“All writing, all art, is an act of faith.”
The email arrived after Blue Monday, that fabricated day in mid-January suggested by Sky Travel and press released into the annals of pseudoscience. A combination of debt, time, weather, income, and stress makes up the bogus formula for calculating the most depressing day of the year—because nothing says holiday like complex math.
I had received some distressing news over the phone that morning and was seated at my desk, sending out a shaky request to the universe for help, through social media.
I live in hiding from my mentally ill mother—her treatment-resistant schizophrenia results in frequent calls to the police, the occasional assault of elderly relatives, and a lifelong exhausting anxiety. She hasn’t seen me for five years and still thinks I live in Vancouver. In her endless attempts to find me, she had wandered into a Flight Centre and purchased a one-way ticket in my name to Toronto—the city where we both live, although she doesn’t know it. A slip in the company’s computer system meant that somehow my address had fallen into her hands. At any moment she might connect the dots and land at my apartment.
My mental state somewhere between scattered and stressed, I logged on for the balm of online distraction, and found an email from the author of the moving memoir, The Stone Thrower. Jael Richardson was sending along her prayers in response to my post. I know Jael from graduate school and have long admired her deep belief, strength, and conviction. In essence, she’s the perfect individual to create an event that will be a game-changer for Canada’s community of writers and readers. Jael is founder and artistic director of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Her email asked if I would consider moderating a Faith & Fiction panel at the inaugural FOLD, which would take place in May 2016, in the nearby city of Brampton.
I said yes and settled in to survive the winter, mulling over faith while mentally counting mala beads to mark the days to spring. Life feels pregnant with promise in the budding season—I can avoid the bleak, uncomfortable reality of my mother, the snow squalls of psychosis. I prepared by reading or rereading books by the panelists: Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth and winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature; Cherie Dimaline, the award-winning writer of Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, and A Gentle Habit; Vivek Shraya, author of The God of Hair, She of the Mountains, and, most recently, Even This Page is White; and Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the hit TV show Little Mosque on the Prairie and author of the memoir, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque.
Faith is a word that is easier for me to contemplate than religion or spirituality. Raised by Southern Italian Roman Catholics (can I get a mea culpa?), I was taught that faith should never be questioned, that it lives in the hearts of good people everywhere. And yet, as a doubt-filled child, adolescent, and adult, I felt like a failure in the Believe Department, thought maybe faith wasn’t meant for a fickle-head like me. I stared at portraits of Jesus with eyes that followed me around the room, and studied the framed poster of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper hanging in the upstairs dining room feeling nothing beyond a dull stomachache, a longing to belong.
My ancestors were steeped in pagan superstition and marinated in Catholic contrition. I suspect my interpretation of faith is probably closer to a college Psych 101 textbook definition of magical thinking. I would pull out Tarot cards and consult my astrological chart before I would ever confide in a priest. As the official lost sheep of the family, I also flirted with Buddhism and spent several years chanting the Gayatri Mantra at a yoga studio every Friday night, seeking to alleviate everyone’s suffering and align myself with the divine.
All the while, my belief in the power of words has never wavered. Books and a love of language saved me. I know this to be true for all writers. Redemption is found in the work of magicians of morphology and sorcerers of syntax.
The first time I felt astonishment was in a library, staring at rows of books and magazine stacks. When the woman at the checkout desk gave me a card (the first piece of ID carried in my zippered wallet, a passport to unknown worlds), I was gob-smacked with joy. Libraries are a sacred space. I am comforted by their existence. Where two or three are gathered as readers, there is hallowed silence.
A writer faces the almighty blank page and offers up a story—the oldest evidence of our shared humanity— the global currency of our inherited wealth.
When the May date came, I set off for FOLD full of questions, eager to take in as many events as possible.
Early on a Saturday morning, the panel and a host of listeners congregated in the name of the written word to compare notes on faith and fiction. The four authors began by reading excerpts from their books and speaking about how their spiritual or religious backgrounds influenced their work.
Vivek Shraya grew up in a non-denominational organization, a mainly Hindu-based one that celebrated both Christmas and Buddha’s birthday. She sang a bhajan (a prayer that was sung in the centre she attended as a child) in a stunning voice before reading from her book of poems. Hinduism is a common theme throughout her work; the iconography works for her, for one thing. As a queer kid growing up in Edmonton in the eighties and nineties, she had to be creative, search out role models: Krishna and various other long-haired male gods liked to sing, dance, wear jewelry, plus all their friends were girls. Shraya touched on the value of trusting your muse, listening to feedback, as well as never underestimating the reader.
Growing up Jewish in Israel, Ayelet Tsabari noted that she “didn’t have to practice, everyone was naturally good at it.” Her father went to synagogue every week, and believing in God was something she never questioned until her dad died when she was ten. For years afterwards, she and her siblings were approached by strangers with stories of their father’s immense generosity. His loss and the crisis of faith that followed inspired her work early on; at age eleven she wrote a book in which she mused, Nietzschesque, that God was dead. If we were born in his image and capable of dying, she reasoned, God must have died; thus, he wasn’t there to save her father.
Ayelet read a poignant passage from “Warplanes.” A girl grieving the loss of a parent states, “God is an asshole.” Just one of many Tsabari characters who grapple with faith.
