Guess who I have on as my guest today! Long-time listeners know that I love the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. One of the co-hosts, Vanessa Zoltan, has similar views about connecting with literature as I do with artwork. In this episode, she and I discuss her book Praying with Jane Eyre and how to use sacred text (or sacred art) as a tool to help you deal with some of life’s problems, do good in the world, and become a better person in the process.
2:24 – Vanessa briefs us on her background in education and chaplaincy
4:46 – Vanessa explains why she loves Jane Eyre so much
8:15 – What it means for something to be sacred, according to Vanessa
10:22 – Exploring the idea of how treating text as sacred leads to treating your neighbor as sacred
16:35 – The gift Vanessa recently received while reading Jane Eyre that we can all heed
19:25 – A brief description of Vanessa’s book and why her chapter on destiny shook me so much
21:27 – How a recent controversy involving JK Rowling tested people’s capacity to separate art from the artist
26:05 – How problematic elements in Bronte’s Jane Eyre reflect a dark side of the U.S.
30:42 – How to find your own sacred text or art and work with it
36:02 – Why re-reading the same exact text can still produce a different experience every time
40:20 – The artwork that has changed Vanessa’s life for 20 years running
- Beyond the Surface: Free Email Course
- Not Sorry Work
- Vanessa on Twitter and Instagram
- Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice
- Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
- Hot & Bothered
Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator, and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delights of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Hey everybody, it’s Cindy Ingram. I have an exciting guest for you today. It’s very exciting for me because as you may know, if you’re a longtime listener, you know that I love Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. I feel that the co-host of that podcast, Vanessa Zoltan, has a lot of synergies with the work that I do here at Art Class Curator. In my connection with artwork, she views connecting with literature through that same lens of you can use works of art and works of fiction as tools to help you grapple with some of life’s many problems, and how to be a better person, how to do good in the world and things like that. You can use your interactions with text and with art in that way. I find that to be really exciting because that is how I look at art. I don’t look at art as it’s something for me to learn about. I look at art as there’s something I can learn about myself through interacting with this work of art. It’s a subtle difference but to me, it’s a very profound difference in my own personal life. I am happy to introduce you to Vanessa Zoltan. She’ll introduce herself in this episode but I hope that you consider purchasing her book, Praying with Jane Eyre. I have read it and I loved it. If you like what she has to say today, I’m sure you will also love her book, so go check that out. You can get a link to it in the show notes at artclasscurator.com. Here she is. Here is my interview with Vanessa Zoltan.
I’m so excited to welcome Vanessa Zoltan to the podcast. Welcome, Vanessa.
Vanessa Zoltan: Thank you so much for having me.
Cindy Ingram: I am so thrilled to talk to you today. I am having a little bit of a pinch me moment because I’ve just been a fan for a while. I’ve listened to your Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. I’ve read your book. I’m just super thrilled to talk to you but before we get started, can you tell the listeners a little bit more about you, your background, and experiences and what led you to where you are today?
Vanessa Zoltan: I am an Atheist chaplain. I worked in education for 12 years and decided that was not the right field for me, so at 30 years old, I went to divinity school. I went there as an Atheist, just believing that I wanted to be a hospital or a prison chaplain, which is why I went and I was just in distress about two things. I decided to go in 2009. It took me until 2012 to get there but after the financial crash of 2009, I was like, “Oh, I’m never going to be able to retire. I should probably just have a job that I’ll be happy to do until the day that I die.” Chaplaincy seemed like that because you’re reading, writing, and chatting. Those are my three favorite things to do.
Then the other thing is I just was very concerned about harm reduction. After working in education for 10 to 12 years, a lot of education nonprofits try to do good and end up doing more harm than good. I think that we as a country know how to fix our education system. We just are too racist to do it. I just wanted to make sure that I was doing work that I knew wasn’t going to make the world worse. I felt like sitting with people in distress and listening can’t possibly make the world worse. It might not make the world better but I just didn’t want to make the world worse. Chaplaincy really seemed like the right place to be and the fact that I wasn’t religious seemed beside the point, then I found myself at divinity school and I was like, “Oh, there’s something to this religion thing,” although I grew up Jewish and loving a lot about Judaism. I asked a professor, Stephanie Paulsell, to teach me how to pray but using my favorite book, Jane Eyre, instead of the Torah or the Bible. She’s a Christian minister. We did that. I’ve spent the last eight years praying with secular texts. It’s just been an endless gift in my life. That is what I do.
