The Cover

I’d like to share with you a little about the story behind the cover design for my book. It may look, at first glance, like a miniature version of the game Twister, but it actually has a deeply symbolic meaning.

For those who haven’t seen the cover, check it out here: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/a-nones-story/9780231173940

When I handed over my finished manuscript to the folks at the press, they sent me what they call an “author questionnaire.” This is the writer’s big opportunity to express all the stuff she wants everyone involved in the book’s production to know. I imagine it is carried from office to office as the book is handed from one person to the next—like medical files for a patient. It’s a sensible way to allow the writer to have a voice about the various aspects of her book’s production while protecting the press’ staff from her progressive stages of blossoming neurosis.

One portion of the questionnaire is about the cover. It asks what colors you like and what sorts of designs you think would be appropriate given the content of your manuscript. It requests that you pick out a handful of covers from the press’ past releases that you find particularly becoming.

I had never thought so hard about book covers. I’m a fairly voracious reader. I’ve worked at bookstores and libraries of and on for years. I have seen thousands of book covers, been fond of hundreds, absolutely adored quite a few. I wanted the cover of my book to be cool and sophisticated, but what made a cover cool and sophisticated?

In thinking about this subject, I realized I preferred designs that were sparse. I liked an image that was simpler as opposed to one that had lots of little details. I scoured the press’ backlog of publications and picked out the ones with covers that spoke to me. I was drawn to contrast and bold colors. I enjoyed something that hinted at what was inside, though not in an obvious way. I liked when a book’s cover was a bit quirky, making me curious about what was inside.

On the form, I wrote down all these thoughts and more.

I worried that incorporating the well-known symbols we associate with each religion—like a cross for Christianity, Star of David for Judaism, etc. –would be too hackneyed, too easy. I wrote that down.

I supplied a bunch of suggestions that I thought might convey the main idea of the book, which was that of an outsider exploring these powerful belief systems. I tried to put myself in the mind frame of a visual artist. Was there a picture of a doorway or some sort of opening? Could there be, like, light emanating from the other side? I wrote a bunch of stuff that probably made the real designer laugh out loud.

But one thing I was fairly insistent about was the image of a circle. Throughout the journey depicted in the book, I had encountered circles as significant symbols. In religion, they imply unity and receptivity. At the same time, “None” in mathematical terms is depicted as a zero—also a kind of circle—meaning the absence of information. So, in this funny way, being a None is to lack something but it’s also to be wide open and receptive—to experiences, to ideas, to what comes next.

I sent back the completed questionnaire with a little prayer that I could accept with gratitude whatever the professionals involved in the process produced. This was one of those instances where I would have to let go—which, fortunately, had been one of the huge lessons I had learned in the actual book. Things happen that don’t match my expectations. At first blush the failure of reality to align with expectations can seem like a huge disappointment. If you give it time and the freedom to do so, the lack of alignment can offer something better than you were capable of imagining.

What came back several months later is the design you see, work by a man named Martin Hinze. Each religion I explore in the book is represented by a color: red for Christianity, blue for Judaism, yellow for Buddhism, and green for Islam. These just happen to be colors associated with each faith, though I had never focused on that fact too much. If you look closely (it’s more apparent with a bigger image), you can see that each circle—even within the same color grouping—is different. The outside is not perfectly drawn and the shading is inconsistent. Though he and I have never communicated directly about it, I interpret this as a graphic representation of the different way each individual expresses their faith. No two people understand or practice in the exact same manner.

Are the circles depicted supposed to be believers, each with their unique take? Or are they actual Nones being filled with the wisdom of faith? I don’t know for sure, but I love that it hints at these ideas—and does so with an element of surprise and graphic boldness. And even if someone looking at it sees nothing more than a miniature Twister board, well, that’s kind of awesome, too. The journey depicted under that front cover had me, at times, about as tangled up and uncomfortable with new ideas and people as a game of Twister.

Thank you, Mr. Hinze!

Only one tiny thing occurred to me a few weeks after seeing the design for the first time. I was thinking about what my own belief system would look like if it were one of the circles on the front. I realized it wouldn’t be just one color, that it would have all those colors, maybe more, in smears and blobs and dots. It would look like one of those circles as rendered by Jackson Pollock. So I emailed the publisher and asked if somewhere—perhaps on the back cover, which hadn’t been designed yet—there could be at least one circle that was a mixture of colors. I was promised a definite ‘maybe.’

