Kim Davis seeks not to worship, but impose her beliefs

On July 21, 1651, a Baptist elder by the name of John Crandall was taken into custody by Massachusetts authorities and jailed in Boston. His crime? Conducting religious services at the home of William Witter of Lynn, Mass., who was too old and infirm to travel to the First Baptist Church in Newport.
Crandall, a contemporary of Roger Williams, had fled Massachusetts seeking religious freedom in the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Born in England sometime between 1609 and 1612, Crandall settled in Salem, Mass., becoming a minister of the Congregational Church. His practices were more Baptist than Congregationalist, however, and he was soon run out of town.
Now, back in Massachusetts, Crandall and his two co-conspirators refused to pay a fine to get out of jail; friends paid eventually, but one of the gentlemen, Obadiah Holmes, was severely flogged as a second offender.
And that, my friends, is religious persecution: being jailed for nothing more than practicing your religious beliefs.
Religious persecution is not, however, imposing your religious beliefs on others. And that’s why Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, is no religious martyr. Davis was not jailed for practicing her religion. She was jailed for insisting that her beliefs should trump the rights of citizens to get married.
Kim Davis can practice her religion however she sees fit. She can pray, dress, behave, and live in ways that comport with her beliefs. But those rights end when she starts telling other people how to pray, dress, behave, or live.
Those who support Davis have cast her actions in Kentucky as civil disobedience. She should not be forced to act against her conscience, goes the argument, so therefore she should be allowed to deny residents of Rowan County the right to get a marriage license if they are not heterosexual. But the argument doesn’t wash.
Following this logic, Davis would be allowed to influence all sorts of governmental interactions with the public based on her own beliefs. If she were Muslim, she could refuse to wait on women without head coverings. If she were a Christian Scientist, she could stop the bloodmobile from showing up in the county government parking lot. If she were a Buddhist, she could refuse to issue gun permits based on her belief in nonviolence.
Of course, those supporting Davis would never defend a Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian Scientist clerk. They are defending her not on principle, but based on their own prejudices.
We have separation of church and state in this country both to protect the practice of religion from state interference and to keep religious influence out of government. If Kim Davis cannot separate her religious beliefs from her obligation to serve all citizens, she should resign.
Elder John Crandall was my ancestor. He fought for religious freedom so he and like-minded souls could practice their religion without government interference. He wanted the right to pray in a private home and worship on Saturdays if he so chose.
But Kim Davis is no John Crandall. She’s just another Massachusetts Puritan who thinks that religious freedom works only in her favor.

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Dr. Dyer, my mother’s pop psychologist

I was 16 when my mother discovered Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. She probably saw him on Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin and then bought a paperback copy of his first best-seller, “Your Erroneous Zones.”
From what I remember of his pop psychology, Dyer believed we should experience new things, not worry about other people’s approval, and exchange adventure for fear. My mother, who left the house only to shop at the A&P or get the mail, might seem like an unlikely candidate for a personality transformation. Indeed, I didn’t notice any difference in her behavior, despite her frequent, enthusiastic quotations from the text.
In fact, the book simply reinforced my mother’s already entrenched personality traits. Telling an old Yankee like her that she didn’t need anyone’s approval was like throwing fire on a burn barrel. Soon, whenever she had an opinion, she would follow it up with: “And Dr. Dyer says I don’t need anyone’s approval.”
I don’t think this line worked that well for me, although I read the book, too. My friend Andrea and I used to quote “our buddy Wayne,” as we referred to him, quite frequently. By the time we were 17, trying to negotiate the future (a mystery) and the present (not so hot), he’d become our go-to guru of advice. Yes, we wanted to travel, try new food, stretch our wings! Of course we did – we were teen-agers who hardly ever went anywhere and were under the thumbs of rather controlling parents. And no, we didn’t need your approval, thank you very much, a line that made us feel better about confounding romantic relationships, gossipy peers and demanding teachers.
By the time of his death last weekend, Dr. Dyer had written more than 20 books and turned his psychological bullet points into a prosperous line of CDs, DVDs, and lectures. Over time his “erroneous zones” evolved into a philosophy of intention. In other words, if you imagine it, it will come.
I still think of Dr. Dyer whenever I open a menu. Why get the same old meatloaf, when you can try something new? Recently I discovered his publisher, Hay House, on Facebook. Just as authors like Emerson and Chekhov live on in social media, so too does Dr. Dyer. Today’s thought: “You have the ability to match up with the power of intention and attract ideal people and Divine relationships into your life.”
My mother might have been a hard-core Yankee, but she lived her life the way Dr. Dyer recommended – to the fullest. At 92, she had a mild heart attack. In the hospital, she helped me do crossword puzzles, learned all the nurses’ names and urged me to follow my dreams of teaching full time.
One day when I was visiting, they gave her a plastic cup of berry-flavored yogurt. She eyed it suspiciously, but then dipped in a spoon. Not long after, the only sound was the spoon scraping the bottom.
“Mmm,” she said. “That was really good.”
A few days later, she had a massive heart attack and died. I hope if I get to be her age, I won’t be afraid to try the yogurt.

