One None Gets Some

Looking at life through the lens of faith

The future of spiritual practice

The first six stops of my book tour under my belt, I’m starting to get a sense of some recurring questions audience members are eager to have answered after I speak about (and read from) the religious exploration I write about in A None’s Story. One common inquiry is something along the lines of, “What do you think the future is for religion in the United States?” (For book tour updates, “like” my author Facebook page.)

Many people, I believe, are expecting me to declare religion dead—or, at the very least, dying. I know some of the audience members are people of faith, a few have been current or retired leaders of religious congregations, and they fear what’s in store for their communities in the next decade or two. Others are concerned for the growing number of citizens who appear to be operating in a world increasingly devoid of spiritual grounding or guidance.

I understand the worry but, from where I stand, the view is not so bleak. I honestly believe that the core of religion is as relevant today as it has ever been because, despite all the changes we and our society undergoes, something fundamental remains the same. Each of us struggles to come to grips with being here on earth, and with the knowledge that we will leave—as if these realizations are a fresh new thing just added to the human experience. We are driven to makes sense of this knowledge, to come together with others who are also striving for greater understanding, and to work together to find ways to better care for ourselves and others. No, the basic impulse from which religion is born is intrinsically tied to our beings. The growth in the population of Nones does not spell the end of religion. But it does herald a change.

Before my reading in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join an evening of improvisation or “improv” as some like to call it. This is the theatrical act of spontaneous scene-making usually associated with comedy. Now, I have never in my life participated in improv. I have seen it being performed and simply imagining being up there among the performers would send my heart into a spasm of terror. Improv is most definitely not “my thing.” (I’m a writer—words take full minutes, hours even, to come out of me. It is very boring to watch.) But this improv experience piqued my interest because I had heard it mentioned on NPR’s On Point during an episode about religious affiliation and the growth in Nones. (It aired March 22, 2016 and is fascinating. I recommend it. Listen here.)

This particular evening of improv is part of something called “The Sanctuaries,” a community with this mission statement: “Empowering creative people to claim their own spiritual voice and collaborate on artistic projects that promote social change.” It’s a safe bet that some of its members are religiously affiliated in a more traditional sense and that others are Nones like me. The “lead organizer,” Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He formed The Sanctuaries with his neighbors from various walks of life whose most common denominator appears to be that they are all relatively youngish (post-college and up). They invite the community at large to join them in coming together to tell stories—through art, music, conversation, and performance—with a purpose. The one event scheduled for when I would be in town was the “Soulful Improv” that takes place the 2nd Monday of each month at 7 pm. No experience required.

Improv as spiritual practice? The writer in me was more curious than the would-be comedian was terrified. I dragged along my good friend, Cassie, who had been my downstairs neighbor when I lived in D.C. She was even more reluctant than I about improv. Soulful Improv is held at a place a couple blocks from the apartment building where Cassie and I had lived called the Potter’s House, which in itself has an interesting history of being a meeting place in a secular setting, but infused with religious ideals.

In a large back room, men and women of every shade gathered. Cassie and I were among the oldest; several teenage girls in hijab were the youngest. It was soon apparent that most people present were not any more skilled at improv than me. The leader, a woman named Brittany, started us off gently with warm up exercises: in a big circle, after introductions, we “tossed” words or phrases to one another. They might be the same words said a little differently each time or new words inspired by what came previously. As nervous as I was, I could tell others felt the same—that and the initial brevity of our individual contributions put me at ease. Brittany eased us into longer “scenes” by degrees.

Surprisingly, I was having a darn good time, but what did any of it have to do with religion or spirituality? I had no idea at first, but as the evening progressed, it got clearer. Brittany helped by dropping hints as we went. “It’s about building trust,” she called out at one point. Or, as interactions grew more involved, she shouted, “To react, stay in the moment.” She also said that participating in these impromptu interactions forces us “to assess the situation from the other players’ eyes.”

Thinking back on all the worship services I attended during my religious explorations I realized, in these exercises, I was having similar feelings. The initial fear of being the outsider and idiot transformed slowly through group activity—communal prayer or singing—into something that more closely resembled teamwork or community. Each of us takes a risk in coming together, everyone shows up despite feeling vulnerable, to get on the same page for a shared goal for an intangible reward: a sense, however fleeting, of connection. How quickly one’s isolation can flip into expansive belonging! To suddenly become aware of one’s being present in the room, alongside the presence of others, to contemplate the world anew and then to consider it through alternate perspectives. Worship can help us do this and more; an evening of improv was having a similar effect.

Could improv be the new face of worship? Maybe. Or at least one of them.

So when someone asks what I think will become of religion, I tell them I feel hopeful about its future. Many of its teachings have seeped into our culture in ways we are only beginning to understand. The cross-pollination between the religious and the secular continues and I’m excited to see what blooms.

 

The dot!

In a blog post a few entries back I discussed the imagery of the circles on the cover of A None’s Story. Each color represents one of the faith traditions I explored, and the shading variations within each circle speak to the unique way individuals may understand or practice their beliefs.

