My Lenten Calendar

I like disciplines (cf. my half-marathon training going on now), but I also like where my life is now generally and don't feel a call to give anything up. Thus I'm going to adapt the House for All Sinners and Saints' 2012 Lenten Calendar for my own instead. Sharing my adapted version here (with dates for 2014) in case it interests you too:

March 5: Pray for your enemies
March 6: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter
March 7: Internet diet
March 8: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing


March 10: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon
March 11: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before
March 12: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill
March 13: No bitching day
March 14: Do someone else’s chore
March 15: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter


March 17: Call an old friend
March 18: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)
March 19: Read Psalm 139
March 20: Pay a few sincere compliments
March 21: Bring your own mug
March 22: Educate yourself about human trafficking


March 24: Forgive someone
March 25: Internet diet
March 26: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?
March 27: Check out morning and evening prayer at
March 28: Ask for help
March 29: Tell someone what you are grateful for


March 31: Introduce yourself to a neighbor
April 1: Read Psalm 121
April 2: Bake a cake
April 3: No shopping day
April 4: Light a virtual candle
April 5: Light an actual candle


April 7: Write a thank you note to your favorite teacher
April 8: No shopping day
April 9: Use Freecycle
April 10: Donate art supplies to your local elementary school
April 11: Read John 8:1-11
April 12: Worship at a friend’s mosque, synogogue or church and look for the beauty


April 14: Confess a secret
April 15: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?
April 16: Give $20 to a local non-profit
April 17: Educate yourself about a saint
April 18: Pray for peace
April 19: Pray for your enemies (you probably have new ones by now) then decide which of these exercises you’ll keep for good

Silent Auction Opportunity: Win an Hour of Editorial Time with Me

As longtime readers of the blog may know, I attend a lovely, lovely church here in Brooklyn, where every Sunday, "we, the people of Park Slope United Methodist Church -- black and white, straight and gay, old and young, rich and poor -- unite in a loving community with God and the Creation. Summoned by our faith in Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves to the humanization of urban life, and to physical and spiritual growth" (our creed). People in the church do all kinds of great stuff -- we have a soup kitchen, and small groups, and work in the Reconciling movement -- and I find it a wonderfully steady source of comfort, community, service, challenge, and inspiration.

Now one of our biggest fundraisers of the year is coming up: our Hollyberry Craft Fair and silent auction. If you are in New York, you should totally come out and see the craft fair, which attracts great vendors from across the tristate area: Saturday, November 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Camp Friendship, just below 6th Avenue and 8th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn.   

But even if you are NOT in Brooklyn, you have the opportunity to support the church through our silent auction. I am again donating an hour of editorial services here, in whatever form is useful to the winning writer. The listing runs:
Professional book editor will help you with developmental editing, line-editing, copyediting, proofreading, copywriting, query letter or publishing advice -- whatever you and your project require!* Minimum bid $40. 
And we are opening this up to the wider public through e-mail bidding. If you'd like to participate in the auction, please send an e-mail to hollyberry[dot]psumc[at]gmail[dot]com with your bid and contact information. Someone will get back to you with information on the current bid level. The auction starts now and will run through the end of the Hollyberry Fair itself on November 16. Thank you for your interest, and your support of the church.
* (To anticipate a question I get often with things like this:  I consider this more my opportunity to help the church and help one individual writer than it is an opportunity for a writer to submit to me. In practice, if I like the project I'm seeing, I might ask to see more of it; but it's better for bidders to think of it as an opportunity to get editorial feedback, a la a critique, than as a manuscript submission, as that's not what this is meant to be.)

"I Sing the Mighty Power of God," by Isaac Watts

We sang this today in church, and I very much liked the simplicity of both its theology and expression. The words are by Isaac Watts, from Divine and Moral Songs for Children, 1713; a "one-man quartet" version is here.

I sing the mighty power of God, 
  that made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad, 
  and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained 
  the sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at God’s command, 
  and all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord, 
  who filled the earth with food,
Who formed the creatures through the Word, 
  and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed, 
  where’er I turn my eye,
If I survey the ground I tread, 
  or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below, 
  but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, 
  by order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee 
  is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that we can be, 
  Thou, God art present there.

Religion and Fear

During Lent, the minister of the church I attend sends out daily reflections over e-mail. This is today's, and I think it's wonderful. From The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin:
When I was a novice, one of my spiritual directors quoted the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who contrasted "real religion" and "illusory religion." The maxim of "illusory religion" is as follows: "Fear not; trust in God and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you." "Real religion," said Macmurray, has a different maxim: "Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of."

A Brief Rant Against My Own Interests, but for My Own Beliefs

Katha Pollitt, a critic, feminist, activist, and liberal who I greatly respect and admire, posted this on Twitter this morning:
Half of laity members who voted against women bishops in Anglican church were women.
And I wanted to say, "Sister, please." Because that "#slavementality" hashtag reflects a fundamental misunderstanding -- or perhaps better put, a fundamental willful blindness -- on the part of my fellow liberals about the way that my fellow people of religion or faith sometimes think or behave . . . and in particular, a willful blindness by my co-feminists toward women who make choices that don't advance the cause.

Those women who voted against women bishops were quite likely ladies who read 1 Timothy 2:12* literally and who find that more important or compelling than their own rights. This is a perfectly valid way to think and behave in the private sphere. It may not be the way we feminists personally would interpret Scripture or vote -- but other people's religious beliefs aren't any of our business, and liberals have fought long and hard to make sure everyone's religious beliefs stay their private business and don't come into the public sphere.

All of this goes ditto for women who vote, based on religious grounds, for a candidate who opposes abortion rights**. That does come into the public sphere, as those women's choice of a candidate can influence all women's choices about life and death, literally. But that's still a valid belief and choice, and the work of those who support abortion rights then is to argue better and either change their minds or convince other people to outvote them. Same goes for the Anglican vote:  The work lies not in insults, but in a more wide-ranging theological discussion that might open up these women's minds, if they're willing to go there (which they may not be). It's complex and hard, but not cheap, as Ms. Pollitt's comment felt to me.

[A side note if you're interested in issues of Biblical literalism and religious mind-changing:  The New Yorker from November 26 has a terrific, thoughtful, even-handed profile of Rob Bell, the founder of Mars Hill church, and his journey from strict evangelical to someone still faithful but rather more nebulous in religious definition.]

