Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Loss of Belief

Last month, a story from National Geographic came up in my Twitter feed that gave me pause. The line said “The World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” Churches have noticed this trend unknowingly by seeing membership decline and attendance dwindle. What might have been perceived as an organizational or local problem is actually a worldwide phenomenon.

In 2014, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking made a big media splash, a one-day wonder, with the announcement that there is no God. His belief is that science can explain everything. He even made the statement that “we would know everything that God would know,” which sounds suspiciously like the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Religion used to form the core of a person’s life. It defined their place in the world, had established rituals for life events like birth, puberty, marriage, and death. It united society with a sense of morals and traditions and customs. It defined right and wrong, what was acceptable and what was not. A secular world substitutes laws for values, certificates for ceremonies.

I understand how this came about. It’s hard to understand the teachings of an itinerant preacher of the first century, or the leader of a people who received a set of stone tablets that defined God’s law before that. Our world has expanded, and we learned of cultures that weren’t Judeo-Christian, that had a very different set of beliefs about God than ours. The idea of a heaven in the clouds makes no sense when we send men to the moon. Scientists make pronouncements filled with math and logic about their amazing discoveries, things that are nowhere mentioned in the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita.

On a day to day basis, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference whether we believe in God or not.

Or does it?

Joseph Campbell, in his classic “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” describes many myths and religions throughout the world. It appears as if, no matter what the specific belief system, there are certain stories that are universal. How could these stories from so many places and so many times be the same when the peoples who told (and tell) them are isolated from one another?

And how do you explain that sense of “the other” that some of us have experienced?

I believe that there are two ways of knowing truth: the scientific and the mystical. Science provides what we need to build cities and roads and power plants. It can take us across the ocean or, one day, to Mars. It’s easy to experience. It’s composed of what we can see and touch. (Except theoretical physics, which often seems like magic to me, but those revered scientists seem to be able to explain it to one another, so I’ll take their word for it.) The experience of it is repeatable. If I drop a ball, it’s going to fall down every single time. (Barring other influencing factors, but you know what I mean.)

The mystical is harder. For one thing, it’s not out there. It’s inside you. Most of the time, you can’t point to it or pick it up in your hands. If a doubter says, “Show me God—or spirit or a miracle,” a challenge Jesus faced often, a believer will try to explain how the doubter needs to see. But since the whole method is different than the way science teaches us to see, the doubter has an impossible time understanding and so concludes that the believer is delusional.

Because the mystical is not experienced with the senses, but with the spirit or soul, it requires quiet. You can’t experience it with the television on or in a lecture or driving to work. You have to calm your thoughts, something that’s very difficult for me to do. I have hamster brain. If the world is quiet around me, my brain runs on a wheel, pulling up worries and old memories or lists of all the things I should be doing. It’s hard to listen for the other.

There are techniques to quiet conscious thought. Meditation, with the chanting of a mantra that drowns out the hamster, can work. Walking a labyrinth, which requires focusing on the next step and slows you down to a measured pace, works for me. Music—not rock and roll or jazz or country, but something like Gregorian chants—can also fill the mind with quiet. Even today’s latest fad of adult coloring books has somewhat of the same effect.

If you think about today’s world, it’s rarely quiet. And we rarely spend time with ourselves. Even when alone, we’re texting or following Twitter or doing something else with our phones or iPads. There’s a racket of mental noise.

But in the quiet, you can sometimes glimpse God.

I can hear the doubters mocking that statement. But how do you explain places like Iona or Rosslyn, which have been sacred to different religions through time? Or Jerusalem, sacred to three major religions? These places are often described as being where the veil between worlds is thin.

I used to go to a Unitarian church in Massachusetts, a religion which doesn’t even think you have to believe in God to belong. It was an old building, and it stood on a hill above the town. The first time I walked inside, I got a sense of “presence.” I immediately knew I was standing on holy ground. It is another of those thin places.

And how do you explain that personal experience of the other by perfectly sane people?

