Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

My new eco science fiction Knocking on Heaven's Door is just released. A number of early reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Below are the first pages of the first chapter to Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist.


Standing in the Light


In the summer of 1996, I sat on my porch steps in the small town of Silver City, New Mexico, trying to decide if I should become a Quaker. I had attended my local Meeting off and on for twelve years but had not yet written my official letter asking for membership. Should I write that letter now? I was forty-two years old, a wife and mother. I felt anchored in my life. I felt the sun on my face. I felt the rough concrete against my legs. I watched an ant move across the sidewalk. Was I ready, for the first time, to join an organized religion? Did I have in fact any religious belief, or was I mainly attracted to Quaker culture and history?

The Quakers in my Meeting are also known as unprogrammed Quakers and Universalists. Following the earliest tradition of Friends, we have no scripture, no preacher, no creed. Instead, we practice silence, the act of sitting in a circle, saying nothing, and waiting--waiting for the Light. The Light is a deliberately broad concept. Among Universalist Friends, the Light can take the shape of Christ, the son of a heavenly Father, or the shape of Buddha, a human prince who enlightened himself and preached the Middle Way. Or the Light can take no shape at all and serve only as metaphor, a substitute for the ineffable. In my Meeting, how each Friend defines the Light is a personal choice. We conform to Quakerly ways of opening and closing silence. We share similar ideas about social justice and nonviolence. We wait for the Light. We do not ask much of our members. We do ask this.

In front of me, on my porch step, was a sidewalk, a patch of grass, a broad strip of asphalt, more sidewalk, a stone wall, a pine tree and, higher above, electrical wires. Cars drove by. A raven gurgled, liquid and insistent. In the blue sky, white clouds floated above brown hills. “Well,” I said to myself, “the Light is all this, I suppose, these steps, this concrete, this ant, that raven. The weft and warp. It is,” I gestured, “the street.”

I did not have the perspicuity to shout, “Pantheism.” I would do that a few hours later, looking at a dictionary. Pantheism is the belief that the universe, with all its existing laws and properties, is an interconnected whole which we can rightly consider sacred. At that moment, I had decided to call the wholeness of the universe the Light. I had decided to believe in a holiness that was not confined to any one thing but immanent in everything. God was in the raven and concrete not as a supernatural being but as the miracle of raven-ness and hydrogen molecules and light waves bouncing off a hard surface to enter my soft receptive eye--an image reflected upside down which my brain instantly turned right, my brain humming with insight, adrenaline in the blood, water vapor in the sky, all of it an amazement, all of it numinous. Suddenly, on those porch steps, I was so pleased, so grateful to be part of this existence.

Soon after, I joined my Quaker Meeting, or the Religious Society of Friends, or more simply the Gila Friends since our membership extends across the watershed of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, surrounded by the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness in a specific landscape of ponderosa pine, juniper, oak, prickly pear, grama grass, and yucca. It is a landscape of transition, between conifer forest, grassland, and high desert, a southern range for elk, a northern for coatimundi. It is a place where not enough rain falls and then too much, flooding the arroyos. Very few people in our Meeting are originally from this area. Most of us have come here just to be here, our home of choice.

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Pantheism is a word easily confused with other words. Pantheon, for example, refers to a collection of many gods. Polytheism is the belief in many gods. When I tell an acquaintance that I am a pantheist, she looks at me scant-eyed. Do I believe in tree spirits? No, that is animism, I explain—the belief that individual souls inhabit natural objects and phenomena. Am I a pagan? she wonders. Yes, I say. Paganism is the religion of anyone not specifically a Christian, Muslim, or Jew. But, I add, she is probably thinking of Neo-pagans, people from a modern, technological society who are trying to revive the ancient worship of nature. My pantheism does revere nature. But I don’t practice any ancient rituals.

Importantly, what pantheism is not is theism--the acceptance of a single, personal god. Pantheism is not atheism, either, a disbelief in a sacred or numinous universe. There is some argument here. The well-known atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins calls pantheism “sexed-up atheism.” Well, nothing wrong with being sexy. But the pantheist acknowledges a strong religious impulse. The pantheist walks literally, every day, in the Mind and Body of God. Panentheism sounds the most like pantheism but also is not, being the doctrine that God is both immanent in the world and transcendent or outside it, too.

I was born in 1954. Growing up in America in the last half of the twentieth century meant being exposed to almost every belief system listed above. My mother was an agnostic, a widow and professional bridge player who raised her two girls in apartment buildings in Phoenix, Arizona. We didn’t go to church. In the summers, I was sent to Kansas to live with my father’s parents where being a Methodist was like eating breakfast or buying sneakers, part of the rhythm of life. I recited the Nicene creed and ate potato salad at the church picnic. Back in Phoenix, I went to temple with Jewish friends and Mass with Catholic friends, fancying myself an anthropologist--but also hungry for something. These were secret worlds. I listened by the door. In college, one of my roommates had an alter to the Hindu god Ganesh. The Hare Krishnas filled the airports then. My older sister practiced Transcendental Meditation. Meanwhile, some Westerners were looking to their druidic past. They wanted to believe in magic, and New Age mythology was a wide net: crystals, covens, tree spirits.

