Conscious Gardening

gardenOngoingly, we receive emails from women who have left an extreme faith and who are grateful to connect with others sorting through the quagmire of “what do I believe now” or “how do I recover from decades of patriarchal oppression.” Below is one woman’s musings on “beliefs” and how to examine whether or not a belief is helpful.

Beliefs grow from tiny seeds planted in a fertile mind, watered by other people’s opinions, and only when they come to maturity will we know if they are weeds or flowers.

Just call me a weed picker – because that’s what I’ve been doing for several years now. It is no easy job since some of those suckers were well anchored and no matter how hard I pulled, a root or two would stay deep down and threaten to regrow. You know how weeds are – they can creep up and take over an entire garden.

Everyone has beliefs about the world around them, about other people, about ourselves, about who and what God is. We have political beliefs, religious beliefs, scientific beliefs, social beliefs and we form opinions from them.

There is a difference between knowledge and beliefs. I was watching a television show about conspiracies and they were sharing information regarding Area 51, a highly secretive section of Edwards Air Force base in Nevada. There are theories that this area houses aliens from other planets that landed in the Nevada desert in the 1950s. While I have knowledge that such a place exists, and may have personal opinions about it, I have not formed a belief whether it is true or not.

Beliefs are our personal convictions, often passionately held and defended against all other opposing thoughts. Very often our beliefs have been handed down to us by our parents, society and ethnic traditions; we embrace them without so much as a thought – could these beliefs be wrong?

We must face the possibility that many of our inherited beliefs have been formed from prejudices, biases and other people’s experiences. They certainly can’t all be true otherwise there wouldn’t be so many different religions, political structures, and scientific schools of thought. Even within every group there are major disagreements and they form little sub groups to protect “their truth”. Again – they can’t all be right?

In the field of science there is a group who believes (strongly) our planet is experiencing global warming and are doing their best to save us from cataclysmic destruction – others in the scientific community, equally as intelligent, believe the first group are just fear mongers and climate change is a normal evolution. We won’t really know which side is right until either we melt away or die from old age, waiting for an environmental Armageddon.

Our political beliefs vary, from country to country, from democracies to dictatorships. One designed to bring freedom, the other tyranny. And yet, even in our wonderful democratic society, we are polarized by opposing beliefs and can seldom even find the middle ground as both Democrats and Republicans fight for their brand of truth, at the expense of the people they have sworn to serve.

Perhaps the greatest of all differences in beliefs are found in the thousands of religions around the world all knowing they are the only ones who have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They would ALL be wrong!!!!!

Beliefs can and should change as we get older, wiser and no longer (hopefully) need fairy tales. If adults still believed that babies were flown in by storks – we’d be in trouble. But the jump from stork delivery to the whole reproductive process may be phased in a little at a time as we grow into maturity.

Our college years are often the first time we are exposed to passionate, opposing views that force us to look squarely into the eye of the nucleus of often outdated and worn out beliefs, that may no longer serve us. To examine our beliefs, we need to ask a lot of questions like:

Whose belief is this anyway?

Why do I believe this?

What if I believed something different?

Can I examine other beliefs, openly and honestly, without inserting my own dogma?

What if I discover that some of my beliefs are wrong – can I embrace new ones?

I find myself spending a lot of time taking care of my own garden these days and I’m delighted as I watch the new growth, watered carefully from pure sources. I have no time to worry about pulling other people’s weeds, I’m still taking care of my own.


DSC_0012 copyMary Agnes is an ongoing student in the School of Life with an under graduate degree in “Hard Knocks”. She continued her studies to the Master level of “Getting Over It” and has entered her Doctoral phase of “Getting On with It”. Mary left home at sixteen to attend Bible College and spent many years in rigorous study in a very strict Pentecostal environment. She did hands-on-training inside of a Jonestown-style cult for seven years where she graduated to her Master Level. The “Getting Over It” program took many years of intensive self-searching to determine what if any of her initial beliefs were true. Part of her life curriculum included watching her young daughter battle ovarian cancer. She has had many life teachers, but credits her four children for teaching her how to love genuinely, and her eight grandchildren for teaching her how to fully receive love. It wasn’t until 2010 that Mary entered her Doctoral program and is busy studying every day as she knows her graduation time is fast approaching. There is much she still hopes to accomplish but is taking life…one glorious day at a time.

