Are You There, God?
A speech delivered by Katherine Paterson at the Cambridge Forum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 18, 2004.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I was speaking in a small town which I will not name except to say it was a long way from Cambridge. In the audience was a professor of children’s literature from a nearby university. The professor spoke to me after the talk and in the course of the conversation asked me if I knew that my latest book at the time, The Great Gilly Hopkins, was on the restricted shelf in her local public library. Any child who wanted to check out the book needed to bring in written permission from home.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” she said. “And if it’s any comfort, sometimes our town can be a funny place. Just a few weeks ago I realized that I needed a copy of Judy Blume’s new book, Forever, to use in my Adolescent Literature Class. I went to the local bookstore and looked at the shelves of adolescent fiction. It wasn’t there. With some trepidation, I searched the children’s shelves, but it wasn’t there either. I started out of the shop, only to be stopped by the clerk. ‘May I help you?’ she asked. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I was looking for a copy of Forever by Judy Blume, but you don’t seem to have it.’ ‘Oh, yes, we do,’ she said and took me to the religion shelf, and there it was, sitting right next to Judy Blume’s other book on religion, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I must say I had fun imagining the mother who didn’t want her child exposed to Gilly Hopkins taking her to the local bookstore to purchase an inspirational book about eternal things, entitled, Forever.
The irony for me is that I see The Great Gilly Hopkins as perhaps the most explicitly Christian of all my novels.
I was at a conference and was being led to the platform for my talk when I was stopped in the aisle by a young woman.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “I’m writing a dissertation at the University of Chicago on Southern settings in children’s literature and I have to know: Who is Maime Trotter?”
The woman leading me to the platform was not pleased by the interruption and took my arm to get me away from the young woman, so I called out to her “Goooood.” I couldn’t tell from the look on her face if they believed in God at the University of Chicago, but I was sure they didn’t think she spoke with a Southern accent.
To tell the truth, however, I didn’t realize how close kin Gilly Hopkins was to The Parable of the Prodigal son until I had finished it. And from the number of times it has been challenged by my fellow Christians, its Christian theme of redemption seems to be a well-kept secret. In fact, I am often congratulated that my books aren’t the obvious product of a Christian writer.
So what does it mean both to me and my reader not only that I was born into a Christian missionary family, but that I’ve consciously and deliberately chosen to live out my life as a person of faith? How does that shape what I write?
First of all, I don’t think I’m all that different from most writers for the young that I know. All of us, who are serious about what we do, write out of our own deepest selves. We don’t poke in religious convictions or humanistic philosophy or moral messages into a story to be pulled out by the reader like plums from Jack Horner’s Christmas pie. Because our stories come from deep inside, our books will reveal, willy, nilly, who we really are. As C. S. Lewis once said: “The book cannot be what the writer is not.”
Now it is your privilege as reader to decide who you think I am, but tonight I will try to say who I think I am, and I see myself as a person who believes God is there, and that the Creator of all things is, as the Bible declares, the God of justice and steadfast love. And yes, I do believe in moral values which is one reason I have rejoiced at the commitment services and marriages of gay friends and, yes, I am wholeheartedly for life. The German poet and novelist, Hermann Hesse, musing on the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” has said: “We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering and shame. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hard-heartedness, all indifference, all contempt is nothing else than killing. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere, the future is flowering everywhere, but we only see a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet.”
I pray that I will not be one of those who steps on life– any person’s life. I want my morality to be defined not in negatives, but in positives. I want to be, in the words of the Anglican priest, Martin Smith, a co-creator with God.
What, exactly does that mean for my life as a writer for the young? In the Genesis story, as Smith reminds us, God creates by speech. And it is by language that we humans, created in God’s image, make meaning. “We give voice to the images and metaphors,” Smith says, “and the chaos that surrounds us gives way to narrative, to a story.”
