Monthly Archives: January 2012

Showalter: memoir is a ‘radical act’

My interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter concludes with her discussion of her writing process and of her vision for the potential for memoir, a “radical act,” to build peace in the world.

Q: You prepared for writing a memoir by reading and attending workshops, so I suspect you’re a what fiction writers call a “pantser” instead of a “plunger” for the actual writing. Did you outline what you’re now writing or make a timeline or otherwise make yourself a roadmap?

I guess I’m a “pantser” if I understand the distinction. I wrote a proposal to Herald Press, the publishing arm of Mennonite Church-USA. The proposal required me to outline how I envisioned the project and to send some sample chapters. I did that last summer after having written about six to eight essays of an average length of 3,000 words. I had a beginning, a very fuzzy roadmap, and a willingness to work hard. I knew most of those chapters would not be usable without revision and placement into a larger structure.

By giving myself a deadline (and now by placing a countdown clock on my website!), I was making myself accountable both to my editor and and my readers. But most of all, I am accountable to myself.

I don’t have an MFA in creative nonfiction, so I am trying to create the curriculum that fits my life circumstances (living in an exciting new city and taking care of my grandson 5 hours/day) and my personality. Being a “pantser” keeps me focused. I take in all new influences like a sponge on its way to a canvas where it will leave traces of color on the memoir I am trying to paint with words.

If I had “plunged” without the urgency of a deadline, I would still be a sponge, but a more contemplative one. I might even be able to place color on the memoir canvas more artistically at a later time, but I also take the risk of never getting to the canvas at all. So here I am, with pants in chair, ready to hit Chapter Seven again.

I do have an outline, but only of chapter titles, not chapter content and structure. Right now I am following it primarily to get my subjects lined up and organized into different “buckets.” It could change drastically after the draft is complete.

Q: Now for a dumb question. Why is writing so hard? I smiled when you mentioned on your blog that you are finding it laborious. I remember amazedly thinking the same thing halfway through my own memoir.

I smile too. And I don’t know the answer for anyone else, but let’s try a few Mennonite farm girl responses off the top of my head:

  • Because of sin in the Garden of Eden. For writers it often happens like this—you read a great writer’s prose and all of a sudden the words on your own page, which thrilled you to write, sound tinny in your own inner ear. That’s called covetousness, and it is a sin because it turns joy into sorrow. We aren’t called to be Annie Dillard. There’s only room for one of her. We are called to appreciate and learn from her. And then to sing our own song in our own voice.
  • Because “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” And doing it right is always harder. Just ask H. Richard Hershey, known as Daddy by Rosy Cheeks.
  • Because first drafts are always full of manure, to paraphrase Anne Lamott.
  • Because hard work is good for us! Writing is another form of manual labor, and manual labor requires the building up of muscles. Muscles get sore and tired before they get fit and toned. “You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.”—Philip Glass
  • Because we forget that even though we are alone in our room, we are never alone. We are always connected to the greatest force in the universe, love. We have to listen, relax, and wait. Love will sing through us if we don’t push too hard.
  • Because we are so easily distracted by lesser things.
  • Because we are afraid we might hurt someone with our truth.
  • Because we are afraid both of looking proud and being self-absorbed.

 Q: You write in your recent post on the concept of ubuntu that “memoir writing is much more than a single writer with a pen in her hand.” You say, “It is a radical act: ‘I want you to be all you can be so that I can be all that I can be. I need you to be you so that I can be me.’ ” Could you say a bit more about importing to America this win-win ethos?

Radical, of course, means “going to the root.” So that’s why I’m so interested in the long and deep view of my own life.

I’m just beginning to think about this Ubuntu idea, so I am far from articulate about it. I spent time with students in Haiti and in the Ivory Coast as part of the Goshen College international service learning program. I traveled with a group of higher education leaders to South Africa. In all these times of cultural immersion, I sensed the spiritual wealth of the people in these countries through their music, their storytelling, their visual art. So when I heard Archbishop Tutu describe Ubuntu, I visualized people dancing and singing, laughing and playing together. I hear the freedom songs, and my spirit soars.

