Friday, March 6, 2015

Interview with spiritual author Myrna J. Smith

Today's special guest is spiritual writer, Myrna J.Smith. We're chatting about her new book, God and Other Men: Religion, Romance, and the Search for Self-Love.

If you'd like to learn more about Myrna, you can visit her other tour stops. Dates and links are found here.
Welcome, Myrna. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am fortunate to have lived in four different parts of the country: Oregon, Indiana, Wyoming, and New Jersey, and to end up in the one I like the best, New Jersey. I live in the western part of the state, in Frenchtown, where there are farms and open spaces, yet I can be downtown New York City in an hour and a half. I go there not only for the theater and the opera, but also for the energy emanating from the variety of people on the streets.

For over thirty years I taught English and, for the last few years, Comparative Religion at Raritan Valley Community College. During that time I was able to complete my Doctor of Education at Rutgers, and to attend Princeton University on Mid-Career Fellowships, once in English and once in Religion.

Besides reading and writing, I have two hobbies: playing duplicate bridge and traveling. I like the concentration required to play serious bridge—like writing, you can’t think about anything else. I also like the excitement of going someplace new, especially if the trip is not too planned. I just returned from five weeks in Asia, the last two being in Vietnam on my own.

To balance my competitive nature that comes out in playing bridge, I am a daily meditator and attend a Unity Spiritual Center. Luckily I have a great family that helps keep me grounded—three children, five grandchildren, a sister and a brother and some valued in-laws.

Please tell us about your current release, God and Other Men that released in Oct 2014.
Myrna Smith opens her story one Sunday night when she returns home from a ski weekend with her three children. While she was on the slopes, her husband had moved out. That had been the plan.

Yet her story, though it encompasses her divorce, is much larger. Ultimately, Smith sets out to love herself, to find an inner place where she can rest and grow.

In this search-for-the-holy-grail memoir, Smith traces her travels toward enlightenment as a middle-aged American woman with a wry humor and heartfelt longing. On the journey she discovers spiritual fulfillment doesn’t come easily, or all at once. For her, it is quite elusive.

The quest really started, she realizes, in her childhood on an Oregon farm where she and her older sister were once “converted” in their father’s pea patch by two young Bible summer school teachers barely out of their teens. The school was part of the tiny church their mother attended while their father stayed home, read Edgar Cayce books, and mused on reincarnation.

Later, drawn by the mysticism of the Hindus, Smith’s journey leads to Bangalore where she touches the robes of Sai Baba, the Indian saint. Back home in New Jersey, she finds herself in a country farm- house getting prescriptions channeled through a medium for every- thing from her back woes and diarrhea to an obsession with money.

She also writes of the demons that surface during a years-long love affair with her beloved Charlie and what A Course in Miracles stirred within her.

Smith’s story is one of adventure and effort that, in the end, reveals three simple yet essential truths that are both the journey and the destination. 

What inspired you to write this book?
In my late thirties, I got divorced, an event that threw me into a life crises and sent me on a spiritual search. Over the years I have had the privilege of seeing or studying with some unusual teachers. I saw the materializations of Satya Sai Baba when only a few hundred (as opposed to a few thousands that happened later) went to his darshans; I traveled and lived with two Indian gurus; and I received guidance from a mystic. I wanted to tell about these amazing people. I decided the best method would be to incorporate them and their stories into that of my own life crisis and spiritual search.

This except needs a bit of set up. My father and my beloved paternal grandmother had read Hindu texts as well as the publications of Unity. My mother was a traditional Christian and took all four of us children to a fundamentalist Sunday school and sent us to Daily Vacation Bible School each summer. My sister Lynette and I, close together in age, had the following experience:

Two young women, hardly more than teenagers themselves came to our community to teach that summer. Each night they ate dinner with a different family from the church. When they arrived at our house Mother sent the four of us across the highway to pick peas for supper. Daddy had planted the peas next to the barley so he could irrigate the two crops together. Nothing grew without irrigation. We took brown paper bags Mother had saved to hold the peas. Squatting between the rows and picking peas in the still hot field, we were a captive audience for these young ambitious-for Christ women. When they started talking about Jesus, I knew what we were in for.