You may recall that I made a special request to the publisher that somewhere on the yet-to-be finished back cover at least one circle show a splash of all the colors. I felt such a Technicolor dot could be the rough equivalent to my thinking as I emerged from this journey, for I had come to hold in high regard aspects of each of the religions I explored. I was going forward with the intention of incorporating facets from each into my everyday life.

I am happy to announce that my book jacket has been printed with one such colorful dot and that finding it was about as exciting as zeroing in on a well-hidden Easter egg back when I was oblivious to the message dyed eggs and candy placed throughout a park conveyed of hope and new beginnings (though perhaps feeling it on some instinctual level).

Just as I hadn’t realized the importance of a multi-colored circle until I didn’t see one on the early version of the cover design, I’m starting to understand how hopeful I am that my book sparks multi-faith dialogue, and not only among people like me with no religious affiliation (though I’m happily anticipating that). As I move further along on this path, I am increasingly interested in inter-faith exchange.

Which is why I am thrilled (and terrified) that the Interfaith Amigos have agreed to join me at my book event in Seattle. For those who haven’t heard of these Amigos, they are a Jewish rabbi, Muslim imam, and Christian minister who have joined forces to give talks and make presentations together. They have their own website. They’ve even given a TED talk and, in 2009, the New York Times wrote a story about them.

It is a bit surreal and perhaps a little hilarious that soon I will be sharing a panel with them participating in a discussion about faith (or the lack thereof). I have no idea what to expect—what, if anything, I might add to the conversation or if I will simply smile mutely as I wonder how on earth I landed among them.

Will this be the first of many interfaith discussions I might have the honor of joining…or a total train wreck? Can I really have a meaningful conversation with three religious leaders? If so, what will that look like?

All three of the Amigos will be reading my book shortly so there’s still time for them to back out!

Until then, here is the information in case you or anyone you know would like to plan to attend:

May 22 at 2pm
Seattle
University Bookstore (with Interfaith Amigos!)
4326 University Way NE
View Facebook Invite

He drew a circle that shut me out

 

The monastery

As some readers of the blog may remember, one of the first steps I took on the journey detailed here (and now in the book A None’s Story) was a week-long stay at a Benedictine monastery. I was inspired by the example of Kathleen Norris, a poet and essayist, who beautifully recalls the periods in her life that she lived among Benedictine monks. She writes about this and other subjects in The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

I decided to copy Norris. Preferring my destination to be within a day’s drive of my house, I went online and searched “Benedictine Monastery Washington State.” This little “spiritual vacation” wasn’t meant to be the beginning of anything; it was supposed to be the entire journey. I imagined it as a divine car wash: in one end I would go with the jangled nerves and disconnectedness of modern life; out the other I would appear with the serene smile and beaming aura of the Virgin Mary. What were the events that I thought would transpire in between? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure angels would sing.

This did not happen.

I stayed for a week in the guest house of the monastery along with a ragtag group of other visitors. I did hardy chores (this monastery was also a farm and the “monks” were all nuns), dutifully took a contemplative walk every afternoon, and sat in the little chapel twice a day as the nuns sing-songed their prayers. I returned home with a sense that religion may offer something substantial, enough to sustain these women on this remote farm, but I had not grasped what it was.

As is often the case, failure was a launching pad.

The truth was, by duplicating Norris I had hoped to bypass the hard work of a spiritual journey that would be authentic to me. It was dawning on me how much effort it would take to chart my own path. I thought my lack of religious inheritance meant I could adopt anyone’s I wanted. What I couldn’t see at the time was that, as a None, I had my own inheritance, as complicated as any other. The way to understand Norris better wasn’t to reproduce her actions, but approximate her intentions.

blessing and curse

 

 

Publishers Weekly

A None’s Tour of America’s Faith Traditions: PW Talks to Corinna Nicolaou

Like her fellow nones, Corinna Nicolaou claims no religious affiliation— a growing trend among Americans. To find out what she might be missing, the writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, and more began attending services of major faith traditions around the country. Her experiences are featured in A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam (Columbia University Press, April 5).

What motivated you to write the book?

I grew up in a very secular household, and I was just personally really curious about religion. I didn’t know where to start, and I was…(follow the link to read the full interview).

 

The countdown begins

_He who knows one knows none._As the countdown begins to the April 5th release of A None’s Story, I want to share some tidbits that inspired me along the way.

I ran across this quote on the first pages of an old academic book on Christianity I found in the college library. This was in the early days of my quest. I had no idea who the man who said it was, but the synchronicity of his words with my project made me do a double take. The sentiment (exploring religions) was similar to my intention, but it was his use of the words “one” and “none” in close proximity that made what I was doing feel like a reply to his long-ago statement–an echo a century in the making.

Intrigued, I found out more about him.

Max Müller (1823 – 1900) was a German-born scholar credited with popularizing the study of comparative religion in the West. A practicing Christian, he studied the ancient language of Sanskrit to read and translate ancient Vedic texts, which are believed to be the earliest known religious documents. His research led to explorations of Hinduism and other world religions past and present and eventually to an Oxford teaching post where he taught comparative “philology.”

