This reading group guide forRoll Around Heavenincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jessica Maxwell. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When a startling vision of her father’s face appears in the sky soon after his death, travel journalist Jessica Maxwell begins questioning her own spirituality. Maxwell soon becomes drawn into the bright light of spiritual reality by a “Holy Pig Farmer” she meets through a friend.
Roll Around Heaven chronicles nearly two decades of Maxwell’s spiritual adventures, as she travels the globe on her “down-to-earth” magazine-writing assignments only to end up receiving valuable insights into the world’s great faiths. Spiced with humor and rich with original flair, Maxwell’s adventures will inspire you to embrace the power of the divine in your own life, and a bonus last chapter is designed to help you do just that.
Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of her journey, Jessica Maxwell and her sister see an image of their recently deceased father appear in the sky, though they live a thousand miles apart. What was your initial reaction to this event? How did your reaction to this compare to that of the Holy Pig Farmer, Lory Misel? Of Deepak Chopra? Of the Mystic Golfer?
2. Did your reactions to Maxwell’s visions change as the memoir progressed and these supernatural events became more frequent? What qualities did her visions share?
3. Maxwell runs into Deepak Chopra while eating lunch on a business trip. Later, during his talk, Chopra touches on a personal experience of hers she hadn’t mentioned to him and she begins to weep. She later sees a black-market copy of his book when she is traveling in Mumbai, India. Do these incidents signal fate to you? Or are they coincidences?
4. On page 49, Maxwell argues that “[i]t didn’t take long to realize it’s not only our thoughts that disconnect us from grace…sometimes it really is the constant messages from our personal environment.” Do you agree with her? What do you imagine disconnects or distracts you from spirituality?
5. Describe Maxwell’s evolving relationship with church; beginning with the first time she attends with her friend Greg (pg. 89). What made her averse to church as an institution? What changes her mind?
6. Consider the different versions of the “Golden Rule” on page 128. How does this collection of quotes represent Maxwell’s feelings about religion? On Western and Eastern thought? Does the author differentiate between “religiosity” and “spirituality”?
7. Throughout the book, Maxwell’s willingness to pursue adventure with an open mind connects her to many people she might not have met otherwise. How much of her journey’s success do you attribute to her personality? What personal qualities help her the most?
8. What does Maxwell learn from her romantic relationships? How does her self-awareness and increased spirituality contribute to her relationship with Tom? According to Maxwell, how important is it to have the same spiritual understanding as one’s partner?
9. In Roll Around Heaven, all of Maxwell’s spiritual teachers are male: the Holy Pig Farmer, Yogananda, Greg Tatman, Deepak Chopra. Yet many of the visions, or energies, that Maxwell witnesses in the book have what she describes as feminine qualities. What would you say are “spiritual qualities”? How do spiritual qualities challenge our stereotypical ideas of gender? What do Maxwell’s best girlfriends, Rande and Val, provide her with as she lives the story?
10. During Deepak Chopra’s talk on page 106 he says, “Detach from the past...it’s not here.” Maxwell considers this idea a “shout-out” to something the Holy Pig Farmer had said in one of their conversations about connecting Western Science with Eastern Wisdom. Did you notice any other connections between Eastern and Western thought or spirituality in the course of her journey?
12. Describe the significance of the book’s title. What conceptions of heaven, or hell, did you encounter in the book?
13. What advice did you find the most applicable in this memoir? How did this book inspire you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit Deepak Chopra’s website at http://www.chopra.com/ and view his tour schedule. Attend one of his talks, or if he is not coming to your area, discuss some of the entries on his blog.
2. Take a “spiritual history” of the members of your group. Explore the relationships between these experiences and those included in Roll Around Heaven. Did reading the book make sharing these experiences easier? Does it make you want to experience more?