Feminism is, or should be, nothing more and nothing less than the fight for the rights of women to maximize their personal choices and opportunities within a culture that often represses them -- including those choices and opportunities some feminists might disagree with, such as those that reinforce the repressive culture. Calling those women who make different choices idiots does not advance the cause here, and I wished we did it less and argued for complexity more.

* "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet," as quoted in the New Yorker article. 
** I should note that my own feelings about abortion are extremely squooshy, so I will not argue it one way or another, nor do I welcome arguments about it in the comments (goodness, no).

A Ramble List: the Dinner Table Debate, Religion, Bigotry, and Monkey Brains

As they agreed last spring, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage and Dan Savage of the Savage Love column et al. met recently at Mr. Savage's home to debate same-sex marriage. I was fascinated by their conversation, learned some stuff, and think it's worth watching through at least the two opening statements (which would take about twenty minutes). Some observations on this dialogue:

1. They are working from fundamentally different and incompatible definitions of the word "marriage" here. Paraphrasing, Mr. Brown says "Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman"; Mr. Savage says "Marriage is a gender-neutral package of civil rights and privileges." Mr. Brown does not acknowledge that his covenant includes that civil package -- rights that all same-sex couples are being denied -- while Mr. Savage obviously does not agree that marriage is dependent on differing genders.

2. They're also working from fundamentally different ideas of the purpose of marriage -- though here I suspect Mr. Brown of double-dealing, or maybe just being a bad debater. He says repeatedly that marriage is for procreation, thus subscribing to the only point of marriage that truly excludes gay people . . . but then he also repeatedly fails to address the issue of why heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to have children should then be allowed to marry, or whether their marriages are any less valid than those of couples with children. Mr. Savage, for his part, asserts that marriage is for the pleasure, companionship, and support of the two adults involved. I wager Mr. Brown would have agreed with him on this (as at least one aspect of marriage, anyway) up until gay marriage became a major issue in the United States, when he had to retreat to procreation to keep his position at least somewhat intellectually coherent.

3. And in general with language, truth, Scripture, legal and romantic relationships, academic studies, love:  There are so many sides to each jewel, and each debater turns the stone in a different direction. Whenever the Regnerus study comes up, Mr. Savage asserts its methodology was flawed; Mr. Brown asserts the methodology was fine, and the only reason it hasn't been repeated was because Mr. Regnerus was so brutally attacked for his study's conclusions. It seems as if there ought to be a scientifically sound way to determine whether the methodology was flawed, but according to the Times article in the link, there are only more things to weigh:  whether the child lived with the parents, whether the parents truly lived as gays or lesbians or only had had a same-sex relationship at some point in their lives, the economic status of all involved, the funding of the study — all of which nuances both Mr. Savage and Mr. Brown bring up as evidence for their respective sides. So many facets to every human story.

4. The most irritating thing about this debate for me: In almost every statement Mr. Brown makes, especially his opening one, he comes back to how he and other Christianists* have been called bigots and how much this upsets him -- making this endlessly about himself and his pain. It was the same dynamic that played out in the Chik-Fil-A controversy a few weeks ago, where Christianists bought chicken sandwiches in order to practice their rights to free speech, which were supposedly under threat. While the Boston and Chicago mayors’ claims that they’d ban the chain were definitely stupid, in both cases, the claim to injury was truly an attempt to level the emotional playing field, both at this dinner table and in the media: Our enemies are in pain (here because of the denial of marriage rights); pain creates sympathy for them—pain sells; we need some pain of our own; let us blow up an insult to us to make our pain as great as theirs. Mediawise, I'd agree, the Christianists don't come off well, because it's hard for the media to portray their position without saying "They think God hates gays." But at the end of the day, the vast majority of marriage laws in this country (and all of them at the federal level) still favor the Christianists, so Christianists pretending that the two pains are equal is rather ridiculous.

* As defined by Andrew Sullivan, “Christianists” are "those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression."

5. Which is not to say that Christianists are the only one who practice this dynamic; Jews and Islamists the world over do it; atheists do it; God knows the Republicans and Democrats do it; Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do it; MSNBC and Fox News; Todd Akin has certainly done it in the last few weeks. And all of them (all of us) get rewarded for it with money, media attention, more support from their side. . . . The “fight” instincts in all our little monkey brains light up at being attacked, and into the arena we go.

6. But as a practicing Methodist, I find this particularly troublesome when Christianists do it—when we jump to be offended at the first opportunity. Because if Christianity is about anything at all in practice here on this earth, it is about imaginative empathy with others, about sacrificing one's own ego to share others' pain and take on their burdens. "Love your neighbor as yourself," repeatedly named as the greatest commandment, means that we must imagine ourselves in our neighbors' positions and treat them as we would treat ourselves. Christ's death on the cross was an act of imaginative empathy:  It was taking on the sins of the world in order to spare humanity the endless suffering from those sins. Turning the other cheek and offering our cloaks also demands that the other person receive all we have. The New Testament calls us to make this our first priority:  to listen, to empathize, to give, to love.

7. This is not to say that there are no limits on this giving, nor that the law does not exist or is nullified; a literal reading of the scripture would certainly make same-sex sex an abomination. But many Christianists seem to see only the law, not the humans behind it, so they don't extend empathy to the genuine pain of a young man who believes passionately in Christ and also falls passionately in love with his male best friend; or to an elderly long-term lesbian couple who cannot be together when one partner goes into the hospital. . . . What to do with empathy when it conflicts with the law is a vexing and vexed question. But in cases like this, where no harm to others has been committed, I believe a Christian's first responsibilities are always to empathy and humility, never to self-satisfaction and simplistic judgment. If we practice these latter things instead, we deny the humble, generous, radically honest and complicated God-in-man we claim to serve.

8. This might sound juvenile, but I keep coming back to this word as the one that best expresses the principle:  Above all, Christians should not be mean. People who have power and use it for their own pleasure in causing pain are mean. People who have power and ostentatiously wave it in the face of those who don’t are mean. On the day of the eat-in at Chik-Fil-A, the Christianists who lined up to buy chicken sandwiches were actively demonstrating their distaste for people who have often already suffered and continue to suffer for being the people God made them to be; and that felt to me like a profoundly mean and un-Christian thing to do.

9. I admit I did not behave well during the Chik-Fil-A contretemps myself. A high school classmate made a remark on Facebook that somehow linked the issue to the Muslim community center near Ground Zero. Non-New Yorkers being self-righteous about Ground Zero is one of the things that stirs up MY monkey brain, and the remark was so completely counterfactual (Mayor Bloomberg did not threaten to ban Chik-Fil-A), and the comments supporting it so obviously equally ill-informed and self-satisfied, that I gave into my worse instincts and wrote a dissenting comment. I then tried to be as matter-of-fact as I could in the comments “discussion” that followed, not to submit further to that monkey brain, but I did not succeed fully, and I regret that.