His official resume is impressive, but what I have found most encouraging about Mr. Müller’s example is just a side note: he was thoroughly criticized for his efforts. Some called his unwillingness to disavow other belief systems besides Christianity anti-Christian; not only did he not disavow them, he went on teach their fundamentals to the best of his ability. Others hated him for the opposite reason: their faiths were being manhandled by this ham-fisted outsider.

It’s safe to say Müller regularly received a thorough pummeling from all sides. And it is this small detail, all these years later, in which I find the most comfort. Because I’m sure some of those lashings had to sting—I can only imagine he thought what he was doing was positive, that he believed his efforts might contribute to a greater understanding among people and it had to be painful to get a solid smack down at every turn. But he picked himself up and carried on. He stepped on toes and no doubt made a buffoon of himself from time to time, but the internal spark that drove him to do what he did, captured in that simple quote, spoke to me at the start of this project and speaks to me still.

Blog vs. book

As the date (4/5/2016!) approaches for the release of my book, A None’s Story, I thought it might be a good time to explain how the book differs from the blog that came first, One None Gets Some.

The most obvious difference is the title change. The new title was given to the manuscript by the publisher, who explained to me that the book needed an identity distinct from the blog. What she didn’t say is that the name of the blog–with its tongue-in-cheek use of the vernacular “gets some”–might be seen as lacking a certain gravitas befitting Columbia University Press. Who was I to argue with either of these points? Here was yet another opportunity to practice letting go of things over which I lack control.

The new title alludes to the blog, but also references a 1956 novel called A Nun’s Story by Kathryn Hulme. A New York Times best-seller in its day, Hulme’s book was later turned into a film starring Audrey Hepburn as the title character. Even though I wasn’t familiar with either the book or the movie when I started this project, I find the synchronicity between the two titles interesting—the play on words and themes. In that book—which is fiction, though based on a true story—a nun struggles with her faith-bound life given that her passion, nursing, is considered a secular endeavor. Should she leave the convent to pursue a career? Did it have to be one or the other? In my version, I struggle with that same topic in mirror image: feeling that I must maintain the strictly secular life I inherited despite the tug on my heart to step foot in the world of faith. If A Nun’s Story was a reflection of its time, I suppose A None’s Story is equally a reflection of ours.

Other than this, the differences are what one might expect when a serialized version of a story is turned into a single piece of writing. I had all these little patches and now I needed to make a quilt. I needed to pick the ones that would add to the cohesion of the larger version, and leave out the ones that didn’t. Sometimes this meant getting rid of patches on which I had worked really hard, but maybe their complicated embroidery detracted rather than added to the overall picture. Most of the patches, even if they seemed to belong, still needed some work. I had to fix frayed edges and pay more attention to the sorts of enhancements that would make them function better both individually and together. Luckily, I was given a small but dedicated team of professional tailors who spent a week or two with me in my sweatshop taking a close look at my patches under their magnifying glasses. They caught all sorts of goofs—typos, verb disagreements, spelling catastrophes, grammar disasters, and just plain awkward turns of phrase.

One of the main differences between the blog entries and the content of the book is in the structure of the story connecting the religious experiences I describe. In the book, I put more flesh on the bones, particularly at the beginning and at the end. I provide additional context for what motivated this journey, a fuller picture of my personal struggles and the ways in which, when I was living in Washington, D.C., the events of 9/11 shook me and influenced what would later become this book.

Also, parts of the ending are entirely new. I describe the experience of creating and maintaining the blog after my Op-Ed about my religious curiosity and project appeared in the Los Angeles Times and, subsequently, was picked up and reprinted in newspapers across the country. I fancied myself a courageous religious adventurer, but some people saw a potential convert. In the book, I explore people’s reactions to my project, the messages and items I was sent both online and via the mail, how unsettled and distraught I became for a time before I learned to embrace my truth.

Other than that, many of the experiences in the book are as they appear in the blog. Because of this, I debated whether to hide all or portions of the blog. It seemed strange to be charging money for a printed version of what is, in essence, available online. Even though I believe it is a more pleasurable experience to hold a book (I, for one, like to have the entire story in my hands, with pages to turn), it seemed a little counterintuitive to keep all my old posts available for anyone to read.

For a while I considered deleting the entire blog. Then I thought it would be best to keep some of the posts but hide a percentage of them—like every third one—so that the online story would be the Swiss cheese version—thereby both intriguing readers and forcing all interested parties into buying the book. I was congratulating myself on my diabolical marketing skills, when it occurred to me that the single most important argument for keeping the blog had nothing to do with what I had written. What made it essential and beautiful and important was the comments section: it’s what the readers wrote.

The stories, the reactions, the encouragement—the instances in which some readers tore into me or others for the opinions we expressed. How readers worked through differences, and more often than not, came to respect one another despite early tension. All of this created a story as significant, and in some instances more so, than my story.

So, I’m leaving everything as is because to hide any blog posts would be to hide their comment sections. The comments offer a small but poignant slice of cultural debate that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Far from being disposable, they are an essential companion piece to my book. In my eyes, every single comment is important. They were all part of this journey for me, expressed by a virtual group of congregants struggling for understanding and acceptance.

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?