Friday, August 30, 2019

Reading the Dry Bones


 By Kelly McWilliams


 Reading the Dry Bones
In the book of Ezekiel, the great prophet dreams of a valley of dry bones.
Dry, very dry. Old skeletons near to dust.
God asks, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel knows they can’t. But when God orders him to prophesy to the bones, he does as he’s told. With a great rattling and shaking the bones connect one to another. In the valley, the breath of life comes into them. They rise.
The valley of the dry bones is a metaphor for the people of Israel, who feel their faith has dried up, their hope perished. Their religion doesn’t serve them anymore. It isn’t enough. Times have changed and the old conceptions of God are dusty, useless. They have suffered enormously. In a very real way, their faith has died.
But the role of Ezekiel — of any prophet — is to breathe new life into old words. Doing so, he proves that faith isn’t a stolid, unchanging thing. It is constantly renewed. 
I wish I’d known this as a teenager, when I began to believe that Christianity was too riddled with misogyny and hate to be any kind of home. I wish I’d understood that the challenge of faith is separate from breath from dry bones, the living truth from the dust of tired old lies.
Well, I didn’t know. I sheltered in art and books (all secular), telling myself I didn’t need the faith I really craved. I wasn’t alone in this. Many of my peers in young adulthood and beyond found secular life less perilous than its alternative. Faith was conservatism, to us. Often homophobic, sexist, racist. We’d just gotten the internet and it was a brave new world. We were moving forwards. Why would we glance back at all that heaped, time-forgotten dust?
But a lack of faith can mean great loneliness. It is a painful compromise, to realize you don’t agree with what an ancient religion has come to stand for, the ways it has been twisted to oppressive ends. It took me many years to learn that you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or the religion with its problematic expressions.  In my 20s, a period of searching, seeking roots and stable ground.  I looked to the past
I am biracial. My black ancestors found Christianity at the same time they continued to practice, and keep alive, a spiritual voodoo. My great-grandmother had second sight, but she also loved her colorful church hats, the God of her friends and neighbors. If she found contradiction in this, she learned to embrace it. To enjoy community, however imperfect, and to tweak and select snatches of faith to sew into one shimmering whole cloth.
What I wish I’d known as a teenager is this: we don’t have to accept the dry bones, because we all possess the breath of life. We are the makers of our faith, and faith itself exists to be reinterpreted, resurrected, and reformed. In that way, it’s like any old story. It is fashioned of enduring archetypes — another kind of skeleton — so that it can be revived, again and again, in new incarnations
I recently completed a young adult book, called Agnes at the End of the World (coming out in Summer 2020), about a girl struggling to find and nurture the seed of truth she has always sensed exists inside her oppressive faith. The fundamentalist cult in which she was raised is a crystallization, for me, of all that is hateful about historical Christian practices: crushing misogyny, and a doctrine of rigid, self-righteous exclusion. And yet — and yet! — she has the Bible to read, and a mind of her own with which to interpret it. She will rescue the loving God that calls to her, and leave the rest.
Her journey represents a spiritual rite of passage I don’t often see reflected in young adult literature. Yet teenagers naturally grow up to find fault with the systems that have raised them. Yes, there are hateful aspects in any religion, but that doesn’t mean the only answer is to throw the whole thing out. You can find the beauty buried in dust, and bring it to life in whatever way makes life meaningful — and indeed, worthwhile — for you.
Writing about faith re-illuminated for me the beauty I’ve always craved from religion, and the complexities, too. But the truth is, I haven’t settled on a church for my family, which now contains two adults and one impressionable two-year old. We recently embarked on a church exploratory campaign, in which we attend a different house of worship every Sunday. (It helps that we live in Colorado Springs, where there is a church per block — no exaggeration.) We haven’t settled on one yet, but I remain hopeful. 
It’s the work of a lifetime, and I can’t wait to see how my daughter’s generation will reimagine the most ancient of stories. I like to think that one day soon we will see more congregations that entirely reject every trace of misogyny, racism, and homophobia — the very social ills that push away so many. I like to dream that in this way, faith comes roaring back to life. 
A note about Kelly McWilliams 
by Padma Venkatraman 

