By Richelle Kota.
At first my knees bruised and then they calloused. Prayer on bended knee was tricky for me when I was young. I never understood humbling myself in front of a god that was supposed to love me unconditionally, but I arched my back in silence just like everyone else and waited for the love of jesus christ to fill me.
We went to church if we were well to ask god to continue to bless us with good health, and we went when we were sick so god could heal us. As it was, Sunday mornings meant regrets that turned into repentance, communion grape juice stains I would not bother to clean, and unwritten rules I could not challenge. Initially, religion terrified me, but I held fast to it when I was young — a time when I was so full of honesty and fear.
Once, my mother asked me if I wanted to be saved during our daily bible study. In our family, being saved meant accepting jesus into my heart so he could change me, fill me with love, and somehow make me better. But I already liked the way I was.
I remember etching memorized verses on the headboard of my bed at age ten.
“Not today,” I remember saying.
I remember going to Christian camp and how the separation of boys and girls sexualized us before we even knew what sex was. But my parents told me it would make me a better person. It would make me a better Christian. It would make god love me more. I still didn’t know why god was dissatisfied with me, and I was still confused about how love worked.
My mother sat across from me and softly placed her hand on my leg. I tried to look away, but she found my eyes. She spoke softly, but with fervor: “If you don’t get saved, you are going to go to hell for eternity.”
The fear of the fiery pits of hell kept me awake that night. The thought consumed me. My heart was already full of love for my family and friends, but the next day I squeezed jesus in there, too. Just to be safe. I was four years old.
There was so much, and then all of a sudden, there was nothing. There was nothing for me but hurt I didn’t have enough hands to hold, and etched verses I was ashamed to scratch out. I could not unsee this upbringing even though I tied a blindfold on the past.
A couple of years ago, I heard a cover Sufjan Stevens did of an old gospel song, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and I found myself singing along to every word. They did not mean anything more to me than old rituals I was still wading in, but it touched some small part of me that wasn’t still drowning. It was like a phantom pain and sorrow of sleepless nights I spent wondering if I died, where I would go.
Now, as an adult, I am still searching for the mystical and trying to reconcile the relationship I have with the universe, but the guilt of my childhood never seems to fade. For me, there is seldom shade in the shadow of the cross. The sun of religion has always and will always scorch me. I have sunburns that have never healed and I have scars that will never go away. When a Christian hymn begins, there is no doubt I will murmur along to the chorus, feeling parts of me that I thought had long disappeared. But then I hear the voices of those who condemn me and I feel shame, because, like a long lost parent, religion will always hold me and remind me that it was there to watch me grow up, even if I do not want it to.
Richelle Kota is a writer, nature enthusiast, and a student living in Philadelphia. Earlier this year she released her first self-published work, Where There Were Roses: A Memoir Through Poems. She aspires to live a very simple life on a farm with many pigs, goats, and dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @tiniestdad.
By Vasna Ahsan.
My mother sent me a text message a few weeks ago saying that she was worried about me. When I asked her why, she said that her parents and grandparents came to her in a dream, and that my soul was in need of saving. She said that they told her only she could save me, and that the only way she could do this was from heaven. She continued to tell me that she was worried about me, and that there were consequences for indulging in “sinful” things. Then, she asked me to come home.
When I received these text messages from my mother, my heart sunk. A part of me believed her. Maybe my soul was dry, I thought — maybe, I was sick, and somehow needed saving. I wondered if my soul was truly a dark and wretched thing, quenching for thirst.
I immediately felt a panic that reflected my mother’s, as well as an overwhelming sense of being responsible for her worry. Along with feeling victimized, I also felt worried for my mother’s life — since she had a tendency to threaten her own life, I was afraid of my mother’s insinuation that the only way for her to help me was through her own departure.
After my initial break down, I began to recognize patterns of fear that were developed over my lifetime. I am a first generation American. My religious upbringing, in a way, instilled a belief system in me based on the binary of Good and Evil. I was raised Zoroastrian, a religion which originated in Iran, reported to be the world’s oldest monotheistic belief system. With this ancient culture comes a lot of myth and superstition, that to this day much of the community still believes:
“If you put your left shoe on before the right, you will have bad luck.”
“If you keep turning the lights on and off, you will attract evil spirits.”
“If you are on your period, you cannot attend any funerals or ceremonies.”
“If you walk under trees at night, spirits will get in your hair.”
“If you ride your bike outside when it’s windy, the wind will send spirits to take you away.”
Every time I accidentally put my left shoe on first, I felt off. Every time the lights flickered, I thought a spirit was in my presence. Every time I walked under the trees at night, I thought about what my mother used to tell me, and I imagined some dark being getting tangled into my hair and coming home with me. And sometimes, I believed that my dreams (as well as my mother’s) were prophecies.
Looking back, I recall memories of fear that were instilled in me from generations of fear-based ideology — influenced not only by religion, but also by European colonialism, political hxstory, and societal standing. I believed everything my mother told me when I was younger, and that created both a fear and an awe of the mystical. Now, what is mystical has become so vast and sweet to me, and I am able to see what my mother expresses through those beliefs.
