“The Holy Family” Featured in American Atheist Magazine

The Holy Family is featured in the current issue of American Atheist: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought:

“In writing the story, Wilt wanted to show that change is an opportunity to move beyond something that is no longer meaningful while being able to build upon it. He wanted to show how one can move beyond loss and find meaning. He wanted his readers to explore the question, How can I go on? when faced with sadness. And he wanted to honestly depict those who choose not to believe in a supernatural being and how that colors their responses to human dilemmas.”

Click here to read the entire article by Cathy Puett Miller.

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A Note about My Wife’s Health

[Updates about Vicki’s condition can be found at Caring Bridge.]

“She’s in kidney failure.”

Those were not the words I expected to hear from the supervising doctor in the emergency room. I had brought my wife, Vicki, to the ER during the wee hours of the morning. She’d been experiencing a variety of symptoms over the previous couple of weeks, like sore hips, fatigue, loss of appetite, things that don’t faze you in the middle of the winter when various strains of flu are floating around. But that night she had suddenly begun to speak gibberish, couldn’t tell me my name or our address, so, thinking “stroke” and trying not to imagine the implications of that, I guided her into the car and we drove off.

At five in the morning, after a CT scan, chest x-ray, MRI, and urine and blood tests, I learned that the kidney shutdown—which had been ongoing for at least a few weeks and was behind the earlier symptoms—had thrown her blood chemistry way out of balance, toward toxic, which led finally to stroke-like symptoms. It had also surrounded her left lung with fluid, though shortness of breath was not evident until just before we left for the hospital.

A few hours later, in intensive care, they put a chest tube in her back to start draining the fluid. At about four in the afternoon a urologist inserted stents, via the urethra, into both of her ureters—the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder. They were apparently being pinched from the outside, as no growths or imperfections were seen inside the ureters themselves when the stents were placed, so the next step, once her kidney function was back to normal, would be to figure out why that had happened.

After the surgery she was still out of it, as she had been since arriving in the ER, so I went home and slept for the first time in 40 hours.

The next morning at eight o’clock the phone rang and the hospital’s name appeared on the caller ID. Steeling myself for the worst, I pushed the button and answered. A nurse introduced herself and said, given Vicki’s condition the day before, she wanted to make sure I spoke to her as early as possible. One word is all I need to describe her: Coherent! Her kidneys were functioning well and the chemistry had corrected to the extent that she once again knew who she was, and who I am, though she had no idea of what had been going on the last 48-plus hours. I told her as much as I could, said I’d come to hospital as early as possible, but first had to make some phone calls to assure her parents, and mine, that she had improved dramatically overnight and that they should pass that word to our siblings.

The next few days consisted of continued monitoring of blood chemistry, urine output, and the fluid draining from the chest cavity. Vicki’s sister flew in from Ohio and came to the hospital with her son, who lives an hour or so north of us. They picked up our son, Sam, who attends college about halfway between us and our nephew, and we all had some good visiting time—perhaps a little too loud for the ICU, but even the medical staff seemed to welcome the voices and laughter. And though Vicki was generally uncomfortable—chest tube, catheter, IV drips, and the basic ICU ambiance do not add up to feeling like you’re in a room at the Ritz—we took encouragement from the overall improvement and the look of relative delight on the poker-face of the kidney specialist who had ominously referred to her condition as “severe kidney failure,” his unnecessary adjective like an exponent perched at the end of the word “failure.”

A couple of days later, stabilized and out of the ICU, Vicki underwent a contrast CT scan, in which enhanced imaging shows greater detail about the organs and tissue being examined. The worrying result of that was the unidentified tissue in her gut, which was the prime suspect for having squeezed the ureters and shut down the kidneys. She was well enough to go home, but not before they scheduled an outpatient biopsy for the Monday of the next week.

Biopsy. Now there’s a word to strike fear into your heart. Not because of the procedure itself, which seems simple and safe enough in the context of modern medicine, but because of what it signifies they’re looking for.

And they found it. Cancer.

Bad news.

So, on to our first-ever visit with an oncologist. Top-notch doctor, all clarity and compassion. I could not have been more impressed and, well, comforted, in a way, knowing that come ever what may, Vicki will be in expert hands as we move forward and make decisions.

What we learned from that visit is that there is cancer that has metastasized “locally” from the urinary tract to the area outside the tract, in the gut, basically. What was not yet known was whether the cancer had metastasized at a distance from the origin. There were nodules on Vicki’s lungs that were not there when she had a CT scan in June 2012. They were too small to biopsy, so in order to determine whether they are cancer, they scheduled a PET scan. In a PET scan, they inject a substance into Vicki’s blood before the scan, and if the nodules are cancerous they will in effect “light up” during the scan.

