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Will Rapture Take the Cat? Or, Manatees in Heaven

Do animals have souls? Will they be swept up with us in the Rapture? Will they be in heaven with us?
My family endlessly debated these questions at the dinner table and in church. Even now, as an adult, these are the first questions I ask my religious friends. These questions are still on my mind – perhaps because my Siamese cat, Loki, is perched on my mouse pad.

When he is not eyeing my oatmeal, Loki’s turquoise eyes shift back and forth with my computer mouse, awaiting another opportunity for a sneak attack; and his brother, Tao, the trickster Tuxedo cat, is on my printer, which is still warm.
Raised by a family who loved animals, both domestic and wild, one of my first moments of doubt came when my Sunday school teacher declared that Southern Baptists believe animals are not allowed an afterlife. I wondered: How could God give us such trusting, companionable animals and then simply throw them away into nothingness? Who wanted to be lonely with just human souls in heaven? How boring and sad! I was in first grade and I already knew I was a heretic.
There is a chapter in the new book, “Helmet of Salvation, Sword of Spirit” that continues this story of my first crisis of faith. Also, in “Beluga Baby: An Afterlife of Animals” from Nature and Other Mothers, I deal with this question of animal souls when witnessing a beluga whale, Mauyak, mourning her newborn calf. And I ask the question that preoccupies me now: How might simply looking at other animals as equal souls, change our future, our chances for survival?
This question is on my mind this morning particularly because my dear friend, the radiant poet Jane Hirshfield, just wrote about the January cold snap in Florida. “It was so cold, “ she wrote, “Iguanas were falling from trees and over 100 manatees died . . . so sad to imagine those strange big creatures baffled and cold. I’d read that many huddled by power plant outflows for warmth.”
She added, “George must be heartbroken. Unless he assumes they’ve all gone straight to heaven?”
Jane is talking about a neighbor I profile in my new book. A good man who staunchly believes in the Rapture – in his lifetime. Sitting on the beach together, George and I watch over seal pups while their mothers are out fishing. And we continue the debate about afterlife, other animals, and which souls ascend to divine compassion.
This morning, aside from the daily muse of my cats, my heart goes to the manatees in Florida. The first time I ever beheld one of those amiable sea cows was in a backyard canal in Miami. Lounging in a lawn chair, I heard a “whoooosh” of warm air and was startled by a rumpled gray snout, bewhiskered and seemingly myopic. But benevolent. A floating Buddha in the backyard. That abiding and gentle creature stayed with me so deeply that I created a character called Mrs. Manatee in Duck and Cover. Mrs. Manatee also sought warmth in the effluence around power plants.  And a heart surgeon, Hawkins, tries to save her from hypothermia:

They were everywhere in the bubbling waters; and every manatee I saw had white scars and gouges crisscrossing its back. Even the babies. That’s how you recognize a manatee, by the scars. I wrapped my arms around this swollen old girl, pressing my ear to her heart.
Slow, much too slow. I reached around her great girth as far as my arms would stretch and floated with her – belly to belly, her snout resting on my shoulder, her breathing faint as a whisper . . . We floated like that in those warm, toxic waters – it seemed forever – with her head thrown back, her small eyes closed. I held the whole world of her in my arms.

I believe that Mrs. Manatee and that herd of one hundred manatees who died this month in Florida are drifting now on divine waves. Let this be in elegy to them – the slow-moving souls overcome by the fast freeze. May they float in warmth and peace alongside us. Forever.