I first came across Kelly McWilliams's work when I was judging the mentoring contest for We Need Diverse Books. She was one of the wonderfully talented authors whose work I loved but whom I didn't end up mentoring officially, because I created a short list of 5 whose works I loved and then I picked the "winning" name out of a hat - they were all that good and I wanted to mentor them all. 
I did end up writing to the other four to let them know how much I wanted to support them as well, in whatever way I could. One of the four I reached out to didn't bother to respond; the others were delighted I'd taken the time to write and let them know I was there for them (which wasn't expected of us, of course). Kelly was one of those talented others.
Since that time, we've stayed in touch, and it was my pleasure to write in support of a writing residency application for her a few years back. And now, I'm delighted to be able to showcase her essay. 
Ending this summer of SAILing into unknown waters with the work of an up and coming author is, I think, most fitting. Because, after all, this summer I've been privileged to share the work of brilliant authors who have bravely shared their views on faith. And I have faith in Kelly, and I look forward to seeing her books on the shelf, someday soon. So here's to the future.

For those of your interested in this topic, I pitched a panel idea (vetted and submitted by Sarah Aronson who also identified a moderator, Aliza Werner) that NCTE accepted this fall - and I'll be speaking together with authors Sarah Aronson, Aisha Saeed, Christine Hepperman, Megan Atwood and Aliza Werner on this topic. The panel is Sat 23 Nov 2:45-4:00 p.m. Location 326 and it's called: Sparking Thought without Starting an Inferno: Daring to Explore Potentially Explosive Questions of Faith, Spirituality, Religious Tradition, and Philosophical Diversity in Books for Young People. 
Or, if you'll be at AWP in Spring 2020, visit Ann Kordhal's panel on this topic. I'm hoping she and other participating on that panel will contribute next summer to this blog.

For now, thanks everyone for reading and supporting our voyage this summer. I hope to SAIL with you again next summer. And in the meantime, if you're part of the Global Read Aloud project and are reading THE BRIDGE HOME, or would just like to have more information on my work, please visit my author website: www.padmavenkatraman.com