This is important to know because it has an impact on the prognosis and treatment options. Going into the meeting after the PET scan, however, I must say that we were both aware that we were facing either very bad news or very, very bad news. Either the cancer was localized and could be treated with radiation and chemotherapy, with a survival prognosis of three to five years, or it had spread widely and the prognosis would be much more severe.

We learned from the PET scan that, as feared, the cancer has spread to the lungs, which means that the options open to us exclude radiation and it’s either palliative or chemotherapy.

Vicki has opted to try chemotherapy. They will be using one of the newer, “milder” chemo drugs, which should minimize side effects and slow the cancer down. But this drug won’t stop it (and neither will the other chemo drugs in the arsenal)—this cancer is not curable and, given its spread, the survivability prognosis is in the neighborhood of a year. The hope is that this treatment will add some months of decent quality time to that prognosis.

Vicki will have her first infusion in a few days, and it is usually repeated every three weeks. We will be in constant communication with the oncologist regarding the effectiveness of the chemotherapy, side effects, and everything else related to the treatment, and based on that, decisions will be made whether to change, continue, or discontinue the therapy.

This is not easy news to read, I’m sure, and it’s not easy to write, but this is the reality that Vicki, Sam, and I are facing along with our families in Ohio and New Jersey. Once we had the bad news of a cancer diagnosis, we knew that from that point on, we were likely to continue hearing various degrees of bad news. I think Vicki’s goal is to move forward with grace and to make the most of the love of family and friends, and I am counting on everyone we know to help her meet that goal.

The other day Vicki recalled a line from an old poem by Wendell Berry:

Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.

And the line right before that:

Laugh. / Laughter is immeasurable.

I think those thoughts sum up our approach to this very difficult hand we have been dealt. The support we’ve received thus far has been overwhelming, both in terms of our morale and more concrete needs, and we are extremely grateful for that. There are silver linings to be found, renewals to experience, even in the face of death, and we intend to find and experience them. And we won’t shy away from laughter, and even a little gallows humor, along the way.

I’ve tried to lay this all out in a somewhat clinical fashion, to the degree that I am capable of that. The emotional impact of all of this is, of course, heavy, but I find myself most able to cope when I understand the facts as best I can. My point in sharing this is to give you the benefit of the facts as you—family, friends, colleagues, kindred spirits—contemplate this reality or interact with us over the course of the coming months. We appreciate your care and concern.

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Two New Reviews from Goodreads Readers

I’m very grateful for these two new reviews, by Goodreads members, of The Holy Family.

HF rev JHF rev WS

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Les Misthéologies

Les misA Boston Globe columnist by the name of Jennifer Graham has recently fallen under the spell of the theatrical and movie musical of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables. For some reason she has chosen to mark her love of the show by picking a fight with “professional atheists” in an op-ed published on January 1, 2013, titled “The faith personified in ‘Les Mis’.”

Having seen Les Misérables on stage for the first time a month ago at a local high school, Graham wondered, “Who’s the slacker who let God in the building?” She is impressed by the “deeply spiritual nature” of the show and imagines that the deity who has been “driven from classrooms” now “dreams a dream: of a culture that is receptive to religion.” I suppose it’s those pesky atheists who have driven her God from classrooms, but judging by the steeples and crosses that frequent the cities and towns of Massachusetts, where Graham lives, it’s hard to imagine why her God needs to dream of a receptive culture.

Her snipe at atheists out of the way, Graham focuses her attention in the column on the conversion of Jean Valjean. The well-known plot introduces Valjean, who has been a prisoner for fourteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, as he is finally about to be paroled. He immediately steals silverware from a bishop, but when he is caught the bishop claims to have given the goods to Valjean, and, in an act of radical forgiveness, gives him even more loot before sending him on his way. Valjean uses this small fortune to create large fortune with which he does much good. But in the process he breaks parole and is relentlessly hunted by the menacing Javert, whose sole goal in life appears to be to lock away a good man because of a technicality.

When I saw the original Broadway production of Les Misérables in 1987, the enduring images were those of the subplot of the rebels on the barricade. The staging of those scenes somehow embodied the ideals for which they were fighting, and the most stirring and forceful of the show’s lyrics and melodies come from the mouths of the young revolutionaries envisioning a new world for all:

Red — the blood of angry men!
Black — the dark of ages past!
Red — a world about to dawn!
Black — the night that ends at last!

Against that backdrop, Jean Valjean personifies, not faith in God, as Graham would have it, but faith in humanity’s ability to recognize the need for change and to fight for the common good, even at great personal risk. Yes, the musical drips with god-language. Many of the characters consider themselves to be “owned” by God, or to be the children of such a being. The bishop tells Valjean, “I have bought your soul for God.” Valjean sings, “My soul belongs to God, I know / I made that bargain long ago.” Fantine in her despair dreams of a forgiving God. But the actions of these characters are those of flesh and blood men and women who dare to attempt to improve their own lot and that of their neighbors in the face of an established order that wants nothing more than to keep them down.