Cindy Ingram: I love that. Why Jane Eyre?
Vanessa Zoltan: Because it’s the best book in the world. Jane Eyre because it’s my favorite book. That’s really it. I think that being in a sacred relationship with anything is a lifetime commitment. It’s a marriage. You should marry your favorite person or one of your favorite people. You should try to build a sacred relationship if you’re going to do that with something that you love and I love Jane Eyre. Why I love Jane Eyre, I read it at 14, so I just read it at a very impressionable age. One of my favorite quotes and anything ever is in the sitcom Mad About You where Jamie, the wife, says to her husband, “Why do my parents push all my buttons?” He answers, “Oh well, because they installed them.” It might be the same with Jane Eyre, like Jane Eyre installed my buttons, so it can push all of them but I think some of those buttons were there.
I have had depression issues since I was five years old and mental health is at the center of Jane Eyre. I was an angry kid and there’s a lot of anger in Jane Eyre. I loved rom-coms and romance, and there’s a ton of romance in Jane Eyre. She’s a misunderstood kid and I obviously felt deeply misunderstood at 14. As I’ve gotten older, it’s just stayed so special to me I feel because it’s so sloppy. That’s probably too extreme a word. It’s a messy book. I love, love, love Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice but it’s like she wrote that book with the scalpel. It is so precise. There isn’t a single word in there that she didn’t mean to be in there where Charlotte Brontë wrote the first part of Jane Eyre, almost in a fever. She wrote it in weeks. It’s messy and it contradicts itself. I love all of that. I love its messiness.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, it’s wonderful. I had never read it. I’m not a big classics reader. I did enjoy Jane Eyre when I was in high school. I think a lot of high school girls love some Jane Austen but I never read it until I started listening to your podcast and you would talk about it. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to check this out.” It blew me away how relevant it is to be a woman now and to read Jane Eyre. Even though it was over a hundred years ago, I found so much wisdom in it and so much joy. It was such a delicious book. I really love that.
Vanessa Zoltan: It is delicious. Somebody just tweeted something at me. Essentially, what’s going on in terms of our concerns for girls in Afghanistan and what’s going to happen to their education, that is what Jane was talking about with her education in the 1820s. Literally, 200 years ago and we’re still fighting these fights. So much has changed. I like to think about the fact that Charlotte Brontë could never have imagined me. She never could have imagined a girl who got to go to divinity school. Let alone a Jewish Atheist who got to go to divinity school. I think it would just blow her mind, yet so much of this world would also be really recognizable to her in terms of its social problems.
Cindy Ingram: Wow, yeah, that’s great. Another thing that you’ve really helped me think about is viewing things as sacred. I think I always knew that my connection to art was really deep but I knew it’s my life’s work, it’s why I’m here but I never really added the word sacred to it. I never thought about that. But now that I have thought about that and when I go into a museum, I instantly feel comfortable, I instantly feel safe, then I have these really powerful experiences that now, I love to think about them in terms of sacred. Can you talk about what that means for something to be sacred?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yeah. There’s obviously a traditional definition of sacred, which is that it’s divinely inspired. Then in divinity school, one of the things that you study is the idea of historical critical theory that even the things that were divinely inspired or perceived as divinely inspired, groups of men—and it was almost always men—got together, rejected it, sewed it together, and made it what it is. Different denominations of Christianity considered different books Apocryphal or part of it. These things are so complicated. I think they are complicated and beautiful in important ways. Reformations make religions better. Vatican II completely rethought Catholicism. I think that there’s a lot of permission within traditional religion to play with it. We believe that the age of miracles ended. That’s it. Religion is set in stone. It can’t be messed with anymore. I don’t think any religion was ever meant to be that or any religion that was, I would argue, is not one that cares about taking care of people and evolving.
