Today, one of my students confused the words wander and wonder. Such a simple but strong mistake. The difference of a little line on that “o.” A physical action, a mental action, another mental action. A noun.

And tonight, I see wander wrap into wonder as I finish Sharman Russell’s Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist. The book is both a bit of nature writing and a memoir as it studies Russell’s wonderings about and wanderings in the natural world. Without parsing out what is a highly interwoven and gorgeous text, let me just say that she explores all her subjects – from climate change to javelinas to bird banding to water conservation to religion to travel to her own life process – with compassion, with complexity, with depth.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Sharman was a teacher of mine, and I have this copy of the book because she sent it to me pre-release (the book comes to stores in July). But I hope that even if I didn’t know her, I would still praise this book highly. It spans history, exploring the roots of pantheism (for more on this spiritual movement, visit the World Pantheist website or read Russell’s book) and delves into life’s honest moments, moments that I often avoid. Take, for example, this passage on loneliness:
It sounds good on paper. Me and the earth. Me and the animals. Me
and the sun and moon and stars. But when I am in a bad mood,
pantheism feels more like unrequited love, the dreary task of whipping
up both sides of a relationship. The truth is that I often feel
lonely. I am talk to myself and no one answers. Yada-yada-yada.
Blah-blah-blah. The same stuff I have heard all of my life. I am so
tired of this voice. I am so bored. It may sound strange, but I
don’t want to be alone in my body and mind. I want someone with me.
This is an ontological loneliness that my husband can not redress,
although I love him and he loves me. My children distracted me from
this feeling for a long time, twenty-two years, and then they grew up
and went away. (Which was, of course, the right thing to do. Still,
you can’t help but feel – ungrateful wretches.) Now I am no longer
distracted. I have more time to talk to myself. Yada-yada-yada.
Blah-blah-blah. Now this loneliness seems unending and almost
unbearable.
I have a few theories as to its origin. (1) It is my mother’s fault.
That’s a given. (2) It is a flaw in my character, and I would have
more friends and never feel lonely if I were a better, more
extroverted, more gregarious person. Also quite obvious. (3) I
started out in the womb with a twin sister, but then she died and was
absorbed into my body, and I carry that grief every since. (4) We are
all hard-wired for that Paleolithic tribe of thirty to forty people
with whom we feel intimately linked, but instead I grew up in the
suburbs of Phoenix. (5) It is chemical. It is menopausal. it is
neurotic. It is imaginary. it is the empty nest. (6) It is the loss
of a personal God.

This book isn’t as much advocating for pantheism, as it is explaining it, showing us how Russell lives this life. But it delves into the religion of science, into Buddhism, into Hinduism, into deism, into atheism – it’s a religious catch-all. And everything is treated reverentially, if not approvingly.

Russell’s voice is soft, coaxing, like she’s calling the reader over as she would a tentative cat or the friend’s toddler who doesn’t know her yet. Her description is exquisite; her style languid and luxurious; and her ideas simple, soft, real. Everything is connected – her, me, my student, you . . .

And so I’m back to what she taught me as a student. Look for those “fruitful questions,” the ones you need to know the answers to. . . And for now, I want to ask her, “How do I write like you?”

Cover of Russell's Standing in the Light