Support your local writer (and artist)

6 05 2015
"Gearaffe", a sample of Angi Shearstone's work (and one of the perks for donating to the Kickstarter).  Click on the image to see more of Angi's work.

“Gearaffe”, a sample of Angi Shearstone’s work (and one of the perks for donating to the Kickstarter). Click on the image to see more of Angi’s work.

To all my friends and fans of my work, I need your help now. If you’d like to show your support for small press authors and artists trying to earn a living with their work, here’s a chance to do it. I’m running a Kickstarter campaign through the month of May to raise money to hire Angi Shearstone to do original artwork for my new book, Awake Chimera. It’s a science fiction novel due for release in July by the same publisher who released Archimedes Nesselrode. The publisher would, of course, provide artwork, but Double Dragon is a small press and can’t afford to keep a stable of professional artists on hand. They do a good job coming up with striking images for their covers, but not specialized artwork. (Please note: as a publisher, Double Dragon is great to work with, capable and conscientious, which is why they have been in business for 15 years, growing from a single imprint to eight, with over 1400 titles.)

We all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is, people do.  Isn’t that what attracts you, a reader, to pick up an unknown author’s book and look it over? You might glance at the cover blurbs (for Awake Chimera, you’d see this:  “Justine Graykin is a terrific writer, and Awake Chimera is a wonderful read. Gender politics, philosophy, and slam-bang action make for a heady brew in this first-rate story.” — Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues). Then, intrigued, you might check out the plot summary (I’d have the following: “What does the asexual shape-shifting governor of a remote outpost in the swamp have in common with a hermaphrodite native struggling to fit into human society? Much more than either of them expected. United in their mutual dislike and distrust of the humans that dominate their world, their friendship develops into something more, something that might prove dangerous to them both. And when a deadly menace invades from the distant mountains, Shaka Mahdi and Prilock become the key to the survival of the very race they resent so much.”).

This would hopefully be enough to catch your interest and make you want to read the book. But first, that cover art has to get your attention. That’s where Angi Shearstone comes in. I met her at Boskone, a science fiction convention in Boston where we were both peddling our work at the Broad Universe table. Thanks to the suggestion of a mutual friend, I contacted Angi and we got to talking about various projects, including illustrations for Archimedes Nesselrode, possibly even a graphic novel version. But I’ve got a book coming out in July, and it seemed a logical first step to see how we worked together on the cover art for that.
cat brush painting

Angi is a professional who makes her living by illustration and design. It’s not easy. And she can’t afford to give her work away for free. And why should she? Writers and artists deserve to be paid for their work. A lot of effort and struggle goes into what we create. It takes time and materials, not just to create the work but also to promote it. Publishers — even the Big Five — do next to nothing to help writers promote their work. If they aren’t on the NY Times bestsellers list (and sometimes even if they are) authors are expected to do all the promotional work themselves.

This is where crowdfunding comes in. As individuals, most of us can’t afford to become generous patrons to some promising talent. But we can kick in a little bit. This is the grassroots way of saying to heck with the big corporations telling us what we ought to be consuming. This is the consumer saying we want some control. We want to choose whom to support. That’s you, folks. Whether it’s a game developer, musician, playwright, director, performer, or writer and artist like Angi and me, you are helping to make our dreams happen. And you enjoy the benefits of it.

So follow the link to my Kickstarter project, read about it, and check out the video (it’s pretty cool, and it has cats). Then, if you can, make a donation. Some folks have already made some very generous pledges. But we’re still a long way from our goal, and if we don’t get there, we don’t get anything. Help us reach our goal. We’ve got lots of options at all levels with some pretty interesting rewards for donating. Check it out. Then share it with someone else who might be interested.

And for whatever you can help with, thank you, thank you, thank you.

The Group pt. 2

4 05 2015
Because guns and alcohol are so cool.

Because guns and alcohol are so cool.

