side.  I never read for fun. I rarely visit museums.  I can’t afford much time volunteering, or “getting involved”, even if that volunteering will bring me closer to my interests and career goals.

I miss a lot of “learning” while I’m in school. That seems strange, doesn’t it?

I can’t help but wonder if my windowless cave education is any better than the free education I am getting right now: taking an online class through coursera, attending Library of Congress lectures, visiting the Smithsonians, volunteering at the Holocaust Museum, interning in the music/heritage industry. Even blogging (to you! right now!) is quite the experience. So is playing guitar on the rooftop, watching someone’s experienced fingers pluck the strings to a new song. Or getting lost in the city.  Or braving a conversation with someone I know disagrees with me (and loving that person all the same).

You can’t tell me this is a less profound “learning” experience than the one I had last semester, theory-memorizing and paper-writing.  I don’t mean to make the latter sound useless. Theories and papers have served me well; they just haven’t served me wholly. Windowless cave knowledge is a starting point…but if we lack opportunities to apply that knowledge, aren’t we missing something? 

Even though I haven’t stepped foot in a classroom in several months, I’m no less in education mode here than I was in the windowless cave.  Being in a new place, working, writing, dialoguing, and attending stuff–hell, I might be learning more here than I do in school.  It’s a tough comparison.  But I do wish I could bring this flexibility and motivation to find/learn/discover with me when I go back to school in May.

I’m not going to I argue that everything I do is University-calibre learning. I hope it’s not. My brain would explode.  Something doesn’t have to involve “learning” to be a good way to spend time (I love sports and music and sitcoms way too much to make that argument). I’m not saying  that every activity needs to involve a life lesson. What I am saying is that life lessons need to involve more activity.

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…not this kind of activity.

As per my last post, I am aiming to be a woman whose life involves lots of “learning”, inspired by lots of activity.  I want to be a woman with “guitar-bred finger calluses, with laugh lines and dimples, with sun-kissed shoulders and tired, blistered feet.”  I want to be a woman “who is continually educated and insatiably curious. Who speaks a couple languages, who knows her geography, and who travels lots and lots. Who knows enough to be aware of the fact that she knows nothing.  Who has about 10 questions for every answer.”

I can totally achieve that. I can.  School is going to be a part of it, obviously…so is stress, responsibility, boredom, bureaucratic systems.  I’m not rejecting it ALL; ‘Course selection was difficult this semester, so Fuck The Man!’.  That is obviously not fair.

But school can’t be all of it.  It can’t be. When Mark Twain said “don’t let schooling get in the way of your education,” he had a point.

We’re just lucky that the best teachers know it.

Music, Monkeys, and the Art of “Where do I Start?!”

Last Friday, I went to a Nordic Cool 2013 concert at the Kennedy Center. The guy who sits next to me at work suggested it–or, rather, he smirked as he pointed to a picture of the evening’s band on his computer.

There was a monkey in the picture, you guys.  A monkey.

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If I were a marketing director, I would probably put a monkey in EVERY picture.

No one was quite sure what to expect. I’m not used to that.  My fellow interns are uber-cultured musicians and ethnomusicology students (dammit, spell check, ethnomusicology is a word) who seem to know every nuance of every genre.

…though really, all I can confirm is that they know a whole lot more than me.  Which means I’m always learning.

Much like my own field (history), with music there is always-always-always more to discover. And the more you listen, the more you realize how much you have yet to listen to.

Like this band from Denmark with a monkey, for example.

And so we went. We took the metro. We filed into the packed Grand Foyer. We stood at the back, since all the seats were taken–clearly, word had gotten around that the Danish monkey-band was coming to town.  Inside our programs was this short description of what we were about to see:

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Oh, “of course.”

AFRObeat? C’est quoi ca? Can someone point me in the direction of their favourite soul/jazz inspired acid-power-beat song, please? And “almost-punk” just sounds like how I feel when I jaywalk or accidentally sleep through church. [Insert rebel yell here.]

In true millennial fashion, I googled the band before going. Specifically, I watched this mezmerizingly weird music video of a song entitled “Blue Balls.” The album is called “Absinthe.” And the music is rad.

