“A woman, in those days, did not count. So even after we were married, people continued to say that John lived alone in the wilderness…” – The Wife of John the Baptist
When I began my research for a novel about John the Baptist, I expected to find a wild man dressed in camel hair robes, eating locusts and honey in the desert. The enigmatic and mysterious man I found was quite different. The man I found was charismatic, passionate, popular and brave.
Although John spent part of his eventful life alone in the rough wilderness, he was often surrounded by thirty to seventy disciples, some of whom wanted him to lead them in an all out war against Rome. Roman-occupied Judea was a crossroads filled with colorful people from far-flung corners of the world and many traveled great distances just to hear John speak. The Judea of John the Baptist was the kind of rich, turbulent environment where innovative thought and cultural movements are often born.
“In the marketplaces there were Phoenician traders from the sea coast, jewelers from Jerusalem, fine pottery merchants from Greece, and even magicians from Egypt. The crowds moved through the market like a noisy, flowing, human mosaic and they created a rich, spawning ground, the cultural river that was Judea.” – The Wife of John the Baptist
John’s ideas were groundbreaking. But preaching a new way of thought to the downtrodden poor in Roman-occupied Judea was a treasonous act of rebellion and he was in constant danger for his life. It was a time of great cruelty and bloodshed where the Romans massacred groups of people they found along the Jordan, branding them cults and zealot revolutionaries. Through his courage, John the Baptist altered human history and changed our way of thinking forever.
“The real heartbeat of our community was John when he emerged alone from the wilderness, and stood on a rise by the banks of the Jordan. He faced Jerusalem and delivered a simple message. His powerful, sonorous voice carried through the dry air of the valley up to the very gates of the City of Salt. ‘Even war with Rome will not give us the freedom we seek. Purify your own souls by right action, and where the soul has gone the body will follow. All good souls are free.’” – The Wife of John the Baptist
The more I learned about John, the more intrigued I became. Because John the Baptist was a charismatic, passionate man, I became convinced that he must have had love in his life. So my research took a unique turn, I began to search for his wife.
I spent the next few months begging librarians in far away cities to loan me books that no one had checked out since the last century, and that arrived smelling of mildew and neglect. I spoke with history professors, experts on religion, rabbis and Christian ministers. What I found was that there was a strong likelihood that John was married, though there was no definitive proof either way.
One elderly theologian put it best, “John the Baptist was probably married. A thirty-year-old man of the rabbi class would have been expected to marry so that a wife could keep him out of trouble! The cultural expectation placed on him to marry would have been very great. Besides the practice of celibacy in the priesthood didn’t come about until long after John was dead.”
So I began sorting through the bare historical facts and limited details of John’s life and filling in the blanks with ‘the imagination of the possible’. In the end, the real reason I gave John the Baptist a wife was out of love and respect for the man he was. It was also out of the belief that he deserved a helpmate to stand with him through his short, dangerous and tumultuous life. From the standpoint of a fiction writer, his wife became a character to bear witness and tell his tragic tale. Who better to describe John than the wife who loved and understood him.
“The first time I saw John, I noticed that he was taller than most men, like a king with unruly black hair and a beard. He had the dark, sculpted body of a slave and a poor man’s gray robe, but he wasn’t at work in the marketplace. He was watching goods being unloaded for the market, just as we were. He was a stranger yet he spoke with people easily, as if he had met them before and was getting reacquainted. He had large hands, yet he never gestured when he spoke like other men did. What surprised us most was that he had the beautiful, dark eyes of a wild girl. He never noticed us, even though we stared at him for a long time. I knew I should not be looking at him, but he was very handsome so I covered my face with my veil and continued to stare. When he moved away from the crowds, he picked up a bundle and a staff, both common symbols of an itinerant philosopher, a follower of the Greek tradition. And on that first day I mistook him for a poor philosopher.”
The novel I intended to write turned out very differently. Instead The Wife of John the Baptist became an intimate portrayal of a marriage. The Wife of John the Baptist is a tribute to the timeless and unshakable love that triumphs when all else is lost.
A few years ago, a local teacher asked me if I would give her students a lesson on how to be more creative. Teaching creativity is something of a daunting task and all the how-to blogs and articles full of bullet points only give us a pinhole’s insight into what creativity is and how to achieve more of it. Even though I had no idea what the lesson was going to be, I decided to accept her challenge.
I showed up for class, which took place at picnic tables under a Banyan tree. I began by telling my borrowed students that we were going to experience ‘the fireworks of the mind’. Their faces lit up in excitement. It was clear that most of them knew exactly what I meant. Next I defined creativity as the juxtaposition of things that don’t usually belong together. I gave the students pairs of word such as, ‘tigers and tennis shoes’, ‘books and battering rams’, or ‘tulips and terrorists’. We created stories around all these pairs, adding more unusual images as we went along, ‘delightful politics’, ‘heavy flowers’, ‘underground sky’, and ‘dry water’. By the end of the lesson, they had written many wonderful stories. They even continued to make creative connections in their other classes for the rest of the day. I walked away happy with the lesson but I don’t think I taught those students how to be creative. All I did was give them a place and a means and most importantly, I gave them permission to be creative.
When I sat down to write this post, I tried to define creativity but the more I wrote, the harder it got to pin down. Creativity is more than ‘fireworks of the mind’. It’s more than making innovative connections between unrelated things. And as far as the how-to of being more creative, the possibilities that presented themselves to me were endless.