Another item ticked off on the complicated and expensive list of things I have to do to get my life back to normal: DHHS approved Impaired Driver Education Program complete. And I gotta say, this is the first thing in the whole wretched process that actually does some good.

First, a couple of details. The classes are being conducted by Chrysalis Recovery Center, headquartered in Concord on Airport Rd. They have a number of options to try to accommodate folks, from weekday evenings to weekend overnights to two consecutive weekends during the day. That last option is the one I was in, with about a dozen other first-time offenders. Only this week, we lost one of our group. She just didn’t show. That’s bad news, because she’ll have to start over. Can’t just make up the one day lost. And unless a major medical emergency or death was involved, she’ll have to pay the $300 fee again. Sounds harsh, but Chrysalis deals with a lot of no-shows, and has had to adopt a strict policy.

Ours is a pretty low-risk group. None of us are habitual offenders (yet, and the classes aim to keep it that way) so we are not likely to skip out. It’s tough when you can’t drive and have to depend on others to get you there, but we manage. But when you are dealing with troubled people who have substance abuse issues, legal issues, and whose lives are likely complicated with any number of heart-breaking problems, yes. They miss court dates, blow off classes, and otherwise behave irresponsibly. It’s ironic. The ones who most need the help are the least likely to get it, for the very reasons for which they need the help.

None of us in the group particularly want to be there, but it’s what we have to do. We’ve had a dump truck of ugliness emptied onto us, and we need to dig our way out. That’s what we are doing. Answering the questions, doing the exercises telling our stories, watching the videos, some of which are, to be honest, pretty lame. It’s not how any of us would want to spend our weekend, and that includes the instructor.

We make the best of it. Each day, we arrived to boxes of excellent muffins, with coffee available if we didn’t bring our own. Yesterday, the instructor brought her dachshund with her. The little mooch wandered around begging for attention and bits of muffin. We reviewed what we had learned last weekend and talked about it. We do a lot of talking, sharing experiences. Serious stuff, but also laughing and joking. We get breaks every hour to stretch our legs and go outside. A lot of folks take advantage of the break to smoke a cigarette. I walk around the outside of the building to clear my head. By the very nature of what we are talking about, it’s difficult for me. The experiences surrounding my arrest and the fallout from it have been pretty traumatic. I’ll confess I’ve had a really hard time staving off a plunge back into depression.

But I write about it and share the whole mixed bag with my readers, and that helps me to process it. This blog works better than any counselor I’ve ever had, partly because I feel I’m doing some good with it. Ordinary folks make mistakes. Bad things happen to good people. If we hide the stuff we’re ashamed of, and only present the stuff we’re proud of to the world, we all get a skewed idea of what normal is. We each end up thinking we’re the only ones who have screwed up. By writing about what’s happened to me, perhaps I can demystify it a bit and help somebody else.

So here I am in the Chrysalis Recovery Program, being treated for a problem I don’t have. But never mind, I am still learning a great deal. I’ve learned that early in my life I was probably perilously close to becoming an alcoholic, but managed to avoid hitting my trigger point. For the past twenty-five years I’ve toggled pretty solidly between being a phase 1 and phase 2 drinker (phase four is the danger zone), and the older I get, the less I drink. The classes have given me good guidelines about what is safe and healthy. I’m in no danger. This is comforting.

I’ve learned a hell of a lot about the law. Perhaps I am nowhere near being a problem drinker, but when it comes to driving a car, the laws are extremely harsh. Now that I have a blot on my record, they are even harsher. For my own safety, I need to make a rule never to get behind the wheel of a car if I have had the slightest amount to drink. Even if I was drinking hours ago. An aggressive cop could nail me on my blood alcohol level even if I feel stone cold sober. A .03 is enough, and I could still have that in my system if I drank the night before and thought I’d slept it off.

