I was a very lucky child. Nobody talked about Jesus in our house. My mother was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, but she only retained a clear memory of how long--too long--church services lasted. When I asked her one of two religious questions I recall putting to her, "Do you believe in God and Heaven and Hell?" she said, "Heaven and Hell are right here on earth; they re what you make of life--and God is inside all of us." When I asked, "What is the difference between Protestants, Catholics and Jews?" she thought a minute and said, "Catholics and Jews keep their houses warmer than we do."
Daddy's mother was a minister in the Spiritualist church and a well-known "clairvoyant" who made quite a nice income connecting the living and the spirits of their beloved dead. (Many years after they died, I learned that Grandpa worked the rising table and floating trumpet and flapping shades from another room.) Mother did not like to talk about Grandma Crain, whom my older sisters remembered as an imposing figure. (She was not all that by the time I came along.) When I asked Daddy if he believed that Grandma truly talked to the dead or was faking it, he said, "Well, you'd have to believe it yourself to believe that she does."
Excellent point. Grandma was a charlatan. My parents preferred not to discuss that or religion in general--or sex. Lucky child. No admonitions against touching myself. No warnings of eternal punishment for my lusty soul. Nobody suggesting that Jesus would make a fine bridegroom. The authors of three new memoirs were not so lucky.
In Not That Kind Of Girl, (Harper Collins) Carlene Bauer tells her smart and funny story of growing up in a Christian evangelical world, moving to New York City where she explores her sexuality, converts to Catholicism--and finally puts Jesus in his place, which is not at the center of her life claiming her or taunting her for being bad. She was born in 1973, the year of The Zipless Fuck (a perfect act of casual sex, described and named in Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying) but she did not realize that sexual freedom was her birthright. Carlene longed for God even as she burned for some man; and I, who have no real understanding of that spiritual longing, felt it as I read her book.
"Flames of appetite and vanity licking at me, rising higher, obscuring my sight, fueling foolishness--this was what sin felt like," she writes. Oh, doesn't sin sound nice?
I love a line in the press release accompanying the review copy: "If 30 Rock's Liz Lemon did a little too much time in Sunday School, her spiritual autobiography might sound like this." Yes. Carlene rocks.
In Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home (Henry Holt, October pub date), Rhoda Janzen is funnier than Bauer--more like David Sedaris on female hormones--but her prose is not evocative of the soul's longing for perfect union with God either. She's already navigated the terrain of moving away from the deeply religious family. At 43, she is running back to them for solace after her husband leaves her for another man--not long after her radical hysterectomy.
Her family is respectfully, yet hilariously, depicted in all their simple glory. Dad, "wielding the remote like a Taser...to change the channel...if any character on any television show, married or single, made a move toward an onscreen kiss." Sex, "it was clear, was a sinful scourge," Janzen writes lightly. Mom, trying to marry her off to a first cousin who is deeply religious, sees no incest conflict because Rhoda can't have children anyway. And the siblings! We read this crazy family through the eyes of love. They do heal Rhoda. While I regard the tenets and practice of the Mennonite faith as horrific, Like an initially reluctant friend tagging along on holiday, I enjoyed the visit home too.
Jayanti Tamm, author of Cartwheels in a Sari (Harmony) tells an incredible story in an earnest, straightforward way, the pitch perfect tone for her tale. Her parents met in the dingy apartment of self-styled guru Sri Chinmoy, recently arrived from India. They were hippies on a spiritual quest. He seated them side by side on the floor where they meditated amid swirling sandalwood incense smoke. Apprently their not choking was a sign.
He said to the girl: If you will "jump into the sea of spirituality, you will marry this man."
She did; and the new disciples soon were handing over their newborn daughter to Chinmoy on his throne. He declared Jayanti "The Chosen One". The details of her life in a cult often made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Chinmoy was a charismatic public figure, a whore for celebrities, who convinced his followers he was a god but was, of course, a con artist playing a bigger and meaner game than Grandma did. Now a young mother with a daughter of her own, Jayanti got out and moved on.
"I have no longing for a religion or spiritual affiliation," she says.
I am very lucky that I never have been enslaved by that longing. Surely religion offers many comforts to those of reasoned beliefs--but it's rarely supportive of sexuality, especially a woman's sexuality. Don't you wonder why so many people say "Oh, God!" when they come?
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