Chuckles of Understanding, Moments of Sadness

Beyond Belief top onlyLast week Cami and I (Susan) met with four of our Bellingham and Seattle based writers to do a read-through for our upcoming events at Elliot Bay on April 4, Village Books on April 28, and Powell’s on April 30.  We met at the home of Laura Kalpakian, an award winning novelist, teacher and top-notch coach who, it turns out, had one time or another taught almost all of us. Laura is a generous and perceptive teacher and she shines when it comes to helping writers prepare to read from their work.

As we gathered around Laura’s dining room table, snacks and wine close at hand, it occurred to me that this was the first time any of our anthology writers would be hearing each others stories. Their copies of Beyond Belief were still in the mail and unlike Cami and I, they hadn’t been living and breathing all 26 stories during the past two years. How would they respond to each others stories?  Would they feel the same spark of recognition and empathy for one another that had fueled the anthology in the first place?

During the first read-through we all listened with an ear toward pacing, tone of voice, and flow of content. Suggestions were made, changes followed. Laura’s comments were, as usual, right on, witty and to the point. By the second go-round deliveries were smoother, the pulls and tugs that writers had made evened out pauses and intonations.  When everyone took a second turn, the assembled writers became listeners not of technique and delivery but of the stories themselves. That’s when I noticed Colleen smile sympathetically when Pam described her fear of burning in hell for having sex. That’s when I saw Elise nod emphatically as Cami read about her desperate desire to learn how to speak in tongues. And so it went, chuckles of understanding, moments of sadness. The spark that originally created Beyond Belief was clearly being fanned by the sharing of stories and had now turned into a full-blown flame.

Toward the end of the evening Elise Brianne reread her story in which the last lines are from the song “Show me the Way. ” In her first read-though, she had paused not knowing whether to speak or sing them. On her second pass she used her beautiful strong voice to sing the lyrics. After the final notes quieted we all sat silently. Finally Pam said, “Don’t you just miss the music? I could live without all the rest but sometimes there’s nothing like those old hymns and songs.”

There is much we don’t miss from our former faiths, much we are still grieving and angry about. But for the former Catholic, Orthodox Jew, and Evangelicals of various stripes sitting around the table, we agreed, the music of our former faiths never left us. It lives in our blood and bones just like our sadness and grief. It is as much a part of us as our new nonreligious lives, our fought-for freedoms and hard-earned sense of self worth; it is all there somehow coexisting inside of each of us. Recognizing it in each other helps me to see it in myself.

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Identity: Talk Amongst Yourselves

We’ve heard through the grapevine that readers have been able to purchase Beyond Belief on their e-readers! This means the conversation has officially started. And we’d love for you to join in (by commenting on posts with opinions, questions, or stories of your own).

When we first met in author Laura Kalpakian’s memoir class and started talking about our respective experiences inside our faith communities, we were both amazed to discover what we had in common. I (Cami) didn’t face any of the specific food or clothing restrictions that Susan was obliged to follow, and she wasn’t required to strictly and wholeheartedly “believe” a particular set of doctrine in order to achieve salvation as I was, but we did both very much value the communities we had been a part of (in spite of leaving them). Upon further discussion, we also discovered that for both of us, leaving meant reformulating our identities (just as joining had meant).

question-marks-with-speech-bubblesSo much of being a part of a faith community (or a faith perspective—with or without the people who come along with it) is about identity. Tough questions are answered inside of religion. The more extreme/fundamentalist/orthodox the religion, the more questions are answered. Who am I? What do I believe? What is my purpose on the planet? What should my relationship with outsiders be? What is the “proper” way to participate in education/marriage/child-rearing/worship? All of these questions answer, at least in part, the question of who a person is.

When someone walks away from her sect or her doctrine, she has to decide if she still holds to the answers given to her about the questions listed above (among others). If she doesn’t, she needs to either answer the questions differently or learn to live in new relationship with the questions themselves.

When we conceived of Beyond Belief, one thing we were interested in was making a place where women could talk about how this need to reinvent themselves impacted their lives once they departed from what was once a firm conviction. For me, reinventing meant finding new rituals that would center me and make me feel secure. I used to get up every morning and spend an hour in prayer and Bible reading. Now I get up and run. It’s a new kind of prayer and reading that I do with my body.

How about you? How has/did your faith or religious affiliation inform your identity? How has that changed over time? What’s new about how you answer the questions: Who am I? What do I believe? What is my purpose on the planet? What should my relationships be like?

Can’t wait to hear from you!

Beyond Belief Interviews Melanie Hoffert

Hoffert,Melanie-by_John_ChristensonWelcome to the Beyond Belief Blog, a forum for open discussion about women’s stories finding, staying in, and leaving extreme religions. Please share your story with us. This week we talk with writer Melanie Hoffert whose memoir, Prairie Silence has just been published.

What are your current writing projects? I just published my first book Prairie Silence in February of this year. As I’ve been promoting the book I’ve felt a lot of pressure to define my next big project. I think I’m finally accepting that I’m in a season of rest, contemplation, and regeneration. My book was born from writing what needed to be written over time; I suspect my next book will come to me in the same way.  Thus, I’m currently writing what comes, day by day.

