The Route to Faith

A question dominated my thinking in my high school years and college. During those years, I was torn between faith and reason, and the facts of who I was versus who I wanted to be. My problems–and I had already been diagnosed with Major Depression in the 7th Grade in Middle School–all seemed to crystalize around the question: What does it take to attain salvation? I was puzzled by this question because I had read books that explained about Original Sin in a way that was unhelpful, and because my religious Grandma explained her version of Christianity in a way even more unhelpful. To Grandma “The Just shall be saved by Faith alone,” meant “If you believe you will be saved by works, you will go straight to hell.” I was told that no amount of good works mattered, but only faith. Of Mother Teresa herself my Grandma said, “I hope she does not believe her works will get her into Heaven.” (I have come to believe that the Good Mother of Calcutta’s love of the leper’s comes from a sincere love of God, but that is an unrelated matter.)

At the time there were two questions I wondered that I think many people can identify with who have doubts about their religion but do not really want to believe there is “no one out there,” either:


1. If only one faith saves, just what does that mean about all those millions, perhaps billions, of people in other religions?
2. If nothing but faith is necessary to win salvation than perhaps even a very bad person can convert without truly changing and yet people will judge him “saved.” I remember that there was a Christian rock band said that Jeffry Dahmer, who converted to Christianity in prison, was going to Heaven. Yet would it make sense to say Jeffry Dahmer, who was a murderer, was in Heaven whereas Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, who are “great souls” to their peoples do not make the cut?

I also had the emotional problems (I would later be diagnosed with Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder) that, perversely, I find St. Paul had before he became a Christian. My self-doubt and lack of faith in my ability to be the person I wanted to be was extreme. I have found since then that to become good, a person has to believe in their ability to be the person they want to be. Even that by itself may not be enough: it takes hard work to recover your true soul. Yet I could have related to these words in my morass of self-hate and self-pity:

Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

Yet the accuracy of this description of my Christian faith is why I lost faith in it. I could not seem to grasp a hold of that elusive reality that would make me whole. I could not really believe that if I simply had “more faith” I would be healed. And every single Christian friend I had in college seemed to believe what I lacked was “faith,” that my desire to believe in reasons for beliefs and actually doing things in practical ways was heretical. They did seem happier than me in a way, but it seemed that their joy was reflected in the fact that they had no mental illness and had no questions they thought needed answers.

I lost faith. For only a few days I had such a relief of feeling that I did not know how to explain it. Why would losing faith in God feel good? There is no describing it. Yet than I felt a deep despair, like the Medieval Church taught some priests had when the wrestled with the devil in the form of unbelief. I would sit in the library or in the lounge, and I would luxuriate in my misery.

Yet then I found the book that helped me in my hour of need. It was Benedict Spinoza’s Ethics. I found in his psychology reasons for my sorrow and answers to my problems. He believed that good was “pleasure with the idea of an outside cause” and evil “pain with the idea of an outside cause” and goodness “enlightened self-interest” for “Man is to man a God.” I saw in this a partial answer: to do good for oneself without hurting others was a part of virtue. I also saw this: that there was another layer of virtue, imperfectly realized by Spinoza: the social virtues, the desire to form friendships. I however found that there was a limit to the healing I found in Spinoza: I wanted to believe that true virtue involved a form of charity or giving which transcended mere self-interest.

I found a similar projection in his ideas about God. I admired his idea that God and Nature was One, both because of his profound faith and because of his deep thinking about it. Yet I had two problems. One, to Spinoza God is eternal and is the Universe. To me it seemed more likely God was the Creator rather than the Universe itself. Then Spinoza said–for he held the Love of God is the Holiest expression of one’s humanity–held that “if a person loves God truly he will not expect God to love him back.” Yet I found in myself that, selfish though it might sound, I could not love a Being which had no feelings for me in return. So I formed a kind of Deistic faith, and hoped to go to a Unitarian Church at some point. Yet I never did.