Sitting in a movie theater a few weeks ago at an advance screening of the new film version of the show, I was not struck as much by the actions of the revolutionaries. The sweeping camera-work and realistic sets somehow diminished them. What hit me with incredible force, however, in this up-close-and-personal Les Mis, were the two theological ideologies that are at war throughout the show. Javert’s dogmatic obedience to a God of righteousness (“Mine is the way of the Lord,” he sings) is contrasted over and over with Valjean’s sense of a God who forgives, comforts, and provides guidance and, finally, an eternal home.

While witnessing the acts of the characters who embraced these theologies, I could not help but notice the utter inadequacy and ultimate harmfulness of both. It is easy to dismiss Javert’s theology, based in an image of a vengeful God who demands obedience and righteousness; in her op-ed column, Jennifer Graham doesn’t even mention Javert’s God. Describing the God of Valjean et al., though, she speaks of “the impermeable hope of people who believe there’s more beyond the barricade, that somewhere there’s a Garden of the Lord.” Scholar M. D. Faber has a more precise and pointed take on the theological underpinnings of many Christians, including, I would say, Valjean and his compatriots:

A multilayered, multifaceted system of magical behavior, Christianity as theology and rite is designed to accomplish nothing less than the veiling, or perhaps the removal, of our chief biological tormentors, namely, separation, smallness (or vulnerability), and death, and replace them with a perfectionist scheme whereby the believer enjoys loving union with a Parent-God from Whom he will never be parted, protection and empowerment through a Parent-God Whose omnipotence flows toward his dutiful followers, and immortality or an escape from death through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial gift, freely offered to all those who turn to Him sincerely and ask.

The goal of religion’s “magical goings-on,” says Faber, “is to infantilize the participant, to restore him . . . to the period in which he was secure in the protective, loving, salvational care of a big one, a parental shepherd after whom he followed like a bleating lamb for several crucial years” (emphasis in original). Nowhere in Les Mis is this more apparent than in Valjean’s beautifully melodic but dramatically overwrought death scene. The long-dead Fantine reappears and sings, “Come with me / Where chains will never bind you,” to which Valjean responds, “Forgive me all my trespasses / And take me to your glory.” I suppose one person’s Garden of the Lord may well be another’s infantilistic wish for a magical sense of security, but the overall effect of this theology in the film version was to inhibit the impact of the goodness of Jean Valjean in the face of his past in a repressive justice system and his efforts to turn that past on its head by being, simply put, a good man.

Placed next to the novel Les Misérables (which should never be reduced to Les Mis), the musical is narrowly focused and lightweight. (Jennifer Graham does not say whether she has read the novel; I suspect she has not.) Hugo biographer Graham Robb points out that Hugo himself provided many clues, via pre-publication press releases, about the “real” nature of the novel:

Long before it came out, everyone knew that Les Misérables was not just a novel, it was “the social and historical drama of the nineteenth century,” “a vast mirror reflecting the human race, captured on a given day of its enormous existence”; “Dante made a hell with poetry; I have tried to make one with reality.”

No less a reader than Robert Louis Stevenson assessed Les Misérables in this way:

The deadly weight of civilization to those who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable . . . The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law, that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between its formidable wheels.

Quite distinct from Jennifer Graham’s narrow interpretation of the musical version, Les Misérables the novel is not a singular story of one man’s salvation, nor is it a statement of the faith of the author or any of its characters. The redemption of Jean Valjean is one aspect of the novel, but it is what societal systems do with this man that make up most of Victor Hugo’s palette. The experience of Hugo’s great story on stage or screen simply cannot rise to the level of the novel itself—and I say this as one who appreciates and is moved by much of the music, was absolutely bowled over by the Broadway production, and found much to praise about the film version. Reading the book, however, nearly 30 years ago, was a much more visceral and memorable experience than either of these.

Getting back to Graham’s silly charge against atheists and the “banishment” of God from schools, it practically goes without saying that such a charge is absurd. And the fact that a high school theater department puts on a production of Les Misérables does not represent a stealthy return of God to school any more than a stealthy promotion for Javert’s vengeful style of justice or the armed rebellion of students. It is a story in which fictional characters with various motives and traits work through the obstacles between themselves and their goals. It is a theatrical showcase that can entertain and inspire audiences with its plot, music, and the performances of the singers and actors. It is neither a sermon nor a profession of Christian faith. Jennifer Graham would do well to praise and support her local high school’s artistic endeavors for what they are—a vital piece of the education and development of a generation—rather than turn a good night at the theater into a diatribe in favor of state support of a particular religion.

 

Les Misérables:

Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil; Based on the novel by Victor Hugo; Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel; Additional text by James Fenton.