Sunday, August 18, 2019

God in a Carton of Eggs

 by ABBEY NASH

God in a Carton of Eggs
The Christianity I grew up with was a mixed bag of traditions, which invited curiosity and exploration.
While my father had been raised as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, the kind that didn’t believe in drinking, cursing, or dancing, and was himself an ordained Southern Baptist minister, my pre-adolescent years were spent on a non-denominational Christian commune in rural Georgia, where the dirt was almost as red as the strawberries we picked fresh from the communal fields.
This community, Koinonia, which means fellowship, is still active today, though the day-to-day experience of living there may be somewhat different than what I remember. When I wasn’t in school, I spent my days with my friends, visiting the farm animals, and on rare occasion, taking guided night walks through the woods in search of the mysterious luminescent mushrooms that grew there.
Church at Koinonia was community ministers, torn songbooks, and barefoot toddlers playing in the grass. It was Sunday potlucks and sunrise service on Easter and square-dancing afterwards on the lawn. 
My experience at Koinonia formed my foundational view of Christianity—that “church,” in the metaphorical sense of the word, means community between people and God.
When we left Koinonia, I found that “church” was housed in buildings and that there were rules about what you wore and how you behaved and what you believed. We lived in Mississippi then, and as a high school student, I found these rules to be similar to the unspoken rules that drew lines between my peers. Some kids were “in” and others were “out.” At the same time, religion seemed a synonym for hypocrisy. In the evangelical town in which we lived, the same teenagers who walked, tear-stricken, to the altar on Sunday morning to receive “Christ into their hearts” were planning the neighborhood keggers the following Saturday night. Religion seemed more about appearances and less about a way of life.
As an adult, I have a found a Christian religion which values charity and action rather than faith alone and believes in universal salvation. These are tenets which resonate deeply with my core belief system. This is the religion my husband was raised in, the one I’m choosing to raise my children in. However, even this religion has rules with which I can’t abide—rules made not by God but by man, rules that are about fear and exclusion. 
I often hear people say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” There is cultural and religious pushback on this spreading sentiment, as though these “spiritual” people are somehow lazy or undisciplined because they are not aligning themselves with a specific religion.
On the contrary, I feel that religion is a manmade construct, as fallible as the stone and brick churches that house its weekly meetings. When people say that they are spiritual but not religious, they are resisting aligning themselves with some aspect of Christianity where man has gotten in the way and made rules that restrict their ability to be in community with God and with the people around them. Our egos tell us to exclude, so that we can protect our fragile belief systems. Love tells us there’s always room for one more.
Over the last few years, I’ve faced several personal challenges. These challenges, which have included my younger brother’s addiction and my epilepsy, have required me to draw on a deep well of faith that I didn’t know I had—one that is supported not by the rulesof my religion, but by its existence, as well as by the support communities in my life, and most importantly, by my personal relationship with God. 
Sometimes church is the small congregation I join with each Sunday to enjoy incredible music and learn about the ways I can apply the tenets of my religion to my everyday life. 
Sometimes church is Ala-Non, where I can speak freely about loving someone with addiction and learn tools that help me to accept what isso that I can let go of the chaos of trying to change my brother and my epilepsy diagnosis, choosing instead to focus on the love available in the present moment.
Sometimes church is my support group at the Eastern PA Epilepsy foundation, where my experiences are fully seen by people who are living them, too—where I am not someone with a disability, but someone living a full life of which epilepsy is only a small part. 
Often church is writing—usually in my journal, a habit I started in second grade, when my grandmother put my very first journal in my hand, destining me on this path. Writing is truly my “lifeline.” With a pen in my hand, I can most clearly hear the “the still small voice of God,” lovingly guiding me through my greatest fears and my most difficult challenges. 
These things—Ala-Non, my epilepsy support group, my writing—they are not separate from God, but of God. They allow me to be in communion with God and with the people that I believe God puts in my path to help me further grow into spiritual maturity. 
Recently, I was having a particularly challenging day. I couldn’t shake the “why me” narrative that we all struggle with from time to time. I was emotional—angry and resentful. My husband and I went for a walk, and over the course of the walk, I began to take in the beauty of my surroundings. The warmth of the sun, even in the winter, the blue sky. On the way home, we stopped by my brother-in-law’s house for a quick visit with my nieces. Their chubby pink cheeks and sweet giggles always put me in a good mood. By the time we got home, my anger had melted into gratitude for the preciousness of my life, despite its challenges, and I found myself in tears. I decided to make brunch, and when I opened the carton of eggs, I was surprised to read a quote printed on the inside of the carton: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
True Christianity doesn’t have to be perfect or look a certain way. In fact, it probably looks pretty lived in. It’s the ability to see God in the faces of the people around us, to be willing to be in communion with them, despite (or perhaps even because of) their differences, to be humble enough to serve those in need, and to be open-minded enough to learn and grow from these experiences as we have them. 

Born to parents with a serious case of “wanderlust,” Abbey Lee Nash has lived in some pretty interesting places, including on a Christian farming commune in rural Georgia, above a third-world craft store in Kentucky, and on a Salvation Army retreat center in the Pennsylvania mountains. She currently lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, two daughters, and one very rambunctious Australian Shepherd. She received her MA in English from Arcadia University in 2011, and currently works at Bryn Athyn College where she teaches writing and literature. She is also an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Lifeline is her first novel. 
Learn more about Abbey at https://www.abbeynash.com/ and connect with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/abbeynashbooks/ and Twitter: @nash_abbey.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

What Are You?

by Veera Hiranandani



What Are You?

This is a question I’ve received many times in the context of my religious identity. I think many children of interfaith marriages get asked this question. I also don’t consider myself a religious person in the traditional sense and, at first, I wasn’t even sure what to write about for this post. For someone, however, who doesn’t label themselves as religious, I spend an awful lot of time writing about my character’s religious identities. In fact, I think about religious identity all the time. 

