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.

 

 

 

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Beyond Belief Interviews Nikki Smith

Beyond Belief Blog Tour Continues!

Follow our month long blog tour line-up and travel with us to some fabulous sites. 

Friday, August 30 @ Steph the Bookworm
Get in on the giveaway and join Stephanie as she reviews the anthology,Beyond Belief, The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Cami Ostman and Susan Tive.
http://www.stephthebookworm.com/

Monday, September 2 @ Women on Writing, The Muffin
Read what Susan Tive writes in her guest post about “Feminism and Religion” and get in on the giveaway and your chance to win a copy of the anthologyBeyond Belief; The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions.
http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/

Wednesday, September 4 @ Renee’s Pages
Read what Renee’s thoughts were after finishing the anthology, Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions and partake in the giveaway for an opportunity to read this one for yourself!
http://www.reneespages.blogspot.com/

This Week Beyond Belief is happy to welcome writer and BB contributor Nikki Smith. As a former Seventh Day Adventist Nikki has a unique and thoughtful perspective on the questions of women and extreme religion. She has written for academic publications and lectured for both local and national educational organizations.  She was a Loma Linda University professor and Seventh Day Adventist missionary in both South Korea and Guam.  Nikki currently lives in Southern California and is working on her memoir about a tightly wound, off-kilter family and a severe, absolutist religion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat interested you in contributing to the anthology? Life within the Seventh Day Adventist church has rarely been examined in secular literature or other faith-based writings, for that matter. Beyond Belief presented a model venue to share my insight into a faith that demanded stringent obedience. My particular story as an earnest believer who was church-schooled, and served as a missionary and then went on to teach as a professor within it’s premier university gives me the credentials to shed light on this little known but growing protestant sect.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Recalling my experiences within the Seventh Day Adventist church brought me face to face with the reality of how immersed I had been. This is a church that requires its members to not only believe in its theology but to also practice its strict lifestyle. Adventism believes in a very literal Bible, including the strictures within the Old Testament along with the New Testament gospel and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. As I write about my life within this structure, I am struck by how my strict adherence to the Church’s rules kept many of us from reaching our full potential and becoming self-reliant.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Leaving behind my community of believers was the most painful part of my journey. There is a unity of spirit when everyone in a group believes the same way. It billows one’s soul to know that when you look across the aisle, each person has the same beliefs as you do. I lost many friends. My journey was lonely but also very freeing. For me to realize that I could make my own decisions without the heavy blanket of dogma is a precious gift that still delights me daily.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? Extreme religions promise answers. That reason alone can be a shelter that many women feel they need. I had always yearned to know “the truth” and thought I had found it and life’s answers within my strict church. All the explanations were in black and white and you didn’t have to evaluate for yourself. There was a certain comfort in knowing that the Bible and your church had figured all of the hard stuff out already. But then life happened with all its messiness and the answers I had been given just weren’t working anymore.

If a woman is born into an authoritarian church it is especially hard for her to forsake her faith and become an outsider. She has to be very strong to withstand the direct and indirect ostracism. When you leave your own kin don’t trust you anymore. For many women, staying within the confines of their church even though they may not believe is just easier and they don’t have to deal with the guilt and judgment that comes along with leaving.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? My reverence for our magnificent earth and all its wonders and the love I have for my fellow man certainly continues. I now understand that I can choose to be good and to do good things because they are the right thing to do and not because of a reward in the hereafter. To help my fellow man, to care for my family, to aid the downtrodden, and to help protect the world around me gives me a deeper joy because I am doing it with no feeling that I will be reimbursed.

What advise do you have for women struggling with their faith? It may seem like an overwhelming and bewildering predicament, but by searching within yourself for your truth, the truth of who you are and not what a church or an orthodoxy or set of rules tells you, is key. I have been through this struggle and it is not easy. It took me years to finally leave my church home. I lived through it and I know you can live a very fulfilling and wonderful life “beyond belief.”

What Remains?

Last week Pam Helberg and Grace Peterson, two Beyond Belief writers, suggested some important additions to my list of Questions I Wish They’d Ask. One of them, how are we all still impacted by the religious communities we left, I’d like to speak to today. This question resonates strongly with me (Susan) and is made even more poignant because my 21-year-old daughter is visiting for a few weeks before she heads back to college several thousand miles away.