Holy Candy

holycandynewblackWe are privileged to announce that one more of our Beyond Belief authors has published her own memoir! Holy Candy: Why I Joined a Cult and Married a Stranger is the story of Yolande Brenner’s introduction to the Unification Church, her years inside, and her eventual journey out. Yolande is an engaging author who speaks honestly to the complexities of life and faith. Watch her Al Jazeera interview



Photo by Jenn Burland

Photo by Jenn Burland





“My Name is Emily and I’m a Fundamentalist”

Guest post by writer Emily Ufkes



Emily is a writer in our community who blogs about many topics. She’s smart and interesting and funny and easy to be with. And you would never know she’s still sorting through the narratives she grew up with. Some recent news spurred on her current blog post, which we got permission to use here. Very thought provoking! Thanks, Emily, for letting us take a peek into your world.

Last week I learned that the founder of a fundamentalist Christian organization that my family belonged to in the 90’s resigned from his position as president, following allegations of sexual misconduct. You may be wondering, “So, what else is new?” A prominent religious leader slinking out of the lime light because of scandal shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But it surprised me.

Depending on your exposure to the religious right over the last 50 years, you may not recognize the name Bill Gothard. He created a training program for troubled youth in the early 60’s which grew into an annual 6-day seminar presented around the world and attended by millions. The “Basic Life Principles” taught at these seminars were eventually incorporated into a home school curriculum that my family used from 1989 to 1994 (we also belonged to a strong sub-culture in my community of families who all adhered to the same highly prescriptive rules. “Sheltered” doesn’t really do justice in describing my childhood). Gothard, now 79 years old, (famously) never married and has continued to preach the importance of moral purity for the last 30 years.

When I saw online that he was put on administrative leave and resigned a week later, I was surprised that it made the news. I didn’t realize his influence is still so far-reaching or that his closest followers are still so devout. I was surprised at how many former “alumni” have formed an online community focused on recovery. While the behavior itself that Gothard is accused of isn’t that shocking, what struck me was the realization of his hypocrisy (“strictest” equaled “holiest” in his organization). I concluded a long time ago that the basic principles he set as standards were impossible to live up to. Turns out he believed the same.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact this fundamentalist organization had on me during the five years we were involved and beyond. To be fair, I can’t claim to be embroiled in the culture anymore, or even directly affected by the recent revelation of scandal. I’ve had no contact with any members of the program in well over a decade. I still have many of the training materials I was given while attending the seminars, stored out of sight and out of mind in my garage. I kept the literature for anthropological reasons rather than sentiment – it’s documentation of a significant era in my life. But I shudder when I think about those years of involvement, not because I was a victim of abuse, but because I was so self-conscious. I didn’t fit in with the tiny and exclusive group of peers I was allowed to interact with, but wanted desperately to be accepted by the older girls that I admired. All of a sudden, it seems safe to admit I felt out of place.

A lot of time has passed since I associated myself with that group. I’d like to think I’ve completely outgrown the cult-mentality. But remembering the rules I was expected to follow during adolescence makes me realize how deeply ingrained and unsettling the teaching really is.

Here are a few of the things I was taught.

Rock music is inherently evil. Even contemporary Christian music should be shunned because of the beat, which is bound to lead listeners to “rebellion and witchcraft.” Rock and roll perpetuates a message of disrespect and influences young people subliminally to be destructive. Steer clear.

In order to avoid temptation, you must be “under authority” at all times. This concept was illustrated with an umbrella that provided “protection.” As a girl, this meant I was to remain under my father’s authority until I got married (live at home, follow Dad’s rules, apply myself to the well-being of my family, and get Dad’s approval for all decisions). This would only change if I got married at which point I’d be under my husband’s authority. Independence was dangerous at best, and at worst, downright sinful.

