The God Question

Terrible tragedy inevitably raises the question: How could a just God allow bad things to happen to good people? Whether you grew up believing in God, or later opened to the possibility of a higher power, when confronted by loss you are likely to question your faith. Or you may believe it’s simply a random universe.

Whichever way your cookie crumbles, Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, arrives at a hard won answer. Kushner has grappled with unexplainable suffering and loss, and emerged with wisdom.

His conclusion: Things happen in life that God has nothing to do with.

Kushner offers powerful testimony based on personal tragedy – the illness, suffering, and death of his son Aaron at the age of 14.

When I wrote Swimming with Maya, I had not read Kushner’s book. On the surface, it would seem that Rabbi Kushner and I have little in common. But we are forever united in our struggle with divine injustice, in our anger at God for “taking our children,” and in our ultimate reconciliation with a higher power whose nature remains mysterious but whose essence includes a place for free will, random occurrences, and loss.

God is not an all-powerful parent who exists for the express purpose of protecting good people from bad things. God is way more complicated.

After Maya died, I screamed and yelled, cursed and cried, and told God that my daughter’s death was a terrible mistake. I begged on my knees for God to send Maya back to us. I fought as hard as I could to win God over to my point of view. In essence, I threw a two-year-long tantrum.

“It’s God’s will,” or the worst platitude, “She’s in a better place now,” made me want to scream. People say these things because they want to avoid the uncomfortable truth. I saw that God didn’t have control over Maya’s choices on the afternoon she was thrown from the back of a horse. In the end, I realized that God had not “taken” Maya.

Like a lovers quarrel that resolves into deeper understanding and connection, I finally reconciled with God. Anger was fruitless.

As I write in my book, “God is a probability specialist constantly shuffling multiple alternate realities. There are an infinite number of possibilities for the outcome of any event. Every outcome depends on human choice because we have free will.”

We label things “good” or “bad,” but the infinite mind of God does not operate in this limited fashion. In the end, like Rabbi Kushner, I made my peace with random tragedy. God never personally punishes the bad or rewards the good – nothing I had done in any lifetime could have caused the suffering I felt. It just was. Maya died. God had nothing to do with it.

Reaching this kind of spiritual maturity is hard work. Most of us get there only if we are driven to it. A lucky few may attain it without great suffering. I don’t personally know them. I do know an honest spiritual seeker when I encounter one, and Rabbi Kushner is such a person.

I hope you’ll read When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Swimming with Maya – and then pass them along to others who are looking for comfort and inspiration. There are no easy answers to the God question, but these books wrestle with it honestly.



Happy Rebirthday!

I’m throwing a party for the rebirth of Swimming with Maya. Thanks to the power of networking, it has a new life as a paperback and eBook.

But in 2010, the future of my book did not look bright. Capital Books, the independent Swimming with Mayapublisher that issued the hardback in 2004, was closing its doors. My beautiful book about raising daughters and rebounding after loss would be pulped.

I tried everything I could think of to sell the remaining hardback copies – and had some success. But even if I sold them all, the book would still slowly fade and die. I considered the Author’s Guild program “Back in Print” that creates print-on-demand books for authors in situations like mine. But I’d have to live with a generic book cover and format, and no marketing support for the book.

Sadly, this story is not uncommon. Small publishers close their doors with alarming frequency. And big publishers – those consolidated megaliths – can arbitrarily dump an author if sales don’t measure up.

In worst-case scenarios, authors get little or no notice. My dear friend Madeline Sharples, author of Leaving the Hall Light On, a courageous tale of resilience and recovery following the suicide of her son Paul, had recently received three days notice that her publisher was closing.

Madeline Sharples

Madeline Sharples

Madeline and I met at a writing workshop at Esalen, just months after Paul’s death in 1999, and instantly connected. Over the years, we saw each other whenever we could, and stayed in touch by phone and email, becoming cheerleaders for each other’s ventures in the world of small publishing.

Madeline reached out to other writers when she learned that her book was about to go out of print. She soon connected with a small press in Chicago called Dream of Things that agreed to republish her memoir in paperback and eBook format. She promised to introduce me to the publisher, Mike O’Mary.

At the same time, in the spring of 2012, I had just marked the 20th anniversary of Maya’s death. As I sat under a giant California oak tree just yards from her grave, I got a strong message from Maya: “Mom, I want you to bring back our book.” Maya did not want to be forgotten, and I didn’t want her to be!

As in life, she insisted on her place in the spotlight.

That afternoon at the cemetery I made a promise to my daughter. One way or another, Swimming with Maya would be back.

Maya at age 18

Maya at age 18

A few days later, I called Madeline.

True to her word, she introduced me to Dream of Things founder Mike O’Mary, and by the fall of 2012 I had a contract. Mike worked tirelessly to reissue the book and in February of 2013, the new version was published.

Madeline and I were both born under the sign of Taurus. (My birthday is May 14, hers is May 20.) We never give up! I was with her in Los Angeles in May of 2011 for the original launch of Leaving the Hall Light On, and she will be with me on Friday, May 17, for the “Rebirthday Party” of Swimming with Maya.

Please join us at 7 pm, May 17, at Studio One Art Center, 365 45th Street, in Oakland. Or come at 5:30 pm, and join the fun at “Bites off Broadway,” showcasing amazing local food trucks, hosted by my friend Karen Hester.

Come celebrate new beginnings in life and in publishing with us!

Madeline and Eleanor

Madeline and Eleanor