I still don’t if my request will be honored, or if the designer has something else in mind. The back cover is being created right now, so we should all know soon.

I’m curious: what are your thoughts about the cover design? What did you see when you saw it for the first time?

The story behind the story

For any book, there is the story depicted between the covers—the “official” story that people will read. Hopefully, this version is somewhat tidy. It has been edited and polished and made as presentable as possible.

But then there is the story of how that story came to be. This one is a big sloppy mess, filled with tears and self-doubt.

Because this same duality applies to any creative endeavor, I wanted to share a little here about the story behind my book, A None’s Story. My hope is that it encourages you to continue on the path of something important that you may be trying to accomplish at this very moment.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered myself a writer. This makes no sense because I didn’t necessarily enjoy the act of writing for its own sake and I almost never wrote anything that wasn’t an assignment. I longed to be the kind of person who crafted short stories for fun or religiously kept a journal, but I wasn’t that sort of person. Sometimes I’d start one or the other thinking I could make myself that person, but the effort would peter out after a few lines. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say—much less how I might say it.

I’d read interviews with writers I admire and they almost always said their brains were bursting with words they had to put on paper ever since they could hold a pencil. I thought if I wasn’t like that then I must not be a real writer. A real writer has a story or an idea or a message that needs to get out of them bad enough that they will do the hard work of committing it to paper.

I wrote for a grade and, later, a paycheck. I would arrange words around other people’s ideas and actions. It was writing, sure, but it was writing as more of a technical act, from which I could keep a safe distance.

Yet, a faint voice kept telling me I was a writer—and it meant the kind whose writing originates from her own heart and mind regardless of whether she has anyone to whom she must hand it upon its completion. At first the gap between what it was telling me and my reality was small enough that I could easily ignore it. But the more years that went by, the vaster that chasm felt. The misalignment went from a nagging discomfort to a much deeper ache, which I tried to soothe with food, television, inebriating substances—anything, everything, but my own writing.

At last I grew so miserable that I decided to talk back to the voice. I said: If I’m supposed to write, tell me what I should write about.

I didn’t think it would have an answer, and then I would have won. But it did. It replied: Religion.

That’s when I understood this voice was a fool.

Religion? Of all the topics in the world, religion was the least I was likely to pursue. I knew nothing about it. I had grown up with no religion. The depth of my ignorance on that particular subject was bottomless. Wasn’t the advice about writing to “write what you know”? Religion was the stupidest answer it could have given me.

You don’t write what you don’t know, dummy.

At first I felt better because I had a new excuse to ignore the voice. Then I felt sad because the voice hadn’t given me a better answer. Then I got depressed because I still had nothing to write about.

Finally, it got bad enough that I once again engaged the voice.

I told it: But I don’t know anything about religion.

I was in bed, wallowing in despair, when a reply came. It said: Then learn, and write about that.

I sat up.

Now this was a new twist. I had been extremely curious about religion for as long as I could remember. Was it possible that somehow my lack of expertise on the subject could work in my favor? Maybe my ignorance didn’t make my voice matter less; perhaps, in a strange way, it made it matter more.

Still, the logistics of such an undertaking were overwhelming and I put it off until the pain of not doing it was greater than the pain of taking one tiny little baby step at a time toward the goal. Even then, the two sides—the one saying I could do this and the other telling me I was an idiot for even trying—duked it out daily.

I was lucky in that the voice saying I could do it, though much quieter, was more persistent. It didn’t win every single day. In fact, it lost more times than I care to recall. Then, for a time, I would feel defeated and ridiculous, eyes swollen from crying, ready to give up.

For five years, the battle raged.

That’s how this book got written.

Please “like” me on FB

Dear friends,

I’ve just set up my author facebook page. If you would do me a favor and “like” it, I would be grateful. It can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/Corinna-Nicolaou-826181777451722/

I will be posting new information both here and there. I’m at the very beginning of figuring out the best way to do this social media stuff, so if you have any ideas or expertise, please let me know.

With gratitude,

Corinna

It’s a book!

Dear friends,

The wait is almost over! The book based on this blog is in the final stages of production at Columbia University Press, and will be officially released April 5, 2016. I couldn’t be more thrilled and terrified!