FOLD, for Zarqa Nawaz, turned out to be an opportunity to return to her hometown of Brampton, the city where her father was a founder of the local Islamic Association. She spoke about her 2005 documentary Me and the Mosque, which examines the segregation of women (specifically, the notion that dividers were “more Islamic”) and chronicles the history of her religious community. Seventh-century mosques, she learned, were progressive spaces without barriers; they had a section for women, one for men, and another for people who couldn’t be defined as men or women—the third sex.
Faith was an important part of Nawaz’s life: “Getting away from faith doesn’t mean you get away from prejudice,” she mused. “You can be secular and still be dogmatic in your belief. People can still behave in ways that fundamentalist communities behave.”
Cherie Dimaline, a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community, said that when she talks about spirituality, she finds people make assumptions—imagining, for instance, that her childhood was free, inclusive. Yet her mother’s family is “mostly Métis, and that means Roman Catholic.” In her community, faith fused with First Nations beliefs: “a mixing and melding of stories and understanding occurred.” As a young girl, Cherie was assigned the role of storykeeper and brought to meetings and ceremonies with a sense of urgency. Her great aunties decided that, as the one to hold the memories, she would hear the stories again and again. The repetition, she said, “develops the brain like a beehive, all these chambers of different eras and people.” The storykeepers had a responsibility to seven generations, past and future. “The storyteller reaches back and forward to weave together words that provide a blanket of safety, security and spirituality for the community. When we talk about how faith informs stories,” she said, “stories are my faith.”
Tsabari agreed. She had returned to a semblance of faith with rituals around writing. Her experience of faith? “Belief in yourself, the work, the reader, and in fiction’s ability to promote change.” Change grants the possibility of eliminating otherness and creating empathy. “It requires a tremendous amount of faith to write,” Tsabari said. “Writing, that act of grasping for something that is bigger than us, and that sacred moment where the writing flows—that’s a revelation.”
Q&A opened up another topic. Audience member Dorothy Palmer, author of When Fenelon Falls, commented that many religions had been warped in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Why then, she asked the panel, had the right-wing been allowed to hijack faith?
Dimaline and Nawaz responded by discussing how their communities were motivated and mobilized, uniting behind the Idle No More movement and after 9/11, respectively, to connect, engage and, demand—that word again—change. Nawaz, who has been promoting her memoir in the US, said she frequently confronts stereotypes about Islam and suggested that her “boring suburban life [was] radical for a Muslim woman.” She noted the “cultural amnesia” at work and reminded us of the hostile reaction to Sinead O’Connor’s ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, as well as the time a group in France firebombed a cinema that was showing The Last Temptation of Christ.
The discussion could have gone on longer, but our time was up. I thanked the panelists “for renewing my faith in faith.”
The day after the festival, I returned home to collect my thoughts and reflect on the value of faith in modern times. I was bothered by one thing, especially. Occasionally, I’ve treated my devout dad like a quaint man from another era, as though he might have been a die-hard atheist had there only been a bookstore in the village. I challenged his overly sentimental, naively optimistic opinions and tried to limit those notions in myself.
Logging on, I saw another email from the travel agent at Flight Centre. The time stamp showed the message was all of ten minutes old. Once more, my mother was spending money she could not afford to lose by trying to purchase a ticket for me.
“Not again,” I said to the computer screen. “God, no.” I called the Centre immediately and a representative let me stay on hold, even apologized when she realized who I was (the daughter of a woman who took up their time, caused stress, yelled at them, and so on). As I listened to a combination of Muzak and company ads, I realized my mother was probably still with the agent, going over details of the visit she desperately wanted. Sometimes she hears a voice that tells her to head to Pearson Airport to meet me.
The image of my mother wandering the airport alone, watching families and friends reunite while she searches among arrivals from Vancouver, is enough to make me cancel any plans I have and retreat to bed.
Suddenly the Godsend—the agent who’d contacted me back in January—is on the phone, offering a solution. She would issue a cheque I could submit to the Public Guardian’s office and return the cash, just under $500, to my mother’s bank account.
I was humbled by the young woman’s compassion, her willingness and courage to deal with my mom’s wrath when I fail to show.
I hung up and typed out my message of thanks through tears.
Over the years our family has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to people taking advantage of my mother; the damage was taxing and persistent. The enormity of my gratitude and admiration for a stranger’s empathy could not be adequately expressed in a few sentences, so I sent gift cards for Starbucks Coffee. Five—enough for the entire staff.
The Godsend wrote me back to say the cards were unnecessary. She suggested I drop by to say hello someday, in person: “We all need to watch out for each other… this keeps the world a better and happier place!”
I thought about how often the narrative of my life felt broken, my spiritual needs splintered and ignored. I wondered about this new chapter in the never-ending funeral that is my relationship with my mother, the losses piled so high, it’s hard to say anymore whether they are an obstacle or a protective barrier—likely some combination of the two.
A mentor once remarked that everyone reads with the hope of figuring out how to survive being human. No surprise that my bookshelves are bulging with memoirs.
What I’m left with is a fundamental belief in writing: observe the work, serve the story, confess, and be unburdened.
Comfort me with aphorisms. Hold up a candle to our shames.
We are never alone when we walk the path of reader.
Photo by Flickr user travel oriented