AN INTERVIEW WITH JO DORAN
ABOUT HER SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
I held this interview with my dear friend Jo Doran in July 2015. When we talked, I promised her, as I do everyone I interview, that she would be able to read and make changes if there I was anything I got wrong or that she didn’t want made public. Jo and I both thought we had more time than we did, and she passed away on March 13 from breast cancer that she’d been dealing with in some way since before we met. I didn’t have a chance to have her read this, but I asked her two daughters, who were part of her care team, if they would. They were enthusiastic about it. I share our conversation as a memorial to Jo.
I knew Jo Doran since 2004, when I quit being a middle school counselor and started an MFA program in creative writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I was 56, and most of the students in the program were in their late twenties and early thirties at the time. I was drawn to Jo in part simply because she was only a couple of years younger than I was, and both of us were mothers. But it was also because she was so full of energy and love of life.
Part of my program involved teaching freshman composition, and Jo was a devoted, crackerjack instructor, so even with all my years of experience teaching, including at the college level, I knew I could learn a lot from her, and I chose to observe her in action. Jo was also a wonderful poet—stunning, really.
After a year of very rich interaction with my fellow students and professors, I decided I didn’t want to teach full-time at the college level, which was a big reason for working on a fifth degree. I returned to Albuquerque to head up the English department at an afternoon and evening high school. Jo had finished her MFA and went on to get a PhD in Rhetoric at Purdue. Our friendship extended over time and distance with some gaps that didn’t seem to ever make our friendship less meaningful.
Before I met her, Jo had lost a son to suicide due to severe bipolar disorder. During her program at Purdue, her husband and soulmate died of pancreatic cancer. Then five years ago, she was told that her breast cancer had recurred. She had felt for a long time that she needed to write a book about surviving grief, to tell the stories about her son Brandon and husband Tom and also earlier ones, like the loss of her mother at birth.
By last summer, she hadn’t gotten much beyond the thinking stages. One thing I’m good at when it comes to writing is discipline. We started talking about me spending an extended amount of time in June and July helping Jo get started with this project in the midst of continuing with her third year of chemo.
On July 10, 2015, Jo and I sat on the front porch of the home she shared with her sister Jacquey in Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to talk about her spiritual journey. I started by asking, “How did you experience your spirituality as a child?”
“I was raised Episcopalian,” she said. Pretty strict Episcopalian because my great grandfather was an Episcopalian minister in the area. I didn’t find out until later, but it sounds like he was a pretty egotistical, self-centered person. But he used to walk miles and miles to visit people. We went to St. James Episcopal Church in the Soo,” on the eastern end of the UP, abutting Canada. “It looked like about every other Episcopal church. I was involved in everything, even having an afternoon off from school for religious training every week. We went to church every Sunday, but we were always late because Marion [Jo’s stepmother] liked to walk in so everyone could see her wearing her mink stoles.
“What I remember most is being enthralled with idea of God. There was light from so many candles and beautiful stained glass. I wasn’t afraid; I really liked it. A lot. There was no fire-and-brimstone teaching. It wasn’t scary. I loved being there. It felt very spiritual to me, though I wouldn’t have used that term as a child.” She paused to reflect. “I didn’t know that word. I knew all the prayers by heart. We were trained to memorize those.”
Jo paused again then said, “I always talked to Jule, my mom who died, and I really wanted her to show up in my room.” She smiled. “She didn’t even have to say anything; I just wanted to know she was hearing me. And when I was old enough I went to her grave, and I would just cry and cry and cry. That was when I was about sixteen.
“My dad used to say (and Episcopalians don’t usually talk like this) that he was a good person so he knew he would go to heaven. He said it a lot. It wasn’t like he was on a soapbox, but that point really came across to me, that it was a major part of his life. He had been a wild kid, but he didn’t really do anything bad.”
“Like what did he do?” I asked.
Jo laughed. “Oh, he blew up outhouses with other kids, had some accidents because he was drunk. So he never got mad at me when I got into trouble, if I did something bad. He really was a good person. He didn’t make people who didn’t have the money pay.” Jo’s father was a pharmacist with his own drugstore in Sault Ste Marie. “He never did anything bad,” she went on. “So I really wanted to be good so I could see my mother when I died. My mother was my reference point for heaven. My dad wasn’t selfish or mean.” Jo reflected for a moment then added, “Although in a way, I didn’t know him well.”
“I was so unhappy that I couldn’t understand the connection between God and things that were happening in my life, but I thought God was good and loving, and when I saw all the candles, I felt so close to him. At the same time, I struggled with my own trying to be good because I hated Marion and Bob, my stepbrother. So I struggled with guilt early on and didn’t know what to do with it. A lot of my prayers turned into Forgive Me prayers. I felt so guilty because of how much I hated them.”
I nodded. Jo and I had talked often about her stepmother and stepbrother, enough that I knew she wouldn’t necessarily bring up the extremely difficult particulars, so I didn’t pursue her feelings of hatred and guilt. Instead, I paused to silently acknowledge what she’d just told me and then asked, “How did you experience your spirituality as an adolescent?”
