How did my family and I land on the cover of Newsweek magazine way back in 1997? And how does that story 13 years ago circle right around and connect directly to this Sister Mysteries story that I am madly at work writing today, today being the eighth day of Hanukkah, 2010, or in the Hebrew calendar, the year 5771?
How does that Newsweek article, called "A Matter of Faith," connect, forward and backward, to the amazing mysteries of faith, mystery, miracles, spirituality and religion, all of which I am exploring as I write this book?
I have started to look at it this way: this book is about very deep connections. It's about all the weird coincidences, mysterious and strange events that have accompanied my writing a nun novel called Castenata.
I know only two things: I've got to write it, and I've got to tell the absolute truth. All those 16 long and torturous years that I tried writing the book, by lying, by telling it as a clever fiction, just did not work. I never really got anywhere going that route. So now I am writing the true story, and uncovering some profoundly important ideas about how the universe works. And now that I am writing it that way, I can feel the wind at my back. The book is pouring out of me. I've written fourteen chapters in 25 days. At this rate, I may actually be able to make this wild and crazy deadline, which is, to finish the book in just 22 more days, by year's end! That's the challenge set forth to seven writers a few weeks back by the Albany Times Union's Writing in Motion. That project is the brainchild of writer Lori Cullen, who yoked herself to the crazy and impossible deadline too.
Writing in motion? I'll say! This is writing at Daytona 500 top speeds.
Writing any kind of book under any kind of deadline pressure can be nutty (my husband Richard Kirsch has set himself a deadline of mid-January to finish his wonderful book on how the progressive left led the fight for health care reform.) But what a wild out-of-this-world intense ride it is to write a book when you are meeting an ungodly and impossibly tight deadline like this one. Well, so, it's a little like spinning on top of a Hanukkah dreidel, and hanging on for dear life.
OK, so back to Newsweek. It was exactly this time of year, December -- squat between Hanukkah and Christmas. There was snow on the ground. And it was bone-chilling cold outside.
My oldest daughter Jocelyn had, just a month before, in November, 1997, made her Bat Mitzvah. That event shifted our family dynamics quite dramatically. After her big day (a deeply moving and wonderful event), Jocelyn announced that our celebration of Christmas -- we had always celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas, as my Catholic Italian family is big into that holiday -- would be very, very seriously curtailed. As in, it was over folks.
"Mom, I didn't spend six long months studying, killing myself to learn Hebrew, and to make a Bat Mitzvah, just so we could decorate a Christmas tree," she said.
I understood totally what my daughter wanted, and I certainly wanted to respect her wishes. She wanted, simply and finally, a unified Jewish home, one that didn't apologize about its beliefs. One with none of the distractions of Christianity.
When you grow up one of two or three Jews in a public school where all your classmates are Christian, you feel... alienated. My husband as a teenager growing up in Westchester County had a big head of curly hair -- a classmate jokingly called it a Jew-fro. No, it ain't much fun being the minority, let's face it.
If you're lucky, you grow up and find a temple like we did -- Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where we have one of the most amazing and dynamic rabbis -- a woman, Deborah Zecher. Going to services and Hebrew school at Hevreh, you realize in the deepest core of your Jewish soul that you can be Jewish and be very very proud. No need for any kind of apology.
Still, like her two younger siblings, Lindsay and Noah, Jossy had always loved Christmas growing up. As very young kids, they were even treated to personal appearances by Santa Claus himself -- a good friend and neighbor, Jim McIntosh, used to dress up and bring gifts to our Christmas Eve table every year! But now, Jocelyn had come "of age" and I couldn't let her down.
But my heart ached. I remember taking all of our lovely Christmas ornaments, a huge box full, years' worth of beautiful trinkets, many of them hand-made by my folks -- Dad had made each grandchild these amazing little sleds out of popsicle sticks! -- and placing them in a box in the garage. I remember taking the tiny Christmas tree that I had bought for the girls' dollhouse over to my Christmas-crazy neighbor, Ginny Wilber. I remember standing in Ginny's heavily-adorned house -- she decorates for Christmas before Thanksgiving!! -- and just sobbing.
