Friday, February 19, 2010

Bestseller among Baptists or Moderates Speak Out

Photo by Bobesh

Every day this book brings surprises. Today it was the news that on the Borders website, my memoir is ranked #1 in the “Top 5 Baptist Churches Books” – in Australia. Thank you, dear Down Under faithful readers!

I am delighted by this news but I don’t know quite how to interpret it. Does this rating mean that I am again Top Ten on Prayer Lists? Or does it mean that Baptists are buying the book because they enjoy its humor and inquiry? With 16 million Southern Baptists in America – and a huge contingent of Baptist churches in Australia – I am simply grateful for the support.

Maybe it’s true as a woman in the audience said last night after my reading,
“Things are changing. All around the world, more of us moderates are speaking out.”

As I travel on this book tour I’m hearing from those moderates, both religious and political. They tell me that they are weary of extremes and polarities – of talking heads and the shock-jock talk radio shouting matches when no one listens. Only rants.

“Where is the civic discourse that so marks any democracy?” another reader asked at a reading. “Free speech doesn’t just mean a megaphone for your own beliefs. It means allowing others to speak their truths.”

Another audience member remarked, “For too long the Far Right has dominated the dialogue in matters of faith. How about being spiritual seekers of common ground?”

I know that there is much critical in my new book about the fundamentalist or far right wings of the Southern Baptist church. But I also write about some moderate Christians who inspired and instructed me, who embodied the New Testament beatitudes and loving kindness. Pastor Joe and his wife, Sue, Strother are profiled in Chapter Three of my new book. Here’s a glimpse:
"I still carry on a meditative inner dialogue with Pastor Joe and a real conversation with and Sue. Pastor Joe is one Christian who would have been called ‘green’ today. His sermons were about compassion more than conquest. During my adolescent years of doubt, it was Pastor Joe and Sue, an ex-parole officer, who taught me that my love of the earth was a devotion to the divine, and that Rapture was possible right here on earth."
Pastor Joe and Sue were more mystics than fundamentalists. They even allowed us teenagers to debate Biblical prophecy. We were encouraged to question. As I say in the book, “Sue’s sense of humor was darkly comic and irreverent, while Joe’s kindly scholarship translated into sermons full of real-life stories that navigated a complex moral compass.”

I can still hear Joe’s calm and musical baritone as he explained his interpretation of a scripture and then asked for other points of view. His was the epitome of true dialogue. An open-hearted call-and-response that is the best of spiritual discourse. And I am fortunate enough to be able to simply call up Sue, an early heroine and mentor in my life, and hear her full-throated laughter.

“If Christians spent more time simply being here, instead of planning their one-way vacations in heaven,” Sue once told me, “we’d have a kinder world.”

Their daughter, Donna, whom I used to babysit, has grown into a lively and very successful entrepreneur. She wrote me a letter that I carry now in my reader’s copy of the new book as I travel:
“It’s rare that a book allows you to follow the evolution of belief,” she wrote.  “You gently introduce the ability to hold more than one belief about God in a brain at the same time . . . something most religions don’t practice too often.”

She adds, “My father was a mystic. Mom was the earth to his heaven.”

In my life, the Strother family of compassionate Christians is another reason to be left behind.
And let’s hear it for the Aussies for boomeranging this book to the top of Baptist Churches; let’s hear the moderates among us who have been drowned out too long; let’s tune in to those who are softly and tenderly following their own “still, small voice.”

And Pastor Joe, I know you’re still listening.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Reason to Be Left Behind: Cats and Dogs and Dolphins and Bears, oh, my!

To continue my series of finding rapturous Reasons to Be Left Behind, now let me sing the praises of other animals – both wild and domestic. Throughout much of my career, I’ve followed wild animals – from the mysterious and forgiving gray whale in my book Sightings to dolphins in Between Species to wolves in my first memoir Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals. I also celebrate domestic animals, especially our daily companions of cats and dogs. What would I do without my ascended Zen master, Loki, and my mischievous and protective feline, Tao?

I come from a long line of animal lovers. My father raised Tenneesee Walkers; one niece volunteers at the zoo to work with aging elephants. Another niece is addicted to Animal Planet. Is it any wonder that I discovered at every turning point of my life, spiritual or psychological, that an animal guided me in making some big decision?

For example, my decades of studying wild dolphins have taught me about playfulness as a survival skill.  My niece carried on the family tradition of cetacean love when she volunteered to work at a dolphin research center one summer. She got a tattoo of a dolphin, which inspires me to do the same, if I have the courage.

