The First Time

Beyond Belief Contributors:  Cami, Pam, Susan, Colleen, Elise

So, Readers, the reading at Elliott Bay Book Company was fantastic! The first time was all I expected it to be ~ magical, terrifying, exhilarating. Every last one of us did ourselves proud—Cami, Susan, Colleen, Elise, me. At first, I didn’t think anyone was going to show up, and I wondered if we’d still carry on with the reading for a crowd of six, five of which were us, one of which was The Little Woman. 
But then Greg—our Elliott Bay liaison— told us to wait til 10 after the hour and sure enough, next time I looked up, the place was packed. And while I definitely know that a full house is the better than an empty one, I had a small moment of panic.  That panic I wrote of last week—the fear of being seen.


I had practiced my reading the night before with TLW who told me that I needed to be more passionate in my delivery.  So, I had that in my head as I stepped up to the microphone there in the basement at Elliott Bay Books (what is it with basements as reading areas?).

I intro’d my reading with the story of the Jehovah’s Witness flyer with its metrosexual Jesus that arrived on my doorstep the same day I got my copies of the BB anthology in the mail.  That got a good laugh—a good sign.  And I tried my darnedest to read with passion.  (TLW reported later that I nailed it, passion-wise). Still, I was nervous, nerves that come from the fear not just of being exposed, but of being misunderstood by strangers and misinterpreted by those closest to me.

Anne Lamott advises to “write as if our parents were dead” and that seems good in theory, but it’s scary in reality.  My story paints a rather unflattering portrait of my parents, and this is one of my primary anxieties—both that my parents will be hurt/angry/sad that I wrote so honestly about what transpired AND that the audience will think they are bad people with whom I’ve severed all ties. 

That’s ME! At Elliott Bay Books!
So, it was with great relief that an audience member asked The Question—the one question I hoped hoped hoped someone would ask:  “How is your relationship with your parents now?” I’m happy to report that I have solid relationships with both of my parents and that we’ve all come out the other side of this crazy religious nonsense.
And really, that’s the best part of my story. 

Writing is Daring Greatly (thanks Brene Brown)

Dear Reader—Tomorrow night is my debut as a published writer—my first reading of a piece of writing that is actually in a book.  Not on a blog, not off my printer, but there on the printed page amongst other pieces in a collection of published writing.
Pretty sweet. I have to say that it is about damn time considering I’m closing in rapidly on the big  Five Oh (mere months away) and considering I’ve wanted to be a writer for, oh, all of my life. So what conspired to keep me silent and unpublished all these years?
Fear. Fear of being known, of being vulnerable, of being reviled. Shame. The certainty that what I had to say didn’t mean anything to anyone else. The terror that what I thought made no sense to anyone else. Scared that if I committed the thoughts in my head to paper that I would be forever judged by what I wrote down, by the ink stains.
So, what changed? What enabled me to throw caution to the wind, to finally put pen to paper and let the world in on my innermost thoughts? Fear. Ha! How’s that for irony? But seriously, the fear that I might never realize my dream of being a writer impelled me to write.
What if suddenly I were unable to write tomorrow? What if I’d played it safe all these years, thinking I had unlimited time ahead in which to overcome my fears slowly, always confident there would be time later to pen my memoirs, and suddenly I found myself incapacitated? I’d be pissed—angry that my fear of vulnerability, the shame of being thought less of had kept me from sharing my most authentic self.
I didn’t write for so many years because I thought that a) I would be laughed at or, more likely, told my ideas were heretical and would ultimately land me in hell (seriously) or b) I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say, that my ideas weren’t universal enough to catch on with anyone outside of my own head.
I realized, in small, baby steps, however, that people did listen when I read, my words did resonate, and slowly, I found a writing community, a group of other writers to cheer me on and for whom I could root. As Cheryl Strayed told us at the Wild Mt. Memoir retreat a couple of weeks ago, we should write from a place of abundance, that is sharing our joy and passion with other writers and cheering them on because there is plenty to go around.
I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown lately, and if you haven’t had a chance to catch one of her TED lectures, caught her with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday or read one of her books, make the effort. She’s got some amazing research to share, some great life lessons about living with vulnerability, abundance, and passion.
So, tomorrow. That’s it. Tomorrow I lay myself bare in front of complete and total strangers. Wow. That’s daring. Greatly.

