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

Most recently, my Knocking on Heaven's Door is the winner in the category of science fiction in the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards and in the category of fiction in the 2016 Arizona Authors Association Awards. A number of 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 Award for Children's Literature, the WILLA Award for Children's Literature, and the May Sarton Award for Children's Literature.

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.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Radical Renaissance

Radical Renaissance: Writing in the Twenty-first Century

First I am going to talk about my life as a creative writer and then I am going to talk about yours.

I am one of those people who wanted to be a writer when she was eight years old. Well, a number of people of all ages have this compulsion, and at some point in our lives most of us wonder why that is.

It begins with the sheer joy and fun of making up a story. I am going to quote a bit now from the writer C.S. Lewis who, in turn, is talking about J.R. Tolkien and the psychologist Carl Jung. Lewis is speaking specifically of fairy stories or fantasy which is exactly what I wanted to write when I was in the fourth grade. But I think the idea that there are primal and substantive reasons behind the act of writing applies to every kind of creative work—essays, nonfiction, all of it. This quote was written, by the way, in 1963 and you will have to forgive some old-fashioned pronouns:

“According to Tolkien, the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator;’ not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life,’ but making so far as possible a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed. For Jung, fairy tale liberates the archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept, “Know thyself.’”

I am reading this quote mainly for that wonderful phrase: delight naturally arises. That’s how I feel about writing. About writing a short story or a novel, or about writing a nonfiction essay or book. Delight naturally arises. The joy of creating a new world. A subcreator. The ability to be everything in that story--a king, a fox, a leaf in the wind. And the almost mystical pleasure of having all those parts integrated into a shaped whole. Everything is one thing. The joy of breaking free of your personal limitations. The joy of getting outside your ego. The joy of creativity. The joy of flight. The joy of play. Delight naturally arises.

This alone is reason enough to write. But there are other compelling benefits. I could also say that for me, as a child, and later as a young woman without much economic or social status, writing was a way to be seen in the world. Writing is about having someone else read your work. Writing depends on that exchange between reader and writer. Writing is about having a voice that is heard. Writing is about the desire to connect to people. Writing is about the desire to be part of a cultural conversation. And so, yes, writing is also about the desire to influence people. Writing can certainly be about ambition or the need for approval.

Finally, and most significantly in the larger arc of my life, writing has become a way of thinking and feeling and being in the world. Writing is a way of becoming my best self. Writing my thoughts helps clarify them. Moreover, writing is a way to actually generate thought. Writing is not transcription. I don’t have some answer which I am then copying onto the page. I write out of a question and the process of writing leads me to an answer, sometimes through the research, sometimes through the very act of writing. Because writing is a dynamic process that takes place on the page. Neurons are firing. Synapses are snapping. There is energy, action, movement. Writing dislodges things in my mind. It sets things adrift. It brings new ideas together. It makes new connections. And as much as writing is about ideas and abstraction and thought, writing is also about feeling. Writing deepens my engagement with the world. Writing might well liberate archetypes and become a path to individuation. Writing, at the very least, is a way to organize and translate. Writing is certainly a process of exploration and discovery.

In my public life as a writer, in my twenties, I published short stories and essays in small literary journals. I began to write articles for commercial magazines and discovered the thrill of getting paid for writing. Meanwhile I had started teaching writing skills here at Western New Mexico University. I was a hired hand on a few books, including Built to Last, an architectural history of Silver City which some of you know and a high school biography of Frederick Douglas. The first book that I would call my own, however, was a collection of personal essays called Songs of the Fluteplayer, published by Addison-Wesley in 1991. I was 37 years old. Not a prodigy. But a steady plodder. That determined little girl. Once I “broke into publishing,” I became something of a hardened criminal. In the next sixteen years, I published nine books: seven creative nonfiction books with New York publishers, one adult novel with the University of New Mexico Press, and one children’s fantasy—that old dream of the eight-year-old—with Knopf Books for Young Readers. As I had been told to do so by the scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell, I “followed my bliss” and I was somehow given the freedom to write about whatever interested me, in my case, mostly having to do with science, nature, and our relationship to the land.

I have also been told by the people who asked me here today to read a bit from my work during this talk and I’m going to stop and do that briefly—to show you some specific examples of my bliss as a writer. What I will read from is the very first page of my last four books. This will take ten minutes only.