Scary stuff, boys and girls. You can’t help feeling a little sick when you realize that behavior you thought was perfectly legal and harmless was a nightmare waiting to happen. But thanks to this class, I know better, and I’m not going to let myself get nailed by this legal game of Gotcha.

I am still furious at a society that traps people by confusing them with a flood of conflicting messages and information. The horrors of drunk driving are demonstrated by seriously impaired people weaving down the road, ricocheting off of guard rails. Alcohol abuse is sensationalized by its extremes. Well, sure, don’t we all want to get those people off the road? But we aren’t them, are we? We don’t drink to the point of staggering and passing out. We never get behind the wheel when we feel impaired. But, surprise! The laws are written such that you don’t need to feel impaired to be illegal. You don’t need to be anywhere near the extremes to qualify as a drunk driver. And every day people who had no idea they were doing anything wrong get busted.

Classic BondAnd what about the Bond effect? Those movies and TV shows that make drinking so cool, so sexy. All those people you’d love to be like, sophisticated, successful, desirable, they are swirling the bourbon in their glasses, or knocking back the shots, the beers, reclining by the pool with their glasses of wine. They go out to bars, drink in restaurants, meet on balconies for a nightcap, and then drive off to the next dramatic scene where they are offered a drink and coyly accept. Break for commercial, where beautiful people having much more fun than you, are drinking and laughing and buying another round.

And none of these people ever get busted for DUI. Not unless they are all over the road and an obvious danger to themselves and everyone else.

We are not rational animals. We like to pretend we are, and we do have a wonderful ability to override our instincts and impulses with our very clever brain. But the bottom line is, we don’t always make rational choices. We are susceptible to advertising, peer pressure, culture and superstition. We are vulnerable. We each try very hard to be personally responsible, but we screw up. All of us do. As a society, we have to do our best to allow for that. To make it as easy as possible for people to make the right choices. To give them all the information we can, be as flexible as we can, as supportive and understanding as we can.  (For more on the latest research on the most effect ways to treat addiction, follow this link.)

Our policies, laws and treatment of alcohol use and abuse are a splendid example of how we as a society are failing abominably.

The Group pt. 1

27 04 2015
Remember the Chinese curse about living in interesting times?  [click on image for more]

Remember the Chinese curse about living in interesting times?
[click on image for more]

As part of the legal consequences of a DUI conviction, I am required to attend 20 hours of classes on substance abuse. We met for the first time this past Saturday and Sunday and will meet again next weekend, same times, same place. There’s a group of about a dozen of us including the instructor. We all sit around a table in a room, boxes of Dunkin Donuts sugar bombs provided. The atmosphere is relaxed, and at first we are all a bit nervous. We’ve all been busted for DUI/DWI. I had no idea what to expect, but knew what the stereotypical drunk driver is supposed to be.

None of these people fit.

They were for the most part friendly, nice, intelligent folks with families and jobs, just trying to get along. The stories they shared about how they wound up here surprised me. Sure, there were a couple of classic cases, out at the bar all night drinking and got nailed by the cops on the way home. But there were others that just didn’t seem to belong. Like the woman who had only had a single beer at a restaurant and was stopped on her way home. She passed the field sobriety tests with ease. But the cop wasn’t satisfied and made her do a breathalyzer. She blew just over the legal limit, so he busted her.

Then there was the woman who wasn’t even driving at all. She’d been in the passenger’s seat while her husband negotiated slippery winter conditions. They wound up in a snow bank. She stayed with the car while he went to a neighbor’s house for help. The cop came by and stopped. She told him she hadn’t been behind the wheel, but he didn’t believe her. She had been drinking, and he busted her, because she couldn’t prove she hadn’t been driving.

NH has among the harshest drunk driving laws in the country. You can do absolutely nothing wrong, endanger no one, and still be arrested and plunged into the nightmare. What seems perfectly ordinary, a single beer at a restaurant and then driving home, is illegal. How can they do this? Because restaurants serve alcohol in portions that actually amount to 2 or 3 standard drinks as defined by law. Because even if you are manifesting no external signs of drunkenness, under strict laboratory conditions there is measurable impairment to your judgement after one of these servings.