Dating is morally risky and basically just “practice for divorce.” The approved method for finding a spouse was courtship. It was up to the guy to get a dad’s permission to pursue a relationship with his daughter, and only with the intention of marriage. It was expected that both families would be involved in the relationship, and any time that the prospective couple spent together was closely supervised. Sex was out of the question (literally: it wasn’t discussed).

As a woman, your highest calling is to submit to a husband’s leadership and have as many babies as possible. Someday, I was told, my future husband would have the final word in all areas (financial, spiritual, sexual, etc.). Birth control was unnecessary before marriage (no need to prevent pregnancy while abstinent – see previous lesson), and it was frowned upon for married women: the more offspring the better. Based on a Psalm that compares children to “arrows in the hand of a warrior” big families were believed to be more blessed because of “a full quiver.”

Personal appearance is crucial. Clothing, poise, attitude, and expression should always demonstrate respect for God. Men must keep their hair short and shave daily – no beards allowed. Women and girls should wear dresses and skirts instead of pants (the longer the skirt, the better. Bonus points for yards of unflattering denim). Avoid “eye traps,” defined as anything that draws attention away from the eyes. Hair should be worn long, to frame the face. Low-cut tops, slits in skirts, anything form-fitting, big jewelry, and too much makeup were all forbidden. A smile and “bright countenance” were a girl’s best assets. I was warned that dressing provocatively, or even attractively, could cause a man to lust. The unspoken expectation was that I better stick to frumpy outfits just to be on the safe side.

Whole grain fiber is necessary for optimal health. Because of Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer (“Give us this day our daily bread”), we regularly ground whole wheat kernels into flour and made our own bread, rolls, and pizza crust with the help of a Bosch kneading machine. Even dense, dry baked goods could increase our spiritual standing.

College is unnecessary for successful adulthood. In fact, higher education was discouraged for both young men and women. No need to go into debt just to expose your impressionable children to alternate views and “worldly teaching.” Home businesses and practical experience were encouraged, such as learning a trade as an apprentice. Godly character would make me more employable than any degree ever could (assuming I wasn’t raising a family by my early twenties).

To avoid personal disaster and spiritual ruin, keep a clear conscience. This meant regularly confessing ALL sin to God and never offending others without seeking restitution. Numerous examples were readily available, demonstrating that an unrepentant heart was sure to experience financial, emotional, professional and moral failure. My fear of saying or doing the wrong thing or making the wrong decision stemmed from a hypersensitive conscience. There was no such thing as a neutral option; every fork in the road would either lead me toward blessing for aligning myself with God’s Will or toward destruction for missing God’s best and allowing a “foothold for Satan.” The stakes were high no matter how trivial the sin or the available options.

To avoid irritation and anger (dangerous emotions to be sure), “yield your rights.” In other words, focus your energy on what you are responsible for instead of what you expect from someone else (God owns everything anyway). Instead of expecting things to work out the way I wanted them to, or believing I deserved any particular set of circumstances, I would resign myself to the worst-case-scenario. If anything good happened, it was seen as a serendipitous and undeserved pleasure. If I got angry, I was asked to consider what “right” I hadn’t yielded to God.

When praying, use the words “hedge of thorns” or “hedge of protection.” When I was fearful or anxious, I was taught to ask God to protect my loved ones (and myself) by surrounding them with an impenetrable boundary of sticker bushes, which would surely repel Satan. The exact choice of words was important.


Reviewing this list of beliefs evokes two reactions in me. 1) Amusement. “Oh, how naïve we were. The things we got hung up on are so silly in retrospect. If only life were so formulaic.” 2) Fear. “Is this too disrespectful? Is my sarcasm crossing a line?” I feel like my twelve year old self again, worried I’m missing some vague ideal due to misguided application. Good intentions were never good enough to tip the scale from sin to obedience. My hesitancy to publish this blog post illustrates to me how ingrained my self-doubt is.

Reviewing these “absolute truths” I believed as a very young person gives me clarity about myself. No wonder I still struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and trust. I was carefully trained to be suspicious of everything outside my small bubble of approved influence. I was groomed to be dependent. The idea that I was ill-equipped to make decisions for myself was reinforced over and over again. The fear of consequences for disobeying my parents or God was paralyzing as a kid. My conclusion was that I was imperfect and incapable so I zeroed-in on ways I could out-perform my flaws or divert attention to someone else.