The press has entitled it “A None’s Story.” Here’s the link to its page on the press’ website:

http://cup.columbia.edu/book/a-nones-story/9780231173940

You can even pre-order for 40 percent off the cover price for the next few days.

Lots more to come.

Thank you so much for being a part of this journey with me. Please tell me what you think.

Much love, Corinna

 

 

The good news

Dearest readers,

I have some exciting news. A version of the journey I’ve been sharing on this blog will be coming out in book form! I’ve just recently signed a contract with Columbia University Press. I could not be more humbled and grateful that the publisher is willing to take a chance on a first-time book author like me.

I don’t know the timing of publication, but I will post updates here. In the meantime, I would like to express my deepest, most deep heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read and participated in this strange and beautiful experience. To all those who have shared, nudged, and been present as this blog unfolded: I am indebted beyond words.

If you are inclined, I would love to learn more about you. Even if you’ve been commenting along the way, it would be nice to have your responses to some or all of the questions below. If you prefer sharing your thoughts privately, please send them to me via email at Nicolaouc@gmail.com.

Questions for you:

If you were to fill out a religious affiliation survey today, what affiliation would you choose and why? Has this affiliation changed?

Do you attend any type of religious services? If so, what and how regularly?

Do you have any thoughts about the future of religious affiliation that you’d like to share? What do you think the religious landscape of our cities and communities will look like in 50 years?

 

A giant, heartfelt thank you to all!

Corinna

To call on all

To commit to no one faith, but call on all: what would this look like on day-to-day practical terms?

With no official place of worship to call home, my spiritual practices will be mostly self-guided. I can dedicate time each day to meditation and prayer, even if just a few minutes here and there. I will try to utter words of thanks more often, especially first thing in the morning and before eating. This should be easier to remember when I witness something unique like a rainbow or if I travel someplace new or see something I’ve never seen before.

Annual holidays can provide some structure to my ad-hoc multi-faith endeavors. I can imagine participating—in my own way—in the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. When the days shorten and the weather gets chilly, I’ll know to review the previous year. I’ll conduct an honest accounting of my behavior, my relationships, how I opted to spend my time. I will make amends, challenge myself to do better, and then release the guilt.

As winter trudges forth, I can take some extra time to think about Jesus. I want to remember his example, the care he showed others, the unconditional love he demonstrated. When the days get short, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to reflect on his death. Such reflections are likely to put me in a somber frame of mind as they will bring up thoughts of my own mortality, but I can look forward to the hopefulness of Easter. This, combined with the triumph of Passover, should rescue me from despair. In the end, life and freedom prevail.

I don’t believe I’ll ever live through another Ramadan without being transported back to my own experience. As I write today, it is several days into the next year’s Ramadan and even though I am not officially fasting, I can feel the loneliness of my remembered hunger and thirst so acutely it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t help but think of everyone around the world abstaining during daylight hours—so much so that it’s as if I am participating on some level, emotionally if not physically. I feel solidarity with the intent of the fast and with the people for whom going without is not a choice, an affinity that I hope will expand when my multi-faith calendar swings back around to Eid Al-Adha. From now on, when I see this date on my At-A-Glance planner, I’ll think about that day at the Dallas convention center and remember that the world’s most populous belief systems share common roots, bound to one another in our collective imagination.

But for how long can I practice my solo patchwork religion before my devotion begins to ebb and the finer points fade from memory? Maybe I’ll have a good reason to allow my faith to flag, like my schedule gets super busy. With no community, no accountability, I can see that a day may arrive when I fail to take the time. The connections I’ve fostered with my religious endeavors are far-reaching, but they are theoretical. I don’t have to come face-to-face with another living soul to practice my faith. Wouldn’t some actual companionship on this path do me some good, especially as I get older? Some Nones have committed to a place of worship, perhaps even attend regularly, but continue to pledge no allegiance to a particular religion. These Nones appear to have found a balance that doesn’t force loyalties but meets practical needs.

