Intolerance

What makes us name call, roll our eyes, call somebody disgusting?

What makes us recoil at a person who doesn’t conform to societal norms?

The plus-sized women dancing in bikinis, men swirling in skirts,

I say ‘us’ because it isn’t ‘them’. Intolerance is within us all, but why?

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

I wonder if it’s to do with our own insecurities.

A person at ease with their innermost self, the same inside

as outside, the living embodiment of their own values and beliefs,

a person who looks in the mirror and thinks ‘this is who I am meant to be’,

a person who lives not for the approval of others but for

the approval of their own pure, untainted self, would

not be disgusted by another living soul because of such trivialities.

I wonder if it’s to do with jealousy. To see another unfettered,

wearing what they like, choosing their gender, living

their own best life, may cause us to feel resentful, perhaps.

I mostly live my way, pushing aside the voices from the past

that manifest as guilt and shame, and heading towards the light

that comes from inside. When I do, I see the light

inside everybody. I call it God and I cannot judge.

All hail the yoga nidra

I hate ‘doing nothing’ too!

After signing up to a free trial of Gaia, a platform for a host of wellbeing films and series, most of which I discovered are pseudo-scientific crap, I found that it offers a multitude of yoga and meditation sessions with a range of teachers and styles, and set about going through them all.

I love meditating and have done the Calm app, Headspace and freebies on Youtube. Guided meditation is lovely stuff and I wholeheartedly recommend it to find that bit of space, to lower the stress levels, to get a breather in the middle of a hectic day or after a period of high anxiety. However, when I did my first yoga nidra, I felt like I’d discovered Nirvana – the spiritual kind, not the band.

For yoga nidra you lie down comfortably on your back, covered with a cosy blanket and some warm socks, arms by your side, palms facing upwards, and are guided through a complete relaxation of the body. The focus is on the chakras and you are told to focus on each of them in turn, relaxing the whole body and breathing deeply.

I believe in the relaxing power of a deep breath. Science backs that one up. But chakras? People who talk about chakras have usually been regarded by me with deep suspicion. What the hell is a chakra? My suspicion may well come from a deeply Christian background but I think it’s more to do with the spiritual nature of the idea. All the talk about chi and energy flowing into the body from some mysterious source of light and love gets me huffing and eye rolling.

The first time I did a yoga nidra, though, I found myself suspended in space with no sense of the weight of my feelings, my thoughts or even my physical body. I experienced myself as filled with pure light that shone from the stars on each of my chakras. ‘I am light’ I thought, and the knowledge of this filled me with joy so profound that it brought me to tears. What was that about?

The whole experience of this practice continues to bring me a sense of deep peace and healing such that I haven’t known since the time that some beautiful Christian people laid their hands on me and prayed for me when I was really sad. They weren’t strange controlling Christians – just loving people who wanted me to feel better, and I did.

Every time I practice, I feel this weightlessness, and a sense that I am made of light. Even the thought of it makes me smile, and the more I practice the more I can summon up the feeling. When I’m anxious, I recall that I’m made of light. I delivered a two hour training session today and had been anxious about it for weeks, but for half an hour before the presentation, I breathed slowly, focused on these points on the body, and reminded myself that I’m light and free. It’s as though the me of me, the deepest core of my identity, is a being of purity and goodness, and this is a great thing to feel, given that I’ve spent most of my life feeling the opposite! It also reduces the pressure of pleasing others and worrying about what people think of me.

I don’t believe in an eternal soul and I don’t believe in chakras or anything else that isn’t supported by proper science. But I know that there is plenty of evidence for spiritual, meditative practices changing the brain and transforming the neural pathways so that we come out of the limbic system and into the calmer states that bring a sense of calm and peace.

Gaia costs £9 a month and it’s worth it for the yoga alone. I do the strength stuff as well but it’s this meditation that’s been a game changer. If you, like me, have to reduce anxiety for medical reasons or just because anxiety is horrible and unpleasant, this is definitely a strategy worth a go.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

A very secular problem

Most of us have a mental health problem of some sort or another and most likely won’t fit any particular label. It’s more likely that we all exist on a spectrum between perfect, unabated joy and unbearable mental anguish, oscillating between two points on that spectrum much as we lose and gain a certain amount of weight over the course of the average year. Our mental state, when poor, is often an amalgamation of conditions: depression, anxiety, OCD, disordered eating, PTSD, bipolar, BPD or countless mixtures of each. What are the labels for anyway? Mostly diagnostics to ascertain how to treat the condition as cheaply as possible on the NHS. Or perhaps that’s overly cynical and the diagnostics are genuinely helpful and informative. They can certainly be useful in helping others and ourselves to understand and show compassion.