What we talk about in our work is that sacredness is an act, not a thing. That if you treat something as sacred, your relationship to it is sacred. If you treat it like a doorstop, it’s a doorstop or if you treat it with profanity, it’s profane. The point of treating texts as sacred is in order to learn to treat your neighbor as sacred. It’s just practicing. It’s Couch to 5K. It’s much easier to treat your favorite book as sacred than it is to treat your neighbor, not even a mean neighbor, like your neighbor who mows too early on Saturdays or during your nap time on Saturday. How are they supposed to know that you want to nap? But that’s hard, then it gets harder when your neighbor has a completely different political point of view or whatever it is. I want to practice loving with easy things so that I can build the muscle in order to do it with harder things.
Cindy Ingram: That’s beautiful. You told the story of how you didn’t want to do anything in your life that was going to make things worse, then you’re doing this treating text as sacred in order to love your neighbor. I think that world view is really unique, poignant, and beautiful. Where did that come from in you?
Vanessa Zoltan: First of all, I just want to say I make the world worse all the time. I drive my car, I’m not just that, not just in terms of my global footprint. I’m not always patient or kind. Far from it. I do not always love my neighbor. It is my goal that I aspire too. One of my podcasts treats Harry Potter as sacred and a lot of trans folks and queer folks were deeply hurt by J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter, which we can talk about why we continued the podcast another time, but it’s a value I have. It is not a value that I live up to. I came by my outlook quite honestly, which is that my four grandparents were all Auschwitz survivors and my parents were both born right after the war in different circumstances, and were refugees.
The Holocaust was famously something where it was allowed to happen because neighbors looked the other way. In The Great Show, a documentary, they go to Warsaw in the 1970s and ask people who used to live in these Jewish houses, where you can still see the outline of the mezuzah that used to be on the door and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know.” There was just this complicity of silence and this agreement that everybody was going to go along with things. As Timothy Snyder would say, that is tyranny. I believe that dark times are always ahead. We live in dark times. We’ve always lived in dark times. There’s always oppression, Genocide, and now, a pandemic and global warming catastrophes. We just have to constantly be getting ourselves ready to not look the other way when they come for our neighbors. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to get involved in every single thing but when it’s on your block, you have to do the thing. You have to be brave, stand up, and try. We’re going to have to learn to share water. We all over the last two years had to learn how to quarantine, even when we didn’t want to. The daycare center says you have to and you really don’t because you want your kid in daycare. We’ve all learned about these sacrifices more and more. I just think that is a capacity within us that we have to just keep fighting to grow.
Cindy Ingram: That reminds me in your book, I don’t remember which chapter it was but you talked about, “Who would take me in if there was another Holocaust?” That really has stuck with me since I read that chapter because it made me look around me and just a little bit differently, it made me look at who I talk to a little bit differently. It was like a check, just to see, “Would I?”
Vanessa Zoltan: No, absolutely. I don’t know that I would. My now co-host of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Matt Potts, who is a brilliant theologian, Episcopal priest, and Harvard professor, the first time I went over to his family’s house, he lived about 150 miles away, so I spent the night. I don’t know how it came up, I was talking with him and his wife who’s one of my closest friends, and I said, “Oh yeah, I always think about whether or not people would hide me,” because they are Episcopalian. Matt, I think he’s also half Japanese, so he has this Japanese internment in nuclear war that I think complicated his relationship with that question. It really wore on him.
He kept texting and calling me about it over the next couple of weeks, and I was like, “You don’t understand. You have three small children.” They had a one-year-old at the time, a four-year-old, and a six-year-old. I was like, “I would not expect you guys to hide me.” He was like, “I keep going back and forth on that. It would have been so dangerous.” Then he was like, “But I think it would be because of my kids that I would have to hide you because I would have to show them that’s what you do.” It made me realize that I would not judge people who wouldn’t hide me and made me wonder if I would actually hide someone in that circumstance. It’s so dangerous. Yet I think Matt is right. We don’t even do it for ourselves. We have to do it to prove to ourselves that we would be the kind of people who did it.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, it’s so complex and juicy. I can see how turning to something, like Jane Eyre to grapple with these questions is a really safe way to do it. Even with the work of art, just a way to process and a way to take that experience outside of just you, and your head and putting it in relationship to something else, it helps you see things a little more clearly.
Vanessa Zoltan: Absolutely.
