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Illustration from Patrick Saves the Troll, available on Amazon

The year is 2002. The Boy is just four, and we are at Grandma’s house. It is early summer, evening. The Boy is preparing for bed in my old room. The windows are open and the cool blue evening breeze is blowing the curtains. The first stars stud the sky, even as the last of the day turns the horizon to pearl. Bathed and pajamaed, his hair still damp, The Boy climbs up onto the bed.

My mother tucks him in, and then she asks, “Would you like to talk to Jesus?”

And here is where things get a little sticky. Prayer does not figure large in our home, largely because I am a witch. I am raising my son using one rule–the Hippocratic Oath, a simplified version of the Wiccan Rede (If it harms none, let it be). When we feel the need for guidance we meditate, then pull out the runestones, the Tarot cards, or the scrying bowl. When we need help we invoke the appropriate image of deity and cast a spell.

So there is my son, being invited to converse with a stranger. My heart sinks. I flash back to my own childhood, when my mother was teaching me how to pray. There was a certain language (King James English), a certain set of topics in which Jesus was interested (missionaries and colporters, the Vast Harvest Field, starving people everywhere, any sins I had committed, Grandma and Grandpa’s salvation…you get the idea), and a certain posture (Kneeling Up, or standing on one’s knees, hands folded with fingers laced, head bowed, eyes closed).

“Sure,” says The Boy. He is nothing if not game. And it’s not like the concept of prayer is completely foreign to him. After all, we do come from a Christian family. He has seen the process many times. He’s seen the posture. He understands that people pray and ask God for the things they want or need. He’s just never done it.

With the confidence of someone who has no clue what he is doing, he scrambles to his knees on the bed, turns to face the window, folds his hands, closes his eyes, and says, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” (We might not know about prayer, but he’s solid on his nursery rhymes.) And then, heaving a sigh of satisfaction at a job well done, he scrambles back around, lays down, and holds up his arms for his “good night” kiss.

Grandma and I oblige. We do not look at each other. We never talk about it. I know she is horrified and saddened that my son does not know how to pray. Though I have made no real secret of my new spiritual path, neither have I actually forced the information onto my family. I have allowed them to simply see me not as a practicing witch, but as a “Backslider,” the Adventist term for members who have, in the parlance, “wandered away from the fold,” “forsaken the narrow way which is rocky and hard” for the “broad, easy way that leads to damnation,” and are “drifting.” At the time I stopped being one, the Adventist view was that while members might “backslide,” they never adopted another active spiritual path, that somehow the very rightness of Adventism had forever spoiled them for other things.

I can’t tell my mother that while The Boy might not know how to seek answers and help on his knees, he’s very good at finding his answers in Tarot cards and runes. So we just walk out of that bedroom in silence. And we never, ever, talk about the fact that my son doesn’t understand about prayer.

We don’t talk about it, but I have thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot. And  I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong. I think of myself, finding a quiet place in my heart (my mom kneeling), focusing my will through the use of ritual acts and words (folding her hands, closing her eyes), reaching out to Something or Someone Beyond(“Dear Jesus…” “Star light, star bright…”) grasping hold of the promise of present abundance (“we ask these things in Jesus’ name… I wish I may, I wish I might…”). I think of temples full of rats, of shrines to ancestors, of saints’ faces painted gold. I think of this beautiful, bountiful, troubled planet, all of us on it, heads bowed, holding our hands out to Something Beyond, seeking connection, and our words arise like incense, carrying our hopes, wishes and dreams, weaving a web of hope, of contrition, gratitude, and I wonder if somewhere, in a place so far beyond us and our small ideas of religion and gods as to be unimaginable, and as close to us as the children we hold to our hearts, our prayers don’t meet and become one.

So mote it be.

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“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” my dad used to tell us. What he meant was just that the absence of a jack was no excuse for not changing a flat tire. “Look around you,” he’d say impatiently. “If you don’t have the right tool for the job, figure it out. There’s always stuff in the back of the truck, and lying on the ground.”

I got to be very, very good at building tools out of rocks, old railroad ties, and baling twine. It’s a strange skill, but there it is. I have a knack for seeing relationships that aren’t always immediately apparent.