Organized religion has always been a confusing area of my life. I was raised in a mostly secular home with a Hindu father who immigrated to the United States from India and a Jewish mother born and raised in New York. My parents married in 1968 against their families wishes. When I was born, however, both sides of my family had worked through their issues enough for my sister and I to feel embraced by both sides of the family. 

I don’t think my parents found much comfort through religion. First, it threatened to separate them. There’s also a lot of pain and prosecution associated with religious identity in both of my backgrounds. My father’s family had to leave their home during the religious conflicts that created the Partition of India in 1947. My grandfather on my mother’s side immigrated to this country from Poland to escape the Holocaust. 

In my first book, The Whole Story of Half a Girl, I wrote about a character who, like me, has Hindu and Jewish parents and tries to figure out how she identifies. For my most recent book, The Night Diary, I wrote about a child living through the Partition of India who has a Hindu father and a Muslim mother and has to decide where she belongs as her country is being torn apart along religious lines. For my next book, I’m writing about a young Jewish girl growing up in Connecticut whose older sister elopes with an Indian Hindu college student in the 1960s. 

These stories are inspired by my own family history and all of the main characters question what religion means to them and how it compares to those around them. I’ve wondered many times if I feel “more” of one religion than the other. Growing up, my household practiced more Jewish traditions than Hindu ones, but my parents ultimately left these questions up to me. When I was young, I felt confused. I wanted a clear label for myself because it seemed like everyone around me had one. Later, I studied Hinduism in college to try and understand my background more, but after 47 years on the earth, I still don’t know the answer. The main difference now is that I’m stimulated by these questions and understand that religious identity can be murky for many. In some ways, it’s become my muse.  

At times I have wondered if it would be simpler to let the questioning go and reject my religious identities altogether. I’ve heard people say, including my own parents, that the world would have less conflict if we didn’t have religion. I disagree. Yes, we have seen organized religion tear people apart all over the world. Sometimes people claim their religion as the “right” one and feel prejudice towards others who don’t share their beliefs. But I have also seen religion bring great comfort in dark times and make happy milestones even more meaningful. I have seen it provide community and structure in people’s lives. I have seen members of temples, mosques, and churches come together and work hard to help those in need. 

In all religious groups, there are extremists who use religion to gain power through violence and domination. Many wars have started in the name of one religion or another. I see this as sadly part of the human condition, the underbelly of something meant to make people feel less alone in the universe. To me, that is the main purpose of a higher being—to provide a certain companionship to the human soul. I truly believe that if humans weren’t fighting about religion or using religion in their wars, they would choose something else. And, as we know, religion is just one of the many identities we fight about.  

I think we created religious philosophies to provide structure and community, to answer the unknown, and to have something to believe in that feels bigger than ourselves. There are many ways besides organized religion to satisfy those needs and I find that a buffet works for me. I take a little of this and that and cobble together my own form of spirituality. If you asked me if I believed in god, I would say no, but if you asked me if I believe in something bigger than myself, I would say yes. I feel connected to both my Jewish and Hindu identities and still practice certain traditions in my home. They provide comfort, ritual, and connect me to my ancestors. So, what am I? I plan to spend the rest of my life enjoying the pursuit of that question. 



Veera Hiranandani is the award-winning author of The Night Diary (Kokila), which received the 2019 Newbery Honor Award, the 2019 Walter Dean Myers Honor Award and the 2018 Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children's Literature. The Night Diary has been featured on NPR's Weekend Edition, is a New York Times Editor's Choice Pick, and was chosen as a 2018 Best Children's Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Amazon, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. She is also the author of The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College's Writing Institute and is working on her next novel. 

Find out more about Veera at: https://www.veerahiranandani.com

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Unconscious Power of Faith

by Leah Henderson



The Unconscious Power of Faith


Faith and spirituality have always been an important part of my upbringing. Church every Sunday and Wednesday night, Sunday School, Bible study (with a graphic novel Bible), choir, prayers over meals, church picnics, mom singing gospel while she worked, and listening to it over the radio during car rides was just how it was growing up. I never really took note of how faith, spirituality, and belief influenced how I went about my daily life—it just did. Prayers for strength and guidance, aren’t new to me either, and I often look up to the sky asking how come a hurdle or road block is put on my path or simply just to ask why. That connection to my faith is strong. So, when I finished my first novel I shouldn’t have been surprised to realize just how much faith and spirituality informed my character’s journey as well.

