When words like "spiritual" make you flinch from the contributors of Body & Soul
February 27, 2019
Concepts of faith and spirituality are often painted with a broad stroke. In
Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers (Caitlin Press), editor Susan Scott collects stories on many forms of spirituality from the perspective of women writers exploring the connection between writing and spirituality. Below some of the contributors from the collection talk about what surprised them when writing about spirituality, the risks they took going public with their stories, and much more.
Why is spiritual memoir in Canada so rare? Is it just not an eat-pray-love-and-tell-all kind of place? Are notions of spirituality too thin, too conventional? That is changing, thanks to Indigenous writing about land, spirit, ceremony, and tradition, and yet the whole topic of faith, religion, spiritual practices—pick your word—still comes with a lot of baggage, including mistrust and the fear of exclusion. While a Catholic’s story might resonate with the 1.2 billion other Catholics on the planet, where does that leave those who don’t know a mass from a missal? What if you’re trying to claw your way out of patriarchy, or find your Indigenous roots? What if you hail from a long line of devotees whose path you can’t relate to? I wanted Body & Soul to be an inclusive work that says it doesn’t matter where you come from, or where you’re going, if you’re spiritual or religious; if you’ve been shunned, if you’ve sloughed off tradition; if you’re a newbie, an ex, a skeptic or a seeker—where you place yourself is not the point; the point is to find authentic language for your experience—language that is not in-house, clichéd, dismissive, or preachy, not stereotype-stoking or sentimental drivel. That’s why I turned to poets and writers. The stories of these women are alive, and truthful. Their stories will enrich our national literature because they speak to people’s whole lives, as they’re really lived, in relation to the sacred and profane, the living and the dead, the land, the self, and one another.
Susan Scott: The label "spiritual memoir" is anathema to a lot of people, so let’s call this volume what it is: creative nonfiction. When I put the call out for this book, I had no idea what would flood in: tales of birds and clowns and wombs and songs, reflections on heart-stopping adventures, betrayal by razor blade, devotion to trees and rivers, to the art and craft of writing. What cropped up when you were working on your story that surprised you?
“How much I’m still affected by the religion (and the patriarchy) at my roots. I set out to write a triumphant story of transcending what I was given, to create what I yearned for. Instead, it turned out to be about all the complex ways that my early life, early self, early conditioning and belief system are still there at my core—as a wound, for sure, but also as a part of me that I choose to honour rather than ridicule or deny.” —Heidi Reimer, author of "A Real Woman"
“I feel mixed about my spiritual path at the moment and consider myself to be a recovering New Ager. But as I sat down to write, I decided instead to focus on the fact that my mother, her mother (my grandmother whose name I carry) and I all followed very different paths, each of us devoted in our own way, to our spiritual lives. Once I began writing, I remembered how they both quietly practiced their religion and did not try to convert others. I love them for this.” —Jónína Kirton, author of “Star Women”
“I distinctly remember the moment I realized I had to write about the correlation between chi kung practice and my sexuality. I was walking along Queen Street in Toronto on a damp winter’s day, when it hit me, a deep call. Here was an edge I had to walk, and I was filled with a sinking feeling, dread. Really? I have to write about that? My most vulnerable experience? But the call for expression, for sharing the story, felt right, like the next step in my process.” —Pam Johnson, author of “Second Chakra”
“I realized just how spiritual and sacred I really am. It became important for me to get this piece out so discussions centred around body and sexuality can be discussed in a way that is centred around spirituality as opposed to in a sexualized way.” —Meharoona Ghani, author of “My Uterus is a Tree”
Susan: What risks are you taking by going public with your story? What would you say to anyone who is reluctant to release their own, who fears being pigeon-holed, teased, or cyber-bullied?
“It took me nearly two years from when I registered in writing courses to write the word, ‘gay,’ at my computer. I felt as if my family and work colleagues were looking over my shoulder, so part of me wrote in fear and shame, afraid of their reaction. I censored myself, wrote about anything but my truth. I have to admit I don’t share my work with family or work colleagues, I don’t tell them where my work is published. I take this risk because I discovered ‘me’ through writing, it’s writing that’s helping me to be the woman I am and can be, so if one day my family or acquaintances come across my work, I will deal with the situation by remembering to honour me.” —Jagtar Kaur Atwal, author of “Unfinished Journey”
“Honestly, I am both scared and proud of this piece. I was afraid when I first started writing about my life as a Jehovah’s Witness that I would bring shame, that I am betraying the organization and most of all, Jehovah God. I spent most of my life in this religion and I was protected and cared for by my congregation. I believed at one time and I still have friends in the faith. I am afraid that they will stop talking to me and I will lose their friendship. Or that the organization may disfellowship me or brand me an apostate.