In amongst my particular mental makeup and the challenges that present themselves as I face the world every day is the result of my religious upbringing and it was brought to my attention during my counselling training when I ticked every NHS question for diagnosis of PTSD except for the triggering event (because religion isn’t officially a triggering event). There is now some growing evidence that religious trauma is a real issue for many and symptomatically it’s the same as PTSD: nightmares, severe anxiety, replaying of terrifying scenarios, flashbacks, feeling of imminent doom and certain situations that are triggering. I generally don’t have these symptoms badly but I have, and do, experience them all. Most of the time I jog along OK. But sometimes a comment about Hell or a preacher in town shouting about the last days can put me into a state of fear for days such that I can’t sleep or think about much else.

Anybody raised in a fundamentalist church will know how it goes. The second coming, the antichrist, the tortures, beheadings, burning fiery flames and everlasting torment. Of course there were wonderful parts of it, too. There was divine love, a God of mercy and forgiveness and an eternity in Heaven for the saved. The resurrection was a particularly pleasant story that sent happy shivers down my spine. But I focused on the negative as a child. I’d wake up in the night and feel the flames of hell because I knew, deep down, that I did not believe. When it all hinged on my belief I felt fragile and disconnected. I’d get a floating feeling of flying away from the edge of the world, into space, where I’d whirl around into outer darkness and nobody would be able to reach me. I know now that this is dissociation. It happened a lot in the middle of the night.

For years I tried to resolve these fears by seeking to acknowledge and understand a more liberal Christianity. I realize that the brethren presented the bible in a narrow and simplistic way that is not representative of Christianity on the whole. I’ve been to churches that do not preach hellfire the way that they did. Many Christians don’t believe in it at all or any kind of afterlife. Many say that the Bible doesn’t even teach it. It’s hard to unlearn and rewire the brain, however, and I wonder if even going to theological school would completely undo the interpretation of scripture that I was taught.

Now I am beginning to see that everything in the bible is human. The God of the Bible can be merciful, forgiving and expansively, endlessly loving. The God of the Bible can also be jealous, exacting, cruel and breathtakingly unfair. I could cite countless examples of both. I mean – sending bears to eat some young people who laughed at a prophet is pretty horrific. Striking down a couple with immediate death because they told a lie is fairly despotic I’d say. As for whether the biblical God actually condemns millions of souls to eternal torment because they failed to trust in the sacrificial and atoning blood of Christ, specifically, is questionable, but if the brethren got that right, it’s unspeakably horrific!

All of these attributes, both good and evil, are human. The Bible was written by people. I really feel that this is the point. If we are to gather anything from the Bible, or any other holy book for that matter, we have to understand that it was written by people, which sounds obvious, but in a fundamentalist faith the holy book is a magical, divinely inspired revelation for all mankind for all eternity. It is imbued with an unquestioned stamp of authority and then the fundamentalist must find a way to make it a cohesive whole. This requires mental gymnastics of the sort that made my mind boggle even as a 5 year old. ‘Did God create evil?’ ‘Does God love Satan?’ ‘Why did the grannies have to drown in the flood?’ I was seeing contradictions as wide as a barn door before even tackling the great questions of predestination, free will, pre-millennialism and the question of what happens to those who couldn’t accept Jesus (babies, people with learning difficulties and those who never heard of him).

No. The Bible is human in all the glory and diversity of human thinking and emotion. There is love, beauty, transcendence, radical forgiveness and stunning wisdom. There is eroticism, intelligence, logic and redemptive hope. There’s also vengeance, hatred, jealousy and rage. There’s hunger for power and longing for control. This is humanity. We’ll never be in a perfect world. Never have been. We’ve got war in Europe again after all we should have learned from the last ones. There will always be people like Putin who become megalomaniacs and somehow others have to limit the damage caused by them. We humans fuck things up. That’s why the Bible doesn’t make sense and is so far from being cohesive. Because people don’t.

I once wanted to rip the Bible up and throw it out of the window, or burn it to shreds, or stamp on it. It incensed me so much with its capacity to strike fear into my soul that I wanted to destroy it utterly. But I never did that. Somehow that Bible had woven itself into the fabric of my being and I loved it despite the damage that it caused. Some might call this a toxic relationship. It was certainly dysfunctional. But I could no more stamp it out of existence that I could harm or disappear my family or any other human (except potentially Putin). We are all glorious in our imperfections and that includes the Bible, which has all of the characteristics of any other expression of humanity. It’s the perfect representation of what it is to be human in this world. Light and dark, yin and yang, good and evil: call it what you will, it’s all of us and in all of us and thus it stays on my bookshelf while I continue to work on my mental health!

The enjoyable rationalism of a good atheist.

I am slightly jealous of people who can live without any religious belief at all.  I still carry about the shadows of introjected beliefs from my fundamentalist childhood and, irritatingly, they tend to be the darkest ones.  I find it much easier to believe in eternal Hell, for example, than in a loving and benevolent God.  It’s a childlike fear of demons in the night that makes it unwise to watch a horror film if I’m alone in the house.  Satan is easier to picture than God.  I imagine that’s because it was really scary and traumatic to be afraid of these things as a child.  I really think that it’s helpful to question internalised beliefs and subject them to rational examination and evidence.  So I found it really refreshing, interesting and genuinely hilarious when I found myself asking my pragmatically minded atheist husband for his views.  Here they are.  I hope they prove helpful to someone out there who struggles, like I have, to shed beliefs that no longer serve them. 