I spoke to a teacher at Kansas Newman about my beliefs. She asked if it was for a paper for my Grad School Entrance Paper or “just because you are trying to answer the troubles you have when you can’t sleep at night.” I think I thought it was both. I explained among other things that Judaism was an “ethnic religion” and she said that “No, that is not true. Even though Jews don’t seek out converts, when people come to them they are accepted. Judaism is a universal faith.” I found myself believing, though I had my doubts whether I would become Orthodox. I had been Orthodox in one religion and it hadn’t worked out too well.

For a long time, though I still have troubles coordinating reason and faith at times, I believed that works are “acts of faith,” which would not be done without the faith but which are themselves the sole reason a person is blessed or cursed. Now I have swung the other way. I believe that though works are important, so too is faith. I do not know if I have an exact formulation in my head, but I believe a good person should believe in God. I also believe a good person should do good works, however small. I had a rabbi who said that a Jew who never gave to charity suffered “a lack,” and I believe it. I don’t want to be accused of bragging about those good works I have done, but I believe a part of my doing is them is the knowledge of God’s approval. I do not know that I do them entirely for God, but I believe he approves of the work I did at the Breakthrough Club (for the mentally ill) and Pro Kansas Recycling Center.

Shakespeare says, “the evil that men do lives after them, while the good oft lies interred with their bones” but I believe this is not so. We receive part of our recompense for our good deeds in this life, and part of it in the World-to-Come. I really believe that even in life wicked deeds lead to misery on the part of the doer (despite Donald Trump’s apparently slipping through the noose of the Law), and good deeds lead to joy. To those who point to the murder of a Martin Luther King or a Mahatma Gandhi I say, “Yes, but they have us to remember them. So long as their shadows do good in the world, their spirit’s smile on us from Heaven.”

Writing About Adolescence

I wrote a satirical story for a book I’m working on, Lost Tales, called “The Last of Sweet Valley High.” I will give the reader no spoilers about how the story–it was a scant 5 pages–began or ended, except that it was a hate fest towards a series of books I had a love-hate relationship with ever since the last one I read in the 8th Grade. Nobody thinks Sweet Valley High goes deep, but I see it for young girls what Gone With the Wind more or less is for black people. It encourages superficial values, and have nothing like artistic truth attempted in them. I remember my own High School days and the words swell within me, “That was not like what high school was like at all.” (Only dullards think that Sweet Valley High is for real High Schoolers; I only had one friend who read them in High School, and her pleasure was derisive. What the rest of us know is that the spinoff Sweet Valley Twins was hawked in weakly readers I read in grade school. There really isn’t a need for Sweet Valley Kids; in grades 3 or 4 a child can grasp anything necessary to understand Sweet Valley Twins.)

I get ill thinking about the unrealistic, romantic themes done to death, and of course no book ever ends without a sales pitch for the next book. The characters always look perfect, and all of the people in the books would be wealthy if you pictured it in real life. They have no real problems, and if they did it would be solved within one book. (I have no problem with solving one problem in one book, but if there are 1500 books in the series and there is one token book on race, all I can say is that race issues must have become truly impolitically correct not to leave out entirely because Sweet Valley High has never taken any brave stands on anything.) The emotions are all on the shallow side of the pool, because in Sweet Valley, even sex never leads to pregnancy, and issues like drug use never occur to the writers (because by now it is entirely ghost written).

There are books I have read for adolescents–like the Babysitters Club, for instance–that at least had vivid characters and plots that seem within the realm of what was possible to a pre-teen. Though I have not read the Eclipse series, I believe it is a cut above Sweet Valley crap and got a copy for my niece. (It got her reading.) Yet I have the bad feeling that the reason that awful High School series survives is because there are so few really good books written for adolescents. I admit, it is a hard age to write for.

I have tried to write for adolescents–Grace; or in Search of the Leviathan and The Cycle of Ahriman. Finding a publisher has been impossible. Yet I think themes for today’s children might include everything from what to do if your parents divorce; stories about first love, both when a teen falls in love and–perhaps–when they discover that their first kiss is not the same person they marry; problems with racial unrest (a black person could easily write about a teenage kid taking part in Black Lives Matter); books promoting clean living: a teen says “no” to a friend who offers them drugs and sex, despite the social consequences; and books written on lighter themes, like nature poetry and spirituality.

