Homesick for the Fellowship in Self-Realization Fellowship

We have been living with my in-laws for over three weeks. It was supposed to be a much shorter visit, but it’s hard to leave these grandparents! Being a religious woman and a member of Self-Realization Fellowshipa church that encourages discussion and questions, I always enjoy the theological discussions I have with Walter’s namesake, Grandpa Walter, a devout Catholic. Theological discussion, a documentary, the news this past month full of the Catholic Church and a conversation with Walter about the need for community for the church to truly do its work–it all made me homesick for the feeling I have whenever I am on “SRF” property. For about twenty-four hours, I even wondered if I was feeling actual distance from the church I grew up with. I asked myself, am I feeling called to convert to Catholicism?

It wasn’t a comfortable question. Converting to a religion is a big deal, and my politics don’t exactly mesh with the Catholic Church’s views on birth control, choice and who knows what else. I could ask the question, however, because SRF would still embrace me. The “Church of All Religions” teaches children at its Youth Programs that “all paths reach the mountaintop.” There is a garden that celebrates each of the world’s major religions at the beautiful Lake Shrine in California, right near the entrance. Conversion would be a very big deal for me and my family, but it would not cause any rifts.

The interior of the temple at Lake Shrine, couresty of lakeshrine.org

The interior of the temple at Lake Shrine, couresty of lakeshrine.org

Then, today, I attended Easter Mass with my in-laws, baby and husband. The homily was delivered by a priest from India, the same man who performed mass at Christmas. The only two Catholic masses I have attended in my adult life were performed by this priest. This is a bit of a divine joke, in my opinion, because the founder of SRF came from India to the United States in order to offer a spiritual path that united East and West. It makes me smile. The priest is an intelligent, devout, eloquent, passionate speaker. When he spoke today about the Resurrection, he said that the Resurrection of Christ was a reward for the life Christ had lived. This resonated with me deeply, because I believe that union with God, the Realization that our true Selves are, in fact, one with God, and that we have to work for that. The work that we have to do is to cast aside the delusion that keeps us from that knowledge, the desire for worldly achievements and things that distract us from the desire to reunite with God.

Easter Mass with Cousin Elliott and Aunt Peggy

Easter Mass with Cousin Elliott and Aunt Peggy

And therein lies my answer to the conversion question: I do not believe that the Catholic Church is the one true church. I believe in reincarnation. I may not be a member of the religion of Self-Realization Fellowship yet, not having received the meditation technique Kriya Yoga, but I am still a proud member of the church. Paramahansa Yogananda is my guru. When I pray, I sometimes choose to begin with the same beginning I have heard so many times at Sunday talks and Youth Program meditations, “Heavenly Father, Mother, Friend, Beloved God; Jesus Christ, Bhagavan Krishna, Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahashaya, Swami Sri Yukteshwar and our Beloved Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, Saints and Sages of All Religions, I bow to you all.” Krishna and Babaji, in particular, are too dear to my heart.

I do not want to convert to another religion. I simply long for community. When I visit my mother, in Phoenix, AZ, and see the various ways in which she can choose to be involved in the church there, I long for those same choices. Members of SRF are not holier or nicer than Catholics or anyone else. They simply share a longing that I, too, feel, to take this particular path to mountain top.

Today, I was thankful for the massive statue of Christ that hangs above the altar at the local Catholic church. Rather than Christ on the cross, it depicts Christ rising. I looked at that image and prayed another familiar prayer, deep in my heart, “May thy love shine forever on the sanctuary of my devotion.”

 

Paramahansa Yogananda, courtesy of http://www.yogananda-srf.org/

Paramahansa Yogananda, courtesy of http://www.yogananda-srf.org/

My Secret Passion: God

Last week, one of the NaBloPoMo prompts at BlogHer was: “What is your secret (or not-so-secret) passion?” This is what I wrote.

This is my Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda. Click here for more info on the church he founded, Self-Realization Fellowship.

I wait for the look: “I am religious,” I say, and pause. For what? Surprise, I suppose. Instead, I see simple acceptance of this as a simple fact. No questions. Nobody says, “But you’re smart” as though this necessarily precludes any belief in God. They just wait for me to get to my point about how my religion and values fit in to the conversation. In my former professional life, I hid my belief in God. It wasn’t necessarily a secret, but it wasn’t something I wanted to talk about. I needed my classmates and colleagues to see me as smart, more than anything. My intelligence comprised my worth, or so I believed.