* * * *
I wrote Anatomy of a Rose based on a question, which is the generative source of all my books, questions and not answers. I wanted to know why flowers were so compelling and I also wanted to know what exactly they were doing, their secret life. This was prompted by one of those monsoon seasons here in New Mexico when walking through a meadow or grassland is like walking through a bouquet, all that color, all that scent, all those shapes, and none of it meant for us. Although this book is about pollination ecology, I begin in a chapter called “The Physics of Beauty” with what draws us emotionally to flowers:

“My grandmother in Kansas had a large garden which she used to provide flowers for my father’s grave. We would cut bouquets of snapdragons, zinnias, and cosmos and put them in a coffee can set in the ground near the headstone. My father died when he was thirty-two-years old. Where I live in Silver City, New Mexico, parents decorate the graves of children with holiday ornaments: Easter eggs, Christmas trees, a plastic wreath, a Valentine heart. Some parents do this years and years after a child has died.

My grandmother put flowers on graves until she died at the age of ninety-one: great flowing marigolds for her youngest boy Milburn Grant Apt, weighty white chrysanthemums for her husband Oley Samuel Apt.

Why do we give flowers to the dead? Why do we give flowers to the grieving, the sick, the people we love? Fifty thousand years ago, the Neanderthals, too, buried their relatives with hyacinth and knapweed.

What are we offering? Flowers are not symbols of power. Flowers are too brief, too frail, to elicit much hope of eternity. In truth, flowers are far removed from the human condition and from all human hope. For a moment, in that moment, flowers are simply beautiful.”

I started out knowing that flowers are beautiful. They gladden our hearts. I learned, of course, that flowers run the world. Almost everything we and other mammals eat requires a plant that uses a flower for reproduction. In fact, flowers are powerful. Flowers can be brutal. And without flowers, we would all die.

The next book An Obsession with Butterflies begins:

“In physics, string theory suggests that there are more than four dimensions, perhaps ten in all. These extra dimensions are curled up into a very small space, big enough only for subatomic particles, or tiny loops of vibrating “string.” The theory does not rule out more dimensions, perhaps in the area of time. These dimensions, here but not here, exist outside our range of perception.

Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension. The air trembles with the movement of wings. The approach of a White Admiral. The aerial dance of sulphurs. A painted Lady. A Mourning Cloak. All this existed before, has always existed, but you were unaware. You didn’t see. At various times and places, in winter, or on a busy street, the air is still and butterflies are impossible. Yet their presence remains, like one of those other ten dimensions. You’ve added this to your life.

Butterflies became present in my life one summer afternoon by a river in New Mexico. A Western A Western Tiger Swallowtail dipped by my face. About three inches across, it seemed much larger. Its lemon yellow wings were striped improbably and fluted in black. They filliped into a long forked tail with spots of red and blue. Smelling nothing of interest, the butterfly floated away, leaving me pleased and agitated, as though I had been handed a gift I didn’t deserve. Could this, all along, be a simple truth, beauty without cause or consequence?
The Western Tiger Swallowtail was patrolling for a mate, avoiding birds, and on the lookout for nectar or carrion juices. Like most butterflies, it tasted with its feet and smelled with its antenna. Its genitalia had eyes, light-sensitive cells. It had been alive for a day. It would live another month.

Later I became enamored with the tiniest of butterflies—thumbnail-sized Gray Hairstreaks in my peripheral vision, on a weed or fence, common as a mailbox. But wait until they settle and show their underside. Scallops of mango orange. Patterns of blue and russet. A crescent, a dash, a language in code.

In the second movie of the Jurassic Park series, actor Jeff Goldblum is once again trapped on an island filled with dinosaurs. As the other characters admire a herd of triceratops, Goldblum says drily, “Oooooh. Aaaah. That’s how it always starts. But later there is screaming and running.”
Ooooh. Aaaah. That’s how it starts. Later there are guidebooks and more guidebooks and picnics in meadows and screaming and running. Some of us become obsessed with butterflies, although I would never include myself in that category.

Not like those other people.”

What I learned from writing this book was also a surprise to me. Because butterflies are not especially important pollinators, not like that engine of pollination the bee or even their cousins, the moths. If all the butterflies went extinct, so would a few flowers. But not many. Butterflies are less about ecology and more about grace. Butterflies are a gift.

