Growing Up Godless
Robert Isaacs worked as a juggler and unicyclist on the streets of San Francisco before turning to music. During his thirty-year career he conducted everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Cook Islands, released a dozen CDs, and earned a Grammy nomination. Isaacs recently finished his second novel, a magical realist romantic comedy.
Although I was never baptized, I've lead worship in many of the grandest churches of America—and around the world, too; Sweden, Uruguay, Australia, the Chapel Royal in London, a white-washed Māori church in the Cook Islands. Perhaps a paid chorister is no better than any other mercenary, but I prefer to think of myself as an anthropologist, and, after so many Sundays, I've come to feel at home in the Christian church. I enjoy straightening my back in prayer and pacing precisely two pews behind the next singer and tasting that delicious pause before two hundred humans say, "Amen." I like the smell of a church—that potpourri of dusty wood stain and incense, with a hint of hymnals.
Churches are seductive buildings even for those with no faith. On a recent walk, I paused (as I often do) to admire one. Houses nestle comfortably into the ground, shopping centers sprawl fatly across the landscape, but every church yearns upward: all its energy is concentrated in that last brick, the highest stone, closest to God. Even the mightiest skyscraper in Manhattan, thrusting itself blindly toward the clouds, seems less lofty than the church in its shadow. Like a diminutive grandmother who remembers being tall in childhood, a city church carries her height with dignity.
Having stopped for a look, I'm now tugged off the sidewalk and through the high doors. The city vanishes. I sit in a pew. I listen. Here in the halls of Episcopalia, echoes feel intimate, more personal than the babel which assaults the ear in train stations and public libraries. The church disregards clattering shoes and rustling pages; she listens intently to us, to me—my breathing, my heartbeat, my thoughts.
I wonder. Am I drawn to the church, or the Church?
Suzanne Rico's Commentary
From the opening paragraph, a beautiful present-tense moment of stepping into someone else's life, "Growing Up Godless" takes the reader on an adventure through religion, a realm nearly all of us have visited in some manner but very few from Robert Isaacs's particular vantage point. As someone who has never been involved in organized religion myself, this is a seductive piece of writing, even--especially?--for those of no faith. I loved getting to know parents and grandparents, brought to life with fine strokes--"Grandma Fan is the daughter of St. Louis' real-estate king, a staunch Christian Scientist: she tootles around in the town's first car and is coddled by cooks and butlers and gardeners, but Fan is too fiercely independent to accept any ready-made identity--social, political, or spiritual." And while I found two viable endings in this essay, I cannot quibble because as a whole, the story works so beautifully. Thank you, author, for reclaiming...for reclaiming the word "God" for private use.
in conversation with
RS: When did you decide this was a story you were interested in?
RI: Any choir member who tunes out the sermons is left with a lot of time for self-reflection, so I suppose my thoughts began to percolate during those twenty-minute stretches, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Curiously, although I've worked in both writing and music throughout my life, I've rarely combined them; this is one of the few pieces I've written that explores my identity as a singer.
RS: How did the project change over time?
RI: This essay had an unusually long gestation. The earliest draft was written when I was in graduate school a quarter-century ago, and was moved from drawer to drawer for many years. As such, the revision process was many-layered: not just trimming sentences and weighing word choice and testing the structure, but also assessing whether I still agreed with my younger self. In truth, holding those beliefs up to the light again brought a sense of confidence that I rarely feel about my writing. The essay’s conclusions, a brave prediction when first written, are now words I’ve lived by for almost half my life.
RS: In writing a story about religion, were there certain taboos that you were actively trying to avoid?
RI: That’s an interesting question. No, I just wrote as honestly as I could. I do sincerely hope no devout Christians will be offended by my outsider’s perspective on their faith; while I don’t end up subscribing to the tenets of that or any other religion, I’ve tried to circle back to a place of respect. If I failed in that regard for any reader, I offer humble apologies.
RS: Did you find that your career as a musician has informed or inspired your writing?
RI: Oh, in every way. Literature and music are art forms that move through time: the rhythmic balance of sentences--internally, and in conjunction with each other--is central when I'm writing. Metaphor is fundamental in both fields, too. During a choral rehearsal or individual voice lesson, the right metaphor can transform the sound; that flash of creativity feels very much like the aha moment at a keyboard. I once told a choir to imagine the last traces of sound fleeing their bodies in every direction like a hundred hamsters scurrying offstage. God knows why it worked, but it was the best diminuendo they ever achieved.
There's an additional, worldly way in which the music industry prepared me for this second career in writing: there's a lot of rejection in both. A tough skin and a sense of perspective are essential. In three decades of directing choirs, I auditioned thousands of singers and had to turn away many of them--which was never easy, yet there was nothing personal about it. Agents and editors who face the same winnowing challenge have my sympathy even when my own writing doesn't make the cut.
RS: Do you currently have any music/writing projects in the works?
RI: Thanks for asking! I've written a novel which is currently with my agents (Jenny Bent and James Mustelier, of the Bent Agency) and will hopefully find a publisher soon. In it, a man who never speaks up for himself is suddenly surrounded by animals who do. So it's a story about finding your voice, though not in the musical sense. Another novel--a straight-up thriller about the SAT's--is languishing in a drawer, but may get resurrected someday.
On the musical side, I sang with the PATRAM choir for their new recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers, scheduled for release next year. We recorded in the monastery atop the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, fitting our takes between the calls of the muezzin from the mosque nearby. And I'm headed to Wales in a couple weeks to develop ear training pedagogy with faculty at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I feel fortunate that music has brought me to so many places around the world; that kind of travel fills my eyes and ears with sensations that inevitably find their way into my writing.