My world has changed so much in the past eleven months that this particular perk of a non-academic life rises to the surface only after I have processed other, less subtle changes:

  • January, 2011: I leave the PhD Program in English Literature in which I have been enrolled since fall, 2007. This marks the end of a twenty-year career as a full-time student. (I am twenty-six.) I decide to look for a career in child care after briefly playing with the idea of a structured office job. I never even hit send on the application I write for an administrative assistant position at a nonprofit, even though I still think it’s an amazing company.
  • Late January, 2011: I begin to read for fun. I cannot remember the last time I have read a book that is recently published. But now… No one cares what I am reading? Really? At some point, I consume Steig Larsson’s The Millenium Trilogy on audio book, stopping only to sleep.
  • Spring, 2011: I meet two of the most adorable toddlers anyone has ever met, and I’m lucky enough to care for them every week. These two jobs feel light compared to full-time grad-studenthood coupled with a teaching load of two distinct courses with different syllabi. I find great joy in repeating “Look at the birdies!” day after day, instead of repeating “No, I have not graded your paper, yet.” (I really hated grading papers.)
  • Summer, 2011: I begin to work part-time at a professional, well-respected child care center. It is just a summer position, but there is structure. There is “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” There are hugs from tiny, pudgy arms. There are conversations about the progress of the seeds planted by the preschoolers–green sprouts! I am the only witness to a trouble child’s first success at using his words instead of his fists to resolve a conflict. I get to congratulate him. I get to tell his teachers. I get to see the beaming pride on his face at the enormity of this accomplishment. When I go home at the end of each day, I truly believe that I am free to do whatever I please–no homework. I stop feeling guilty for doing “nothing.”
  • Fall, 2011: I go back to babysitting and continue to look for more permanent work in a formal child care center. I revel in watching television, knitting, sewing, spending hours on Twitter, Facebook, reading blogs. I create my own blog, where I write for fun. I have not written anything for fun in years. I cannot remember the last time I wrote anything for fun! My literary heart feels better each time I hit “publish.” My bookish soul is healing.
  • November 10, 2011: I tell two intelligent, well-respected women that I am religious in the course of a job interview; the conversation is about values and early childhood education. Neither professional bats an eye. I think, “Of course! Working with very young children and their parents means interacting with all kinds of people. Discussions about values and beliefs are common, here!” No one asks me to explain myself, because no one cares about the particulars of my religion.

There is no competition in my new professional life. Yes, I do see teachers covet other teachers’ salaries or job titles; I see them archly disapprove of another teacher’s habits or methods. It flickers past. I rarely see this become intense enough for the children to pick up on it. (Very small children pick up on hostility very quickly.) But I do not yet feel the need to compete with anyone.

I do not need to be The Smartest, The Favorite, The One With the Long CV, The One Who Is Published, The One Who Has Read Everything, The One With the Good Fellowship, The One With the Tenure-Track Job Offer. The world I left behind is a world for people who have thicker skin than I. They can rise above the competition, or thrive on it. I simply find myself paranoid and hyper-reactive, seeing competition and judgment everywhere.

As it turns out, my professional wants are very simple. I want to spend my days with small children, playing, soothing, laughing, teaching. I want to leave my job, go home and have that time to give freely to my family. I want to have a baby of my own and a career that welcomes that choice. I want to take my time. I want to feel at home in my professional skin. This is matters in this new professional life: am I kind, compassionate, honest, caring, patient, flexible? Can I work well with the other teachers? Can I accommodate the different needs of the individual infants and toddlers and interact well with them as a group? I want to prove myself by showing that I can do and be these things. My devotion, my prayers, my belief in a kind and compassionate God–these are not secrets. I still do not advertise my beliefs at work; I have no interest in proselytism and God just doesn’t come up that often. But I do not hide them, either.

My point is not that academics must pretend agnosticism. My point is that in my old life, I felt afraid that someone would learn something about me that would prove, once and for all, that I was not smart enough to be a professor of anything. Everyone would know that I didn’t belong. In my new life, I feel that everything I am and everything I believe makes me a better caregiver. I am not afraid that I am a fraud. That is why I have no more secrets. That is the biggest clue that I made the right choice when I changed careers.