One book I want to write eventually is a book about two black children, Jeremy and Peninah. The hero and heroine are the younger siblings of the heads of two rival gangs, the Red Devils and the Blue Sharks. I won’t go into any details, but I believe even though I am white and from Kansas I can write about it. Why? Because when I went through the public school system, I used to get in fist fights with boys who I knew would eventually join gangs. Truthfully, I was almost a juvenile delinquent myself. Only one fight I got in–and this is a strange point to make–was with a girl. Yet often looking back I wonder about those girls who I believed were so at fault when I was a child. I believed that in every fight I was the “good one.” That can’t possibly be true. That is why I wonder about those kids whose parents did not hospitalize them, and how they turned out.

The other “book for adolescence” I want to write is Mowgli. It is a retelling of The Jungle Book’s main story. Yet I want to figure out the relationship between Mowgli and his “Wolf Brothers” who age and achieve adulthood at a younger age than he does. The climax in the book is when Mowgli battles Sher Kahn. It is a moment when adolescent angst comes in pursuit of Mowgli in the form of that tiger. I also want to include something noticeably absent from Kipling’s classic: Hindu spirituality. However, I will keep the curious guessing about the rest of that.

Purple Tigers

I once explained to a psychiatrist how I wanted to write a children’s book–a children’s novel, perhaps–about a fictional tribe of purple tigers. I meant it. Yet I could not come up with a storyline. I even came up with them drinking purée made from different fruits and vegetables. (Unlike the tigers in the wild, these tigers in the wild, these civilized beasts were vegetarian.) However, as indicated, I could not think what it was they did.

I also could never see the shaded area where their world overlapped with ours, somehow. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there was a cupboard. In Lynn Reid Banks’ The Indian and the Cupboard there was another Cupboard. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, dreams are the medium of delivering the fantastic. Yet I could never find my medium into the world of the Purple Tigers, or what they would do when I finally got to them.

In grade school, I told bits and pieces of a story which I did not write down until very recently, “The Unicorn’s Journey Past Sugar-Candy Mountain” and included in a group of stories, A Child’s Haggadah. In college I attempted my first novel, Children of the Cat Goddess. I still hope someday to add more “volumes” to it, and have a long book under that title. Years later, I wrote two-book fantasy set, Grace; or, in Search of the Leviathan and The Cycle of Ahriman. I wrote children’s stories for two volumes: The Magic Orchard and Other Stories and A Pocketful of Story. Yet I never did find a place for my purple tigers.

I wish I had found the right insight for my purple tigers. Nonetheless, if Borges could write his essay about a fictive library can write then I can write about the elusive purple tigers. The purple tigers are gentle giants, like the Creator in that they are “slow to anger but quick to forgive.” Yet their lack of ferocity is a characteristic of their strength. Though able to crush a human skull in their mouths they have good will towards all living things. Though in Nature predators usually evolve from prey, in their case the reverse happened. They use tiger-size toenail clippers to make sure that if they are momentarily enraged they shall not inadvertently tear another animal to shreds.

They are particularly kind to children (the young of their own or other species). Reasoning “the wolf and the kid shall lie together and a little child shall lead them,” they reason that “we shall shepherd the lambs and the children and the wolf cubs through the wilderness from place to place so as to bring about the coming of the messiah. Till that harbinger of Judgment Day, we soft-hearted Felidae shall do good deeds to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth.”

If only I could find the story line to do these heroic creatures justice. Lacking that, I write this blog.

Signs of Hope

I am reading Karl-Josef Kuschel’s Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims. I do genuinely admire the scholarship of the book, and I like to think it has the potential to do a lot of good. It talks about an Abraham before creed, a figure who draws in Jews, Christians, and Muslims, even as the theology explaining his appeal pushes them apart from each other. I believe he would say that what these faiths need is pious reinterpretation, and that Abraham is a key figure to begin with because he is shared by all three as a “founder.”