One fellow was driving home after having a couple of beers and hit a patch of black ice and lost control. How many of us have known someone, or have ourselves hit a patch of black ice stone cold sober and lost control of a car? Would he have been able to avoid the accident if he hadn’t had the beers? Or would it have happened anyway? No way to know. But he does not get the benefit of the doubt. He suffers the consequences, the fines, the loss of license, the increase in insurance rates, the red flag on his license and driving record.

So here we all are taking this damn class. Paying for mistakes that some of us didn’t even realize were mistakes. In at least one case, paying for something we didn’t even do. Sure, I am assuming they were telling the truth. Could be they skewed the story a bit to put themselves in a better light. Maybe even outright lying about some of the details. That’s only human. But mandatory sentencing doesn’t make allowances for humanity. And after two sessions of classes with these people I am convinced they are pretty much in the same boat I am. Ordinary people who are no danger to themselves or society and who do not deserve what has happened to them.

We live in a state that is starved for tax revenue. We are in a budget crisis, spending cut to the bone. New Hampshire desperately needs money, but refuses to tax those who could most afford it. Instead, they rely on squeezing it out of those least able to afford it. And those least able to fight back.

What a sweet deal. The state sells booze and makes a pile on that. Then, they pass strict DWI laws with stiff penalties. They get a cut when restaurants sell alcohol to patrons. Then they pounce when those patrons drive home, and rake in a pile more for fines and fees. The propaganda has the public believing that the stiff DWI laws are for their protection, and the image is of the dangerous repeat offender weaving all over the road and killing innocent bystanders. I don’t deny that public menace is out there, and needs to be taken off the road. But I don’t see him when I look around at the faces of the people in the class with me. I see people who have, for the most part, been screwed.

The class itself is good. The instructor is excellent, a woman with a sense of humor but also a sense of the seriousness of the subject. The information she is passing on is derived from a canned program called “Prime for Life” which she has mercifully edited somewhat to cut to the chase. We are taught about how alcohol (and other drugs) affect the body and what sorts of drinking habits can lead to impairment and eventually to alcoholism. Hereditary factors can contribute, and what seem like harmless behaviors can have serious long-term consequences. Most of it wasn’t a big surprise to me, and is backed up by good science. We aren’t talking DARE propaganda here. Total abstinence isn’t being preached except to those who have already tipped over into alcoholism. For the rest of us, two standard drinks a day is actually quite healthy.

A lot of us agreed that this program ought to be a part of driver’s education, or required upon renewing one’s license at age 21.  Perhaps even required for all high school seniors, since so much alcohol mayhem and tragedy occurs among young people, thank in huge part to the influence of advertising, movies and other media glorifying drinking, a lot of it deliberately targeting youth.

Drinking in bar

And it isn’t just the ads that seduce us into the trap. [click on image for more]

Speaking of advertising, the class included a very enlightening video on alcohol ads.  I don’t read a lot of magazines, and I haven’t watched regular television in years. I don’t see ads. So when we saw how advertisements prey on consumers, especially young consumers, I was gobsmacked. I had no idea. The advertisers are nothing short of criminally predatory. Again I was outraged by the way people are manipulated into making bad choices and then slapped down for it. Drinking is glamorized; our deepest anxieties and insecurities are evoked, with alcohol as the answer.

We live in a society where we rely heavily on cars. We must drive everywhere, especially in New Hampshire, because we are so rural and we have no public transportation. Now add that fact to the DWI laws and the media’s praise of drinking. Is it any surprise that the courts are packed with offenders?

We are only human. We cannot be expected to make perfect choices all the time. It doesn’t help to be surrounded with societal pressures that push us in the wrong direction. Neither is it particularly helpful, when we have screwed up, to be treated as if we are bad people with failed moral character because of it. Smacked down and punished. Criminalized.