3. Find your “Spiritual True North” with the members of your group. Explore and experience the things you have always been fascinated by or attracted to, i.e., the Buddhist shrines at Thai restaurants, old churches and cathedrals, Indian dieties, Celtic art, Japanese tea ceremonies. Maybe you will find a new interest and proceed in the direction of a more intimate spiritual adventure.
4. Attend a variety of church services, or services at a nearby mosque or temple. Discuss the differences between them and which you prefer. How are these different from your own predominant faith or that of your family?
5. As a group, watch one of Oprah’s “Spirituality 101” shows, available on her website. How has Oprah brought spirituality “down from the mountaintop” and into mainstream culture? How do your group members feel about her approach?
A Conversation with Jessica Maxwell
1. Do you think that self-discovery requires the insights of others?
Absolutely! As the Holy Pig Farmer says, you can’t do it alone. Eckhart’s log next to a burning log metaphor for the student/spiritual-teacher relationship itself is about relationship, which is the first step in getting us beyond our sense of a separate self, the first move beyond ego. It’s no accident that narcissistic people are incapable of forming deep and lasting relationships with others; they’re too obsessed with dogpaddling around inside their own heads!
2. What do you make of this paradox?
Once you realize that there really is a Little You and a Big You, then you understand that “self-discovery” is actually “Self” discovery, and then the paradox vanishes. One of the big problems of psychological therapy is that it can, done improperly, get people addicted to thinking about their Little Selves, rather than leading them into an ultimately liberating—and healthy! —awareness of the spiritual, or for the more concrete among us, into what modern physics has been trying to teach us for over 100 years!
2. Throughout the memoir, you include photos and various documents, evidence of the incredible experiences you describe. Why did you choose to include these personal items?
To help make the experiences credible! I know how wild some of them are—I mean, to have a little puppy bring you a business card when you’d looked everywhere for one? A puppy?? It just sounds crazy. But there he was with that beat-up card in his mouth, and I thought seeing those little milk-teeth holes in the actual card—which I keep framed on my desk, by the way—would help put the reader right there in my room with me, absolutely incredulous that yet another astonishing “everyday miracle” was happening again. This is nonfiction at its most vulnerable, chronicling the ethereal nature of spiritual reality. And I can’t imagine a better way to concretize the squirrely nature of the spiritual than including the best possible hard “evidence” that these events took place. All of it only underscores the main point of Roll Around Heaven: that the spiritual realm is real, and it is very wise to do something about this fact. Plus…it’s fun! Who wouldn’t want to see Hank’s Hat or that box of English soap I bought for Tom before I’d even met him? Everyone loves a scrapbook!
3. This is your first spiritual memoir. Was it difficult to write about yourself in this way and to include your private, intimate thoughts? How did it differ from your other adventure writing? What did you learn about yourself from writing this memoir?
I’ve always been drawn to write about events I’ve experienced or witnessed myself, as is the tradition of first-person narrative nonfiction. I’m a “put your hand in the hand of the man” type. But it took years to fully own this spiritual adventure of mine. It happened in stages. First, I just thought it was fun, and I was completely intrigued by the weirdness of it all. It really was, and continues to be, an absolute adventure: You never know what’s going to happen next. But it was Rande who helped me begin to take it seriously and who told me that telling this story was my “real work.” Still, it took many more years for me to be comfortable with the very subject of spirituality. So I sort of ended up telling people “you gotta hear this one!” in one breath and then apologizing for the spiritual aspects of it all in the next. And I could hardly say the word “Jesus” without sputtering. I still remember the day, sometime in 2004, that I knew I had completely accepted and internalized the spiritual as the bottom line and was 100% comfortable saying so. It wasn’t all holy-holy-holy or precious or “I’ve got the answer!” It just simply was. And I knew “it” was utterly integrated into the natural structure of everyday life—no more embarrassment or apologies needed. That was the moment that I knew I was finally fully ready to write Roll Around Heaven. It will, of course, be interesting to see