The first thing I want to tell you about Anne Bokma is she’s cool. She’s confident, collected, smart and funny. She was a delight to interview and her book, My Year of Living Spiritually was a delight to read.
The second thing I want to tell you is that this is a woman who has done things. She’s survived leaving a deeply fundamentalist church and coming out the other side with a strong sense of self. As a journalist she’s both visited a sex club and authored a multi–year “Spiritual but Secular” column for the United Church Observer Magazine (later renamed Broadview). In the writing of this book she swam in Walden Pond, took magic mushrooms, and attended Witch Camp. She led the protest against Bill Cosby’s appearance at First Ontario Concert Hall. She’s the organizer and host of “Six–Minute Memoirs” a quarterly series at the Staircase Theatre that she describes as “speed storytelling for a cause”. There’s an edition of “Six–Minute Memoir” 7:30pm, December 12 at the Staircase Theatre; it’s a PWYC event and I will absolutely be there. You should be too!
So Anne Bokma is clearly living her best life. Which is why it’s so fascinating that in her mid–50s, with an impressive personal and professional resume, she chose to embark on a deep quest into her own spirituality. She describes herself as “spiritual but not religious” (she is a member of the Unitarian Church); a designation that she shortens to SBNR in her book and argues is “the fastest growing ‘faith’ group in the Western world.” Comprising some 80 million North Americans, the SBNR are growing cultural force. Bokma had reported on SBNR practices for four years for the national magazine of the United Church and she was keen to experience them first–hand. As befits the wise woman that she is she engaged in “some deliberation and a bit of financial planning” and decided to go for it: a year of immersing herself in “a holy host of practices” in an effort to become a more spiritual person.
And what a year it was. In addition to the tidbits listed above Bokma also visited Lilydale, the centre of Spiritualism, a 19th century faith most remembered for giving us the séance, and it’s more new agey descendants; she went “forest–bathing” a Japanese therapeutic practice that encourages time in nature as key to mental and physical health; she travelled to Washington DC for the 2017 Women’s March. On a more prosaic note she sings more, joining multiple choirs and attending a “singcation” in Newfoundland; she climbs trees and builds a home alter. She cuts back on screen time.
The book is called My Year of Living Spiritually and it is indeed organized on that basis; a chapter for each month. But it’s not exactly a memoir and it’s not an exercise in journaling. Nor is it a “how–to” or self help guide to spiritual practice. Bokma is a journalist and she’s written an investigation. The chapters read like essays, drawing on a wide range of sources and contextualizing Bokma’s first–hand experiences within an historical and intellectual framework. I learned a lot of fascinating things reading My Year of Living Spiritually. She delves deep into her own life story as well and the book reflects on as many experiences from her past as it does on the experiences she had in 2017. This is a book that can be classified as philosophy, as history, as memoir, or as journalism. As all of the above. Perhaps that means it can’t be classified at all, in the very best way. Bokma’s book is smart, thoughtful, and yes, even inspirational. Bokma’s spirit rubbed off on me and I think it might on you.
Also, it’s funny. It’s a great read, especially for this time of year. Bokma started her journey on January 1st because of course she did. We all feel a sense of transformation and renewal at the dawn of a new year and we all struggle to hold on to that feeling in the months to come. Bokma made a point to try things that were accessible and easily doable (even Witch Camp, I swear!) and her story offers a lot of insight into how we can live more deeply without upending our lives. I’m already thinking about my own new year’s resolutions and what changes I can realistically and meaningfully make. This is a perfect book to read in the reflective period leading up to the turn of the year (and end of the decade) which means it’s the perfect book to give and receive as a holiday gift. You should buy it for someone. You should buy it for yourself. And then, when you need a push to push yourself, you should pick it up and ask “What would Anne Bokma do?” V
MY YEAR OF LIVING
by Anne Bokma
Sunday, November 17 at 7:30 p.m. Plan B Cabaret: “An evening of words, music and general consternation” Staircase Theatre Cafe 27 Dundurn St. N., Hamilton