Here’s a group of young singers coming under the spell of freedom by singing the South African freedom song “Singabahambayo.” One of the characteristics of a freedom song is that it doesn’t limit itself to the problems of the day but imagines breaking free in time and space. You can’t sing these songs and sit still. Notice not only the movement of the bodies but the interaction with the audience, the impromptu hugs, the abandon and exuberance.

The invisible web connecting all of us to each other can be made visible in community. Mennonites have their own forms of Ubuntu: we build community with our food, our arts and crafts, our care for the victims of disaster and poverty, the sick and the dying, and our nurture of children. My particular Mennonite faith prepared me to experience a universal principle named Ubuntu.

I get excited when I think about the potential for memoir to build peace in the world.

I get excited when some of the burden for my own book is carried by others who have graciously shared their stories with me via the web. I am motivated to endure the hard work just described in the question above because doing so might help some reader break through to transformation in his or her own life.

One of the greatest poets of all time, Emily Dickinson, expressed an Ubuntu thought in this poem I memorized in eighth grade because I had an old-fashioned teacher who made us recite in class.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Ironically, Dickinson was a recluse. But I like to think that she would agree wholeheartedly with the Ubuntu goal of becoming one’s best self by writing to the best self of others, not only easing their pains but also igniting their full flowering.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, poetry, religion & spirituality, working method

Finding her memoir’s ‘topic sentence’

I want to prepare for the hour of my death by living one good day at a time. And I want to help others to do the same.

—Shirley Hershey Showalter’s mission statement

Shirley Showalter

Shirley Showalter is an essayist, blogger, speaker, consultant, retired college president, granny nanny, and memoirist-in-progress, currently writing Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Childhood. She agreed to answer some questions after my last post about her philosophy, which is epitomized by her new, free e-book, How to Write a Memoir: Seven Practices for Creating a Memoir that Sings. Her mission statement above is taken from the e-book.

Q: I just love your memoir’s title, Rosy Cheeks. I haven’t met you in person but imagine your cheeks are, or were, rosy! What is the significance of your title? It may be literally true but also feels metaphorically powerful.

First let me emphasize that Rosy Cheeks is a working title. It could change! I thought of it because one of my favorite high school teachers coined that nickname for me. Yes, I had, and still have, rosy cheeks. I suppose I might have been influenced a little by Tina Fey’s title Bossy Pants, also. I haven’t read the book yet, but it too sounds like a nickname.

Some biblical and literary roots fascinate me. The story of David was one that both the Goshen College presidential search committee and I independently found meaningful before I was called to the presidency: David, the ruddy-cheeked shepherd boy was plucked out of the fields by Samuel, who was guided by God to pass over his stronger, older, brothers.

Another connection. I did a master’s thesis on John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the “schoolhouse poets,” in the days when many children memorized “Barefoot Boy” with his “cheeks of tan.”

Finally, I’m named for Shirley Temple. As a baby I was the rosy-cheeked Shirley doll my mother wanted but could not have in her youth.

These are some biographical connections of the working title, However, I’ll only choose it in the end if it works metaphorically on every level intended. The publisher will help choose also. In the meantime, I would love to know what metaphorical possibilities you and others see!

Q: To become a published memoirist, you first read 100 memoirs, blogged about your learning process, attended conferences and workshops, and landed a contract. Most of us just plunge in—and flail around and sometimes sink. How did you originate your sensible and systematic approach?

Like most histories, mine only looks “sensible and systematic” in hindsight. Two early influences helped me a lot. The Kalamazoo Gazette conducts a literary awards competition every year. There’s a very literate audience and many excellent writers clustered in that region. I had just moved there from Goshen, Indiana, and decided to try my hand at memoir.

Personal essays were my favorite genre to teach in the Expository Writing class I had taught for years, and I had published three or four personal essays in books already. So I took a long weekend at Gilchrist Retreat Center and wrote three short memoir stories. They poured out of me, and one of them won first place in the contest. One of the characteristics of Rosy Cheeks is that she is easily encouraged. 🙂

Another help was to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and hear, early and often, that writers must blog—and that the chances of getting published by mainstream publishers is next to zero if you don’t have an already-established platform. Discouragement is the source of creative inspiration for Rosy Cheeks. So I started thinking about publishing alternatives early on.

The idea of calling on and calling forth community did not occur to me at the beginning, but it’s in my Mennonite DNA. When I came across that idea, I felt I had “hit the home pasture,” a lovely phrase from my favorite writer Willa Cather.

