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Shambhala Sun | May 2013

Outside the Tent


It’s true that DONNA JOHNSON was raised under one of the world’s biggest gospel tents. But the truth of a story moves like water, she says. It’s this, and this, and this too. We shape it, and it shapes us. There is always something more.

I am not a Buddhist. Not by traditional standards. I’m more a Buddhist wannabe, a self-taught meditator who reads books by Buddhist thinkers and lets the ideas trickle through her Judeo-Christian consciousness in their own sweet time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly a Christian either, at least not a flavor most would recognize.

What I am, if I’m anything at all, is a writer. The act of putting black on white, as Hemingway once described writing, has been for me a way to organize and make sense of the world. The truth, you see, could be found in the story. My early journalism training took it one step further: the truth was the story. Only in recent years has it occurred to me to ask which truth, which story.

My own narrative comes into focus under the world’s largest gospel tent, an elephantine canvas that stretched the length of two football fields. We were the crazies who believed in miracles, for whom religious ecstasy meant rolling in the sawdust (hence the term holy roller) and jabbering in nonsensical words and phrases. We were quite literally a rolling freak show. Respectable folks walked blocks out of their way to avoid us.

As a kid I was conflicted about my place among these people, my family. Arrogant and proud to be counted among them one minute, daydreaming of escape, of becoming someone else, the next.

I left in my mid-teens, attended college, studied a little philosophy, and began to try to write. At eighteen I happened upon Alan Watts’ This Is It in a used bookstore. On page twenty-six I underlined a quote from Zen Master Gensha:

If you understand, things are such as they are;

If you do not understand, things are such as they are—

In my zeal to leave my history behind, I understood Zen Master Gensha to say the past was of no consequence, that it was only the present that mattered. It was an ill-informed interpreta- tion no doubt, but one that fit the new story I wanted to craft for myself.

We all abandon the people we once were to some degree when we leave home. We reject the familiar in service of our new and as yet unrealized life. Embarrassed by my roots and unsure how to integrate the self I had been with the self I hoped to become, I severed my connection to the past. When the tent came to town, I hid in my house. Eventually word spread among my new friends

that the infamous preacher, the healer turned cult leader, was my stepdad. A couple of people mentioned it in passing. something about my demeanor must have warned them off, because no one questioned me.

Cut loose from all that I had known, I led a sort of ghost life, insubstantial and unreal. Memories presented like hieroglyphs carved into a wall. I was the wall. The decoding began almost by accident. After several years of avoiding all mention of the tent, I wrote about it for a class assignment. An inexplicable decision, except that I knew the tent story would play well on the page. I turned in the paper and arrived late as usual for our next class. I walked in and found the teacher reading aloud. Everyone turned and stared. It took a moment to recognize the words as my own:

“I was three and my brother was one when my mother signed on as organist for tent revivalist David Terrell. We traveled and lived with Terrell and his wife and two kids for several years... until the day my mother and the tent left town without my brother and me.”

Entitled “The First Time she left,” the essay described my mother’s leaving and my five-year-old brother’s heartbreaking response.

“He scrambled up the chain link fence, cutting his legs on the sharp metal at the top. I remember the blood streaming down his scrawny legs and the way he shouted No, no no as someone pulled him down. I remember my mother’s face framed in the rear window, her mouth forming a perpetual Oh, her arm waving back and forth, Goodbye, goodbye.”

The professor looked up. Well done, she said, well done. A few students asked later if the story was true. It was true, except for the title. My brother’s breakdown was the culmination of the many times my mother left us to travel with the tent. I shrugged. It’s just a story, I said. And it was, in a way.

The process of finding the right words to distill the emotion of my mother’s abandonment had so thrilled and seduced me that I failed to register my pain. until I saw the looks on my classmates’ faces. I knew the pain then, knew it in my body. The weight just below my solar plexus, that was the dread of her leaving. I noticed for the first time the way I carried my shoulders, hunched up to my ears.