I’m a people-pleaser, but I come by it honestly. Who wouldn’t be, with all those rules?


Questions I intend to answer in future posts:

“Your parents sound like jerks! Didn’t they love you?”

“How did your family get suckered into this craziness? Were you all raving lunatics?”

“Do you hate God and all Christians?”

“How did you leave a cult?”

“What other fundie rules have you broken?”

“Did you have any friends as a kid?”

“Do you have any good whole-wheat bread recipes?”

Check out Emily’s blog if you’re interested in her follow-up posts!

The Notable and the New

I (Cami) am bubbling over with excitement. First, you may have heard that Beyond Belief was named on The Washington Post’s Notable Nonfiction list. Susan and I are so very grateful that others are finding the volume we all worked so hard on to be a quality book with relevance in our larger cultural discussion. Thank you Washington Post. And thank you, once again, to everyone who supported us on the Beyond Belief journey!

I’m also excited about a new book idea I’ve got brewing. And I thought I would share it with you all, not only because I think you might be interested, but also because I’ll appreciate your input. My working title is: Undercover Runners. Let me tell you how my concept for the new book emerged.


As you may or may not know, I’m a runner. Running, in fact, is as central to my identity as writing is. And while I’m too far at the back of the pack to qualify for the esteemed Boston Marathon, my faster and more sure-footed husband, Bill, has qualified several times. Last year we were at the Boston race when the bombings occurred. I spent an excruciating twenty minutes waiting for Bill to come out of the runners’ recovery area after I’d heard the explosions, not knowing yet what had happened or if he was okay (he was).

The bombings haunted me. The fact that two young zealots took it upon themselves to destroy so many lives angers and hurts me. The fact that they chose to do it at what is arguably one of the most “sacred” events for runners worldwide makes the bombings feel personal, even though Bill and I came home unscathed.

As time passed, I continued to hold the experience of the Boston bombings in my body, feeling the sting of grief every time I thought of what happened, tearing up at the memory of how Boston pulled together to recover after the incident, standing in solidarity with runners everywhere because we were so assaulted as a community.

I was deep in the mode of thinking about the “meaning” of running when I took a run one morning with the friend of a friend who was in town for a long weekend. Tacla had spent some time in Egypt while working for the US government. As I was touring her through a local park, plodding over roots and rocks and over rolling hills on heavily wooded trails, she told me about running in Egypt. Where she lived, at least, women runners were not common, and those who did run were not altogether safe. In fact, running was discouraged, undertaken at a woman’s own risk. One woman, she told me, had been forbidden by her father from running on the streets, but she was committed to her running—had somehow discovered that it cleared her mind and made her feel strong—and so she logged her miles by jogging back and forth on the family’s vast veranda. There were no ambling trails in the woods for this woman.

Imagine, I thought, being so committed to running that you would do it secretly, against your family’s better judgment, in spite your very culture and religion if necessary! This one woman across the globe undertook her running as a subversive stand for self-respect.

Just as the Boston bombing has settled into my cells, so has the story of the woman running on her porch. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. I wonder how she learned that running “works” to clear life’s cobwebs and how she plucks up the courage to occasionally sneak out and run with friends when no one is watching (as I understand she does). How many other women runners are out there who run secretly—or privately? And what about those “covered” women whose faiths require clothing that would make the sweat and quick movements of running uncomfortable? Who are they? Where do they run? What are their stories? And what if a woman running in any culture IS subversive—because there’s nothing quite like hard physical exertion to teach a woman that she’s strong?

So I’m in the process of interviewing women who run against the tides of their cultures or faiths (even as they stay IN them). I’m looking to understand how, as I don my shorts and t-shirt and take for granted that I can step out onto the trail right outside my door to run alone, some women don’t have that unobstructed freedom to run—but they do it anyhow.