Me: How do you know that there isn’t a God?  How do you know that?

Tim:  He’s just a mythical being like werewolves, vampires, ghosts and other things like that. 

Me:  You must know that Christians don’t believe that God is the same as werewolves, vampires and ghosts.

Tim:  I know they don’t believe it’s the same but still – they’re all mythical things and God is too, you know.  They don’t see God.  They tell themselves that they feel his presence or… did I say him?  I don’t know whether he’s a he or a she or a they but for some reason they seem to refer to him as him which is probably because men ruled the church for millennia and they think God is shaped in their image.  But it’s really just a mythical thing.  It’s all made up.  All made up for the convenience of answering these questions for people who don’t know anything else.

Me:  So how do you know that God didn’t create the world?

Tim:  Because we know all about the bloody Big Bang and the explosion in the universe and that there are many universes and we are just a tiny bit of it and over millennia the planet has cooled down and life forms have evolved and then we have evolution and we have evolved as part of that.  We probably won’t be here forever, the rate we’re going anyway.  We’ll probably wipe ourselves out like the dinosaurs went – although they didn’t wipe themselves out – or like the film we watched last night; there’ll be a 10 kilometre meteor hit the world and that’ll be it, bye bye.  But then something will spring out afterwards.

Me:  You must know that some people contest The Big Bang theory

Tim:  Well I know they do but there’s a lot of science and scientific evidence to support it.  Whereas there isn’t any scientific evidence to support God.  It’s all stories.  Dinosaurs aren’t stories.  We found dinosaur skeletons.

Me:  How do you know God didn’t create the dinosaurs, the same as he created people?

Tim:  Well, if he did, then they need to re-write all their books and things, don’t they?  And their stories.  The Bible and so forth. 

Me:  How do you know that there isn’t an afterlife?

Tim:  Why would there be?  We get buried or we get incinerated.

Me:  So that’s our bodies.  How do you know we don’t have a soul?

Tim:  I think we do have a soul while we’re alive but then it expires – disappears – gone.  I mean who would want to be going on in an afterlife?  It would be dreadful.  It would be like eternity.  Sounds like a real punishment sitting around in clouds and things forever.

Me: What do you think the soul is if you say we’ve got one while we’re alive? 

Tim:  I suppose it’s character really.  Some people are described as not having a soul or having a good soul or ‘he’s a good soul, she’s a good soul’ or ‘that person is soulless’ because it’s the way they behave; it’s their character.

Me:  So you think it’s a figure of speech?  It’s not a natural part of the person?

Tim:  It’s not a physical part of the person, no.  It’s part of what makes us who we are individually.

Me:  How do you know that we don’t get reincarnated into another animal?

Tim:  Because it’s just a fucking silly idea.  It’s like kids’ stories.  I mean, if we get reincarnated into other animals, why not into buildings or a lettuce leaf or something?

me:  Because buildings and lettuce leaves don’t have souls.

Tim:  Well, how do you know animals have souls?

Me: Because they’ve got personalities.  Mia has a different personality to Heidi.  Oscar had a different personality to Tilda. 

Tim:  There’s a lot of people who say buildings have got a soul.  Some buildings, not all buildings.

Me:  I’ve never heard anybody say a building has a soul.

Tim:  You have.  You’ve heard of people walking in somewhere and saying ‘it was so soulless in there’ or the opposite when they walk into a building and they feel it has a soul because it’s magical and wonderful and whatever; it has a presence, an aura.

Me:  How do you know the religious people aren’t the ones that got it all right?

Tim:  Well obviously they haven’t.  Completely mad.  They make it up as they go along and they all contradict each other and they’ve all got different versions of the same thing. Which religious people have got it right?   There are loads of different religions as well.  Before things like Christianity and Islam and so on you had all the bloody Greeks and Romans and all their myriad gods and things and the Aztecs – they had a whole load as well, and the Mayans had a whole load and the Vikings and the Druids.  They’ve all got different gods and different things they worship.  Primitive people worshipped the land and the sun and the sky and the sea and the trees. 

Me:  So why do you think modern people still believe in God?

Tim:  Probably partly as they’ve been brought up that way and it’s been passed down generation after generation but fewer and fewer people do believe in God.  Congregations are shrinking.  There are many that do, especially in churches like the Church of England; it’s a very kind of casual relationship with God – more for convenience and conforming and being part of society and  sometimes the good side of it is that it gives a sense of belonging and getting along to the various activities and things that are associated with churches: whether it’s a mother and toddler group or a choir group or a reading society or whatever.  So I don’t believe churches are bad; in fact, churches are wonderful places to go into – the atmosphere in there and the peacefulness.