Yeah, it was a dreary time. I was trying my best to stay connected to that amazing Bat Mitzvah energy we had created during Jocelyn's celebration. But I was sad.
Meanwhile, my writing was going nowhere. I had been trying for almost two years -- ONLY TWO at that point, ha! It seemed like such a long time, but what is time in a time travel book? -- to write Sister Mysteries. I was trying to write it as a novel. I was desperately trying to make my character, a religious nut turned rock star named Heather Ricochet, come alive on the page. (You can read some of what I was writing in Chapter Thirteen).
I was depressed. My heart ached. I wanted desperately to smell that Christmas tree. To sit at night watching the twinkling lights. To wake up in the morning and creep downstairs to the holy place where the amazing tree would stand like a colorfully glowing beacon in the otherwise forbidding winter.
But I hardly expected my heartache to end up in huge letters on the cover of Newsweek.
I had no idea what was in store the day I got a phone call from a friend in the journalism business (I used to work at The Wall Street Journal, and through the years have kept up contact with people in the national press,)
I don't remember exactly who it was who called. It might have been my old friend Karen Koshner, with whom I worked at the Chicago Sun-Times way back when (before the WSJ.) It might well have been Karen because her husband, Mark Starr, was for years the Boston bureau chief of Newsweek.
The caller, whoever it was, asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed by a Newsweek reporter named Jerry Adler; he wanted to explore the conflicts and tensions inherent in mixed marriages. He wanted to present to readers some of the "hard choices" that holidays posed. Hard choices like whether or not to have a Christmas tree.
"Sure," I said. I've done a ton of newspaper and magazine stories over the years and I've spent countless hours phoning friends and friends' friends and family members trying to find suitable sources for trend stories. Now it was my turn to be interviewed; I was happy to help out a fellow reporter. (When Jerry asked me if Newsweek could send a photo crew from New York up here to Spencertown to take our pictures, I politely declined however.)
Anyway, Jerry and I spoke for perhaps a half hour, and then he called me back at one point to check my quotes. So I knew we'd be in the magazine.
But God knows I was absolutely floored and flabbergasted when I picked up the December 15, 1997 issue of Newsweek and saw the cover, and then the inside page: MY FAMILY'S STORY in huge type.
Here is what Jerry wrote:
"Driving home from Thanksgiving dinner in New London, Conn, to Spencertown, N.Y., the Kirsch family talked about the tree. They've had one every Christmas since Claudia Ricci and Richard Kirsch got married in 1978 -- even though a rabbi helped marry them, and even though their three children are being raised as Jews and even though Claudia Ricci herself, baptized a Roman Catholic, became a Jew eight years ago. Over that time the tree has come to seem increasingly out of place in their home. "How would I feel if the rabbi saw this?" Ricci wondered.
"But in the car, Lindsay, 11, remembered coming down the stairs on a weekend morning to watch TV by the twinkling lights, and her younger brother, Noah, who started out the trip opposed to the tree, said quietly, 'Couldn't we just have a little one?'
"Of all the difficult emotional, theological and familial issues raised by Ricci's conversion, this one alone remained unsettled. In one small part of Ricci's soul, it's Christmas, and she wants her tree."
Well, Jerry Adler, I have to tell you (wherever you are) that you got only one thing wrong in that piece. It wasn't "one small part of Ricci's soul." It was my whole soul that ached, at least in December, 1997. Jerry wrote about a bunch of other folks struggling with religious differences at the holidays, but he returned to my tree dilemma in the last paragraph of his very long, long cover story:
"Two days after Thanksgiving, Claudia Ricci went to her synagogue to think and pray, and when she came home her mind was made up. There would be no tree this year."
And so there was no tree in 1997, nor was there one in 1998, or any year after that. I never stopped missing the tree at Christmas. I never forgot that heavenly smell, or the lights twinkling in the morning, and all the sentimental ornaments, but I decided, well, this is what it is, this is life in the new era, and so get used to it. And so I did.
But the story doesn't end there.