Disconnected from time, events large and small surface like pieces from an old shipwreck. We sift and choose and discard and arrange. This is the definition of story. We do it with great care or without thinking at all. We say, Remember that time... and when I was a kid... and my mother always... and back then we never... Patterns emerge.

We tell the story, and over time the story begins to tell us: who we are, who they were, what they did. I began to embody the story of abandonment. I abandoned my dream of finishing school, of becoming a writer. I abandoned integrity and spirituality. I abandoned relationships, one after the other. Finally, I abandoned my own daughter, not physically but emotionally, hiding behind chemically induced numbness. I was there, but I was not there.

I wrote the story. I lived the story. But I could not, would not, feel the story, and that somehow kept me outside of it. Here’s what I did not know: stories have a way of brushing up against the present, a way of whispering their secret, twisted narratives until even those who are willfully deaf are forced to listen.

One day I came upon a self-portrait my daughter had drawn for class. I recognized her braids, the carefully outlined freckles. A tear rolled down each cheek. Under the drawing she had written: This is me.

If you understand, things are such as they are;

If you do not understand, things are such as they are—

You might say love awakened me, or at least began to shake me from the slumber. There was pain and surrender. My lack of understanding caused my nine-year-old daughter enormous pain. My understanding meant she didn’t have to be alone with it anymore. Things such as they were began to change. I began to change.

Eventually a different narrative emerged, one large enough to encompass the abandoned parts of myself, including the story of the girl who traveled with the world’s largest tent. I began to put it all down in black on white.

I wrote about my mother’s secret relationship with Terrell, and the three daughters they had together and kept hidden. I wrote about the time my mom asked Terrell how they would explain things to these girls as they grew up. His answer: Jesus will come before then. And he meant it. I smiled, amazed at the absurdity, and at how often the stories we tell contrive to keep us from shifting the narrative.

I wrote about how Terrell “went incognito” in lime-green leisure suits in the rural communities where he and my mother set up their secret households. How he topped off his outlandish outfits with sunglasses the size of dessert plates—which he refused to remove even indoors. What a relief to discover elements of Shakespearean comedy in our sad little family drama.

There was something else, too, something that pulled my imagination back to the tent. It was the people. Too poor, too black, too white trash, too uneducated to matter. I remembered the apologetic way they shuffled up the sawdust-covered aisles, their eyes steady on the ground. Their bodies, thin and stringy from too much work, moved as if carrying a great weight.

Until my mother’s fingers began to pound out a backbeat on the keyboards. The music worked its way inside them and they sang I’m so glad Jesus lifted me and clapped and twirled and stamped at the ground until the dust rose and hung over them like a cloud. Hundreds of hands reached up through that haze. Hundreds of lips moved in a strange patois of English and what they called, what we called, unknown tongues. For a brief time everything that separated them, everything that defined them, fell away, and their faces really did seem to shine.

I recalled the experience of the tent for the first time without judgment, and for the first time I entered the story. I discovered how the utter foolishness of these people, my people, afforded a glimpse of something extraordinary, the world beneath the world, a place of infinite connection.

What was that? I try to pin it down and I’m caught in the story again, wrestling with what was or wasn’t, what is or isn’t. I type in the words and the action freezes. No, that’s not it at all.

Here’s what I’ve learned, or rather come to know: The story, the truth of the story, moves and turns like water, like a reflection of light on water, like a fish swimming below the surface of all that light and water, like a living, mutable thing. It is always changing, always breaking apart and coming back together. It is this, and this, and this too. We shape it, and it shapes us. There is always something more.

Donna M. Johnson escaped the holy-roller life at the age of seventeen and has spent her time since outrunning the apocalypse. “So far, so good,” she says. She is the author of Holy Ghost Girl, an award-winning memoir acclaimed by The New York Times, O Magazine, and The New York Review of Books. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the poet and author Kirk Wilson.



From the May 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

To order a copy of this issue, click here.


Illustration by Tara Hardy

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