You would naturally do what any liberated career woman would do—you'd go home to the bosom of your Mennonite family. Rhoda did, even though her spiritual path had long parted ways with the Mennonites. She was more at ease sipping cocktails with fellow academics than sitting in a conservative church. But she returned to the land of Borscht, Zwiebach, and corduroy-covered Bibles to heal, where, as a child, she wore sober, handmade clothes her mother taught her to sew herself.
Rhoda wasn't just raised a Mennonite; her father was the head of the North American Mennonite conference. And although she had left this conservative community she was welcomed back with open arms and generous advice. (Rhoda's good-natured mother suggested she date her first cousin!)
Eat, Pray, Love, you will enjoy this book. In fact, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of EPL) raved about Rhoda's book and is recommending it to all her friends. She says it's the most delightful memoir she's read in years. High praise!
We're giving away a copy of this book (hardcover!) , so be sure to leave a comment. Click here and you can view a marvelous short video about Rhoda's Mennonite childhood and coming of age years, narrated by hers truly. It's a treat. Personally, I loved the "big hair," 80s photos.
JLL: Rhoda, as we begin this interview, what's on your heart today?
RJ: I find myself in a completely different place in life now since writing the book. I'm married. I married a man of faith. And I am at the tail end of a cancer diagnosis. My life has been shaken up this last couple of years. I had a double mastectomy last spring and reconstruction will begin soon. I've done chemotherapy and radiation.
Of course, I am startled to hear this. Just as her success about "Mennonite" is starting to build, she is slapped with a cancer diagnosis. I wish her well and offer blessings of health. Despite her current challenge, I find Rhoda upbeat and positive about her life. She is warm and engaging. Because the tone of her writing is rather self-deprecating and quirky at times, I thought she might she might be that way, too, but she's not. She is also highly intelligent (a professor of literature at Hope College in MI) and profoundly centered. She feels to me like a woman who knows who she is—a woman living boldly in the world as her truest self.
JLL: After all this, after all that you have gone through, do you consider yourself a resilient woman?RJ: I do, though I never really thought of it in terms of resilience. I've thought of it in terms of balance. What good is faith, what good is family and friends if when you are at your lowest they cannot minister to you, or lend any comfort or support? They do, and all you have to do is reach out and take it. For me the faith aspect, the spiritual pursuit, the belief in God, in family and friends, those things were just so clearly and richly present for me. That made it that much more easy to go through all that difficulty—with the cancer especially.
JLL: It seems to me that going home the way you did would help you sort out who you are today, in light of your family of origin. Did this help you to do that, to know who you are?
RJ: I believe you can never really arrive at the definitive answer of who you are, especially if you conceive of your identity as something that is continually changing. I am so glad I am no longer the person I was in my marriage, but I am not beating myself up about it. I have received many letters from women, angry women, who say I was not hard enough (in the book) on the relationship with my ex. (Note: She does refer to him as "the Tasmanian Devil of charm.") That I wasn't more horrified at my own role in the relationship and that I stayed with a man they called an abuser. For me, it's so much easier to say I did that. Yeah, I was complicit in the marriage. Yeah, I stayed when maybe I should have gone. But I learned so much from it, and that is one of the the things I can do to be at peace with who I am, with the the decisions I have made. I don't look at my history as a lot of horrible experiences. Wow, I have learned and learned, and every mistake I made has pointed me in a new direction.
JLL: I hear self-compassion in your voice.RJ: I'd say that's true. For me, it is not even about forgiveness, or forgiveness toward my ex-husband. Forgiveness turns on the idea of moral judgment. If you are forgiving someone you have judged what they have done to be wrong. With compassion we are seeking peace around the situation. It is so much more healthy in relation to our own experience and the choices we made.
JLL: So you are saying that compassion for our self allows us to take the next steps we need to take and not get stuck in old stories.RJ: Jan, that is such an important point. And it seems to me that when people are thinking about this they talk about what's blocking them from moving on. But compassion not only eliminates the block, it propels you forward. It helps energize you to reinvent yourself in a very proactive way.
Rhoda's book is definitely a "tell-all" sort of book. She speaks with candor about her family's (and Mennonites') unconventional habits. From her father re-using his toothpicks to her mom traveling to Hawaii with a deep fryer for chicken packed in her suitcase, it lightens the illusion that "spiritual folk" are boring. And she does so with warmth and caring.
JLL: How is your family responding to all this now.RJ: They are responding in ways that don't particularly surprise me. My mom is most supportive and she is encouraging me in my writing and of my new project as well. As for my brothers, there is confirmation there that we have very different world views. My father would have written a different book, likely on the topic of Mennonite theology, or been more globally inclusive. Overall, they are very supportive of me.
JLL: And what about this voice you write in? It really cracks me up, but it doesn't quite sound like you, the you I am interviewing. Is this a part of you?
RJ: It is. The book grew out of a couple of e-mails I had written to my girlfriends back here when I was in Fresno (CA) healing. I was telling them these little stories and amusing anecdotes about what it is like when a 43-old goes home to her conservative Mennonites parents' home. They were encouraging me to write more, so that is what the book came out of. When I got nervous about writing it, I would just pretend that I was writing to my friend Carla.
I wondered if she'd experienced any fear about writing.
RJ: I knew that my own personal choices and ideology and more liberal politics would be a problem for some of the Mennonites and, of course, that has happened. I knew that it would. It did provoke tension in me when I was writing because I did not want to do anything disrespectful to the community that I love. (Though Rhoda is the first to admit that in her teen years, she thought of her community as "turbo-geeks.")
JLL: When you think back now on your upbringing, what is the strongest virtue or quality you brought with you into who you are today?
RJ: Nice question. The the most useful quality is a work ethic, a serious Mennonite work ethic. I'm busy, and I can work hard and long, and that comes from my parents.
The best value? To look at people and their choices and be able to think, 'Good for you. You are doing the best you can with what you have.' This notion of compassion. My parents are not blamers and they do not judge people in a negative way. And one of the things that has shaped my recent return to a faith community was found in going back home and seeing their demonstrated application of their faith. For me it wasn't about what they believed but about how they behaved in the world. And I love the way they behave. I love their service to other people. I love their compassion and their patience and their kindness. If they have given me any of that, it is something I would cherish above all things.
JLL: So you are exploring your spiritual in new ways?RJ: Yes, I married a man of faith. I am going to church on purpose! (she laughs)
Things are different today. I think there is such a broad community of people seeking spiritual things. It is easier now than it used to be. There are so many ways of being spiritual-minded, so many ways of being Christian, and I think people who are doing synthesized spiritual approaches—where they are interested in Buddhism and applying some of that to the principles of Christianity, for example, I love some of that stuff.
JLL: Do you have regular spiritual practices?RJ: I do. Every day my husband and I have devotions together and we read a variety of spiritually- themed books. Some of them are explicitly Christian. My husband is from a Pentecostal background, very different from my own, so we read that but we also read Eckhart Tolle. I meditate. I do yoga. Exercise is very spiritual for me. Before the cancer, I ran 6 miles a day and I would call that part of a spiritual practice. Now I am swimming. And I'm learning it, so it's not a spiritual practice as it might be if I were better at it! That will come. Reading. I pray actually. In the book I talk a little bit about prayer.
When I wrote the book I thought that prayer was a discipline for rehearsing gratitude. For taking the self out of the self. And into being in tune with nature and the needs of other people. I have since reversed my position on that. Now I am exploring prayer as a way to grow and change, and to affect outcome. So I am thinking about that in new ways.
And what is she working on now?
RJ: My next project is titled, Backslider. It's a humorous memoir about sliding back into religion. About somebody who has been more on the academic, skeptical side of things for most of her adult life who makes a discurive move on purpose—with doubt—back to organized religion.
And, yes, it's her story ... Stay tuned.
Thank you, Rhoda, it's been wonderful speaking with you, up close and personal!
Now, Rhoda and I welcome your thoughts ... the conversation is already rolling and she is cracking me up so more! We're talking about issues near and dear to women's hearts: fasting, chemo hair, and drinking lye. WHAT??? Please join in, quick!
You can learn more about Rhoda at her publisher's website.