Why did you write this book now?
"Midlife hit with a wallop. At 55, suddenly everything seemed entirely predictable, from the grey roots on my head to the plantar fasciitis in my feet. In the past year I've attended four funerals. I know there are more days behind me than ahead, and I want those days to count. And yet I was addicted to busyness, drinking too much, hooked on social media, dreading the prospect of the empty nest and still struggling with the alienation from my ultra-religious family. I felt lost in a spiritual wilderness."
What were some of your most memorable spiritual experiences?
"Swimming in Henry David Thoreau's iconic Walden Pond, a place of incredible natural beauty and transcendentalist history, felt like a baptism of sorts. Giving up alcohol for the 40 days of Lent was the kickstart I needed to curtail my consumption. Singing in a deathbed choir brought me closer to death and suffering than I'd ever been and was profoundly moving. Booking myself into a remote treehouse made me realize I could enjoy my own company, something I hadn't been able to do much before. Taking magic mushrooms proved to be a peak experience—right up there with childbirth."
You grew up in a strict fundamentalist home and have been estranged from your family for long periods of time. How did this inform your spiritual journey?
"I was born into an obscure fundamentalist sect and raised with the notion that I was one of God's chosen people. We prayed and read the Bible at every meal, attended church twice on Sundays and I had a private school Christian education. When I left this religion, I was told by the church and my parents that I would burn in hell. Leaving the church was easy but hurting my family—especially my mother, whom I'd been very close to— was hard. The origin of the word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘ligare,’ which means to bind. In my case, religion had the opposite effect. It separated me from my family and there was a great unravelling. There are many former fundamentalists like myself who are torn between the desire to be true to ourselves and the need to be accepted by our families. We are turned off of religion but still want a spiritual life."
You describe yourself as "spiritual-but-not-religious" and point out that traditional religion isn't working for a lot of people. What's the difference between spirituality and religion?
"Only one in five Canadians attends religious services regularly and almost 10,000 churches—a third of all faith-owned buildings—are expected to close in Canada in the next decade, according to the National Trust. Meanwhile, the "spiritual-but-not-religious" (SBNR for short) are creating a major shift in the religious landscape. Almost 80 million North Americans are SBNR and represent the fastest growing "faith" group in the west. Religion is about looking to a higher power for answers, spirituality is about looking within. The SBNR are rejecting traditional religious rituals for their own customized spiritual practices. They don't believe you need God to be good."
How did this year of spiritual experimentation change you?
"I'm hardly a paragon of spiritual enlightenment—I don't wake each day at dawn to the sound of a singing bowl and spend an hour meditating. But experimenting with a couple of dozen spiritual practices has brought greater joy and meaning to my life. I sing more and go on social media less. I spend more time in solitude and in nature. I'm a lot more grateful. I got my house in order. This year offered answers about how to live more attentively and authentically in the world. It made me consider what it means to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother, a good person. It also resulted in significant changes in a couple of major relationships. It meant forgiveness—not just of others, but of myself. I was damaged by religion but healed by spirituality."