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Tell me a story to soothe my weary soul…

By popular request, here are some of the spiritual memoirs I’ve read and loved, and the guiding religion for the narrator indicated.

(There are a lot, lot more than these, but the ones listed I actually have copies of, so they were easier to find.)

download (1)Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
(general spirituality with focus on yogic philosophy)

I love this book and I don’t care who knows it.  I get all the objections, wealthy white privilege and all that, but the spiritual parts of this book moved me in ways I hadn’t been moved for decades.  The only part I don’t like is the “love” part – I didn’t want a goopy romance, I wanted more of India and Italy.  But still, I love this book like whoa, and I’m so excited about Gilbert’s new nonfiction that’s coming out this fall.

The Wishing Year by Noelle Oxenhandlerdownload (10)
(No particular tradition)

Noelle devotes herself to a year of learning about the power of wishes, in order to manifest herself a new home, a new relationship, and so on.  It’s not exactly spiritual but it’s a good story and very hopeful when it comes to drawing from the universe what you want by presenting what you want to the universe.


Leaving the Saints and Expecting Adam by Martha Beckdownload (8)download (9)

Martha is an ex-Mormon, and her first memoir details the trial-by-fire she went through.  The second tells the story of her pregnancy with her son Adam, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome in utero.  She chose to have him despite intense pressure to terminate the pregnancy, and began an adventure of spiritual connection with a child who ended up rocking her world all the way to God and back.  It’s not a “mommy memoir,” it’s a mystical pregnancy memoir, and it’s way cooler than I make it sound.

download (6)download (7)9k=

 Leaving Church, an Altar in the World, and Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor
(Basically Christian)

Barbara is an amazing writer, and her history as a minister makes the spiritual underpinnings of her books feel that much more authentic.  In the first she describes how she and her husband made the decision to leave their church (pretty much what it says on the tin).  The second talks about nature as an altar, and the holiness of the seasons; and the third speaks of all the dark places in our lives that scare us, from caves to our own minds.

download (11)On the Threshold: Home, Heartwood, and Holiness by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
(Home as spirituality)

Andrew seeks to connect her spirit to her home, and searches out the holiness in the smallest of things, from fixing a screen door to putting up curtains. Every inch of the house feels like an extension of the soul.

Are You My Guru? by Wendy Shankardownload (5)
(Jewish, with lots of Hinduism thrown in for spice)

Wendy Shankar’s life was going great until bam! she was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease.  Desperate for relief, she tries all sorts of therapies, and describes them to hilarious effect.  There’s no earthshattering conclusion to her story, but she gives you hope, and you feel like there’s someone out there having just as weird an experience as you are trying to be “more spiritual.”

download (4)Blue Jean Buddha

Not a single memoir, but a collection of stories from the “new Buddhists,” refreshingly young voices who approach the Dharma from a wide variety of walks of life.

One Thousand Blessings by Anne Volskampdownload (3)
(Very, very Christian)

I don’t know what drew me to this book other than the beauty of the author’s website (seriously, it’s one of those sites you just want to stay in and roll around in her graphics).  I had wanted to give a friend a copy of the book for Christmas, but read it myself first, and found the writer’s style so beautiful and poetic. It’s a lovely book to give as a gift, so if you read it and find it’s not for you, you can pass it on to a religious friend needing a joy infusion.

Book of Shadows by Phyllis Curottdownload (2)

The first memoir-esque Pagan book I ever read.  It tied the whole “lessons about the goddess” into the story of a woman’s actual life.  It was almost painfully heavy-handed at times by trying to be both a memoir and a how-to, but every page felt like something was there, just waiting to be grasped.  I really wish there were more like these, but less interested in teaching and more just about telling a woman’s story as a Pagan.

Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Ester
(Scary Fundamentalist Cult)

downloadThis one was kind of harrowing.  The narrator grew up in one of those home grown Bible cults, and felt so utterly trapped by the expectations of what a young woman was supposed to do in the strict laws (like spanking babies with a belt to “break their spirits”) and the feeling of living with a noose around her neck.  She and her husband eventally break free, but after that, they wander around like war orphans for a while, unsure what ground is safe to walk on.  A compelling read.