Perhaps few modern poets do this better than Mary Oliver. One Sunday in early Lent, our co-pastor brought one of Oliver’s poems to share with our adult class. The poem is entitled: “White owl flies into and out of the field.”
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings–
five feet apart– and the grabbing
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow–
And then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes,
to lurk there,
like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows–
so I thought:
isn’t darkness after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us–
as soft as feathers–
that we are instantly weary
of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,
not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river
that is without the least dapple of shadow–
that is nothing but light– scalding aortal light–
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
[From House of Light, Copyright 1990. Beacon Press, Boston]
Having read this poem, I don’t think I can think of death in the same way ever again. “What a wonderful, wonderful image!” I said to Carl. “Yes,” he said, “that was what I thought, but Gina (his wife and our co-pastor) said, ‘That’s all very well unless you’re that little mouse running across the field.”
But isn’t that exactly the point? We are that mouse. We human beings scrabble through life, unseeing, unhearing, and suddenly the owl is swooping down upon us. That, friends, is not the time to say to the mouse, “Never mind, sweetie. It’s all part of a grand and beautiful design.” It is probably not the moment for a sermon at all. In the midst of suffering, in the face of death, we are not often supported by argument or consoled by discourse, but we may, indeed, we often are, comforted by art. I know on September 11th, a day of fear and terror, I finally had sense enough to turn off the T.V. and put on the C.D. of Brahms’ German Requiem.
But I’m guessing most of us gathered here tonight don’t rate ourselves as a Mary Oliver, much less a Johannes Brahms. I’m a writer for children. What is my role as maker of meaning in a world gone mad?
It was a week after September 11th. We were finally having to give up the last faint hope that Peter, our son John’s brother-in-law and close friend would be found unconscious in a hospital or wandering senseless in a distant locale. I looked at my calendar and was distressed to see that I was slated to speak to Middle School students in Hinesburg, Vermont the next day. What was I going to say to 12 and 13 year olds in the midst of this grief and terror, that had not only our extended family, but our whole nation, in its death grip? Finally, I decided to start by reading them a passage from Bridge to Terabithia, which I had written out of another time of family grief and tumult.
That night as he started to get into bed, leaving the light off so as not to wake the little girls, he was surprised by May Belle’s shrill little “Jess.”
“How come you still awake?”
“Jess. I know where you and Leslie go to hide.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I followed ya.”
He was at her bedside in one leap. “You ain’t supposed to follow me!”
“How come?” Her voice was sassy.
He grabbed her shoulders and made her look him in the face. She blinked in the dim light like a startled chicken.
“You listen here, May Belle Aarons,” he whispered fiercely. “I catch you following me again, your life ain’t worth nothing.”
“OK, OK.”– she slid back into bed— “Boy, you’re mean. I oughta tell Momma on you.”
“Look, May Belle, you can’t do that. You can’t tell Momma ‘bout where me and Leslie go.”
She answered with a little sniffling sound.
He grabbed her shoulders again. He was desperate. “I mean it, May Belle, you can’t do that. You can’t tell nobody nothing!” He let her go. “Now, I don’t want to hear about you following me or squealing to Momma ever again, you hear?”
“‘Cause if you do— I’m gonna tell Billy Jean Edwards you still wet the bed sometimes.”
“Boy, girl, you just better not try me.”
He made her swear on the Bible never to tell and never to follow, but still he lay awake a long time. How could he trust everything that mattered to him to a sassy six-year-old? Sometimes it seemed to him that his life was delicate as a dandelion. One little puff from any direction, and it was blown to bits.
“I don’t know about you,” I told those children, “but I’m feeling a lot like a dandelion today.” I could see them visibly relax. Here was an adult willing to tell the truth. We can’t make meaning for anyone, much less for the young, unless we are first willing to tell the truth.