I like to think of it as having a touch of the metaphysical poets. My Romantic English Literature professor put it another way. “Boy, do you ever have a vivid imagination,” he said.  I still got an “A”, though, so that was all right.

But even my metaphysical brain didn’t expect to find common threads running through books as seemingly diverse as Brenda Peterson’s memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth, and Marian Allen’s fantasy, Eel’s Reverence. It wasn’t until I was actually writing the reviews for the two books that I found myself saying, “Hey…”. And then I started looking. And there they were–a lot of them, actually, far too many to discuss here.

The most striking, of course, is the examination each offers into the knotty subject of personal spirituality versus organized religion.  Readers who haven’t been following the discussion can catch up if they wish; just go back to Marian Allen’s interview, and read forward.

The central conflict in Allen’s book grows out of that very issue; Aunt Libby, a “true” priestess advocating a personal spiritual experience stripped of the trappings of religion, finds herself squared off against not the “reaver” priests, who offer a turnkey approach to soul maintenance and seem to operate more or less peaceably with the “true” priests, but a corrupt coalition of priests set on destroying all other spiritual options, and garnering all temporal and spiritual powers for themselves. Peterson’s memoir explores the same issue from another angle–she describes growing up a mystic in a family of Southern Baptists.

What strikes me most about the two books, though, is not that they both explore the relationship between religion, spirituality and power–after all, tthe question is the subject of constant debate these days. What I find most amazing is that both writers seem to find a system that gives power to neither path, but permits both, to be the uneasy solution.

Eel’s Reverence doesn’t conclude with a triumphant Aunt Libby trouncing her foes the reaver priests, but with an agreement that ensures people are offered both spiritual options–an agreement that allows for cooperation, conversation–and possibly conversion. Likewise, Peterson concludes her book by tracing her own family’s steps toward not agreement, but toward the sort of conversation that includes listening as well as speaking, that seeks to understand, rather than convince.

She includes a quote by Rumi, a 13th-century Afghani mystic poet:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

And perhaps that is the most striking thing of all–neither author sees resolution in the triumph of “right” over “wrong,” but in a world where  there is room for choice: one in which there are indeed many ways to skin a cat. Allen and Peterson may have traveled vastly different routes, but they have both found their way to the field beyond.

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Today, Author Brenda Peterson takes some time to talk about books, seals, nature, and family. She’ll be around September 24; be sure to stop by and say ‘hi.’

You’ve written a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. How was writing this book different?

I never thought after Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals that I’d write another memoir, but this new one was so insistent – and funny. I wanted to follow it and see where it took me. I mean this to be a bit of a divine comedy of family, faith, and country.

Let’s talk about the list you make in one chapter comparing fundamentalists and environmentalists. What prompted that?

I was on the front line of the environmental wars for so long as author and reporter. I witnessed a lot of true believers and infighting among environmentalists. Sometimes I noticed a self-righteous and blaming tone in the environmental movement; it reminded me of my fundamentalist childhood. This comparison was unsettling, to say the least. I think humor is the highest form of intelligence and goes a long way in changing hearts and minds. Have you ever seen a fundamentalist or environmentalist stand-up-comedian? Why not?

How have the fundamentalists and environmentalists of your acquaintance responded to that list?

I’ve tried to use humor to defuse fundamentalism in both environmental and religious debates. And storytelling. Stories can by-pass dogma by creating an experience that all listeners or readers can share. Empathy. That’s one way to ask people to take other points of view than their own cherished opinions.

The book is full of these stories. And I’ve also learned to laugh at myself more — the comedy of my own survival. Trying not to take myself so seriously. An example is in the chapter “Fire From Heaven” when I’m on a cruise ship with my family and find myself obsessing over maxing out my credit card, instead of arguing about global warming. My credit card, after all, has a photo of a polar bear.

Writing, and particularly writing a memoir, is an act of self-exposure. Writing a memoir about family in a sense lays certain parts of family life open to public view. How do you balance the need to tell your story with the need to preserve your family’s–and your–privacy?