(At least, it’s rad enough for me to try to bring back the term “rad.”)

Yeah. That. Don’t do drugs?

The show was fantastic. It isn’t that I didn’t expect it to be fantastic….just that I didn’t know what to expect at all. The music (whatever it was, exactly) was an awesome, awesome discovery.

I make lots of awesome discoveries these days.

Finnish tango. Hardcore conjunto. Underground folk revival. Central Asian pipa. Autoharp country.  Banjo masters. Those French Canadian songs that people assume I know (and I never do).

Took this shot at a Los Texmaniacs show last month.
Took this picture at a Los Texmaniacs show last month. Hardcore conjunto at its finest!

It’s almost overwhelming. Reading through the “Events in Washington DC,” trying to figure out what I can make it to…or what I should make it to…or what I can connect to, even just a little bit.  Finding that balance between learning new things and maintaining/expanding on what I’ve already got. Searching through the Folkways catalogue, working out what to listen to next.

You would think that the daunting excitement of “where do I start?!” would be second nature to me by now. History student stuff. Curator problems.  And yes, I have spent long days awkwardly navigating books, journals, and microfilm.  Having all this new music at my fingertips is no different, really. But for the first time, culture is my every day–my work, my play, my social life, my background, my foreground.

And I still don’t feel a sense of “competence.” Not in even a sliver of it.

How can I, when I have bands like Ibrahim Electric to keep me on my toes?

Oh, I don’t always do “new things.”  I still can’t seem to stay away from Ottawa. I even showed up to a Canada-US Relations event last week…and ended up being live-broadcasted on CPAC, asking a question about the Keystone Pipeline. Yeah.

“New things” can find you, though. They can creep up. It’s called “opportunity,” and it’s always hanging around–especially in a place like DC, especially if you make the first move. One “new thing” can breed familiarity with another. And another. And another.

Case in point: A friend and I showed up to the Kennedy Center to check out Finnish tango music (because, why not?) and some dude gave us his extra tickets to this:

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We didn’t ask questions

Though to answer yours: It was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Seriously. “Bird in Magic Rain with Tears.” Who would’a thought?

Here’s to the art of “where to I start?!”

– – –

I Have Chosen My Word for 2013 (and it’s going to make for one interesting year)
I Have Chosen My Word for 2013 (and it’s going to make for one interesting year)
Welcome to America: Yes, I have gotten horribly lost. Already. Twice.
Welcome to America: Yes, I have gotten horribly lost. Already. Twice.
Non-boring, non-fiction. It happens.
Non-boring, non-fiction. It happens.

The Downside of “Doing”: Why I can’t relax, and why that needs to change

Of my many, many weaknesses, this has been the worst lately: I. Can’t. Relax.

I don’t know when it started, or if it has always been this way.  Deep breaths and a clear mind sound like something I could’ve pulled off as a kid.  But it’s hard now. Relaxation hasn’t been available to me for a long, long time.

To be fair, I haven’t exactly been trying.  My priority, contrary to relaxation, has been getting things DONE–and in that, I have succeeded. Yes, I know there’s more to “figuring shit out” than just doing stuff or finding distractions.  But keeping busy seems to work for me.

Sort of.

It has become habit, at least.  I actively avoid being lonely (being alone is okay, but God forbid I feel lonely).  I avoid silence.  Work.  Live.  Work some more.  Do. Do. Do.  But the question is, why live that way?

Because if you stop, you might not like what you see.

Or worse, what you feel.

That’s my best guess, anyways.  I don’t really know what I’m so afraid of.  What I do know is that haven’t learned how to relax or even stop moving because I’m terrified of what that entails.  This isn’t something that I particularly want to admit.  But I really want to level with you, because I know know know I can’t be alone in the self-inflicted chaos.

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Being too busy isn’t all bad.  The to do list, the full plate, the sense of duty  to everyone and everything around me–it was my saving grace for a long time. Not just in a “Wellllll, shit went down, and I starting doing things to get my mind off it.” It’s more complicated than that.  Yes, shit has gone down. And, yes, I have gotten super-busy with stuff  in order to take my mind off of it.  I don’t suppose there’s anything too unhealthy about emerging from a challenge with a sense of purpose. The problem is now, I’m worried I won’t  find that sense of purpose at all because it is buried under stuff.