Cindy Ingram: There was a quote from your book that I really liked and it said, “I was going to read and read, and read it until things that felt true emerged from it.” You talked about those things as being gifts that you receive from the text. Can you give us an example of a gift that you have received from a text?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yes, so many. From Jane Eyre, it always evolves, it depends on which section of the book I’m reading. But something that I’ve just been chewing on a lot lately is a line that is, “Friends forget those whom fortune forsakes.” Basically, friends don’t like being around people while they’re going through unlucky times. That is true for me. It’s hard to be around people as they’re going through hard times, especially if it’s fortune that’s forsaking them, if they’re being unlucky, if they got a cancer diagnosis, then fired from their job. You start to tell yourself a story that they’re doing something to warrant it. That there’s this Calvinist American Western notion that you find out someone has cancer and you’re like, “Oh, did they smoke? Oh, did they eat right?” You want to blame them for their bad luck. I just want to rebel against every part of that.
Jane has a lot of bad things happen to her. She is morally unimpeachable. She’s a complicated woman but she always tries to do good. I think that the book is making us question that instinct that we all have within ourselves, of forgetting our friends when fortune forsakes them. I really think in the United States, there’s just belief that people who are born poor deserve to be poor like, “Oh, they just didn’t save.” or whatever it is or that privileged people as people would say are born on third base yet think they hit a triple. It’s like, “No, let’s just acknowledge that we are attracted to people who are fortunate.” That is something that is a gift to me that whenever I hear of someone being unlucky, I notice that instinct within myself to blame them for it and be like, “No, no, no. Jane would tell me this is the moment to be a friend.”
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. That can shake you out. It makes me think one of the chapters that stood out the most to me was the one On Destiny. For those of you, I gave an intro at the beginning but, do you want to describe the book, then I’ll talk about your chapter On Destiny?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yes, absolutely.
Cindy Ingram: But I’d never ever have you described the book, so let’s do that.
Vanessa Zoltan: The book is, at its heart, a collection of sermons using Jane Eyre as the lectionary instead of the Book of Common Prayer or the Torah as the lectionary. I picked quotes that sparkled up at me, that meant something to me and I preached sermons on them. As I say in the opening, I try to share the best news that I can find from each of the selections. I open with a spiritual autobiography because I think it’s really important to just own the specificity of my point of view and that my points of view are in no way universal, then I end the book with treating a couple of other books as sacred, just to show like, “Do this at home. It does not have to be Jane Eyre. There’s nothing special about Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, Great Gatsby, Caddie Woodlawn, Little Women, Toni Morrison’s books, anything, Parable of the Sower, like do it all.”
Cindy Ingram: I love it. One of the chapters that really shook me up was the one On Destiny. Basically, it was just calling me out at every line and I was like, “Oh, I do that. Oh, I do that.” It was just like one after another and I finished reading, I was like, “Oh, okay. I’m going to have to read that again. I’m going to need to spend some time with that.” Because yours is the kind of book that just jumbled up everything upstairs in my head but now, I have to figure out how it fits back together. That’s what I think is so brilliant about art and books in general. That’s what it does for you.
Vanessa Zoltan: Yeah, absolutely.
Cindy Ingram: Now, I don’t remember exactly what I was going to say about that chapter but it was related to what you were saying before.
Vanessa Zoltan: Yes, it is.
Cindy Ingram: This feeling that if you’re successful, that you did something to deserve it, then if you’re not, then you did something. It was a spiritual bypass. That’s what I was trying to think of. I really want to talk about the story of JK Rowling and the trans community because this comes up a lot in my fields. I don’t personally don’t often study the lives of artists because to me, the work of art is the thing that I’m connecting with. I am connected with the artist for sure but their upbringing and what they were thinking while they were making it, and all of that is not something that matters to me in that moment with the artwork. You talked about that in your book as well. Can you speak more to that?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yeah. John Green says this nowadays but I know that literary theorists have been saying this for a long time, that you can separate the art from the artist and you absolutely can. I just think that whether or not you are capable of separating the art from the artist is a very personal thing. I grew up loving Michael Jackson. Thriller came out when I was a kid and it was the first record that I owned. I would listen to it on repeat and it was just such a joy in my life. I cannot listen to him anymore. It’s just not joyful for me anymore. I don’t walk out of a store when it’s on in the background but it brings me no joy. It only brings me pain and makes me think of those victims, and the horrible things that Michael Jackson did. Why would I listen to that anymore?