10. Coming back to the debate:  I eventually got depressed by the conversation, because nobody’s mind is changed and there is nothing, nothing, these men can agree on. (Peter Sagal pretty much nails the reasons why.) So it simply becomes two angry men who feel aggrieved, speaking forcefully past each other in the same room. And the same thing happened for me on Facebook:  I came away from the Chik-Fil-A argument more saddened than anything. In both cases, there was an opportunity for people to meet and talk as generous human beings — over a dinner table, as Facebook “friends” — about differing interpretations of a contentious and deep issue, and that respect, humility, and true conversation did not happen.

11. Perhaps it was overly optimistic even to hope for that sincere conversation on both sides:  As Mr. Sagal notes, the identity issues and principles involved are grounded too deeply within Messrs. Savage and Brown for them to be able to detach from them, even if they were genuinely open to doing so. Merriam-Webster’s defines a bigot as "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices”; and as nobody’s feelings and beliefs are ever entirely rational and proportionate, I imagine there are very few people in the world who are not bigots for something or other. (Or as they sing in Avenue Q, "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist." And yes, readers:  I just called every one of you bigots! Ha!) Mr. Brown is a bigot for fundamentalist Christianity and the Christianist doctrines that he sees as following from that; Mr. Savage is a bigot for the freedom to love and marry who he likes. I will happily proclaim I am a bigot in the obstinacy sense for the novels of Jane Austen, gender equality (often known as feminism), and civil same-sex marriage. Perhaps the best we can all do is to recognize our opinions as opinions, try to keep them anchored in objective reality. and then prevent that obstinate bigotry from extending into intolerance, by treating others with respect and kindness even when we disagree.

12. (I disagree with Peter Sagal on one thing:  I don't want my Facebook friends punished for disagreeing with me or for eating at Chik-Fil-A. I want them to recognize the humanity of gay people and the validity of their romantic relationships and to change their minds about civil marriage. They can keep objecting to it religiously and eating chicken sandwiches for all I care--they just have to accept that their interpretation of religious truth does not govern Mr. Savage's and my civil lives.)

13. But this can be so hard when the other side of whatever argument has fewer scruples and doesn't behave well as we do, and/or when the feelings run so deep. . . . The biggest argument against religion from my point of view (and really the only argument against it I'd make myself) is that it encourages its practitioners to think they know immutable and eternal truth -- to the extent that I'd wager at least one person who just read that sentence is now offended because, as a practitioner of the _________ faith, they DO know immutable and eternal truth, and I have just implied the matter is a little more fungible. And it is near impossible to see outside that particular kind of immutable and eternal truth, to remember that others might have their own immutable and eternal truths that are just as real to them as ours are to us, and just as valid when weighed against objective reality, if we can even determine such a thing.

14. I'm guilty of this too:  Last year, a lovely author and I disagreed profoundly on a manuscript, where I saw it as an X type of book and she saw it as a Z type of book. She did not want to change it in the least toward an X, and I could not make it cohere in my head as a Z. . . . The X type felt immutably right to me, just because of my own experiences as a reader and editor and my bigotry (I'll own it) toward X type of plots. But she was the author; she knew what she wanted to do with her book best; she may well have been right about the whole thing, or as right as one can declare anything when all reading is subjective; and I admired her devotion to her vision, even if I was unable to share it. We ended up mutually agreeing to part ways, with the sincerest good wishes on each side -- which nonetheless left me sad and confused about my inability to help her get where she wanted to go, even as I was relieved and glad that she could now find someone else to do that as I could not. Sometimes we just have to accept that the obstinate, not entirely reasonable opinions are what make us who we are, and live with that, with the gains and losses that follow. And then again remember the "opinions are opinions" thing.

15. I don't know if this kind of separation will work in the same-sex marriage debate, or any of the other religiously based conflicts that roil America, except that I feel sure Brian Brown will never go to Dan Savage's place ever again.

16. And sometimes the monkey brain is necessary and can be used for good. Rep. Todd Akin was simply flat-out wrong about his medical facts, and oh my goodness did he need to be called on them (and now voted out so he can't implement the thinking behind them). When we encounter something that activates the monkey brain, we need to feel and conserve the energy from that; take a deep breath; remember we are never, ever in possession of perfect knowledge or righteousness; weigh the supposed offense against our truths and our principles and our long-term ends (time spent objecting to a blog post can be better spent on supporting an election); and then fight as hard and reasonably and honorably and passionately as we can.

17. I need a conclusion here, because otherwise I can ramble all night and continue to contradict myself into oblivion. Oh, here's one:  conclusion.

Worlds of Wonders: On Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy, Children's Fantasy, and Paranormal Novels

Last week, I finished World of Wonders, the third book in Robertson Davies's marvelous Deptford Trilogy. I wrote the following about it on Goodreads:
I picked up a battered mass-market paperback copy of Fifth Business off the street in May, on the simple principle that I had heard good things about it and it was free, and then I stuck it in my bag as lightweight (sizewise) reading for a trip to Arizona in June. These were both excellent spur-of-the-moment decisions -- the very kind of tiny choices that Davies writes about here as influencing our whole lives.

If Boy Staunton hadn't thrown the stone...
If Dunstan Ramsey hadn't ducked...
If Mrs. Dempster hadn't been hit, and given birth prematurely to her son Paul...

Thus do these four people's fates entwine. But while the trilogy does focus on the inner characters that impel our choices -- like Boy's native cruelty and Dunstan's natural passivity -- it also pays great honor to the unknowable in those characters and in the world around them:  the mysteries of our psychology, and of what some of these characters would call fate and others God. Everyone was fully drawn and alive on the page, and Davies's prose crackles like the Swiss mountain air in which much of The Manticore and World of Wonders are set. My favorite remains Fifth Business, which combined the focused narrator of the second book with the wide-ranging story of the third, and at less length than either; but all three were wonderfully mind-opening & refreshing to read.

A friend on Twitter told me Robertson Davies is "the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Canada," and that seems right. 
There was one passage in particular in World of Wonders that stood out to me, and I wanted to write it out here both for the sharp beauty of its prose and the wisdom of its thought:
[Oswald Spengler, an early 20th-century historian] talks a great deal about what he calls the Magian World View, which he says we have lost, but which was part of the Weltanschauung--you know, the world outlook--of the Middle Ages. It was a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world. It was a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck. It was religion, but a religion with a thousand gods, none of them all-powerful and most of them ambiguous in their attitude toward man. It was poetry and wonder which might reveal themselves in the dunghill, and it was an understanding of the dunghill that lurks in poetry and wonder. It was a sense of living in what Spengler called a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness.

