Da Capo Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-306-80804-2.
Reviewed by Sherry Wachter
Posted on 09/23/2010
In her memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth novelist and nature writer Brenda Peterson explores the paradox of a family both deeply in love with nature and deeply committed to the belief that the true salvation will only come with the earthÕs destruction.
The lone liberal in a family of conservative Southern Baptists, Peterson writes lyrically about her early childhood in a Forest Service station—and in a world where God and Satan, and the impending Rapture are as real as the forests she loves. She traces her path away from her conservative Southern Baptist childhood, through the Civil Rights era, protests at Berkeley, a fledging career at The New Yorker, another career farming in Colorado, and then yet a third career as a nature writer in Seattle.
Peterson's account of a transformative period in American history is fascinating. Equally fascinating is the more intimate journey she and her family take in finding paths through the deep religious and political schisms that divide them. The climax of the book comes in an epiphany—that fundamentalists and environmentalists butt heads not because they are so very different, but because they are flip sides of the same coin.
One day, Peterson lists the defining characteristics of fundamentalists and environmentalists:
|Enraptured by doom||Enraptured by doom|
|Apocalypse Now||Apocalypse Near|
|Fear of future consequences||Fear of future consequences|
|Righteous anger||Righteous anger|
|Thou shalt not||Thou shalt not|
|Holier than thou||Holier than thou|
|Blame, shame, judgment||Blame, shame, judgment|
She continues: "This list was so disturbing to me that I immediately put it in the back of my notebook, feeling disloyal to all my own environmental causes. Yet I could not help but see that both sides were so busy envisioning a future Eden that they took no time to appreciate the present moment. I began to watch myself whenever I tended to fall into the simple formulas of my heritage: black-and-white thinking, a belief that I knew all the right answers. This was a much more unsettling path wandering a wilderness of uncomfortable gray areas. I was seeking common or even uncharted ground. Or, as Rumi says, 'Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I will meet you there.'"
The list highlights a central theme: As long as we inhabit the far reaches of any extreme, conversation is difficult—or impossible. That epiphany changes the way Peterson relates to her remarkable family. Increasingly, she seeks common ground, conversation rather than conversion, and in the end learns to find rapture in her family as well as in the world around her.
In an time when concerns about moral and ecological decay give rise to increasingly heated, polarized debate, Peterson's book comes as a breath of fresh air—a reminder that the earth and its inhabitants are a joy as well as a responsibility, and that the best path to our future lies in seeking, and finding, the common ground that lies in the fields beyond. I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth is available through Amazon, and at bookstores everywhere.
Brenda Peterson has taught writing for 27 years, first as a Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University, then at University of Washington, and since then over two decades of private classes. She works with people from all over the world on bringing their book projects into the world. "It's my way of giving way and passing on all I have learned—from my first five years as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine in the 1970s to all I've figured out in writing and publishing my sixteen books," Peterson says. She is currently working on a book about writing, as well as the YA sequel to Animal Heart. For more on Brenda Peterson's books check out her Amazon author page, or visit her website or the book website.
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