Here’s where I’m asking for your help. If you know a woman who covers because of her faith (any faith) and runs in her covering… or if you know a woman who for any reason sneaks her runs, I’d love to hear from you. Women who speak to me can be assured that they will be respected AND that they can remain anonymous if they’d like (contact:

Beyond Belief Interviews Stephanie Durden Edwards

Stephanie is a small town journalist, freelance writer, and aspiring novella author. She shares her home in west-central Missouri with her husband, three growing children, a stubborn horse, and a loud beagle. She spent the majority of her adulthood as a devout and active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, until her faith was shaken in late 2006 and her beliefs came full circle, beginning a paradigm shift that changed her life forever.stephDE

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? Beyond Belief was a matter of timing.  I was at the point in my faith journey where anger was not working for me. I wanted to move forward rather than continue to exist in my stagnation.  My friend Ingrid Ricks, who is the author of several books, including Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story, a memoir about her life in the LDS Church, brought the anthology to my attention. I began thinking about the most pivotal and poignant moments of my life in the Church, and I realized that it was time to deal with them constructively.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? It was cathartic and heart wrenching in the same breath. Reliving that part of my life brought me back to an uncomfortable place. To be honest, I am not very friendly with the young woman I wrote about. Going back was difficult. I had to wade through thoughts and ideas of my early adulthood that caused me a great deal of pain. When I left, the trajectory of my life shifted almost overnight. Looking back at those experiences reminded me how vastly different my life has turned out to be.

Writing the piece for the anthology revealed just how little time I had spent reflecting on the hardest days of my faith crisis. Part of my survival involved leaving some stones unturned.  I had to live in the momentum of the journey and leave the self-reflection for another day. Beyond Belief gave me the chance to think through those experiences.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? This is a hard question to answer. Losing my religion was so unlike anything else I had ever done in my life. It was more complicated than simply choosing a new place to worship. Being a member of the Church defined everything. Everyday decisions came down to the fact that I was an active and devout LDS woman.

There were the big things, of course. Resigning my membership effectively separated me from important religious rituals with my extended family. This cast a long shadow over many relationships. Some friendships did not survive it.

But, then there were the small changes. The first time I ordered a cup of coffee in a restaurant I waited for the world to stop. It didn’t. All around me there were perfectly normal people sipping on cups of coffee, too. There were many firsts. The first time I wore clothing discouraged by the modesty standards of the Church, the first time I drank a glass of wine, the first time the General Conference came and went and I hardly stopped to take notice.

Each new experience took me further and further away from the comfort and familiarity of the life I had lived.

Knowing when it was finally time to leave was hard enough. Knowing what to do with myself after I left was equally difficult. What were my values? Did I still have integrity? Who would I become?

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? For many women, it is a matter of being born into the religion. From a very early age, all I knew was life as a Latter-day Saint. For all women, there is a great deal of pressure to make things right, to make everything okay. Society still expects women to be the angels at the hearth.  Civilization lives or dies by wives and mothers.

Religious tradition dictates a woman’s role, her worth, and her limits. When the world seems out of control we are driven back to those traditions. We want to make sense of life, to make it right. Religious traditions can bury women yet at the same time blame them for creating a broken society. Still women seek God’s forgiveness and approval. Instead of looking outside of our faith traditions, we seek our value between the pages of the scriptures and within the walls of the churches.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Life has a way of coming full circle. In the early days of my disaffection, I eschewed anything that bore resemblance to the life I lived as a Mormon. I wanted to purge everything about it from my existence. I sought out information that would show the Church in a bad light. With time, my perspective has changed. I have found peace in the fact that being LDS made a permanent imprint on me. I see much good in the Church. Believing that the Church is the one and only true church of Jesus Christ left me a long time ago, but I respect that its members love and live their religion from a place of sincerity.

Mormons are phenomenal when it comes to serving their fellow man. Of course, there are parts of the faith that cause me a great deal of grief. When it comes to the status of women, gays, and those who doubt and question the core doctrines of the Church there is still much work to be done. I hang on to the hope that the Church will evolve. It is already happening.

Much of who I am was and is defined by the fact that some part of me will always belong to the LDS tribe. My early religious training taught me that worship and time with the divine should be a reverent affair. Quiet time alone in nature is how I choose to connect with the spiritual, and that can be traced back directly to the emphasis on reverence.