This was what [Character X in the novel] seemed to have, and what made him ready to spend his time on work that would have maddened a man of modern education and modern sensibility. We have paid a terrible price for our education, such as it is. The Magian World View, in so far as it exists, has taken flight into science, and only the great scientists have it or understand where it leads; the lesser ones are merely clockmakers of a larger growth, just as so many of our humanist scholars are just cud-chewers or system-grinders. We have educated ourselves into a world from which wonder, and the fear and dread and splendour and freedom of wonder have been banished. Of course wonder is costly. You couldn't incorporate it into a modern state, because it is the antithesis of the anxiously worshipped security which is what a modern state is asked to give. Wonder is marvellous but it is also cruel, cruel, cruel. It is undemocratic, discriminatory, and pitiless.
The trilogy was written in the 1970s, and I would venture that now, as a culture, the "civilized" Western world is farther from the Magian World View than we have ever been. . . . The omnipresence of communications, and particularly of those services that encourage us to share our every thought and feeling almost before we've actually had it -- and then reward us for doing so with more attention, more stimulation -- stamp out wonder by leaving very little time to experience it for itself. At the same time, those communications make us aware of how large the world is, and often how scary, how many threats there are to our small and vulnerable selves -- and this too discourages wonder, by activating our fight and flight instincts above our imaginations and ability to stand still.

Of course my mind also turned to how this might apply to children's and YA fiction of the present day, and particularly fantasy, as that has long been the genre that most encouraged the retention of wonder in children. . . . When A. S. Byatt wrote about the Harry Potter books in 2003, before the release of Book 5, she accused the series of lacking this sense of "the numinous" -- a charge that I think Ms. Rowling disproved by the end of the series. (I would agree with Ms. Byatt that the books' strengths lie in their affirmation and celebration of domesticity, which is one of the reasons The Casual Vacancy, with its village politics focus, should be terrific.) As Ms. Byatt notes, Susan Cooper's and Ursula K. LeGuin's novels possess wonder in great quantities; so too do Kate DiCamillo's, and Erin Bow's Plain Kate. In realistic fiction, Sara Zarr's books get at the mysteries that are inside of us as human beings, and the wonders we and grace can work, while the narrators of Martine Murray's The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley and How to Make a Bird both stop to marvel at the world around them, seeing it in a true and wonderful way no one else does. Davies's description of "a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness" could well apply to many children, especially in the pre-twentieth-century world, and much of the best writing for young readers both acknowledges the reality of that darkness and encourages that fragile light.

At the same time, many YA paranormal novels are, to some extent, the anti-wonder:  They take these strange and thrilling creatures like vampires and werewolves, beings that are by definition bloodthirsty, savage, otherworldly, and turn them domestic -- creatures that are tamed, that want to be like us, that are on our side. I'm sure someone has written a paper about how this mirrors the development of young adults themselves, taking the selfish impulses of the child and hormones of the teenager and smoothing them into the outward-looking maturity of the adult. . . . And I cannot and would not say this development is a bad thing. But when the paranormal craze was at its height, with a manuscript with a new variation on these tropes landing on my desk every week, I found myself longing sometimes for paranormal that didn't make domesticity the highest value, that had a little more wildness and wonder in it -- something with the carnality (in all senses) of Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves (and the brilliant, disturbing prose too). Maggie Stiefvater is perhaps the best practitioner of this kind of paranormal:  not stopping to smell the roses, but the blood.

Of course not every book has to have Ms. Byatt's cherished numinousness, fantasy or not; comfort is just as important and valuable in a reading life as this sense of the wild within us or without. But I'm grateful to Mr. Davies for making me think about this subject, and I hope to find more wonder all around.

"God Speaks..." by Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each, before he makes him,
then goes silently with him out of the darkness.
But the words, before each one starts,
these cloudy words, are:

Driven by your senses,
go to the edge of your longing;
give me clothing.
Shoot up like a torch behind things,
that their shadows, extended,
may always adorn me.

Let everything happen to you:  beauty and terrors.
One must only go on:  no feeling is the ultimate.
Do not separate yourself from me.

Near is the land
that they call life.
You will know it
by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Credit for introducing me to this poem goes to Jane Bishop of Park Slope United Methodist Church, who sang an arrangement of this in service this morning.

A Common Sense Constitutional Argument for the Legality of Same-Sex Marriage in the United States

Most of this is pretty obvious (and/or was established by the Prop 8 decision in California), but I decided I wanted to write it all out for the next time I argue about it with someone from high school on Facebook. I am not a lawyer, clearly, and if someone with more expertise in civil law than I have can disprove these statements legally, please, don't spend your time leaving a comment:  The pro-Prop 8 lawyers need you, and you should get in touch with them instead.

1. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

2. Because we do not have any officially established religion, whether Christianity or Hinduism or Islam or Shintoism or Wicca, our government's laws are not and should not be dictated by any religious laws or prohibitions.

2A. We have a civil government and not a religious one.  

Opinion: This is right and good for everyone, including religious people, because it enables multiple religions the freedom and protection to flourish, and also frees people to choose not to practice any religion at all. Certainly each religion may believe it is the only right and true one; but it must win influence through speaking to the hearts and minds of individuals, not through imposing its will upon everyone.

Opinion II: Do not bust out that the "Founding Fathers were Christian" stuff. Many of the Founding Fathers were Deists at most; all of them were well aware of the corrosive influence of religious and denominational wars in Europe (because, indeed, many of their ancestors came to America to escape those religious conflicts or persecution altogether); and if they did intend the United States to be governed by Christian law, for some reason they did not write it into the Constitution, which means it's not part of our law now:  "no law respecting an establishment of religion" is.

Opinion III: As I understand it, the Judeo-Christianist opposition to homosexuality arises almost entirely out of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which declares "men lying with men as they do with women" "detestable" or "an abomination." While the exact translation of these verses is much debated, I think it's perfectly fair for Christianists and their fellow fundamentalists to use them to judge others' behavior . . . so long as they hold to that same ancient Leviticus standard in their own behavior, meaning they should not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (19:19) or cut their sidelocks or beards (19:27), and women should be considered unclean and isolate themselves during their periods (15:19-33). [Ideally in this scenario, adulterers would be put to death (20:10), but our civil law prevents that.] Otherwise, these fundamentalists are being inconsistent in their application of the law. I do not see many non-Hasidic people, and especially many Christianists, abiding by these standards. 