When I started writing One Shadow on the Wall, which takes place in Senegal, West Africa, I didn’t intend for religion, superstition, and spirituality to make their way into the storyline, but just like in my life, they appeared in big and small ways. My main character’s source of belief, will, and protection came from his parent’s strong connection to their Muslim faith, as well as from a deep cultural belief system many Senegalese adhere to, which is often intertwined with superstition. My character wore gris-gris, small leather pouches filled with Koranic scriptures around his upper arm and waist to ward off evil and he prayed each morning just as his father taught him. Over and over I found him or others asking Allah to bless their journeys and hopes. 

Without realizing it, certain markers of faith were being woven into my character’s world. Yet it wasn’t until I began to take a closer look at how superstition and faith linked that I truly took note of the fascinating spiritual culture being highlighted in my book. Senegal, the “land of teranga,” a place of community, connection, and hospitality is known for its understanding, respect, and tolerance of different religions. And I was seeing that unfold during a number of scenes, especially the most pivotal ones.

At first, I shied away from exploring what role superstition played within the culture, because what did I know? Nothing. But even though I do not have the same belief system as my characters, I understand what faith looks like and how it can work within daily life. I was apprehensive but as I kept reading, asking questions, and learning, I came to see that just like within my life, my character’s beliefs couldn’t be separated from him or the characters around him. I soon realized that if I wanted to create an accurate and authentic story, I needed to have faith in faith’s role in my work. 

So, I wonder, in what ways are religion, faith, and spirituality linked in your life and your stories in both conscious and unconscious ways?


Leah Henderson is the author of the middle grade novel One Shadow on the Wall, a Children’s Africana Book Award notable, and a Bank Street Best Book. Her forthcoming picture books include Together We MarchDay For Rememberin’, and Mamie on the Mound. She also has a new middle grade novel  The Magic in Changing Your Stars on the horizon.



Find out more about Leah Henderson at: http://www.leahhendersonbooks.com

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Prayer

Nancy Bo Flood 

March 10, 2019

Prayer  

Imagine the prayer of a child who has just moved to a new place. Let’s listen in:
“Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret.  I’m in my new bedroom but I still have the same bed.  It’s so quiet here at night –nothing like the city. I see shadows on my wall and hear these funny creaking sounds.  It’s scary, God!”  

Of course, this is from Judy Blume’s revolutionary and controversial, AreYou There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a Richard Jackson Book from Simon and Schuster, published in 1970.

Margaret’s prayer was asking for safety, for protection from the unknown.  Her prayers also asked - please listen, please help me understand, myself, being a friend, and please, let me have my period SOON.
Margaret’s understanding of prayer was simple and uncomplicated.  Speaking with a god, a personal god, who listens. Who or what is this god?  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that this force, this energy, is a being who hopefully has control over life, death, and getting one’s period.
What was revolutionary about that?  Isn’t prayer a basic part of being human?  Like being scared and asking for help?  Being confused or lost in grief and ask, Why, god, why?  Or being in awe and celebrating the mystery and beauty of the moment.
Why then is there a silent but strong taboo in children’s literature to having our characters reach out to the spiritual, to try out prayer?   We won’t even talk about menstruation  (too messy), and one thing even more messy (more political?) -   is spirituality.
Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret is a classic, a book that one reads with passion as a child, with amusement as a teen, and with a smile as an adult.  Margaret talks to God at night, alone, personal.  And she feels a presence, someone is listening.
Times have greatly changed the rules for writing in children’s literature.  Sex is OK but periods are not.  Swearing, exploring gender identity, exploring sexuality – go right ahead. But  NOT spirituality, yet is there a more basic part of the seeking we do as teens as we ask, “what’s it all about?”
As authors, what scares us away from including the spiritual searches, questions, changes, growth of our characters?  What scares away an editor from publishing a book that includes prayer?  
Our characters are often challenged with terrible situations and great losses. Children lose parents, friends, identity, their health, their limbs.  They are abused, molested, abandoned.  How do they find strength, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance?
Our older characters are challenged with “coming of age,” of figuring out “Who am I, what do I believe, who do I want to become?” Adolescence is a time of putting aside childhood beliefs that were taught, were given, and then daring to step away from a childhood faith and search for one’s own, “What do I believe?”
Our young-adult characters search for strength, for meaning, for connections, the safety and comfort of being with people that care about them, people they can trust. They also search for spiritual understanding. They search for a god that listens. 
I close with these statements from Einstein:  The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical.….That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God. 
The sensation of the mystical is part of every human, and thus a part of every character that journeys through our stories. But too often the mystical is kept silent.   This needs to change.
Are you there, God?  It’s me ….