Finally, Hunger: An Unnatural History was a book I had wanted to write since I was pregnant with my first child, awash in that flood of maternal hormones, wringing my hands over the fact that children were going hungry in the world, that children were dying of hunger. It took me twenty years to convince a publisher to support me in this book and that was mainly because I stopped wringing my hands and approached the subject from a broader perspective. This book begins with the science of hunger in your body, what happens when you skip breakfast, when you fast for three days, when you fast for thirty days. I explore the voluntary-- cultural, spiritual, and social--uses of hunger before I start talking about involuntary hunger, before I get to those starving children.

“Hunger is a country we enter every day, like a commuter across a friendly border. We wake up hungry. We endure that for a matter of minutes before we break our fast. Later we may skip lunch and miss dinner. We may not eat for religious reasons. We may not eat before surgery. We may go on a three-day fast to cleanse ourselves of toxins and boredom. We may go on a longer fast to imitate Christ in the desert—or to lose weight. We may go on a hunger strike. If we are lost at sea, if we have lost our job, if we are at war, we may not be hungry by choice.

Our body is a circle of messages: communication, feedback, updates. Hunger and satiety are the most basic of these. Every day, we learn more about how this system works. We know what hormones run through the blood screaming, “Eat!” We know which ones follow murmuring, “Enough.” We know that it is relatively easy to repress the signal for enough. A gene malfunctions, and a three-year-old girl weighs one hundred pounds: her body does not tell her when to stop eating. That signal is complexly influenced by genetics, chemistry, and culture. For many of us, it has become blurry. Our body doesn’t give us the news or doesn’t give it with enough emphasis.

The signal for hunger is much, much harder to turn off. We are omnivores with an over-sized brain that requires a lot of energy. We are not specialized in how we get our food. Instead, we are always willing, always alert, always ready with a rock or digging stick. We are happy to snack all day long. We are particularly drawn to the high-caloric bit of fat around the deer's kidney and the sweet taste of berries. Our love of fat and sugar has been associated with the same chemical responses that underlie our addictions to alcohol and drugs, and this cycle of addiction may have developed as a way to encourage eating behavior. We hunger easily, we find food, we get a chemical reward. Then we’re hungry again. That’s good because the next time we look for food, we may not find it. Better keep eating while you can.

Human beings evolved for a bad day of hunting, a bad week of hunting, a bad crop, a bad year of crops. We were hungry even in that first Garden of Eden, what some anthropologists call the "Paleoterrific," a world full of large animals and relatively few people. Paleolithic bones and teeth occasionally show an unnatural pause in growth, a sign of food shortage. Our diet didn’t get better as our population grew and the big-game species died out. In the Mesolithic, we foraged more intensively for plants and hunted smaller game with new tools like nets and snares. In the Neolithic, we invented agriculture, which sparked the rise of cities. There is no evidence that any of these changes reduced the odds of starvation or malnutrition. A more common trend seems to be that small-game hunters were shorter and less nourished than their Paleolithic ancestors, farmers less healthy than hunters-and-gatherers, and city-dwellers less robust than farmers. We just kept getting hungrier.

It's no wonder we are programmed to pound the table and demand dinner. The exceptions to this are usually extreme: infection, disease, a terminal illness. For most of us, at regular times, the body shouts, “Feed me, damn it!” Deprived, the body sulks. The body exacts its petty revenge. Finally, with extraordinary cunning, with something that approaches grace, the body turns to the business of the day, beginning what scientists call “the metabolic gymnastics” by which it can survive without food.

If you are a healthy, well-nourished twenty-five-year-old man, you can live this way for sixty days. You can live much longer if you have more fat to break down. The rhythms of your life will change: your heartbeat, your hormones, your thoughts. Your brain will switch to a new energy source, something rare and wonderful, something only humans do and a few lactating ungulates. You will start consuming yourself, but precisely, carefully, with such orchestration.

You are built to be hungry and you are built to withstand hunger. You know exactly what to do.”

Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist was my next book. It’s about everything. And I think I will save that now for my conclusion.

None of these books sold particularly well. You are not looking at a household name or at someone who has made much money from writing. You are looking at someone who has had a lot of cheap thrills. The thrill of doing research, talking to scientists, getting outside your own world, getting all those books from Interlibrary Loan. The thrill of seeing your words translated into Chinese, becoming entirely alien and separate from you, and then imagining those people in China or Korea or Russia reading your work. You are looking at a writer who has felt very lucky. Very happy.