3. While a marriage may be conducted under or ratified by a religious body, it has civil and legal ramifications regarding rights, property, and responsibilities.

3A. Therefore it can and should be regulated by civil law (and indeed, for heterosexuals, it already is). 

4. The Fourteenth Amendment reads, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" (emphasis mine).

5.  Right now, our federal civil law grants only heterosexuals the right to marry the people they love.

6. This means that gays and lesbians are being denied that equal protection of the law, and having their privileges abridged.

N.B. Two LGBT people who wish to be married love each other with the same strong romantic feelings as two heterosexual people who wish to be married. (Opinion:  I include this because the Biblical focus on sex often means that people opposed to this appear to ignore the love; and they should consider what it might feel like to have the government prevent them from legally uniting with the person of the opposite gender whom they love, and thereby gaining all the rights that marriage grants.)

7. As this is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex civil marriage should be legal.

8. No heterosexual person's rights will be infringed or marriage will be diminished or damaged by this.

9. As per the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the government cannot and should not force religious bodies to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. 

That is all. 

A Quick Ramble: The Power of Young Adult Reading

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. -- John Rogers
I saw this quote in the comments on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog this morning (in a post on Ron Paul, for context), and wanted to throw it up here to save because it ties to one of my pet theories:  that the book you fall in love with between the ages of twelve and fourteen has a defining effect on the entire rest of your life. For me it was Pride and Prejudice, and I've written before about where that's gotten me now. (The quote above is very male, I have to observe. And I bet a lot of people in their twenties now would say simply "Harry Potter.") Did you all have a book like this when you were a young teenager? What was it, and how has it played out in your life since?

I also went through an Ayn Rand phase, actually, where I loved Anthem and The Fountainhead, though I never quite got around to Atlas Shrugged. I never believed in the books' economic or cultural theories, partly because I spent nearly every Sunday morning of the prior sixteen years in church, and Jesus's words about loving your neighbor were planted far deeper in my consciousness than Ms. Rand's screeds against it. (I read The Fountainhead on a youth-group mission trip, which is probably the single most ironic place possible to read an Ayn Rand novel.) But her ideas about identity and self-knowledge and self-reliance had a major effect on me -- for instance, that "To say 'I love you,' one must first be able to say the 'I'":  that concept that it was important to have your own strong, whole sense of self before you could truly commit that self to another person. And also the idea of work as a basis for and expression of identity . . . Both of these things spoke powerfully to my burgeoning feminist intellectual self. I have no use for most of the rest of what she's written, and I'd doubtless sniff at the prose style today (and I remember thinking, "Goodness, these speeches go on for a while" and skimming when I was sixteen), but I'm grateful to her still for in part making me who I am.

And we do teenagers too little credit sometimes, I think, in worrying that they can't filter ideology from real life as I did. But probably this depends on the teenager. And I can't explore that idea in more depth now because I am, in fact, running late for my lovely, liberal, love-your-neighbor church . . . Which shows you truly which idea won out.

Two Lovely Thoughts on Faith

This was the first Sunday after Easter, so the wonderful minister at my church preached about "Doubting" Thomas today; and he said a lovely thing and we sang a lovely hymn that each really resonated with both the religious and nonreligious parts of me. Because of course I thought also about keeping faith with one's literary work here, "waiting for the morning light" of inspiration, trusting you'll find the way through a difficult revision, and "being ready still to give" when that way is revealed. And doubt about a project is normal; it's only those other things that will kill it. In that spirit:

"The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is fear, cynicism, and despair." -- Rev. Herb Miller

Faith is patience in the night,
waiting for the morning light,
never giving up the fight.
Spirit God, give us faith.

Faith is laughter in our pain,
joy in pleasures that remain,
trust in one we can't explain.
Spirit God, give us faith.

Faith is steadfast will to live,
standing firm and positive,
being ready still to give.
Spirit God, give us faith.

Faith is courage under stress,
confidence in hopelessness,
greatest gift we can possess.
Spirit God, give us faith.
-- Lyrics by Mary Nelson Keithahn

Poetry for Good Friday: "Little Gidding IV," by T. S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

Read the complete poem here.

The Quote File: God

It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us. - Peter De Vries

God is of no importance unless He is of utmost importance. - Abraham Joshua Heschel

Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe in the God idea, not God himself. - Miguel de Unamuno

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? - Epicurus

Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything -- anything -- be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in. - Sam Harris

If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul. - Isaac Asimov

I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own -- a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. - Albert Einstein

It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. - Thomas Jefferson

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his laws. - John Adams

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires. - Susan B Anthony

It has always seemed absurd to suppose that a god would choose for his companions, during all eternity, the dear souls whose highest and only ambition is to obey. - Robert Green Ingersoll

Your mind works very simply: you are either trying to find out what are God's laws in order to follow them; or you are trying to outsmart Him. - Martin H. Fischer

A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers no harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair. - Abraham Joshua Heschel

Someday, after we have mastered the wind, the waves, tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love; and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. - Teilhard de Chardin

God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. - Mohandas K. Gandhi

God made man because He loves stories. - Elie Wiesel

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. – Martin Luther

But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. - Vincent van Gogh

We need God, not in order to understand the why, but in order to feel and sustain the ultimate wherefore, to give a meaning to the universe. - Miguel de Unamuno

God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed. - Saint Augustine

Life is God's novel. Let him write it. - Isaac Bashevis Singer

More -- and several of these quotations taken from -- here.

On Protests and Publishing

And now, a conservative Christian group protests Luv Ya Bunches.

Of course, this was only to be expected; that's the way conservative Christians roll, and it's their absolute right to do so. But if you disagree with them -- as I do, as a Christian myself, a reader, and a human being -- then please think about this: This Christianist* organization is bringing negative economic pressure to bear by threatening to boycott an entire company based on one title. This hurts a lot of people -- my company**, sure, and all my authors, but also the authors from other companies who are represented in the Fairs, and their respective publishers.