Books cited:

M. D. Faber. Becoming God’s Children: Religion’s Infantilizing Process. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.

Graham Robb. Victor Hugo: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

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Anytown

I’m looking at a photo of three children who are part of my life. It’s the second birthday of the little guy in the middle, posed behind his Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cake, flanked by his two big sisters.

I love those kids.

You don’t need to see the picture. You’ve seen pictures like it before. It’s likely you were the subject of such pictures when you were a child of two, or four, or six. You’ve posted pictures like this one of your own kids on Facebook, or commented glowingly on photos of your friends’ kids.

There’s nothing uncommon about it. We snap pictures of our kids day in and day out, and we show them off at the drop of a hat, but somehow we manage to look at each one as if it’s the first.

And, in a way, each one is a first. Each and every one of those kids is a one-of-a-kind package of potential. Running jumping shouting crying laughing sleeping cuddling potential.

We lost twenty yesterday. Senselessly. In a place called Newtown.

It might as well be Anytown.

And before it was even possible to catch one’s breath upon hearing the news, we were subjected to the usual spate of asinine declarations: this violence is a result of taking prayer out of public schools; teachers should be armed; it’s the “crazy,” not the weapons; it’s disrespectful to address gun control in the aftermath of this tragedy; cars are dangerous, too, so should we ban them? And on and on.

Meanwhile, religious leaders rail against gay marriage and offer rote condolences to families that need a great deal more than pabulum, but say nothing about the ease with which one can obtain a weapon of war in America.

Meanwhile, politicians bury their heads as far up their own rectums as possible and wait for the outrage to subside so they can continue their do-nothing policies of dealing with gun violence.

Meanwhile, we citizens angrily grieve and then hit the political brick wall that surrounds the possibility of new gun laws. The emotions fade, new concerns arise, until the next mass shooting, and then we start all over again.

A friend mentioned yesterday that he was a sensing that we may have reached a tipping point as a nation, that now we will begin to see real action, real reform. I hope he’s right—and I hope he, and I, and anyone reading this, will find ways to get and remain active in the struggle for gun-law reform.

I’m looking at a photo of three children who are part of my life. They should be motivation enough.

 

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A Welcome Endorsement

I’m very grateful to Darrel Ray of Recovering from Religion for his endorsement of The Holy Family, which he shared on the Recovering from Religion Facebook page:

Here is a book I would recommend to all RR members. It is the first freethinker novel I have seen that seems to capture the essence of what we are and value in life. This book will make you laugh and cry. I was totally surprised by its emotional impact on me. If you are looking for some good reading this season, take a look at this. It is a good candidate for a book club or discussion group. It is by Alan Michael Wilt, Please order through the RR website, so we get a little.

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Chet Raymo on ‘The Holy Family’

In an interesting bit of juxtaposition, science writer Chet Raymo writes about a recent book that “proves” heaven’s existence, then contrasts it with my belief/unbelief-themed novel, The Holy Family. Here’s the post, or click to read it at Raymo’s Science Musings blog.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

There have been so many books lately proffering “proof of heaven” one could almost call it a fad. Seems like everyone and his brother has had a near death experience that gave them a short sojourn in paradise. And a book contract.

Am I being cynical? I suppose so. I do wonder though why no one ever has a near death experience of the other place. A book called Hell Is For Real. Who’s going to buy that?

The latest contender is different. Dr. Eben Alexander came to the heavenly feast with credentials as a neurosurgeon. His book, Proof of Heaven, describes (say reviews) his out-of-body experiences during a period when his neo-cortex was apparently shut down during a life-threatening medical emergency. He was met on the other side by a beautiful blue-eyed woman who took him for a ride on butterflies. He saw a shining orb he understood to be a loving God.

I don’t doubt Dr. Alexander’s sincerity, but I would take issue with what seems to be his central “proof,” according to the press: There is no way science can explain his experience.

There are lots of things that science can’t (yet) explain, but that doesn’t mean Dr. Alexander’s soul went to heaven. Science can’t explain much about the brain, not least what happens in crisis mode. I would let Ockham’s Razor attribute the beautiful blue-eyed woman and butterflies to Dr. Alexander’s brain before I’d invoke the journey of an immaterial soul to an afterlife and back — and on to the best-seller list, a Newsweek cover, and an Oprah special.

And while I’m on the subject, let me mention a novel I just read by my friend Michael Wilt, The Holy Family. The protagonist of Wilt’s story doesn’t experience proof of heaven. Rather, he makes a journey in the opposite direction, from devout Catholic to cautious atheist. It’s a gentle journey, without rancor or rebuke. At the heart of the story is a tragedy that might send a less courageous person running for the comfort of Dr. Alexander’s book, but Wilt’s protagonist and his spouse find consolation for their loss in the miracle of life itself.