New York Times manatee die-off in cold waters 1.26.2010
Save the Manatee Club


A Home For A Book

For the first time in 16 books, I have made a website especially for my new book.
With the help of my young, genius of a web designer, Dave, who is also a gifted musician with the Seattle band, Gray Star, we imagined a portal to the world of this memoir that was inviting, playful, and tender. An interactive world of story and voice, of video and photos that give readers a behind-the-scenes look at how I survived fundamentalism and still loved the earth. Think of it as a virtual visit with the author and a glimpse into the spirit of this book, which I mean to be a bit of a dark, divine comedy.
I have always believed that humor and art can defuse fundamentalism. In my family, when the polarities of politics and religion grew too heated, we could trust that one of us might burst into song. Once in the middle of an abortion battle at the dinner table, someone started humming “There is nothing like a dame,” from the musical South Pacific. The argument instantly shifted to four-part harmonies. We actually had to listen to each other, instead of anxiously waiting our turn in the looping jump rope of debate. You can click on the floating Guitar icon and listen to a sound story “Duck and Cover” audio that gives background on my very opinionated family. Or read the whole novel Duck and Cover that was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.”

Another survival strategy at family dinner debates was the dark humor that is our genetic trademark. There is a scene in the new book set in 2006 on a family Caribbean cruise, “Fire from Heaven,” in which everyone dives into a debate over what some of my family call the “liberal plot of global warming.”

In the middle of a debate so hot it could have melted the ice carving of a swan on the cruise ships’ bacchanalian buffet tables, I lose my cool completely and demand, “If you still doubt global warming evidence, then you’re just in denial.”

Immediately I realize that I’m about to be capsized by the tidal wave of conservative fury my comments have aroused. But suddenly my brother tosses me a life preserver.

“Hey, did you see that greeting card, ‘I’m not living in denial . . . I’m just visiting’?”

And everyone broke into laughter.

So dark comedy and song are the two salvations I’ve discovered in family life. There is also much from my upbringing I cherish and happily still share with my family. These gifts I call “Reasons to Be Left Behind.” And if you click on the Bicycle icon, you’ll see stories under The Earth, Animals, Food, and Music. These will be running themes in the blog, just as they are in the new book.

Dave actually built an MP3 music player for this website that is easy and elegant. He can built anything. Once, when he was having trouble with a cello, he decided to just build his own. And he did. His inventiveness is evidenced by the animation of this flash website, the way the trees bend protectively over the girl, and when you click on the Girl icon, her world is revealed – from a gray whale video of my parents touching their first gray whale calf in Baja, to family snapshots, to favorite seal pups by our Seal Sitter photographer extraordinaire Robin Lindsey.

I hope you enjoy the now finished and live home for this new book.  Come visit and play and stay a little in this world with me. The Girl icon always brings you home.


Reasons To Be Left Behind: Get Outdoors

The author and her forester father on the Plumas National Forest, 1950

Recently I read a statistic that shocked me: children spend only 30 minutes outdoors enjoying our natural habitat each week and a hundred hours attached to computer, television, or cell phone screens. 

Now I’m not knocking technology. Living in tech-savvy Seattle, I quite enjoy my iPhone, iMac, PC, and iPod. Yes, I’m a Mac AND a PC. But being wired or surfing the Web is not as real for me as keeping track of the daily tides of my backyard Salish Sea or sitting on the beach keeping watch over a seal pup while his mother is out fishing.

Or walking with my neighbor, Tracey, and her drop-dead gorgeous Siberian husky, LuLu, through the neighborhood or ambling deep into the fern and moss-worn cedars of Schmitz Park -- the only old-growth forest left in Seattle. Yesterday, a coyote ran right down the middle of Tracey’s street, chasing a squirrel. Coyotes keep the urban rodent and squirrel populations in balance. And out of our attics.

Perhaps the reason I find rapture almost everyday outdoors is because nature was my first mother. Everything human – well, it was just a plug-in. As I wrote in Nature and Other Mothers about growing up on a High Sierra forest station:

“It never occurred to me during those early years in the forest
that I was human . . .Before I learned words, I listened to the piercing
language of hawks and hoot owls, of thunder cracking tree limbs . .
I knew then before any human ever whispered the words to me,
that I was loved by nature, as I first loved her.”