Imagine

John Lennon said it best:  Imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try . . . no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine.  I try to imagine what life might be like for me had I not been subjected to fundamentalist christianity between the ages of 5 and 21.  Those 17 years more than any in my life shaped me irrevocably. What happened during those years color what I do still, more than 25 years after I decided I could no longer subscribe to the tenets of christianity.
Last night, I sat with a group of women, all writers, all of us contributors to Beyond Belief: Women in Extreme Religion, an anthology of stories about women’s experiences getting into, staying in, and getting out of fundamentalist religions of many stripes: Mormonism, Judaism, The Moonies, Catholicism, among others.
Each of us read an excerpt from our story, and as we went around the room, a deep sadness overcame me (that and a not irrational fear that an angry god might smite us for talking smack about him). Sad about the potential wasted, the time wasted, the energy wasted—all the ways in which we’d been shamed, subjugated, stigmatized, separated in the name of god. Imagine growing up female and never feeling shame about being a girl, a woman. Never having to hide: our bodies behind burkas, our brains and intelligence behind our bodies. Imagine life as a woman without the imposition of religious constraints.
What could we have achieved, each of us, I wondered, had we been free to follow our natural impulses?  If we had been encouraged to embrace our places in the world rather than forced to shut ourselves off from the world, shut ourselves down, hide our true selves because our religions taught us what we felt was wrong—our loves, our bodies, our desires, our thirst for knowledge. We all have managed to overcome the limits our religions  imposed upon us, but at what cost, I wondered?
What might I have accomplished if my energies all those years had been channeled toward, say, academics instead of directed constantly at worrying about going to hell? What if instead of having to be vigilant against every carnal thought, I could have spent those years, oh, I don’t know, learning to play the drums or enjoying each moment, guilt-free instead of feeling pressured to proselytize so my god would smile upon me, so my god would not cast me into the fiery pits of hell. Imagine.
 The red thread of sex ran through most of our stories, which was a little surprising, given our diversity as a group—each of us spent so much time and effort struggling to come to terms with our bodies, our sex, our sensuality. Our natural way of being in the world.  Why, I wondered is religion so preoccupied with sex? Why is so much devotion to not-sex?  We can see how well suppressing those natural urges and biological imperatives has worked out for the Catholics, after all. 
But, back to religion and wasted time. Oh, sure, I am what I am because of my experiences, and I’ve got lots of rich material thanks to years of being repressed and, frankly, terrified at times that my basic humanity was enough to condemn me to an eternity of damnation. But what else might I have been? What else might that energy have cultivated had it not had to be engaged in a religious jihad against my very own nature? 
Imagine. 

Shameless Self-Promotion

Well, Dear Readers, last week I got my check for the essay I wrote which is included in the soon-to-be-published anthology from Seal Press: Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. I made a copy of that check (not for fraud, but for posterity) and finally cashed it this morning.  I saved one of the dollars, which I fully intend to enshrine on my mantel.
And, if that weren’t exciting enough (!) today I also learned that on April 28 @ 4 p.m. I will be part of an event at Village Books celebrating the anthology’s publication.  So, Save The Date! Come and join the party!  I will post more details as I learn them. 
I cannot wait to read all of the stories in the collection, and I just have to say that I am astounded and humbled to be included with the likes of Kyria Abrahams, Lucia Greenhouse, Donna M. Johnson, Mary Johnson, and Julia Scheeres, writers whose works I’ve admired and desired to emulate. 
When I submitted my story for consideration, I had no idea what an amazing collection this would turn out to be, nor do I think I even actually believed the whole project would come to fruition.  Thanks to the hard work of editors Cami Ostman and Susan Tive, the dream became reality.
A word about community—none of this would have happened without the amazing support of my writing buddies, my writing group, or my longtime friend, mentor, and altogether wonderful person, Laura Kalpakian, all of whom nourished me with superior feedback and excellent friendship. I have found a rich and fertile writing community for which I am eternally grateful.
Most critically, I’ve had the love and support of The Little Woman, who has given me the space and support to pursue writing.  She’s often a writing group widow and her complaints are few. I know she believes in me. Nothing matters more.
I realize this all sounds like I just won the freaking Pulitzer, and really, that’s how I feel. Like I just won the freaking Pulitzer.
Thanks too, to my family, the members of which have provided me with a lifetime supply of most excellent material.