Me:  But you know evangelical churches are growing so why do you think that is?

Tim:  Because the world’s going mad.  Because of people like Donald Trump.  People are becoming more extreme and becoming more divided so they look for a more extreme answer to things.  I mean, the evangelical churches in America are just multi million dollar businesses.  The pastors or whatever they’re called that run them are just ripping off their congregations.  It’s obscene.  I mean, if you want to believe the stories of Jesus and things like when he goes into the temple and the money lenders and all that – imagine if he came on earth today and saw all this in his name!

Me:  So do you think Jesus existed and all the stories are true?

Tim:  I think Jesus existed yes.  I don’t see any reason to disbelieve that he existed.

Me:  Do you think he did miracles?

Tim: I doubt he did miracles.  He probably did some good deeds. I suspect the feeding of the 5000 was more likely feeding for 50 or 500 and there was probably a bit more there than was suggested but the story wouldn’t have been as good, so it’s been made yeah like one crust and a fishtail shared amongst 5 million. 

Me:  You know the Bible says that Jesus brought people back from the dead?

Tim:  Well, I don’t believe that. I should think what happened if anything would be that they were not very well when he came to see them and he cheered them up and they said ‘ooh; thank you very much! I’m alive now!’ and then he went onto his next next duty or whatever he was doing and everybody left.

Me:  He was a carpenter

Tim:  He didn’t do much of that though, did he?  He was on tour like a rockstar.  He was busy going around preaching to people. I don’t see when he’d have got time to make anything.  And you know after he’s brought people back to life or whatever supposedly and goes onto the next thing they probably find that person just would have croaked it and it was just a momentary respite because they were so pleased to see him.  He was a nice bloke.

Me:  So how do you think this whole religion built up around him?

Tim:  Because people liked what he was saying.  There were probably a lot of people disillusioned with the Jewish faith and the temples.  I’m not very good on all these Bible stories but I believe that he thought it was all a bit corrupt and they had lost their way.  Certainly I believe the story about the money lenders in the temple.  Can you imagine today if he just popped along to check up on things and found people being charged money to go into cathedrals and things and evangelists raking it in off the congregation?  Obscene. 

Me: What do you think Mohammed is then?

Tim:  He was a very very good boxer.  Very entertaining… Mohammed was a prophet like Jesus.

Me: what do you think a prophet is?

Tim:  Someone who comes and prophesises and declares how they think things will be or should be. 

Me:  Do you think they were deluded when they talked about God then?

Tim:  Probably but then that’s how they were brought up.  I mean Jesus was brought up as a Jew, wasn’t he?  So that’s what he knew and what he believed. 

Me:  Do you have any respect for people’s faith?

Tim:  Yes. that’s what they want to believe that’s what they want to believe – as long as they’re not harming anybody.  Unfortunately, historically they have harmed people – seriously harmed people – butchered and massacred people in the name of Jesus and God.  Those people – no I don’t have any respect for their faith.  Used as a tool to destroy people who they disagree with or who disagree with them. 

Me:  How do you know people don’t go to hell?

Tim:  Because I don’t believe in hell.  I think they get incinerated or buried just like everybody else.  Heaven and hell are used just like so many other things in religion to threaten people to get them to toe the line.  They had to make hell sound like a dastardly place so that people would fear it and then that was the threat: ‘If you don’t do this this and this you’ll go to hell.  Fall in line’.  And they do. 

So there we have it.  I think the man has some fine theology and that it’s worthy of a share.  If you are an aspiring atheist, like me, feel free to take notes!

 

 

The New Year Pledge

‘I want’ is usually false crap.
I am not all that I lack.
There is a light hidden within
webs, masks, mazes and locks.
Until the day I die,
I will silence the distractions,
and self improvement dictats,
let her fill the hollows
and feel what she feels.
I am not all that I lack.
Already, I am all that I ever needed,
And all that I will ever need.

When your loved ones think you are going to Hell.

This. Is. Tricky.

I have a close bond with my mum. Despite my breaking away from the way she raised me, tightly bound by fundamentalist doctrines and lifestyle, we have a deep and abiding love for one another.

I care for her as she has cared for me. This is a human love, born from the nurture that she gave me: the bedtime stories, the cuddles, the walks in the woods and the warming heart-to-heart cuppas around the table in my teens.

She was a good mum – the sort who you feel goodness emanating from like sunlight. Her love was tangible and it got me through the abandonment in my first marriage, the stress and anxiety of a child’s mental illness and even my own mental illness in the form of an eating disorder. Knowing that she had my back was enough, at times, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She didn’t approve of my divorce, but she approved of me, and that was enough.

Mum has supported me through re-marriage, which she disagrees with. She is always on the other end of the phone to chat things through with. We are close.