We’ve always known that animals are intelligent and able to adapt to changing environments – something humans might try. But a recent British Sunday Times article cites new research in which dolphins are declared “the world’s most intelligent creatures, after humans.” The scientists go on to suggest “they are so bright that they should be treated as ‘non-human persons.'” A professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Thomas White, wrote a series of academic studies suggesting that dolphins should have rights and that they “qualify for moral standing as individuals.”
I have a lot to say on this ethical and spiritual issue of other animals as worthy of equal rights with humans. Much of my writing – from the novel Animal Heart to Singing to the Sound addresses this. Stay tuned.
But for now as I work with my cats warming themselves by the space heater and we all listen to the waves off the Salish Sea, I’d like to give a practical reason for cherishing our fellow creatures: The health benefits of animal companionship.
The New York Times reports that while it is still not well understood, animals can help lower our blood pressure, ease our pain, comfort us in our grieving, and raise healthy children.  When researching the effect of visiting therapy dogs (like the Delta Society volunteers) with children in the hospital, Emily Grankowski said, “The dogs brighten them up.” This is also true for autistic children and elders who often have no physical touch except by petting cats or walking a dog.
I edited an anthology, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, in which the poet, Judith Collas quips: “she never felt she was sleeping with the wrong dog.”
The creature comfort that comes from encountering wild animals and living alongside our domestic pets is so profound that I include them in my most important Reasons to Be Left Behind. Now, I better get up from this computer and the piles of work. Why? I’ve got to go walk the dog!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Number One in Nevada? A Mystery.

Photo by Alaskan Dude

Several weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a clip from that my book was the Number 1 bestseller in Nevada.

“Do you know anybody who actually lives there?” she asked as if this far-off desert state was an alternate reality, traveled to only through some string-theory portal.

I had to laugh and remind her of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover that showed Manhattan as the center of the universe and very little civilization past the Mississippi.

“Where is that . . . that place?” she continued, her usual editorial precision softening into an uncharacteristic vagueness. “Is it a state?”

I howled. “Of course, it’s a state -- right next to Utah. Ever heard of Las Vegas?”

“Oh,” she said, her wit returning. “Well then, maybe it’s the Mormons who are making your book a bestseller.”

“Maybe so,” I mused. “Mormons don’t believe in the Rapture, either.” Then I had a thought. “Could it be survivalists who mistake my book for some guide to surviving nuclear blast?”

“Well,” my friend remarked, “they will be very surprised when they read your book.”

I smiled. I didn’t once write a novel called Duck and Cover for nothing. To those of you out there in the painted deserts and serene mountains of Nevada who are buying my book, I send a call-and-response of much gratitude.

At the wonderfully buoyant Third Place Books reading, one of the audience members had an idea of why the book might be faring so well in Nevada. She wrote me an email:

I was born in Reno and growing up we’d travel down to see
family there about twice a year. I noticed that for a city who’s
main industry is gambling, there are a lot of churches there. (We,
of course, went to my Grandma’s Southern Baptist church.)
There is a dichotomy that just seems woven into their identity.
After all, it is the ‘Biggest, Little City in the World.’ Perhaps so
many evangelicals flock there because they know they’ll find
plenty of sinners.

Maybe the Mormons and Survivalists will not be surprised or disappointed when they read my new book. It is, after all, about survival and finding my spiritual way. How I survived the extreme weather of Southern Baptist fundamentalism and still love the Earth. Mormons love the earth, so do Survivalists. And I’m sure there are many Nevadans who cherish this world and do not want to leave it. (Las Vegas, and its escapist or otherworldly charms notwithstanding.)

So my hat’s off to Nevada. You’ve kept my book in your top five bestsellers for almost three weeks. If I were a gambling woman I’d place my bets on you!

In fact, when I was a child and my family drove through Las Vegas in the middle of the night, we saw a shining city shimmering in the desert like a mirage or some Biblical neon mansion.
It was a sinful city, I’d heard. And to prove that point, my father stopped at a gas station with slot machines.

“I’m going to teach you all a good lesson for life,” he told us. “Give me your allowances.”

We resisted, but eventually handed over our quarters. With dismay we watched him plug them into the slot machine. He did let us pull the mechanical arm. Our little silver savings disappeared, coin by coin.

“You see,” my father said with satisfaction. “That is what comes from gambling.”

He plugged in the last quarter. There was an electric whirring as the slot machine spun its mismatched magic apples, pears, stars. Suddenly mechanical whistles and percussive bleeps – Jackpot!

Silver coins shot out of the slot machine like manna in the wilderness. We kids jumped up and down, hooting. What a good lesson in life.

“This NEVER happens,” my father said sternly. “It’s not real. Forget it.”

But I haven’t. And these many years later I thank the readers of Nevada who are gambling and placing their bets on my new book. Because of you, the book is a winner.

Thanks also to the Seattle Times for a wonderful review this week and welcome to all the Huffington Post readers clicking through. 

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Music of Memoir

Photo by tengtan

Last night’s reading at Elliot Bay to launch the new book was very well-attended and brought several of my communities together for the first time. Seal Sitters, our neighborhood conservation group, met with my sister Metropolitan chorale singers; my beloved students mingled with the First Readers and Ideal Editors who helped shape this memoir through all its storms and successes.

As I stood at the lectern, my words were enlivened by the luminous slide show from our Seal Sitter photographer, Robin Lindsey. Looking out over the audience as I read, I felt both joy and gratitude at seeing my various communities come together to celebrate with me.