I came out of that Christmas pretty depressed. The writing was at the core of it. I was so desperate to write this story about Sister Renata, the nun who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her lecherous cousin, Antonie. I could see every detail in the world Sister Renata inhabited in the other book, Castenata, the book I refer to as the nun novel. (I have written all of it and now I am putting it up on the web, making it available for free to anybody who wants a good time-travel murder mystery :)
Ever since I started writing that nun novel,
I have been able
to "inhabit" Sister Renata's world simply by closing my eyes and being there. I can see all of it. I can feel all of it. I can be in her convent room.
I can see the courtyard
in the back of the convent, with the birds flying around and the black cracks snaking through the blue and white ceramic tiles.
I can see the chapel where Renata and her fellow nuns pray. I can see Renata and her best friend at the convent, jolly Sister Teresa, feeding the squawking chickens handfuls of corn pellets from their white aprons. I can smell the golden hillsides that the two nuns climb each afternoon after their chores are through.
Always sweating in their habits, as black as crows, the two women are always out of breath.
I see them carry a blanket up the hillside and an old metal canteen of hand-squeezed lemonade. I see them sink onto that blanket beneath a live oak tree on that golden hillside. I watch, and I hear, while Renata reads to Teresa from her diaries. I see Teresa's normally placid face turn dark as a storm cloud as she hears Renata talk about the wild stories that Antonie writes about Renata, turning her into a seductive flamenco dancer in a red dress.
Well, so I have always been able to see it, and feel it, every itty bitty detail. As if it is a life that I actually have lived, as if some part of me lives back there, back in 1883, sharing everything with Renata.
I was there that terrifying day when local authorities dragged her out of the convent and arrested her for her cousin Antonie's murder. I was there, when they threw her into thatcold dank prison cell.
I sat in prison with her, literally for YEARS. I saw as her/my leg would get infected at the bloody spot where the rusty chain cuts into her ankle. The infection rose up her/my leg and turned her/my leg bright red all the way to the knee.
I sat staring out of that damn prison cell with her, gazing into that dusty courtyard at the gallows that was waiting to hang her/me for a crime she/I did NOT commit.
Sister Renata and I were both in prison. She was in a cell. And I was there too, imprisoned by my own words. My own story. I was desperately trying to tell the true story of who killed Antonie, to set Renata free. But simultaneously I was trying to write my own story, to set myself free.
Only at that point, I was trying to do it as fiction and it just didn't work.
Shortly after that Christmas of 1997, the Christmas that wasn't, my sister Karen, who is trained as a nurse, started to worry about me. A LOT. She saw how deeply depressed I was, and she talked to me about what we were going to do about it.
I confided in my friend, Leslie Gabosh, here in Spencertown. She told me about a shrink that one of her friends had seen in Boston, at a Harvard University clinic. Les' friend had had good luck seeing this woman doctor. She had prescribed something. Maybe it was St. John's Wort, the herbal anti-depressant that at the time lots of people were touting. I was already taking anti-depressants, but I was willing to try anything. I had three kids to raise, and a husband, and a job. I couldn't stay the way I was.
And so, in early January, on a bitter cold morning, my dear sister Karen picked me up and we drove to Boston. We went to a Harvard office somewhere in Cambridge, and we met with this shrink. I don't remember her name. I do remember that she was pretty, and that she had a bright easy smile and a very relaxed and supportive nature. Oh, and I think she had curly light brown hair.
I sat there with my sister beside me, and I talked and talked and talked to this shrink about what was bothering me.
Mostly, I told her I was trying desperately to write a book. I couldn't NOT write it I said. I had tried to give it up, but the book was absolutely haunting me. The nun story about Sister Renata had taken me captive. I was in prison with my character.
I started to give her the fine details of the Sister Renata story. I told her that I was living back in 1883 as much -- or more -- than I was living in 1998. I was living in the golden hills of California. I was sitting in that convent courtyard. I was sleeping on Renata's scratchy straw mattress staring upside down at the crucifix above my/her head. I was feeling her itchy black habit irritate the skin of my/her waist. I was feeling her smooth black onyx rosary beads between my fingers as we prayed to the Virgin Mary.