However, thinking of “Signs of Hope” I also think of the beautiful trees, which my mom is so perceptive in pointing out to me. The fall leaves are cranberry red or pale peach as peaches or a yellow paler than lemons. Mom and I decided to eat at Panera, and then we went down to the park to read our books. I read from page 90+ to page 130, and hope to read past page 150 before 5:00 PM. As we sat in the cool winds it was very comfortable, and occasionally we said “hi” to people walking by. It was a beautiful day. It was a day which taught of the Hope which Nature contains. That is even though Winter nears… because Winter always gives way to Spring. About the Seasons Ecclesiastes 3 says,

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh

A time to mourn, and a time to dance…

There is, though, a hope that only human beings have. It is a hope for a time when “swords will be beaten into ploughshares” and peace and plenty will reign on earth. It is the hope that God’s Kingdom will rule on earth. Our national anthem rings, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee,” and though I believe in American pluralism–the acceptance of all creeds–I insist that America without faith is a “white-washed tomb,” as Jesus is supposed to have said a Jew without faith is. (I hope it is not offensive for me to quote that idea; I really believe in God and Judaism, but I am a convert and it is hard for me to ignore the echoes of my past.) I believe that the fondest hope of humankind is for its God to rule the earth according to justice and righteousness.

Moreover, I think of an ex-alcoholic who taught me about forgiveness. I had troubles with my father when he was alive. I had a friend who was an ex-alcoholic who worked with mental patients the same as I did. He told me that, “To get well I had to forgive those who had hurt me.” I was not able to see it at the time, but in retrospect, I acknowledge how right he was. I believe it is a deeply selfish act for a person to carry a kind of torch of resentment to their grave, and I am afraid my dad did it himself. Yet I believe there is a freedom in forgiveness…

I admit that my forgiveness is not a perfect one. I wrote a book “Discovering Wonderland” about my father, to try to say about him what it was that I want him to say… and found that the story of Annie and Bertie (the two children in the book) needed continuing. I hope to write at least three more books. Yet by retelling the story in fictional form, I can finally say “Goodbye” to a man whom I feel hurt me but also believed he had been hurt by somebody else–his ex-wife, Renae, and her family. He took his angry and hurt feelings to his grave. Yet I must not do this. God would not approve. I must say goodbye to my father, perhaps even to the point of saying, “Dad, I forgive you.” That is something to Hope for.

God as a Mother Tiger

I went to shul yesterday… We discussed the story of Isaac and Rebecca and Esau and Jacob.  It is odd how in the Bible, there are webs of jealousy, jealous love.  Years ago I was in a Creative Writing Class, where I looked up one word—a word of my choice—and I chose “jealous.”  The root of the word jealous is the Slavic word “zeal,” and it indicates that the subject is zealous for the object as well as zealous in defending it’s ownership of the object.  Yet this “zeal” is not the zeal of zealots.  Zeal is like a Mother Tigress, attached to them by nature and love.  We are not supposed to see God in Tigresses in Judaism… and yet I wrote a poem once (in Volume III, as yet unpublished of The Bible According to Eve; Volume I only has been published) “White Tigers,” comparing the beast to the Jew, “as long as there is one left the White Tiger survives.”

            I know modern people want God to be gentle and kind, even submissive.  This is the appeal of Christ to some Christians, of the Suffering Servant to Jews and Christians, and no doubt it has its equivalent in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.  Though placed in the otherwise frightening Christian book of Revelations, the Christ image is, “The Lamb of God.”

            Yet the God of Israel, though that God has teeth, barely nips the faithful cubs.  Or so I believe… Though ravenous hunters scour the forest, God and the Tiger Mother alike keep their cubs close by, and in God’s case preserves the soul when the body cannot be saved.  Who are the ravenous hunters?  They are the evils humankind itself have let loose on the world.  Perhaps COVID-19 is one of the ravenous hunters…

            I think this view of God on my part is because I have had bad experience, even apart from my mental illness… It is as though being scarred makes my God appear to be a Tiger.  True, a Tiger who licks my wounds and is gentle… but one who picks me up after tears deep within my head’s flesh. 