Otherwise we are like Pangloss, Candide’s false mentor, who in the face of earthquake, inquisition, war and pestilence merrily insists that all is well, all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds. One look at the morning newspaper and a glib and foolish optimism will strike us as obscene. The world our children live in, the one we cannot protect them from, is a world where evil and suffering and injustice are rampant. It is useless to pretend to children that all is well in our world. But cynicism is the easy way out for writers confronted with the world as it us. And there are writers for the young as well as the old who choose this route. But we who are people of faith must seek against all odds to wring meaning out of what it would be easier and, in the world’s eyes, more realistic, to dismiss as meaningless.
Freud says we are infantile to seek for meaning in life, perhaps even neurotic, to try. But it’s not Freud we are arguing with. If the God of the Bible does not exist, there is no contest. It is precisely because we have faith, because we believe in a God of justice and steadfast love, that we find ourselves in a painful, sweating wrestling match in which the adversary is God.
I have told this story many times, so I’m sure there are a number of you who have already heard it, it is the story I went on to tell that morning in Hinesburg. I feel the need to tell it again in the context of this talk, because I think it says what we, as writers, often do, often must do, and that is use art to somehow make sense for ourselves something that makes no sense otherwise–it is our way of demanding a blessing from the Divine Adversary with whom we are, in times of crisis, locked in mortal combat.
The story begins a little more than thirty years ago. The small school that our children attend is closed and all the students are moved to a much larger elementary school across town. David, our second grader is miserable. In the little school he was both the class artist and the class clown. In his new school he is simply weird. Every day he comes home and declares that he is “never, never going back to school and you can’t make me.” And I, his mother, who had been in fifteen different schools by the time I was 18 and had been initially despised at nearly every one, am over-identifying with my seven year old, probably exacerbating his misery, but, nevertheless getting him up every morning and grimly pushing him out the front door, fearing that his unhappiness will never end.
Then one afternoon, our bright funny little boy that I was sure was gone forever walks into the house. “Me and Lisa Hill are making a diorama of Little House in the Big Woods,” he announces cheerily. I had never heard the name before, but from then on I am to hear hardly any other name. “Now I’d like to promise you girls,” I say when I’m talking to children, “that I was thrilled that my son’s best friend was a girl. But unfortunately, all I could think was ‘They thought he was weird before. If his best friend is a girl, he’ll never fit in.’”
But then I meet Lisa, and my worries evaporate. Anyone would be fortunate to have her for their best friend. She is bright, imaginative and funny. She laughs at his jokes and he at hers. She is the only girl daring enough to invade the second grade boys’ T-ball team. She and David play together after school in the woods below her house and talk to each other in the evenings on the phone.
“It’s your girlfriend David,” his older brother says.
But David takes the phone unperturbed. Girl friends are people who chase you down on the playground to grab you and kiss you. Lisa is no more a ‘girl friend’ than Rose Kennedy is a Playboy Bunny.
On an August morning, the phone rings. It is a call from the Hill’s next door neighbor. “I thought you ought to know,” Mrs. Robinson says, “that Lisa was killed this morning.” While the family was on vacation at Bethany Beach, on a day when the lifeguards sensed no danger from thunder far off in the distance, a joyful little girl, dancing on a rock above the beach, was felled by a bolt of lightning from the sky.
How am I to make sense of that to my eight-year-old son? I can’t make any sense of it for myself. David tries. One night after his prayers, he tells me that he has figured out why Lisa died.
“It’s not because Lisa was bad,” he says . “Lisa wasn’t bad. It’s because I’m bad. And now God is going to kill Mary, [his little sister] and you and Daddy and Lin and John . . . .” going down the list of his family and loved ones, all of whom God will kill in punishment for his real and imagined sins.
This is not the God I know–not the God we thought we had taught our children about, but this was one child’s painful struggle to find meaning. Which is why, finally, I began to write a story. I was trying to make sense of a tragedy that didn’t make sense. As a writer, I know that a story needs to make sense. It has to have a beginning, a middle and ending, and when you come to the ending, you look back and even if it is unexplainable intellectually, emotionally, you know you have made the journey from chaos to order, from senselessness to meaning. Often you find yourself at a total loss when someone asks you what your book is about. You can’t put it into a neat verbal summary, because if you, the writer, have done your job, the whole story is the meaning.