This is Bhagavan Krishna, one of the most important (to me) teachers God has sent to us. Click on the photo to learn more about how my church views Krishna.

But, I’m laughing right now, because I feel nervous about posting this. What will all of you think of me, now that I’ve put it in writing?

I believe in God. Passionately. With devotion and with all of my heart. It’s a big part of who I am. My relationship with God has helped me through the very darkest moments of my life, including my time as an inpatient in the psych ward. I am proud to have cultivated such a strong relationship with God. Now you know.

Body Image: Remember the Future

Let’s talk about body image. It’s come up a lot, lately, and I went to the beach yesterday wearing my yellow polka dot bikini and could not help but bask in my own enjoyment of my body. I won’t lie–I did compare my body to the very thin body of the friend next to me and long for smaller thighs. But I smashed that thought like an ant at a picnic. I wouldn’t trade this hour glass for anything! And any kids I end up having will benefit from that hard-won attitude.

Take a look at few things I’ve come across just this morning (I did not google “body image”–this all showed up in my Facebook news feed):

Moms pass on body hatred to daughters: Your kids are listening.

Moms buy a children’s book about going on a diet for their daughters. No, I haven’t come across this in any of the homes I work in. If I do, I’ll be having a conversation with the parents, ASAP.

Yesterday:

Photoshopping Phoniness: Beauty altered out of reality and, often, out of beauty.

Fighting Childhood Obesity: The fight to improve childhood nutrition.

First, one unusually great thing about my childhood: my parents served really healthy food, and I’m now glad that I never won my campaign for white instead of brown rice and/or bread. Partly for financial reasons, we never had soda, sugary cereal or salty snacks just lying around the house. Treats were treats. You know what? I don’t want to spend my money on junk, either. So my body is thin and my skin healthy in part because I have always eaten healthy foods.

I didn’t manage to have a great body image, though. Not even a good one. I didn’t believe that I was pretty, not really, until I was about 19 years old. I was convinced that I was probably fat from the moment my body started changing; growing from a lanky, athletic, into a curvy woman was miserable for me. I didn’t know that there would be an awkward phase. I thought it was all supposed to happen so gracefully. Wearing the clothes that I thought I should fit into instead of clothes that actually fit me meant that I wore a B cup bra when I was already a D–in the eighth grade. To be perfectly honest, I still haven’t forgiven the boy who said, “Anne-Marie? Is she the one with the huge boobs?” I’d really rather never see him again. The point is that I didn’t look in the mirror to see how I looked, I looked at Seventeen magazine to see how I should look. I had days when I felt pretty, and I did not have any type of eating disorder or disordered eating. But I was most definitely hiding.

I directly my compulsive energy towards school. I did homework the way other kids played sports. I talked about colleges like other girls talked about boys; no really, I started researching colleges at age fourteen. Once I chose Barnard College in New York City, I wore my sweatshirt almost every day. It was too big and very comfy. I may have also stopped washing my hair… not entirely, just not every day or even every other day. To put it simply, I was unhappy. With myself, my body, my surroundings, my family, boys–you name it, I was angry at it. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone, so I hid.

I was still hiding when I got to college, but I made friends. The best friends. They saved me. They helped me knock down some of the walls I had built around my real self. And they pretty much forced me to buy clothes that fit my actual body. Not the one I thought I had–not the overweight body that didn’t actually exist or the tiny, skinny body I had so wanted–but the body that I really had. I also became pretty active and ate less ice cream because, well, I got happy. So I lost a lot of weight. I bought a whole new wardrobe. And please, if you meet my friends from college, don’t mention “polo shirts” or “khakis” because they still enjoy laughing (with me, of course, not at me) about the over-sized polos and khakis I was wearing when I met them.

Here’s the big bad body image trap I sidestepped–I did not ignore my body enough to have sex too young or take too many crazy risks. I knew that there would be emotional fall-out from sex, so I waited. (It helped that, like I said, I hid under a hoodie during high school.) I made mistakes, but I knew they were mistakes while I was making them.