how my magazine editors react to the book. Coming out of the spiritual closet like this does run the risk of my never being given another adventure assignment again…unless it’s taking a spaceship to Mars (which I’m far too claustrophobic to do!). Or maybe someone will give me a spiritual adventure column—my dream assignment! As to how writing Roll Around Heaven differed from my other adventure writing, it didn’t. I really have told the stories in Roll Around Heaven exactly the way I tell any adventure story: just the way they happened. The single disclaimer is the name of Harrison Brandt—that’s not his real name for obvious reasons. When I was musing about what to call this guy, the last name “Brandt” came flying into my head, and when I looked up the origin of the name it was absolutely and spookily perfect. All in all, nothing could have been better training for writing this book than my years as an in-the-field adventure writer. You have to be an ace reporter and as much of a master storyteller as your talent allows—and that takes practice. You also have to be a fearless devotee of the unexpected, which is what adventure writing is all about. What writing RAH, as family members and friends call Roll Around Heaven, ultimately taught me is how genuinely and deeply committed I have become to the spiritual over the years. That transformation, given the screaming deficit with which I started this journey, is the most remarkable “RAH Effect” of all. This is no spiritual one-night stand; it is a profound love match and a lifelong marriage to the spiritual aspects of life, which as physicists and saints well know, are the dancing forces at the holy heart of everything.
4. What personal qualities have helped you the most on your journey? How much of your success do you attribute to these qualities?
My lifelong love of treasure hunts! I just love following signs and figuring out where to go next. I suppose that’s a form of both fearlessness and faith, and it’s true that I’ve never been afraid of the world and, in fact, am deeply in love with it, warts and all. (Though you can hardly get me into an elevator—I do have some fears!!) But a basic attitude of trust really helps. And I came in with this. Somehow I’ve always known that God was conspiring in my favor—though I didn’t know what “God” was. God, of course, is indeed conspiring in everyone’s favor, as hard as that is to believe sometimes, and I can only attribute my knowing this to many lives filled with a lot of spiritual hard labor in monasteries somewhere, because I sure didn’t earn my spiritual awareness this time around. I polished it like crazy, but I really did come in with it already in full bloom. My job this life was to figure out what the heck it was and then tell you all about it! “Likes to share” would be another helpful trait, along with a rather incorrigible sense of wonder and the classic sense of responsibility of a first-born child. I cannot begin to describe how absolutely responsible I felt about getting this story out there. I carried it on my back for more than ten years and ran into more dead ends than you can shake a giant wooden cross at. Honestly, I didn’t relax until RAH was safely with the right publisher at last. If this was God’s little entrance exam for me, well I sure as heck hope She/He/It is finally convinced of my devotion. So I guess we should add “mosquito-like persistence” to the list.
5. Was it difficult to capture in words the visions that you saw throughout the course of the book?
No more than trying to put anything I witness in words. I had to think about it a bit more because I didn’t have the usual frames of contemporary reference to draw on—this is new stuff! But that’s part of the craft of writing. I don’t think describing a light being was any more of a challenge than describing an Amazonian peacock bass, a fish so wild looking it inspired me to write that “if an evil wizard turned Cirque du Soleil into a fish, it would look a lot like a peacock bass.” You have to use your noggin. And all your senses. Really, I am very concrete. I like form and color and pattern and scent and taste, and I’m very sensitive to the relationships among them all. I like variety, therefore, the world’s cultures—and faiths—fascinate me no end. I love people and make friends easily, so “foreigners” never seem foreign. I like things to move—hence my love of travel—and I’m very aware of rhythm—I love to dance! I see humor everywhere almost to a fault, and like Noah benShea, I take my work, not myself, seriously. Obviously, I love language. You throw in Scottish Second Sight and you’ve got yourself one natural-born literary, spiritual adventure writer with an eye for the visual, an ear for dialogue, and a weakness for the lighter side who loves a story that moves along at a good clip. Et voila! You’re rolling around heaven!!