Nancy Bo Flood has written several books including Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons (Arizona Book of the Year), Warriors in the Crossfire (Colorado Book of the Year),   No-Name Baby (Top 100 Books of the Year, Bank Street), and Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo (a Junior Library Guild Selection). Winner of the 2016 SCBWI Book Launch Award, Sister Soldier, Fly Home received a starred review from PW and was a Scholastic Book Club Selection. Water Runs Through This Book was a Green Earth qualified book and a Sigurd Olson Best Nature Writing Award Winner. Find out more about her and her work at: https://nancyboflood.com

Monday, July 22, 2019

A few words by Margarita Engle

The very first time I met award-winning author Margarita Engle, I felt an instant connection with her. Although every such inter-personal connection is far too deep to understand rationally, there were similarities between us.  Not only is she an author, like me, but also, like me, she was trained as a scientist. 



Whenever I heard her speak (and of course whenever I read her books), I sensed that she is deeply spiritual. So, when I had the chance to interview her, I asked her the question below, to which she provided a thoughtful, concise and clear response (an unpublished excerpt from the interview I conducted):


Padma Venkatraman:
You are a scientist. You are also deeply religious. How do the scientific and religious world views
come together in your approach to the writing life?

Margarita Engle:
Science and God are compatible, because both seek a harmonious relationship with nature.
Sometimes I wish for an outdoor church, instead of the modern kind with no windows and too
much technology. There was a time when I would have simply called myself Christian, but now I
need to clarify that I am only comfortable at peacemaking churches such as Mennonite and
Quaker meetings. If I walk into an otherwise friendly community church and see right wing
extremist political pamphlets, or pictures of fighter jets and other images of war, or if a pastor
insults other religions, or if there is no racial diversity, I walk out.




Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Of Bookstores and Crabapple Trees: Places Where I’ve Contemplated God