I could wish for Michael bestsellerdom and an Oprah special, but I have the feeling that his novel is too full of doubt and searching and pain and tenderness — all of the things that define the human adventure in the absence of True Belief. No ultimate answers, no “proof” of everlasting life, only the ties of human love that in this best of all available worlds bind us to one another.

(Raymo’s work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.)

 

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Thanksgiving Day (from The Holy Family)

My novel The Holy Family opens on a Thanksgiving morning in Manhattan: “A hint of early morning light peeks through the long thin opening between the window shade and the sill…”

Novelist Larry Baker, author of The Flamingo Rising and other novels, says, “From the first page I knew I had stumbled into a jewel of a book…this novel deserves a wide audience.”

Get your copy today. Here’s an extract to get you started.

1   Thanksgiving Day

A hint of early morning light peeks through the long thin opening between the window shade and the sill as I roll to the right and slightly open my eyes. Not bright enough to wake me fully, it still whets my curiosity about the day I am about to face. I slip out of bed softly so as not to wake Justine. It’s just past six o’clock, and though she used to be the earlier riser, these last few months she has been sleeping later, especially when it is not a work day. I close the bedroom door behind me and go downstairs to the living room.

The south-facing window seems to await the sunrise, when the early light will leap the treetops of Central Park, run down our street, and angle through the glass and sheer curtains. I hope that the air will be cool and crisp today, and that later, when we drive our Camry across the Hudson River to New Jersey, the air in my hometown, Manasawga, will smell good, even taste good, and when I breathe it deep into my lungs it will invigorate and renew me.

It has had that effect in the past, especially on days that I have felt worn down by work, or by Manhattan, or by life.

I go into the kitchen and drink a small glass of orange juice, then return to the bedroom and slip back into the bed, careful not to jostle and wake Justine. She is sleeping on her left side, I am on my back, and I allow my left thigh to brush up gently against her. She has not been much for touching lately, but this slight sensation sends ripples through me just as it has for twenty-five years. As I begin to doze again Justine turns, then turns some more, and I feel her breath on my neck, then her lips, then I am wide awake as she kisses me and swings her leg over to straddle me.

“Marty,” she says, “oh honey it’s been such a time” and we make love, a gentle, rocking lovemaking as if we are floating in water, and then just remain in a wordless embrace until we fall asleep again. It is eight o’clock when we wake to the smell of coffee brewing downstairs in the kitchen, the automatic coffeepot unfailing in its only task.

 

A little later I am eating a light breakfast and sipping coffee in the kitchen and Justine comes in and pours a cup. “I think just coffee for me,” she says, whether to me, or to the coffee, or to the kitchen sink, I am not sure. She sips a little off the top and then walks out of the kitchen.

I finish my cereal and then pick up my mug to go into the living room and join her. She has not gone to the living room, but is standing at the top of the stairs, outside the closed door of the bedroom our daughters shared from the ages of eight and ten until they went off to college—Janet first, to Rochester and later to Minnesota to pursue a doctorate in geophysics, and Celia to Vassar a couple of years later with her paints and brushes.

I take a breath, thinking I am going to say something, but instead I continue into the living room. I stare out the window again toward Central Park and it occurs to me, not for the first time, that this is our first holiday with neither of our girls home with us.

I told my parents we would get out to Manasawga as early as we could to help prepare Thanksgiving dinner. They are in their mid-seventies now, Mom and Dad, and still like to put out the spread. I made two pies, pumpkin and apple, yesterday, and we stow them in paper bags behind the driver’s seat of the old Toyota. Justine typically likes to drive, but she ignores the keys when I hold them out and gets into the passenger side.

Traffic is light going down Ninth Avenue and into the Lincoln Tunnel. We quickly cross the Hudson River, the tile walls a blur as I maintain a steady seven miles an hour over the speed limit. Traffic is sporadic on Routes 3 and 46, and on Route 80 I just stay in the center lane and cruise. Justine stares out the passenger window. There is not a cloud in the sky but she stares intently at something up there. As we approach the exit that will take us into Manasawga she shifts her weight and leans, placing her hand on my right thigh and then her head on my shoulder. It is awkward to drive this way, but as a single tear drops from her eye and rolls down the sleeve of my jacket I hold steady and make the final turns with one hand on the wheel, the other holding Justine’s.

It is almost noon and the aroma of turkey greets us as we open the door and walk in. After hugs and hellos we hang up coats and unpack pies and look for ways to help in the kitchen. My mother tells us that my brother Dan, divorced, and his sixteen-year-old son will be here, and my sister Marie and her husband and the youngest of her boys. My sister Jeanette is having dinner at her mother-in-law’s, but her oldest son Tom is having dinner here. “He’s got a new girlfriend he wants us to meet,” my mother explains. “Then they’re going to granny-number-two’s house for dessert, I guess.” Tom lives in Philadelphia where he works as an accountant, and this is his first trip home with his new girl. He met her just after the last time we saw him, in late August.