I know a lot of evil has been committed in the name of religion. It’s not something to be proud of. But I also think humanity experiences a great loss when it ignores the mystical. The loss is something I mourn.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

400 Years of Shakespeare

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. This event has been marked by year-long celebrations in the appropriate places. We’re not sure of his birthday because four hundred years ago that wasn’t necessarily written down. Instead what we know is the date of his baptism, which happens to be April 26, 1564. Before the days of issuing birth certificates and Social Security Numbers before an infant left the hospital, a baptism was a much more significant life event than the birth. While we don’t know the exact date he was born, traditionally his birthday has been celebrated on April 23rd, the same as his death.

I first encountered Shakespeare when I was in what was then called junior high. This was roughly equivalent to middle school, for those of you too young to remember the term. I had an absolutely fabulous English teacher, Frank Aversano, who loved Shakespeare. I think we read five or six plays over the course of that year. Mr. Aversano was an excellent teacher, full of knowledge about Elizabethan times, and willing to explain all the obscure references so that we got the jokes. So many people think of Shakespeare as dry and boring, but he was actually quite funny—and bawdy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

I Just Can't Write Normal

When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to write stories like the ones I read. My favorite year of school ever was sixth grade, because we had to turn in a new short story every Friday for a good part of the year. At that time I was reading science fiction, horse stories, and some of the classics. Now, back then you couldn’t admit to reading science fiction, much less writing it, so I never wrote any sci fi stories for my homework. But I envisioned myself writing those stories some time in the future, just like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The same with mysteries. Although I read Nancy Drew and Ellery Queen, I didn’t write mysteries, either.

I don’t remember what those grade school stories were, which is too bad. The only one I do remember was a rip-off of Jack London. I’d read “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” as well as To Build a Fire (still one of my favorite stories) so it was natural that when it came time to write the next story, I would be writing about a semi-wild dog trekking through the snowy wilderness. When I turned it in, I felt a twinge of guilt, and half expected to get a failing grade because it was so obvious what its origins were. I was surprised when I got an “A” on it. I always felt that grade was unearned.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Exciting Announcement

If you've been following along on my blog, you know that I've been working on the first book of a new series. I first wrote about where I got the idea for this series. More recently I described my new amateur sleuth, Lilliana Wentworth.

I've recently given hints about something special for my new series, but haven't been able to say anything specific until now. True Blue Murder, the first in my African Violet Club Mysteries series, has been accepted for a Kindle Scout campaign!

My Campaign

If you're not familiar with Kindle Scout, it's an Amazon program where readers get to help select books that Amazon will publish. As you can understand, this is a really big deal. The way it works is that an author submits the manuscript of the book, along with a cover, description, and other supporting material. If it passes Amazon's review, it becomes a campaign, where readers can see this information and read a sample. In my case, the sample is the first two chapters of "True Blue Murder."

If a reader likes what they see, they can "nominate" the ebook to be published by Amazon. You're only allowed to nominate three books at a time, and a campaign only lasts thirty days, so there's a fierce competition among the submissions.

So what's in it for you? If you nominate my book and it gets selected for publication, you get a FREE copy of True Blue Murder when the book is published.

If you've got a minute, please take a look at my Kindle Scout Campaign for True Blue Murder and, if you like what you see, nominate it!

Click Here to Go To Kindle Scout

Monday, February 22, 2016

Who Is Lilliana Wentworth?

In my last post, I wrote about how I got the idea for my African Violet Club Mystery series. Now I had to come up with my sleuth.

Since my retirement, I’ve been spending more time with senior citizens. I still have a hard time thinking of myself as one, but I suppose once you start collecting Social Security, it’s time to admit you’re no longer middle aged. While most of us have our share of aches and pains, we no longer spend our days knitting on the porch. People well into their seventies and eighties drive, volunteer at the food pantry and various museums and parks around town, hike, play golf, and sometimes even find new jobs.  In other words, Miss Marple in an easy chair wasn’t going to be my role model.

I’ve also done enough writing by now so my main character doesn’t have to be largely a clone of myself. I’ve learned how to get inside the heads of other types of people, see the world from a different perspective than my own. And I definitely wanted to distinguish my new senior sleuth from Faith Andersen, the thirty-something who’s the heroine of my Community of Faith mysteries.