Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's All Material: Finding the Truth Every Day

I went to a Catholic wedding recently. I’m Jewish, and I’ve gone to many weddings in my life, Jewish and Christian, but this was only my second Catholic wedding. The first was when my beloved fourth grade teacher got married at the end of the year. (She is the teacher, by the way, who affirmed my love of books by, among other things, having a bathtub in the classroom for us to read in—-dry and dressed, of course.) I remember only a few things about Miss Ryan’s wedding: it was in a huge cathedral and I sat in the back. Miss Ryan looked beautiful. When I saw her afterward she said to me, "Are you surprised to see your teacher as a bride?" I shook my head no, even though I knew that was not the right answer. She looked like a princess every day. (I have confirmed this fact with former classmates.)

Anyway, to get back on topic (see, teachers, what a huge influence you have on us kids!)--I am fascinated by religion—I majored in religious studies in college, I wrote a series of books for National Geographic “Holidays Around the World,” and I wrote about the religious differences between Charles and Emma Darwin. So maybe that’s why as I sat in the beautiful service, I knew I had to get more information. Or maybe it’s that I write non-fiction books for kids as a living, and I’m always wool gathering, always looking for the truth. So last Saturday I came as a happy friend of the mother of the groom, but I was also there, apparently, as a researcher. What was much of the assembled saying in response to the priest? What was the priest saying to himself over the wine while the soloist sang? What is that altar for, as opposed to that one? I watched as people went up for Communion and I wondered why some took the cracker from the priest’s hand and others had him put it directly into their mouths. When the service was over, and everyone else filed out, I got my husband (who writes non-fiction for grown-ups) and a (lapsed Catholic) friend to go up to the priest with me. To say we interviewed him would be stretching it. We didn’t pull out tape recorders or notebooks, though we had notebooks with us, as we always do, and I was tempted. We asked him lots of questions, which he answered willingly and with enthusiasm. (I forgot to ask him about the communion cracker taking. I will have to look that up. Or maybe someone here will tell me first.) We talked to him for a good twenty minutes, which really enhanced the experience for me. I don’t know if I will ever use this in a book, or where I will go with it, but I am so glad I asked the questions. The priest was glad, too.

When you write non-fiction, it’s very hard to turn off the need to know. And why should we? You can never tell when something might spark an idea for a book, or fit into the one you’re writing, or might write years later, or end up as deep background for something else. When I went to Down House in 1999 I didn’t know I was going to write a book on Charles and Emma Darwin. But I loved what I was seeing and so I took notes, took mental and actual snapshots, asked questions of the tour guides, and bought a great book from the gift shop. Because I had that non-fiction writer's head on that day, I had a leg up when I sat down to write Charles and Emma years later.

But to be honest, I almost always have that head on. I take notes when I go to museums, when I see something of particular interest on a street corner, or in the country. I questions of everyone I meet: scientists, painters, architects, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, cab drivers, chefs. It turns out Charles Darwin posed questions to many different people while he was figuring out his idea of evolution by natural selection. He thought it best to go right to the experts: farmers, pigeon fanciers, his hairdresser, his friends who gardened, Emma, his children, the vicar in Downe. He wrote their answers in his notebooks and used them later as examples in his argument. I'm no Charles Darwin, but if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. And you.

When I told my son I was working on this blog post, I said I thought it could be really helpful for teachers. They could tell their students that real authors ask questions wherever they go, and so should they. It’s a great way to learn. Aaron nodded, and said, in his 23-year-old understated way, “Some of us live our lives this way just because it’s fun.” Yup.


Mark Herr said...

A bathtub for reading? I think I am very envious.

Karen Romano Young said...

Aaron is absolutely right. I would interview everyone on the subway if I could, and often do. My dream job is my shipboard research trips where I am on a ship for 3 weeks with captive subjects; my purpose is to find out everything I can about every one of them and everything they're doing, and to report back to central. Wha ha ha.

And I can answer the questions about Communion, if you want, as a funloving lapsed Catholic.

teacherninja said...

Great post! Live the questions.

April Pulley Sayre said...

Good post! I also like the comment "live the question." I once had a fascinating plane ride with a guy who distributes chickens to be raised by farmers. Oh, and my favorite seatmate was a farrier who was flown in by wealthy folks to diagnose their horses' gaits and fix them via horseshoes. The only time I keep myself from asking questions is in taxis on highways. I have discovered that some folks cannot talk and steer!

Pat Brisson said...

I'm glad the wedding was so interesting for you. I'm sure the priest enjoyed his conversation with you.

Since I know you love to learn things, I will point out that the communion "cracker" is generally referred to as a wafer.

As He-Man used to say "Now you know - and knowing is half the battle!"

Pat Brisson said...

I'm glad the wedding was so interesting for you. I'm sure the priest enjoyed his conversation with you.

Since I know you love to learn things, I will point out that the communion "cracker" is generally referred to as a wafer.

As He-Man used to say "Now you know - and knowing is half the battle!"

Deborah Heiligman said...

Sorry about the cracker/wafer mistake. My husband actually pointed it out and I forgot to correct it. So what is the answer to the question of why some people have it put in their mouths and others take it with their hands?

Mark Herr said...

The answer has to do with the fear of cooties, I believe.

Susan Kuklin said...

Great post! I find asking questions much more creative than answering them. "Live the question" is such a good phrase. It is to nonfiction writers what "in the bones" is to a dancer learning new steps. May we all use it?

Off to read in the bathtub. A great idea on a hot day.

PS: Love the links

Margaret E. Perry said...

wonderful post! Live the question; seek the truth! I love it.

As a practicing (and funloving) Catholic,let me answer your question: the host was traditionally received on the tongue always.

This tradition was based in the belief that the host IS Christ, and therefore should be treated with the utmost reverence and adoration. We are unworthy of being visited by God--so in receiving on the tongue it is total gift: we have nothing to do but accept.

After Vatican II, the rules were changed, and Catholics are allowed to recieve Communion in the hands. It is simply a matter of personal preference.

(Sometimes the diocese or individual church will mandate during flu season that people receive in the hands, to help with fighting the spread of illness.)