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Lost words in the dog days of summer

I lost a chapter today.
It disappeared into the ether. Perhaps I saved another chapter over it. Perhaps I called it a name that I promptly forgot. Perhaps I put it in a file where it didn’t belong.
In a couple of hours, I passed through stages of anger, dismay and acceptance. What’s gone is gone. Luckily, I didn’t have to start from scratch; it was a revision of a chapter in my first draft, which remained saved.
Somehow, though, I cannot let go of the idea that the first revision was better. I know I’ll have to dig deep and work on this piece again and again, and still I may not be satisfied. The joy of working on it this morning – of tweaking the plot, discovering new possibilities, ratcheting up the tension – disappeared with the file itself.
I know there are some obvious lessons here. I need to back up my files, again. I should print out my chapters more often. Maybe pushing myself to write all day is foolhardy, when I know that I’m at my best in the morning.
Asked for advice, my son was less than sympathetic: “I don’t need to recover my files because I don’t save over them.” Yeah, thanks.
When it became clear Chapter 21 had vanished, I did what every writer should do when faced with such a calamity.
I took my sarcastic son to lunch. Then I sat down and got back to work.

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Labor Day looms, so we must write on

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks. Three days in Williamstown, Mass., with my husband, where we saw a Van Gogh exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, attended a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vt. Then, home to clean house, attend a reunion on Sunday of former newspaper folks, and enjoy a lovely three-day visit with a dear college friend. Patti and I talked nonstop, visited Doris Duke’s Rough Point estate in Newport and strolled the laid-back resort of Watch Hill.
Whew.
Yet through it all, I wroteAugust.
A book review, 1,600 words of the novel and a review of the O’Neill play, all while staying in Williamstown.
Another two days of novel writing on Monday and Tuesday, before and during Patti’s visit.
Back in the saddle today after her departure, writing and rewriting for two hours.
Make no mistake: I am no Stephen King, who writes 365 days a year, even on Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. I admire that sort of dedication, but I also know there are days I’m not going to make it to the writing desk.
But this is August, and as all writers know who make their living teaching, time is running out.
In her novel of the same name, Judith Rossner noted that the month strikes terror in the hearts of psychiatric patients, because their therapists vacate New York City for the Hamptons, leaving them to their own devices.
For college professors, August is ominous for a different reason: it’s the last buffer between summer break and the grind of syllabi preparation, teaching, and correcting. We know if we want to get that short story, memoir or novel draft done, we have to double down now – or else give up until January.
August has a silver lining. When time is limitless, writing lags. An approaching deadline tends to focus the mind.
A patient with a vacationing therapist learns to cope. A writer with a deadline gets busy. Let us celebrate August, all 31 days; because it is finite, because it is vacation, because it makes us work.

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Whither the college catalog? Online, like everything else