As for me, I strive to be there for her as she cares for my dad, who has dementia. Her role is a tough one as every day he loses a little more of himself. She needs equipment to get him through each day and carry out his little routines of washing, toileting, eating and getting back into bed for the whole, boring, unremarkable process to start again. Anyone who knows or is a carer will know how it is.

In my turn, I am committed to being there for her as she is now in a weaker position and I love her with all my heart. She is an amazing carer with a determination to keep her man with her until she can no longer manage. He is the luckiest man alive when it comes to a wife, and I have her back as much as I can whilst still having to work to earn a crust.

Yesterday I had a shock as Mum received a card from a friend and couldn’t read the writing. ‘I’ll read it out’, I offered, only to read that the friend is praying for mum’s family members’ salvation. I read out the words as though they were the most natural thing in the world, trying to blank out what I was reading, knowing that it was deeply upsetting but putting my responses to one side. When I finished reading it, there was no comment. Mum looked a little embarrassed. We went about the rest of the day as usual.

It has bugged me ever since. How can we really be close to people who believe, deep down, that we are going to an eternal hell of perpetual flames and suffer forever?

From their perspective, the bible says this is true. ‘Should not perish’ suggests that unbelievers will ‘perish’ (‘perish’ isn’t really the same as burning forever but there we are). Jesus talked about Hell though. It’s clear that the evangelicals have put bits together and concluded that Hell is real and that anyone who is not a Christian is going there. For my Mum, this isn’t something that she relishes. I expect it causes her a great deal of anguish, hence the prayers. But, I wonder, if they REALLY believed that their children were going to bodily be tortured in a furnace forever, would they go about their days in a normal manner? Is there cognitive dissonance going on here?

I am trying to see it from her perspective. I know she wouldn’t want it to be true but is resigned to the ‘fact’ that it is. Perhaps I should have compassion for somebody with such an abhorrent and miserable belief.

But here is a thing. How can they be so happy and joyful about going to Heaven forever to be with the Lord, when most of the world around them are going to Hell forever to suffer torments? This is something that I would love to ask but probably never will.

It isn’t Mum’s fault that I read the card. She never talks to me about her beliefs in this respect. She didn’t know that I was going to read it. These are the sorts of rationalisations and defences that can sometimes calm me and enable me to move past things. But they’re not really working. The issue has got me riled up.

The card was a stark reminder that, despite it all, my own mother believes that I am doomed unless I become a different person. I will never be able to believe that Jesus is the only way. I have too much respect for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, agnostics and good people everywhere. I will never be able to believe that God, if She is real, has only space for one branch of faith. Is a faith in eternal torment for unbelievers even a faith? People need salvation from what? Their own God?

I have a love in my heart that is pure and good. I don’t need a label for it. It is just who I am and it’s good enough.

The card made me sad. It completely disrupted the feeling of harmony with my mother that I have enjoyed for years. I need time to recover from that. It was upsetting.

A lot of life is about muddling through and trying to be authentic and real despite the challenges of loved ones who differ. I cannot be other than who I am and, I suppose, neither can my mum. Therein lies the problem.

I expect that I, and anybody else in my situation, must find a way to box these matters, shelve them up, never open them, and focus on the commonality that they share with their loved ones. I have three brothers and we all cope with the cruelty of fundamentalism in different ways. My youngest brother knows the bible better than I do as he was raised to be a preacher, and he teaches A Level Religious Studies with academic rigour and theological understanding. He finds immense satisfaction in intellectual rejection of fundamentalism.Some anger, some forgiveness, a lot of goodwill and kindness; one has religious faith, the rest of us do not. For me, I suspect that we need to somehow find a way to focus on what we share: the memories, the laughter, the weird, bendy thumbs that we all have and the mutual support that we offer.

Finally, the family that we choose – our friends. I share this here because I know that there are so many who understand and are in this situation. I know how many people forge a path through their escape from nasty fundamentalist beliefs and how deep the hurt goes when confronted with those beliefs in the present day. We can find fellowship with each other and with friends who share our values. Friends are the family that we choose. For me, after this brush with something so painful that I don’t think I can raise it or discuss it with my mum, I need a break. I need my friends, my space, my husband and my own company to recalibrate and rejuvenate.

Billy

An unapologetically soppy poem by me as a young mum. I am still crazy about this boy and he is still a cuddly one, but he’s now known as Will, mostly keeps his clothes on and is slightly less obsessed with his Gameboy.

Bare feet thudding across landing, slow scuffle-drag of wooden door on carpet;

he glides spectrally towards me, perfectly, unabashedly bare,

and confidently scrabbles into the darkness,

where he snuggles dazedly into sleep-laden arms until

the alarm shatters the body-warm bed nest, and my finger tips

tickle his sturdy, satin back while he squirms and chortles,

then turns around and unfailingly takes my breath away with

a long-lashed milk chocolate gaze.

