Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Mary Ruth Donnelly reviews Sharman Apt Russell Memoir: “Standing in the Light”

MEMOIR MOVES READER INTO LIGHT

In Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, Sharman Apt Russell invites the reader on a quest to resolve the tensions inevitable to one who proposes to live consciously: living in the nature of the beautiful Gila Valley, New Mexico versus maintaining a job and children’s activities in Silver City; being a good Quaker when Quaker Meeting is on Sunday morning, one of two days left to be outside town; the pantheist belief that the universe as a whole is sacred and the existence of evil ; and the comfort of a personal god compared to possible “ontological loneliness” experienced by the pantheist.

Sharman Apt Russell does not offer any pat answers. What she does is a weave of topics from her life history with a chronicle of one year, November 2005-November 2006, the definition of pantheism and its 2500 year old history, biographies and philosophies of a number of historical figures in the tradition (many persecuted for their thought and lifestyles), bird banding in the Gila Valley, ecological activism, Quakerism, its history and her own current group, her friends in the ecological movement and those in the Sanctuary Movement, and more.

She moves so seamlessly that the reader hardly needs transitions. Discussing Marcus Aurelius’ conclusion that evil is just a name for something misunderstood she cuts to herself and her daughter talking a walk in the Gila Valley at the end of college winter break. Her daughter will be graduating, and Sharman Apt Russell writes of her parental concerns for her daughter who will be going out into the dark streets where there may be real evil. Despite the double space between the sections signaling the changing in time and characters, clearly there is no change in topic, and the questions the author ponders aren’t just intellectual games.

Nearing the midpoint of the book, Sharman Apt Russell recounts a long hiking expedition that helps her clarify her goals. “I want rapture and living communion. I want to play like a child. Above all, like everyone else, I want to find my compassionate heart.” Though she allows no simplistic answers to the questions she poses or to the goals she sets, the books ends with her rapturous witnessing of the dance of the sand hill cranes, a rare sight that early in the memoir she mentions hoping to see.

The year that she is chronicling seems to be a transition point in her and her husband’s life. Early in their marriage they lived “in nature,” but family needs occasioned the move into town. Now they have bought another plot of land and anticipate the time when they can return to more permanent residence there. She says she will be better prepared this time and will take her “friends,” books.

I received the publisher’s postcard announcing Sharman Apt Russell's book, and when colleagues gave me a gift certificate to our local independent book store as a retirement present, this was the first book I purchased to take on my journey. I was not disappointed.

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