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Family Life - Books

Mother, son co-write creation tale


Usually, when kids are sick and have to stay home from school, they watch TV. Or maybe read books.

Not Morgan Martindell. When this 11-year-old recently came down with Lyme disease, he spent the week helping his mother, Jennifer Morgan, write her new book. Correction -- their new book. For the past several years, Morgan and Jennifer have been collaborating on a children’s version of the story of our universe. Morgan has served as his mom’s co-author and official pre-publication editorial advisor.

Born With a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story, the first of their planned three-part series, was published last spring by Dawn Publications, a small Nevada City, Calif., company. Based on the 1992 book, The Universe Story, co-authored by Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, environmentalist and cultural historian, and Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist, Born With a Bang has sold 6,000 copies since last April. It is written from the perspective of the Universe, as if she were telling the 13- billion-year creation story to her 21st century children.

In October, Learning Magazine gave the book one of its 10 Teachers’ Choice Awards of the year. There were over 400 submissions vying for the recognition.

As the environmentally savvy might be wont to say, Jennifer and Morgan’s unique parent-child literary effort has been “an organic process,” fueled by a time-honored family tradition known as the nightly bedtime story. When Morgan was 6, he and his mom would become storybook characters. According to the dictates of whatever narrative they were reading, they would live “as happily as they could be, as angry as they could be.” They had great fun embodying the roar of a ferocious tiger and wriggling sideways into the shell and brain of a little green turtle.

As they were to discover a few years later, these bedtime story sessions were getting them into practice for the telling of what some folks consider to be the most awesomely adventuresome yarn of them all -- the creation of our universe.

Born With a Bang originally began as a seminar assignment for Jennifer Morgan. In 1996, the Princeton, N.J., resident wanted to change directions. After eight years as director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, “I needed to go on an interior journey,” she explained. So she turned her focus to Genesis Farm’s three-month Earth Literacy program.

A five-minute version

At Genesis Farm, Caldwell Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis, founding director, customarily assigns her students to tell his or her own personalized five-minute version of the universe story. They have a week to prepare. Recalls Jennifer Morgan: “I wanted to do something more than an intellectual expression. I wanted to feel it on a cellular level.”

Seemingly disparate parts of her life clamored to get in on the act: those storytelling sessions with Morgan; her Catholicism, which she had embraced at the age of 21. “I was always captivated by God in the Hebrew Scriptures as the ‘I Am,’ ” said Jennifer Morgan, who has a theology degree from the University of San Francisco.

Like a caravan going backwards into time, “I Am” flip-flopped into a playful embodiment of the universe. Jennifer Morgan reminisces how, as once a tiny kid herself, Mother Universe suddenly realized she could be all the things in her dreams: “A giant star, a blade of grass, a lion’s roar, a kitten’s purr.”

“The Universe reflected, ‘I am the Universe. You were inside me from the very beginning, but not in your human form. Like you, I started as a tiny speck. About 13 billion years ago, or so, I was smaller than a piece of dust under your bed. And if you ask me where I came from, I would tell you I don’t know. It’s the greatest of all mysteries. But there I was.’ ”

Jennifer Morgan had great fun creating her story. She, of course, tried it out on Morgan for his reactions. He told her what he thought was clear, not so clear, or boring, or exciting.

But alas, when one is re-imagining the enchantment of creation unfolding, the creator can sometimes be oblivious to such practicalities as stage fright. Until the moment of performance, that is. Then it hits. Remembers Jennifer Morgan: “I was quivering like a leaf when I got up to tell the story. Then, afterward, when I sat down, there was this silence in the room. I just knew everybody hated it.”

Finally, “after what seemed like a 13-billion year pause, their feedback suddenly flared forth,” she said, “in a starburst of affirmations. ‘You need to write this story down for children,’ ” the majority of Jennifer’s colleagues kept saying.

Buoyed by their encouragement, Jennifer Morgan decided she would indeed begin to adapt Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s Universe Story for children. But how could she afford to take time out to write?

Just months before, Jennifer Morgan had become a single parent. She and Morgan were living on a shoestring. Then a chance conversation with a friend, an East Indian cop in Princeton, changed her circumstances for the better. The officer told her about a fellow countryman, Rajiv Malhotra, who had started a foundation to help support projects that blended science and spirituality. When Jennifer Morgan applied to Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation, she received $25,000 -- enough to keep her and her son afloat while she finished the first installment of the book. Infinity has since given her another grant so she could complete the second installment, which went to the printer in October.