            I remember as a child reading a children’s Bible, I wondered why God allowed polygamous marriages and favoritism among the children of the Patriarchs.  They were supposed to be righteous, and yet they were not so, it seems at times.  Yet there was a sense in which God was loving, compassionate, loyal… and perhaps I believe God is still a God of the Jews because he loves us… of course, God loves other people, I believe… but figuring out the details is hard.  All my life I have longed to follow the angels up Jacob’s ladder, to find how God lives in the stars.

            Anyway, I finished reading Early Christian Writings and am 50 pages into Karl-Josef Kuschel’s Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  On ending Kuschel on Monday, I shall move on to the Quran and next Prophets in the Quran.  Tomorrow I shall look for Philo’s writings.

The Didache (a Jew’s Angle)

As some of my regular readers–(do I have any?)–know, I am burrowing through Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings to learn about Abraham. Today I read Karl-Josef Kuschel’s Abraham: Sign of Hope up to page 25 or so. I read Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham and Bruce Feiler’s Abraham: A Journey into the Heart of three Faiths. They are kind of “bookends” each one coming to opposing conclusions to the simple question: Can Abraham be a healing rather than a dividing feature of the three religions who claim him as their founder? While digging into the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I got out a book of near canonical writings of the Catholic Church: Early Christian Writings. I found some relative portions, dealing with both anti-Semitism and the Christian claims on Abraham. Truthfully, I knew–Jewishly–what to expect. Yet I did find one surprise in the book. It had nothing to do with Abraham or Judaism. It was a document called the Didache. Though heavily influenced by the teachings of Jesus, I found some of it moving and decided to quote it here:

The Way of Life is this: Thou shalt love first the Lord thy Creator, and secondly thy neighbor as thyself; and thou shalt do nothing to any man that thou wouldst not wish to be done to you. What you may learn from these words is to bless them that curse you, to pray for your enemies, and to fast for your persecutors. For where is the merit in loving only those who return your love? Even the heathens do as much as that. But if you love those who hate you, you will have nobody to be your enemy.

Beware of the carnal appetites of the body. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well, and perfection will be yours. Should anyone compel you to go a mile, go another with him. If someone take away your coat, let him have your shirt too. If someone seizes anything belonging to you, do not ask for it back again (you could not get it anyway). Give to everyone that asks, without looking for any repayment, for it is the Father’s pleasure that we should share His gracious bounty with all men. A giver who gives freely, as the commandment directs, is blessed; no fault can be found with him. But woe to the taker; for though he cannot be blamed for taking if he was in need, yet if he was not, an account will be required of him as to why he took it, and for what purpose, and he will be taken into custody and examined about his action, and he will not get out until he has paid the last penny. The old saying is the point here: “Let your alms grow damp with sweat in your hand, until you know who is you are giving them to.”

*****

This is a rather simple piety; but it expressed perfectly what the New Testament’s Jesus did when you clean away the anti-Semitism and prejudice against other religion. I think even its emphasis on “purity” and worshipping the “Creator” have a few echoes of Judaism in them. Gandhi supposedly enjoyed reading the New Testament; I guess a Jewish person is allowed to enjoy the Didache, so long as they do not neglect the Ten Commandments or Kosher.

Covid-19 Journal

I suppose it is a little late to urge people to take up paper-and-pen or use a computer (which is what I did, for once) to chronicle the days of the Coronavirus Pandemic. I suppose mine–begun in 2020–will be of little use in the immediate future. Yet I urge people to write about the experience in memoirs form if nothing else. Why? Because like the Plague in Europe or Influenza worldwide before COVID-19, it is a memorable if bitter experience that we are sharing. I am reminded of a Medieval picture I saw of Jesus on the Cross, suffering from each of a number of diseases, including plague. Under the picture it said, “God, How Long?” because there is a strain of Christianity which when things are at their worst start looking for signs of Jesus’ return–similarly, there are Jews in such situation who start looking for one “though he may tarry, yet he will come,” the Mashiach.