At the end of Sunday’s class one of the group shared his DWI story. It was the anniversary of his daughter’s death. She had been just a child when she died. Her loss affected him deeply. He had gone out and he had been drinking. What a surprise. Should he have been driving in that condition? Of course not. But dear god, where is the compassion? Does the man deserve to be busted on the anniversary of his little girl’s death? Isn’t he already suffering enough?

This isn’t justice. This is a cruel game of Gotcha.

Are We There Yet?

20 04 2015

Bard Owl

Going to start a new book today. Been working on the idea for a while now, and it’s time to put fingers to keyboard and give it concrete form. It may well be the last book I write. It is certainly more ambitious than any of the others. More (heavens!) literary. But, as the doctor said to his anxious patient, “I’m afraid that novel in you is going to have to come out.”

Even if it is my last, don’t be concerned. It will take years to finish, and I’ve got about fifteen novels more or less ahead of it awaiting publication. Pushing them out the door one by one. But my friend Elaine keeps telling me I need to write something new, and not keep reworking and updating old stuff. Okay, so I’m writing something new.

I’ve got stacks of notes from hikes I’ve done over the years. Mary, my hiking buddy, has bugged me about writing up my hikes. Lord knows she’s got scads of fantastic photos to go with my accounts. She took the picture of the owl here. I’ve protested that the shelves are loaded with books about hikers’ adventures, particularly the 4,000 footers of NH. The world does not need another one. She tells me that, yes, maybe it’s been done, but not by me.

So I’ll use the notes. But not in the ordinary way, to document a factual account of what happened. This will be fiction. Sort of. After all, any account we give of our lives is a kind of creative writing. We cobble together our fragmented and selective memories, with all their inadvertent fabrications, and come up with a reasonably coherent narrative of our lives. Its actual truth is often up for debate, especially with other folks who were there and remember it completely differently. Who’s right? Who knows?

Moreover, any good piece of fiction is build on fact, on accurate settings and trappings of detail.  And on the world as the author has seen it.  People the author has known, emotions felt, situations endured or enjoyed.  The older one gets the more of life has been composted into a rich black soil in which to grow stories.  Where does the truth leave off and the fantasy begin?  At what point is the resemblance of the characters to persons living or dead truly coincidental?  Who knows?  Who cares?

I think I’ll give something different a try, a kind of stream of consciousness, internal monologue sort of thing, but with a definite narrative plot. When I started working with it in my head it seemed promising. We’ll see how long I can sustain it. I suspect it’s probably been done before by somebody. But not by me.

And it will swim in and out of reality like a pod of dolphins streaking through and leaping out of the water. Sort of like those historical novels my cousin the historian hates so much, because it isn’t clear which is fact and which is fiction. Some folks need very clear categories to work with. Right and wrong, black and white, true and false. It’s difficult for them to deal with how liquid reality is, its stubborn refusal to sift itself into convenient pigeon holes. Reality is a non-Newtonian fluid: the harder you punch it, the more solid it seems. Then, when your back is turned, it slips away between your fingers.

For now, the working title is Are We There Yet? A quick Google search tells me that this title has been used. You’d be astonished how many titles are duplicates. There’s no copyright on titles. It was rather confusing when we had at the same time on our New Books shelf at the library, two books with precisely the same title, Life After Life, one by Kate Atkinson and one by Jill McCorkle. So I don’t suppose it matters that the title Are We There Yet? has already be used.

It hasn’t been used by me.

Writing a great female character

11 04 2015

gender pronouns

Taking a break from discussions on politics and religion to rant on writing.

In a recent discussion, a fellow writer said, “This is how to create a good female character: Write a good character. Add female pronouns.”