A friend asked recently what I thought my future held, faithfully speaking. I joked that I could continue to make the rounds to various places of worship, A-to-Z, over and over again, circling back so many times that people begin to recognize me, perhaps even welcome me—not as a potential convert, but for the None I choose to be. It’s a daydream that makes me happy. By showing up at the doorsteps of the different houses of worship, hat in hand, I draw the boundaries of my spiritual identity ever larger; it’s not just a single dwelling, but an entire town, a community both more real and bigger than I ever could have hoped. Perhaps some congregations would come to appreciate me as a little tie that helps connect them to a grander network of worshippers. But how realistic is this vision, really? Could it possibly provide the intimate connections and structure I’ll crave, especially as I age? As I tip toe into my golden years, and all the existential issues become more pressing, will my slap-dash independence continue to accommodate me? If not, what then?

Hour of None

Early Christians had a custom of dividing up the day into four blocks of about three hours, each with its own mood and prayers to say. It was actually a practice that historians say was adopted from Judaism as a way to structure and honor the passage of time. I was surprised to see the third portion of the day referred to as the “Hour of None.”

The None in this instance was derived from the word “nine,” referring to the ninth hour of the day, which generally fell at about three in the afternoon and led into evening. But what I found most interesting was how this particular chunk of time was characterized. It was considered the portion of the day when businesses closed for the night and people returned home to bathe and eat. It offered both a break from work and a transition before the last prayers; it played the role of sort of spiritual exhalation. I wondered about the synchronicity of the names—if, culturally speaking, we aren’t in our own “Hour of None.” Perhaps we’ve entered something of a pause, a retreat from the normal course of things, an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what comes next.

If we have arrived at such a time, this “time off,” then I have the opportunity to consider what to bundle up and smuggle with me into whatever phase awaits. From Judaism I’ll take monotheism, which I’ve come to appreciate as the birthplace of the radical notion that all beings on this planet—human and otherwise—originate from the same source and are, therefore, intrinsically connected. I want to remember the intent of Sabbath—a designated time to surrender productivity and allow myself to relish the freedom of simply being. I must not forget to take a moment or two each day to focus my thoughts once again on how miraculous it is to be alive, perhaps letting a simple but amazing sight—a cloud formation or a fragrant bloom or a loved one’s smile—trigger the thought. I would like to keep the Jewish custom of keeping the word “dayenu” on the tip of my tongue, letting it tumble out in those moments when I am suddenly overwhelmed with appreciation or, perhaps more importantly, urging myself to say it when I feel slighted or cheated or preoccupied with someone who appears to have it better. Dayenu! I have everything I need—more than enough. I only need tap a deep well of gratitude.

I refuse to go forward without the story of Jesus tucked close to my heart. Here was a free-thinking rebel of his day who broke with tradition so he could best demonstrate his love and care for others. He lives on as a powerful example: all that is noble and good can exist in a person, the divine can be embodied, we are capable of greater heights of love—for ourselves and others. I can’t not think of the way he died, how exposed he was on that cross; how he literally shared his death with the world, demonstrating that strength is possible even in our most vulnerable moments—maybe especially at those times. Even in my darkest hours, I can rest assured that I am loved because I am not exempt from that most personal message Jesus sent to every single person: I love you. But I must strive with all my might to complete the assignment he left humanity. He was quite clear that we are to experience joy and to love others, two things that one might assume are easy but are perhaps the greatest challenges any of us face.

From Buddhism, I’ll borrow the daily practice of sensing “the oneness” to which monotheism points. It shows me how to go beyond recognizing my interconnectedness as an intellectual concept to feeling the truth of it with every fiber of my being. I want to occupy that space of knowing for as often and long as possible, and when I forget I want to find my way back, because great comfort is found there. I can cultivate this sense of wellbeing and then I can turn around and share it, projecting it out into the world where it will manifest in ways too mysterious for my mind to comprehend.

If Buddhism helps me nurture a sense of belonging by focusing inward, then Islam encourages me to fix my gaze outward and translate this unity into a sense of duty. It urges me to assume a position—on knees, forehead to the ground—conducive to embracing my own vulnerability so that I am better able to empathize with people in need. Ultimately, it would have me transform empathy into action, finding concrete ways to help society’s weakest members. Then, as further challenge, it nudges me to expand the collective to which I identify. It wants me to push beyond the obvious affinities such as nationality, race, socio-economic status, gender, or religious affiliation to ever-widening circles of humanity. Perhaps, at last, I can arrive to place where I feel beholden to every living creature and the earth itself.