I am not sure I told her this next part, but I realized later on that as a child, my Grandfather for whom I am named, Claude Rotondo, used to call me "SEESTER" (he had a heavy Italian accent.) He called me that because at age four, I wanted very very badly to become a NUN. Who knows why?
Anyway, the shrink listened and she took copious notes. And when I had finished telling her about the nun novel, I told her about a very weird coincidence. I pulled out the copy of Newsweek that I'd brought and I laid it on the shrink's desk.
"I don't know what you will think of this," I said, "but it seems awfully weird to me that here I am trying desperately to write a novel about a nun, a novel about religious beliefs, and all kinds of spiritual things, and suddenly I find myself on the cover of Newsweek under a giant headline, 'A MATTER OF FAITH'."
The Harvard doctor nodded. She picked up the magazine and read the opening. She was interested, clearly.
I sat there waiting for her recommendation. And when she finally spoke, I couldn't believe what I was hearing her say to me.
"Have you considered getting past-life regression therapy?" she asked.
I blinked. What WAS she suggesting? I was at the time not much of a believer in that sort of thing. I was a science (pre-med) major at Brown University. I was trained at The Wall Street Journal to be a skeptic. I was the sort of reporter and writer who didn't really believe any fact until I had documented it with two or three or more sources. Sources that could be verified in the real world.
"I have not ... considered that," I said. My head was spinning. Me? Past-life regression therapy? PULEEEZ.
She went on to tell me a bit about it. And then she made specific recommendations, suggesting I consult a couple of therapists in the western Massachusetts area. I believe one was in Northampton. She also, I believe, recommend St. John's Wort, and I'm sure we talked about conventional drugs, but I don't recall her giving me a new prescription for an anti-depressant.
I remember leaving that office in a tailspin. I don't remember what my sister said as we drove the Mass Pike home. I don't remember exactly what I thought.
Mostly, I thought the whole idea was kind of nutty. For the life of me, I couldn't imagine consulting a past-life regression therapist. I mean, I was a fiction writer, with one novel finished. I wasn't a lunatic.
Well, so, I never did have past-life regression therapy. The idea of reincarnation...well, it doesn't scare me exactly, it's just...let's just say I am not drawn to participating in it actively. Despite my experiences "as" Sister Renata, when I ask myself, have I lived before, I think, no, I just have a particularly vivid imagination.
I have read a book or two on the topic of past lives however. I am fascinated especially by Dr. Brian Weiss' well-known (and totally bizarre and rather wacky) claims that he has done past-life regression therapy on hundreds of patients.
Weiss is no airy-fairy New Ager. He worked for years as a very traditional psychotherapist until one very, very weird day. According to his website (and his book, Many Lives, Many Masters) Weiss "was astonished and skeptical when one of his patients began recalling past-life traumas that seemed to hold the key to her recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks. His skepticism was eroded, however, when she began to channel messages from 'the space between lives,' which contained remarkable revelations about Dr. Weiss's family and his dead son. Using past-life therapy, he was able to cure the patient and embark on a new, more meaningful phase of his own career."
Who am I to say that Brian Weiss is wrong? I too have experienced what I call a miracle. I too had a totally life-changing personal experience with a medical intuitive -- a clairvoyant, a psychic -- and I have seen "my skepticism eroded" by this and by other more recent experiences (you can read all about them here on this blog!) I too have become a believer in the possibility that the universe and the divine energy that infuses life, the inexplicable and overwhelming and mind-boggling energy we call by various names including GOD, the energy that produces new-born babies and spring pansies and tulips, the energy that inhabits the stars and nebulae, like this one, the Omega Nebula, energy like this that heals wounds and bruises, well, all that remarkable life force that infuses the universe works in ways that we humans cannot possibly explain.
Brian L. Weiss, M.D. has impeccable credentials. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Yale Medical School, He is Chairman Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. However, as you might expect, after he began publishing his work on past-life regression therapy in 1988 -- his many best-selling books have sold millions of copies -- Dr. Weiss was censored by the medical establishment. Not surprising. Recently, Dr. Weiss was the subject of a New York Times' article. Weiss' ideas are, to say the least, very intriguing. The New York Times' article included this fact: "According to data released last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans now believe in reincarnation."