As any author knows, getting a manuscript off to one’s editor elicits a large sigh of relief. Make that doubles for Morgan and Jennifer. They worked hard.

During Morgan’s recovery, “he pointed out spots that were confusing and was sure to tell me at times, ‘Mom, that part is really flat.’ I told him that the Lyme spirochetes were in league with me. They kept him home so he could work on the book. His input made a crucial difference.” Jennifer Morgan said that she does the science research, writes the first draft, and then reads it to her son. “Knowing I will read it to him, and actually do read it, makes the writing process much more engaging for me. And, of course, the final story is much better.”

People didn’t invent love

During the writing of both books, Jennifer Morgan would also try it out on her son’s friend, Soren Rasmussen. Sometimes, the eager editors had more energy than she did. Jennifer recalls the afternoon when she was all tired out. “I asked them if we could stop and they both said, ‘No, let’s keep working.’ ”

Early in the process, Jennifer Morgan began taking the book to Morgan’s school for even more critiquing. “I’ve loved hearing what they have had to say. It’s as if the Universe is writing the book through the very dialogue between all of us. There’s something magical in this way of working. It’s such a pleasure. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

Listening to these kids’ comments, it is easy to understand why. On one occasion Jennifer Morgan wondered how they would react to “the dark side” of the universe -- to the many deaths that were necessary to further the evolutionary process. Of particular concern to her, was the death of “Mother Star, who had lived long before your Sun was born and was much much bigger than our Sun would be. Inside her enormous blazing belly, she did something incredible! Your Mother Star mixed together bunches of hydrogen and baked them at three billion degrees into lots of different new elements of building blocks. But before your own star could be born, the one you call the Sun, your Mother Star had to die. She ripped herself apart in a massive explosion, a supernova, giving birth to your Sun.”

Jennifer Morgan knew this process was the original example of death and resurrection, but could kids accept a concept that is a difficult struggle, a leap of faith, for most adults?

She held her breath when one eight-year old girl sighed, “Oh, that’s so sad.” “Well, should I take it out?” asked Jennifer. “Oh, no, it gives us a chance to cry,” the child replied.

“There are times when we don’t need to shield our children,” Jennifer Morgan realized. To expose them to deeper truths elicits wisdom, she reflected.

Nine-year old Kate Alexander told Jennifer Morgan, “I like the way Mother Star knitted together calcium and how that’s related to people. I like the way the story says that love was there from the very beginning … if love was going to come into existence in the beginning. I know people didn’t invent love. It’s not something people could invent.”

Hannah Wilson, 10, declared she had never read a book “like this before. Sometimes I don’t like science because you don’t get that the universe is alive, but it really is. … I like the mixture of science and myth. If a story is all science, it’s boring. If a story is all myths, it’s boring. I like the part about the Sun loving its planets. Usually, we don’t think of the Sun as a being. We take it for granted. But if the Sun loves its planets it must be alive.”

Brad Wilson, 8, likes “the way the universe tells the story and says, ‘You were part of your mom. You were always part of me [the universe] and you will always be part of me.’ ”

Morgan Martindell, co-author, wanted to talk about a particular mom -- his own. In his own words, he once told Jennifer, “Mom, you really spoil me. The teachers in school don’t teach science and religion the way you do. You mix everything together. They keep everything separate. I like the way you teach me.”

On another occasion, he said, “Mom this is awesome. You are pretty cool.”

“Why?” asked Jennifer Morgan.

“Because you’re not as bonded to being an adult as most parents are.”

When you are writing a kid’s book, that’s pretty awesome feedback.

Many adults are likewise grateful that Jennifer Morgan can frequently forget about being grown up. Several sisters’ congregations are using the book in their rituals. One person has reported to Jennifer that Born With a Bang is also being used for retreats. The retreatants are asked to read a section and reflect on those themes in their own lives.

Sr. Gail Worcelo, who is part of a community creating the Green Mountain Environmental Monastery in Vermont, told Jennifer, “with tears in her eyes, that when her mother read the book, she finally understood her daughter’s lifework.”

Sharon Abercrombie is the assistant editor of EarthLight Magazine, a quarterly journal of ecological spirituality published in Oakland, Calif. Alas, she does not have her own copy of Born With a Bang, She keeps buying the book and giving it to friends.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002