It’s so easy in this world to make your own superficial stress to distract you from real, harsh, felt stresses. For some reason, that is seen as “moving on.”  Isn’t that ridiculous?  I’ve had some of the best bounce-backs of anyone, on the surface.  Internally, I’ve had some of the worst.  Shit goes down (loss, sickness, the usual growing pains), and I greet it by getting a new job, upping my grades, making more friends, and obtaining WAY more obscure pop culture knowledge.  Awesome. That looks pretty badass when I write my CV, when I call mom and dad, when I run into an ex, when I talk to a gravestone.  But when I really think about it (if I give myself a moment to think about it) staying busy has done little to change the fact that I still can’t face rejection, broken-heartedness, or guilt. I still don’t know how to deal with a sick family. I know even less how to deal with a healthy one (weird, right?).  I am happy, I do believe that, but I don’t think I’m happy because I’m busy. And I KNOW I’m not busy because I’m happy.  The things that keep me busy may contribute to my happiness, but I could learn how to better spend my spare time–how to properly be alone, how to unwind, how to zone out, how to be with myself, by myself.

I would love to be able to relax.

I don’t relax because the go-go-go-go is a socially acceptable way to stay in control.  Because I live in a world where we value shutting up and moving on.  We value restlessness. We value people who make the most of their lives–and that means activity, even in the face of of adversity.  We value people who get things done.

Yes, that’s admirable. And I will never not be an active person.  But my self-worth, my sense of purpose, and my dreams for the future have all become way too tied to my accomplishments. I have become my inability to relax.  And I need, need, need to learn how to turn it off.  I need to give myself the time and space to be lonely, be silent, be empty…and to be okay with that.  I need to learn what really matters.

When was the last time you looked someone in the eye and said “Hey, what was the last record you listened to all the way through?” or “What was the last long walk you took?” or “Do you take the time to ride the bus to nowhere?” or “Who can you share comfortable silence with?”.  Better yet, when was the last time you looked yourself in the eye and asked those things?

(Bat Out of Hell.  I can’t remember. Sometimes. I don’t know.)

We don’t seem to value who or how someone is when they’re doing “nothing,” and I’m worried that I’ve turned that onto myself.  I seem to be actively avoiding the person I am right before I fall asleep, or when I first wake up…when I’m waiting in line, when I’m praying, when I’m staring out the window, when I’m relaxing (which I never do).

It’s easy to avoid her when she never stops moving.

I have worried more about my CV in the last two years than I have worried about my soul–and, either way, I have spent more time worrying than I have relaxing. Relaxation, as I mentioned, is not in my vocabulary.  Yes, there have been times where I have needed that defense mechanism of being busy or distracted all the time. But now?

Now, I just need me. I just need to relax. And I know that will not come easily.

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Resolution 2013? I think so.

My Creative Frenzy: Why Alternative Projects Are the Best

This year, I was given the opportunity in one of my classes to pursue and “alternative project” in lieu of writing a paper.

I am such a big fan of the alternative project. It gets me in the biggest creative frenzy.

I had participated in the University of Ottawa’s Community Service Learning program a few times, so I knew what it was like to do something a little different for a class project.  I knew I liked it, too. With CSL, professors can offer students the opportunity to do course-related volunteer field work instead of writing a paper. In first year, I made teaching aids. In second year, I delivered an Aboriginal history presentation for some grade four classes.   And in both cases, I learned a whole lot more from those experiences than from “here today, gone tomorrow” essays.

This year, I took a Colonial American History course that allowed students to design an alternative media/internet project. My mind went more than a little crazy. I’m a History student, yes, but I’m also pursuing a Communications major. I pretty much lived in the Communications Technology room in high school.  I’m a new media diehard.  I used to make short films and write folk songs in lieu of writing papers in high school.  And, obviously, I blog.  Interactive/Media history? I had to get on that. THIS IS EXCITING.