Carefully. Very carefully! Know thyself, is one of the most famous dictums from ancient Greece. Self-knowledge is only achieved by sometimes stepping outside of the collective – one’s family or society. And then looking back from a more detached point of view. I certainly did this in considering how some beliefs I grew up with had shaped my world. Every family tries to find the middle ground between enmeshment and detachment. By choosing the theme “I Want To Be Left Behind,” I narrowed my focus; so that helped me know what stories to tell and what not to bring into the public spotlight. When you read the book, you’ll see that it is not a “tell-all” book. Some critics have even called it a “love letter” to my family – though some in the family do not see it that way.

On the same subject, families often differ in how they remember specific events. As a memoirist, how did you address those differing memories?

I’ve written two memoirs now and taught memoir for over 20 years. One thing I know for sure: everyone in a family has different memories of the same childhood. When I could, I checked my memories with a sibling, parents, relative, or friend. My younger brother read along with me as I worked on this book and we had long conversations about ideas – and memories. He advised and challenged me; and I sometimes left out certain scenes because I completely trusted him.

And though my brother and I are very different in our politics and religion, we have found a spacious and open-hearted middle ground. We can talk about anything – and for that I’m truly grateful.

I was often surprised at how big the gaps were between the memories of my other family members. We were each tracking our lives with vastly different lenses. Some of my family very much disagree with my story and have not hesitated to say so. Those that are the most Far Right are quite angry that I’ve taken a rather humorous look at the Rapture and some of the Religious Right’s beliefs. At some point, I just have to say, “Well, I look forward to your book on the subject.”

Let’s talk about seal-sitting. How did that start? How did it evolve? Can anyone do this? Is there a website or contact number those interested in joining can contact for more information?

About ten years ago a neighbor, George, and I just began informally sitting watch over seal pups resting on our beach. Their mothers were far out fishing and sometimes, at four-to-six weeks, the pups were struggling to survive weaning. The first chapter of this book which focuses on Seal Sitting appeared in Orion Magazine here:

There is also a wonderful website www.sealsitters.org that has more information, fabulous photos, and media coverage. Since 2007, when we had a bumper crop of seal pups on our Alki Beach here in West Seattle, Seal Sitters has grown to an all-volunteer grassroots group of 125 trained “citizen naturalists.” This year they have literally saved seal pups’ lives and also educated people about marine mammal conservation. It’s possible to make a difference right in your own backyard. And Seal Sitting is the subject of my new children’s book, Pups on the Beach, due out from Henry Holt in early 2011.

In some ways, your book can be seen as an examination of the relationship between religion and spirituality. How would you define those concepts? Can the two co-exist?

I discovered early on that I was a lone mystic in a family that preferred organized religion. Dogma holds no appeal for me. So I’m what some teasingly call a “green sheep.” Some people are most moved and inspired by spiritual structure; I am not. Give me an ocean and a forest and another animal soul – and I’ve found my true faith. A “still, small voice,” as the Bible says. A reason to be left behind.

How about the relationship between love of nature and environmentalism?

All that is alive is sacred. E.O. Wilson talks about eco-philia, the love of life as opposed to ecology, the study of life. I think that says it all.

I Want To Be Left Behind is about finding middle ground, and loving the earth. What would you see as ‘the middle ground” in conversations about things like endangered species, global warming, and development of delicate habitats?

Listening goes a long way in any environmental debate. I spent many years as an environmental editor and writer covering such issues as old-growth forests in Living by Water and Singing to the Sound; the Makah whale hunt for National Geographic Books in Sightings with my Native co-author, Linda Hogan; and in my first memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, covering the reintroduction of the wild wolves to Yellowstone and the military sonar that has such fatal effects on marine mammals. I discovered that simply listening to the opposite point of view really helped establish some civility, if not trust.

So many peoples’ opinions are formed from fear and that constricts both the conversation and our imaginations. I ask a lot of questions, as a reporter, like “Why do you want to hunt whales in this century?” or “How do you think we can actually solve global warming on a day-to-day or local level?”

Everyone likes to be heard in any debate. And I often find that middle ground is revealed when all sides are given the chance to hear each other out – then turn their minds to problem-solving together, instead of polarizing ideologies.

You talk a lot about writing in this book. Do you keep a diary or journal? How did that play into writing this book?

