Author Q&A with Alden Solovy
What inspired you to write This Precious Life?
We are surrounded by holiness the divine spark that enlivens all of creation. In a real world of daily challenges, both beautiful and difficult–raising a family, working a job or career, caring for parents and children, illness, loss, death, confrontational politics, injustice, pandemic–it's easy to forget. I do. Far too often I forget that God is "right here, right now."
This Precious Life illuminates the fundamental belief that God is always present by inviting us into sacred moments of holiness inspired both by Torah and by our own lives. The book also represents a shift in my writing: I'm beginning to infuse Torah in a more mindful way, so the first half of the book, roughly fifty prayer-poems, is inspired by divine encounters as found in our sacred texts.
How does This Precious Life fit with your previous volumes, This Grateful Heart and This Joyous Soul?
This Precious Life completes a three-book set. It may, in fact, be the first-ever trilogy of poetic prayer books. The Grateful/Joyous/Precious trilogy invites us to experience three forms of sacredness—sacred time, sacred speech, and sacred place—in the voice of poetic prayer.
This Grateful Heart is about sacred time, focused on moments and seasons, including prayers and meditations for Jewish and secular holidays, as well as other moments of our lives. This Joyous Soul celebrates sacred speech by offering new readings tied to our prayer book, providing interpretations and alternative readings for our t’fillot. Although it is tied to the classic morning service, many of the readings are also appropriate for afternoon or evening prayer.
This Precious Life examines the idea of sacred place through the lens of divine encounter. Thinking of God’s mystical name HaMakom, “The Place,” the book is about finding God in places both expected and surprising, both in the experiences of our ancestors and in the experiences of our own lives.
What was your creative process for writing the poems and prayers in the book?
I write by hand, in pen, in a small moleskin notebook. It’s black, with lined pages. My creative process for all of my liturgical work begins with prayer, meditation, and journaling. A regular practice of seeking inner alignment and spiritual connection enlivens and informs my writing. For the first half of This Precious Life, focused on Torah stories, I added deep study and contemplation to my usual process. Once I’ve completed this prep work, I sit with my notebook and pen to write. On my shelf I have six completed notebooks of new liturgy.
Once a few pieces are written, I type them into the computer. That shifts my focus from creativity to craftsmanship, looking at a variety of issues ranging from rhythm and refrain, to word choice, names for God used in the piece, the structure of stanzas, theological implications, and other considerations that aren’t necessarily in mind as I write a first draft.
The second half of the book, focusing on experiencing the divine in our world, grew out of my own personal experiences. In that sense those pieces were easier to write, flowing naturally from my own life and finding voice in our shared experiences. Similarly, many of the prayer-poems in the first half focusing on divine encounters of our ancestors flow naturally out the stories of the Jewish people.
I encountered two challenges with writing the first half of the book. First, I’d already written about some of those moments in This Grateful Heart or This Joyous Soul. CCAR and I wanted to provide a book of completely new prayer-poetry, and there were several of those stories that I wanted represented in this book. It was a challenge—when I thought I’d already written my best possible piece from a particular story and it had already appeared in another book—to write a new prayer-poem that was at least as good as the original. One example: Moses on the Mount Sinai, about which a prayer called “God’s Voice” appears in both This Grateful Heart and This Joyous Soul. Clearly, I had to create something new and clearly I thought the piece was so powerful that it warranted being in the first two books of the trilogy.
The second challenge was writing about difficult personalities or moments in Torah, moments that I felt needed to be addressed in this book. For example, our matriarch Sarah, who had fraught relationships with her husband, her son, and God. The challenge, then was writing in a voice that would sound true to her life’s complexities. Other questions about which I wrestled include: How would I deal with the real human yearnings in building the Tower of Babel? What would I make of the sense of loss that Cain suffered when his sacrifice was rejected? How would I deal with the Temple rituals?
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
This Precious Life is an invitation to see the Divine in every moment and every encounter. My hope is that readers will be invigorated by This Precious Life in their search for the Divine; that they will be more open to seeing the mystery and the holiness in all things; and that they will be just a little more open to finding radical amazement in their own lives and in the world we share.
On a more practical level, I hope clergy and others will use these offerings in daily prayer, in writing d’vrei Torah, and in learning about and discussing the weekly parashah. Clergy and Jewish educators might consider using them as part of adult, teen, and Hebrew school education, as well as in Torah classes, sermons, conversion programs, counseling with congregants, and interfaith dialogue.
Order your copy of This Precious Life at precious.ccarpress.org. To invite Alden Solovy to your community for learning and inspiration email firstname.lastname@example.org.