Dinner is just about ready when Tom and his girlfriend walk through the door. He puts on a big show of introductions. Her name is Rachel and she is a knockout—too hot for an accountant is my first thought, but I bury that quickly and shake her hand when Tom gets around to saying “My Uncle Marty Halsey and my Aunt Justine.” Rachel may be overcompensating, or just nervous, but she speaks a tad louder than she needs to—I want to say to her, Use your Inside Voice, but I don’t—and saying again and again what a delight it is to meet everyone and how blessed she feels to be with us for Thanksgiving dinner.

The minor tsunami of Tom and Rachel’s entrance subsides as quickly as it had swept in, and there is a moment of awkward silence before my mother directs everyone to the take a place at the table. I save a seat for Justine to my right while she helps bring dishes of steaming food to the table. “I’ll get that, Ruth,” Justine says, hefting the large platter of carved turkey before my mother can get to it. When we’re all seated, Tom and Rachel are directly across from Justine and me and I can see that my mother is about to tell my father to start passing the turkey, but Rachel speaks first.

“I’m just so thankful to be here,” she says, “I’m just so grateful to the Lord for bringing me to this table of fellowship with all of you. Maybe we could all—you know, share a moment to say what we’re thankful for this year?”

I can see my mother’s demeanor stiffen—we’re not grace-sayers, or thanks-expounders, and are especially not interested in faith that is worn on the sleeve. And Mom wants the food to be served while it’s hot, which is just plain common sense. There’s another awkward silence, and when I take a breath to speak Justine pinches my knee and gives me her “uh-uh, don’t go there” look, but I go anyway.

“I’m terribly thankful that we can eat and talk about thanks at the same time, so let’s get this food moving around the table while it’s hot. Get that turkey going, Dad!” Everyone starts talking and reaching at once. Rachel seems a little crestfallen, but Mom is clearly relieved and smiles as she scoops some pearl onions onto her plate. Tom senses Rachel’s discomfort and says, as he serves food onto both his and her plates, “Well, I’m thankful that Thanksgiving doesn’t happen during tax season, so I can be here with my family.” Marie raises her glass of pinot noir and says “To family,” and we all respond in kind with the glasses of whatever we are drinking.

 

Dinner continues with small talk, bad jokes, and gentle ribbing among the siblings and relations around the table. Rachel, the odd-girl-out, tries to keep up, her blue eyes flashing from person to person as she tries to follow the family dynamics and inside jokes. She occasionally looks at Tom in hopes of an explanation, but the look on his face says, Later, I’ll explain that later. Every now and again she chimes in with a “Thank the Lord for that” or “That’s such a blessing from the Lord.” When my sister tells us that a drunk driver sideswiped her parked car on the street in front of her house, Rachel exclaims, “Thank the Lord there was no one in the car!” Hearing that the drunk was caught and arrested, she gives us a big “Praise Jesus!” Marie, through gritted teeth, asks whether Jesus has anything to do with the goddamn insurance agents who have been making her life a living hell ever since the accident. Rachel is taken aback and after a moment excuses herself and asks for directions to the bathroom.

When she is out of earshot, Tom says, “I’m trying to break her of that, guys. It’s how she was raised. She’s not really like that—fundamentalist. Not like you’re thinking, anyway.”

I give him a look and say, “So she’s okay with sex before marriage, you mean?”

I can see I’ve embarrassed him, and I’m not sorry. He glances over at his grandparents, who are both chuckling, and says, “Hey, she’s not even against gay marriage.” Marie just rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, praise the Lord. Whatever.”

Justine has been quiet throughout dinner, making only brief remarks here and there. No one mentions Janet or Celia, or asks how things are going for us in Justine’s graphic design business and my talent agency. As dinner ends we take a break before dessert, breaking into smaller groupings having separate conversations. I hear bits and pieces. Rachel has come down from the bathroom and stands beside Tom, a strained smile on her face. She participates less, and when she does her voice is softer than before. She and Marie avoid eye contact and move as if they have the same magnetic charge. I ask Justine to come outside to the front yard with me for some fresh air, and she takes my hand as we go down the front steps. I lean against one of the cars in the driveway and she leans against me, her back to my front, and I wrap my arms around her and kiss her on the temple.

“Warm enough?” I ask.

“As long as you hold me like this.”

“I’m holding.”

She says, “Well, thank the Lord for that,” a perfect replication of the timbre of Rachel’s voice, and we both burst out laughing. The familiar scent of her becomes suddenly strong and sweet, as if laughing has released some essence of her that had been held back. She turns and faces me, kisses me full on the lips and then burrows into my shoulder.

“That felt good. Laughing,” she says.

“You smell so good,” I say.