We walk into the freshly-laundered morning;

his wind-chilled hand homes into mine until an aeroplane,

a cloud, a cat or a lorry demand his body’s focus;

words and images squeezing and

bubbling from an internal picture-store through

an unsatisfactory vocabulary and sometimes a

stutter and another squeeze of the hand as he

galumphs in rhythm with the need to tell.

After school he has a happy sticker, he did not

roar at story-time or dive joyously into mud.

He stands proud, stomach protruding and

knock-knees unashamedly together, splayed feet;

the innocence of bodily ignorance.

He earned his game boy and he sits,

milk-moustached, after his bath,

pink tongue lolling and a slight

frown as he tackles real monsters;

with spring-loaded tension

he directs frantically jabbing fingers.

Night time, and he is a graceless rag-doll,

a discarded duvet twisted lumpishly

in one corner of its football-themed cover.

His bluey-white skin wears

a slight flush and the musk-mint breath

is almost imperceptible; parted lips

display outgrown crazy-paving

teeth and his sun-bleached cow’s lick

invites my palm.

Homecoming

I wrote this in my thirties, having woken up with this beautiful dream. I had been searching for myself, not yet having found her, and this was the beginning.

A child came to live with us.

I was married with three children

when she arrived,

a small, dark girl,

with knotted hair and

vague features.

All I knew was that

she had not received

the right sort of care.

With a gentle invitation,

I bathed her in gentle soapy bubbles,

luxurious warmth for her pale smooth skin,

shampooed with even, circular movements,

the knots and stickiness from her hair

and conditioned the neglected lengths;

when we had done,

it free-fell, snaking

liquid glossy down her back.

When it dried

it was tumbling and healthy,

alive with movement and

vibrant chestnut tones

catching the light every way.

Her paleness gave way

to a rosy glow.

I took the boxes of dressing-up clothes

from under my bed.

Rumpled, twisted armfuls

of fairy dresses, wire wings

with sparkles, sequins, colours

of pink and purple and

eggshell blue,

long drapes and scarves

from Japan, caresses of

satin gliding over the skin.

She stood, watchfully

silent while I dressed her,

picking out the items

with care.

She lifted her arms

while I slid a fairy dress

over her shoulders and

enveloped her in sparkles.

I led her to the mirror,

her warm hand

snug and safe in mine.

She stood, shyly in contemplation,

then smiled with trusting satisfaction.

In the warmth of our bed,

she lay facing away,

snuggled in close and curled

until, overwhelmed,

I began to silently cry.

Then gradually

we merged in tears,

becoming one,

and I awoke,

lying on my damp pillow,

my husband sleeping next to me in

the early morning hush.

Outside were the first crimson streaks

of a dawning winter day.

Woman in Adultery

Trigger warning: A poem written during a time of despair, this explores themes of religious judgment, condemnation, gender inequity and divine forgiveness. Not a morning cuppa kind of read as it’s visceral and violent.

The inevitable judgment descends.

Voices in the corridor outside.

Her lover melts into the background.

He will never feel the full weight of condemnation,

 an unfettered, liberally raised male.

The door busts open, battered by blood-lust,

hateful hands grasp the soft skin of her upper arms.

Sobbing, she stumbles down the muted hotel corridors.

‘Take her to that Jesus of Nazareth’. 

‘Yeah, he’ll have to condemn her. 

Him with all his forgiveness;

he’ll have to acknowledge The Law.

She’s guilty and she even knows it. 

Look at her, snotting and snivelling’. 

Tart.  Liar.  Bitch. 

She doesn’t know Christ, she’s never known him.

He died the death that we deserve, they said.

Stretched flesh hung in toe-curling agony,

blotched, weeping face like an over-ripe plum,

a scorching suffocation,

solemnly described every Sunday.

‘This is his body, broken for us.’

‘This is his blood, spilled in our stead.’

And now they’re dragging her along the street…..

Dad once said he’d break her neck.

Now they’re going to break her bones.

She’s seen others, floppy limbed,

brains spilling out on the sand.

Smashing tearing chunks of skin and hair,

and after that, the God

who’d turn his face away:

‘Depart from me, I never knew you’.

Waking up cold with sweat,

Stumbling through darkness to the bathroom,

giddy with the magnitude of nothingness.

A doctrine of violence,

of slaughtered firstborn sons, youths killed by bears,

milk-mouthed,  peachy-headed babies

 ripped from their mothers’ breasts

and skewered by marauding warriors at the Lord’s command.

A gaping eternity of flame that tortures but does not consume.

As a child, padding through darkness

 every night to make sure

Mummy and Daddy

hadn’t been Raptured away

in the twinkling of an eye.

What about Christ?

Sitting calmly there in the sand,

he turns  from conversation.

Thrown to the floor she waits,

naked, miniscule.

They tower above her.

She never was the same as them.

Now they’ve got her and they’re

going to do what they should have done

years ago –

bury her to the neck in the sand.