These are real fears, even though I wrote this piece out of love, not revenge. I hope that a reader will take away that from my piece.
To anyone afraid to tell their own story: I was scared too. Heck, I still get scared. Find your community. They will hold you up. Find mentors/teachers who will encourage you and make you work to find treasures and the story. Please write it for me, and for others, so that it will inspire them to write their own truth.
Remember, you will never only be this story. You never were. So, write it for you.” —Tamara Jong, author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Talking to Mary Karr”
“The risks include letting go of old ways of being and stepping more fully into a place of being seen, fully seen. It calls on me to have courage, to be willing to be uncomfortable, to fail and practice compassion for myself and others. It also calls on me to continue to trust myself, build resiliency and walk my own path. Ultimately, the discomfort and risk of sharing the story, of being true to myself and stepping more deeply into all parts of myself, outweighs the discomfort of keeping that story hidden.” —Pam Johnson
“Growing up I was told not to talk about religion and politics at social gatherings; both are fraught with emotional potholes. Religion and politics are linked, and both are so close to the bone. As a Métis woman I know that people expect me to follow Indigenous teachings and to a certain extent I do, but my path has been Eastern since I first met my guru thirty years ago. Given concerns about appropriation, I tried to give it up, but I got lost without the foundation I had built my life on, and with that, I could not help but think of my Indigenous ancestors and how they must have felt when they were no longer allowed to practice their traditions.
It is for this reason that I think it is important to respect whatever path someone chooses. Why a guru? Why that guru? All that led me to her is beyond my grasp and yet I must trust in it. We may never know why we are drawn to particular teachings, and that is okay. We should not make others feel they have to explain the unexplainable. To belittle someone’s spiritual path is stepping on their spirit.” —Jónína Kirton
“I am taking a huge risk talking about Indigenous experience, not being an Indigenous person. At a time where cultural appropriation and unintentionally hurting people who not only have been decimated and colonized but also are still suffering to find their culture, I believe that staying quiet is not right. It only continues the invisibility, it’s another means of causing pain. I believe it is better to speak, and if you say something 'wrong,' at least it is a first attempt to communicate, to start a conversation. I can apologize for saying something wrong, I can listen to how I should better communicate, and I can learn. We have to take risks, we have to keep communication alive, open, growing.” —Carolina Echeverria, author of “I am Karenahti:ne”
“That I will be judged for being a virgin… choosing to be a virgin is seen as something negative, as if there’s something wrong with me. Or being in a relationship with a non-South Asian, non-Muslim person, I may be perceived as not abiding by my Islamic faith.
To others I would say: it won’t be easy, but define your purpose and your story of why, search deep for what’s important. Surround yourself with a support network. If others tease or bully, share your experience with your network. Out of that network there may be allies who will speak for you. Sometimes speaking from a place of love and curiosity can also break down walls of fear. And remember, you don’t need to respond to nay-sayers.” —Meharoona Ghani
“The risk I take going public with my story is that I alienate the many Christians from my tradition, especially my loved ones. A friend told me she thought I was calling all Christians fundamentalists after I published “My Flannery,” and that was not what I meant to do. To be a person who understands a religion from the inside but who does not fully identify with that belief system can be confusing—I have encountered a lot of incorrect assumptions about me and my beliefs.” —Liz Harmer, author of “My Flannery”
“I was raised in a heavy-weight spiritual tradition, one with many worshippers, one I’m afraid has many people who will push back on my criticism of growing up with Catholicism as my North Star. But I simply couldn’t ignore the personal harm the strict traditions had caused us as a family, nor could I disregard history and the global impact of this organization, from Galileo to Giordano Bruno to suppressing Goddess-based practices—the church has never championed a path of progress.
Often, after working on my piece, I would call my dad and ask his thoughts. My father is devout, and he would challenge me to look beyond the structure or the people delivering the sermons to the message of hope and redemption. I couldn’t. I’d argue about the poisonous blame-storming I heard growing up, about Catholic accountability for crimes against humanity. Abuse and covered ups, misogyny, residential schools, the list is endless.