Karen Armstrong, the Spiral Staircasedownload

Karen Armstrong entered a convent at age 17, but was miserable inside its walls.  When she finally left, the confusion and spiritual sadness left her questioning her vocation – until a diagnosis of epilepsy helped her work through some of the experiences she’d never been able to speak of.  Now Armstrong writes some of the most compelling comparative religion books out there (read her biographies of the Buddha and Muhammed, they’re both excellent)

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 3.41.52 AMSpiritual Misfit by Michelle DeRusha

I mentioned this one in my last post about Jesus – the woman who decided to “fake it till she made it” about God and how eventually it worked.  I did finish reading the book, and by the end I felt a lot more convinced that she’d done more than just clap her hands together to save Tinkerbelle.  She discusses joining Bible study classes that appealed to her inner researcher, and other small groups to try and figure out her place in the church.  Her conclusion seems to be that not everyone is going to have big firework moments with God, and that’s just fine, because if we spend too much time staring up, we’re missing a lot of lovely things down here.  I still don’t think her strategy would (REMOTELY) work for me, but I appreciate her point of view way more since getting the full picture.  I also appreciate that she’s not calling herself “finished” the way a lot of memoirists seem to suggest even when they’re only 30 years old.  Michelle is very well aware of her faith as an evolving thing.

That’s all for now – there will definitely be a second post here, both because I ran out of room and because I’m currently in the middle of two other memoirs that might wind up on the list.

Now it’s your turn, fair reader – what’s your favorite spiritual memoir?  Or even if it’s not a memoir, it could be a spiritual or self-helpy book that has a deeply personal slant from the author so it feels like she’s telling you her story.  Tradition and denomination are irrelevant, just tell me what you love.

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And the Winners Are…




If you’ll send me an email at diannesylvan at gmail dot com, I’ll send you a copy of the planner.

Thank you everyone for commenting!

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Nosce te Ipsum, part 4 – Oh Jesus

All new updated selfie.

All new updated selfie.

I admit to some spiritual confusion of late.

You can infer several things from the stories I’ve told here:

I’m not a Christian. I haven’t been, except in name, since I was a kid.

But neither am I really a Pagan, at least not in practice.

And I’m not an atheist; the very idea terrifies me.

The story I haven’t told is one that I don’t think has happened yet: the story of where that leads me.

I read a lot of memoirs, and my favorites are spiritual memoirs of women. It started with Eat, Pray, Love, and after that I devoured as many as I could find. The thing is, most women who write these stories are devout Christians, usually ferociously Born Again, who talk at length and depth about their relationship with that one particular dude whose name carries more baggage than Carousel 2 at the airport: Jesus.

Here’s the thing. America is currently loaded with terrible, terrible Christians. I feel qualified to make that judgment because a) I’m an outsider and b) I know some fantastic Christians who make the rest look like the greedy intolerant weasels they are.

One of my lifelong best friends and her husband are very devout – they’ve done mission work, helped in refugee camps, she’s been to India to teach at a school for little girls. They are some of the kindest and best people I am privileged to know. They’re not at all in-your-face about it; they just do what they do, emulate the Holy JC as much as they can, and never expect to be perfect. They watch the same movies and listen to the same music I do. She’s one of my most devoted readers. (I have seen firsthand that the nutbars of Christianity do not, in fact, like my books. Go figure.)

Not long ago I attended their Christmas program at their “Denomination? What on EARTH is that?” church, and I had a good time, but my mind spent the evening cataloging the problems – not the problems in their church, but the problems that would keep me from wanting to be involved in it.

That’s the thing, you see. I would give anything to feel like I belonged somewhere. I have no spiritual refuge of my own – aside from that brief, beautiful period when I felt embraced by a coven, before the knives came out, when I felt like I’d found a place I could fit.

Not long ago, while writing these posts and exposing all of this in the hope that others would read it and see themselves in the words, I said to God, “Okay, here I am…I will happily accept and cleave to whatever form or doctrine you see fit to speak through to me. I’ll give it a shot, even if I’ve tried before. Just…talk to me. The writers all say that God wants your hand as much as you want his; I’m holding mine out as far as I can stretch. Just meet me, and you’ve got me. Trust me, I’d make a great whatever-it-is you need.”

Nothing. I’ve learned not to expect anything more.

One of these memoirs sounded very much like me: a child who grew up with weird superstitions beliefs about God eventually said “What in the FUCK are you guys on about?” and stopped believing. Then after a long while of showing the reader how miserable she was, she decides to basically “fake it till she makes it,” and starts living “what if” – what if God was real? What if Jesus was really the Savior? What’s so wrong with thinking that…and so on.

I had to put the book down. That was it? A cheap psychological trick brought this woman’s faith back?