Today I have to wonder why pantheism—a word I only learned in 1996, at the age of forty-two—was the one belief not to winnow out, the wheat separated from the chaff, the gold panned.

There is a time in a reader’s life when books are inhaled and absorbed into the body. They become the body of who you are. Between the ages of 17-22, I gulped down writers. I read them fast and whole, something like a snake swallowing its prey, and I read everything they wrote, one book after another, trying to steal their souls or, more nicely, become who they were. Starting with nineteenth-century literature, I read Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Particularly, I read Whitman, in love with the physical world and finding divinity everywhere, for whom “a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion infidels” and a gnat sufficient explanation. I could as easily have read Wordsworth or Tennyson.

I read avowed pantheists like D.H Lawrence and the poet Robinson Jeffers, who wrote, “I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy…The whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it and to think of it as divine.” I could as easily have read Frank Lloyd Wright, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature” or Albert Einstein, “I am a deeply religious unbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”

After college, I traveled through India and Southeast Asia, the de rigueur copies of the Bhagavad-Gita and Upanishads in my backpack. I was still the anthropologist, still listening by the door. It never occurred to me to become a Hindu or Buddhist. But the ideas echoed nicely. The Hindu god Brahma becomes all things. All the world is Brahmin. Buddha has Reality for his body. The Buddha’s body is the world.

Eventually, I went to a graduate writing program in Missoula, Montana. Everything, always, had been about writing. I composed my first story in the fourth grade and never looked back. In my understanding of how I was to live, in my nascent and fumbling sense of how I could live, everything had to be transformed into language. Everything had to be transformed. It hardly seems now I had a choice. It seems now that writing was something that happened to me--which is what, I have learned since, many writers think. Of course, it is not true. Of course, we chose.

As it turned out, graduate school was less about writing and more about mountains and cold weather and falling in love. Peter was also in the writing program, a young intellectual from a military family who had spent most of his childhood in Europe and the East Coast. We were different enough to attract each other but alike enough to stay together. We had mutual dreams. It was in the air. Earth Day. Ecology. Back to the land. We talked about our desire for roots and community. We wanted to connect more directly to life. We were hungry for something.

In the 1980s, Peter and I married, moved to southwestern New Mexico, bought twelve acres in a small valley near the Gila National Forest, and built an adobe house—a house made of mud. Born in city and suburb, we were reading eagerly now about composting toilets and killing gophers and pruning fruit trees. We had a wonderful view of a distant mountain. We had an oppressively-large garden which we irrigated from a nearby acequia and a small herd of goats. We had two homebirths—a girl and a boy--and too much home-made cheese in the refrigerator. Our naivety that we could live simply and sustain ourselves on this land lasted about two weeks, or perhaps a little longer. Peter took on a succession of jobs: high school teacher, Nature Conservancy field director, and town planner for Silver City, thirty miles away. I became a teacher of writing skills at the small university in Silver City, a job I still have twenty-five years later.

Living in the country, our social life revolved around potlucks, and these gatherings were often Quakerly since a number of “weighty” Quakers happened to live in our valley, too. Some were involved in the Sanctuary Movement, a network of churches committed to helping refugees flee the political violence in Guatemala and El Salvador. Almost all the Quakers I know are deeply political, believing that the Peaceable Kingdom or Kingdom of God exists here and now and not anywhere else. They want to “stand in the Light” when that kingdom is threatened. Between raising my children, commuting into town, teaching, and writing, I was learning about Quaker ideals from people who were trying to live out those ideals. I was learning about silence and the small inner voice that can be heard in silence.

Then we moved to town. Our children were growing up. Peter and I had not quite foreseen that this would happen—that our children would grow up and want to play Little League, join band, or be in a drama club. The local middle and high school required an hour and half bus ride there and back, and now the days were never long enough for all the things we had to do and all the time spent in a car. In 1996, the same year I finally joined my Quaker Meeting, my husband and I left our small rural valley for Silver City, population 10,000, with a trade area of 30,000. We did this so our daughter Maria and son David could have a better education and more conventional social life. So we wouldn’t have to cross a river to drive thirty miles to work. So I could walk to the university and Peter could walk to his office at city hall. In town, we would be closer to shops and the library. We could go to cultural events, the occasional concert or play. We could have central heating instead of a wood stove. Life would be easier.

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1 comment:

Pandeist said...

I dig your situation -- as a pandeist, I never come to the end of people misconstruing my beliefs....