Q: On your blog you refer to having forged a faith journey outside of the Mennonite community you grew up in. To me, that sounds like a book in itself—and one I’d dearly love to read. How big a part of Rosy Cheeks is that aspect of your story?

A very large part. I am still a Mennonite. The church I attend today is different from the church of my youth, and I have been able to incorporate into my faith new experiences that extend beyond my previous Mennonite boundaries. I appreciate my Mennonite heritage even more than Rosy Cheeks, my adolescent self, did, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wrestled with it then and now.

Here’s one of my first draft memoir discoveries. I still remember how a light went on in my head in fourth grade when I finally understood what a topic sentence was—the biggest idea in the paragraph. Remembering that moment (I can still see where I was sitting in the classroom) triggered a second epiphany: to tell my particular Mennonite story, I am going to find the topic sentence, the biggest idea. I have to reach before and after, inside and outside, my own little speck in the vast universe of time and space. I’m struggling to find words for that kind of mythic story right now. The key, I think, to broadening the concept of the spiritual journey is to go deeper into the faith and into the land that produced me and to try to find the root structure that connects all of us.

Next: Showalter explains her view of memoir as a “radical act.”

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Shirley Showalter, ubuntu & memoir

Sunrise at Melbourne Beach, Florida, January 2012

Become an observer of your own creative process. It will help you uncover where you “sing” and where your voice falls flat. When you lose track of time and are not thinking about yourself at all but rather about your purpose, your love for this world, your sheer amazement—that’s when you sing. The rest is just preparation. You might have to let it go and start over.—How to Write a Memoir by Shirley Hershey Showalter

My best writing teachers over the years haven’t been famous writers or even the most published in a particular cohort. The worst I ever had was the author of a celebrated memoir—she was vile, in part because she didn’t seem to respect her pupils, violating Emerson’s dictum that that’s the secret of education, and in part because she seemed actively to resent them.

Good teachers are generous, within reason, and they remember what it’s like to be afraid and confused along with being eager and hopeful. They know how beginners can struggle to push their stories through layers of craft that they haven’t yet mastered. Try teaching someone to use a computer who has never even booted up one and you’ll see how slowly and carefully you must go. A skill beyond that is seeing what each student needs instead of nuking everyone alike. In the end, depend on it—and let it be said—good teachers are good people, whereas someone who’s just a good writer might be dreadful in the flesh (a word of warning to MFA students out there).

So it’s thrilling to see that Shirley Hershey Showalter, a woman of warmth and good humor, has just published a free guide to memoir. Shirley grew up on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania and became an English professor and then the fourteenth president and first woman leader of Goshen College, in northern Indiana. Now retired, Shirley and her husband are serving as nannies to their grandson Owen in Brooklyn, New York.

And Shirley is smack in the middle of writing her memoir, Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Childhood. While her own lessons are fresh she’s making available, as a free pdf download from her web site, the booklet How to Write a Memoir: Seven Practices for Creating a Memoir that Sings. Shirley lists and explores seven key steps:

• Create a daily ritual asking for help, discipline, and guidance

• Read—eventually at least 100 memoirs

• Know why you want to write

• Write about the process as you draft your manuscript

• Create a timetable, starting with the end in mind

• Keep a notebook with you for capturing thoughts

• Optional: build your platform as a writer

I know her advice is wise because I stumbled painfully into each stage. The first step took me a couple of years to formalize—and didn’t really come together until I had read and reviewed Mary Karr’s great memoir Lit, which details the spiritual practices that have enabled her to write and which have, too, saved her life. (There’s a great Paris Review interview with Karr in which she explains her prayer life and spiritual practices in some detail.)

Along with emailing you How to Write a Memoir, Shirley will send weekly emails that feature writing prompts. In this new phase of her writing-teaching life, she has also revamped her blog, 100Memoirs, launched in 2009, and her inaugural post, “Ubuntu: A Philosophy of Memoir Writing,” explains her generosity. “Ubuntu” should be required reading for every memoirist—make that every writer—no, every American. To learn about the South African concept, a win-win philosophy of the individual blossoming within community, watch the short video embedded in Shirley’s post of Archbishop Desmond Tutu explaining it. Ubuntu is a powerful ethical concept, but like the Dalai Lama, Tutu mostly just laughs. The medium is the message.