Those of us raised in the 50s and 60s still ran wild in the woods or played on the shores for hours each day. We were not lost children on milk cartons, children who had to make “play dates” or manage a schedule that rivals that of a successful CEO. From dawn until dinner, we were “out” – as my parents used to say. Out, in tree forts, or sledding down snowy hills or sliding down blonde grassy slopes on cardboard. Out, riding bicycles without cell phones or any other tracking devices. We enjoyed a freedom and a trust that has almost vanished, except in rural areas.

What has also disappeared is familiarity with one’s backyard habitat – the birds, animals, and flora that our ancestors had hard-wired into their memories for survival. E.O. Wilson calls this bond with nature that is our birthright, “ecophilia” or the “love of nature.” In a fascinating article “Beyond Ecophobia,” by David Sobel, author of Children’s Special Places, writes: “children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.”

Sobel argues that instead of inundating children with the harrowing burden of ecological loss, we must foster their “biological tendency to bond with the natural world.” His solutions: Get outside into one’s own home habitat and connect with the living world through what Rachel Carson calls our “sense of wonder.” Sobel offers ideas for exploring one’s landscape, empathy for other animals, and the social action of saving one’s neighborhood. Most of all, he says, allow more time for nature.

We can navigate the Web, but not our own habitat. If suddenly we lost electricity and all our electronics were useless, how well would we survive? Without a GPS in our cell phone, how would we find our way? In other words, get outdoors and learn the lay of the land. See oneself reflected, not in a screen, but in a calm lake or the radiant eyes of another animal.

And yes, you can bring your cell phone. Nature and technology can actually go hand-in-hand. Which reminds me, it’s low tide and time for a walk along the beach. Must bring my binoculars and look for the seal pup my own neighborhood grassroots naturalist group, Seal Sitters, said was hauled out. I heard about the pup this morning – a bulletin on my iPhone. And a head’s up from our intrepid Seal Sitter first responder, Robin. Here’s her Blubber Blog from our beach neighborhood.

Read the full article, “Beyond Ecophobia,” from Yes magazine, adapted from the Orion Society Nature Literacy Series.


Independent and Strong Bookselling Supports Authors

Independent booksellers nationwide have chosen my new memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth as an “IndieNext” or “Indie Bound” Top Pick book for February.

I am so grateful to these bravely independent and devoted bookstores for keeping both authors and discerning readers alive in these hard times. And this nomination means the world to me, literally. It used to be that readers had only to rely upon the Publisher’s Weekly or New York Times bestseller lists for new books. But we’ve seen in the past years the rather cynical manipulation of those lists by say, conservative think-tanks who buy up thousands of copies of a new book, thus propelling it to the top of the bestseller lists – when actually those books simply sat unread in some storehouse. We cannot trust these lists, except as a numerical rating.

What is different about Indie Next “Great Reads” monthly list each month is that it is based upon actual readings and recommendations by professional booksellers whose business is to “hand-sell” the best of the new books. It’s just like walking into our favorite independent bookstores and asking, “What’s the best novel you’ve read recently? The best memoir? The best political thriller?” and have a real person answer, “Oh, you’ll love this book . . “ and off we go into the welcoming nooks and crannies of our local bookstore trusting an experienced good guide. Then there are the fabulously helpful hand-written recommendations or staff picks that adorn many books.

Independent booksellers have actually READ the books they recommend. They are real human beings who have formed a national presence in their IndieBound monthly lists. I find these IndieNext Great Reads invaluable in helping me to decide what to read. I also trust them to introduce me to new authors, not just bestsellers, to new ideas, not just popular trends.
My own Seattle independent bookstore, the revered Elliot Bay Books in Pioneer Square was one of the “indies” who recommended my book to Indie Next. You can follow Karen from Elliot Bay Books on Twitter (she gives wonderful recommendations for books). Another was Darvill’s Books in the misty San Juan Islands, where I’ll read at in the spring. Almost every book I’ve published has been launched at Elliot Bay. Their reading room is right off the restaurant. It is cozy, old-fashioned brick and shelves lining the walls. The accompanying “whoosh” of espresso machines and steamers punctuate one’s words. Seattle readers ask such intelligent and thought-provoking questions. The Elliot Bay reading series is one that authors nation-wide truly admire and ask to visit -- like a literary mecca.
Sometimes when I’m writing here by the Salish Sea I look out – just saw a seal pup surface her glossy head! – and summon up the soft lighting of Elliot Bay’s reading room, the upturned, kind faces of the readers authors must usually only imagine in our daily work. I wonder if those readers will enjoy this scene or that scene. In my mind I have conversations with these readers and they cheer me on when I’m feeling particularly dim or uncreative.