I used to read these words in times of sorrow as a kid, and a fundamentalist Christian,

[H]e hath no form nor comeliness;

and when we shall see him,

there is no beauty that we shall desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men:

a man of sorrows,

and acquainted with grief:

and we hid as it were our face from him:

he was despised and we esteemed him not.

Surely, he hath borne our griefs,

and carried our sorrows:

yet we did esteem him stricken,

smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

he was bruised for our iniquities:

the chastisement of our peace was upon him:

and with his strips we were healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned everyone to his own way;

and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Christians interpret this as being about Jesus; Jews the Jewish people as a whole. I read in Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham that the Medieval Jew took suffering as a sign of chosenness rather than punishment. I have found comfort in this teaching in my life; I have Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder, and I see my suffering in the “Suffering Servant Psalm” (the above is part of it) in Isaiah. I know this sounds sanctimonious to people; “suffering for God” when you live in a land of religious tolerance. I know at times in my life it would have sounded worse: I did not exactly live a saint’s life in Middle School, High School or even College. Yet I believe that even then, God lived in me.

I remember studying Hinduism, the thing I liked about it philosophically is that the True Self is a part of God. By meditating (I’ve never figured meditation out, so lets say through prayers) a person can reach that part of herself which is also God. Truthfully, there are many things I admire about Hinduism: its creative mythology, its artistic and architectural achievements; and its philosophy. Yet I don’t believe even if I truly loved it the way I do Judaism, I could convert: the problem of caste bothers me too profoundly. If I had grown up Hindu, I might feel differently, but as an outsider caste seems to cruel to explain… I know people feel that way about certain Jewish teachings, but I try to explain that to me they misunderstand the deep compassion of the Jewish God.

St. Francis Speaks to Me

Although not Christian, I have often wondered about one particular Catholic Saint. I was raised Protestant, so I was discouraged from wondering about the Church, its’ teachings, and its iconography. I remember after losing faith in Protestantism I spent time at the Catholic Kansas New University just across the street from the base school I attended, Friends University. At that time I was unsure of what I believed in, but I used to sit in the room devoted to statues of the Virgin Mary from around the world. I also attended Mass twice, one low Mass and one Interfaith Mass. I always felt that though Catholic theology necessitated a hell, it was not the focus of their faith. That was why I preferred it. However, I could not see converting to it. Anyway, I have always been curious about the Catholic Church, up to buying (but not reading) a copy of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, four volumes for a dollar apiece. The Saint I find most intriguing is St. Francis. There are others–I read about a French noblewoman who abandoned her “frivolous” lifestyle to set up a school for impoverished young French girls. I forget her name, but I was intrigued by her story. And of course, who can’t thrill to Joan of Arc? I hope someday the Church makes Mother Teresa a saint. Of course, it is almost blasphemous for a Jew to say that.

That said, when I first started converting to Judaism, I had to make the adjustment, “What am I taking with me and what am I leaving behind?” belief wise. The one thing I did not want to leave behind from Christianity was its focus on “Charity,” the belief that–to quote St. Francis–“it is better to love than be loved.” The idea that perfect giving is that which asks no return. I was told, by the teacher–admittedly she was not Jewish–that “Jews have Charity, too” and I know there is the line in the Talmud saying that Jews should show compassion for “the Jewish and the Gentile poor.” There are even levels of Charity, whether giving to a beggar, working at a charity, or giving charity anonymously. So I prefer to believe that the Christian idea of Charity grew up from the Jewish idea of tzedakah. Anyway, back to St. Francis.

I love reading St. Francis’ “Prayer of Peace,” a prayer of God’s loving all living things through us. And so I will quote it here:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I particularly love those words I have seldom lived up to,

[G]rant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

I recall a story about St. Francis and a wolf. St. Francis was told by some villagers that the Wolf was ravaging their sheep. So St. Francis said he would try to talk to it. He went into the woods and had a kindly conversation with the Wolf. They agreed that he would find food for the Wolf and the Wolf would leave the villager’s sheep alone. The story is no doubt apocryphal (and reminds me of that poor cow I ate part of tonight), but it shows that St. Francis at his best… Loving an unloved creature gently and without judgment.