“When I was in high school, there was a girl from the Baptist church, one of the most intelligent girls in school, and she was always trying to save everybody. She had a huge influence on people because her father was a professor, and she was smart. I was so thrilled to hear from her that there was a way to get rid of this guilt. Then Marion hooked me up with an Episcopal girl so I wouldn’t hang around with the Baptist girls. I felt torn because I wanted forgiveness, but I didn’t dare hang around with them anymore.”
Jo seemed to feel that the Baptists had a clearer plan for how to be forgiven than the Episcopalians did, so being cut off from that potential created a conflict for her. From her silence in our conversation, it seemed that the conflict did not get resolved while she was in high school. I asked about how she experienced her spirituality as a young adult.
“Hmm,” she said. “I ignored it for a long time. Like when I was on my own I didn’t go to church. I didn’t even really think about it. I know that I did get back into the Baptist beliefs, because when I married Miko at twenty-four, I told him I wouldn’t marry anybody who wasn’t a born again Christian. So he became a born again Christian.”
“Just like that,” I thought, but I asked, “Did you think of yourself as born again then?”
“Yeah. I was baptized. When I went to college I wanted to live in the Baptist house. Dad and Marion wouldn’t let me live there, but I attended a church and was baptized. But I didn’t really have much practical experience about how it would work in my life before I got married. I saw it as a way to fix things, a treatment, a way to help me work with issues I was working with. I thought if Miko became a Christian, all his issues (I knew there were issues but didn’t know what they were) would be fixed. I was so wrong.
“I got really disillusioned because I didn’t understand why Christianity wouldn’t work. Even though I was disillusioned, I felt it was the only way I could deal with my guilt—to stay on that believing side. To deal with my guilt.”
“Mainly about Bob and Marion?” I asked.
I went to the really tough question then, the question that was intimately connected to Jo’s book project. “You’ve experienced a tremendous amount of loss in your life, far more than most—starting with your mother when you were born, losses that occurred through painful relationships with Marion and Bob, the loss of your maternal grandparents when Marion cut them off, Brandon’s death, your initial experience of breast cancer, Tom’s death, dealing with your own life-threatening breast cancer again. What impact has that had on your spirituality?”
“I’m not sure. Um.” There was a long pause, and then Jo said, “I know my beliefs changed drastically with each loss. That’s how it seemed anyway. I consider being married to Miko and it not working, that marriage dissolving, to be a loss. I hung so tightly to those Baptist beliefs that I made my kids go to a Reformed Baptist church. It was the most strict church I’d been to—like the more rules they had, the more you could work at trying to abide by them and not have to be affected by the things you couldn’t control. I was the pianist, so if I showed up every Sunday and took my kids, I was doing the best I could and wouldn’t have to worry about all that stuff that was in my mind and my head.
“I went to that church when I was married to Randy,” her second husband. “He’s an atheist so he just put up with it. We never had any friends anyway, so it wasn’t like I had any church friends. I spent all Sunday at the church. There was always a huge potluck after the morning service and then an evening service. I finally stopped going there. I don’t know how old the kids were. I got so tired of trying to balance Randy and church. One time someone called from the church—not the minister. They said, ‘if you’re absent one more time you’ll have to bring a doctor’s excuse.’”
I exclaimed involuntarily, “What?” I could hardly believe what she was saying.
She told them that she wouldn’t be there, and they could find another pianist. “Church wasn’t working,” she said. “I thought I liked the rules, but they weren’t working. There was no joy in it. Only duty. But I had fear because I wasn’t going to church. And I felt I wasn’t a good mother, not a good wife.”
Something about what she was telling me made me ask, “Do you think of religion and spirituality as the same?”
“I did until after Randy. I hated myself and decided I was going to like myself. Randy had destroyed whatever self-confidence I might have had. I had lit three candles on the lid of a picnic basket. I decided I would sit there until I thought of one thing that I liked about myself. After that, I started reading spiritual books, and I could sense that there was something spiritual in myself. And that’s when I first differentiated between religion and spirituality. It was honest and real. And that was what I was after at that point.
“After Tom and I got together, we had been married for three months before Brandon killed himself. That was probably the most life-changing thing that happened to me spiritually. I was so terrified that Brandon would go to hell, and I would call Father Ed at the Episcopal Church sobbing. After a few phone calls, he said to me, ‘I don’t believe there’s a heaven and a hell.’
“I said ‘What? What do you believe then?’
“He said, ‘I do believe that there is an afterlife and that there’s a spiritual side to all of us.’
“That was it. I was floored. He couldn’t tell me exactly what he believed but he believed in not taking the Bible literally. We talked a few times. I had to go slowly because it was so different from anything I’d believed until then. I started reading Caroline Myss, Deepak Chopra, others. Tom and I traveled a lot and read the same books and listened to Chopra’s tapes. They were amazing. I remember crying in the car because everything I’d believed was challenged by something that made sense to me. This was after Brandon died, so I was really searching. Tom was too, in his way. I didn’t struggle in some ways with Brandon’s death because I felt he really wanted to go. No one made him go, but there was all the grief. I felt like I had to really understand the spirituality, so I could figure it out. So I could say, this is how it works. I could logically say, ‘I believe this because this and this and this.’ It didn’t work. Of course there were really no rules at all!