I tell you this not merely to establish my authority today but as the background to my current fall from grace. My world, the world of traditional publishing, is in crisis. My last book came out in 2008 and by now I should be deep in a new contract, a new and exciting book project. I am not. Instead, a year ago, my New York publishers dropped me. My agent, who is now sending out two children’s manuscripts and shopping around a new nonfiction proposal, is not optimistic. I am not optimistic. I don’t see an immediate future for me as a book writer. I don’t know, yet, how to feed my addiction to writing books. I don’t always wake up in the morning with the same excitement of the day. On some days, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I am not alone. Other mid-list writers like myself are also being dropped by their publishers. Other literary agents are not selling work. The staff at most publishing houses is being drastically cut. The remaining editors say no to almost everything that isn’t a slam-dunk commercial success. Small independent bookstores are going out of business, and even the bigger chains like Borders are not something you should invest in. Newspapers are going bankrupt and downsizing, and the traditional venue for book reviews has suddenly disappeared. Print, as we like to say now, is in decline.

I’ll just state quickly some of the obvious reasons. The internet has made it much harder to sell new books. There are over 20,000 book sellers on the net and almost all of these are selling used books. There are websites where hundreds of thousands of readers can swap books through the mail. Then there is Kindle selling an electronic book for ten dollars. Last year, the sale of electronic books was greater than the sale of print books. Essentially a product that can require considerable time and expense can now be acquired at very little expense. In various ways, better technology has undermined the traditional form of writing as commerce.

Traditional publishers themselves are part of the problem. Many of the big corporate-owned publishers came to rely on a model where they paid huge advances for potential best-sellers that didn’t pay off. Publishers also pay enormous costs in operation—particularly for that choice office building and prime real estate in New York. At the same time, publishers weren’t paying attention to new forms of marketing on the internet. When I suggested a blog tour for my last book, my New York publicist said she had no experience with that—now, when someone from Silver City knows more about an industry than the industry does, that’s a sign of something going wrong. In truth, the digital revolution—a world where you can read a book online or order a book printed at an Expresso Book Machine, where the word viral is a good thing—all this has happened so fast and is continuing to happen so fast that tradition-bound publishing just couldn’t and didn’t keep up.

Most of this, by the way, was happening before the economic downturn. The demise of print publishing can not simply be blamed on villainous bankers and stock traders.

And none of this means that people are reading less. A 2008 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts actually says that people are reading 7% more literature since 2002, with the biggest increases in young adults 18-24, and in Hispanic-Americans and African Americans.
People are reading more, and people are writing more. People are writing blogs about their midlife crisis and their parenting and their spirituality and their discovery of native plants or dinosaur tracks. People are writing romance novels and science fiction novels and mystery novels and literary novels and self-publishing them as print-on-demand books. Last year more of these books were produced than by traditional methods of publishing. Maybe the self-published writer does all the work of getting her manuscript ready and then pays nothing for a commercial service to give her book an ISBN number and put it up for sale on the internet. The service then takes a percentage of the sales. Or maybe, and more likely, the author buys from this publishing service editorial help or has them design the cover and page lay-out or contracts for marketing and publicity in the hope of getting more readers than family and friends.

Bottom line: you can write a book now and you can see it in print, spending as much or as little as you like. You can also join a writing community online, a community of beginning writers who will give you support, encouragement, advice, and more readers. You can enter online writing contests. You can do the increasingly well-known NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, which happens every November and which in 2008 had 120,000 participants. More than 20,000 of those finished their goal of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.
Amazing. The democratization of writing. This is not the traditional and elitist model of East and West Coast publishers deciding who gets to write and who gets to be read. This is you getting to write and you getting read.

Let me give you an example of my daughter’s experience last Christmas.

First I’ll quickly define fan fiction, a genre in which writers take existing literary worlds—from TV shows to ancient Greek myths—and build on those characters and plots. Often these writers are young adults who are most happy subverting these worlds, playing with gender roles and sexual orientation, crashing together realities by having Harry Potter meet up with Captain Kirk, throwing in some Japanese anime for spice, mixing and matching, churning and spinning, playing out new fantasies, new directions, new possibilities. It’s wildly creative and purely fun. It can be erotic, outrageous, and combative. It is outside commerce, not for profit, and it is enormously successful. The best know fanfiction site hosts millions of stories in dozens of languages, stories that are archived and read and reread.