What I love about writing speculative fiction (the broadest possible descriptor of the paintbox that includes SF, Fantasy and Horror) is that you can go there. So much contemporary fiction is reactive; it explores gender as it is experienced by the majority of readers. This is because, in order to appeal to the broadest audience (translation: sell big and earn big bucks) the story and the characters must resonate with readers. The reader must be able to relate to them, and thus the characters must fulfill familiar roles.

For example: What is it like to be a man struggling with the tension between what his girlfriend wants and who he needs to be around his male friends? What is it like to be a woman of a certain age realizing love may never come to her again? A woman in an unhappy marriage? A man dealing with his adult children? A woman dealing with female friendships? A writer is said to have succeeded when the reader gushes about “how right they got it.” They’ve failed when the reader scoffs, “A real woman wouldn’t act that way.”

This of course implies that there is a correct way to capture what it means to be feminine or masculine. Which implies that there is a typical, expected way to be a man or a woman. That’s precisely what many of us are bristling at. And why Spec Fic is appealing. One can escape expectations. Invert roles and bend gender until it breaks. Dare to defy what is accepted as correct.

It isn’t that being female should be completely irrelevant or not a factor in what makes the character who she is, especially in the way others relate to her and the social situations of the story. The problem lies in having a certain set of attributes assigned to females. And presuming she would encounter problems if she lacked those classic female attributes. Is someone a “real man” or a “real woman”? A pox on that box we put characters in! Or people for that matter.

Imagine doing as my colleague suggests with a well-known iconic character. Someone absolutely splendid and singular. Sherlock Holmes, for example. Now, just add feminine pronouns. No, don’t add manicured nails, lipstick or high heels. Just change the pronouns. There is absolutely no reason a woman couldn’t wear a deerstalker cap, suffer from nicotine addiction, or shoot a gun into the wall when bored.

Does this make your head explode? If not, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the sort of female character many of us want to see. Not just a “strong” female character. Splendid and singular.

DoctorDonnaWhy does the idea of a female Dr. Who make some in fandom shriek like an orchestra of scorched cats? In the David Tennant years we got a glimpse of what a female doctor might be like when Donna Noble took on the Doctor’s mind for a short while. It was magnificent. Catherine Tate captured so many subtle mannerisms and expressions that made it absolutely believable that she was the Doctor. (By the way, as heretical as it might be, Donna is among my favorite companions in part because she makes it very clear from the outset that she has no romantic interests in the Doctor. She is not written to be “sexy”.) Doctor-Donna convinced me in a heartbeat that not only could it work, it had to happen.

There is far more variation among people of a given gender than between the genders. Nor is the division between male and female as stark as popular culture wants to make it. And we are all human. Richly human, in all its astonishing diversity. We writers will never run out of material to create marvelous characters, singular and splendid. Let’s write them!

And add the pronouns afterwards.


6 04 2015
"You don't refuse service to gay people because you are a Christian, you do it because you're a bigot." (click for full story)

“You don’t refuse service to gay people because you are a Christian, you do it because you’re a bigot.” (click for full story)

I often hear Facebook criticized as being a mindless wasteland where digital “friends” that one barely knows prattled endlessly about what they are wearing or where they are going or what they had for lunch. Perhaps I just am lucky enough to have a particularly interesting circle of friends (many of whom actually are friends that I see outside of the Internet) but my Facebook conversations often go much deeper.

All right, I’ll confess, I have blocked some people because they have spammed my feed with way too much share bait, Hallmark inspirationals, or nAWWWWseating cutesieness. And occasionally the never-ending “Look what the RWNJs have done now!” memes get on my nerves. But on the whole, I find many interesting links, nuggets of information, and genuine chuckles in my daily feed. And often a post will spin off into a stimulating debate. Sometimes they deteriorate into link wars (“No way — check this out! [link]” “Oh yeah? Well, what about this! [link]”). Sometimes, they evolve into thought-provoking exchanges of ideas.