I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe to toe with philosophers or theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil either natural or moral, but we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image, in simple narrative, there are, in the words of Barry Lopez, both “healing and illumination.”
We write stories, not because we have answers, but because we have questions. The writing of the story is the wrestling with the angel. Rabbi Heschal has said: “Art is boring unless we are surprised by it.” And a wrestling match is fixed, it is a cheat, if you know in advance how it is going to turn out. The writer may have some notion of the ending of the plot, but she is seeking for much more than plot. We write to struggle for sense, for a meaning, which we do not already know, and the first reader who is, of course, the writer herself, will inevitably be surprised by the blessing wrested from the angel.
I’ve heard more than once the dictim that the difference between a book for children and one for adults, is that a book for children must end in hope. But hope is not something to be tacked on like the tail on the donkey at a birthday party. Hope like faith and love must come from the depths of the writer or it is little more than wishful thinking.
In a baccalaurate address at Stanford University this year, the activist theologian, Jim Wallis, said to the graduates:
“When I was growing up, it was continually repeated in my evangelical Christian world that the greatest battle and biggest choice of our time was between belief and secularism. But I now believe that the real battle, the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope. The choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice, and one that has enormous political consequences.”
Among my pantheon of heroes are those teachers who going every day into impossible situations, daily make the choice for hope.
Between sessions at a middle school in a southern city, one of those heroes came up to me with a reluctant student in tow. The boy who was taller than either I or the teacher walked with a slump. “Ask Mrs. Paterson your question, Reginald,” the teacher urged.
Reginald wouldn’t look me in the eye, but he did manage to mumble out his question. “I want to know how come you wrote Gilly Hopkins.”
Those of you who know me well will be relieved to know that I did not take the time to tell him the story in full detail. He might well have grown a beard waiting. But I did tell him that I wrote it because my husband and I had been asked to serve as temporary foster parents and, although I thought I was at least an average mother of our own four children, I felt I had flunked out as a foster mother. When I asked myself why, I heard myself saying things like: “Well, I can’t deal with that problem, they’ll only be here for a few weeks” or “Thank goodness, they’ll only be here for a few weeks.” And what I was saying, what I was doing, was treating two human beings as though they were disposable. People aren’t disposable.”
Reginald gave me a quick look, as though to check out whether or not I was on the level.
I continued. “That’s why crimes are committed– that’s why wars are fought– because somebody thinks somebody else is disposable. And we know, don’t we, Reginald, that no one on this earth is disposable.” I knew he was listening now. “So,” I said, “I wrote the book to figure out what I would be like if I felt other people thought I was disposable. And I thought I might be very angry.”
Reginald gave a hint of a nod in my direction.
“See, Reginald,” the teacher said gently. “That’s what I was trying to explain to you the other day. You can use writing to deal with your feelings. To figure out things for yourself.”
“That’s what writers are always doing,” I said.
“Reginald has a lot of really tough problems to face,” his teacher said. “We’ve been talking about how he can do that. I told him I thought writing about it might help.”
“That’s what I do,” I said.
And the amazing thing I have learned, time after time, is this: when I am willing to give the deepest part of myself whether admirable or not, when I am willing to share my own struggle, my own wrestling, readers are able to respond to what I have written from their own deepest core.
It was about sixteen years ago that I was asked to speak to a book club that was discussing a book of mine. This reading group was comprised of prisoners incarcerated in the Chittendon Correctional Center in Burlington, Vermont. Twenty-four inmates had read The Great Gilly Hopkins and wanted an opportunity to talk with the author about it.