To the list of pleasures we have lost to the digital age, I reflect nostalgically on the college catalog.
As a high school junior trying to decide where to attend college, I awaited the mail eagerly. After SAT and Achievement scores were released, our mailbox – P.O. Box 75, Shannock, R.I., one of the smallest post offices in the U.S. – became a treasure trove each week of promotional materials from colleges all over the Eastern Seaboard.
In manila envelopes came large format, glossy brochures full of photos – of students earnestly buried in library books, hanging out on college lawns, lounging on twin beds in brick dormitories. But it was the college catalog, that official listing of courses, that held me in thrall. For hours I would leaf through History, English, and Sociology departments, reading the one-paragraph descriptions of survey and upper-level classes like a child scanning ice cream treats in the frozen foods case. Europe Since 1945. Transcendentalist Literature. Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I was ready, nay starving, for all this and more.
The catalogs came mostly from women’s colleges – Goucher in Towson, Md., Spelman in Atlanta, Wheaton in Norton, Mass. In the catalog for Randolph-Macon Women’s College, of Lynchburg, Va., three girls peered out of a dormitory window, on the sill a wooden box with Coca-Cola emblazoned on the side. But my aunt, who taught Botany there, said it was not a place where I would “fit in.” I’d heard something similar from one of my high school teachers, when I expressed interest in Smith. I knew what they meant: the young women who attended these schools were not of my ilk. Or put more accurately, I was not of theirs.
But I could dream. I could thumb through the course descriptions, the books required, and the faculty profiles, imagining myself in an ivy-covered building somewhere. Sitting at one of those one-piece wooden lecture desks, notebook open, pen at the ready. Or maybe in a carrel at a high-ceilinged library, reading: Everything! The Russians: Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. The great philosophers: Hume, Kant, Descartes. The master playwrights – Pirandello, O’Neill, Ibsen.
I did eventually make it to an ivy-covered campus – a co-ed state school, not a private Seven Sisters college. I did attend lectures on Shakespeare, literary criticism, Faulkner, and the causes of World War I, among many other topics. And I did get many a headache huddled in Mason Library studying for my Introduction to Philosophy class. If I did not sample every course that made my mouth water back in high school, I can only blame time and the decision to switch my major from English to journalism.
But today, although the course catalog is conveniently online (and “searchable”!), I have to wonder how many high school students peruse it with the same hunger I had. You can’t curl up with your computer (unless you have a tablet) and rifle through pages, dreaming. You can’t feel the weight of all that potential knowledge, as I did when I carried the catalogs with me, imagining I was already in college, headed to registration. (The fact that you can no longer “head to registration” – ours was held in the Gymnasium – is yet another digital “improvement” that has turned a shared experience of college into a solitary one.)
Now, when I face a new crop of English and writing students each semester, I know they’ve picked my class from a list, registered and paid for it, all online, often without ever interacting with another human being. (Unless you count the email they send me trying to cajole me into adding a seat in the class, with the hastiest of “Dear Professor”s, explaining that they HAVE to take this class, implying I HAVE to let them in.) I know for most of them, the class is yet another requirement to be ticked off on the way to that elusive goal, the degree, which in itself is yet another chore to be crossed off on the way to Life. Occasionally, I meet a student with that hunger in his or her eyes. But too often, learning for learning’s sake is a concept foreign to them.
Because in this digital age, when the world is available at the click of the mouse, signing up for a class is not dissimilar to ordering a pair of jeans or downloading a movie. Make your selection, pay your money, sit back and receive.
But oh, when the curriculum was published in a book, perfect bound, carefully proofread, black type on thick paper, you knew its value. You longed to live up to the requirements (“rigorous reading,” “in-depth examination,” “interdisciplinary approach”) – read the texts (written in challenging prose, not breakout boxes or lists), participate in the discussion, do the work. Studying each professor’s academic qualifications (alphabetically by last name, in the back), you were in awe. College was serious business; classes difficult; professors erudite and respected. You would not have the opportunity, at semester’s end, to post complaints about them at sites like ratemyprofessors.com, which have turned academia into a commodity, like buying a book from Amazon or renting a movie from Netflix. You also would not be able to cheat your way through class by cutting and pasting essays from sites like 123helpme.com or gradesaver.com. (Those inclined to plagiarize had only Cliffs Notes, which most professors could spot a mile away.)
Yes, we know that colleges can no longer afford to bind their courses in a book. They can, of course, find money to put Wifi in dormitories, build multi-million-dollar stadiums and fitness centers, pay their presidents exorbitant salaries and turn libraries into coffee shops. But the course catalog is a relic from another age, one we shall not see again, when prospective students chose a college based on its curriculum, not the dining hall menu or the size of its dorm rooms.