JK Rowling intentionally shared misinformation about the trans community. I don’t think that she thinks it’s misinformation but she certainly shared uneducated information with every opportunity to be educated and hurt a lot of people. I have a podcast, 90% of the people who I work with are queer and my co-host at the time was a gay man. We gave a lot of thought when JK Rowling published her screed anti-transness as to whether or not we wanted to continue our podcast. We see our podcast as chaplaincy based. We are preaching every week using Harry Potter as the lectionary instead of the Bible. We see ourselves at this point as serving a community that we’ve been serving for six years around 50,000 people. We asked them, we were like, “What do you want us to do? We are here for you.” Across the board, around 70% of people said that they wanted us to continue and that bore out exactly with our trans, and non-binary community as well.
Harry Potter, people have these images tattooed onto their bodies. They identify like, “I am a Slytherin. I am a Gryffindor.” They talk about what their patronus is. These ideas and images are in them and on them. For several people, for thousands of people, our community was a safe space where they could still love Harry Potter, knowing that we were going to be critical of that point of view. It was a place where they could still love the Harry Potter books , knowing that we wouldn’t financially support JK Rowling, that we are boycotting her on a capitalist level, and that we would do our very best to try to care for them.
Cindy Ingram: I love that. I think that I have the same thing. It’s minus Picasso. I always think of Picasso. His artworks have changed my life. I have made life decisions in front of them that I wouldn’t have made had I not had that experience but then I see more about who he was and I’m like, “Oh no, this is terrible.” But I think you’re right, it’s a line that you have to draw for yourself.
Vanessa Zoltan: There are definitely political ways to boycott and not financially support people who are bad. But I just think like Augustine would say that, is it getting you better at loving, the Bible would say, “You know it by its fruits.” I think we just have to experiment with these things and also trust that we’ll ebb and flow with them. There will be moments where we’re like, “I just can’t with that right now.” Then another moment where it’s going to call you and that’s fine.
Cindy Ingram: That’s good. Do you find that happening, when you’re in your work with Jane Eyre, do you see the problematic, especially I would imagine women’s stuff and how they treat children, how does that play out in your work with that?
Vanessa Zoltan: It’s a really weird book and it’s very problematic in a lot of ways. I’m re-reading the book right now. I’m doing a podcast called Hot & Bothered where this season is called On Eyre and we are doing nothing but focusing on Jane Eyre. It’s just super fun to have all this time and resources associated with rereading Jane Eyre. I am working on the podcast with a journalist, an investigative journalist, and an exceptional one at that, Lauren Sandler. We just have access to all these incredible professors to ask questions of. One of the things that Charlotte Brontë absolutely, without a doubt, believed in with her whole heart as did most people in the Victorian era was in physiognomy, which is the reading of people’s faces, which was a “science” that is entirely based on racism. It was created in order to oppress people of color. It comes to the conclusion that typically white features are more civilized and intelligent than typical Chinese features, Indian features, and African features. But Jane in Rochester constantly is using this language with each other, “Oh, I can see on your brow, you’re irate. I can see in your chin that you’re stubborn.” They deeply believe in this science.
Cindy Ingram: In air quotes, for the listeners.
Vanessa Zoltan: Yes, huge air quotes. We as a culture believed in this. It led directly to eugenics and we were sterilizing people in the United States through the 1950s but it’s so explicit in Jane Eyre. It calls into question a lot of racism, specifically around Bertha Mason Rochester, whether or not that character is actually mad or whether it’s possible that she’s half black, given that she’s from Jamaica. There’s a lot of money that’s made in this world on the backs of slavery. Colonialism is at the heart of it. You have a “good guy” who I find insufferable Sinjin at the end, leaving on a missionary trip. There’s so much really problematic stuff in the book. I think it’s important to grapple with those things, and what better place to grapple with it than in a 200 year old book or a 180 year old book where you can really look at it through a clear lens and condemn it, and argue with it. I just think it’s a wonderful place to be thinking about exactly these issues.
Cindy Ingram: I think that must feel freeing. To read the Bible as sacred, I don’t think you have as much freedom to see its flaws, that you’re talking about Jane Eyre and see the contradictions, and really get into those and grapple with them. That makes it tempting to pick something like that and see what happens.
