Full disclosure: Neither of us are actually Mennonites anymore. Sometimes we just pretend to be for the pie.
A few months ago, my friend, Timothy Putnam, gave me a head’s up about the Trying to Say “God” conference. (I’ve got to give him credit here because I usually just give him a lot of crap and nonsense.) Even though I’m not exactly Catholic (I’m not exactly anything), I couldn’t pass it up. Notre Dame isn’t that far from me and it wasn’t expensive, so I decided to give it a try.
My sister and I drove down Thursday afternoon, which meant we missed a few things that day. I would have liked to attend Mass, but part of me is still convinced I’m going to somehow offend people with my presence, so I didn’t push to go.
We must have hit the registration table right when whoever had been watching it was at Mass because it was the only time I saw the table unmanned the whole time. Since Angela and I are all independent and whatnot, we just grabbed our tags, lanyards, and info packets. When a few other stragglers wandered in right behind us, I helped them find their stuff too, which led to people thinking I was helping with the event. I quickly corrected them with, “Nope. I’m just really friendly.” (And I might have issues with boundaries.)
After that, we walked down to see Mary Karr speak. She’d injured herself and couldn’t make it, but that’s what we have Skype for. Angela liked her so much that I bought her a copy of Lit.
The next day, my first session was “The Virgin, the Annunciation, and the Artistic Imagination” with Mary Szybist. I have some mixed feelings about Mary, or really, how Mary gets portrayed, and absolutely loved the artwork and poetry. Angela found her way into a discussion on icons. She didn’t know what icons were. I know what they are (thanks, Orthodox friends!), but I didn’t tell her. Because I’m like that. She thought it was really interesting, so it worked out.
We split up again for the next session. I headed in for “Finding the Sacred in the Profane: The Role of Vulgarity in Religious Art” because of course I did. Are you new here? I appreciated the discussion, especially around where that line is, and I agree that if we’re just shocking to shock, with no greater purpose, it’s likely crossing that line. I struggle with that a little. After being in an environment where “butt” was considered a cuss word, I wave my profanity flag a little too much sometimes. Just because I can doesn’t always mean I should. Unless it’s really funny. Then I totally should. But, really, the whole conversation was right up my alley. Things that we think of as profane can absolutely point us toward the sacred. It’s counter-productive to shy away from using those tools.
Even though I’ve been writing a memoir for what seems like forever, that’s not my normal thing. In the past, I’ve mostly written fiction. And I write about weird shit sometimes, so I sat in on “Weird Fiction as Sacramental Practice”. The nice thing about a presentation like this is it sort of gives you permission to “go there”. Like, some people might call me a witch and threaten to burn me at the stake for writing something weird, but at least not everyone will do that. That’s comforting.
After that, Angela and I walked over to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, even though we were getting rained on.
Here’s the thing about that…
When I was 10, my family moved from Texas to Elkhart, Indiana. Just after we moved, we were driving home from some place and my dad decided to stop at Notre Dame to look around the campus. I don’t remember anything about walking around the campus except going into the Basilica. Back then, my family didn’t attend church. I’d only ever been to Methodist churches, maybe a total of ten times in my life. Walking into all that artwork and all that stained glass and those ceilings made a big impression on 10-year-old me. Beauty pulls on me and it sure did back then. I wanted to go to that church. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I remember that it felt like a church. I don’t know how to describe it any better than that. Not even a year later, my parents found the Mennonites and we went down that path. I’ve always had a soft spot for Catholicism, even when I was hanging around people who thought being Catholic and being pagan were basically the same thing. The Basilica at Notre Dame is part of that soft spot.
It was really great to be able to visit it again, about 25 years later. A woman saw us walking around and pointed us toward some interesting things. We talked to her for a little while and she tried to convince us to come back as students, but we’re almost two decades too late for that.
Just before lunch, I sent Timothy a picture of me on campus to see if he could guess where I was. Then I got a list of people he wanted me to say “hi” to because he forgot I’m the most introverted person in the world (You can be both introverted and kind of aggressive. It’s a thing!) and I always make terrible first impressions on anyone who crosses my path. It’s not that I’m shy. I just don’t like to impose myself on other people. When I hemmed and hawed a little about it, he outed me as a Mennonite and sent my picture around to people he knows because apparently that’s what friends do.
I had to duck out early after that. The weather was being crazy and I have chronic migraines, so that’s not a good mix. I was disappointed because I really wanted to hear Heather King speak. I read Shirt of Flame a few years ago and loved it, so I was pretty frustrated with my stupid head. Thankfully, Angela and I had an opportunity to listen to her on our drive home since her talk was recorded and uploaded to Sound Cloud.
I wrapped up Friday night by eating a bunch of lasagna from Olive Garden and chilling in the hotel room. That was kind of a big deal because we don’t have an Olive Garden anywhere near me. When I say I live in the woods, I really mean that. The nearest McDonald’s is about 45 minutes away.
My sister and I are kicking around an idea that we aren’t ready to make public yet, but that idea was why we were so excited to go into our first session on Saturday: “Devotional Literature with Teeth: Writing Complexity and Darkness in Modern Spiritual Writing”. Right before we went in, Angela and I were standing around in the hall (eating free muffins!) and I was venting a little. Sometimes I experience push-back against what I do. If I’d just be a little more inspirational… If I’d just show the upside of a being traumatized… If I’d just clean up my language… If I’d just make people less uncomfortable… I’d have a bigger readership. My response to that is always the same. The people who want some easy, feel-good, inspirational writing without any real substance already have people providing that for them. They’re being served. I’m writing for the people who aren’t served by that. For the people who are still hungry after that. For the people who want to connect with someone who doesn’t pretend that believing in Jesus makes the pain go away. For the people who live with thorns they can’t get rid of. For the people who don’t have any patience for pretentiousness. For people who enjoy a little dark humor because we all get that it’s how we survive sometimes. I don’t care if I have a big readership. I only care if I’m reaching the people I need to reach. It was affirming to hear that echoed in the Devotional Literature panel. I get a lot of “you’re doing it wrong” either implicitly or explicitly. It was nice to hear that maybe I’m doing it right.
The last session we went into was my favorite: “Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women’s Writing”. When female orgasms get brought up, you know it’s going to be a good time. The only time I got anywhere close to crying was during this session. That’s partially because of how personal and painful some of these stories were, and partially because of how freaking hilarious these women are. Listening to so many different women, from different backgrounds, talk about their own challenges and how they live out their calling as both writers (and I absolutely believe it’s a calling) and Catholic women was the first time in a very, very long time (maybe ever) that I felt like I was sitting in a room with people who really “get it”. I feel privileged to have been some small part of that. I live in a fairly conservative area, and I also run in mostly non-religious circles (out of self-preservation, more than anything). I have a very small circle of women who are both religious and called to create. That gets lonely. It was worth driving five hours, just for this session.
I had to take off after that. Again, I’m so thankful for those Sound Cloud recordings.
I didn’t interact with anyone else too much, aside from my weird rural, southern thing where I “hello” and “how are you?” at almost everyone I pass.
When you’re around a bunch of writers, they’re going to ask you what you write. And remember that thing about me making bad first impressions? Yeah. “Hey! I’m Kristy and I just wrote a book about someone who straight up wanted to murder me because the Bible and some of our church members were cool with it. What’s your deal?” probably isn’t the way to go. They might start thinking he had a point, you know?
I’m really glad I went. It was a positive and affirming experience, which is important to me since I’m up here, alone in the woods and all.