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? This subject matter is so tricky and important.  As humans I think we are programed to make meaning out of our lives. I am on a life-long path of personal growth that at one time included “extreme” religion and continues today without it.

Today when it comes to religion, I am often caught between frustration and humility. The frustration comes from observing how some organized religions perpetuate blatant injustice under the shroud of holiness. The humility comes from recognizing that my blanket judgment about religion can be dangerous; religion is a deeply personal experience and some religions can cultivate great beauty and peace in people—I’ve been there.  I wanted to contribute to this anthology because I think “story sharing” is a critical way to break down walls, increase dialogue, and build understanding among people with different perspectives.

Additionally, much of my memoir is about my path to reconcile my faith with being a lesbian; in my book I write about my evolution through religion, starting with my early years of going to a country church on the North Dakota prairie, through my teenage years where I wore Jesus T-shirts and judged the complacency of the people in my small town church.  Eventually I come full circle in the book, admiring the quiet faith of the people from my childhood.  Since my experience with religion was such a big part of my memoir, this project seemed like a very wonderful complement to what I was already grappling with in my work.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? In my story Witness, I write about an evening when my brother shared with me questions he had about his evolving belief system. In contrast to a time in my life where, as a devout Christian, my job would have been to ask him to deny his feelings and to blindly accept my perceived truth, I was able to listen to him without judgment. And so to visit revisit my faith story from the vantage point of my growth was important and helpful.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? My journey away has been a long and slow process that happened over time. I don’t think about my experience as one of leaving, but as evolving to new understandings about life, love, and spirituality. The hardest part of the changes I’ve been through is that I feel empathy for people who are still in the world of extreme religion. This empathy causes me to silence myself because I anticipate how they will react to my thoughts about life. In other words, something still has a hold on me. I still fear judgment.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? As I stated earlier, I think as humans we need to make meaning of our physical experiences.  We naturally ask the questions humans have always asked, starting with: Why am I here? We all take different paths to address this question. And for some women, extreme religion provides clarity. Religion can also be a powerful vehicle to community, support, love, guidance, and communion with “the divine.”

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I still feel religious in some way:  I am deeply spiritual.  I honor the mystery of life.  I think there is meaning beyond our physical bodies.  And I aspire to the simplest principles I learned in church, including love and peace.  From my early experiences I take all that was truly good.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith? It is important for everyone, particularly women, to be very aware of their own voice in the context of religion; to not deny their discomfort, or their heart, when it echoes with the message: “Something about this is just not right.”HOFFERT-PrairieSilence

Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota where she spent her childhood meandering gravel roads and listening to farmers at church potlucks. She has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, where she received the Outstanding Creative Nonfiction Thesis Award. Her essay Going Home won the Creative Nonfiction Award from The Baltimore Review; additionally, The Allure of Grain Trucks was selected as a finalist for the Writers at Work Fellowship Competition and also won the New Millennium Writings Creative Nonfiction Award. The Loft Literary Center selected her as a finalist for the Loft Mentor Series twice. Her work has also appeared in Muse & Stone and The Mochila Review.  Prairie Silence is her first book.

Join the Beyond Belief Conversation

Copies of Beyond Belief have come in to the publisher! That means that while the official publication date is not until April 2, you may be able to find them on bookstore shelves earlier than that. We’d love to hear from you if you see them at your local bookstore sooner.

As we mentioned last week, we’ll be introducing you to our contributors throughout the year. In between those interviews, we’ll be putting up a post we call, “The Beyond Belief Conversation.” This is a chance for you to share your story or experiences (or talk about them with friends offline, if that suits you better) with extreme religion. Have you been there yourself? Do you know someone who is, was or is thinking about joining?

When we conceived of Beyond Belief, we started with questions that were relevant to our mutual experience of joining religions that in some way asked us to follow rules foreign to our secular friends. Susan and I (Cami) came from very, very different traditions, but as we talked and shared our histories with one another, we realized that we had in much common. We discovered that we both joined our respective faiths (Susan into Orthodox Judaism and me into Pentecostal forms of Christianity) looking for structure and community, among other things. As we edited the stories in the anthology, we saw that women joined/converted for many reasons: Family, genuine faith, tradition, fear, a sense of belonging, etc. The more stories we read in working on the book, the more reasons we encountered.

question-marks-with-speech-bubblesWe couldn’t put ALL of the stories sent to us in the anthology, but we can make space for them here. So what about you? Are you someone who once embraced religion or faith (especially one that some might consider extreme)? If so, we’d love to know what drew you in. Why did you make a choice to leave behind the freedoms that secular life has to offer? What made you decide to trade the spaciousness of “no religion” for the guidelines of a faith or religious community? Is it because you heard a gospel that made sense to you? Were you looking for structure? Did the choices in front of you seem overwhelming while religious life offered a way to channel your energy, direction, and choices?

Whether you’ve left now or you’re still invested in the religion you once chose, we’ love to hear from you. What led you to join/convert?