What advise do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? I had to come to the realization that any religion can be extreme. Fundamentalism exists under the roof of every church, mosque, or synagogue. For women who find that their religion is causing harm; it is okay to find a way out. It is okay to survive. To women who are beaten down by someone using the religion as a club, I would say seek immediate help.

Losing one’s faith is not the result of wickedness, disobedience, sin, or the desire to sin. It is not laziness, rebellion, or selfishness. It is often the pursuit of authenticity, truth, and joy. I would challenge the notion that you must have it all figured out in order to have a reason to go, the fact that something doesn’t feel right or that a teaching or aspect of doctrine rings untrue is enough. But I would also add that it is not necessary to throw everything away. It is okay to hang on to the good.

What are your current writing projects? I work as a staff writer for a small town newspaper and have for nearly three years. I am passionate about fighting the good fight for small town journalism, though many of the great minds have already called it a day for small market print publications. As long as the doors stay open and my publisher will have me, I will continue. I also publish as a freelance magazine writer.

I have been working on a handful of short fiction stories some of which I have submitted to various places. As I wrap up work on the short stories, my next project is a mystery/suspense novel entitled What Goes Around. Finishing the novel for publication will take me to the end of the year.

You’re the Top!

To our authors and others who have shared their stories with us:

First: Just a note to say thanks to our author Nikki Smith, who always notices before anyone else when Beyond Belief gets an accolade. This week, she saw that our book was in the low numbers on the Amazon 100 list. As of this writing we’re at #5!

When I (Cami) saw the link to Amazon on facebook (on Donna Johnson’s page, actually), I was reminded once again of what a privilege it is to be in the company of so many courageous and creative women.

I think about all of you as we turn the corner into a season of holidays. Holidays are the mainstay of many religions and what to do with them now is a question for many of us who have left communities that celebrated together. For some, nothing has changed in the way the days are marked, but the meanings have shifted. Whatever connection you have to your winter holidays, may this be a season of peace. Thank you for being in my life (and I know Susan feels the same) and for sharing your collective wisdom with one another and with the world.

Beyond Belief Interviews Huda Al-Marashi

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on her memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from her memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, and In Her Place. 

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? I heard about Beyond Belief through another anthology I had participated in. I had written a chapter in my memoir that I thought would work. I edited it into a stand-alone piece and now I’ve decided it works better on its own.Al-Marashi Headshot

What was it like to revisit an experience of living with extreme religion? In my piece, I discuss a lamentation ritual that has been practiced in my family since the early 1990’s. The Gulf War brought a new wave of immigrants from Iraq to California, and with them came many customs that had been forgotten by the earlier arrivals. This ritual is not common to all Shia Muslim-American communities, and ever since I moved away from my family’s community in California, I haven’t been a part of a congregation that upholds this tradition in the same way.

As an adult, it was interesting to me how much I longed to experience the ritual again. There was something about it that gripped me. I’d watch the women around me and wonder what brought them to this circle, what meaning they assigned to the practice. I have always been fascinated by the power of the spiritual impulse, what it drives people to do and how it manifests in day-to-day life. Writing about that time in my childhood as an adult was profoundly gratifying. Here was this moment that had so bewildered and intrigued me, and writing about it gave me a way to organize the experience and give it meaning.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I don’t see myself as having left religious life. I see being a member of a faith community as a process of finding one’s place along a continuum of belief and practice, and I understand that my place on this spectrum is constantly shifting. As a child, I prayed and fasted because I was told it was obligatory. As an adult, I uphold the same practices but for the discipline and for the connection to a community that is such an important part of my identity.