But we readers can create positive economic pressure in a way that actually benefits the publishing industry and the authors we support. And that's by buying books with gay characters -- either the book in question if it's in a Fair, which will prove desire for such books outweighs the repressive effects of the Christianists, or other books in the bookstores, which does the same in the trade.*** I'm suggesting this because publishing is a business, and, as we all know from Capitalism 101, sales success speaks just as loudly as moral indignation in the business world -- even more loudly, in some ways, because it means consumers are literally putting their money where their mouths are. That's what this Christianist organization has done by threatening to withhold sales from the company simply because it has dared to list a book with lesbian moms. And that's what we fans of lesbian moms can do too, and counteract the organization's effects at the same time, by buying Wide Awake, or Absolutely Positively Not, or Absolutely Maybe, or Totally Joe, or Everywhere Babies (one of my personal favorite picture books ever), or Twelve Long Months, or many other wonderful titles.

If books with gay characters sell well, more writers will feel free to write them, it will be easier for editors to acquire and publish them, and there will be more of them in the world. But that responsibility for sales rests with readers and book-buyers as much as it does with publishers, to show that there's a demand for such characters against those who'd like to repress their very existence. If you care about this cause, then read the books, write the books, but please, also, buy the books and get other people to buy the books. Every book really does make a difference.

* A term borrowed from Andrew Sullivan to identify people who use their Christian faith for a right-wing political agenda. See his explication of it here.
** Yes, this relates to a division of the company for which I work (not my division), and so the caveat in the sidebar of my blog applies here more than ever: All opinions expressed here are only my own, and are not the official views of said company. But I would feel the same way and say the same things if it were a different company.

*** Actually, this could also apply to books with black characters, or Native American characters, or differently abled characters, or any group whose existence is underrepresented or often challenged in literature and you would like to see more books with them. It is more Capitalism 101 to say that the business world loves success and tries to duplicate it endlessly -- witness the spate of paranormal romance titles in the wake of Twilight. Make a real success happen for a book you love, and more books like it will follow.

Two Easy-Peasy Recipesies and Some Church Announcements

I baked both this yellow cake and these brownies for the soup kitchen at my church today, and they were both remarkably easy (one bowl each, with v. common ingredients) and quite delicious. We served the yellow cake with fruit compote and it made a yummy quasi-shortcake.

Also: My church runs a soup kitchen every Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. Should you or someone you know be in need of a good meal and company, please do stop by: Park Slope United Methodist, at the corner of 6th Ave. and 8th St. in Brooklyn.

Finally: I will be speaking again (that is, giving a lay sermon) at said church in two weeks. I don't think the talk will have anything to do with writing this time (unlike last time), but I was thinking today about sign-signified relations in religion, so you never know. (And if you actually think I know anything more about deconstructionism than sign-signified relations . . . well, I will allow you to continue to think that.) Services are at 10 a.m. if you'd like to come.

Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird

(a philosophical odd little post)

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”– Iris Murdoch

I was taking a bus back from Boston to New York today, watching the Connecticut landscape off I-95 go by through the window, and I caught sight of an apartment building with a window facing the highway. And I thought, Somebody lives in that apartment. I imagined that person—a man or a woman, not sure which—looking out the window at my bus as we shot by on our way to New York. And then he or she turned and looked back in the room, which I gave white-painted walls, beige wall-to-wall carpeting, a white-and-brass ceiling fan. I was conscious of imagining myself into this person’s head, looking out of his or her eyes, without choosing an identity other than the consciousness of being in someone else’s head; if I had looked in a mirror, I would have seen well-tanned skin, aviator-style glasses, short, curly, salt-and-pepper hair; or perhaps pale freckled skin, long, stringy auburn hair, a small nose and incongruously full lips. Either way, the me-in-this-imaginary-person’s head looked around for keys, turned off the lights, left and locked the apartment, and walked down the stairs to go outside to the parking lot, where a car was waiting. I imagined the view from this person’s eyes at every step, the fluorescent-lit hallway, the concrete steps down to the lot, the low chunk of the lock as it turned, the comforting support of the car seat.

And once this person was sitting in the car, I let him or her go and came back to myself in the bus. I didn’t know who that person really was, whoever lived in that apartment, but the act of imagining, of looking out through his or her imaginary eyes, had made that person exist for me. He or she had passions, tastes, a history, a personality, loved ones, ones they are loved by, responsibilities, hobbies, a mind that works according to a certain education and ideologies, feelings as strongly held and as complicated as my own. Whoever lived there was as real as I was; and that realization knocked me back, as it always does, whenever I allow it to intrude on my daily life.

Because it is so easy to go about my day thinking of all the random people around me as characters in a novel starring me, blips on the video-game screen of my life, and therefore as unimportant compared to me. But of course I am merely a blip on everyone else’s screen; and as I sat on the bus, I looked at the SUVs roaring along the highway next to us with drivers and passengers, then the people talking or sleeping or working all around me, and felt all those consciousnesses working away just as mine was, consumed with hopes and fears and dreams just like mine. I was reminded that everyone else is of as much worth and possibility to God or the universe as I am, and I find it profoundly humbling to sit and feel what that means every so often, my small place as one of the billions on this planet. And then to feel the empathy that grows out of that: for if everyone is like me, we are all uncertain, all damaged, all needful of kindness and mercy.

Not that I can sustain this feeling all the time: As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and I have to reassert my primacy in my universe in order to be able to function within it. But that meditative state has two useful applications for subjects often addressed on this blog. One, for fiction, I could create a character simply by turning those eyes inward toward the mind of the person I imagined in that apartment—to poke at that brain and see what secrets it held and who it revealed itself to be. Or to look out around the apartment, pick up the magazines and pick through the closets and open the medicine-cabinet door, and take all the clues those things offer as showing the soul that would choose them. The hard part is, of course, getting all those things on the page in an interesting way; but their creation starts with the pleasure of imagining and digging—of seeing this made-up person as real, and creating all the complications and contradictions that would support that.

And two, for politics, this reminded me why I am a liberal. I support the right of gays and lesbians to marry because their loves and romantic relationships are as real as my own; I support welfare and S-CHIP and Medicaid and Medicare because the pains of poverty and lack of health insurance and the hard choices those force are as real (or actually more real) as any pains I face, and the Republicans’ all-sainted market offers no empathy at all. And if I in my incredibly blessed and comfortable New York life have to pay a little bit more in taxes so that a single mother in Texas who works two minimum-wage jobs gets food stamps, and her child gets milk and orange juice and a doctor’s supervision—that’s not actually patriotic, pace Biden; that’s common human decency, and worth it.


I was in Boston for academic reasons of a sort: My friend Donna Freitas is a professor of religion at Boston University (and also the author of the excellent YA novel The Possibilities of Sainthood, in stores now), and because I knew she likes YA fiction that addresses religious questions, I gave her a galley of an upcoming novel I edited, Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (due out March 2009). And she loved Marcelo so much that she put it on the syllabus of her Religion and Children’s Literature class at BU. Francisco (who lives in Boston) and I visited her class and enjoyed a terrific conversation about the book with Donna and her students.