It didn’t take long for me to decide what I wanted to do.  American musical history is fascinating to me. Really, the profound relationship between sound and society is fascinating to me, which I guess explains why I’m so excited to be interning for Smithsonian Folkways this winter.  It’s also why I decided to create an online resource exploring Colonial American music for my alternative project.

Check it out: http://soundsofthecolonies.wordpress.com/

A few notes from the experience:

  • This ended up feeling almost like an interactive, online version of liner notes…you know, like the booklets inside CDs?  How cool would it be if CDs came with programs like this to explore what was behind the music, kinda like a DVD menu? I assume this is already a thing that happens, but is should happen more–when it comes to music with strong historical/cultural significance, technology could be really valuable in bringing the learning to the next level.
  • The best way to make an interactive map? Skip the “interactive map” websites, and upload a jpeg to Thinglink.  You can add links, notes, and markers to images. Made for a really cool music map of New England on my end. (Teaching tool alert, educator friends!)
  • The constant battle: The more information you have, the harder it is to cut it into bite-sized pieces–especially when that information is circumstantial and you’re like “But…but..but…complexity…and…”. I have this issue with essays, too, but for some reason breaking it down for the internet required even more messing around with conflicting ideas to get to the core of what was going on. Filler was just less of an option.
  • Music matters. A lot. Probably more than I even suspected before starting this project. It’s such a big indicator of so many cultural and human elements.
  • I HAVE SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN. It’s weird to do so much research, feel so flooded with questions, and then need to step up with some kind of concise thesis.  Bringing everything behind your questions together in order to project some sort of objective answer is tough. I have information, yes. But I can’t wait to gain more insight.
  • I’m excited for the future of history, ethnomusicology, and education in the new media environment.  Interactive maps and YouTube videos and downloadable liner notes and iTunes U?  So much fun to play with.

I don’t know how many other people chose to do an alternative project. Maybe the number wasn’t that big. But just the fact that we were given the opportunity to take our research to a different place was awesome (not to mention, it kept me from falling asleep on the job). It was awesome in high school when my Native Studies teacher let me write songs instead of make powerpoints. It was awesome when my grade 12 World History teacher made our seminar assignment so vague that I was able to do mine on an interview with my grandfather. Community Service Learning was, and is, awesome. And, of course, this alternative project was the coolest opportunity.  I even got to bounce this project off of the wonderful people and resources at Smithsonian Folkways.  How cool is that?

Very cool.

Non-boring, non-fiction. It happens.

Here’s some faulty middle school logic for you: I was a super dorky kid. Super dorky kids are supposed to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are supposed to read impressive books.  They are also supposed to care about politics, listen to interesting music, know stupid trivia, dig computer culture…and understand physics, I suppose, though I knowingly fell flat on that one.

I embraced this so-called intellectual thing pretty hard growing up. I could be the smart kid, right? Never mind that my report card was mediocre at best. Never mind that it took me until the end of high school to even hit the ever-elusive “honour roll.”  Never mind that, quantitatively speaking, I did not always live up to the intellectual side of my super dork image. I could still be the smart kid, right? I could compensate for these set backs by hiding failed math tests and regularly using words like “compensate” and “quantitatively.”  NO ONE NEEDED TO KNOW.

I played the part pretty well. For one thing, I often claimed to read books that my intellectual alter-ego would be totally into. I was an honest kid, don’t get me wrong, and my attraction to my dad’s heavy non-fiction wasn’t exactly untrue.  I was really interested in Pierre Berton’s collected works, and I did really read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” with enthusiasm. Well, I read the first part…of the first chapter. But eventually, these books were all sentenced to hang out and collect dust on my side table.

In my defense, I was fifteen, and bubbly, and dorky.  Drinking my weight in diet coke and playing Guitar Hero with my friends took precedent.  Looking back, “Vimy” was a cool book and I wish I had given it more of a shot, but otherwise I hardly regret how I spent my teenage years. Best laid plans, carpe diem, etc etc.

My ”good intention”-themed gr. 9 bedside table. At least it looks impressive. Like I said, NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW.