We stay like that until we hear the front door open. Tom and Rachel are leaving to go to his other grandmother’s house. Tom approaches with his hand extended and gives me a firm handshake that turns into a hug, then goes straight for the hug with Justine.

“It’s good to see you, Uncle Marty. Aunt Justine. Nice and cool out here.”

“Glad you could come for dinner,” I say. “I hope the job is going well.” Tom nods as Rachel reaches out to shake our hands.

Taking one of our hands in each of hers, Rachel looks from me to Justine and says, “I didn’t know. Till just now. I—I’m so sorry for your loss.” Justine offers a sympathetic smile, knowing how hard it is for people sometimes to say these things, but her eyes darken when Rachel looks straight into them and says, “God is with you. He really is. Have faith. And he has his reasons—”

But before Rachel can finish her thought Justine turns roughly away and starts walking toward the backyard, pulling me by the hand as she goes. I follow her without a second thought or a look back, gathering her against me as she steers us along the brick path that goes around the house. Our moment of laughter is long gone, replaced by Justine’s retreat into a much darker place where tears fall from her eyes and her lips tremble and she is here but not here, with me but not with me, and I feel utterly lost.

 

[Excerpted from The Holy Family by Alan Michael Wilt]

Copyright © 2012 by Alan Michael Wilt. All Rights Reserved.

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Spanking Good

One element of my novel The Holy Family, which explores the nature of religious belief and unbelief, is a controversial painting of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. In the novel, the painting is the work of the narrator’s daughter, a college student, and it causes a stir on the internet and cable news networks.

I am always interested to hear of outrage over works of art that take “liberties” with religious beliefs and ruffle the feathers of the faithful. Even in the days when I self-identified as Catholic I found these emotional responses to be generally over the top and forgetful of the fact that free speech and expression are part and parcel of a free society with many belief systems, including unbelief. Critique, satire, parody, all have a place in the public conversation.

One controversial painting that tickles me is Max Ernst’s Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926), which is in the collection of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. On one level it is simply a funny and strange painting. The perspective is odd, as is the shape of the room, and the naked Christ child is splayed across his mother’s lap, butt cheeks red and his dislodged halo bouncing on the floor. Mary’s right arm is cocked like a that of a quarterback getting ready to throw a long pass, her resolute eyes focused like lasers on the target. The composition—Christ in the lap of his mother—calls to mind the traditional pieta, and the spanking itself may be a reminder of Jesus being scourged by the soldiers on the way to Calvary. The three witnesses, an odd trio of heads at a peculiarly placed window, look on with a detachment that could be interpreted as scorn, approval, or disinterest.

On another level, though, the painting raises serious questions for believing Christians because Jesus, as the Son of God, is God. So: Can God be spanked? Can the child Jesus have done anything that would cause him to deserve punishment? Did Mary really have the authority to chastise God? Does Mary’s intact halo imply that she remains holy despite her action? Does the loss of Jesus’ halo imply that his holiness is diminished? Can God’s holiness ever be diminished?

Questions like these have long preoccupied viewers of the painting. Max Ernst’s father denounced the painting, and the archbishop of Cologne shut down the exhibition at which it first appeared. Surely they did not like the answers to these questions inferred from the painting. John Updike wrote in The New York Review of Books that “this scene cannot be enrolled in Christian iconography—it has no Gospel authority.” Poet Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “The Virgin Punishing the Infant,” written as a response to Ernst’s painting, concludes with the witnesses in the window asking, “But afterwards, we wondered / why the infant did not cry, why the Mother did,” apparently putting the onus of the action on the human Mary and exonerating the “fully human, fully God” child.

I’ve never been one for corporal punishment, but I find it hard to fathom that believing Christians could go through life without ever wanting to give their God a smack upside the head. For many possible reasons: for “allowing” the death of a child or a heinous crime or a tsunami, or for his biblical approval of various genocides, or for endorsing a book that includes the line, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” That the painting should be considered irreverent is to be expected—that’s a knee-jerk reaction to just about anything traditionalists find the least bit out of the ordinary. Calling it blasphemy, however, as some have done, goes too far.

Updike’s assertion that the image lacks Gospel authority allows for a frame of reference about the size of a postage stamp on a canvas that extends, let’s say, to the size of the Sistine ceiling. Responding in the New York Review of Books to Updike in 2005, art historian Leo Steinberg pointed out a long tradition—in folk tales and songs—presenting Jesus as “a conceited, and frequently even malicious child who uses his miraculous powers for the satisfaction of his whims.” According to a folklorist who provided Steinberg with source material, one such song, dating from the fourteenth century, gives us a Jesus who “curses the tree for providing the switch with which Mary beats him for murdering three young boys. They had refused to play ball with him.”