As Shirley says:

The words that inspire me most from this video seem at first blush to be antithetical to the idea of writing memoir: “There is no such thing as a solitary individual.” But when you add the rest of the Archbishop’s words, you see why memoir writing is much more than a single writer with a pen in her hand. It is a radical act: “I want you to be all you can be so that I can be all that I can be. I need you to be you so that I can be me.”

Ubuntu!

Next: An interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writers

1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2.    Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3.    Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4.    Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5.    Start as close to the end as possible.

6.    Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.   Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8.   Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

These are from the Introduction to Vonnegut’s 2000 book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. Although obviously pitched toward fiction writers, his rules apply equally to nonfiction. His last rule, for instance, is a precept of Annie Dillard’s, who said to get the trauma out front rather than springing it on readers.

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Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes

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January 17, 2012 · 11:40 am

Kurt Vonnegut on making art

There’s a swell book that’s out of print now. Maybe Seven Stories will bring it out again. It’s called The Writer and Psychoanalysis by a man who’s now dead named Edmund Bergler. He claimed he had treated more writers than anyone else in his field, and being that he practiced in New York, he probably did. Bergler said that writers were fortunate in that they were able to treat their neuroses every day by writing. He also said that as soon as a writer was blocked, this was catastrophic because the writer would start to go to pieces. And so I said in a piece in Harper’s, or a letter I wrote to Harper’s, about “the death of the novel”: People will continue to write novels, or maybe short stories, because they discover that they are treating their own neuroses. And I have said about the practice of the arts that practicing any art—be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever—is not a way to make money or become famous. It’s a way to make your soul grow. So you should do it anyway.

This excerpt is from Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing by Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer.

 

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Amos Oz’s ‘Tale of Love and Darkness’

By Olga Khotiashova

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On January 6, 2012, it was 60 years since Amos Oz’s mother took her life. The memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, written in 2002, was a tribute to her memory as well as the act of Oz’s reconciliation with his own memories. It took him half a century to gather enough strength to perceive and articulate what had happened that day; and it turned out to be a long story beginning in Eastern Europe centuries before.

In my ignorance I had never heard of Amos Oz, a distinguished Israeli fiction writer, before I watched his conversation with Charlie Rose. This brilliant conversation is worth a separate review. I was so impressed by the writer’s personality that I immediately wrote his name in the top line of my reading list. I decided to begin with his memoir for several reasons: he is a descendant of Jews who immigrated to the Promised Land from Eastern Europe; he had never dropped a single word about his mother’s tragic death before writing the memoir; he mentioned in the interview that his memoir had not caught much attention in the U.S. So there it was, a 560-page volume lying in front of me.

The English translation by Nicholas de Lange is marvelous. I believe it gives the true impression of the original.  Long, flowing paragraphs are followed by ragged sentences; you can hear the strong Russian accent of Oz’s father whichever language he speaks; you can feel the throbbing development of Hebrew language. I was struck by the thought that the book may sound sharply out of tune for American ears; that a story of some Inuit village may appear more customary. For me, the book was surprisingly soothing like a tender touch of a close relative’s hand. Oz’s note about evolving Hebrew correlated with my non-native speaker’s feeling about living in a foreign country: “Perhaps that is how a short-sighted driver feels, trying to find his way at night through a warren of side streets in an unfamiliar car.” I wonder if Amos Oz would be pleased to hear that a Russian immigrant to America indulged her nostalgia in reading his memoir.

The book is densely inhabited, and each character has a distinct voice. You will never mix up the mesmerizing tales by Amos Oz’s mother with his father’s clumsy literary jokes or his grandfathers’ guidance and inept poems. Here is how the grandfather Naphtali Hertz Mussman spoke about love:

I said a little compassion and generosity, but I didn’t say love: I’m not such a believer in universal love. Love of everybody for everybody—we should maybe leave that to Jesus. Love is another thing altogether. It is nothing whatever like generosity and nothing whatever like compassion. On the contrary. Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn’t something you choose, you catch it like a disease, you get trapped in it, like a disaster. So what is it that we do choose? What do human beings have to choose between every minute of the day? Generosity or meanness. Every little child knows that, and yet wickedness still doesn’t come to an end. How can you explain that? It seems we got it all from the apple that we ate back then: we ate a poisoned apple.