So who am I to say they are wrong? Who am I to say that Dr. Brian Weiss is lying when he says what he says about channeling and the bizarre past lives that his patients live? I cannot really say that I love his books, but whereas I was once a total skeptic, I am now, well, open-minded. Considering the kind of experiences that I've had writing Sister Mysteries, I cannot deny the distinct likelihood that paranormal experiences are possible. No, probable. No. Absolutely possible.
I certainly cannot deny the fact that a psychic medical intuitive absolutely, without any doubt, diagnosed, long distance, the EXACT location of that spot of my cancer. No matter that I had never met the woman. No matter that all she knew about me was my first name. No matter that she was 3,000 miles away in Stowe, Vermont on that day in August 2003 when I was lying in the upstairs guest bedroom of my sister Karen Ricci's Los Angeles area home, where I was visiting.
Well, so here now it is the eighth day of Hanukkah, 2010, or in the Hebrew calendar, 5771. My three beloved children are grown, and out of the house (I miss them all the time.) In a few hours, at sundown, my husband and I will be lighting the eighth Hanukkah candle by ourselves.
But a wonderful new energy has taken over our house this year. It's the same new energy that has taken over my writing. It is a deep spirit of connectedness. A spirit of inclusion and freedom. A spirit of "bridging the binaries" (President Obama, move over, we can all build bridges.)
I wrote a long chapter about binaries recently (it's Chapter Eleven of this book.) In that chapter, I explored
the way in which Sister Mysteries and the companion book, the nun story, Castenata, were for years -- 16 to be exact -- both held back by old-fashioned, binary thinking of the "he said, she said" sort. A hand-me-down from Aristotle and a lot of writers and thinkers of the Age of Reason, this kind of binary thinking still dominates so much of our society.
In that chapter, I wrote specifically about the "virgin/whore" binary that is central to the Castenata story: Sister Renata, a devout nun, is repeatedly cast in her cousin's tales as a seductress, a flamenco dancer in a red satin dress. Lecherous Antonie framed her very convincingly in his tales, so convincingly that she was ultimately arrested and convicted of murder.
It wasn't until I broke through this binary thinking, and began writing THIS VERSION of Sister Mysteries, in a unified voice, one that my friend and healer Denise would call an "intuitive" voice, a "I'm just telling it like it is, folks," a matter-of-fact, TRUE-story kind of voice, made possible by the beautifully freeing magic of blogs, that things began shifting big-time.
And so, I'm seeing the magical shift carrying through the entire household. Not long ago, daughter Jocelyn -- married already a year now to an amazing Jewish man, Evan Guggenheim (they live in Boston, where Jossy is completing her studies to become a nurse practitioner) said something that shocked me out of my socks.
"Mom," she said one day during a conversation, "I have a confession to make." She went on. "Last Christmas, I went out with my downstairs neighbors Lizzie and Ross and we bought a Christmas tree. And we brought it back to their apartment and we decorated it. And it was just so much fun. And so, Mom, I want to say, it was wrong of me to force you to get rid of the Christmas tree so many years ago. Please mom, if you want a Christmas tree this year, you should have one."
Was this really happening? Could it be, could she really after all these years, actually be giving me permission to have a tree (of course many people have said through the years that I was always free to go out and buy a damn tree if I wanted one, but honestly, that didn't feel right to me.)
But now, I was really going to be able to have a tree. This year, after 13 long years. Yippeeee!
The story gets better. Jocelyn and Evan are coming home to Spencertown this weekend, to help decorate the tree with us. In the spirit of ecumenicalism, we are going to make potato pancakes and eat them while we decorate the tree!To say that I am excited might be one of the biggest understatements of all time.
One more thing. Maybe you've read the amazing book, Simple Abundance. My neighbor and old friend Michele Quigley (her daughter Chloe was best friends growing up with my daughter Lindsay) gave me that book an eternity ago, and it sits on a shelf, revered like a pink Bible. It is filled with daily reflections on spirituality. Every time I open it, I learn something new.
