When Pamela Painter read my story “Morphine Drip” from my collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, she fixated on the phrase, “all the comfort sin can provide,” and told me I should use that as a title someday. Right away, I knew she was right. I liked the phrase because it held questions. What comfort does sin provide? Is the comfort of a sin ever enough?
I’m not talking about sin in the religious sense, but sin in the broad sense of transgressing rules, rebelling, subverting, and, in the best sense, being.
That said, it’s also got a religious texture in many cases. If you’ve once been religious, then God looms over your acts with a watchful eye, and several of my characters certainly reckon with the presence of an absent but judging God. The irony is that the God of the Old Testament is a sinner as well (as he should be since we’re made in his image). He’s unstable, needy, brooding, violent, and sometimes desperate. He is an angry lover, worried about being spurned, and then vengefully punishing those who spurn him. God is the ultimate contradictory character, because, like us, he’s in search of becoming and sometimes behaves badly along the way.
And that is what sin tends to mean to me: a necessary part of becoming. I like Emerson’s definition of sin: “That which we call sin in others is experiment for us.” We find ourselves through transgression because sin is a way to push the conventional boundaries of life, whether they’re religious rules, societal conventions, or family expectations. Sin is often a vital expression of self, forming the pulse of life itself, so the worst sin must not be defined as a betrayal of a god, but a betrayal of self.
That’s what my stories in All the Comfort Sin Can Provide are about, people wrestling with who they are, who they want to be, and in this wrestling, they naturally take some missteps. They lunge in pursuit of meaning and grace, and they might hurt themselves or hurt others in those lunges, but to be a saint, you have to have first been a sinner. As Jung said, inside of every alcoholic there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.
The strange thing about publishing the stories in this collection is that they span a few decades and have been written in far-flung places. I remember beginning “Sleeping and Not Sleeping and Waking,” the earliest of these stories, while sitting hungover in Radio Valencia, a café where I waited tables in San Francisco, in 1991. And then the most recent story, “23 Men,” inspired by Marie Hyld’s photographs on intimacy, was finished as I sat in my living room in the early morning hours as my family slept, just a week before this manuscript was due.
Some of the stories were written during a period I lived in Arizona in the mid 90s, a state I didn’t like living in but liked writing about (“Cooking,” “Heat,” “Theories,” and “The Names of All Things”). A couple came from an interlude when I returned to my home state of Iowa soon afterward (“Mr. American” and “Cold Hard Cash”). “Love Letter No. 23” was written on a plane going to New York, and “Mademoiselle in the Coffee Shop” was written on a bus going to work in downtown San Francisco.
Reading and writing stories is to engage in a lifelong inquiry into sin. I suppose every story is about sin in its own way. If so, then we’ll never run out of stories because if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s sinning.
And book buying, I hope. Here are a couple of ways to purchase All the Comfort Sin Can Provide: