Thursday, March 09, 2006

Self-Published Author and Self-Esteem

SELF-Esteem and The SELF-Published Author: Ending The Struggle Against YourSELF.
This appeared originally on Writing It Please go check out Sheila Bender's amazing site for writers!

As my boots clicked against the worn parquet floor of Alumni Hall, I wondered, as I always do when I arrive at author events, if I was dressed right or if I should have put on some lipstick or mascara. A cold self-consciousness gathered in my belly and curled up and around to my spine as I continued the journey down the long hallway. Dim lights from antique wall sconces provided an ethereal glow, almost like I was walking through a misty forest. I paused for a moment and shifted the box I held under one arm, and then, with the other arm, I attempted– but failed– to shrug the strap of my leather purse into a more comfortable position, as it was digging sharply into my shoulder. I shivered with nerves, like a trembling, wet dog after a bath. I clicked a few more steps and reached a doorway, the sounds of laughter and talking tinkled like wind chimes. Despite my nerves, I readjusted the box against my hip, and paused again. I closed my eyes while doing a few “belly breaths” I learned in a yoga class. Inhale while pushing your belly out. Exhale while pulling it back in. Inhale. Push out. Exhale. Pull in. After a few moments, I still felt cold, but the ice in my stomach and back melted a bit. I took one more deep breath in and out. Then, I stepped into the room.
My eyes traveled over a group that I might see in the downtown Bristol café where I do most of my writing. The crowd before me was a mix of ages, shapes, and sizes, and all were dressed casually or semi-casually in jeans and khakis, with a few of the women in simple, one-color dresses and skirts. Some people sat in dark wood chairs around an enormous library table. Other people milled about the room, talking or eating tiny pastries on paper napkins or sipping from glass mugs of what looked like apple cider. Purses and notebooks took up the few remaining empty chairs that rested against the mahogany walls. Walls that had high shelves filled with leather bound books and prominent busts of Catholic scholars and priests. A huge, rectangular oriental rug lay under the table in shades of green, navy, and maroon, and flowing drapes of the same colors hung in the long, narrow windows. As I walked a few more steps inside, I thanked myself silently for not wearing the navy business suit and heels I had packed; gray pants with a light blue wool poncho over a black shirt made for the right combination of casual, intelligent, yet “artsy”.
The sounds of noisy animated chatter and smells of cinnamon and coffee washed over me, like gentle ocean waves lapping the shoreline. Since not everyone was seated at the table, I took that as a sign that the Celebration Of Authors Night hadn’t begun. So I followed my nose towards another smell–a smell that reminded me of the fudge shop next to my favorite café in Bristol. I weaved through the crowd, pausing for an occasional smile and hello, and wondered self-consciously if anyone thought I wasn’t just a young woman interested in a round-table discussion with local, award-winning authors. Does anyone know that I am, in fact, one of those award-winning, local authors? My guess was probably not. I continued towards the origin of the fantastic fudge-shop smell and tried to ignore more anxious thoughts that prompted another re-icing in my stomach.
I stopped at the doorway to an adjacent room, readjusted the digging-into-my-shoulder purse strap. Before me was a table with several large, steaming carafes; half a dozen white mugs and clear mugs; a pile of tea bags in a small wicker basket; and a large platter of small chocolate-drizzled pastries. I knew balancing the purse, books, and a cup of tea would be impossible. So I looked around for a place to temporarily park my items. People grabbed tiny pastries and cups of tea and cider and eyed me with curiosity. And as those eyes scanned me up and down, I felt back in middle school with Ms. Perfect Popular and crew eyeing me up and down on the first day of sixth grade when I wore an “imposter” brand-name outfit. It was the same Espirit outfit as Ms. Perfect Popular but mine was from K-Mart. By lunch time, little drawings of me had been past around with the word “poser” at the top, and Ms. Perfect Popular pointed and laughed at me all through lunch while I sat with my two other friends and ate peanut butter and jelly, my head hanging in shame. How could they tell, I wondered?
As I put the box of books and my purse down near the wood-paneled wall, I wondered almost the same thing, can they tell? I snatched a small, white mug. Can they tell I am not a regular author but a self-published one? I downed a cup of decaf coffee, which did little to melt the now re-emerged iciness and instead created a sort of crackle feeling inside that reminded me of when I pour hot coffee over ice for an impromptu iced coffee and hear a crackle, snap sound. I swear my stomach made the same noise, as the hot coffee hit my stomach.
I heaved my box of books back up to my hip, balancing it like I do my twenty-one month-old daughter, then grabbed my purse from the floor and let it dangle off my wrist. I tried to tell m myself I was being ridiculous and that there was no need to feel anxious, yet, I hesitated before beginning the short journey back to the library room. The icy tension solidified completely as I realized that I didn’t know what to do with the box of books. I paused like the freeze frame in a movie, convinced that, by now, everyone could tell I was an imposter.
Obsessive thoughts chugged into my brain like a far away train. Chug, I bet am the only self-published author here. Chug, chug, I don’t see anyone else with a box of books. Chug, chug, chug–. My thoughts paused at the top of a long steep mountain. As the train ascended, the thoughts blared like a train horn, gaining in speed and volume in my mind: Where’s the bookseller? Where should I put my box of books? How will I do the accounting if I leave the books with the bookseller? How do we handle the money? Will anyone even buy my book? Will the other author’s be able to tell it’s self-published? Despite the fact that these questions pop into my mind before or during almost every author event, that night, I actually felt panicked about it.
Then my thoughts smashed and collided like a train wreck. After the smoke cleared, I flashed to an event I attended a long time ago, only four months into my career as an author. Prior to any event, the host will call and tell the authors if they will be signing books or speaking on a panel and if other authors will be there. In the case with self-published authors, the host discuss whether or not they can purchase books from you or order them from a distributor or if you need to bring the books yourself. For that event, there was going to be a mix of self-published and traditionally published authors. I was asked to bring my own books and do my own accounting. None of this bothered me or surprised me. The event was purely a signing and each author would have his or her own table. But when I got there, an old gray-haired woman with a name tag that simply read ”bookseller” instructed me that I was to bring my box of books, “Over there”. She pointed to a small round table with several forlorn looking people, holding or unpacking boxes of books. Not too long after, I huddled with those same people–all self-published authors–around the too-small-to-fit our books table. We were like the uncool kids squished into the geek table in the lunch room, eating our bland home made sandwiches while the cool kids drank soda and ate pizza or chicken nuggets, sitting casually on the table and not the chairs. We were the kids who wore the headgear to school and had thick glasses that slid down our noses. And the day simply proved how undesirable we were as us self-published geeks; we sold nothing and wound up trading each others books and spending a lot of time looking dejectedly at the old lady bookseller with the large rectangular table of books by authors. The traditionally published sect did their signing for the first hour and then was free to mingle, eat tiny quiches, and drink wine all the while Ms. Bookseller sold book after book. The self-published bunch shared a plate of cookies and took turns going to the bar for sodas.
While most events I attend do not make me feel ostracized for being self-published and based on my book sales, honors and awards, reader emails, and now-agented status, I know that my success has proven that self-published authors can be as successful as regular, traditionally published authors. That we can sit at the lunch table with the cool kids and still eat our homemade lunches and be popular and interesting. After all, the authors of Legally Blond and Eragon, began as self-published geeks and are cooler than ever now.
Yet, I there I was frozen in anxiety about being self-published, thinking back to the only time in the last year and a half when I felt being self-published might be a problem. Maybe it was just nerves about being on a panel with famous, mainstream authors. Maybe it was just PMS. But, looking back at that night, I think maybe it was something else. Maybe it was because of what would happen a few weeks after this event. Maybe I sensed something. Maybe I knew that things had been going way too smoothly for me–especially being self-published, a geeky, underdog in the industry.
What would later send me into a real panic, happened several weeks after the Celebration of Authors. It would involve something from earlier this year, when I created a proposal for a yearly conference for the professional author’s organization I belong to–one which allows both mainstream authors and self-published to be members. My proposal was for a workshop about Successful Self-Publishing and I wanted to focus on how self-publishing has been a vehicle for me to arrive, hopefully, at mainstream publishing. I wanted to focus on my process and the steps I took that led me to an agent–my innovative marketing, which included teaching and speaking. I wanted to share what I had discovered about self-publishing.
I received the rejection via email a month after the Celebration of Authors. A month after the panic attack/flashback to the horrible event with Ms. Bookseller and the self-published geek table. I was not surprised or upset by the rejection, years and years of rejection will help authors form firm calluses to the pain of being told “no”. What caused me to feel back in ice-land wasn’t the rejection itself, and it wasn’t even that the email was a boilerplate that didn’t have the correct author’s name inserted. “Catherine,” it began. The part that made my scalp tingle like the hair was about to stick straight up like a scared cat was what came next: “Although self-publishing is a viable option which is growing in popularity, as an organization BLEEP feels it is important to show support for traditional publishers.” My first reaction of course was who is Catherine and is she being rejected for the same thing? My second reaction was to think back to this event, A Celebration of Authors. To how the night was one of premonition and ironic success, ironic only now, sitting with the rejection email.
So, one month prior to receiving the rejection that would forever remind me of the stigma of being self-published, there I was, at author event, my body still seized in a fit of cold anxiety, remembering Ms. Bookseller and the small table and the terrible, stale cookies we munched on while we tried to convince each other the night was still a success even though none of us sold a thing. I knew the anxiety I felt had to do with being self-published but couldn’t really isolate what it was specifically about being self published that caused this anxiety attack. After all, nothing happened yet. There wasn’t a terrible bookseller or small table. I just arrived.
Suddenly, mid-panic attack, and before I had any more time to ponder my anxiety and flashback, suddenly, I heard a sing-song voice call, “Hannah! You must be Hannah!” I came out of the fog of thoughts and managed to move my eyes towards the sound of the voice. A gray-haired woman, about my height, with clear bright eyes and the kind of smile that reminded me of when I was the new girl in elementary school and out of the crowd of snarling eight and nine year olds, one girl grinned so effortlessly at me I couldn’t help but smile back and feel welcomed. This woman was that girl in this moment: “Oh, let me help you.” She reached for my purse and then touched the box of books. “Let’s give those to–Oh, pardon me! I’m such an idiot. I’m so sorry. Hannah, Hannah Goodman, this is Mary.” A shorter blond haired woman appeared next to me, and as I turned to look at her I realized that when I hustled through to the room, I missed the table of books in the corner¬–a large table. Mary extended a hand and we shook like old friends. “I’m the bookseller.” Mary’s smile was that of a kind librarian or teacher, trying to help out the shy children. The next few moments were a brief exchange of my books and a reassurance that she would indeed collect the money and settle up with me at the end of the night. It was all effortless. Things happened so quickly that all that anticipatory anxiety disappeared. Little did I know, that same feeling would return one month later.
Soon after saying goodbye to the bookseller Mary, Darlene guided me to a vacant seat in the stately library room with the comfortable looking readers and writers seated around the long table. Just before we began, I looked to the right and left of myself and realized I was seated next two internationally known authors. The feel-good warmth that had replaced the icy anxiety in my body started to cool off, as if an air conditioner had been turned on inside me. The obsessive-thought train chugged in: They didn’t have to pay for it. They are good enough and you are not. They are wanted, sought after, worth paying a sum of money for and you my self-published idiot are not.
But just as quickly as it came, it chugged out when I looked to my left and a gray-haired woman with a gentle smile extended her hand and said, “You’re Hannah. I recognize you from your picture.” And with that she produced a copy of my book and turned it over to reveal the picture of me that I slapped on the book in desperation–me in frosted hair in a black dress about to chaperone the Senior prom at the school where I taught at the time. “I just loved your book,” she gushed. “Could you sign my copy?” I couldn’t help but glance over at the two “regular” authors, who had actually stopped their intense conversation with each other and were smiling at me. I signed the woman’s book and thanked her over and over. Then I turned back to the supposedly real authors and smiled back, “Hi,” I forced the word. “I’m Hannah.” As I extended my hand, I forgot my self-consciousness and anxiety and remembered that my intention when I decided to publish my book was to connect and share–not impress people with sales, awards, or agents.
I didn’t have time to chat it up with Mr. and Mrs. Regular Published authors as Darlene announced the panel discussion would begin. She asked us each to tell a bit about ourselves and also to read a bit from our books. Warmed by my “fan”, I skated through this part effortlessly. Then, when Darlene asked the audience if they had any questions, someone raised their hand and requested the, “how you broke into publishing” story from each of us. The two established authors seated next to me went first. They both told how they just “fell into” writing. So-and-so discovered me at such-and-such writing conference where I didn’t even bring a full manuscript one of them said with a teacher’s pet grin. And the other rolled his/her eyes in mock self-deprecation: I didn’t know what I was doing. I just sent a bunch of stories out to some magazines¬–magazines lying around the house. Magazines I don’t even read! Ha, ha, ha. and the next thing you knew, I had a New York Times best seller. I smiled along with the rest of the room but inside my started to freeze again. I squirmed and tried to will my stomach to melt and hoped I didn’t show any sign of feeling inferior and self-conscious. I quickly shoved my hands in my lap to avoid chomping on my cuticles. Hearing how effortlessly they each fell into there careers–the very same career I’ve been wearing down my knuckles over made me want to pull at my cuticles till they bled but instead I sat on my hands and smiled at my fellow authors till it hurt.
Then, it was my turn and with a wobbly smile, I opened my mouth. Maybe it was a hidden pride that propelled me to share with the group my story, a story I tried to rush through at other events. A story that shows determination and tenacity. All I know is once I finished, I felt like the room should get up and give me a standing ovation.
They didn’t.
For the rest of the night I didn’t have the urge to pull one cuticle because I felt secure. I think that what made this event so different for me was that despite the anxiety of the early part of the evening, where Darlene made my self-published a non-issue, I was able to feel what I said to the group: “I am self-published and proud of it.”
Additionally, while these mainstream authors seemed to have an effortless journey to publishing, they each still had struggles all writers face. One author spoke about rewriting: “Sometimes I rewrite a paragraph fifteen times and then windup throwing it out. That hurts.” and, another discussed making a living not off his books but writing for magazines. What I finally heard tonight was the harsh reality that being an author is a hard–hard for everyone, no matter your publisher, no matter your agent, no matter how you were published.
By the end of the night, after we broke for book signing and more goodies and coffee, I actually felt a kinship with the other authors. We each had different paths to publishing, but the end result was similar. We all had to teach or write for publications to supplement the paltry income from book sales, and we all struggled with new ideas and writing roadblocks. Now I understood that this may be a hard business for some to get into, but it’s a challenge for us all to stay and it’s a challenge for all of us to feel good all the time.
Later, when I pulled out of the long, narrow driveway of the alumni hall and drove through the quiet, dark campus, my body felt warm and lose. As I gripped the steering wheel of my SUV and tried to figure out if it was a left or right out of the college to get back to my hotel. The realization that no matter if I have a good or bad experience at an author event, I can do this again. I can self-publish my next book, why not? Why wait? What’s the big deal? Once the publishing part is out of the way, all authors’ experience the same hurtles and pitfalls–selling books, landing speaking and signing gigs, trying to make a living off what they love to do. We are all the same. Just trying to tell and sell our stories. Trying to balance the part we love with the parts we have to do to survive. As I drove out of the long drive and saw stars pop out of the midnight sky one by one I exhaled long and deep.
A month later, I was sitting in front of my computer, desperate to drum up some of that loose warm feeling again. Desperate to remember my revelation in the car ride home and frightened about the prospect that maybe I had it all wrong.
With the email now printed and in my hand, I oddly thought about how I felt like I do during Christmas time when every one says Merry Christmas and I want to scream, but I’m Jewish moron. Not everyone was born into the majority. The same thought over came me, I cannot do anything about being self-published its like my race and ethnicity, it’s part of me and this email, my God this email feels like discrimination. I thought about the entire year and half of being self-published how in so many ways it was like being the geek in school or the only Jew in a land of non-Jews.
What I chose to do next, surprised me. I like to fit in and have felt for most of my life the struggle to fit but still be true to myself. I was both popular and geeky in school and while in the end it was the best way to be, I also never got asked to prom and was never voted “best” whatever. Secretly, I wanted both and still am a geek. So I never rocked the boat not with schoolmates or anything. But I chose to rock the boat that moment.
And rock it I did.
I sent out an email to the forum for the organization that relayed the email-rejection and posed a simply question: what do you all make of this?
What followed that email is changed my perception of what it means to me to be self-published.
Here I am sitting and typing this essay about being self-published and it’s been over a week since I sent out the email to the forum and the emails are flooding my in box. Some are on-list but over twenty-five are off list and personal. Some are from other self-published authors, many are not. Very few defend the letter and many urge me to do my own workshop without the support of– as one person put it– an organization that doesn’t support all members equally. What’s happened on the list is a huge almost-debate–that at times is a little nasty– about the legitimacy of self-publishing and whether or not the organization is discriminating against the self-published sect of membership.
The fact that debate is now alive and doesn’t show signs of slowing down makes me realize not only the power of being self-published but also the power of me. This boosts my self-esteem a bit.
I think back to the horrible event with Ms. Bookseller and the table of self-published geeks and I think back to the time when I was ostracized for wearing the imposture outfit, and I think back to the celebration of authors. I try to put it all together in my mind. What does this all mean? It means two things: first, that like my supposed “poser” outfit, self-publishing is just an alternative to the mainstream or “popular” way of doing something. The only difference between my outfit and Ms. Popular’s was that mine cost less and didn’t have a designer label. And, the only difference between my book and Ms. Regular Published’s book, involves the same two things–money and labels. It also shows me that just because something is mainstream, conventional, common, doesn’t make it RIGHT (or WRONG) and doesn’t make it BETTER (or WORSE). After all, the celebration of authors’ night was all about a level playing field for all authors. When we all sat together and talked about our journeys, there were more similarities than differences.
Yet, I have a nagging feeling inside about that email. Was I really ostracized for not doing the mainstream, conventional thing? For being self-published? The nagging feeling is sadness about the way “self-published” is perceived by people in the writing industry. When I received that email, I had felt punched in the mouth, almost like someone hurled a racial slur at me. I had equated “self-published” with “Jewish”. Why?
It doesn’t make sense to me as I sit here and type this. Self-publishing is not the same kind of label that Jewish is. Jewish, black, white, or Christian are labels that hold sacred meaning. Labels for parts of our identity that have made us feel scared or self-conscious when our label is the minority. Labels that have caused wars. Self-published should NOT be in the same category. People should not be threatened by it and yet it seems to be happening.
Self-publishing is PART of what I do, as a writer–in the same way that entering contests, acquiring an agent, or attending workshops is part of what I do as a writer. Self-publishing IS NOT my identity or “who I am”. If you are a writer, I believe that the things you care most about are the process of writing and the reward of sharing your work. Isn’t self-publishing simply another means to an end? The “end” being sharing our work with the world and the “means” simply the “vehicle” which we use? Self-publishing isn’t a right or wrong it’s just another way to get your work out. It should not be something to discriminate against as it is simply a means-to-an-end. The end being getting your work out to as many people as possible.
And yet, I find myself struggling with it in the same way I struggled with my identity as a teenager. Was I a geek or cool? Or the way I sometimes struggle with my Jewish identity. Is it okay to be Jewish? So in a sense this struggle with self-publishing has become a struggle with myself when really, it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t because when I began the process of getting my book published, I saw self-publishing as a tool and now it has become a label, a way of identifying my work, a way of identifying me.
And it truly identified me to the committee for the conference. In fact, I was rejected because of this “identity.”
I thought I stopped struggling with labels and identity back when I graduated from high school. But I realize that this kind of struggle never really goes away completely because even when you don’t label yourself, other people will.
But, it is this very struggle that propelled me to write when I was a teenager. This struggle fueled my writing and made me create authentic and self-conscious teenage characters. I owe a lot to this struggle.
And I owe a lot to the struggle over the last year and a half. Even when I do get the big book contract and am in traditional publishers hands, I won’t forget this struggle. A struggle to feel good enough, a struggle to prove myself, and a struggle to bring readers a good story.
I also won’t forget the power of one individual:

Jew For Jesus

Jew For Jesus

Recently I met a man who is a Jew for Jesus. I don’t know if he would label himself that exact way with that exact phrase but what else do you call someone who as his wife put it is a Jew by birth, by race but believes Jesus is not only the son of God but died for human kind’s sins.

I almost bought in to “Jesus as my savior” as I sat in Jane (the wife) and john’s (the Jew For Jesus) dim living room save for the light from a muted basketball game on their flat screen HD TV. I loved John immediately when I met him a few days earlier while doing some work with his wife Jane in their little cape by-the-sea. He had a quick wit and wry sense of humor. I loved him even more now, sitting there in the living room when he muted the TV and sat up on the couch to chat .

Jane and I had been at a conference all day together and only at the tail-end of the drive home did we get so personal that even the topic of religion was tossed on the table. So far, we had way too much in common in terms of thought, perspective, etc. We both return phone calls and emails immediately, love Will And Grace (but only in rerun), and prefer being home on the couch with our hubbies over drinks with friends. We managed to meander our way into everything from dysfunctional families to divorce and third/second marriages (she’s on her second and her husband is on his third), having children or not having children (she has step children and no biological or adoptive ones and I have a 2 year old) and despite some differences in our lives– we had similar senses of humor and more importantly agreed upon the basics of good business practice which was the whole reason why were together on Saturday afternoon and not with our families. Simply put, I liked Jane and felt really comfortable with her. You know how you feel you can trust someone–immediately. That they aren’t bullshit with you? Well that’s what I felt with her. Not only was I looking forward to our business relationship flourishing but I felt we could be friends…


Prior to the couch moment with John and the muted HD TV, I sat in Jane’s Camry while the sun set outside, casting a pink ethereal glow all around us, and she told me her husband was Jewish and she was not. I nodded and said I married a “recovering” Catholic and we both laughed. She told me how John’s parents didn’t accept their marriage and that their wedding was small and limited to only those family members who supported them. I told her how my mother-in-law’s reaction to me and my husband getting married was, “Why?” We commiserated over these difficulties and as I was about to give her a good one to laugh over–when my husband and I told my mother-in law that we were raising the children Jewish, she protested that it wasn’t fair if our children didn’t get baptized and her feelings were summoned up best with: “How will they get in heaven?” My husband’s response was classic: “Where did all this Jesus crap come from Mom? I don’t even believe in God.” I thought my mother-in-law was going to break out the rosary beads and start praying over that one.

But before I could chuckle over that little anecdote with Jane, Jane told me she watches these two people on TV every morning– a preacher and a rabbi. I have to admit I was a little suspicious of that one….but I was not prepared for what she eventually “announced.” I told her that my Jewish religion doesn’t always provide me with the answers and that I have searched other places–“Maybe I should check out that preacher and rabbi?” I cracked. She didn’t laugh though. I babbled on about how I practice yoga and meditation, I pray, I read books like Celestine Prophecy and anything by Wayne Dyer. I also read Harold Kushner and have dabbled with the Kabala. I continued on as she sat silently, driving along the now dark highway: I continued on telling her: I feel like I have a Neshema, a Jewish soul but that I do not buy into the whole concept of a God that is vengeful or calls for us to sacrifice animals or foreskin or ourselves. I don’t believe the bible word for word and think of it more as partial historical truth and part story/metaphor

Anyway, at that point, after I finished my diatribe about my spiritual beliefs, she said, “Well, I am a Christian.” I almost jumped so far back against the door of the car that it probably would have opened had it not been locked. Then she added that John, her husband was a Christian. “Like a Jew for Jesus?” I asked. She laughed. I didn’t. We were almost home at this point–actually we had to go to her house first to pick up some materials and then she was to drop me off. “You should talk to John,” she said. “Really.” I nodded and smiled but inside…I was really uncomfortable.

In my head Christian means a lot of things but none of them involve swearing (Jane and John definitely swear), drinking (I know Jane enjoys a glass of wine once in awhile), listening to Howard Stern (okay this is something I do and don’t think Jane and John do but they do have a kind of sense of humor that might secretly appreciate Howard.) When I think Christian I don’t think of gay people (Jane loves Will and Grace) and I certainly don’t think of Jews. But yet what Jane was telling me was that she was a swearing, Will and Grace loving, Jewish husband having Christian.

Yeah. I couldn’t get my head around it.

To me, Jane and John didn’t appear to be Christian. I didn’t remember seeing a cross around her neck or a bumper sticker on the Camry saying “Honk if you love Jesus” or any Jesus statues in her house. A few of what I thought were tell-tale signs. Plus, when I thought of being a “Christian” (not a protestant, Catholic, or Methodist, but a bona-fide born-again Christian) images popped up of Pat Roberts or George Bush. I thought of the majority of our federal government who are white men and women interested in pushing a right wing agenda so far into government that abortion rights and freedom of speech may be infringed upon. I thought of conservative democrats like Tipper Gore who blame videos for the bad behavior of teenagers and I think of televangelist Jim Baker. I think of people who seem hell-bent on changing the entire society to conform to their views and when you argue with them, all they do is shut their mouths and point to the bible, saying I didn’t say it, Jesus did. I see a group of people who want to proselytize and change the world to what they think is right.

The irony, on a bit of a side bar here is that understand that Jesus, to me, does not have anything to do with much of what I listed above. I personally, think Jesus was an incredible historical figure who in fact did change people’s lives and continues to change people’s lives and thank God for Jesus (ha!). If I believed that God came down to earth and entered the human body, I might buy into the Christian’s Jesus ideology, but I don’t. But so what? I would never tell anyone that my way of thinking is right and theirs is all wrong.

Yeah…that’s the real problem. The “so what?” to me isn’t so “so what” to a bona-fide Christian. What had me slammed to the corner of the Camry and even a little scared about being in the car and then actually going inside her house– a flash of her driving us off to some remote wood where a cabin and some Hare Krishna looking folks would douse me in holy water and speak in tongues– what had me scared was more that I know what her core belief is as a Christian, as a born-again Christian. It’s the one concept of Christianity that can be interpreted in such a way that can divide nations, countries, cities, towns, and communities.

But before I go in to that, I have to acknowledge that my internal response to her telling me she was a Christian was actually laced with prejudgment. Not even laced, drenched. Drenched in the kind of prejudgment I am terrified of being the victim of myself–being a Jew I know conjures up a bunch of images that have to do with not eating pork, not marrying anyone outside the faith, being a lawyer or doctor, and being rich. The truth about me involves NONE of those things. (well I don’t eat pork cause I don’t like it.) Yet, I know when I tell someone I am Jewish, those are the thoughts that float up in the collective conscious. I was sitting in that car having a involuntary prejudgment response and now reflecting on this moment I realize no, I was not so much heavily drenched in prejudice (lets call prejudgment what it really is) but more in fear, well fear is the root of prejudice, right? I know what was going on in my brain filled with images of Pat Roberts and Jim Baker was fear.