“I’ve always felt like I have to know what I believe before I die. I’ve heard it said or read that whatever we believe, that’s what we will see or experience when we die. I didn’t want to see…I read about a man who had a near death experience. He was wailing in hell, and Jesus came to him and said, ‘This is just where you thought you belonged.’ Part of me believes that my reality is where I’ll end up. I want to know what I believe before I die, and it can’t be anything anyone tells me. Tom and I also started reading Science of the Mind. Tom was already reading it, and he shared it with me. I read a little of it. He was really into it.”
I asked Jo, “Do you feel that you know what you believe now?”
“Not completely,” she said, “but my anger level is low enough that I can think more objectively. I was so angry with God after Tom died. I was so devastated that Tom had to die that I shut myself completely off from anything spiritual or religious after he died.
“Then I almost had a nervous breakdown when I was diagnosed with cancer. It was because I didn’t know what I believed. I went to see Kevin at the Episcopal Church. He said I should talk about my anger, but I didn’t want to. The fact I’m reading Myss again—I feel good because it means I’m open to spirituality again.”
During the three weeks of my summer visit, besides talking about and critiquing each other’s writing, Jo and I read Caroline Myss’ book Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can. We got together every afternoon at four, often on the front porch, and talked about what we’d read and how we might apply it in our lives. One example of healing that we talked about was the healing that allows a person to die peacefully.
Jo went on, “After Tom died I didn’t want anything to do with Myss or Deepak. I felt it was all just a crock.”
“So how would you describe your spirituality today?” I asked.
“I think I’m open again to possibilities, and I don’t feel like have to know everything and know how it works. I can say I’m not so sure, but I believe there’s an afterlife. I believe there’s reincarnation—that we have a soul, and it goes on. Anything else would be almost obscene, when you think about how close we are with people, and the unseen is such a huge part of our lives. I don’t feel threatened because I don’t understand everything, whereas I was terrified two years ago.”
I could hear a sense of peace and letting go in what Jo was saying—perhaps a preparation for the next step in her life, but there was a little more I hoped to explore with her. I said, “You’ve talked about some strong experiences others might call extrasensory. What kind of role have those played in your spirituality?”
“They’ve become part of that invisible part of our lives. I cannot deny those things. The dreams I’ve had, that my Aunt Daisy had, stories of people I know, out-of-body experiences—not just things that I read about. Premonition dreams. Those kinds of things reinforce my spirituality. I don’t know where Tom and Brandon are. It doesn’t matter anymore where they are.”
Then Jo told me a story she’d shared before. She said, “At Purdue there was a woman who did Tarot readings. I went for one, and my question was, ‘Where is Tom?’ A week before he went into a coma I asked him for three things. First, I asked him not to hate me if he found out that I’m not the person he thought I was. Second, I asked him to wait for me if he could. Third, I asked him to tell me where he was. In answer to my question, ‘Where is Tom?’ the Tarot reader turned over a completely white card, and I burst out laughing. It was just Tom.”
Jo finished several drafts of a chapter about Brandon’s life and death while I was there last summer. She had more chapters she wanted to write—about her mother, about Tom, her grandparents, her own illness. We agreed that after I left we would talk every day, even while I was in Denmark for eight weeks, to check on her progress, to troubleshoot. When I got back to the US, we continued. Then all of sudden, in December, I couldn’t reach Jo. It took a few days until I learned that the steroids that were given along with the chemo she’d been receiving for the past three years had caused her to have severe diabetes. It never really got under control, and our contact was very sporadic.
One day in January, Jo told me that she’d decided to quit chemo and enter home hospice care. “As much as I’d like you to be here at the end,” she said, “I want you to come while I can still enjoy your visit.” She said she’d pay for my plane ticket. Three weeks later, in the middle of a snowstorm, I landed in Marquette, on the edge of Lake Superior, and Jo’s sister Jacquey met me at the airport. Jo and I had some good days, and we scaled down what we thought she might be able to accomplish on the book—two more chapters. Maybe. She got a few pages written on each, but her illness was progressing much faster than everyone expected.
One evening, nearly a month before Jo, as my Native friends would say, “walked on,” we had a long talk about life after life. Jo started the conversation this time. “What do you think happens after we die?” she asked. We shared our ideas, our hopes, our dreams. “When I come back next time,” she said, “I’m going to have a bookstore. I’m going to name it Fisherwoman’s Bookstore. You look for it,” she said. “Look for me there.”
On the night I said good-bye to Jo, she was not conscious most of the time. I said, right up next to her ear, “It’s your old buddy,” and she smiled. Then I kissed her cheek and said, “See you next time at the Fisherwoman’s Bookstore, sweetie.”
© Anna Redsand 2016 All Rights Reserved