The students delved deep into the religious questions the book raises, of course—actually about just these points, on the reality and suffering of others, and our responsibility towards them. And it was fascinating to go into these thematic questions with them, because as an editor I so often get caught up in the purely practical aspects of making a story work—not just making sure a character gets from point A to point B, but that the character’s motive for going to point B is sufficiently drawn, that the effects of this journey reverberate in the lives of the other characters as they should, that there aren’t any unnecessary words or repetitions in the sentences describing the journey. . . . Francisco and I talked a great deal about the larger philosophical points of the book in working on it—in fact, in our very first official editorial interaction, I asked him to write out what he wanted the book to be about and the larger questions he wanted to address, and he came back with a three-page essay that shaped all the work we did on it going forward. But the last six months or so have all been back on the practical level, so it was a pleasure to revisit that thematic level again, and of course a pleasure to discuss Marcelo with people who adore it as much as I do.


Finally, I strongly commend two things to you: One, this marvelous post by the Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama’s grandparents, and the long history of people in our country who did the right thing when it came to race; and two, the BoltBus, which carried me to Boston and back again for less than $35 round-trip, and provided not just a clean bus and plenty of legroom but free Wi-Fi and a plug for my laptop. Bliss!

The Quote File: Abraham Joshua Heschel

I was introduced to the name and thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel through a passing mention in a Spring 2009 novel, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Most of the quotes below were taken from his Wikipedia page, but that doesn't make them any the less thought-provoking or worthy:

  • "Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."
  • "A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers no harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."
  • "Racism is man's gravest threat to man -- the maximum hatred for a minimum reason."
  • "All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement."
  • "God is of no importance unless He is of utmost importance."
  • "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."
  • "Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself."
  • "Life without commitment is not worth living."
  • "In regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible."
  • "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."
  • "Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin."
  • "Truth is often gray, and deceit is full of splendor. One must hunger fiercely after Truth to be able to cherish it."
  • "Remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power. Never forget that you can still do your share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and disappointments."

Happinesses of the Week

Two Happinesses this weekend, for whichever week you care to count them. On Friday Jeremiah and his lovely wife 2.0 (long story) took me and another friend to his parents' house in central upstate New York. From there we all took a day trip to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is a beautiful and entertaining place, if sadly lacking in Royals information and memorabilia. (The Boys in Blue get one display about half the size of a batters' box, while the St. Louis Cardinals are everywhere . . . which may indeed be their respective contributions to baseball history, but I was indignant on behalf of my hometown.) Anyway, the best part of the weekend was the people I was with -- especially Jeremiah's parents, who were kind and generous and funny and wise and excellent cooks. So in gratitude to both couples, young and older:

The Conways!!!

Then after we returned to Brooklyn, I went for my Sunday run in Prospect Park, and this came up on the iPod:

"Jesus Walks" by Kanye West. I am not giving it the typical large-red-letter three-exclamation-mark treatment because while it's a Happiness aesthetically -- a terrific song with witty, meaningful lyrics (and, speaking personally, a beat that is just right for my running pace) -- it also has a great and important message that is worthy of a little more seriousness, and one that everyone should listen to. If you've never heard the song or seen the video before, please watch it. (It gives me goosebumps.) Kanye has also made two other videos for the song that serve as companions: Part 2, Part 3.


First in an occasional series, I hope, about the books I've edited, how they came to be, and, in my highly highly highly biased opinion, at least a few of the things that make them wonderful.

This book started when I stopped by my friend Rachel Griffiths's desk, something I do at least once a day. Rachel had just met with the agent Kendra Marcus, who represents a number of foreign publishers in their U.S. business dealings, and a few books were stacked on the edge of her desk. Since Rachel was finishing an e-mail, I picked one up -- Jesus pour les petits -- and started to leaf through it while I waited.

"This is really beautiful," I said, turning the pages. "Oh, wow, really beautiful -- look at this." The illustrations were by Francois Roca, a French artist Arthur had loved for years and who I'd come to love as well, and like all his work, the gorgeous paintings in this book had Hopperesque lighting and composition and yet Renaissance texture and warmth -- a perfect combination of old techniques and new aesthetics. "Do you want this?" I asked Rachel. "Could I take it and look at it a bit more?"

"Sure," she agreed, and I went back to my desk to study the book further. It was 96 pages, with each page of simple text on the left facing a beautiful, iconic image from Jesus's birth, life and teachings, or death and resurrection on the right. I can't read French, but I fell in love with the images: a radiant Mary, the boy Jesus running past a house in Nazareth, the preacher Jesus sitting beneath a tree with his disciples, three crosses against a stormy sky. Jesus was never seen full face, and was consistently viewed from some distance away, so he remained always a figure of mystery; but the softness of the edges and the warmth of the colors around him made him approachable and human. This was the Jesus I had grown up with, as far away as God and yet right there to listen, and by the time I closed the book again, I knew I wanted to publish it.

I also knew it would be a lot of work, as the economics of the American publishing market were (and are) not instantly supportive of a 96-page French picture book with only its subject and beauty as selling points. The length would mean a high unit cost; the Frenchness would require a translation; the subject had been covered before (to say the least), so there was competition; and it can be difficult to get people to stop and appreciate beauty -- even beauty as obvious (to me, anyway) as the paintings in this book. The book would need something more to be published here, a prominent author or distinctive voice, someone like --

"Katherine Paterson," I said. I was sitting in Arthur's office now for my weekly meeting with him, and we were talking about how we could make these paintings work as a U.S. picture book. There was imprint precedent for pairing illustrations from a foreign picture book with text by another author: Three years before, Arthur had published a text for Confucius: The Golden Rule by Russell Freedman alongside previously published illustrations by Frederic Clement. [I should also note that I had checked again with Rachel to be sure she didn't mind letting the book go, and because she didn't share my background with or interest in the subject matter, she kindly passed it on.] Mrs. Paterson's name just popped into my head as I was speaking -- hadn't I read that she was a minister's wife? But surely she had done a book like this before . . . ? And would she want to write text for pre-existing illustrations? Would it be too presumptuous to ask?

