When novelist and nature writer Brenda Peterson taught creative writing in Arizona she was disturbed by her students' penchant for killing off their characters. For one semester she forbade death as a plot resolution. The results were notable and revealing:
Soon they began to attach to their characters more empathetically and to expand their character's possibilities. Plots changed, relationships between characters opened up, there was a commitment to continuing lives. A love scene was much harder to write than a death scene.
In her new memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, Peterson issues a similar challenge to doomsayers of all fundamentalist stripes, environmental and religious, asking: "What if both camps simply stopped all their fear mongering and found a new story?"
That new story is Brenda Peterson's own story, and she shares it with great tenderness, humor, poignancy, and yes rapture, a quality for which she has gift, as one of her professors notes. Born to conservative Southern Baptist parents, her first home is in the high Sierra where her father served as a forest ranger. Her early childhood, where she was surrounded by more animals than people, (including a rattlesnake with whom she once enjoyed a peaceful sunny nap), was her own Eden and a template for her life.
Peterson grew up to be the lone left wing (or feather) of her family, the green sheep. Yet her passionate love of this earth becomes a point of connection as well contention with three generations of her family. All of them eagerly anticipate the Rapture and fret only that Brenda will be left behind. Their arguments over global warming are so heated they might be considered a contribution to the trend. Yet they find common ground, literally, in their attention to life on this planet. When she and her father can speak of nothing else during the Vietnam War years, Peterson listens raptly (yes) to his description of Aspen roots:
"Aspen can live together thousands of years, even though each individual tree only lasts about fifty to one hundred and fifty years above ground. But its roots live on in the shared system." He paused to look at me meaningfully. "It's like a family."
Peterson leaves her family's faith and finds her own spiritual practice that like the Dalai Lama's, she quips, "is private." But she never stops seeking ways to share heaven on earth with her kin. In one of my favorite scenes, Peterson and her parents declare a moratorium on all talk of politics and religion and go to visit the Gray whales in the Baja birthing lagoons. The whales themselves are a new story. Formerly hunted, some bearing harpoon scars, the whales seek out human contact, proudly and trustingly introducing their newborns. No one knows why.
"It is a mystery," says one of the Mexican guides, "I think maybe las ballenas... the whales... are like God. They forgive us... They forgive us todo... everything.
With this luminous, surprising memoir, Brenda Peterson completes her own assignment, giving us a story where no one is killed, dismissed, or left behind, where empathy is not only possible but imperative, where rapture can be ours here and now.
For more about Elizabeth Cunningham: The Maeve Chronicles.