In the memoir, the story of the nation, country, language, and family interweaves with the personal story. The structure is subtle. The author goes back and forth, travels in time and space, returns to seminal moments again and again. He draws unforgettable scenes, so vivid that a slight hint immediately revives them later. He repeats the long lists of streets and names. Those names are so unusual you don’t even try to pronounce them; and eventually they make up a visual, almost topographic image, so you can follow the writer in his memory tour, not looking at the signs but just relying on the images deeply imprinted in his heart. The narrative does not go smoothly. Sometimes the cart of memory becomes overloaded with personages and details and gets stuck on sharp turns.

I may also have heard this from Zelda, my teacher, that summer when we were close: if you want to draw a tree, just draw a few leaves. You don’t need to draw all of them. If you draw a man, you don’t have to draw every hair. But in this she was inconsistent: one time she would say that at such and such a place I had written a bit too much, while another time she would say that actually I should have written a little more. But how do you tell? I am still looking for an answer to this day.

A hundred pages in the middle are probably the place where the author wrote “a bit too much.”  It seems he was experiencing a painful transition from the macro-world of the family-tree at large to the micro-world of the twelve-year-old boy in Jerusalem, who had just lost his mother. He came to the point where the bitter words had to be said. And it is there where he reflects on the nature of memoirs:

It’s like a woman you’ve known for a long time, you no longer find her attractive or unattractive, whenever you bump into each other, she always says more or less the same few worn-out words, always offers you a smile, always taps you on the chest in a familiar way, only now, only this time, she doesn’t, she suddenly reaches out and grabs your shirt, not casually but with her all, her claws, lustfully, desperately, eyes tight shut, her face twisted as though in pain, determined to have her way, determined not to let go, she doesn’t care anymore about you, about what you are feeling, whether or not you want to, what does she care, now she’s got to, she can’t help herself, she reaches out now and strikes you like a harpoon and starts pulling and tearing you, but actually she’s not the one who’s pulling, she just digs her claws in and you’re the one who’s pulling and writing, pulling  and writing, like a dolphin with the barb of the harpoon caught in his flesh, and he pulls as hard as he can, pulls the harpoon and the line attached to it and the harpoon gun that’s attached to the line and the hunters’ boat that the harpoon gun is fixed in the sea, pulls and dives down to dark depths, pulls and writes and pulls more; if he pulls one more time with all his desperate strength, he may manage to free himself from the thing that is stuck in his flesh, the thing that is biting and digging into you and not letting go, you pull and you pull and it just bites into your flesh, the more you pull, the deeper it digs in, and you can never inflict a pain in return for this loss that is digging deeper and deeper, wounding you more and more because it is the catcher and you are the prey, it is the hunter and you are the harpooned dolphin, it gives and you have taken, it is that evening in Jerusalem and you are in this evening in Arad, it is your dead parents, and you just pull and go on writing.

A Tale of Love and Darkness covers several centuries but you always feel the presence of the narrator: Amos Oz sitting at his desk in Arad in 2001. There and then he soldiers on with courage and candor. His tale is tragic and funny and thrilling and annoying and unforgettable. He wrote about his heritage, “I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

While I was reading the memoir, a rather bizarre recipe came to my mind: mix healthy European pragmatism with Jewish sentimental romanticism, add a generous portion of alcohol and you will get what is called a mysterious Russian soul; stir the mixture vigorously, skim the cream off, and you will get a fertile substance to germinate an American. It is just a joke, no offense, as Amos Oz’s father used to say.

About three years ago I read one critically acclaimed contemporary Russian novel. I was shocked by how gloomy and pretentious it was, so I have focused solely on American literature since then and have been enjoying my greater journey. A Tale of Love and Darkness made me turn to Russian literature again. Oz’s prose is often called “Chekhovian.” It was Chekhov’s prose, the only one of all Russian classics, which I tried to avoid in high school and never returned to later. Probably, it’s time to reread Chekhov now.

Olga Khotiashova reviews memoirs periodically for Narrative.

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Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 3

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

III.