By Jacqueline Davies



Of Bookstores and Crabapple Trees:
Places Where I've Contemplated God

I was standing at the checkout counter of my local bookstore—a place where the booksellers know my name and chat comfortably with me about vacation plans and dogs—when a man walked in the door. Agitated, he seemed not sure of where to go, as we all are from time to time. He was carrying with him that strange energy of great forward momentum in the absence of any particular direction. I noted him out of the corner of my eye and continued talking to the store owner as she rang up my sale.
Within a minute he approached the counter and posed his question: “Where are the books written by Jesus?”
The store owner looked up from the book she held in her hand and asked, “Do you mean books about Jesus?”
“No!” he insisted. “I want the books written by him.”
Without missing a beat, the owner pointed to the Religion section and suggested he might find something he liked there. “I’ll be over to help in a minute,” she added, handing me the credit card slip for signature and bagging my purchases.
Many things went through my head as I signed my name. How readily the owner had been willing to meet the man where he was. How certain the man was that Jesus’ work was still collecting royalties. The wonder of independent bookstores and the miracle that they exist and even thrive. 
I noticed on the slip that the owner had extended the store’s “local author discount” to me, for which I am always grateful. It’s a small thing, that discount, but it always feels to me that by giving the discount the store is saying, Thank you for doing the hard work of writing books, to which I always respond silently in my head, Thank you for recognizing how hard it is and for showing that you care and that it matters. Your appreciation fortifies me. It might be that the store is not expressing this sentiment at all, and that I’m having a two-sided conversation in my head that is complete fabrication. It happens a lot. 
 Which led me to think about the fact that I’m an author who constantly makes things up and occasionally manages to get them down on paper. Which further led me to think on the fact that Jesus was not an author. The owner knew it, and I knew it, and soon this agitated man would know it. While historians and theologians agree and disagree about many things related to the remarkable life led by Jesus, it can be agreed by all that he never wrote a book. The man was going to be disappointed to learn that. He was certain that Jesus was the author of many books. Perhaps he expected an entire section of the bookstore to be filled with his titles alone. I wondered if he would think that this particular bookstore simply didn’t carry any of Jesus’ books (shelf space being limited, after all), and if he would continue his quest at another, larger bookstore (perhaps a Barnes & Noble?).
I stepped outside and felt the sudden, surprising sun that had blessed this one February day in a month of gray and dreary days, and once again was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratefulness. Oh! Thank you! I lifted my face to the sun and felt both the sunshine and gratitude wash over me. There was nothing more to say. Oh!
As I drove home, I was still thinking about the man in search of Author Jesus—not Savior Jesus or Spiritual Guide Jesus or Son of God Jesus, but the man who had written books. (The Bible, of course, which contains many quotations attributed to Jesus, is thought to have been written largely by Paul the Apostle, and while it can be said that Jesus provided great material, it was Paul who faced the blank page on a daily basis and who, no doubt, experienced that all-too-familiar fear that paralyzes many an author: Am I up to this task?)
I was deep in thought—there was a lot to think about—and on streets so familiar I could have driven them in my sleep, when I suddenly realized I was fast approaching a parked police car, lying in wait on a side street. Oh, please, no! I thought. I was definitely going over the speed limit on this well-traveled residential street, and as I looked in my rear-view mirror, just before taking the turn I always take to go home, I saw the police car slowly pull out of the side street and begin to follow me. No! No! No! I said again as I slowly continued my usual route home. Another turn. One more. I checked my rear-view mirror again.
No police car. 
Maybe the officer wasn’t trying to pull me over in the first place. Maybe I had cleverly evaded capture by driving my usual route at fifteen miles per hour. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get a ticket that day. And for the rest of my drive I home, I felt that special gratitude that is only felt when you realize that you’ve done something really stupid and somehow you’ve managed to walk away without paying the price. Think of all those times in your life, big and small, when you’ve been dumb lucky. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I whispered quietly all the way home.
In fact, I whispered, Thank you, God. As I had when I felt the sunshine on my face, and as I had even when receiving the local author discount. Thank you, God, for all the remarkable advantages that have allowed me to become an author, the only thing I ever wanted to be. Thank you, God, for sunshine, which never fails to astound and delight me. Thank you, God,for letting me get away with one—and, yes, I will try really hard to remember to drive more slowly next time.
I would guess that I thank God about five to ten times a day, every day. Which wouldn’t be so remarkable but for the fact that I’m an atheist. Not an agnostic, not a wandering spiritualist, not a faint checkmark in the box labeled “Other”—an atheist. I was raised an atheist by two atheists, and it’s what I believe. It’s what I’ve believed since my earliest consciousness. I didn’t choose it. It’s who I am.