Vanessa Zoltan: It’s why Matt Potts, this man does not have the time to co-host Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with me. He is the head priest at Harvard. He is a tenured professor there. He’s a father of three. He treats Harry Potter as sacred with me every week because he wants the same thing for Christianity. He’s like, “We should be asking exactly these questions, being creative.”
When we read the books we’re like, “Wow they’re really fat phobic.” “Wow, they’re really bad on race.” This is not critical enough of House-Elves and SPEW is actually really a critique of white lady savior complex but not intentional critique. Matt thinks about as how the New Testament should be read. He treats Harry Potter sacred because he wants to edge religion back toward that kind of conversation around it.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Instead of it being that the book gives you the knowledge and you take it and you use it but that you work with it to make yourself better, make everything around you better. I have been, since I finished your book, trying to figure out, “What is my sacred text?” I’ve been trying to figure it out. I think my sacred texts are artworks. That already is a thing. But I’ve started to figure it out. How do I find your own Jane Eyre? Do you have any advice for others who are trying to figure this out?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yes. What is something that you love and that you want to relook at a lot or read a lot again and again and again? I think it just has to be about your capacity to stay in relationship with it. The rule is that it has to be complicated and generative that you have to be able to be inspired to, as you were saying before we hit record, write a poem about it or talk to a friend about it or make other art about it. But I just don’t think humans really tend to love things that aren’t generative, not love them that much. I think that it should be trying to get you closer and closer to loving your neighbor. I would argue that hateful things should not be treated as sacred but I also really don’t think that they can be. But it’s all about “Is this going to make me better at loving and can I have a sustained relationship with it?” Will that relationship be able to survive the moments like you were talking about where you’re like, “God, Picasso was an abusive husband”? Is your love for it going to be able to sustain those betrayals? Because the betrayals are coming. These texts are created by humans and the betrayals are coming for you.
Cindy Ingram: Once we’ve picked our text, how do you recommend working with it? I know you have in the book a bunch of strategies and you use those on the podcast too, but can you help us with that?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yeah. I have a toolkit on sacred reading in the back of my book, and you can get it from your local library and xerox the pages, everyone. It breaks down into three steps, which is faith, rigor, and community. Faith is just the belief that the more time you spend with the thing, the more gifts it will give you. It is vaguely the faith that we all have in our children and our friends. Even if we don’t necessarily know why we’ve reached out to a friend, even if we’re not necessarily going to have fun, we just believe that spending time with them is a good thing. That is the kind of faith that I think you have to have in your text. The more time I spend with it, the better. You might have an unpleasant time with your friend but it was still a good thing just because being in its company is good.
Rigor can be manifested in any number of ways, again, as you would with a friend. It could be a monthly phone call, it can be that you text every day. I would say the same with the sacred relationship and just like a friendship, you will be closer to the text or the friend the more time you spend with it. You can have quite a rigorous relationship but I would just say make it clear, articulate it clearly to yourself what it is. Mary Gordon, one of my favorite writers, reads Proust for five minutes every day, that is her sacred text. I encourage people to do whatever it is that works for them. I know that a lot of listeners to Harry Potter and the sacred text have weekly calls with friends where they talk about that week’s chapter, and sometimes it’s really helpful if it’s someone who you’re not that close to but shares a love of the text with you because you can build a new relationship, but whatever it is, just have a routine with it. That is the thing that I think the back of my book is most helpful with is because I outlined some things that you can do during your time of these sacred reading practices that date back to the middle ages that are like four steps and really simple to do.
Then the third component, I started talking about it in the second, but is community. It’s better if you’re doing it with a buddy, they’re going to push you to think differently than your initial thoughts. Gym buddies are always better like you’re more likely to exercise if you’re meeting someone at the gym, or nowadays outside for a socially distant run. Community is important for all the reasons that we know. Community also ups the difficulty level. Community makes everything, everything, everything better but everything, everything, everything harder. Your community is going to make it harder for you but it’s just going to make it better. I’d say community is the one optional one. Some people really want this to be a solitary practice. It’s “I’m busy all day with a million people. I’m in Zoom all day. I want this to be my solitary practice.” I think that that’s perfectly fine. I think that that’s perfectly valid more than fine. But I do think a partner can often be helpful.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It makes me think, I work with teachers to introduce works of art in their classroom and I’ve known this to be true as a teacher, that I could take the same artwork and show it eight times during a day at every class that I’ve had, eight is a lot, but I’ve done seven in a day once so I guess it’s not, and every time there been kids who have said something different than the class before. There’s always something I’ve never heard before. There’s always something and so I think having a community just sounds like a really lovely way to get deeper.