Now, I know it sounds un-Jewish to gush so about a Catholic monk. Yet we Jews have our St. Francis, whom I have only studied a little bit about him: the Baal Shem Tov, who loved the mountains and the springs, and taught that devout love was born of the heart. Colloquially known as the Besht, he was somebody whom even non-Hasids like me can appreciate.

Curing Writer’s Block: Journaling

I wish I could find this picture I used to have of a huge notebook, it looked like several pounds and was the shape of an artist’s sketchbook. It was for writing, but of writing music, not poetry or prose. I forget who the composer who compiled it was. He was–alas–not famous, despite his industry. I took it to a conference on journaling with the planned expectation: this is something to aspire to, not feel humiliated when you do not quite meet it.

Alas, I think I scared away the group whom I was supposed to be speaking to. I had procured the job of MC for the previous month, and wrote the best speech I could on the subject I thought was most necessary to be a writer, “What structure do you use to write a book?” I had three people who had volunteered to share how they had written what they had written. I sincerely hoped it would give ideas of how to go about writing to those in our group–the Kansas Writer’s Association–who though they had vague premonitions of writing had never gotten out the paper and pencil (or pen) and started work.

Well, it didn’t go well. The fact that the first one was okay, the second one a little flakey, and the third one went to pieces… I did feel somewhat guilty, except that when I had joined the group I was hoping that what I would get help on was “How do I get help on what I have already written?” not “If I ever think about it, what would I write?” I know this is probably intolerant on my part… but I assumed hard work was a part of it.

Now I knew I’d driven away the flock: I had the picture; I had bags of my journals to show the group; I had my speech. Out of fifty or sixty people I had fewer than six people there to read my speech to. Well, I read my speech. I have often wondered if that was not the beginning of the end of my being a member of the Kansas Writers Association. I have had similar problems elsewhere.

Well, we will leave my social problems alone for a while. Evidently I am not the best “writing coach” if anyone is. Yet I did have a Creative Writing teacher who taught me something–and I should have stuck out her class–valuable that was the beginning of what I hoped to teach at the lecture I held. She told us on the first day of class that she wanted each of us to write in a journal. I forget what all she had us write in it: words we looked up in the Oxford English Dictionary; Forks in the Road of our lives; other creative scraps. Anyway, the idea of the Journal stuck, even if I chickened out of the class (and it was absolutely my fault).

The idea is that every time you have an idea you should write it down in your notebook. Then you should schedule a time each day to work on your notebook. You find a good idea in your notebook–ideally the one you consider “best” at the moment–and then you write an outline or begin a draft. One book I wrote, Faust in Love, is 39 Chapters long because “40 is the number of completion.” I still hope it is published someday.

Anyway, the key skill necessary for writing is not so much the ability but the willingness to write. That is why if I ever find that huge journal, I will make sure to stick it on my sight. I told the reader the last time I wrote that from 21 to after graduate school, I couldn’t seem to write anything… and then so many of the results were terrible. I still have flashbacks to John Brown’s Body if I am not careful.

Nonetheless, all you need to write are the following: pen, paper, and a journal. Worry about the writing first. Later worry about the computer to type it up and the internet to find a publisher. If you have nothing written, there is no point in bothering with the rest of it.

Curing Writer’s Block: Brazil

There was a time when I could have said with my mother, “I believe I have the skills of a good writer; but I don’t have the ideas.” This was not exactly so: I had ideas, but not story ideas. And the “idea” which is abstract doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Yet in college after my first novella (Children of the Cat Goddess, 95 pages), I had a serious dry spell. Luckily, I had the rest of college and one year of grad school (I never got my MA) to do other things. Well, in Grad School I had two vague ideas for a book, one called “M.G.” (Muslim Girl) and the other “Brazil.” Yet I knew I couldn’t write them. I didn’t have the information. Late one night, looking over my Hume textbook, I noticed a name, “Beauchamp.” And I wrote this about him,

Mr. Beauchamp boasted of his indiscretions. There never was a man so proud to tell his faults and failings to whomever sat next to him, whether in a bus or even in a movie theater. Even to women Beauchamp bragged about his adventures (some would say misadventures) with the opposite sex, of his bad intentions and worse luck. There seemed to be some goblin dogging his feet, tripping him up the moment he met a woman or a banker (he was nearly as bad with money as with women, although strangely, his money problem ceased where his job began).