Why do you think modern women are drawn to the practice of extreme religion? I don’t know that modern women are drawn to the practice of extreme religion any more than any person in a faith community. Whenever people start to think that they have some kind of license on the truth, that there are absolutes, or when we fail to contextualize our faiths and see them as dynamic human constructs, we are in danger of slipping into extremism.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith? Having a religious identity is like any relationship. You have to grow and mature within it, and it requires study—not just of the particulars of your faith but of religion itself and how it operates in the world. All members of religious communities need to be aware of how their society, culture, and history influence the way their faith is practiced in the modern day. Sometimes we try to justify things in our faiths that don’t make sense to us. We tell ourselves this has to be right because this is what my religion says. Those are the moments for which we must be alert. Instead of justifying things that don’t make sense, we have to research those points of tension. We have to ask ourselves, what society produced this thought and do I really need to carry this into the present?

What are your current projects? I am currently seeking representation for a memoir that explores the different ways my dual-identity as an Iraqi-American affected the early years of my marriage. My husband and I shared the same background, but both world’s conflicting attitudes toward courtship and marriage was an unexpected source of tension, one that I think may be the case for a lot of couples who share hybrid-identities. In between work on the memoir, I write essays and short stories on themes related to immigration and the experience of exile.

By Chance

I (Cami) came home yesterday to see the following (see picture) sitting on my sofa. When my husband came into the room I said, “That’s crazy, isn’t it?”

“What?” he asked as he leaned over my shoulder to look at the images of our book cover and the National Geographic picture of a woman in a burqa with caged birds on her head. He hadn’t even noticed the uncanny similarity! The placement of the two pictures side by side was a complete coincidence.


As you might imagine, I sat for a good long time studying the similarities and the differences here. I posted the picture on Facebook immediately and sent a note to the designer (who also happens to be a contributor to the book). I wanted everyone else to be as taken with the coincidence as I was. What strikes me are the birds.

In one image they fly free; in the other, they live in a very, very small space.

There was a time in my life when I lived in a small space, too—when I looked at the world through the mesh of a limited theology and worldview. In truth, I (like everyone else, I assume) still have plenty of self-limiting beliefs that sometimes make me feel like I don’t have enough room to spread my wings. As Susan and I are fond of saying, “You can take the girl out of the religion, but you can’t take the religion out of the girl.” The “total depravity” doctrine still haunts me at times, even though I’ve consciously given it up.

But seeing our book cover sitting beside the image of this covered woman with the birds on her head made me remember how much range of movement I actually do have. For me and for most Western women I know, the limitations we have live mostly IN our heads, rather than being forced burdens placed ON our heads. I don’t know the life story of the woman in the National Geographic picture above, of course, but I do know there are plenty of girls and women who don’t have the option of choosing their lots in life (whether they cover their bodies or not).

Today I will be thankful to be an uncaged bird, and I will ponder how I can support those who are not so free.

Note: I hope in addition to reading Beyond Belief, you’ve all read Half the Sky by Kristof and WuDunn.

Dancing With the Torah

Dancing With the Torah

Women of faith and feminists have more in common than they have differences.

While popular wisdom has it that being a feminist and a woman of faith are incompatible my experience as an Orthodox Jew tells a different story.  Some of the most ardent feminists I (Susan) ever met were Orthodox Jewish women in my community. Some considered themselves feminists and some did not, but when I think about what it means to be a feminist these women fit the bill.

Like all good feminists they are committed to affirming the full humanity of women but they do so within the context of their religious belief system. They strive to build a community that treats everyone fairly.  They do not view their gender as an obstacle but embrace it and live a full life as a woman and as a believer in their faith.

Today almost every major and minor religion has a growing and active women’s movement within it. From Mormonism to Catholicism to Judaism religious women are seeking to address issues of inequality. They are pointing out how discrimination is not consonant with deeper ideologies, questioning how, why and who made the rules that disenfranchise them. Women are pointing to scripture and other religious teachings to make their case and ask for change. These religious women are not walking away from their faith but are working within its structures in order to make change happen. They are feminists.

In my Orthodox years I ran up against a number of laws that I felt were discriminatory. Women couldn’t sing or dance in public. Women couldn’t participate in certain rituals or prayers. Many of these rules were explained to me as ways to safeguard women against bad male behavior, i.e. the sound of a woman’s voice could arouse a man and distract him from prayer. I was taught that these laws were not devised to oppress women but to elevate them and prevent them from being regarding as sex objects and thus devalued.