There were three or four of these going yesterday, Easter Sunday. One of them, posted in the Atheist Librarians group I belong to, started with a link to a RawStory piece with the title: “How are atheists spending their Easter morning? By mocking Christians on Twitter, of course”.  One comment read, “I think the above is just comedy, its not bigotry in any way, shape or form. We aren’t discriminating against christians or refusing to serve them (sound familiar!) just mocking religion, which is an idea, not a person itself, and ridiculous ideas are okay to mock.” That is, I think, a legitimate take, although arguably the atheists in question are mocking a person (Jesus) and people (those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection). One commenter groused, “because the twits on twitter represent 100% of atheists”. Good point. Not only am I not on Twitter, but I was spending much of my Easter in a dialog with some theist FB friends about how to come together in harmony and celebrate the values we agree on, like compassion, generosity, forgiveness and selflessness.

“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.” HH14DL

“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.” HH14DL

I posted: “To those who follow the teachings of Jesus: May I humbly suggest that it is time you all took your religion back from those who are giving it a horribly bad name. It makes it very confusing to the rest of us when you all call yourselves by the same name (Christians) when you manifestly don’t all believe and act the same way. In fact, it might not be a bad idea for all of us to clean house a bit, and distance ourselves from hatemongering of all stripes. I welcome suggestions on how to go about this.”

Since it was Easter, and since many if not most of my FB friends self-identify as Christian, I addressed it to them. But it could have applied equally to any theist. I have heard Muslims express the same misgivings about how extremists have horribly perverted their faith.

Vikki responded: “Honestly, all faiths must be examined, evaluated, tidied, rearranged, and updated from time to time. I think people tend to forget that faith must be dynamic, not static.”

To which I replied, “Problem is, many faiths think the Truth IS static, eternal, never to be questioned, which is why it is the Truth. This is difficult to get past.”

Matthew said, “Justine hit it on the head. For it to be “The Truth”, it must always be true. In order to change, people must take the teachings metaphorically. But a metaphor would be a spiritual truth. Even the tolerant ones only accept their beliefs as metaphor when it contradicts their current moral code or scientific knowledge. Christians of a logical bent will accept that young earth creationism is a metaphor in the light of science, but try telling them the virgin birth is a metaphor and you get the cold stare.”

Larry's discussion

Meanwhile, on Twitter…..

Meanwhile, a similar discussion was taking place on my husband’s Twitter feed, which he shared with me (another example of an atheist constructively engaging with theists and not mocking them). Ted Cruz’s candidacy for president may become a catalyst for Christians who don’t support the extremist fundamentalist agenda to speak out and defend their faith.

Laura said, “Those of us who do choose to worship within an organized setting and call ourselves Christian cringe at what some of the associations are.”

Gail agreed. “Just trying to figure out alternative ways to express it since now haters have also made a mockery of the phrase ‘sincerely held beliefs'”

Beth said, “These people who profess one thing, and do the exact opposite (treat people mean) shall be called ‘hypo-Christians’.”

Angi suggested, “Maybe instead of trying to apply a label to the crazy cakes from the outside (provoking a defense), how about a movement positivity called something like ‘Loving Christians’.”

I agree with Angi. It’s less provocative to take a name for oneself than to lay one on someone else. But her suggestion leaves out many of the rest of us who are on the same page: Atheists, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims. There are individuals in all these belief systems who honor the same values of compassion, generosity, tolerance and selflessness.

I don’t much like labels because they are so limiting. They are a Procrustean bed that we are forced to lie in when we take one on. But the fact of the matter is, we rely on labels as a shorthand to help us sort the world out and make sense of it. So I humbly suggest that we take on a tag that will help others to distinguish us from those who have given our belief system a bad name. Something simple, like, “Coexist”. It expresses our desire to find common ground, share the planet, seek peace with each other. When a Coexist Christian and a Coexist Atheist meet, they know they can relax. They are not a threat to one another.