Her dream expressed her worry for me — growing up in a high crime area of Pakistan, in an era of violence, my grandparents also instilled a lot of fear in my mother as a child. She was not even allowed to walk outside by herself. To detach from the immediate fear that filled me, I had to step back and see my mother’s humanness. I do not have to fear what she is afraid of — I may have an array of fears and superstitions to consciously battle, but I know that they cannot consume me.
Unlearning smells of rejection and forgetting, and sometimes completely rejecting something that has hurt you is a response that stems from fear. The rejection of a belief may even bring about feelings of shame that you had ever believed it in the first place. Rejecting the mysticism I believed in from such an early age did not feel right to me. Sometimes, “unlearning” is just a simpler way for describing the process of understanding, accepting, choosing, and reclaiming. I only came to understand my irrational fears when I noticed and accepted them — when I realized that these fears have been learned intergenerationally. I didn’t see the point in blaming my fears on the people I inherited these internalized beliefs from. I was only able to reject the instilled superstitions I had by accepting the mystical qualities of life — synchronicities exist, life is magical, vibrations are real, and sometimes my tarot spreads get Too Real. I decided to choose to emanate light rather than fear and anxiety when it came to the spiritual aspects of life; and in this way, I reclaimed the mystical as my own.
my mother dreams
of apples and honey
and receives them the next day;
my father watches
the super bowl on t.v. --
with washing machine sounds
faintly filling up
the corners of this home.
these words feel too tender to write
when one is sinking in nostalgia
yet consumed with the idea
lay around my wrists
and i think about aligning
with my warrior;
regardless of structure
or those sorts of
and my body says, ‘yes,
it is time to shed this old skin --
patterns and all.'
and when i wonder why it took so long,
i remember that
the stars will align
and then realign
when they will,
and when they do,
that patience is still
Vasna Ahsan is a writer, poet, aspiring therapist and academic who is studying social work and depth psychology in Los Angeles. She is deeply curious about human nature, mysticism, and the subconscious mind. When she isn’t writing, she’s off dreaming, taking baths, exploring, and constantly trying to find a balance between hard and soft. You can follow her on Instagram @slow.blush.
the scar on my back.
Back when my hair was blonde
and green with chlorine,
it served as a reminder
of the boy who broke my bones
before anyone broke my heart,
so you claimed it as a tag
complete with washing instructions:
Now you paste it
on straight spines
while you count their notches and search
for the sleepy lavender potion
that makes them crooked.
the scar on my back.
It doesn't belong
to you anymore.
It’s been a slow and private journey — the learning to walk again after years of my neck and back and legs bound in knots and scraped raw. There were too many rocks to swim, but I said yes every time. I always cringed when he touched my weak hips, but I dragged my unfamiliar body away from his, crawling all shoeless and scrawny.
I remembered how I used to feel — like there was something mystical and wonderful hanging in the air above the corner desk in the library. Like there was some truth in holding hands with girls and in standing barefoot in the mud and in silence. Like there was some truth in me. I remembered healing before I ever needed to heal and I wondered where those feelings went — how something so strong and true and sturdy could be ripped from me. Was it torn from my weak hips? I knew I wasn’t eating well and the scar on my back pulsed with the hungry and the pain of standing, of sitting, of being.
As I sat in the doctor’s office, I remembered being 5 years old — crying out, knowing not trauma, but knowing pain. I remembered being 13 years old — knowing both. I wondered if the boy who broke my spine for the second time knows he’ll cause me pain well into my 20's, my 30's, my old age.
People say I’m too young for the knots in my back, but I feel ancient. As I grew with my injury, others claimed it as their own. My scar a paper tag that others could pick at, like one on a winter coat or an old mattress. My scar against my mattress. I could never sleep, but my body became too weak to stay awake.
Losing touch with my body — which once oozed with tar-like trauma, both physical and emotional — gave me the sacred opportunity to reconnect with myself the way a child would. I learned which foods made me feel good and which didn’t. I learned how I liked to be touched. I learned how to touch myself — with softness and love rather than the pinching and scraping and rawness. I learned to be gentle with myself and with others. I found streams with smooth rocks and I swam. I learned to stretch out the knots in my back when they came. They still come. But I love the “machine washable” tag that peaks out from under my jeans.
I am not loud when it comes to my body, but I am learning to be proud. Standing up straighter, stretching a little taller. Taking up more space in the world. Healing physically and emotionally and spiritually. I remember the mysticism of the library and I feel it in my own bedroom. I remember the truth in holding hands and I feel it as I massage my own spine.
It’s been a slow and private journey, but a journey just the same.
hands to my throat,
(my tired hands and
dirty fingernails to my
raw, pink throat)
so my throat coughed
awake my lungs and my lungs
blew awake my heart and
my heart shook awake my
legs and my legs -- sun-
burnt and speckled -- helped
feet find the floor
and carried my hands outside
to the garden, to dirty
themselves with something
other than the oils
in your hair.
Erin Moran is a writer and student based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Unbroken Journal, Flux, and Five 2 One Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram @ernmrn and on Twitter @ernmrntweets.