I have grown up a bit since then, of course. Developments include me limiting diet coke intake (see also: discovering coffee) and learning to play music on a real instrument, though I still maintain I was far better at caffeinated guitar hero (see also: the glory days). My bedside table of good intentions, which featured a few smart/neglected books, has been upgraded to a full-sized good intentions bookcase headboard. Sure, my record of following through with the reading is much higher, but so are the stakes—this is now a major part of my academic career.  I have surrendered to the power of the textbook.

Do I like reading these non-fiction books? Sometimes. Sometimes, they’re dry and awful. Other times, they are in my second language and it makes my head hurt.  Mostly, they’re just sorta things I have to read because school says so.  But every now and then, I will pick up an academic book on my own accord and ACTUALLY read it through (yes, really). Every now and then, I will find something interesting enough that I will seek to learn more via size 10 Times New Roman print.  In, you know, a book. From, you know, the library.

Yes, really.  It isn’t common.  Most of my reading time is consumed by school. But there are four particular books that I have read through in the last couple years that I can vouch for.  These books are genuinely interesting and page-turning despite being super non-fiction. I know for many of you, the distinction of “super non-fiction” isn’t exactly a bad thing. Still, I find that it can so often be boring. These books are anything but.

4) A woman’s place: seventy years in the lives of Canadian women, compiled by Sylvia Fraser

I actually first discovered “A Woman’s Place” in high school, back when I wrote my first paper on Chatelaine magazine.  Chatelaine, which you may know as “That magazine my mom gets ’cause it came with our cable plan for some reason,” has been around and appealing to Canadian women for almost 85 years.  By Canadian standards, this qualifies as a long-ass time.  I’m more than a little partial to anything about Chatelaine, having spent hours marveling over microfilm of the magazine at the archives. No, I’m not still gunning for “smart kid” position, I just like the friggin’ archives. I like seeing history in raw form.  But even if your idea of a good time differs from mine, I still recommend checking out Fraser’s timeline of oldschool Chatelaine articles. Reading how women saw themselves, their families, their country, and each other? Really interesting stuff.

This was totally a thing. Ask your grandma. Actually…don’t ask your grandma.

The bad news is that “A Woman’s Place” was compiled in 1997, so it’s currently lacking about 15 years of interesting Chatelaine history.  The good news is that for what it does cover, this book is amazing.  Fraser successfully compiled top images and articles in this book, creating a resource that does more than just tell you how Canadian women lived in the 20th Century– it shows you.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll get totally addicted to reading up on the 1940s housewife scene. Relationships, health, employment…not to mention the period when feminist Doris Anderson acted as editor.  This woman was so hardcore that she actually turned down  the opportunity to publish Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” article because, and I quote, “we had already written about all that stuff.”

Excerpts of Chatelaine are, in my opinion, the most easy-to-read and interesting first-hand account of Canadian women’s culture.  After all, this stuff was written with the purpose of entertaining the nation’s ladies.  I’m definitely still entertained.

Just like that. Exactly like that. (Sorry, had to.)

3) The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media by Ilana Gershon

I can actually confirm that reading this book has led to so many amazing conversations, ideas, and writings that I’m losing track. After one such conversation the other party, my friend Niki, headed straight to the library to check this book out. She agrees that it’s good. It’s really, really good.

The fact of the matter is that lots of young adults suffer breakups. Older people suffer breakups too, I know, but I can’t really speak to the volume or complexities there. What I can speak to is that in first and second year university, I was surrounded by the pieces of several teenage hearts literally scattered all over the floor. Then people started new relationships, or flings, or whatever worked in between.  Lots of falling and hormones hanging around. In short, early twenties relationships can be messy.  And the internet only makes it messier.  Ilana Gershon seeks to answer the question that so many of us are asking: how does your  efacetwittertumblrbook respond when the shit hits the fan in your relationship, exactly? How do relationships, nevermind breakups, even WORK in this new media environment?