One of my students, a nature writer and musician herself, asked a provocative question:
“How are music and writing similar?”
“I wrote this book as a song,” I told her.

Music requires a search for common ground. As singers or musicians we must always listen to others to find our harmonies. The musical dialogue is not about debate or winning, it is all about listening. You have to really attune to one another when you sing. You can’t succeed to saying ‘My way or the highway’ as some dogmas or fundamentalists do in verbal dialogues.

To stay on pitch, we must all be mindful of everyone else’s notes. I come from a family of beautiful singers. My grandfather was an Irish tenor who bequeathed to us his mammy’s lullaby. “It’s the best I have to give you, girlie,” he told me. This family lullaby passed between races, between generations. We have sung Granddaddy’s lullaby to newborns, on cross-country trips, at funerals. When Granddaddy was dying, I would perch on his hospital bed and sing the old song to him through his oxygen tent. He would smile and nod and close his eyes – a babe again. Getting ready to be reborn.

My brother continues the Irish tenor tradition and his daughter, Charlotte, had her own rock band. She plays the piano by ear and has composed her own music. When she and I get together, one of the first things we do is harmonize on the hauntingly high Andrew Lloyd Weber song, “Pie Jesus.”

In my family, singing is a way to resolve our many disagreements over politics and religion. We might be in the middle of a pretty heated debate, say on abortion or health care. Just when I fear it might turn really toxic, someone drops into a song. Then, instead of shouting over each other with our opinions, we must tune in and find our part in the complex harmonies. Instead of divide and conquer, we must seek counterpoint and synchrony.

Singing together is the great salvation of my family. It is also the organizational intelligence behind my new book. Many chapter titles are actually songs – from the upbeat spiritual “I Love to Tell the Story” to the robust “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” to the plaintive “Shall We Gather at the River?”
Many times in the writing of this spiritual memoir, when I got lost, music found me. I’d wonder “How would I write this scene if it were music?” And then I’d know how to craft it, how to weave the characters and my own personal descant.

On my website, under the bicycle icon of Sound Stories there are several stories about singing and how it can heal. These range from my NPR commentaries, “Singing in Afghanistan” and “Singing on Alki Beach” to a Yiddish prayer, “K’erachaim’av,” that I sang at the insistence of Diana, our Metropolitan’s accompanist. She is Russian and a real taskmaster, but all in pursuit of the muse of music. “Music is its own country,” she tells me.

At the end of the Elliot Bay reading last night, I asked my Metropolitan singers, my students, and anyone else who knew the old hymn to sing along with me a chorus from “In the Garden.” This must be the most meditative and yet sexy gospel hymn ever written. And it is the title of one of my chapters about a family reunion resolved by singing. Here are the lyrics and a link to it:
And he walks with me
    and he talks with me
    and he tells me I am his own
    and the joy we share as we tarry there
    none other has ever known.~

Youtube video of In the Garden performed by a choir

I’ll be reading (and singing) at Third Place Books, Saturday,  February 6 at 6:30 p.m. Come and join in the song.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book Worms, Not Viruses

Today I joined the online IndieBound book community of readers and independent booksellers nationwide. These are the readers I count on every month to choose new books through their IndieNext lists. I have long trusted their literary taste, much more than the myriad bestseller lists that only count blockbusters and (gasp!) celebrity books.

If there were ever an anthology called Celebrity Wisdom it would be as thin as the new iPad. What do celebrities, in their rarefied, “royal We” world know that can really help us in our daily lives? I am much more interested in the subtle and nuanced worlds that books offer us as portals. Alternate realities.

The IndieNext list for February includes my new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind. It also includes an anthology of Best European Fiction 2010 with short stories from 30 countries, the new Louise Erdrich novel, Shadow Tag, and an intriguing novel set in the eighteenth century, The Book of Fires

I am truly grateful to independent booksellers for choosing my work, but also for offering me ten years of recommendations. American Booksellers Association calls the Indie Next list “the heart and soul of passionate bookselling.” Joining the IndieNext community, searching out other readers with whom to share my love of all things literary, is like being part of a vast online Book Club. We are Book Worms burrowing into online literary nooks and crannies. No viruses here, just good books.

My own local and much beloved indie bookstores are Elliot Bay and Third Place Books. Elliot Bay is moving this spring from its revered corner in historic Pioneer Square to hip-hopping Capital Hill. Rumor has it the new site will be just as inviting but also a real destination. Their fabulous in-house cafĂ© is traveling up the hill with them. Hallelujah! And Third Place Books, with its spacious shelves, is my other favorite bookstore in Seattle. I’ll be reading at both bookstores this week: Thursday, February 4 at 7 p.m. at Elliot Bay and Saturday, February 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Third Place Books.

So the online community can actually venture out from our Web and meet in real time, real place. Real people. Real books. See you there!

You can download the IndieNext List for February here. And you buy my book here.