What I was afraid of is connected to what I was just about to tell you all….the one concept of Christianity that has caused wars either directly or indirectly. That concept is:


That gets me. From my point-of-view, we have the right in this country to believe what we want, religiously. But I am scared of any group that tells me I am wrong, I am evil, I am bad because I don’t believe what the group believes.

So I guess I was scared of Jane and John at that moment. Before John began to speak, as I sat in their living room, having overcome the fear of holy water or Hare Krishna types emerging. Before he or Jane explained their religious tennants to me, I had already decided what they believed in, based on my own previous experiences with born-agains. Based on what I have read and seen. What was so hard for me in that moment was I liked them. Jane was one of the few women, whom I liked and trusted–so much so to entered into business with her. A business in which she would mentor me.

As I sat there smiling nervously at Jane and John in their living room, a far-away thought floated through my mind: I don’t want to argue about whose beliefs, whether they are right or wrong. To me, there is no right or wrong as we both have the right to reject whatever religion and religious principles that we want. The right or wrong didn’t matter to me. What mattered was an uncomfortable feeling I had in the pit of my stomach as another thought came up: How do I do business and be friends with someone who believes I deserve and will go to hell?

A few days after I sat with Jane and John in their living room, I had coffee with my husband and a co-worker of his. I posed my question to them. My atheist husband sipped his coffee, touched my arm and looked me in the eyes like he felt sorry for me. His co-worker just smiled and shook her head. “Honey,” my husband said gently. “But you don’t even believe there’s a hell.”

He and hius co-worker laughed. “Who cares?” Chimmed in his also atheist co-worker. “Who really cares? You like her and she likes you and people differ in their beliefs all the time and can even get married!”

I snatched my hand away from my husband and glared at my him, ignoring his co-worker. I practically screamed the next part:

“How do you have a business relationship or friendship with someone who you feel has a belief about your soul that involves it going to hell if you don’t ascribe to her belief? How do you do intimate meetings and invest your money with a person who feels you children, your family will burn in the oven of hell?”

But I didn’t stop there: I started flailing my arms and talking to the empty chair next to me. “Why do you you born-again Christian, get to decide what my soul’s fate is? Why do you get to judge so freely everyone? Why? I know the answer, it’s not me, it’s God, the bible, and Jesus. Look I understand we all need to belive in something otherwise what’s the point. But it’s the type of bel–“

Before I tell you how my husband and his very nice co-worker who just wanted to finish her coffee responded, let me jump back to Jane and John and what happened inside her living room.

Johan sat up immediately when we walked in and Jane said hello and I was trembling with anxiety and wanted to get it all out in the open quickly. They kissed and he cracked a joke. I laughed. Then I launched in with, “So, you believe in Jesus but are a Jew?”

As John began to explain how he came to Jesus, I went somewhere else in m mind. Lately, I have run into a few born-agains….I know that’s weird and ironic. The most recent run-in before Jane and John was just the week before at the gym. I had just finished a my work out and was doing my usual yoga routine in the stretching area, when a girl plunked down just a few steps from me. She was blond and chunky and when I peered up from my down dog and saw her face, I realized that several weeks earlier she had thrown me an ugly look from across the treadmills when I flipped one of the TV channels from the 700 Club to The Tyra Banks show. At the time I didn’t think much of it other than who the hell watches the 700 Club?

As moved from down-dog to a forward-bend, I looked up from between my hands and noticed that the thick blond girl had a worn bible with a bookmark sticking out of it in her hand. My stomach iced over like it does right before I walk into an author event where I have to speak or sign books. I felt exposed, which may seem odd. But when I see a bible-toting Christian, I feel like a neon bright, capital J is on my forehead. The thought that accompanied my stomach ach was born-agains used to show up in weird places in my life. The last one had been a long time ago in college. As I watched her try to feebly reach her toes for a stretch I thought shouldn’t born-agains be out in the Midwest or hanging around with President Bush or something, proselytizing. Not, right there, at my gym.

While I continued to stretch I thought of how I had gone to a predominantly Jewish college only to find myself constantly bumping into the six or seven Christians on the campus. One was my RA sophomore year who lived across the hall from me and was a virgin with a hot Pakistani boyfriend. I knew all this because she would come over to my room and tell me how she was the only virgin of her friends and only person in her family who went to church. She also detailed her non-sex yet very sexual relations with her boyfriend–creepy. My RA was very sweet and blond and had no one to talk to and why she picked her Jewish dorm-neighbor, I have no idea. But I did sit and listen to her quite a bit when I first moved in. she was cool– she let me have a microwave in my room and blast my music. But then she started to invite me to church every Sunday even though I told her I was Jewish. That was creepy. I switched dorms at the end of that year. I also worked at the school paper with a fellow reporter who was a tall fat kid who wore shirts that proclaimed Jew For Jesus, rumor had it that he applied to be in both Hillel and the Christian Fellowship…and was denied by Hillel. Not a surprise as they almost rejected me for dating (who I later married) a Catholic. The Jew for Jesus guy at the newspaper hassled me regularly about coming with him to a Fellowship meeting, “Jesus was a Jew. It all adds up. It all makes sense.” He would quote the bible and tell me how my soul needed saving and maybe we could help other Jews come to Christ. I eventually quit the paper. It’s funny but right now as I write this I realize that my last run in with a born again before the gym and before Jane was actually with my mother-in-law, only she is not a born again but a reluctant catholic who used Jesus as a reason for me to not marry her son…. espousing the “must baptize my grandchild so he or she can go to heaven” b-s. Yes, I can say this as she has since dropped all notions of making us Christian. In fact, she sat through and enjoyed our baby naming ceremony for my daughter.

