Believe it! Or not?

September 30, 2010

My husband teases me because, one time, while sitting around a campfire, I said that I don’t believe in outer space. A few years later, I became a wide-eyed believer in a theory cleanly articulated in a television special about how ancient aliens with superior knowledge of science and engineering had rocket ships that landed in different places on earth, where they then taught the natives to build pyramids.

Sometimes I don’t really agree with myself.

But beliefs are like that. Maybe you can remember when you stopped believing in magic or the Tooth Fairy, but as adults we carry most of our beliefs around unexamined.

Wisconsin Book FestivalThe theme of the Wisconsin Humanities Council’s Wisconsin Book Festival this year is Beliefs. There are more than 120 authors and presenters who bring with them, no doubt, more than 120 ways of seeing things.

For example, Katharine Hayhoe, who is outspoken as both a Christian and a climate scientist. She will be talking about her book, “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith Based Decisions.”  The Website publicizing the book offers a quiz with four questions. The questions, which require a Fact or Fiction response, have been written to encourage an initial examination of our beliefs.  The Bible explicitly tells Christians that planet care is part of their calling. Right? I wanted to believe this one, but I’m guessing Ms. Hayhoe will break it down for me on Saturday, October 2 (10-11:30 AM at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts) .

There are also a number of authors of memoirs and autobiographies as part of the Festival this year. Reading a book about another’s life has always been, for me, one of the ways I’ve gotten out of my own skin. This often results in a widening of perspective and a change in what I believe. Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong woman who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She writes about what most of us will never experience, yet her voice and story resonate with many of the over 200,000 Hmong who have settled in the U.S. since 1975. I look forward to hearing from someone believed by some to be one of Minnesota’s most important writers. She will be presenting, along with Judy Pasternak, on Saturday, October 2 (5:30 – 7 PM at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts).

Unique to this year’s Festival is the performance of a new play, written by Wisconsin author David Rhodes, called “Happy and the River.” The play honors the Wisconsin Senator from Clear Lake, Gaylord Nelson, and the St. Croix River that he worked to protect. All year, as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of Earth Day, there have been teach-ins throughout the St. Croix River watershed where people have come together to think about their community’s environmental legacy, assets, and current challenges. It is a concept based on the practical and participatory model of organizing Senator Nelson used to catalyze Earth Day from an idea to a worldwide peaceful demonstration. While the play celebrates a man who worked hard for what he believed in, the Madison teach-in before the performance gives us a chance to think about how our values, and beliefs, shape the world we live in today. (1:30 – 2:30 at Madison Public Library Main Branch).

Throughout the Festival, participants are encouraged to share a bit of themselves. There are pens, Post-it Notes, and easels with with prompts like: Recommend a book that has shaped your beliefs. If your worldview could be summed up in a phrase, what would it be? Share an idea from the Festival that sticks with you.

It’s hard to predict now what I will remember most, which ideas I’ll find most intriguing, which authors most inspiring. I just never know, from day to day, what will float my boat, so to speak, rock my world, or leave me guessing. But I will recommend a book: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi.

Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council