Since I am without religion of any kind and was raised in a “Well dear, I suppose you must do as you think is best” kind of household, my morality is all self-taught.

It’s tiring, all that pondering. Should I go on a Paris holiday? Cuba needs my tourist dollars more. Should I stay home and buy new carpeting instead, if there is such a thing as Fairtrade Organic Wool? I am always willing to hear warnings against evil, even if I don’t necessarily heed them. It’s hydrogen to an atheist’s hybrid engine.

How enormously pleasing then to have the Catholic Church officially warn people against reading that hack Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Finally a church and I can agree on something. With 18 million copies sold, even Catholic bookstores have leapt to push the thing on shoppers, but they too have now been asked to cease selling what is obviously the worst book since The O’Reilly Factor for Kids. I am religious in the sense that when I see people buy it in airports, I pray they won’t be seated next to me.

The Archbishop of Genoa agrees. The book is not just very, very bad, but bad for you. Hallelujah!

If only the church would come out with a similar edict on John Grisham novels, but obviously I am drifting in a dream in which the Pope regulates literary excellence as well as right and wrong. I still am only on page six of the novelist Orhan (Persian miniaturism in fictional form) Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which has several narrators, the first of which is a corpse. I only bought it since he came out with a new novel said to be a work of genius and I felt I was falling behind intellectually. Could Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s literary editor, help me out here? Something along the lines of “Psst! Orhan Pamuk is the Dan Brown of Turkey. Don’t waste your time.”


Similarly, the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith says Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has led to a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Canada. See, I could have predicted that. Why didn’t the Vatican film critic warn people to avoid it, especially if they suspected themselves of being prone to bigotry? Anti-Semitism is the most lunatic of hatreds, especially when it’s based on Mel Gibson movies, which are all bad, although frankly, Tequila Sunrise was his nadir. Torture damages all who do it, suffer it and see it. That’s why I skipped Blue Velvet. If only a morality organization had spilled before I rented Pulp Fiction, I’d be a happier woman today.

I have had to forge my own morality in the smithy of my soul and am open to suggestions. My problem is that most of the advice atheists get comes from the American magazine industry. It can be summed up as “Buy More Stuff! Now! Wolfowitz Good for World Bank! Really! Shop More! Now! Credit Only!”

Sorting out morality with a personal compass over the years has been like walking through water up to the chin. Luckily, the American essayist Anne Lamott’s new book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, arrived yesterday. I know no religious people personally. Ms. Lamott, a left-wing, environmentalist, feminist God-lover, is the only one I will ever read. I adore her.

She has changed my whole attitude to happiness. Previously, as many Americans urge, I had expected active bliss in my life. This is ludicrous, of course, not just because the wisest advice is not “Be happy” but “Don’t get your hopes up.” Ms. Lamott advises laughter, caution and deep breathing.

What was worst about my spiritual crisis, pre Plan B, was its source, decorating magazines, which are as soul-destroying as Mel movies. They sell unfulfillment. They make you want stuff you don’t have that is horrid but fashionable. Inevitably, it’s made of leather, a material good for saddles but little else.

I had been quietly updating, replacing the wastepaper baskets with braided wicker and the ruffled showered curtain with a white waffle weave. Then I realized that the house had to be recarpeted, if not refloored, which meant rehousing the furniture and 10,000 books and repainting, despite the fact that the carpeting is sane, i.e., not leather, the floor doesn’t squeak that badly, and the walls are fine. They’re wally. Wall-ish.

The litter of tasks that reflooring would give birth to would cost a minimum of $25,000 and, I realized, would end my marriage. The previous evening, my husband had taken exception to my ironing the new shower curtains. They’ll steam out, he said. I pointed out that this summed up his entire attitude to life, which, I might add, was typically male and where would we be if wrinkles were left to their own devices and laundry bin liners weren’t updated from English Herbaceous Border to Canvas Drab?

Where indeed, he said. Calmly.

My whole life flashed before my eyes.

I did see his point. First, if ironing the wrinkles in your waffle weave makes you happy, why should not ironing them make you unhappy? What tiny glee would be withheld by ironing, say, mere shirts?

Such are the spiritual struggles of the unbeliever. With Anne Lamott and good intentions, we muddle through.

A note to the Vatican Moral Critic: You know how the IRA has told the McCartney family that it won’t turn in — to the cops — the IRA men who slaughtered their dad for fun, but it will blow their heads off personally, if that’ll help?

Could you excommunicate them? Just a thought.

Back to my personal Golgotha: Stealth ironing, holiday plans …