Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist
by Sharman Apt Russell

Basic Books, 2008. ISBN 0465005179.
Reviewed by Susan Hanson
Posted on 07/22/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

In our collective imagination, life-changing revelations are supposed to occur on mountaintops or in deserts or in similarly dramatic landscapes. Not so for Sharman Apt Russell. For her, the front porch will do just fine.

It was while sitting on her front porch steps in Silver City, New Mexico, she writes in Standing in the Light, that she finally realized what that word—Light—meant. She sets the scene:

In front of me on my porch step was a strip of grass, a sidewalk, a strip of asphalt, more sidewalk, a stone wall, pine trees and, higher above, electrical wires. Cars drove by. A raven gurgled. White clouds floated in the blue sky.

No all-consuming fire. No pillar of cloud. No voice from heaven. Just ordinary life. And then, she continues:

I had my epiphany: "The Light is all this," I said to myself. The Light was the steps, the street, the raven, the sky. The Light was everything, the universe conceived-of-as-a-whole, mysterious and material and right here.

For readers familiar with mystics of any tradition, what Russell is describing is a "unitive experience," a transient certainty that one is part of a great whole. Occurring "out of time and space," the experience nevertheless conveys a sense of holy presence, a sacredness of place right here, right now. But that is only part of the paradox. Life-changing as it is, this mystical awareness is also ineffable; try as she might, the writer can find no words to describe it. And yet, she continues to try.

Part memoir, part spiritual autobiography, part history of philosophy, Standing in the Light might be more aptly subtitled My Life as a Seeker Who Wonders How Pantheism Developed and How It Fits into the Quaker Faith. Given the book's structure—its weaving together of personal narrative and history, both local and global—it's sometimes hard to see exactly where Russell is going. But after following her for a while, the reader doesn't care about that anymore. Like Russell, he or she learns to wait in silence for the Light. As the Quakers say in such times of uncertainty, "Way will open."

What is most surprising—and interesting—about this extraordinary book is its focus on Quakerism. Granted, Russell explains the connection in her Introduction, writing,

Quakerism is central to my experience, and I am grateful to belong to a Quaker Meeting that allows for pantheism as one of its beliefs. My title, Standing in the Light, comes from the Quaker phrase "to stand in the Light," a concept with many meanings, encompassing political beliefs as well as spiritual. In my case, it is very much related to the bright New Mexican sky.

That said, her explanation is very easy to miss.

Readers familiar with Russell's earlier work, particularly Songs of the Fluteplayer: Seasons of Life In The Southwest, will know that she and her husband moved to rural New Mexico in the early 1980s, building a homestead outside of Silver City. Writing, teaching, and raising two children filled many of those first years, but Russell found time to begin her on-again, off-again relationship with the local Quaker Meeting. After 15 years, she and her family also tried city living for a while, ultimately realizing that she belonged in the country. It was as if a voice in her head was telling h er, "This is who you are. This is what you need. Pay attention." She did. With both kids in college, she and husband Peter Russell now live in the country again, very near the Gila River.

In Standing in the Light, Sharman Apt Russell is very clearly trying to sort things out. Living closer to nature, she says that she is ready to "go deeper" now. This time—referring to her move back to the country as a kind of second chance—she promises to pay closer attention and to "take along some friends," books she's allowed to gather dust for far too long. She writes,

I will take along my science, my neglected pantheism, my neglected Quakerism. If I know anything, I know that I do not want to live in a universe devoid of community, mystery, and awe. I do not want to be alone in my brain, my timid and lazy personality, unconnected to the rest of the world. I cast my lot with Spinoza, Thoreau, and Einstein. I want to live every minute in a holy universe, so pleased and grateful to be part of this existence.

It is an ambitious undertaking, but Russell's transparency and sheer desire to live with integrity and joy leave the reader feeling satisfied at the end. Russell answers none of her own questions, though she does finally make a firm commitment to her local Meeting. By the end of the book, she also seems content to treat this quest of hers as a continual process. Out in the Gila watershed, she writes,

I walk my sabbatical place. I let go of some of the busy-ness and rejoice in the Creation's goodness. Flow and merge. I can wear a Quaker hat, a scientist's lab coat, a Taoist pin with a funny saying, and the running shoes of a pantheist. This is the new syncretism, which is also the old syncretism. Revelation is ongoing, and our understanding of the spirit, the atman, the Middle Way, and the Tao is not yet over.

Russell's practice, "standing in the Light," will go on.

Sharman Apt Russell is the author of several books, including Hunger and Songs of the Fluteplayer, which won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has written for publications including Discover and Nature Conservancy, and currently contributes to OnEarth, the magazine for the National Resource Defense Council. Russell teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University and at Antioch University in Los Angeles, California. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico. Visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of Standing in the Light.

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