Her head will be tiny and trapped and

unable to twist or turn any more

they will snuff her out,

til all that’s left is a broken skull

and a mess for the vultures to clean up. 

Quite right, too.

Now just a matter of time.

A lifetime.

She hears their voices staccato sharp.

Jesus, drawing in the sand.

The crowd are silenced.

 ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

……………………………………………

Too many fuckers forgot.

Fundamentalism and me

My misguided quest for freedom

Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

I was raised within a Christian sect commonly known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Born in 1970. my indoctrination took place throughout the 70s and 80s and still has an impact to this day. The key belief of the assemblies, as they self-identify, is that the Bible is the one inspired Word of God, handed down directly from God to the men who wrote each one of its pages, as they are with us today, and that it contains everything that humanity needs to know about him. My Dad was an elder in our assembly and over time he became stricter than many about the central tenets of faith. He became convinced that the Authorised Version of the Bible was the only correct version, and put a sign on the pulpit asking all visiting speakers to use only this. There were many others within the assemblies who used the New International Version or the Good News edition, but these, said my father and other, stricter ‘brothers’, were taken from an inaccurate source and were not the Word of God.

What I’ve realised, as an adult, is that in every walk of life there are those who dabble or sit at the fringes of a movement, and there are others for whom every detail and every doctrine is of the utmost importance. It happens with exercise, health, veganism and other types of lifestyle choices. These people will create new rules and expectations over time, repeatedly more narrow and strict, and are never satisfied with ‘good enough’. Initially I was taught that girls should have long hair and not wear men’s clothing ie trousers. Over time, this became long hair with no fringe or layers (although I got away with both), and no shorts, culottes or anything which revealed the womanly shape beneath. ‘Modest apparel’ became longer-than-knee-length skirts, up to the neck tops, nothing too tight and definitely no bare arms or shoulders.

Our family had no television (devilish), and I wasn’t allowed to go to discos or anything too worldly. My one and only dance party was at the age of five where I swirled around in a long, pink nylon dress to Abba, had an amazing time with the glamorous Galbraith family and, on being picked up, told that nobody realised it was a disco and it wouldn’t happen again. Men wore ties and suits to church, Sunday was the Lord’s Day, we did not play outside or do anything that could be construed as ‘work’, there was no musical instrument at the morning meeting (distracting), the ‘breaking of bread’ service was a plain and bleak affair, where men stood and prayed, preached or gave our hymns according to the leading of the Spirit, and women sat in silence as ordained by God, and learned in subjection to the men, their heads covered by a headscarf, hat or beret.

As children we sat through two meetings on a Sunday, after already doing Sunday School earlier, a midweek meeting on a Wednesday by the time we were a little older, a Bible class on a Friday and Tuesday Special (games for children followed by an epiloque) which was actually fun, except for the epilogue. We were not allowed colouring books or other distractions and were taken out and smacked if we wriggled or whispered too much. We were taught unquestionable facts about God. That Jesus is the only way to God, that anybody who does not believe and accept Jesus will go to Hell, an eternal torment in flames, and that once we understood and still rejected this message, we would go to Hell upon death, no matter how young we were. Messages about Hell were the main content of the ‘gospel’ meeting in the evening, accompanied by graphic descriptions, and even in Sunday School we were presented with flannel graph boards depicting its fiery flames and taught the inadequacies of our own good works. Only by trusting in Jesus and accepting the gift of salvation would we be saved.

Other churches were not to be trusted and were wrong, although it was conceded that there were individuals among them who were true Christians. I was ‘saved’ at the age of six in response to a conversation about Heaven or Hell. Of course I chose Heaven and I prayed the prayer, felt incredibly happy and excited, and was presented with a little picture bible, inscribed with the words, ‘To our dearest Ruth, on the occasion of joining the Christian family’. I treasured this and still have it.

Growing up, I faced a few traumatic and repetitive anxieties. The first was about Hell, because I believed that if I had any doubts, this meant that I wasn’t truly saved. So I prayed to be saved repeatedly, often in tears, through sleepless nights. The other was about the Rapture, when Jesus would return to the earth in a twinkling of an eye and snatch away all of the Christians both dead and alive and take them to Heaven. All who remained on earth would face the Anti-Christ, a man who initially would appear to be a man of peace, who would re-unite the warring factions on earth, and would be universally popular. But after three and a half years of his seven year reign, he would become an unstoppable tyrant, a force for evil, who would behead all those who rejected the ‘mark of the beast’ on their hands or foreheads, and those people would be unable to buy or sell or survive, would be tortured, tormented and executed, this being their only last chance of getting into Heaven through the back door, so to speak. I worried in the dead of the night that the Rapture had happened and I was left behind, padding across the landing and checking that my parents were in bed, listening for the reassuring snores emanating from my father.