I think we are unanimous in realizing that it’s not an easy hurdle. Inspired by Gershon’s investigation on the subject I’ve personally written at bit on the subject. The internet is an exciting tool, but it has a major impact on our interpersonal relationships, especially as they develop. I am increasingly seeing it as a rather big, huge, seemingly overlooked deal–a deal which I am so grateful that Gershon was able to shed some light on.  Her insights, based on a large sample of case studies and qualitative research, have definitely placed this book high up on my recommended reads list.

2) “Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music” by Michael J. Gilmour

I was actually really excited when I found this book.  My favourite places are usually either music-y and spiritual-y, so when I saw that someone had ventured to write about how the two relate (and I know they do), I was all over it.  This book actually had me texting my friends all summer with things like “Dude. You have to read this. I have never considered Bat Out of Hell this way before.”

I am always down for new ways to consider Bat Out of Hell.

For me, the most impressive thing about this book is that Gilmour is strikes an impressive balance of intellectualism and humility in his analysis–basically, the guy is is honest. This sounds really simple, but I have read so many pretentious books in religious studies classes that are so over-the-top opinionated that they actually go full circle back to making no point at all. Gilmour, meanwhile, recognizes the broadness and possible controversy within his topic, the subjectivity of music and religion, and the many lenses through which one could analyze the relationship between the two. He also recognizes his strengths and limitations as a scholar and a music fan–and believe me, Gilmour definitely, definitely has strengths in this department.

Gods and Guitars is remarkably well-researched, with so many references to different songs and texts that my insight on post-1960s popular music pretty much tripled after reading it. By connecting the role music plays in peoples’ lives to spirituality, Gilmour is able to analyze how popular music has shaped our cultural understanding life/death/love/other things that religion has historically addressed.  In my case, these connections lead to a whole bunch of “WOAHH” moments during reading.  And, of course, those text messages that start with the word “Dude,” which are always a good sign.

1) “Me Funny” and “Me Sexy” by Drew Hayden Taylor.

I could claim to have always had an interest in Native studies, but the reality is that I have several incredible teachers to thank for teaching me to always, always consider Aboriginal perspective and background when looking at Canadian/American history and culture…not just academically, but as a day to day Canadian, period.

I do this pretty actively. I take the classes. I keep up on the news.  But after preparing a heart-wrenching high school presentation on Residential Schools, my post-secondary self decided it was time to do something (anything, really) other than chronicle genocide when faced with writing papers for Native studies/Canadian studies/post-colonial history courses.

So I turned my research to jokes and sex. Why not, right? It turns out that Aboriginal heritage in the Americas has lot to offer in both of these fields.  In first year, I began the long road of comparing Euro-Christian ideas about sexuality and humour to the cultural ideology held by Aboriginal groups.

Enter books “Me Funny” and “Me Sexy,” which feature essays compiled by Ojibwa humour writer (and generally talented guy) Drew Hayden Taylor. “Me Funny,”  is essentially a collection of intelligent, insightful people being funny ABOUT being funny…and you LEARN STUFF, too.  I learned a whole lot from this one. My grade 12 Native studies teacher constantly impressed upon us that a truly beautiful and intriguing sense of humour is embedded in indigenous culture, but “Me Funny” brought that realization to a whole new level.

Of course, after “Me Funny” I just had to read “Me Sexy.”  Also amazing.  “Me Sexy” presents brilliant first-hand essays that are poignant, interesting, controversial and incredibly telling of the many perspectives on the diverse subject of aboriginal sexuality. We’re talking about ideas and identity regarding the body/sexuality/gender which fall so far from the realm of my otherwise Euro-centric perspective that a 13 page paper I once wrote could barely scratch the surface. This book, even, can barely scratch the surface. But it’s one heck of a brilliant 101 course. Overall, these books are a way to gain cultural understanding/appreciation by reading about jokes and sex. Can’t go wrong.

Are you at the library yet?

I know I’m not the only one with a favourite non-fiction read (or four). Almost everyone knows of a page-turner that also qualifies as “learning material.”  Like I said, it doesn’t happen everyday–at least, not for me. But when it does, it’s awesome.

For me, the best part is that these are the kinds of books that fuel the most interesting conversations. Here, I’ll start one right now: Read any good books lately?