Many of Judaism’s laws appear discriminatory by secular standards but understood within the religious context may give women more chance at true equality. By downplaying a woman’s physical appearance she has more opportunity and encouragement to develop herself and self worth in other ways.

These arguments were a hard sell for me. Having been brought up in a very liberal, secular home the idea that a restriction could be a freeing force was an entirely new concept. One restriction that particularly bothered me was a law prohibiting women from dancing with the Torah on a special holiday called Simhat Torah. Once per year, on this special day, the Torah was paraded around as men and boys hugged it tight and danced with it in their arms, shouting, sweating, vying for their special moment with the sacred parchment while we women were shut out. Women didn’t touch the Torah much less dance with it. It wasn’t allowed, it wasn’t done, end of story.

I asked but did not receive an adequate explanation. I was angry. I became determined to find out where this law came from and why. If I had to accept this prohibition, I needed a reason, an argument, something to take the sting out of it. And it had to be a damn good one.

Four of us formed a study group and began learning the laws that prohibited us from touching the Torah. We met every Sunday morning for over four years and educated and empowered ourselves about this issue and many others pertaining to women in Judaism. We learned that the prohibition of touching the Torah was on precarious legal ground and was more a matter of precedent and custom than hard and fast law. The more we studied, the more we came across leniencies and examples of Orthodox communities that allowed women to touch and dance with the Torah. Eventually, we were able to convince others in the community that women should be able to dance with the Torah.

Religions and secular societies do adapt and change. For us — women of faith AND secular feminists, we can more effectively foster that change together than apart.





Yesterday I attended the funeral of the mother of a friend. The service was a beautiful tribute to a woman who was committed to her family and community and who made an impact on everyone she met. Though I didn’t know her personally, I was touched by the obvious love and affection everyone in the audience felt for her. I wish I’d had the chance to get to know her, and I’m grateful to know her daughter.

During the service, there was a lot of talk of heaven. I could see that the hope of eternal paradise brought great peace to the grieving family–and a much needed promise of seeing their beloved again that allowed for a celebration in the midst of their deep sadness. I do not begrudge anyone this faith in the afterlife. In fact, I well understand it and have respect for those who live their lives today for the reward they will receive in the hereafter. Most of my friends who believe in heaven are people who bring consciousness and intention to their lives.

The ceremony invited me to reflect on my own history. I once (for about twenty years) filtered all of my decisions through a narrow focus on the afterlife. For me (and I’m only talking about myself here) such a focus was very stressful. I never felt the comfort others talked about when discussing heaven. Instead, I worried about the eternal to the detriment of the “now.”  I feared making mistakes–particularly in my dogma–because everything I did or thought or believed was so dire in my mind. The years I was involved in a literalistic way of understanding God were years spent being very serious, and very frightened of failure. I was particularly terrified of failing to tell others about my faith because I believed that those who didn’t share my doctrine, would go to hell. The idea of hell and of anyone going there being intolerable to me, I think I must have been terribly tedious to unbelieving friends as I insisted they convert to my way of thinking. Not all people of faith who look forward to heaven are primarily trying to avoid going to hell, but I was.

In the years since I realized I needed to unpack my doctrines and loosen up my literalistic thinking, I’ve come to understand that we all make sense of death in unique ways. We have to. Death is always with us as one of the surest things in the human experience. As I sat in the memorial service yesterday and watched the slide show of my friend’s mother roll out the chronology of her life, I realized that she’d brought “heaven” into the lives of those she loved as surely as they hoped for heaven for her now. Because I sit much more in a place of not knowing (and not needing to know what I don’t know) than I used to, I was able to stay in the moment with those gathered, to tippy toe between the grief and the joy palpable in the auditorium, and to feel happy for the hope of reunion the family held.

This is progress for me, and I’m glad for it. In my religious days, I was activated by fear when I was with those who believed differently than I did. And then for many years after my “shift,” I was activated by anxiety when I encountered anyone speaking my old language of eternity. My heart was happy yesterday that I was able to enter into the essence of the memorial without any inner gnashing of teeth. It felt like heaven.

My questions for you: What still hooks you? What have you made peace with?