In this brave new world, a group of people run a website called Yuletide where fanfiction authors post a wishlist of stories they would like to read and then agree to write one such story themselves, a minimum of 1000 words, with all the stories posted on December 25. This is a secret Santa exchange. Over Thanksgiving break, my daughter Maria described the story she wanted and got her assignment of what to write—in this case, a continuation of the anime movie Spirited Away. Maria had some intense days of writing, she consulted some editors—me and her best friend. She rewrote the piece, revised a little more. Then she sent the story off. On December 25, it was posted, along with 3500 other stories, got 603 hits, with 13 comments or reviews, and 10 people who thought it was the best story of the week, the best story ever. She got the entire psychological experience of being a writer in a month. The joy of creation. The more subtle pleasure of revision. The fun of being read. A few book reviews. Praise and reward. Then it was time for her to go back to graduate school. I have to say that I watched on with envy.

I have segued now from my life as a writer into your life as a writer—not necessarily fan fiction, but all these other possibilities. Some of you already know about these possibilities. Some of you are already blogging, already writing haiku as twitter, already thinking about the memoirs you want to write for your children and grandchildren, already designing your cover art. Some of you have already discovered that it’s ten times more fun to wake up in the morning and write your own murder mystery than it is to read one.

Some of you are suspicious. Self-publishing, vanity press—well, look at those words. Self. Vanity. You distrust new forms of creativity that are not vetted by outside sources, that do not have a collective and social stamp of approval. You value the way publishers have served as a filter, protecting you from bad writing. You know that there is a difference between the published writer who has served years of apprenticeship, who has burnt her financial bridges by getting an MFA instead of going to law school, who has suffered through scores of rejection letters, written drawers of drafts, fought her way through angst and self-doubt—that dogged little girl, moi!--to be finally selected for publishing through a competitive process. You know there is a difference between that published writer and the writer who pays Create Space to put it on the net for sale. You also value work in terms of commerce. You see money as a validation. Real writers get paid.

And you are right, on many levels. In most complex situations there is room for being right and wrong at the same time. The democratization of writing, the access to being read as a writer, means there will be more amateur and undisciplined writing in the world. The Google search engine doesn’t distinguish quality. For a long time, perhaps, everything will seem a muddle and a mish mash. The question of how serious writers can make money on their work is still up in the air. The question of who will now decide to commit their lives to writing is still up in the air. The form in which we choose to read is still up in the air.

Eventually, things will sort out. We’ll find ways to value and vet good writing on the internet. We’ll have new filters. We will still have blockbusters, books that we all read together, that touch us collectively. We will still have a range of writers, from serious to celebrity to amateur. We will actually have a broader range. We will have more specialized niches, more curious books on even curiouser subjects. We will have a greater diversity of writing.

If we don’t know exactly what we will lose in this future, we already know what we will gain. You know that already because either you are secretly writing a book or you are going to go home and write a book, inspired by my talk today. We have opened up writing. The floodgates of creativity. There’s no turning back.

As a writer, I may have temporarily lost my job. I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. I still have a good job, teaching here at Western New Mexico University. The joy of writing is not contingent on publishing. The sky is still a deep New Mexican blue. The birds are still singing. Pollen is in the air.

As a teacher of writing skills, I am in more demand than ever. For twelve years now I have been teaching MFA students at Antioch University in Los Angeles at a low-residency program. I don’t know what is going to happen to those students. They are entering the new world with old world expectations of publishing. More pertinently, in the past four years, I have started teaching online graduate students here at WNMU who are getting their Masters of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. One of these disciplines is writing and the enrollment is steadily increasing. Right now my Writing Fiction class includes students from San Diego, Tallahassee, Deming, and rural areas throughout the country. These people want to join the radical renaissance of the twenty-first century. They want to write their books, their dreams—they want to write themselves into their best selves--and they want to learn as much as they can learn about the art and craft of writing and rewriting. Some of these students dream the old dream of “making it big,” commercial success, the next John Grisham. They equate writing with a career or a bank statement. But more are writing from the heart for the heart. They are writing to clarify their thoughts and to feel more deeply and to live more intensely in the present. They are writing so that that they can feel that joy of waking up and thinking, “Oooh, I get to work on Chapter Fourteen today.” I get to write that scene where Sophie reveals her love for Judy or the cybernetic Polish-speaking goldfish flies to the moon or the evil politician undercuts health care and then dies of blood poisoning. I get to be anything I want, a king or a fox or a leaf in the wind.