I happened to open it the other day, on December 6th, and the title of the chapter was, "The Festival of Lights." Author Sarah Ban Breathnach's writes about the fact that the holiday of Hanukkah commemorates a miracle that occurred in 16 B.C., after Judas Maccabaeus and his followers challenged Greek rule.
"In an attempt to assimilate conquered nations into a cohesive and controllable society, the Greek empire prohibited any other religion; Jews were forced to abandon their faith and ordered to worship Greek gods. By decree, the Temple of Jerusalem was turned into a Greek shrine, and Jews were forbidden to study the Torah, celebrate their holidays or practice Jewish customs."
So what happened? The Maccabees -- followers of Judas Maccabaeus -- came to the rescue! They fought a long guerilla campaign against the repressive Greeks and they won; afterward, the Maccabees decided to have an eight-day purification rite at the temple. One small problem though: nobody remembered to buy enough lamp oil. There was only enough sacred oil to keep the menorah, the eight-pronged lamp, burning for one day.
THE MIRACLE? Just like my candle miraculously burned for five hours when it should have gone out in minutes in Chapter Nine of Sister Mysteries, the temple lamp burned continuously for eight days! Jews through the ages have celebrated this miracle of oil during Hanukkah, eating potato pancakes fried in oil, and spinning those tubby little wooden dreidels decorated with four Hebrew letters -- gimel, hai, shin, and last but not least, the Hebrew letter "nun." The four Hebrew letters stand for the words: A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED THERE.
The letter "nun" is, a stand-in for the
word that in Hebrew means
So here we go, more NUN mysteries all the time.
But to me, what is most amazing about Sarah Ben Breathnach's essay in Simple Abundance (buy that book for somebody this Christmas, it's one of those gifts that just keeps giving!) is that she quotes Jewish scholar Howard Kushner, who suggests that without Hanukkah, there would be no Christmas!
What, you say? How can that be?
Kushner, in his book, To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, explains it this way: Had the Maccabees not revolted against the Greeks, Jews would have disappeared into Greek culture. "There would have been no Jewish community for Jesus to be born into a century and a half later. No one would have remembered the messianic promises he claimed to fulfill. Without Hanukkah, there would have been no Christmas."
So, thanks are in order. Thanks to Howard Kushner, and to Sarah Ben Breathnach, for your inspiring writing.
Thanks to Jocelyn Kirsch, I love you daughter, for being the very special person you are (and for giving your mom permission to buy a tree :).
And thanks especially to the Divine Power that is God, who has room for all religious practices. To God, I say the biggest thanks.
In that Newsweek article, there was one more quote, and it was my mother's; my mother will figure big in this book as it goes forth.
Meanwhile, Mom, I will let you have the last words here, as they appeared in print on December 15, 1997 in Newsweek magazine:
"'There are many paths to God,'" Ricci's Catholic mother complacently observed last month after participating in her granddaughter Jocelyn's Bat Mitzvah."
Yes, indeed, there are many paths to God. What a world it might be -- peaceful now, what a thought that is! -- if we could all really accept the notion that Jews and Christians and Hindus and Muslims and all the rest of the world's believers are all arrowing their way toward God, separately, from different directions. But all of us have the right to believe exactly the way we feel most drawn to believe.
My mom, Dena Ricci, is a devout Catholic, and she took me to church every Sunday when I was a little girl, but she still was enthusiastic to make the most scrumptious challah for each of my babies' Jewish naming ceremonies.
And Ric Ricci, my wonderful dad, hand-made the breadboard, a real work of art, to hold the challah. To both of you, my dear parents, I say thanks for accepting and encouraging me, your daughter, to be a good Jew. One who adores her Christmas tree.
P.S. After we lit the eighth candle tonight, my husband and I took out of the "December holiday cabinet" a bag full of all the dreidels we've collected while the kids were growing up. There we sat at the dinette table, like two little kids, playing the gambling dreidel game. You set your little dreidel spinning. If it lands on "gimmel", you get the whole pot of coins; if it lands on "hay", you get half the pot of coins. If it lands on shin, you put a coin into the pot.
AND IF YOU GET NUN, you get none, i.e. you lose everything. Somehow I think that's funny, considering this nun thing I am writing.