6. In your conversation with the daughters of Islam, you were recommended some books on Islam so you could better understand their religion. What books would you recommend to someone who has finished your book and is ready to “Suit Up and Show Up” but doesn’t know where to start?
Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi is a must. Not because he was a Hindu, but because his is the story of an authentic master who wanted nothing but to know God. The biography of Amma Sri Karunamayi is an equally confirming constellation of holy stories of a Southern Indian saint who is none other than the Divine Mother reincarnate. You can order it from her website at: http://www.karunamayi.org. Karen Armstrong’s new book, A Case for God, is a brilliant offering to the confused modern seeker and cynic alike. Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight is particularly good for those who like the level flooring of science, but remember that the brain, being the brain, wants to ascribe everything to…the brain! Eckhart Tolle’s classic The Power of Now is a bell-like description of the inherent illogic of living in separation from your Big Self and a genuine modern enlightenment saga. The dogged clarity of his teachings have the power to move you quickly into the deeper realms. Like Yogananda, he is not messing around. And of course the Dalai Lama’s books are mandatory, especially How to See Yourself as You Really Are, and The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living—gloriously important books! I would invite everyone to collect J. Philip Newell’s books on Celtic spiritually like an add-a-pearl necklace—they’re all precious jewels, as are the books of the 14th century ecstatic Persian poet, Hafiz, especially The Gift. All Americans ought to read the Quran, especially as translated by Thomas Cleary. And I am thrilled to say that the teachings of the Holy Pig Farmer are being readied for publication now—be on the look out for those.
7. In the course of your adventures, you were able to have lunch with Deepak Chopra, a spiritual hero of yours. Who, if anyone else, would you like to meet and have lunch with? What questions would you ask them? What stories of your own would you share?
To sit with Amma Karunamayi in her own ashram would be a dream come true, simply to be in her holy presence—talk about a log aflame! And I would love to have tea with the Dalai Lama. I would ask him nothing, or in the words of my eleven-year-old Bhutanese honorary nephew Yuthok Rinzin, I might say: “What shall we talk about? What do you like?” It is a great hope to meet Karen Armstrong as her book A Case for God is practically Roll Around Heaven’s scholarly twin; I would ask her to share, if she cared to, more details of her own journey back to God. We do not hear these stories from enough women. And I pray on a regular basis that Yogananda’s spirit will visit me so I can ask him to elaborate on the nature of the “plagues of demons” and the “other worlds” he often mentioned in his books. And if his teacher, Babaji, appeared too, I probably would fly, fly away before I could ask him a thing! Finally, I truly regret never having had a chance to meet Mr. Rogers, one of the holiest people America ever produced who created the last true televised sanctuary for children—did you know he was a Presbyterian minister? As for sharing my own stories, I’d present everyone with their own copy of Roll Around Heaven then tell them about some of the late-breaking mystical experiences you’ll read about in the sequels to RAH!
8. Do you keep in touch with the Holy Pig Farmer?
Every day. He is my mentor and my dear, dear friend, and we know that our work together has only just begun.
9. Your book conveys your relatively optimistic outlook throughout difficult times. What advice would you give someone who is less optimistic or persistent than you are? How can they stay positive on their own spiritual adventure?
Practice. Practice. Practice. Trust. Trust. Trust. Ask. Ask. Ask. Serve, serve, serve—serving others is the best bullet train toward an open heart…and the fastest way to take a giant leap outside your (small) mind. And wait patiently for the Lord…you’ll be interested to read the first chapter of the sequel to Roll Around Heaven which is all about Tom and me getting caught in the downward spiraling housing market…and you’ll never guess how and who saved us from that mess! The miracles just don’t stop if you practice, practice, practice.
10. What are you currently working on? What countries are you visiting these days?
I’m helping the Holy Pig Farmer with his first book. And I have three sequels to RAH in the works as the stories fan out in concentric circles from the revelations of one lost pilgrim into the more complex—and fun!—spiritual ties between family members and friends.