Yet Beauchamp was not entirely a failure romantically. Beauchamp had married four times, indicating at least initial success. Beauchamp’s first wife had left him through death rather than divorce, and he never ceased telling later women (there were many of them) about the perfect angel who had graced his life for five loving years. Beauchamp’s second and third wives deserted him through divorce. He was estranged from his fourth.


So what brought women to Beauchamp? He was fat with heavy eyebrows and a gravelly voice. He wore dark suits that never fit. He lacked charm, and years of education left him pedantic rather than cultured. And yet women swarmed to him as though he were a second Casanova. Why? The answer was simple. Money.

I eventually placed the American businessman Beauchamp in “Brazil.” However, due to an editor’s suggestion, I cut these paragraphs–which I thought were hilarious–out of the final book. My editor was probably right: I think she found Beauchamp’s girlfriend (his wife was in America) obnoxious, and also another subplot. Before Brazil was finished in its present form–I still hope to publish it somehow–I also had to change the ending: too many people thought it was the worst thing about the book, including my own mother.

However, this does not explain the birth of the book. I was in Torah Study–the school system which I was a student in had its own rabbi–and she discussed a character called Aher from the Jewish Talmud. Aher began as Rabbi Avuyah, but then–so the story goes–he saw a child climb a tree to capture some eggs for his lame father on the ground below. Now it is Jewish law that you do not take a mother bird and its eggs to eat at the same time. So the boy brushed the mother bird away from the chicks–and fell to the ground and died. In that split second, Rabbi Avuyah lost faith in God. He could not understand why a good God would let the boy die.

Now, my rabbi said she struggled with this piece: she was assigned to write a sermon about it. Her teacher suggested that Aher’s mistake was that instead of asking, “Why” in seeing evil in the world he did not seek to change it. And this was interesting in and of itself. Yet I saw the story as more fascinating than she did. All of my childhood I had wondered why one person suffers and another person is lucky. And that is why Aher became “Other” a character in Brazil. What better story to illustrate the tragedy of 7 out of 10 people living under the poverty line, of third world poverty, than this Jew and his inability to accept human suffering? Plus, using Jewish material, I didn’t have to know as much about Brazil itself.

So at home, after Grad School was an overall flop, I wrote a book about Kansas, John Brown’s Body. It was not a success. Even my mother believed it was a terrible book. She even believed Children of the Cat Goddess was better. M.G. became Khadijah–also not a success, though I did send it to several publishers. Finally, I took a suggestion Mom gave me: work on your biggest project first. And so I began work on Brazil. My first ending–poor Aher committing suicide–has been cut, though I will not tell what the final ending now is. Yet I found information wherever I could–on line, in the library, in the Lonely Planet Guidebook, listening to CDs of Samba and Basa Nova. I have always been a tad sorry I couldn’t go to the country Brazil myself.

Now I will add this disclaimer: Brazil turned out not to be as poor as, say, Africa or India. It is not even the poorest country in South America. And I was writing long before COVID-19 made its way to making Brazil as afflicted as the United States and India are now, too. Yet it is a third world country, and Rio is what I once heard called “Mega Cities”: a place industrializing with great poverty and the world’s largest intentional homicide rate. There are “orphans,” very badly abused runaways on the street, and they seldom make it to adulthood. Despite its tropic background–Brazil is home to the Amazon jungle–the country was to me in the book a tragic beauty.

I still hope to write more about Brazil. I even hope some day my highly edited version of it makes it into print. So to new writers I say: start with the biggest idea you have in your head, do any research that needs writing, and then write it either one of two ways: have an ending (which may change after the book is written) and write towards it; or, make an outline. As I grow as a writer I tend towards outline for large projects, but more loosely built plots for small ones. However, I started Brazil with an ending and started working towards it.