Like most parents with almost-finished-with-college, almost-an-adult children, I cherish every moment I get to spend with my daughter knowing that as her life takes shape into the future our time together will become even more rare. In my case, however, I feel a deeper sense of gratitude about our relationship. I have a sense of pride that we both made it through not just the normal pushes and pulls of the mother/daughter relationship as she entered puberty, individuated, rebelled, etc., but that we survived the very real danger that we may not have had a relationship at all because of the decision I made to leave Orthodox Judaism.

When I left Orthodoxy I chose to leave largely because I was concerned for the long-term mental and emotional health of my children and myself. I had to get the hell out of the situation first and then go back for my children, it was not ideal, nor pretty. It was triage, it was why they instruct you on an airplane to put on your own mask first, because if you pass out you won’t be much help to your children.

Leaving was risky, extremely risky because not only did I have to believe that I had the strength to do it but I had to believe in my children. I had to believe that they could sort out the situation for themselves, that they knew who I really was despite what they were being told.

The very rules of orthodoxy that I had followed to help keep my family together became barriers used to keep me from my children. The tight knit fabric of the community I had worked so hard to create and weave my children into morphed into an impermeable net that separated us once I was on the other side.

And while I respect and understand that the rules of Orthodoxy were only trying to protect them, I knew better. I knew that the connection we had as mother and child was more fundamental, more holy and vital than the religious overlay that was being used to keep them away from me. Religion should be part of what strengthens and protects families, and for many years I experienced just that support in my Jewish life.

In order to leave I had to believe in my children far more deeply than I had ever believed in Orthodoxy. I took a huge risk. I walked away with the hope that I would eventually be in their lives in a real, and for lack of a better word, natural way.

Yes I often feel guilty for having put my children through the pain and suffering of what took place when I left Orthodoxy. But as the years go by my trust in them has been justified. Today I may act just like any other mother with almost-adult kids home for a visit but what remains inside me, what has become an intrinsic part of me is the visceral memory, the fear, of how close I came to losing them.

 

Beyond Belief Interviews Yolande Brener

Yolande Brener is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Holy Candy, the story of her fifteen years as a member of the Unification Church.  Her essays have been published in New York Press, Nerve, and Strange Angels, and her film scripts have been funded by the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of Great Britain. Yolande believes that all religions contain wisdom.yolande

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? When Susan and Cami invited me to write a short piece for their anthology I was delighted to be part of a project that explored so many different women’s experiences with extreme religion.  Because they had their own personal experiences, I trusted that they would present an honest and open-minded collection of stories.  I’m not interested in bashing the Unification Church or anyone in it.  I am interested in exploring why people make these choices, and whether there are better ways to accomplish the sense of community and integrity women are seeking.

 What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? In some ways, I would prefer never to speak about it again.  It saddens me that I was so convinced I was contributing to making the world a better place, and yet there was no evidence that this was the case.  It took me fifteen years to move away from the Unification Church.

I share the story because people want to understand why someone like me—who is an artist and an individualist, and externally very calm—would make the choice to submit to the will of a religious leader.  All of us are malleable, we are influenced by those around us, our emotional experiences and our desire to belong to a “family”.  Part of joining an extreme religion like the Unification Church involves giving up one’s individuality for the sake of the greater good, and that is what I did at the time.

The greatest miracles that came out of the experience for me are the two most important people in my life: my two children.  My son and daughter are amazing and yet they came from an arranged marriage between two people who never would have met outside the church.

I have no ill feeling toward anyone in the church, although it breaks my heart that I believed the promises they made to me if I followed their religion. My desire to connect to a higher power was so great that I left behind my identity, my friends, my family and my country.  I no longer believe that any organization can be a mouthpiece for what we call “God.”  I believe we all have a channel to higher intelligence, and I strive to be open to it.

 What was the hardest part of leaving for you? The hardest part of leaving was the immense sense of failure.  I promised “God” that I would dedicate my life to Him in order to help cure the world and my family and that I would follow Reverend Moon’s instructions to the best of my ability.  These ideas seem ridiculous now, but they are indicative of the strong faith I had.

The hardest part wasn’t so much leaving the church as becoming a single parent.  The Unification Church promised that our marriages were blessed by God and would last eternally. This was very important to me.  I wanted my children to experience the security of seeing their parents loving each other, supporting each other, and being united in service to the community. When my children’s father left and I no longer had the support of the Unification Church community what I feared more than anything else; becoming a single parent like my mother, became a reality.

 Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion?  When women today are attracted to extreme religion it’s for the same reasons I joined the Unification Church: desire to contribute to the greater good of humanity and desire to create a good, wholesome family with integrity, purity and good values.  Most people want to do something to help others in their lives, and it’s not always easy to find a way to do this.  When a group comes along saying they are The Way, people who are searching just might believe them.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  Two maxims I carry with me are to make everyone I encounter feel loved or appreciated by me, and to see everything as holy.  If I can succeed at this occasionally, I feel I have accomplished something.