Writing is the highest learning curve, the most rewarding challenge, and the most mysterious art I’ve ever practiced. As I move into my 17th book – a new YA novel, sequel to Animal Heart – I’m even more awed by the process of making stories.

I don’t keep a journal of my daily life. I’ve kept a dream journal for many decades. Only I can decipher it. There are no exposes! It’s a landscape of my deepest meditations and a fertile ground for all my work. As W. B Yeats says, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” For me, in dreams, begin books.

Have a question for Brenda? Click on the “Comments” link in the paragraph below her bio and ask it there.

_________

Brenda Peterson has taught writing for 27 years, first as a Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University, then at University of Washington, and since then over two decades of private classes. She works with people from all over the world on bringing their book projects into the world. “It’s my way of giving way and passing on all I have learned — from my first five years as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine in the 1970s to all I’ve figured out in writing and publishing my sixteen books,” Peterson says. She is currently working on a book about writing, as well as the YA sequel to Animal Heart. For more on Brenda Peterson’s books check out her Amazon author page, or visit her website here:

Author photo by Chris Stuvek.

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Priests can get their noses out of joint, and old women still have their pride. I’d been a priest of Micah for 68 of my 82 years and a woman for all 82 of them; when my congregation began drifting away to the flashy new temple down the street, something snapped. If my parish wanted a new priest, I wasn’t going to stay and hang on by my nails.

So begins Marian Allen’s newly released novel, Eel’s Reverence, and so begins the great karmic irony of the book: The speaker and central character –82-year-old priestess of Micah “Aunt Libby”—abandons her temple and sets off on a “Final Wandering.” The “wandering” seems to be motivated primarily by self-pity; when a former parishioner offers her a ride and food she is irritated that he has spoiled the “effect” of her leaving, rather than grateful for his generosity.

In short order her “wandering” leads her to The Eel—a coastal region populated by mermayds, reaver priests, mercenaries, and a cowed and fearful citizenry.  When the Aunt Libby is exiled and the innkeeper who gives her shelter burned out she finds herself faced with the very situation that prompted her to abandon her shrinking congregation in the first place—in spades.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I won’t tell you how it turns out. Be warned, though: don’t take anything for granted. Nothing is quite what it seems.

I started Eel’s Reverence expecting a good read; Marian Allen knows her way around a keyboard and a red pencil. She has numerous books and short stories to her credit and hangs out from time to time over at the Blood-Red Pencil, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a great writer or editor.

What I hadn’t expected was a book that raises so many questions about issues: One of the central conflicts in the book is driven by the uneasy relationship between private spirituality and established religion. Another issue explored is the advantages—and disadvantages—of citizenship. The mermayd population of The Eel is resistant to the citizenship—and taxation, and curbs on behavior—being offered by the reaver priests. Their resistance raises an interesting question about how we outside of The Eel deal with alien populations. How do we balance the right to one’s culture with the need for a certain level of assimilation to the national culture?

Perhaps the most interesting conflict, though, is the one played out in Aunt Libby’s character. She leaves her temple because her parishioners are increasingly choosing the spiritual short cut—the financial salvation the reaver priests offer, rather than the personal soul-searching the “true” priests offer. Faced with the same situation—though magnified—in The Eel, she comes to see that there is a place for both. While some crave personal spirituality, there are also those for whom the simplicity of a finanacial transaction is sufficient—and people are best served by having both options available to them.

Writing a fantasy that feels real is a delicate balancing act, one that Allen manages with deft humor, all-too-believable characters, and the occasional fantastical reference that reminds us that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Take, for instance, the reproductive cycle of mermayds. Like seahorses, the females lay eggs—but the males gestate them in a belly pouch. Like some amphibians, they are capable of switching gender at need. And yet they are physically like mermaids—half human, half fish. The fantasy is real, and believable, because it is rooted in similar structures in the “real” world.

Perhaps that’s the key to Eel’s Reverence both as a darned good read, and as a book that provokes questions about our own world—the fantasy is fantastical enough to be fun, and real enough to be believable.  If you’d like to read more about Marian Allen, her books, and Eel’s Reverence visit her online here. If you’d like to order Eel’s Reverence, click here.

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