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The science of metaphor

The last time I had any interest in science was probably in fourth grade. We got new textbooks that year, and they featured finely wrought pencil sketches of a boy and girl conducting experiments, keeping nature journals, and collecting leaves and rocks. If that was all “science” involved – keeping a journal, walking around outdoors, and occasionally mixing up some vinegar and baking soda – I was in.Geology 007
By the time I got to Junior High, I was more interested in the cute boy from Hope Valley with the hair in his eyes than Mr. Bannister’s Earth Science class. The teacher literally carried around a shoebox of rocks. Rocks! Could there be anything duller? We tried to get him talking about the war; as soon as he said “When I was in Korea,” we knew he was good for a 15- or 20-minute digression.
By ninth grade, all hope of my science education had disappeared. My notes for Introduction to Physical Science were layered with Aerosmith and Rolling Stones lyrics. I think I learned how to use a slide rule. That came in handy.
So now what am I doing, 55 years old, earnestly studying a Geology textbook, tracing epochs in the Book of Knowledge, and taking notes on Paleozoic time?
Yes, I’m still a novelist, and the only subjects I’ll ever be qualified to teach are writing, English, and journalism. But decades into this writing thing, I’m wishing I had paid more attention to Mr. Bannister’s quartz and granite samples. I’m trying to remember something from 10th grade Biology – besides the earthworm we pinned and sliced. Because I’ve finally realized the connection between science and writing, between the empirical world and the literary one.
The physical world is the source of all metaphor. We know this, as writers, but we don’t pay it much mind. We think our imaginations can conjure up whatever tree, flower, or stone wall will dress up our passages. After all, we are writers, we deal in words, and what else do we need but a facility with vocabulary?
The truth is we must apprehend the real, physical, dynamic world before we can write about it. We have to see with the intensity of the scientist observing phenomena. We have to take notes and report with the accuracy of the geologist or botanist, then translate what we know into the vernacular – making our metaphors clear to the average person without losing the essence of that understanding.
The best writers know this. Think of Andrea Barrett’s haunting story, “The Littoral Zone,” about a pair of scientists whose infidelity places them in a netherworld not unlike the shoreline area they are studying. Whether it’s Melville on whaling or Michener on the origins of Hawaii, the writer must explain the physical world before he or she can be trusted with the metaphysical.
It happens that my latest protagonist is a scientist, a botanist to be precise, so of course I need to be able to think the way she does. Because she is teaching college classes in 1953, I’ve collected introductory botany texts to get some sense of the material she’d have at her fingertips. I’ve bought guidebooks to wildflowers in the Smoky Mountains, where she is doing research, and I’ve even read my aunt’s dissertation on that subject, since the character was (very loosely) inspired by her life.
But what’s up with the geology? I wanted to explain how those mountains formed, that’s all. That led to a brief study of geologic time, and notebook pages of jottings – from Archaean time, “earth a solid globe,” I wrote, to the upper, lower and middle Cambrian periods of the Paleozoic, with seaweed, mollusks, and the first vestiges of terrestrial life. I had the vague idea that the mountains emerged where once was sea.
It was only later, when I sat down to write the brief passage this research informed, that I realized the true metaphor I’d unearthed: my character, like this mountain, is comprised of deep compressed layers, shaped by a certain heat and violence.
None of which I would have guessed back in eighth-grade science, when terms like igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic where just vocabulary to be memorized, and when I knew what metaphors were but never guessed they could be found in a rattling shoebox full of rocks.

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In praise of the tiny notebook

Let us nolittle notebooksw celebrate the little notebook. Not to be confused with the journal, which for me means the mandatory three-page writing exercise heralded by the likes of Julia Cameron and Heather Sellers. My journal is an Apica notebook, 8.5 by 6 inches, with finely lined pages. Its content is sacred, specific, and therapeutic.
In contrast, the little notebook is writing on the fly. Random, unfiltered, truncated, the content is better described as jottings than entries. The notebook of choice varies as well. I have a Moleskine (a gift from a former writing teacher; I’m too cheap to buy them myself), a tiny Apica (5 by 3 inches), and a wonderful flower-covered pad that was a gift from my friend Laura.
I have a few of these around my desk, and usually keep one in my purse. They tend to last a long time, because I don’t write in them every day or even every week. Sometimes months go by without much more than a phone message scribbled hastily on a page. Here’s a partial inventory from the old green Apica notebook, whose entries date to 2005:
Accounts of dreams, including one about a white bear.
Notes from Watchaug Pond: “Smell of barbecue smoke. Colors: yellow, blue and white. Sail pink blue teal blue & white sail. Striped beach chairs. Tangerine sail in the distance. Striped umbrellas. Pails coolers bathing suits.”
Notes from a trip to Vermont: an ad for a roommate posted on a bulletin board (“mature, spiritual … musician, artist, healer, house painter, owner of 15-year-old dog must have electricity and wood stove”); woman in a T-shirt that says “Slavery still exists”; a man we spot walking backwards on Route 30.
Notes from a conversation with my father about dousing, boiling springs, and outhouses: “Was a man who used to go round & clean ’em out, that was his job. He would dig a hole & bury the stuff. That’s how they did it in them days.”
You get the idea. These are impressions, quotes, observations, or visuals that I don’t want to lose. It doesn’t mean I’ll do anything with them (although the conversation about dousing, sans the Outhouse Man, was useful in my third novel). The beauty of it is that, even 10 years later, there they are, little snippets waiting to grow into something bigger.
Standard writing advice is to keep a notebook by your bed. I say, keep a notebook handy not at night but during the day. In your purse or pocket, your glove compartment, your backpack, anywhere you can grab it quickly when you see or hear something interesting. Don’t worry about filling every page or writing neatly or often. Let its use, like inspiration, be serendipitous.
And now that I think of it, Outhouse Man has been waiting a long time for his story to be told.

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