Later, as a teenager, I rebelled, in dramatic style. Never questioning the truth of what I was taught, I did, however, want the freedom that my friends had. Inevitably I made friends at school, as we were not home-schooled, and I became aware that other people had other beliefs. I’d known since primary school that my family were out of line with the mainstream, but as a small child I didn’t really mind that. I thought that we were right and they were wrong. But as a teenager, I began to enjoy pop music, Radio One, ‘Jackie’ magazine, makeup, jeans and, most of all, flirting with the boys. I was a Class A flirt and would put my makeup on on the bus on the way to school and get changed into the jeans I’d bought with my pocket money in an alleyway whenever I wanted to meet up with friends. I kissed several boys at school and ‘went out’ with them, which meant hanging around at lunchtime and kissing on the way to the bus – not actually ‘going out’. And then at fifteen I fell head over heels in love with Shaun, who I lied about to my parents, went to the cinema with, kissed every afternoon on the school field, and dumped when he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Shaun broke my teenage heart when I discovered that he really did just want to get laid, and I returned to the brethren fold as a good Christian girl, truly subdued and sorry for my mistake.

See, the thing was, I couldn’t lie for long. Every time I met a boy (the next one was called Matthew and the next one Keith), I left the meetings, told the parents I wasn’t able to attend because I was seeing somebody, which was forbidden, unless he was a Christian and we wanted to get married some time, and there were massive rows over it. Every time. And thus began my two sides: the good Christian girl side and the worldly boy-chasing flirty girl side. I couldn’t have them both until I finally met and fell in love with the tall, red-haired, deep-voiced Scot who became my first husband, who everybody approved of, and who was also an assembly boy.

Eventually, after having three kids, I went to university, studied literature, came to believe that the Bible is a fascinating collection of texts with amazing contexts of production and reception and not the Word of God in a complete sense at all. For years I tried to escape all of the influences of the assemblies and find freedom of the heart and mind. I hated what they’d taught, the fears that I’d been subjected to as a child, the emotional manipulation, the physical punishments and the rigid doctrines which excluded anybody who disagreed or had the audacity to make human mistakes. I hated what I thought of as stupid beliefs: the seven day creation, the Rapture, the six thousand year old Earth and the binary beliefs about gender, sexuality and marriage. I mocked them, developed a raging dislike of all evangelical Christian beliefs and fought to release myself from the influence.

But here’s the thing. Hating something so passionately means that we haven’t escaped at all. I was still scared of going to Hell. Still am, a bit. Especially as a divorced would-be atheist who can’t quite believe in anything except the beauty of a sunset, a baby, a loving hug or a robin. Especially as a wishy-washy non-believer who can’t decide whether God exists or doesn’t, or whether we are all a serendipitous accident of the universe.

I have come to realise that the brethren isn’t just a group of people who raised me, shaped me, brainwashed me and then rejected me. Some of that is true, and some of it is not. There are those who only ever showed love and kindness and mercy. Some of the most amazing people I ever met were in those meetings. Preachers who spoke with such eloquence that the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Sunday school teachers who really loved the children they taught and invited them round for dainty cakes and sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon. Married couples who adored each other and lived with love and affection for decades.

The brethren isn’t outside of me. It’s a part of me, entwined into every synapse of my brain. Indoctrination is permanent and, even if it’s unconscious most of the time, it’s there. I still think in black and white, I still find subtlety and nuance difficult to decipher. I feel uncomfortable dancing at a disco and I’m still moved to tears by parts of the bible. I remember the words of hymns and choruses, I still love everything that Jesus stands for and the story of the resurrection makes me want to stand up and punch the air. If I’m at a carol service, I sing and believe with all my heart, even though I don’t, really. It’s a fairly common paradox to believe and not believe, simultaneously.

Those of us who were raised in a fundamentalist religion are misguided to think of escape. There isn’t a full escape from something engrained in the psyche. The Jesuits apparently said, ‘Give us a child til the age of seven and he’s ours for life’. We can, however, keep the beauty, the wisdom and the kindness of it and cherish that as part of the rich experience of life. The harshness and fear can be dealt with by facing it square on and subjecting it to logic. If, for example, I start to think I’m going to go to Hell, I ask myself ‘who would I be down there with’? I don’t believe my kids are going, or my husband, any of my friends, colleagues or neighbours. I’d be hard pushed to think of anybody who I think deserves to burn forever in tormenting flames. So why would I? It’s ludicrous. Using logic I can face out most of the fears. Likewise, the Rapture. I get scared of the apocalyptic tone of some of the news: the global warming, the melting icecaps, the looming extinction of thousands of species and the bleak outlook for humanity. But does this mean the opaque prophecies of Revelations are coming for us? No, I think we are doing this to ourselves and only we can save the situation.

So I look to the good in humanity and in myself. We can’t escape our childhoods. Awareness that our early indoctrination is part of our DNA makes it easier to stop fighting, learn to love who we are and to respect the process of how we got here.

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