It is time for all people of good will regardless of religion or lack thereof to stand together and speak with one voice against hatred, bigotry, extremism and violence. These are the real enemies. Let us be secure enough in our own beliefs that we are not threatened by someone who believes differently. Let us agree that we should be fighting poverty and suffering, not each other.

Let us coexist.coexist

The Truth that can be described, is not.

27 03 2015


The Devil and a couple of his chief demons were walking on a rural road, and spied a holy man from a local village walking towards them. They made themselves invisible in order to spy on him. The holy man appeared to be in deep contemplation as he made his way along the dusty road. Suddenly a smile broke out on his face. He raised his head and laughed aloud, then continued on his way, his step light, his expression beatific.

“What was that all about?” one of the demons asked.

“He has seen a piece of the Truth,” the Devil replied.

“Oh, this is not good!” the other demon said.

The Devil shrugged. “It is of little consequence.”

“Aren’t you worried he will tell others?”

“I’m sure he will. He has many students.”

“And this doesn’t concern you?” the demons cried.

“Not at all,” the Devil said. “They will probably just turn it into a religion.”

This brief parable is a retelling of one from the Great Courses lecture I’m listening to at the moment, one given by an excellent teacher named Mark Muesse entitled “Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.” He talks about each of these great sages, as he calls them, giving the historical context in which they lived, what they taught, and how it affected the world. I find it absolutely fascinating.

And why would an atheist be so fascinated by a talk on religion? Because it isn’t about religion. It’s about wisdom. It’s about the holy men who see pieces of the Truth on the road, before others have taken that Truth and turned it into a religion.

When a human being has a great insight, the impulse is to share it, to communicate it to others, that they may benefit from it. But invariably it seems that Truth is lost in translation. In every case, within a few years of his passing, the sage’s followers try to codify the teachings and begin to disagree, splintering off into separate schools. There are power struggles, and attempts to “purify” the cannon. Authorities seize control of the discussion and mark some opinions as heresy and approve others as correct. And what becomes of the Truth?

One of the core disagreements between East and West when it comes to spirituality is how one comes to know the Truth. For most theists, the Truth has been revealed by God, and one must have faith, often ignoring personal experience or reflection. Faith trumps logic. The Buddha taught just the opposite: don’t take it on authority, don’t accept on faith. Experience it for yourself. That is the only way to truly understand.

One thing they did seem to agree on was that Ultimately Reality cannot be communicated in mere language. Call it God or call it Nirvana, it is too mysterious for ordinary comprehension.

My only interest in religion is how it shows how humans think and act. The story of the evolution of every religious institution is a lesson in politics, history, and power. If a person explains to me what he or she believes, it tells me a great deal about them. It tells me nothing about the Truth they are trying to describe. No human artifact, no book, no authority, can be free from the prejudices and agendas that surrounded its creation. That is why there are so many sects, so many denominations, so much disagreement, contradiction and debate.

So, how to decide what to believe? What constitutes a good life and moral behavior? What is the nature of ultimate reality, the purpose of life, the meaning of our suffering and struggle? Well, you can just party hearty, grab for the gusto, and not bother with deep questions (although that in itself is an answer of sorts). But if you apply yourself to answering these philosophical issues, if wisdom really matters to you, there’s a problem. Who do you trust? Of all these myriad truths, where lies the Truth?

That’s where I think the Buddha had it right. You’ve got to DIY. Study, ask questions, listen and learn, then sit yourself down and pray or meditate, or fast and go out on a vision quest, climb a mountain, meet the Devil in the desert. And what is revealed to you after sincere effort is the closest you’re going to come to the Truth.

With luck, you’ll find others who have come to similar conclusions, whatever they are. If asked, you can share your insights with others who are seeking. In time, if we are sincere, diligent and work in earnest, we might all start stumbling in the same direction as we grope our way towards the indescribable and incomprehensible Truth.

But don’t try to codify it, regulate it, ritualize it or impose it on others. If you do, it just becomes another religion.


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