And yet, when expressing gratitude—which I feel so greatly and continually and ever more as I age—it just feels right to express it to someone. Some thing. Some other. To say thank you into a void feels incomplete to me. And so, I follow the easy path, and just tack “God” onto the end of my gratitude. It seems to finish the thought for me.
To be clear, this well-thanked God of mine isn’t New Testament or even Old Testament. This God isn’t drawn from any of the major religions—Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism or Christianity or Judaism—all of which I’m embarrassingly ignorant of. (Remember, I was raised an atheist, so I missed Sunday school and its equivalents.) What I call God isn’t a god. It’s something much more complex: an awareness, a cohesion, a gathering spot, a center. A place or a feeling or an acknowledgement that there is great beauty and heartbreaking loss and an aching need for love and community and compassion and acceptance. That sometimes we are lucky, and sometimes we are smited. That people can be kind and people can be cruel, and kindness is always the better path.
My oldest sister (also a born-and-bred atheist) becomes really irritated with me when I use the word “blessed,” which I do occasionally in the broadest of ways. Perhaps it’s our different approach to words. She’s a lawyer, and sometimes the precise definition of a single word changes the meaning of an entire law. I’m a fiction writer, and I delight in the fungibility of words, the playful bending of them. For me, words like “blessed” and “sacred” can live comfortably in my atheistic world. They are beautiful words with beautiful meanings, and I choose not to exclude them from my vocabulary simply because I don’t believe in “God.” (I’ve never told my sister that I regularly thank God; she’d have a coronary, and I love her much too much for that.)
I’m reminded now of one of the earliest conversations I remember about religion. It didn’t take place in a church or around a dinner table, but rather in a crabapple tree. I was six, and my best friend and neighbor, Lynn, was five.  We were sitting on our favorite branches when she said, “You’re going to hell.” I asked why. She said, “Because you weren’t baptized, and anyone who isn’t baptized goes to hell when they die.” Her older sister, Lori, was preparing for her first communion, so no doubt the sacraments were on Lynn’s mind. She wasn’t being mean when she told me I was going to hell. Rather she was stating a fact. Something she had worked out in her mind. (Still. Rough stuff to hear at the age of six!)
Now, I was positive this couldn’t be correct. If it were true, my parents would have told me, and they would have done whatever needed to be done to make sure I didn’t end up in a state of everlasting damnation. (Back then, I imagined hell as a desert. I had seen Lawrence of Arabia, and I figured hell was something like that. Endless. Hot. Sand in all the wrong places.)
But Lynn was so implacably certain. It got me flustered. I sputtered, “That isn’t true.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it’s not!”
“Yes, it is!”
“No, it’s not!” (This is the level of theological discourse that five- and six-year-olds are capable of.)
“Yes, it is!”
“Then prove it!” I said, knowing that science was on my side; my parents were on my side; my whole six years of lived experience were on my side.
“It says so,” replied Lynn coolly. “In a book.”
Gasp! She was right. And it was a BIG book. And an important one. In fact, the best-selling book of all time.
We revered books in my house. Classics and bestsellers. Things that were in books held special sway in my family. I had no come back. My six-year-old self couldn’t argue myself out of damnation. 
I was so angry in that crabapple tree. Angry that I couldn’t beat her argument with one of my own. Angry that I’d been bested by someone who was a whole year younger than me. And angriest of all that my defeat was the result of a book.
I don’t have any grand conclusion to present here. I’m just pondering about a man who wants Jesus to be an author; and a little girl who argued that a book itself was as powerful as God, and a slightly older little girl who grew into an author and who needs to invent a new word that somehow encompasses the concept of a great, loving, multitudinous yet connected, bountiful, generous something that exists on some plane, in some form, deep within every microcosm and spread wide throughout the universe. It is the thing that inspires awe: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder and gratitude. That. I need a word for that. And of course, it has to go well with thank you.

Ms. Jacqueline Davies has eleven published children's books to her credit, including Where the Ground Meets the Sky (Cavendish, 2002),  The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (Houghton Mifflin, 2004, illustrated by Melissa Sweet),  The Night Is Singing (Dial, 2006, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker), The House Takes a Vacation (Cavendish, 2007, illustrated by Lee White), Tricking the Tallyman (Random House, 2009), Lost, and  The Lemonade War series. Her most recent titles include Panda Pants (Random House, September 13, 2016) and Nothing But Trouble (HarperCollins, 2016). Her books have won numerous awards, including the NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12, the John Burroughs List of Nature Books for Young Readers, The Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, the New York Library’s Best Books List, the NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, the IRA/CBC Children’s Award Notable Book for Fiction, the Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books, and the CCBC Choices Award. Learn more about her work at: http://www.jacquelinedavies.net