First they asked us to pray, to thank God for the food around us. Then the one with the dark hair said, “You must invite Jesus in. He is just waiting for an invitation. Say the words, ‘Jesus, come into my heart.’”

We said, in turn, “Jesus, come into my heart.” But Lynette and I both knew what was coming next. They asked us to say the statement we avoided, a statement that was spoken over and over again at Sunday school, a statement that Daddy and Grandma would find repugnant: “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.” Had we been closer to the house, we could have just run inside. But we were across the road so there was no escaping.

“You each have to say the words or they won’t take,” said the one with the freckles and long reddish hair.

What were we to do? We had been trained to mind adults.

After we each had made our individual proclamations, “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior,” they clapped their hands. The darker one said, “It is so wonderful. You are saved.” Perhaps she pictured two new stars in her heavenly crown. Lynette and I tried to act happy too, but we knew in our hearts we had betrayed Daddy and Grandma (God and Other Men 26-28)

What exciting story are you working on next?
Although I would like to write the female Siddhartha, I am afraid I am bound to non-fiction. Right now I am working on two pieces. The first is an essay based on the drowning of a woman at the mouth of the Ganges. I was one of the first persons to meet her five traveling companions the day after she drowned. It has been turned down by one publication, so I have to revise it or look for another market. I am also preparing a talk on Conditioned and Unconditioned Reality for my spiritual center.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have wanted to be a writer for many years, and even wrote a note to myself and put it in my drawer, “I want to be a writer” after I finished my dissertation. I did not have the courage to call myself a writer until after I published my book.

A conversation I had with an elderly professor at the university where I held an administrative job—and therefore had more time for writing— that contributed to my feeling of not being up to the task of being a writer. Everyone in the building knew I would be returning to my position as an English Professor at the community college from which I had a leave of absence, but this scholar asked me about my academic plans. I told him I intended to continue to write. He asked me a series of penetrating questions about my knowledge of languages, my research specialty, etc. When he found out I had no special skill, he made a disparaging remark, “How can you write; you have nothing to say.”

Fortunately, I was able to recover from his comment by finding that I do have something to say and can now comfortably call myself a writer.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your workday like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I have trouble writing unless I have an idea to which I have committed myself. Because I give sermons a few times a year, I am often composing the next one. I attend a Unity Spiritual Center, so I do not have to defend any religious point of view. Once I have an idea I can write any time, any place. I wrote much of the first draft of my book God and Other Men when I was teaching part-time in a middle school—having retired from college teaching two years before.

 What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I often come up with ideas of what to write about, but not many take root. Once I get past the difficult and sometimes mysterious part of committing myself to a writing project, I spend time thinking. My mind seems to work best if I am moving, so I often go on solitary walks to work out a plan, almost an outline, in my mind, one that I hold onto to but don’t write out. Many writing experts have given advice on getting started. Some say just moving the hands to write, or type, produces ideas—I would extend that to moving the legs.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up on a farm in Eastern Oregon with little exposure to anything but farmers, teachers, and nurses—we had doctors, of course, but they were men, so I put medicine out of my sight. I liked much of the farm work, especially plowing fields, so I held the dream of owning a large farm for awhile, but I soon saw that I would probably have to be a teacher if I wanted to escape the poverty of my family—something I was determined to do.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
At a recent book discussion of a memoir an historian argued that the book The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother is really fiction because the conversations and other details could not have been recalled. I made the point that two events I use in my memoir, including the one above, were partially constructed with the help of my sister who was with me on both occasions, but that the feeling was the truth. Others in our book group agreed that the feeling is the most important aspect. Having just been in Vietnam and seen the Vietnam War (American War over there) I realize that history may also be fiction because of the bias of those telling the story.

Thank you, Myrna!

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