Having lived side by side with people from numerous nations I learned to be more empathetic to others and appreciate the differences between people. The idea of the unification of nations and religions is a good one. I feel great compassion for the people I shared my journey with.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now?

I am a strong believer in our inner guidance system.

We have feelings for a reason, and the most important things in life do not always happen according to logic.  I believe that our feelings are more connected to our divine nature than to our intelligence. As humans—we often think our ideas are solid or statistically proven, but the more instinctive part of us may reflect a broader ranging viewpoint.  We are part of a planet and a larger community. We haven’t always done what is best for that planet or community.  Perhaps there is a more connected part of us that knows what would be better for the larger organism if we would learn to listen to it?

And if all that sounds esoteric and far out, what did you expect from an ex-Moonie?

What are your current writing projects?  I hope to publish my memoir, Holy Candy, later this year.  Holy Candy tells the story of my religious experience and my arranged marriage in more depth: why I made that choice, why I left and what I gained from that part of my life.

I write about local interest issues for Harlem World and post on my Holy Blog.  The main themes I focus on are love and spirituality. I write about what moves me, this can range from the Law of Attraction and channeling to chance meetings with extraordinary people.

The Spirit Knows No Rules

The Spirit Knows No Rules

Earlier this week I (Susan) had the pleasure of joining a wonderful local book group to talk about Beyond Belief. Over a lovely meal served on the deck of our hostess, Tiana Melquist, the group discussed the anthology. All six of the members attending generously shared their thoughts about the stories that had touched them and passionately talked about the mix of emotions that they had experienced while reading the book.

It was gratifying for me to hear that Beyond Belief had resonated with these readers. For each of them there were a few stories that felt especially relevant, and for all, the anthology had elicited a variety of strong emotions ranging from anger, to sadness to empathy. The conversation about the stories was a natural segue for each woman to talk about her own experience with religion. Through the course of the evening it became apparent that everyone in the group had either had a brush with an extreme religion at some point in her life or knew a close friend or family member who had been or still was involved.

For the working mothers in the group Stephanie Durden Edwards’ A Mother in Israel hit a particularly sensitive chord. Stephanie’s story tells of her struggle accepting the Mormon teaching that it is immoral for a woman to work outside of the home and send her children to daycare. In her piece Stephanie beautifully depicts her love of her faith and her devotion to staying within the safety of her community while at the same time struggling against rules that seem irrational and possibly even harmful. This is the quandary many women face when their religious community asks them to follow rules that force them to choose between being faithful and taking care of themselves and their families.

Other readers commented on Swan Sister by Yolande Brener and expressed a deep pathos for Yolande’s need to find a deeper meaning in her life and help her older brother. Alongside this empathy the group expressed anger and frustration that her spiritual quest had been coopted by the Unification Church. “What does shaving your head and begging for money have to do with becoming a better person and finding a spiritual path?” one of the book club members asked.

Like many of the stories in the anthology Stephanie and Yolande’s experiences cannot help but make a reader wonder how the rules of extreme religion help a woman in her spiritual quest. A woman’s impetus for seeking meaning in her life is genuine and vulnerable and often the religious structure she chooses appears to do little to respect her need or honor her choice. How do religious rules, all the dos and don’ts, which seem harmful or tedious really help a woman attain well being or spirituality?

In my own experience as an Orthodox Jew the rules were paramount. In fact I spent way more time concerned with following rules, often about the most mundane of tasks, then I ever did thinking about spiritual matters. In Jewish practice the laws or mitzvahs that command us to act in certain ways are the paths by which we attain spirituality.  Though we may not understand how eating or dressing in a particular way is helping us to become more spiritual we are asked to accept this truth without question.

For me the rules were, at first, a huge help. They gave me relief from the overwhelm of choice and confusion, they helped me uphold the dignity of my role as a wife and mother, and they gave me guidance to grow into an adult with the ability to take the needs of the greater good into consideration in my thoughts and deeds.

Many of the rules of Orthodox Judaism felt arbitrary and outdated. Ultimately though, like in Stephanie’s story, it was the downright harm to me and to my family that blindly following any and all rules beyond common sense, intuition and rationality that led me to leave the practice behind.