Maybe Creativity is Survival.
Is creativity what happens when an innovative caveman united a spark and a pile of twigs creating the first fire, the first warm winter and the first cooked dinner? Is it when a Medieval doctor paired a horrible disease with a dreaded poison and invented an unlikely cure? And faced with our own possible extinction, will our longing to survive bring about a wealth of creativity, a Renaissance-like race for survival?
Maybe Creativity is Human Nature.
Maybe the urge to create is as much human nature as the urge to eat, drink and sleep. After all, even our cells create new cells. It’s our sexual nature to create oneness out of two people. It’s our nature to create children. Is creativity so deeply embedded in our DNA that it defines us? Does the creative impulse find its way into every single human experience simply because we can’t help ourselves, simply because it’s who we are? Maybe this is the reason we are thirsty for explosions of innovation and the tantalizing sizzle of new ideas. And maybe this is why creativity is food for the brain, helping the mind to grow beyond itself.
Maybe Creativity is Adventure.
Is creativity another way to experience the path of the ancient explorer? Maybe we long to travel and experience the exotic in order to create something groundbreaking from the pairing of our old knowledge and new experience? Maybe creativity is the adventure of following the mysterious muse no matter where it takes us.
Maybe creativity is believing in the possibility of everything without judgment or criticism. If a culture that is new to you, asks you to believe in fairies living in bushes, ghosts cooking in the kitchen or the musical talent of plants in the garden, embrace it all. Fodor for the imagination is the creative gold we all seek.
We can find creativity in the melodic rhythm of a new language, the rawness of a ceremonial dance or the monotonous nothingness of a city train ride when the mind begins to soar. Creativity is in everything. It’s in nothing. Maybe creativity is just God.
Maybe Creativity is Insanity.
Is creativity the logic of lunatics, a logic that makes no sense except to the creative ear? Just in case it is, be grateful for the insane people in your life. You are especially lucky if they are in your own family because then you receive the full benefit of their zany stories and unique outlook. Be thankful if you have a community of unusual people around you because then creativity can be like light, bouncing ideas off of others like atoms at play.
Maybe Creativity is the Lack of a Box.
Someone once asked me the question, “What is your creative writing process?” I found this difficult to answer since I don’t think of myself as a writer. The way I see it, I’m a dusty sculptor shaping and chiseling away at a story, a mad painter splashing a colorful scene or larger than life character on the page, a serious pianist beating out the rhythm of the story using words as a keyboard, and a playful chef melding flavors, colors, textures and aromas together on the page. Creativity is a dramatic, messy, glorious business. Perhaps we come closest to understanding creativity when we realize it’s not, ‘thinking outside the box’. It’s the realization that there is no box.
Maybe creativity is all of these things I’ve listed or maybe I’ve missed the point entirely. Whatever creativity is, give yourself permission to find it, explore it, imagine it and get lost in it. Above all, give yourself permission to recreate the world.
Summer vacation when I was a child meant three months with nothing to do. My family always retreated to our old home in the mountains where there were no TVs, no computers, no cell phones and few people. At first it was boring and the slower pace of life was as difficult to adjust to as jet lag. But it was also a relief to have no looming deadlines, no to-do lists and no expectations other than the ones I placed on myself.
Soon I filled my time with hiking, swimming, reading, writing, art, music and the most inspiring thing of all, just doing nothing. When older relatives visited, we sat around the campfire. They told stories while I asked questions. We played scrabble and cards and so many simple games that I can’t even remember. Sometimes we tried to outdo each other by making up off-the-cuff stories and poems. There was only one downside to my leisurely summers. When I returned to school in the fall, I hadn’t spent my days watching movies and drinking soda, so I was seriously behind on my movie watching and sugar intake.
Sometimes when my daughter and I are overwhelmed with commitments, endless to-do lists, the internet, phones and gadgets, I find myself wishing that the electricity would go out. Then we would have an excuse to do nothing but tell stories, play games and shape animals out of softened candle wax.
I do try to create times when we have nothing to do, but it’s not always easy. Sometimes we go camping or hiking or we just sit in the backyard and look at the stars. Sometimes we talk. Other times we are silent. At least for a little while, we have nothing to do and in that moment, we have everything.
Publisher’s Weekly Review for ‘The Wife of John the Baptist’, quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
It’s always a pleasure and a relief to receive a positive review, especially from a source such as The Publisher’s Weekly. Only a few more weeks to go before they announce the next round of finalists. Wish me luck!
This is not the John of the Gospels. Instead, he is sensual, sociable, humorous, easy-going, flirtatious, and sexually active. And, yes, he is married. And a father. This previously unexplored angle is deftly traced by the woman of the title, Hessa, daughter of a Greek trader in the Roman province of Judea, who is possessed of the unique ability of knowing the history of an object and the character of a person simply by touch. Fleeing her father’s wrath after their marriage, the two wander the desert, moving from one encampment of outsiders to the next. All the while, John vehemently rejects the title of prophet pressed on him by those drawn by his magnetism, yet gradually, despite all his protestations, he grows into his Biblical role and the fate that goes with it. The route of the narrative from man to martyr is richly told and well crafted, introducing Zealots, Essenes, other cults gathered along the River Jordan and, most chillingly, the cruel torments of the Roman occupation of Judea. And finally, in a refreshing surprise that demonstrates the manuscript is strong enough to stand on its own, Jesus only has a walk-on role.