So, back in the gym, I stretched forward and back and side to side all the while pushing away my previous experiences with born-agains, maybe she will be different, although given the dirty look I remember her throwing me just the previous week made me doubt my optimism. In between our individual stretching, we somehow made eye contact and I don’t know how we started talking but eventually we smiled at each other and began to chat. She must have forgotten about the dirty look. Turns out her mother died recently and her own life was “off track” with drinking and partying. Now she was getting into shape and feeling “great”. So knowing what I knew about her and also wanting to see if she was a born-again (This sounds terrible but my wanting to know, at that moment, had something to do with “Know thy enemy” and “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer), I said something like well after all that you‘ve been through, you either started drinking or found God.

She bloomed into a huge grin, “Well yeah I found God. I found Jesus actually. I became a born-again.” So we chatted a bit more and I casually dropped that I was Jewish–it was a dancing on the edge of a cliff thing it was facing the thing I fear the most in life, really. I do that often, hurl myself towards what scares me. That way I can desensitize myself to it and maybe even conquer it. Years of being bullied by classmates and my older sister have left a stain on my self-esteem. Years of being told you are wrong and dumb by teachers and then mentors in my job. Years of essentially buying into what a few assholes said about and to me. Years of feeling small has forced me to stand up for myself and that includes knowing who is out to bully or judge or tear me down. Knowing the enemy is crucial to me. But it is also unfortunately a by-product of being a Jew in this world, knowing that there are those who do want you dead simply for what religion you belong to. Knowing that not that long ago, their was a holocaust that this country ignored ultimately until 6 million of us already died. These are all parts of what floods through me as I sat there with this born-again.

She didn’t flinch when I said I was Jewish. So I thought huh maybe she is the exception. Maybe she doesn’t think Jews will burn in hell…images of the holocaust entered my head and I tried to push it away….I asked her the question that was almost as bad as what I would later ask John. I asked her, “Do you believe that your way is the only way and those who don’t believe will burn in hell?” She smirked and then averted her eyes. Shea nodded but said nothing. Then a pause went by and I said well it’s nice to talk with people about their beliefs even when they aren’t your own. She snapped, “Well Satan works in mysterious ways.” Evil look flashed followed by a Christian grin. “Now off to spinning.” And she skipped–well she was too chunky to do that, she galumphed off to the spinning room. I sat with my mouth hung open and swore that I would not let this bother me.

Flash back to John and Jane in their dimly lit living room. Jane on the chair next to me, a coffee colored set of cushiony furniture that reminded me of my sister’s living room. I listened to John tell me his journey to Christianity which was laced with family dysfunction and broken marriages and drinking. Then I told them that story of the girl at the gym, more to see their reaction. If they were to say, “Well, you know…she has a point…” Then I would have bolted out the door and run the five miles to my house. But both of them were horrified and responded with something to the effect of that’s ridiculous. What kind of Christian is that?

Still not convinced that I was safe, I asked him THE question (burn in hell thing) and he said well the bible says if you do not accept that Jesus is my son and died for your sins then you will not go to heaven. He was careful not to say what I was thinking and what anyone thinks in terms of this–People¬ especially the Jews will go to hell unless they accept Jesus as their messiah. Jane interrupted him and repeated what she had said when I asked her the same question in the car– everyone has their own beliefs and their own way of doing things or something like that. But I pressed John and he said, “I believe the bible as truth.”

At this point, the conversation was one-sided and mainly John making salient arguments for believing in Jesus. Arguments backed by the bible. I found myself shrinking smaller and smaller. Feeling dumber and dumber. Standing there watching John so confident in his beliefs I started to wonder about my own. What did I believe? I couldn’t retrieve one thought that would counter what he was saying. I figured that since I couldn’t prove he was wrong then I must be wrong.

After Jane dropped me off, in a car ride that didn’t involve any religious talk but just banter about our conference. I went inside and felt compelled to tell Mike I might believe in Jesus. His jaw dropped and he said, “I think you’re really tired and need to get some sleep.” The next morning I felt so freaked out that I almost forced myself to believe in something I so much did not believe.

I no longer doubt who I am or what I DON’T believe. So I woke up that next morning and felt like I had cheated on my husband or something. I felt completely WRONG and GUILTY. Like I had been given a drug and forced to do things I never would do.

I realized as I stumbled to the kitchen that what I felt yesterday was that if I didn’t believe what John said that he may not like me. The part about winding up in hell really wasn’t he issue. The issue was that I felt smaller and less powerful than he and I felt akin to moments in childhood when older people had control and dictated and even if I disagreed, I hated the idea of them being angry with me, so I acquiesced. The more I did that the more I lost trust in myself to know myself, to know what was good for me, to know what I truly believed, what I truly liked or disliked.

Years of therapy and internal reflection have made me a stronger and more self-confident person. The whole say-what-they-want-you-to-say, victim thing doesn’t work any more.

So as I made my morning decafe, before my daughter and husband woke up, I realized that I do not believe in Jesus. But that what happened the day before was that I was scared of John’s beliefs. Scared and angry and I was afraid of those feelings sitting there in their living room. So instead of being vulnerable and just simply saying that, I thought to myself, well you have to choose a side. Fight or give in. I was tired, I like John and Jane, so I gave in.