So, folklore, scripture, dogma, artistic license, tweaking the sensibilities of the faithful: Virgin Spanking the Christ Child, which caused this then-Catholic to guffaw the first time I saw it, continues to delight me even as an atheist. Not because it somehow “mocks” the beliefs of Christians, but because it humanizes—nearly as thoroughly as only death itself can humanize—an icon that has grown so much out of character and proportion with humanity that it can no longer enlighten us.

 

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AUTOBIOGRAPHY: SELECTIONS FROM LETTERS RECEIVED

Oh, the things you find when you’re cleaning out the basement. I found this, typed up on my old IBM Selectric typewriter, circa 1986 I’d say, back in the day when people still wrote letters, folded them neatly into envelopes, addressed them neatly, affixed stamps, and left them for the mail carrier to start the journey from wherever to wherever.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: SELECTIONS FROM LETTERS RECEIVED

1.    Sorry for not writing, but there’s not a hell of a lot happening.

2.    Howdy–sorry my reply has been delayed, no excuse I realize.

3.    I’m certain you wondered what the delay was & why I hadn’t written.

4.    Sorry its taken me a while to write, I’ve been incredibly busy.

5.    Sorry to be late with this, but you probably weren’t expecting a response anyway.

6.    BEFORE YOU BLOW YOUR TOP AT ME FOR NOT WRITING YOU BACK, PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT I AM A LOWLY COLLEGE STUDENT STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN A JUNGLE OF TERM PAPERS AND MIDTERMS ONLY TO HAVE LIFE FURTHER COMPLICATED BY HAVING TO ANSWER LETTERS.

7.    If I can fill more than a page it’ll be a miracle.

8.    Are you obsessed, crazed, feared, compulsed or otherwise nuts?

9.    (In other words, I’m finally capable of holding a pen again)

10.  I miss you, you screwball!

11.  My nights are filled with TV and food.

12.  This place is like a prison.

13.  I’M TURNING INTO A SLOB.

14.  I’m constantly stunned.

15.  My lunch is on my shirt.

16.  Well, for once I feel really motivated.

17.  everytime she hits me (she has a funny way of expressing her feelings) I get an erection.

18.  Just being my nasty self.

19.  Lack of effort was never one of my problems.

20.  These days I can’t find the energy to get out of this situation and its looking worse every day.

21.  I’m still riding the wave—and “praying” that some resolution will occur.

22.  I’ve never seen a more beautiful body and I’ve seen a lot of naked women.

23.  Feeling a real need to reestablish priorities and head down a simpler, more “eternally-rewarding” path.

24.  America is beautiful. Give or take a few states.

25.  It’s a grey evening outside and the trees and buildings are shrouded in a dim mist.

26.  I drank vodka, beer, punch, and Almaden. I got dragged & carried home by two close friends.

27.  The technology rips across the sky–AWAC planes, loud and fast–or the long, quiet nuclear subs that glide by far out towards the horizon.

28.  There’s a bug flying around my pen, competing for attention–It’s so tiny–and yet so demanding–time passes–the train arrives & I must journey onward.

29.  The truck stops are real fun and the bottomless cup of coffee is still going strong. I thought I died and went to cafeine heaven.

30.  A birthday gift is on the way–The post was closed when I dropped this off, so I’ll have to wait until Monday to get this gift to you–

31.  I find that I am loving to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events, every-day happenings–and so moments with friends, the work I choose to do, the activities I engage in–all seem to inspire me–and each moment that surrounds me is my ‘far away heaven’–here–in the present moment.

32.  I’ll relieve your mind, you’re not the father, okay?

33.  ARE YOU MARRIED YET? ME NEITHER. OH WELL.

34.  So when are you getting married.

35.  By the way, I amputated most of my hair.

36.  Back to mundane reality for awhile. I got a PHONE today! Actually, I’m very excited about it. I feel almost human.

37.  Dan keeps playing around with the heat and we alternately freeze and cook.

38.  (My thoughts tend to skip around faster than my ability to make paragraphs).

39.  I trust you used your “vacation” wisely and managed to stop down for a visit to your “sweetie” and solidify a loving & growing relationship.

40.  There’s nothing I could do to get fired. You’re proof of that. After all I am an institution.

41.  We honestly can’t stand each other.

42.  I told Stuart about your smashing success and his eyebrows stayed in the air for quite some time.

43.  From Poland? Is she serene and tortured like Sophie in Sophie’s Choice?

44.  But seriously, I think it’s very noble of you, stupid but noble.

45.  Has it warmed up yet on the East coast?

46.  Well I’m going off to my lonely bed now

47.  Love,

48.  See you someday

49.  Enjoy, Namaste,

50.  So much love,

51.  Take it easy,

52.  With love & thanks—

53.  All my love,

54.  Peace, love, and Woodstock,

55.  So much loving for you—

56.  Bye,

57.  See you soon,

58.  Much love—

 

[Cross-posted from Tucker Seven]

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Filed under Found Poetry, Writing