When a religious practice keeps women so busy with rules that it actually prevents them from becoming good, independent and educated people it is time to step back and ask some hard questions. Following rules, religious or otherwise, is not meant to be the end all of our actions or a deterrent from living a spiritual life that feels honest and well meaning. Rules, when served in moderation, are supposed to free us and provide the security and structure we need as human beings to reach our fullest potential.

Beyond Belief Interviews Pamela Helberg

Pamela Helberg is something of an expert at living two lives:  Fundamentalist Christian/closeted lesbian; Catholic school employee/mostly out lesbian; writer/computer geek; lesbian mom in the not so gay 90s.  She received her MA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University where she studied under award-winning novelist Laura Kalpakian. Pam founded and operated Fremont Place Books in Seattle and taught English composition for many years at Whatcom Community College, before succumbing to her inner geek and launching a career in IT.  She lives in Bellingham, WA with her partner Nancy where she works at making her life more congruent.  She blogs on a variety of topics at http://www.pmbgp.blogspot.com.pamhelberg

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household.  When I was four years old, my family left Bellevue, WA, a developing suburb of Seattle and relocated to Sultan, a small logging town 45 minutes from anywhere interesting.  To this day I don’t know what possessed my parents to move us there, but they did, and not long after we arrived, my parents became born again.  My childhood played out in a series of evermore conservative religious communities.  These years left an indelible mark on me.  I was so afraid of going to hell, I spent my first four years at college as a member of a conservative Christian student organization where I alternately tried to pray away my gay and seduced other bible study members.

I have a lot to say about the role religion played in my life, and how it continues to be such a dominant and distracting force in our culture, sucking energy that could be channeled into more productive pursuits.  These are themes I am interested in exploring more deeply.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? I always experience some PTSD whenever I write about the time I was devoted to fundamentalist Christianity. I get angry that I wasted so much time and energy, so much of my youth, in this culture of fear, a community that essentially devalued the very essence of my being. I am relieved I was able to extricate myself when I did. The experience has provided me with rich material for writing.  Still, I’m sad and slightly angry.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Alienating my parents and the fear of their rejection was painful, as I write in “Body Language”—though that all worked out happily in the long run. The most difficult part of deciding that I could no longer be a Christian was the realization that none of my friends were going to make that transition with me—the loss of those relationships and the fact that I was rejected for being true to myself.

I remember a letter I got from a woman who had been a mentor, she was a youth group minister when I was in high school. I wrote to tell her that my partner and I had adopted our first daughter and she wrote back to tell me how horrible I was, that I was making a huge mistake, that the child deserved two heterosexual parents, and that God would punish us. That hurt.  Being alone between two worlds for a time was very challenging. I had to trust my choice, and it has proven to be the right one.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I have no idea—in fact, I can’t imagine a modern day woman needing religion especially if one is educated and independent. That said, I think we are attracted to what is familiar and safe, so there’s that; if a woman was raised in a religious household she might be afraid to leave her family and friends behind.  None of us likes change. On the other hand, if a woman comes from a place of chaos and instability, perhaps the order of religion attracts her, the clear rules and boundaries.

One doesn’t have to look very far to see how much of a scam religion is, how full of hypocrites, how the “man behind the curtain” is not so great and powerful as he seems (and it’s always a he). And then there’s the community—religion offers a ready-made group of friends and activities. I spent eight years working in a Catholic school and if I could forget about the religious aspects, it was a generally lovely and generous community.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Many irrational fears: fear of being struck by lightning (seriously), fear of being left behind by the rapture—if I come home and my partner isn’t there but her keys, the car, and her wallet are all still in the house, I immediately think that Christ has returned and I am not among the chosen (which isn’t a surprise, really). I still harbor a slightly violent distrust of all things labeled spiritual, no matter how benign.

The only positive remnant I can think of is my biblical literacy—I know my bible, can recite bible verses, and I can find the religious symbols in literature. These are small skills in comparison to the trauma I still carry, though I am in therapy to work on modulating these negative feelings.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Trust yourself—if you think you are being used, abused, belittled, ignored, subjugated, you probably are.  If you are being asked to do something that doesn’t make sense, don’t do it. If someone wants your money for the glory of some god, don’t give it to them.  You don’t have to be a believer to be a good and moral person—religion does not have the corner on decency.

Put your faith in yourself, not in the unseen or inscrutable.

What are your current writing projects? I am currently working on my memoir which chronicles the creation and ultimate dissolution of my Perfect Lesbian Family—how two lesbians created a family (insemination, adoption) and then how I navigated uncharted territories as a divorced lesbian mother seeking child custody.