Here’s what I really felt: It angers and scares me that John thinks I am going to hell because I translate that to he thinks I deserve to go to hell if I never accept his beliefs. I came away asking myself how can I be friends with and/or do business with someone who believes my soul will burn in hell and further more how can Jane or John want to be in business or be around or have friends that don’t believe what they do. I know you may read this and say but we all have differing beliefs about many many things whether those differences are religious or as simple as taste in movies or entertainment. I listen to Howard Stern and I know a lot of my friends find him anti-woman etc but that difference doesn’t stop me from hanging out with my friend Shakay, who by the way is a religious Catholic. The thing is that my beliefs are never about the safety or well being of someone else’s soul. You know it’s like how do you be friends with someone who says you are wrong and the very essence of you is wrong–that’s what a soul is to me, my essence who I am. But no, the bible says this and I am just following the bible might be what John responds with but I want to say you are following something or rather an interpretation of something that really separates people. I can’t control what I truly believe deep down. You know I could pretend to people to believe what they do but that pretending creates such anxiety inside and also then you are just not being honest.

It scared and angers me. John’s belief that if you do not accept Jesus as the savior in your heart, “He wants your heart not your intellect” he said over and over……John’s beliefs and expression of the belief and conversion from Judaism to Christianity scares the shit out of me and that’s what I wanted to say back to him. I think of the Nazis and I think of Anne Frank and I think of my grandmother and I think of my daughter and even my Hanukkah socks, which I realize are my way of getting comfortable with being different or perceived as different due to the fact that I am Jewish.

It scares me this man’s beliefs scares me. He’s down the street. He is someone who has a Jewish family, loved ones. Some of his relatives were survivors of the holocaust. How can you make statements about people’s souls? About their beliefs? I don’t say that just because you believe in Jesus you are going to be damned to whatever. I just find his way of viewing the world to be so scary and limiting and really the seed which the holocaust and other hate crimes come from. That’s what truly scares me.

It freaked me out to sit in their house and hear John say that if you don’t accept Jesus you will go to hell and then earlier in the car to hear Jane say that she doesn’t believe in evolution. I mean the religious right…that’s what they are proclaiming and that fuckin scares me. Are they equally scared about those of us left of center or at least left of right?

What truly scares me and shakes me up is this fear surrounding people like Jane and John. What will they do with these beliefs and how far will they go? Are they recruiting people? Do they feel it’s their mission to get people to buy in to the bible? Or are they private about it. Religion is private Mike said to me when we discussed all this and what happened over the weekend. Why? Why is religion more private than discussions about sex? I think of the rap song by Kayne West: “You can rap about anything except Jesus.” Exactly. I am so afraid to say all this to Jane and John in the fear that they will reject me. Why can’t we discuss religion in school and why do we avoid discussions with those who don’t share our beliefs?

I don’t have the answer:

But I know this: I like Jane and John and I am not going to allow any of this to stop my relationship with them. Will I share this with them? Yes. Will I sit down and talk with them. If they want to, yes. I will. I am ready.

Forget my telling the story of this as I am trying to do here. That’s not the reason why I wanted to write about my connection to born-agains. Not sure if that’s the right way to phrase it. Well, yeah you know what it is. Today I taught a class with ironically not only a born-again Christian who was a blond but a woman with my mother-in law’s name and a woman with my mother’s name. During our class working period, I worked on revising this very piece, and found myself rereading it up to this point and realized that this is exactly when I should share with you all what I have come away with from all this:

Today, my born-again student with the same name as my mother, helped me understand something. First, she was a truly open, honest, kind person. When I shared with my students parts of this piece, she listened in a way that made me feel like what I was saying got inside her heart and that she understood me. Yes. I felt most connected to the born-again of the group: Each time I looked up, she looked me square in the eye. The look said to me, “I am listening. I want to hear you. I am not afraid.” What I saw in her eyes is what I wanted to become or see in myself. Another student said to me “Jesus, Ghandi, Budda would sit down next to someone who had drastically different beliefs and wouldn’t become angered or changed by it. You need to look at the differences between your beliefs and your friends and even that nasty girl from the gym and sit like Jesus, Budda or Ghandi would.” I laughed at that when she said it but then, looking at my student with my mother’s name, I realized that she was in that place and it was where I wanted to be.

She shared with me an anecdote about friends of hers who are Jewish. Her friend made a comment that her son’s hair was so long he looked like Jesus. My born-again student opened her mouth to say what she felt but found herself at a loss for words. She didn’t want to offend her friend and didn’t want to rock the boat of their relationship by opening up the dialogue about their religious differences. “I was worried she would react like you did and just see me as the enemy.” In that moment that she shared this, I realized that she and I are more similar than different. We both want to the right to believe what we believe but also to say to friends or family those beliefs without the fear of rejection.

My student pointed out that she liked my piece because it showed a person trying to understand and saying things out loud people don’t want to say and that, that very thing is frightening to do. She’s right. It is. I am afraid of Jane and John’s reaction to this and I am afraid of what I might say just to “make things okay” with them. I think I have reached appoint in my life where I realize that I can’t shut my mouth or apologize for what I feel. Even if articulating it makes people uncomfortable. You know what I find more uncomfortable then dealing with the tension that can arise between two friends who have different religious beliefs: not dealing. It’s the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.

But I want to tell you one last bizarre experience with a religious weirdo (Jane and John are not the other weirdo I am referring to. The mean, chubby girl from the gym is that other religious weirdo.) I am sitting at Starbuck’s writing this ending and a mute hairy smelly, trembley guy walks in and grins. He flashes a few thumbs up to me and makes like he wants to write something down and then mouths, “Catholic” and flashes a cross and nods…Is he asking me if I am catholic? What the fuck? How fucking random….Why am I being followed by crazy Christians lately? Celestine Prophecy would say these are all signs. Signs of what? To write a piece about this and post it on my blog?