I guess you could say that independent and strong readers, just like the indie bookstores they support, are also my muses. For this nourishing nomination by Indie Next booksellers and for all of you readers, I am deeply grateful. And, as those of you who have read my books know, gratitude is my religion.

Brenda will be reading at independent bookstores in February.

Elliot Bay Books, Seattle, Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4th at 7:00 p.m.
Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Saturday, Feb. 6th at 6:30 p.m.
Book Passage, Corte Madera, California, Feb. 11th at 7:00 p.m.
Seattle University “Search for Meaning” conference, Feb. 13 at 9:00 a.m.-10:15 a.m.
Village Books, Bellingham, Washington, Feb. 18th at 7:00 p.m.
Powell’s Books on Burnside, Portland, Oregon, Feb. 25th at 7:30 p.m.
Vroman’s Books, Los Angeles, California, March 10th at 7:00 p.m.


Give Me One Minute More

Amidst all the horrific news of Haiti’s earthquake this week was the heartening report that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their official Doomsday Clock back one minute. According to Global Security Newswire, the infamous Doomsday Clock “is meant to symbolize humankind’s flirtation with Armageddon” and that “moving its hand away from midnight indicates the world has taken positive steps toward nuclear disarmament.”

In 1945, the Bulletin was first formed by the Manhattan Project physicists who were troubled by the “the destructive powers of nuclear weapons.” In 1947, the Doomsday Clock was created and the minute hand set at 7 minutes to midnight. Scientists cite our sitting on the cusp of nuclear annihilation based on our “nuclear proliferation and climate change.”
During the Bush years, the Doomsday Clock ticked closer to midnight at 5 minutes, the worst rating since its creation in 1947. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Atomic Scientists worried in 2007 that “the world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age” as “the U.S. and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes.”
When the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday minute hand back this week I found myself whistling the Mans Zelmerlow song “Give me one minute more.”

I just want one minute more

Just want one minute more

I just want one minute more

Of love

As we enter a new decade, there is some cause for optimism as those in the arms community note that President Obama and Russia have promised nuclear cutbacks in our dangerous arsenals. And more nations, including the U.S., are committed to taking significant steps to face climate change. It is not just about the environmental conservation; it is about the future security of all life here on earth.

Or, as my brother, who works in the military says, “Maybe climate change is the real terrorism and the biggest threat to our national security.” According to him, the military have been seriously studying climate change and future scenarios for survival.” He was the first to point me to the work of General Zinni, a visionary in studying military threats from global warming.
Of course there are those who see doomsday as edging ever nearer with each earthquake like that in Haiti or tsunami; they interpret every report of catastrophe as a sure sign that our world is on the brink of End Times. And that Armageddon is upon us – no matter that the Doomsday clock has just been turned back.
As a writer, I always pay attention to words and their double meanings. It’s interesting to me that the word Armageddon has the root word “arm,” which also calls to mind “arming” a nation or the nuclear “arms” race. Then there is the “hand” of the Doomsday Clock, or the “hand of God,” to biblical true believers.

Humans reach out their arms and their hands to manipulate matter, to defend, to attack, or to embrace. In turning back the hands of the Doomsday clock and in lending our hand to help in this Haitian earthquake -- the whole world is now reaching to aid a nation’s healing. This earthquake is not a sign of doomsday or Armageddon; it is an opportunity to use our arms to support and hold steady a nation and a people who have been shaken to their core.
Follow up: 
Global Security Newswire (NTP)
Christian Science Monitor
General Zinni