One of the young men said that when he was a teenager he had been briefly in a foster home with a foster mother who was really kind to him. She had wanted him to read the book at that time, but, he short of shrugged, “I was a kid that didn’t want anybody telling me what to do. I guess that’s why I ended up in here. Now that I’ve read the book,” he added, “I know what she was trying to say to me.”
“Just out of curiosity,” the instructor asked, “how many of you were ever in foster care?”
Every single prisoner raised a hand.
As part of the program, each participant was given a paperback copy of the book, so at the end of the session, the inmates lined up to have their books autographed.
“What’s your name?” I asked a young man handing me his book.
“It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s for my daughter. Her name is Angel.”
It had been an emotional afternoon, but that one sentence was the one that haunted me for years. Finally I began to write my fourteenth novel about a child whose father is in prison.
But one idea, as I often tell students who ask about ideas, doth not a novel make. If you try to write a book based on a single idea, you are not likely to get beyond the third chapter. It takes more than one strand, sometimes many, to weave the fabric of a story.
At least a dozen years after that day in the prison, I was in California and a friend gave me a copy of a small magazine which her husband was editing. On the back of the magazine was a dramatic photo of Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A and under the picture this quotation:
“When the Chandra telescope took its first image in August of this year, it caught not just another star in the heavens, but a foundry distributing its wares to the rest of the galaxy.
“Silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, and iron were among the elements identified from Chandra’s X-ray image. ‘These are the materials we are made of,’ said the project scientist.”
The thrill that every writer recognizes went through my body. I knew I had a idea for a book in that quotation. Eventually, I recognized it as the missing strand I had needed to write Angel’s story. What would it mean to a child that the world has discarded as waste material to learn that she is made of the same stuff as the stars?
One of my great frustrations as a writer of stories for children is the adults who are afraid to entrust meaning making to the young. This results in book banning and challenging, but even those of us who love a book want to make sure our children caught on to the message the book had for us. We can hardly resist the temptation to explain the meaning of the story. But I beg you, resist. The story belongs ultimately, not to the writer, not even to you the caring adult, but to the young reader.
In her book, When God Is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of the narrative style of Jesus and points out “how courteous it is, how respectful of the listener. Story and image,” she goes on to say, “both have great pockets of silence in them. They do not come at the ear the same way advice and exhortation do– although they are, I believe, even more persuasive. Perhaps that is because they create a quiet space where one may lay down one’s defenses for a while. A story,” she says, “does not ask for decision. Instead, it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins.”
Despite the genealogies, the laws, the exhortations included, the Bible comes to us chiefly as story–the story of God and humankind. And what for the Christian is the climax of the story? Incarnation. God with us. God identifying with us, and that is where the transformation occurs.
Not long ago I was asked to speak to a group of public school teachers who would be taking their classes to see a production of the play, Bridge to Terabithia. I spent more than an hour telling about how the book came to be written and rewritten and then how Stephanie Tolan and I adapted it into the play their classes would see. There was the usual time of questions, at the end of which a young male teacher thanked me for my time and what I had told them that morning. “But I want to take something special back to my class. Can you give me some word to take back to them?”
I was momentarily silenced. After all I had been talking continuously for nearly and hour and a half, surely he could pick out from that outpouring a word or two to take home to his students. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut long enough to realize what I ought to say—
“I’m very Biblically oriented,” I said, “and so for me the most important thing is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children and young people, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”
That day long ago in the Chittenden prison one of the inmates asked me: “Do you think Gilly would have made it if there had been no Maime Trotter?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t know.”
If you ask me what message a book of mine contains, I’ll get testy, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing I want to say to my readers. What I hope to say to isolated, angry, fearful youth– to all the children who feel that their lives are worthless in the eyes of the world: you are seen, you are not alone, you are not despised, you are unique and of infinite value in the human family. As a writer, I can try to offer children a chance to make sense of their own lives through the words of a story, but I can’t stop there, thinking that my task is done. Nor, I dare say, can you. It is up to each of us not simply to write the words, but to be a word of hope made flesh.