In any case, Arthur agreed that Katherine Paterson would be great for this, so I went back to my desk and did a little research at She was indeed the wife of a minister and the daughter of missionaries -- she had even done mission work herself. There was no other Jesus biography listed among her publications. And then I came across this lovely statement on her FAQ: "The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress. "

That spoke incredibly deeply to me. For while my own faith may be defined some days as a struggle to have it at all, I do try to hold to the vision Jesus preached for all people: to love one another, and be kind and just to one another, and believe always in the possibility of both small and radical change for good -- and to attempt to live those beliefs much more than talk about them. And here Mrs. Paterson was applying that philosophy to stories, my other religion, and with such humility and grace herself. . . . I wrote to her in great fear and trembling, explaining my long admiration for her books and hopes for the project, and telling myself I had nothing to lose.

It was one of the best days in my publishing life when I heard she was interested. Many letters then passed back and forth, between me and Mrs. Paterson, me and her agent, me and Bayard Presse (the French publisher), me and Kendra Marcus -- and probably Mrs. Paterson and her agent, Bayard and Kendra, Bayard and Francois as well. The French author, Marie-Helene Delval, graciously agreed to let Mrs. Paterson's text replace her own. We tightened the narrative from 96 leisurely pages to 48 more focused ones. I flipped through various Bible translations to check quotations and parables, and, in the course of our correspondence, slowly dared to think of two-time-Newbery-Medalist, National-Book-Award-honoree, Astrid-Lindgren-Prizewinner Mrs. Paterson as "Katherine." (It helped that she is, I swear, the nicest and most humble woman on the planet -- who would probably bristle at that description because she is the nicest and most humble woman on the planet, but so it goes.)

I also came to appreciate her deceptively simple text for the book -- because how do you explain a story as complicated as Jesus's to a four-year-old? Even if you don't believe in his divinity, the mythology surrounding him encompasses sex, politics, history, religion, extreme violence, miracles, the very mystery of life and death. Katherine puts it all in terms a child could understand -- a phrase that is usually an insult, but here demonstrates her great understanding of and sympathy for children: For example, she identifies Jesus's disciples as his friends, and says that when they left him, he felt very alone. A four-year-old could know and appreciate that feeling of loneliness and abandonment. She frames the story, as the French book did, with images of light -- first the light prophesied by Isaiah, then at the crucifixion, "The light of the world had gone out." Again, any four-year-old alone in the dark would comprehend how this feels. And finally, my favorite line: "The light still shines through everyone who, like Jesus, lives the good news of God's loving kingdom." The book doesn't just tell children about Jesus's words of grace and hope, it teaches them that they (and we) can make a difference in a hurting world.

Francois's art takes this same relateable approach in making the story comprehensible to children: One illustration shows many followers of Jesus smiling; the next spread has the same layout, but different individuals, all of whom are frowning -- visually creating the transition in public opinion leading toward the crucifixion. (The book does not assign responsibility for the crucifixion to any particular group -- beyond any controversies, again, that's not something a four-year-old would be interested in or need to know.) The result is, I think, as beautiful and child-friendly as any picture book about Jesus out there, and one I never looked at without feeling incredibly privileged to be working with two such amazing artists.
After the content of the layouts was finalized, our designer Leyah Jensen created a big, spacious design, putting the 8" x 8" art -- which had originally been full bleed -- into a one-inch frame for a 10" x 10" trim size. The result feels lovely and gifty, a book you could give children for baptisms and first communions as well as Christmas or Easter. Along similar year-round lines, the gorgeous French cover art had featured a scene from the nativity--

-- but we wanted to emphasize Christ's whole life over merely his birth, so we commissioned new jacket art from Francois, who delivered the piece you see at the top. (This nativity piece is now on the back cover.) I'm fascinated by the new jacket because every time I look at it, I find my eyes focusing not on Jesus, but the common people around him -- their expressions of love, trust, wonder, and joy -- which fits perfectly with Katherine's text about where light continues to shine: in us, if we choose to live it, every day.

The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children came out this month, and as I noted earlier, has already received two starred reviews, from Kirkus and Booklist. It is perhaps my mother's favorite book I've ever edited -- which means quite a lot to me, that I helped make something that means so much to her. Altogether, I love this book dearly, and if you have the chance to see it, I hope you love it too.

Brooklyn Arden Review: "100 Saints You Should Know"

Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won. -- Paul Celan

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As I was thinking over what I admired about "100 Saints You Should Know," Kate Fodor's quietly excellent new play at Playwrights Horizons, the first quotation here sprang into my head. In searching my quote file for the exact wording and the attribution, I found the second quotation, which is relevant by virtue of its irrelevance to the question the play asks: why bad things happen and how to go on. And the third quote, like the first, underlines Ms. Fodor's and the cast's accomplishments: to have constructed a story and characters so genuine they seem to be real -- a house you can walk through and breathe in. The characters are five:
  • Theresa, a cleaner, never married
  • Matthew, one of her employers, a Catholic priest
  • Abby, Theresa's hellion of a teenage daughter
  • Colleen, Matthew's widowed Irish mother
  • Garrett, a teenage delivery boy

The play is a simple chain of conversations over the course of one night: between Theresa and Matthew in his rectory, just before his departure on a forced leave of absence (for possession of pictures of adult male nudes); Theresa and Abby in the girl's bedroom; Matthew and Colleen as they play Scrabble in her living room, she not knowing his "vacation" is mandatory; Matthew and Garrett just outside Colleen's house; Theresa, Matthew, and Colleen in the living room, after Theresa brings Matthew something he left in the rectory; Garrett and Abby as they wait outside for the adults. Then tragedy strikes -- an accident, inexplicable -- and the players are juggled round again, still always in domestic settings, rarely more than two of them onstage at a time.

There is no showiness to the play; there are no grand plots or grandiose desires. It is rather a story of people confused by their desires, for others, for goodness, or for God. They cannot escape the people they are, which leads to their lives of quiet desperation, and the situation that follows from those lives has even less rational explanation: There is neither good nor evil here (pace Dr. King), only the search for meaning in meaninglessness. But the characters' struggle to search and win a greater reality -- the possibility of redemption -- combined with their utter recognizability as people give them both dignity and poignancy.

In keeping with the spirit of the play, the performances feel restrained, letting the characters' pain carry the drama rather than overemphasizing it in the acting. (The exception was Zoe Kazan as Abby, but as Abby is a histrionic teenager, that may well have been intentional.) The scenic design by Rachel Hauck and costume design by Mimi O'Donnell is likewise elegant and in service to Ms. Fodor's themes. This is a wise and thoughtful play worthy of your time -- a marvelous portrayal of the characters' reality, and an enrichment of our own.