Put another quarter in the Disillusionment Jukebox, which only plays Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

I long for the Presence of the Divine as some people long for college degrees or children. These churches I see now, of the type that my friends attend, are modern and interested in the real world, and somewhere amid their travels and adventures and toils my friends have struck to the heart of their faith; they know what they believe.

I can’t remember the last time I knew what I believed.

Here’s where it gets dicey, though. There are some things I know, and those things keep me from considering the “fake it till you make it” branch of the First Thespian Church of WTF.

I do not believe there is only one God, or that God is male. Or rather, I believe there are a thousand faces of God, some male and some female, and that none are more or less valid to their adherents. Think of it – a deity who loves Her creation so much that He is willing to put on any face they ask for, any costume that will help them speak to Her. God will be a hundred Gods to touch the hearts of a hundred humans. To me, that’s amazing, that God could love us enough to be so many things because She wants to hold all of us – to meet us as we are. The point is that to me, they are in fact all facets of a single diamond – the All that Is, the Great Mystery, whatever you want to call it. I am still, at heart, a panentheist.

I won’t go into any of the political issues I have with how the Bible has been used to browbeat our entire culture. I’m sticking to theological issues here, and my issue is that no, I do not believe the Bible is the full-on revealed word of God. I mean, seriously? If it is, God needs to get himself a better editor and a damn good agent. From my earliest religious studies classes in college (I was a philosophy of religion minor) I loved the idea of the Bible as this centuries-spanning anthology that gathered the experiences and wisdom of all these known and unknown authors. It painted this amazing picture of life in those times, and how human values have stayed true but human understanding of the world and of God has evolved…but I never once thought it was 100% Revealed Truth. Too many contradictions, not just in the doctrine but in the writing itself. I thought people could learn a lot about how to live, and how NOT to live (something about the going price of virgins stuck in my craw), and glean important spiritual wisdom, but taking it wholesale as word-by-word revelation?

I could get around most of that, though. Obviously there are as many ways of approaching the Bible as there are people to try it. What unites a church or any congregation isn’t belief as often as it is practice. We meet these times to do these rituals, because they bring our community together and help us all feel closer to God. I could tell you what churches my parents attended and what happened there, but if you ask me what my parents actually believed…I’d be guessing. There’s not a spot in most services for people to stand up and say “Hi, my name is Sylvan, and this whole I-Gotta-Have-a-Savior thing is just crawling up my butt like a swimsuit in a Jacuzzi.”

Because that’s where it all breaks down for me. Jesus. It’s not his fault, really; the historical JC is, as far as I know, a hell of a guy. Or was.

But the whole thing about God sending his kid to suffer horribly and make us sit through another freaking Mel Gibson movie to take away our wrongdoings…I just don’t buy it.

I’ve learned the importance of JC as an intermediary – God is huge and unapproachable, Jesus was a regular guy with an extraordinary family tree.   Catholics do much the same with Mary, and I’d be more on board with that (Goddess worshipping Pagan that I’ve been) except Catholicism kind of skeeves me out.

The idea that if I say “Hell yeah Jesus died for my sins and I’m all up on that!” I get this magical new life where JC is my friend and all my troubles I can hand over to him because clearly he has nothing better to do besides catch up on Orange is the New Black…nope, I don’t buy it.

The problem here is that this expects me to believe in a very specific entity with a very specific origin story who is the only person who can rescue me from the craphole my life has become and redeem me from my old ways.

I don’t believe in Batman either.

I suppose some of that may sound hostile. It’s not meant to. It’s genuine frustration. I want something to believe in. I want to find a place to hang my soul when I come in at night. I want to feel the sense of comfort and joy that those I know who have this remarkable relationship with JC have. I see the gorgeous sacred art on Pinterest drawn inside note-taking Bibles and I can’t imagine feeling that strongly about anything I’ve ever heard a god say to me. So instead I illuminate song lyrics and quotes by Rumi.

I would totally be a mystic if I had any kind of discipline, but it’s mighty lonely out there for a mystic. As I said, my problem is one of belief, but also one of connection. I feel very little connection to anything anymore:  life, the world, human beings, nature. I am a tiny boat adrift, using my wifi to make it seem like I have a life, when really, I haven’t seen land in years.

When I see memoirs written by women who haven’t even passed 35 yet I’m skeptical, because, how can anything huge enough in your life have finished enough for you to write a book on it before 35? Hence, these posts, which have no resolution…only more questions.


One of these days I should make a list of all the spiritual memoirs I’ve read and post it here. Hmm.


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