Vanessa Zoltan: Jews have been reading the Torah since the Dead Sea Scrolls, whatever it is, 2500 years, and they end it and they open it again and like that’s it. The only thing that changes is who’s reading it. The book stays exactly the same. You read it at the same time of the day, at the same time of the year, on the same Lunar Calendar. The only thing that makes it interesting year to year is that the people change. We’re currently in the time of year where you flip over the Torah and start again and you scroll back the scroll and it’s just my favorite. I just love that you end it and you just start it right over.
Cindy Ingram: It makes me think too, when I have really powerful experiences with a work of art, well Hamilton is always my example. I’ve seen Hamilton three times in the theaters. Every time, I got something totally different from it. One time, there was a school shooting that had just happened. It was just devastating. It was an hour away and the school shooting happened. Then one time, I was in a really happy place and all the celebratory songs really got me. You changed too, so even if you aren’t doing it with a community in that time that you’ve read it and since you’ve read it, something that will have happened in your life is going to change how you read it.
Vanessa Zoltan: Oh, absolutely. We had a commitment, we started the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast in May of 2016 in Obama’s America and we were just so confident that Hillary Clinton was going to win. We were like, “We don’t want this to be a political podcast, we want this to really be an across the isle podcast.” Casper, my co-host and I were very liberal. Ariana, our producer, is also very liberal but we were like, “Harry Potter can just stand on its own,” and then Donald Trump got elected we were like, “Nope, I have a microphone and a recorder. I have to be on the record that I stand against certain things,” and the podcast went from being apolitical to being super political. Now we’re rereading it in the time of the Coronavirus and that is a totally different way to read a book about whether or not it’s safe to send your kid to a school because an evil wizard is on the loose. The world changes, absolutely, and it changes the way we read.
Cindy Ingram: I do remember your episode after the election, that was powerful. Did you write something about Cedric Diggory?
Vanessa Zoltan: Yes, we did.
Cindy Ingram: I still remember it. It was a long time ago, but I think that’s what we needed. You gave that to a lot of people. I’m excited that I hope everyone here listening goes out and picks a sacred text or even does this with artworks and grabs that last chapter of your book, I think they should read the whole book, but that last chapter.
Vanessa Zoltan: Obviously, of course. They should all buy 10 copies and give them to all of their friends.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I really loved it. Before we wrap up, can you tell listeners how to connect with you online? We will, of course, link to your book and everything in the show notes, but for those of you that don’t go to the show notes, how can they find you?
Vanessa Zoltan: I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @vanessamzoltan. But really, you can just email me at email@example.com. You can go to our website notsorryworks.com. That’s where all of our podcasts are hosted and we have literary pilgrimages that we run and all sorts of really fun virtual classes. I’m a long way from prison chaplaincy. I’m doing Harry Potter chaplaincy but we have a really beautiful community of people who you can connect with there.
Cindy Ingram: Wonderful. Me and my friend, Madalyn, who podcast listeners will know who she is, but we were on the verge of signing up for your next literary pilgrimage one in January but we were like, “Oh,” we didn’t know about COVID.
Vanessa Zoltan: I know.
Cindy Ingram: You will see us at some point because we’ve been watching it for a long time. Then we’re like, “What if we do art pilgrimages?” We have an idea as well. So, cool.
Vanessa Zoltan: Yay!
Cindy Ingram: Last question, and this is a question I ask all my guests and I think I know your answer, but maybe you have a different answer that might surprise me, which is which artwork changed your life?