And yet, I didn’t want my writing to cast aspersions on anyone else’s profound experiences with this faith. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t coming from a place of sadness or anger. My wish for the piece was to simply be able to say, ‘If you are good and kind simply because you think someone is watching, that isn’t a measure of true goodness or kindness.’
As for bullies, there will always be bullies: don’t listen. They’re afraid too. Pigeon-holes are uncomfortable fowl-sized spaces: don’t stay there. Ultimately, we must face our fears with love and in recognition of the spirit that unites and animates us all. We can examine the past and demand better for the future. We can salvage humanity. We’re all in this together and only together will we all move forward.” —Eufemia Fantetti, author of “Repent, Sinner”
“Fears that accompany this piece of mine are fears of judgment, that I’ve been too much or not enough of something or other, for someone or other, whether Christian/non-Christian, parent, queer/straight. I feel as if I want to keep explaining! What I would say to others who are reluctant or who fear is what I say to myself: relax in the company of those who get it. Remember, there’s something profoundly consoling in an anthology—others seeking to be true to their story and thus vulnerable, too. And I remind myself that it’s a good spiritual discipline to cease from endless explaining and let what’s already been said simply be!” —Dora Dueck, author of “Mother and Child”
Susan: “Stories for skeptics and seekers,” the book’s subtitle, is an invitation to let go of divisiveness. Human experience, especially if falls outside the mainstream, defies easy labels. What does it mean for your words to stand alongside other women’s voices that are seldom heard—immigrants, LGBTQ, BIPOC, women from small, neglected communities, and so on?
“It means a lot because we are voices that don’t often get seen or heard. It also means the beauty of diversity—of people, voices, stories that live among us.” —Meharoona Ghani
“It is so important to me. It’s so hard, building bridges between cultures. And it gets more and more complicated because of the randomness of the alchemy involved.
I am the living proof of such alchemies. Chilean-born, desperately trying to find my real culture, my original culture, my Basque roots mixed with Chilean Indigenous blood, I created children with a Sephardic Jew. Our children were born in Quebec, which is also fighting for its identity in Canada.
Bottom line: We mixed-beings exist. We are the culture, we are the voices. Our own search for identity is our profound and spiritual right.” —Carolina Echeverria
“It means a lot to me to share my life experience with other women and to hear theirs. We all have events and moments in our lives that forever change us or the direction of our lives. These events seem to happen in sync with the universe and expose real truths. The stories I’ve read in this book are about truth. I love them, and am very happy to be a part of this.”—Sandy Wabegijig, author of “Out of the Darkness”
Susan: Body & Soul might get shelved under spirituality, but it’s aimed at inspiring literacy—at building empathy, knowledge, at increasing understanding. So, say a festival or book club invites you to speak—which part of your story would you want to read? Are there questions you hope you’re asked? Are there any you know you cannot answer?
“Question to ask me: Why did I write my piece? I will not answer: Are you still a virgin? (I got this question at a past reading, and thought WOW—is this all this person cared about?)” —Meharoona Ghani
“I’d read about the connection between our inner wars/anger and our societal wars/anger, and the urgent need to cultivate peace. As for questions, I’d hope to be asked--how about the connection between physical yoga and the other ‘limbs’ in a full yoga path? Those would be great, as everyone thinks it’s just postures (or worse, drinking beer while practicing, pole dancing yoga, etc.) I’d also like to be asked about anger—many confuse it, I believe, with strength. As for questions I’d have a hard time untangling: charges of cultural appropriation. Indian teachers sent their brightest students to the West to share yoga here, and it’s been one of the best things that ever happened to me and many people in my yoga community, and we have great dedication and reverence.” —Kirsteen MacLeod, author of “Yoga Rage”
“I’d like to be asked what we ourselves had to ask when writing: why? I think it is important to ask ourselves, at the deepest level possible, what are the reasons I’m sharing this story—is it part of my deepest story? And then to listen to the body—to the heart and belly and mind for the answer.” —Pam Johnson
“I’d want to read the section in which I lose my faith at a planetarium show. I think it shows what it’s like to believe in God deeply and also what motivates that belief. The question I’d like to be asked: what was the value to you of your religious upbringing? The question I know I can’t answer: do you believe in God?” —Liz Harmer
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Our thanks to Susan Scott for putting together this insightful meditation on spirituality from the contributors of
Body & Soul, out March 8.
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