Beyond Belief Interviews Carolyn Briggs

This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Carolyn S. Briggs. Her 2002 memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost  was reissued in 2011 as Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. She wrote the screenplay adaptation of her book for the film, Higher Ground, released that same year. Carolyn is an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa.01-carolyn-briggs[1]

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief?   It’s impossible to truly understand the experience of being immersed in a religious community unless you have experienced it yourself. However, language is the great facilitator of empathy.  In telling our stories, we invite readers to come alongside of us, to imagine themselves in our shoes (sensible, low heeled flats or Birkenstocks, as the case may be).  The stories in Beyond Belief will serve as a bridge for those on the outside to enter in and gain insight.  For those of us who have experienced an insular existence, we have the opportunity to enter into others’ stories with compassion and understanding and extend that mercy to ourselves, if we still need that kind of tending. And sometimes I do.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Writing a memoir right after I left the church was probably a mistake.  I should have allowed myself more time to process that loss.  Writing the screenplay for my memoir gave me the great gift of perspective.  It was like going home as I immersed myself in that world again.  In production, we chose hymns and worship songs for the soundtrack, and I would find myself singing them word-for-word, verse after verse.  It was all there.  I was smiling, laughing and crying listening to those beautiful songs.  I was still fluent in Born-Again and that was a lovely discovery.  In fact, I was more comfortable speaking to Fuller Theological Seminary students in California than I was addressing a film festival audience in Nantucket.   I am bi-lingual, I suppose, but neither language expresses me any longer.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I lost the approval of many I cared deeply about.  I was an Elder’s wife. I was the director of the drama ministry.  I taught Bible study.  And then I just walked away from all my overachieving holiness.  One of my counselors told me that God would kill me for doing this. My mother was humiliated. My father was disappointed.  My children were confused and depressed.  My then husband, one of the finest human beings on this planet, was stunned with my betrayal.  I didn’t have any way of understanding the world or interpreting it. My lens for viewing the world was shattered and I couldn’t see a future without God.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? We are fundamentally wired to want answers.  Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, and we are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable living in a random universe.  Faith is the only possible way to reconcile the events in our lives and in our world.   Science doesn’t do it.  Education is helpful, but not transcendent.  Rilke advises learning to love the questions themselves, but for most of us, that is uncomfortable. “I’m not sure if my significant other loves me, but I’m going to find pleasure in just wondering if he does.” Does that really work for anyone?

We’re also social creatures, and we seek a community of believers.  These groups usually reflect what we already fundamentally believe about the world.   When I was eighteen, the Jesus people were pious hippies—it was a perfect match for a pregnant eighteen-year-old whose boyfriend was a rock musician.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  I love European cathedrals. I’m rarely in an American church of any sort, but in Europe, I can hardly keep myself out of every church I encounter.  I light candles though I don’t know why. I stand before the altar. I walk from one stained glass window to the next to the next. My heart is always pounding.   Once in Istria, Croatia, I entered the vestibule of a church already observing mass.  A woman saw me standing in the doorway, and she walked toward me.  She’s going to invite me in, I thought. Instead, she closed the door in my face.  I suppose she saw me as an outsider, a curious tourist making the holy somehow profane.  And maybe I was.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Many women have written to me and told me that they are the woman in my film, the woman who has lost her faith and lost herself and only has a glimmer of hope that she can make a life apart from God.  I tell those women that God is big enough to contain their doubt.  Don’t let other people and their neuroses dictate to you how to live your life.  Religious people are threatened by people who leave their faith.  I’ve lost many friends who don’t know what to do with me, where to categorize me, what column to place me in. Am I a sheep or am I a goat? Am I chaff or wheat?  What the hell am I, anyway?  This is the kind of uncertainty that many people of faith just can’t deal with, so they close the door in our faces.  They wash their hands of us.

It’s okay if you are judged by others.  Just don’t judge yourself. You’re loved.  Keep taking a step and another one.  Remember when your parents told you there was nothing to be afraid of?  There’s really not.

Keep going.

What are your current writing projects? Most writers I know are also teaching writers, and this is a double-edged sword.  We are privileged to read about writing and talk about writing, and sometimes we read interesting student writing—all good.  Yet all of that work is time-consuming and keeps us from our own art.  I teach Composition class year round, but every spring, I teach a class dedicated to creative writing.  My students write poetry that inspires me to write poetry again.  What a pleasure!  I wrote a screenplay this winter, Geshe, which is in early stages of production.  This summer, I’m retreating to the Catskills to complete my second memoir. And in the meantime, I am writing essays exposing and exploring the oppressive elements of faith, family, and relationships.