"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment. Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."~Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1816

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Collecting Book Ideas

As my blogger profile boasts, I’ve been working on ideas for a book, but very piecemeal. When I first mentioned it to hubby his suggestion was to come up with an outline. But I really am not sure exactly where my book is going, so writing an outline won’t work for me, at least not at this point. Following the oft-cited advice that writers should “write what they know,” I’m thinking the book will be about my largely positive experience growing up within a tightly knit Catholic school and church community in suburbia in the 1980s and early 90s.

Since I’m not yet sure how I will structure the book I’ve been writing a page or two on different topics that I think I will include in the book as they occur to me. I’ve been researching on the Internet and checking books out of the library in large stacks. It’s like I’m collecting tidbits I’ve found on a nature walk. I’m hoping a shape will start to emerge organically from these disparate efforts.

One of my strategies was to get a sense of spiritual memoirs written by people about my age. I conducted an Amazon search and came up with Not that Kind of Girl, by Carlene Bauer, released last year (Harper Collins). Unlike what one might think is the usual approach in writing a spiritual memoir, Bauer tells the story of losing her religion rather than of finding it. But Bauer lets go of her faith so thoughtfully that her book brought me to more closely consider why I have held on to mine and where the challenges lie in maintaining a spiritual outlook on life.

Bauer recounts how religious teachings at the nondenominational churches and Christian schools she attended shaped her perspective though elementary and high school and continuing in college and her early working years. Unfortunately, the shoots of her childhood spirituality, watered by the comforting wording and colorful stories of the King James Bible, were trampled during episodes such as a terrorizing experience where a Sunday school teacher vividly described the coming of the Antichrist at the end of the world. In high school, Bauer had trouble reconciling her love for the Jesus of the gospels with her distaste for her pastors’ vehement denunciation of popular culture. Nevertheless Bauer conscientiously took notes during the sermons at church and resolved to be the best Christian she could.

Bauer’s questioning intensified through college and her early working years. Despite a hope in God’s plan for her, she at the same time searched for proof that religion was bunk. She attended a small Jesuit college and there was exposed to existential philosophers, none of which quite reverberated with her. She was known as the “good girl” who didn’t party and was saving herself for marriage. But Bauer remained confused as to whether she truly believed the values she had embraced or was avoiding experimentation due to her timid personality. She resolves to test her spirituality by trying out the lifestyle she has avoided in New York City after college.

Bauer never feels fully comfortable eschewing her spiritual side. She tries out drinking and one-night-stands, but they don’t provide her questioning mind any solace. Finally she tries out the Catholic Church, converting in a quick decision that saddens her mom but cheers her grandma, a Catholic. Bauer doesn’t find her answers in the Catholic Church either, and that disappointment seems to cement her eventual disengagement from religion altogether. The suggestion at the end of the book is that she finally finds a man who satisfies her intellect and the relationship provides the mooring she had been looking for in the form of religion.

There are flashes of really elegant writing in the book, Bauer’s first. She was rightly encouraged by a high school English teacher to become a writer. But it depressed me that Bauer’s earnest search for spirituality was in the end fruitless. My nearness to my children, my witness of their growing up, has underlined for me the presence of the Divine in this life. But with a popular culture so largely disdainful of any sense of the spiritual or religion beyond positivity or self-actualization, my teaching my children prayers, bringing them to church, instilling in them a love for God, seems more and more counter cultural. Is a spiritual outlook relevant in today’s world? How do you encourage your spirituality, be it through structured religion or not?

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