Reading the Bible recently, the thick New English Oxford study edition I’ve toted around for twenty-nine years, I was electrified by John 3: 19–25. In this story Jesus is traveling and teaching, and he meets a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day. It was against Jewish mores to have dealings with the tainted Samaritans, and to speak to an unknown, lone woman.

Jesus wows her by telling her he knows she’s been married five times and is living with a sixth man—why the shunned creature was at the well in the scorching heat instead of filling her pots with other women in the cool of the morning. Maybe she was infertile, a real deal-breaker in those days.

“Sir,” she replied, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the temple where God should be worshipped is in Jerusalem.”

“Believe me,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on the mountain, nor in Jerusalem.”

This is a radical statement. What he’s staying is that God is not place-based—neither in a pagan mountain shrine nor above even Judaism’s highest holy Temple. God is far from clan-based. By dint of this: not race-based, nor nation-based. Jesus, as I see it, is moving God deeper inside us.

“It is from the Jews that salvation comes,” Jesus continues. “But the time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

God is spirit.

Not a man in the sky. A spirit—something discovered by us, not created by us—is approached submissively in the human search for truth.

Thus indeed, as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is here, now. As any reader of the New Testament can see, Jesus labored to restore spirituality to religion, in large part by defining God anew and by clarifying core principles. Love thy neighbor. Forgive trespasses. His relentless attacks on human pride and on religious dogma are chronicled throughout the New Testament. He died for his pains, but made his lasting point.

My conviction flows from various sources, from years of reading about human evolutionary history and progress, from a base in my nature, in my suffering, in Christianity, in a heaping dose of Buddhism and a dash of Hinduism, notably of late in Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Eckhart Tolle’s writings, especially his religious synthesis A New Earth, have been enormously influential, so I’m tempted to admit I’m New Age and be done with it, except that I view that book as essentially Buddhist. I claim Christianity but I view all great religions much like the American Medical Association now views acupuncture: it works, no one knows why it works, and it doesn’t matter where they stick the needles.

I like Joan Osborne’s question in her beautiful song “One of Us”—with something like 10 million hits in various YouTube versions: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?

What if God is all of us? What if God exists within all of us?

What if God is that force in human evolution which drives “group selection”? This is the controversial notion that evolution is not just about pair-level “selfish gene” sexual selection but about traits that benefit the larger group. What if God is that force, which caused humans to begin their amazing self domestication—their selection for social harmony and against simian brutes? A separate intentionality within human evolution that impels our altruistic desires. Hitchens would attribute such human progress to the Enlightenment, but it goes back so much farther. And Dawkins won’t admit its possibility for what it introduces: the mysterious will that impels this search for truth, justice, mercy, goodness. That which was instantiated, in purified form, in Christ, Buddha, and Muhammed. Those qualities which humans have been idealizing for millions of years.

We have been selected to serve the whole of us as a living being, not just own own selfish interests.

My God is located in, and defined by, this, by humans’ unquenchable search for their own and their species’ true path.

That utter mystery that we and our science circle.

What if that’s God?

That for which we as yet have no name?

There’s despair everywhere, such lost faith in our species, but there’s yearning everywhere too. And neither that impulse nor anyone’s hard-won faith is misplaced. Not me, but some few blaze with joyous awareness—with Grace. Many are called, few chosen.

The afterlife? That’s a young person’s concern. But I place my spiritual afterlife in the collective spoken of by Carl Jung. One day, long after my body is dust and my egoic shell has vanished with it and others are living the human eternal self—that innermost core in which we’re all the same—around the globe human seekers will turn, more or less, to the same page.

This is my faith. It’s what drives me to my knees in prayer, down with the world’s other brokenhearted sinners, trying to tap what’s holy. I’m sure we’ll finally see and honor the greatest human mystery, not the banal reality of human evil but the real news of the goodness that dwells within and which we can access. Then maybe we’ll agree, at last, what we’re talking about when we talk about God.

Like me, Christopher Hitchens, angry child of God, didn’t have the final answer. And, sorry Uncle, not even Southern Baptists have quite solved the equation, not yet.

But of course there’s a God.

May peace be with you. Happy New Year. Namaste.

(Elizabeth Westmark has an interesting post, on her new reading blog, about Eric Weiner’s recent book Man Seeks God.)

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