Vanessa Zoltan: Ooh. Besides Jane Eyre, oh my god. I’m not going to undermine my own response. Grey’s Anatomy is one of my all-time favorite pieces of art. I love it so much. I have shed more tears over Grey’s Anatomy than I think I have over my own family and friends. Grey’s and I have been together for 20 years now. It’s gotten me through all of my 20s and 30s. It deals, obviously, with mortality, race, romantic love, friendship, and betrayal and it’s just absolutely incredible. There are seasons that are ridiculous and silly but it’s just always worth coming back.
Cindy Ingram: Excited to catch up. I love that answer because I think a lot of people can take these sorts of questions really seriously like it has to be something super obscure and profound. Honestly, that’s not what art is, art is who is for whoever needs it at the time. I’m a big Survivor fan. I always felt so guilty about it for a long time. But now I’m just like, “I love Survivor. It brings me such joy when I watch it.”
Vanessa Zoltan: Absolutely.
Cindy Ingram: I love that your answer was Grey’s Anatomy. I used to watch Grey’s. I am a delicate flower and can’t handle tension so I used to have to read the plot and then watch it because I needed to know that everything turned out okay.
Vanessa Zoltan: It doesn’t always on Grey’s.
Cindy Ingram: No, it doesn’t.
Vanessa Zoltan: I read romance novels a lot like one a week and that is my space where everything always turns out okay. I can hold the capacity for Grey’s to not end up okay but only because I have my safe space.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, I love that. I think you could do this exact same thing instead of praying with Jane Eyre, you pray with Grey’s Anatomy.
Vanessa Zoltan: Oh, 100%. I get teased with how many life lessons I pull from Grey’s Anatomy, not to mention that I essentially have a medical degree because I’ve watched 20 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s actually 17 seasons but my partner is a chemist and he’ll explain things to me and I’ll be like, “I know. I saw that episode of Grey’s. Please.” It’s very useful.
Cindy Ingram: I feel the same way about Dr. House. I’ve seen all of those multiple times. I’ve seen everything.
Vanessa Zoltan: I’m basically an MD and we’re both MDs, Cindy. It’s not funny actually, in a post-Trump era, credentials matter. Dr. Fauci is a doctor, I’m not. Get your vaccines everyone.
Cindy Ingram: As we were talking about that, I had that exact same thought, I was like, “Oh, no. This is not right.”
Vanessa Zoltan: No, no, no.
Cindy Ingram: It’s not a good joke.
Vanessa Zoltan: It was a good joke five years ago, not anymore.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. We’ve seen the bad end of that joke.
Vanessa Zoltan: Yeah.
Cindy Ingram: Okay. Well, thank you so very much for talking with me today.
Vanessa Zoltan: Thank you. What a delight.
Cindy Ingram: All right. Thanks again to Vanessa Zoltan for that insightful interview. It was such a pleasure for me to speak with her because our work just really does align in so many different ways. I hope this inspired you, not only to go find your own sacred text, artwork, show, or anything but to pick up her book and check it out. I just want to remind you that you have the ability to connect with art in all sorts of different ways. It’s not just about what you show your students, what you decide to put in your classroom, and what you decide to teach, but that art is here for you and it can help you in your own life. I would love to hear stories of your art connection. You can send me an email. If you go to artclasscurator.com/podcast, at the bottom of that page, there’s a form that you can fill out to share your art story. You can also send us a voicemail about your art story and you can do that by calling 202-996-7972. You can also send us a voice memo from your phone via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and share some of these connections that you’re having with art. We would love to share them on the podcast. If you’re interested in having an art conversation with me on the podcast about a work of art that’s meaningful to you, you can also reach out to email@example.com and maybe we can chat about it. All right, have a wonderful rest of your day and I will see you again next week.
What’s keeping you from showing more artwork to your students? Do you get stuck trying to choose a work of art or do you fear your students will ask a question that you don’t know the answer to? Have you tried to start a classroom art discussion but didn’t know what to say or how to get your students talking? Are you worried you’re going to spend a ton of time researching and planning a lesson that none of your students are interested in? That’s why we created Beyond the Surface, a free professional development email series all about how to teach works of art through memorable activities and thoughtful classroom discussions. With Beyond the Surface, you’ll discover how to choose artworks your students will connect with and learn exactly what to say and do to spark engagement and create a lasting impact. Plus, you’ll get everything you need to curate these powerful learning experiences without spending all of your time planning. Sign up to receive this free professional development email course at artclasscurator.com/surface.
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