I titled this “Writing in the 21rst Century” and of course that was a lie, designed to lure you here and make you think you were going to learn something about the future. In truth, somewhat more knowledgeable than I am might be able to predict writing five years out--but probably not. The CEOs of major publishing houses, the editors, the agents, the writers, the social critics—we are all watching the future happen. New business arrangements, new marketing strategies, new technologies. Imagine yourself standing by the microwave and waiting for that mini-bag of popcorn to finish. Pop, pop, pop, pop. That’s one image of the publishing world. Another might be the sound of a balloon deflating.

In truth—and this is less a parenthetical aside than you think, this is an appropriate if sudden turn of thought--I believe in climate change. I believe we are facing some environmental consequences to our actions such that business as usual is not going to be possible thirty or forty or forty years from now, and so my vision of the mid to late 21rst century is really more about the apocalypse than a new renaissance.

But not even that, not even my greatest fears for us, for our world, for our children and grandchildren, changes my belief in the inherent power and joy and instinct of writing. Because although I may not know much, I do know that we are the story-telling animal. We are the animal for whom imaginative play became an adaptive trait that fostered flexibility and opportunism. In our long developmental time as children, we learn through trial-and-error, through games, through the exercise of creativity. We are the animal who does art and who needs art—from the nearly constant art-making of the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers with their cave paintings and beaded clothes and engraved tools and, quite probably, stories around the campfire—to the nearly constant art of today with our books and our movies and our music, our doodles, our crafts. Through our art, we engage in the world, we order the world, we fall in love with the world. Through our art, through our stories, we reach out to each other. That’s the radical renaissance and, of course, it is not radical at all, and it is not a renaissance in the sense of something new: it is simply who we are being who we are.

Delight naturally arising.

I am going to conclude with the first two pages of Standing in the Light. This is a history of pantheism which is perhaps best defined by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius when he said “Everything is connected and the web is holy” or by Frank Lloyd Wright who said, “I believe in God only I spell it Nature.” This is a history of pantheism in Western thought from the early Greeks, the pre-Socratics to the American transcendentalists, but I began as I usually do with an intimate experience, with where I enter the subject. Ironically, I suppose this passage is also about silence whereas I have been talking for the last forty minutes mostly about speech and words.

“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.”

Thank you so much for having me here today.


Kit said...

I wanted to tell you: I just finished "Standing in the Light" a few minutes ago. I've been working through it for about three and a half months, give or take. Usually I am more of a speed-reader, but I could tell right off that your book was going to take a lot more time and care. I wrote notes as I read, considering my own world as seen through your words. My world is so different--urban, fast-paced, stress-filled, uncertain, and anything but serene. And I am in the midst of upheavals, twenty years old and trying to find my career path, trying to find out what I think about the world, trying to understand my place in the universe.

I have to thank you. Your book didn't just define pantheism; it showed it as well. I read it partly because I had no idea what "pantheism" meant, and I am exploring all kinds of philosophies and worldviews and so forth at this time. Within the first few pages, I was intrigued. By the time I was halfway through, I was calling myself a pantheist. You just--kept saying everything that is in my head, and then some. I have so much to think about, and it feels amazing. I didn't even know there was a word for how I look at the world. I didn't know how to be an atheist (which I am) AND look up at the stars and feel a rush like nothing else. I had thought I had to give up my awe at the universe if I were going to be a Proper Atheist. No more. I think the universe is amazing. I am excited to live in it. I wrote down the last line ("...when you live in a place, eventually you will see all its wonders") and that piece of paper now lives on my wall.

Thank you for opening up a new way of thinking for me. I can see now that I am still a part of nature even though my feet know asphalt and my eyes know skyscrapers. "Nature" is not just when I get some time to go camping. Which, incidentally, I will be doing this weekend. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it--I think it will be that much more breathtaking post-reading.

小晶 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Cirrelda said...

You voice a full view - thank you! Glad to hear it all.