Tag Archives: reality

A Bride Married to Amazement

11_28mary-oliver

Photo credit: Rachel Giese

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                          (Mary Oliver, 1935 – )

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church, and I often joke that Mary Oliver is Saint Mary Oliver for us, her poems are so often used as readings in our services. (One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is that scripture is not closed. We find our inspiration in the contemporary sacred as well as the ancient.)

I also find this particular passage an excellent mantra for those of us who write for the young. “A bride married to amazement … the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

All the years I have been engaged in writing for the juvenile market there has been an on-and-off discussion about the single, most basic requirement that makes our work distinct. Hope. We are, we often remind one another, compelled to bring hope to the page.

In the earlier days of that discussion, hope meant simply a happy ending, everything coming out all right in the end. Or at least that’s what it seemed to mean to me. But as literary standards in our field have grown more fluid, not every story ties itself up in a neat bow. And not every problem presented has to prove fixable.

On My HonorMany teachers have found a way to help their students cope with their frustration over the unresolved ending of my 1986 novel, On My Honor, often used in fifth and sixth-grade classrooms. They write their own Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters, and this practice is one I’ve encouraged.) My readers can decide for themselves what to do with the unresolved death, the body that hasn’t even been found. Some hold a funeral and help Joel, the main character, to move on. Some bring Tony, the boy who has drowned, back to life. He’s simply teasing, hiding in the bushes, not drowned. Some, interestingly enough, use their new ending to punish Joel, blaming him for his friend’s lies and risk-taking.

But even if the readers aren’t prepared for the unthinkable to happen, for a boy their own age to actually die in a story, at the end of my Chapter 12 I leave them with Joel’s father, solid and reliable. I leave them with a real world and real pain, but one in which love is real, too. Not every parent would be capable of bringing such grace to the tragedy Joel had endured, but this is my story, and Joel’s father’s grace is the gift I had to offer in my writing.

We live, all of us these days, in an uncertain world. One in which war, racism, climate chaos, inequity, violence, political stalemate, and disease confront us with the rising of every sun. These are realities to be faced into if we are to survive, realities for our children to face into, too.

Surely our stories must explore that uncertain foundation beneath all our feet.

But we also live surrounded by beauty, amazed by it if our senses are alive. We live capable of love, forgiveness, compassion, hope. Amazing love, forgiveness, compassion, hope.

The stories we tell our young people must be honest and true. If they aren’t, why are we telling them?

But if they aren’t filled with our own amazement then what is the point?

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The Forbidden Topic … Religion

stained glass windowLast week I took on same-sex marriage. While I’m on a roll, I might as well talk about religion, too.

There aren’t many topics forbidden to those who write for young people these days. Especially if the audience is defined as young adult, writers can take on sex, violence, racism, social taboos, war . . . you name it. And sometimes we can even tiptoe into religion.

Religion has long been a topic of passionate interest to me. And not just because I was married to an Episcopal priest for 28 years. Being a clergy wife doesn’t necessarily bring a person closer to religion, only to the inner workings of the institutional church, which is a very different thing.

I spent decades trying to locate God in books. I read philosophy and theology, of course. But there was something about most books advertised up front as being about God that sent me away still searching. Most of the authors, even when they seemed to be asking hard questions, were still defending an institution, a creed, a professional retirement plan. And especially as a clergy wife who understood too well the inner workings of that kind of commitment, I was seldom impressed.

So I set out instead to search for God in novels. I didn’t look for novels about God. That would be an impossibly short list. A suspect one, even, were it to exist. Rather I read serious, interesting, moving fiction and waited for characters to drop a word here or there about their perception of God. When that happened, I was mesmerized, as though a deep secret were about to be revealed. And some of those passing comments have stuck like burrs.

In a Saul Bellow novel—I no longer remember which one—a character says, “God isn’t sex, but . . .” And he left his musing—and me—to dangle. That phrase stills bubbles up in my mind from time to time. “God isn’t sex, but . . .” What was he saying? That the deep experience of sexual love is one way of approaching God? (Wow! That’s an idea that would set our Puritan foreparents spinning!)

Fiction has always seemed to me the perfect vehicle for struggling with hard questions: about our families, about our social norms, about our purpose on this earth, about God. And fiction intended for those who are just growing into those kinds of questions themselves has the perfect audience. The only problem lies in a writer’s inevitable awareness of the adults peering at the book over those young, inquiring heads.

I never write with the intention of offending. I want only to talk honestly about what feels important to me. But the reality is that honest talk about what is important inevitably will offend someone.

I have never met a child who felt he was damaged by one of my stories, though it’s true that I have met only a small fraction of my readers. (I have met a number, at least through teacher-required letters, who told me they were bored or otherwise poorly served by something I’d written, which is a different matter entirely.) I have, however, had encounters with adults who found a story of mine damaging to young minds. And sometimes those adults have ordered an entire class of children to write to tell me, for instance, that my use of bad words, damn and hell, in On My Honor offended them deeply. So I’m well aware that it is the adults who hold power here, not the kids I’m writing for.

Can I challenge traditional religious thinking, truly challenge it, and not find myself on the black list I barely escaped when I chose to let Am I Blue? bring me out as a “practicing” lesbian? (I’ve always loved that word, “practicing.” I wonder if one day I’ll get it right.)

I only know that I enter each of my stories with my soul bared, asking the hard questions, foregoing the easy answers. And after all these years of searching for God in other people’s stories, it seems time to see what I can discover in my own.