Here’s why I think it’s related to body image and therefore to self-esteem: if young people don’t like themselves, they don’t like their bodies and they don’t think that it matters if they take these risks. I suspect that this is true because when my self-esteem was at its lowest (oh, say, around the time I went to the psych ward), I stopped taking good care of my body. I ate sporadically because I just didn’t care. I stopped doing laundry because I just wore my pajamas. I know it’s gross. I didn’t shower often enough. I really just didn’t feel that it mattered. And my future? That seemed really, impossibly far away.

So, this morning, I saw a discussion on the Pigtail Pals Facebook page about young women’s attitudes about casual sex and unplanned pregnancy, and I read that Melissa Wardy finds it “Shocking in how cavalier they are towards their bodies, health, and futures.” I felt like I was zooming back through my own sexual experiences and my friends’ stories about their sexual experiences.

Let’s pause for a minute: I have always been shocked at a cavalier attitude toward body, health and future, in my peers, in younger women, in older women, in men of all ages, but the reason for this is odd. You see, I was raised by a puritanical father to believe I could control any and every sexual impulse. He liked to lecture. “What would people think of me if I wore a short skirt! What would people think of me if they knew that I had spent time alone with a boy!” He actually made sure that I knew he would be sleeping on the couch for the few weeks we lived with my stepmother before he married her. I was eighteen at the time. I believe that my reaction to that was “Daaaaaaaddddd! I don’t want to know!” In my house, before I left for college, any conversation about sex was pretty over-the-top. I swallowed, hook, line and sinker, my dad’s line about sex being this peripheral, almost unnecessary thing we don’t really need to talk about. I thought as a teenager that I would become a Self-Realization Fellowship nun so I talked to quite a few. (SRF doesn’t have much in common with the Catholic church, but our nuns do practice celibacy.) For the record, my dad’s craziness is not even similar to anything you would ever come across in any official SRF text or in any conversation with a monk or nun. Fortunately, I did finally realize that all of my dad’s nonsense was, well, nonsense, to put it mildly, partly through talking to actual nuns about why they practice celibacy and why “householders” deserve equal respect to “monastics.” But. Back to the real topic.

Let’s just say that eventually, I got around to exploring my sexuality. The sheer force of sex and my own desire knocked the wind out of me. By that time, though, I was mature enough to handle all those emotions and to take care of my body. I had the bad habit of thinking of my body as something that I couldn’t really trust, but I didn’t have the bad habit of using sex to feel beautiful or valuable. As you might imagine, I am still working through some serious Daddy Issues, and I looked for Daddy’s approval via proxy in plenty of my past relationships. For many reasons, though, I did not go out and look for casual sex in order to feel good about myself. I’m lucky, because the risks I did take never resulted in a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy.

Fast forward: my high school and college classmates and I are going to turn 27 in the course of the next year. More of us are getting married. More of us have kids, or like me, are preparing to have kids. And I can’t help but wonder. So many of us took such poor care of our bodies. So many of us did not really believe that our futures would really, truly, catch up to us. We punished our bodies with alcohol, cigarettes (my vice of choice), unprotected sex, eating disorders. For most of us, it was just for a few years. I quit smoking. I don’t know many friends who still binge drink. For most of the people I’m close to, unprotected sex was not ok, even when casual sex was fun and frequent. But it really is just anecdotal knowledge taken from a small sample of just the people I know well enough to hear such intimate details. Do I know someone whose body is haunted by a mistake she made? Do I know a woman who got an STI when we were young, still has it and must factor that in to current relationships and future plans? Do I know someone who will not be able to become pregnant because she contracted an infection or suffered complications after aborting an unplanned pregnancy? Do I know a man who has become infertile as a result of an early encounter? I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know. It’s painful to think about consequences actually having stayed with anyone this long after one of our parties or nights out.

It still doesn’t seem real that the cigarettes I smoked could mean cancer later in life. And if I’m honest, that knowledge is not what got me to quit. I quit because I could not be around babies and small children if I smelled like smoke. I don’t just mean that no one would hire me; they wouldn’t. But I couldn’t bring myself to carry that into their worlds. Why could I do it for them, but not for me? The really bad choices–the ones we can only make after silencing the voice that says “Use a condom!” or “You’ll get cancer!”–would anything short of a snapshot of the future stop us from making those mistakes?