Pioneering Newfoundland writer, feminist, and activist Helen Fogwill Porter died last month at the age of 92. A plethora of tributes were published in the days following her death, ranging from a profile in the lofty Globe and Mail to a deeply personal CBC interview with her lifelong friend and fellow writer Bernice Morgan (who is, of course, my aunt, and is the reason I was privileged to know Helen as a person, as well as a writer).
Along with the official tributes were the ones posted on social media — many of them from people like me, Newfoundland writers of my generation who were nurtured and inspired by those who went before us. Nurture, inspiration, and encouragement were Helen Fogwill Porter’s gifts, and they are a large part of the reason she is remembered with love by so many.
Obituaries and informal tributes mentioned her memoir Below the Bridge and her two novels January, February, June or July and Finishing School, as well as a lifelong output of short stories, plays, and poetry. But when I think of Helen’s writing and what it meant to me, I think of one particular short story that has lingered in my memory for more than thirty years.
It’s going to seem like a cheap trick to write a blog post about a short story and not be able to link to a place where you can read it online, but like much of Helen’s work, this story that I love was published in an era before literary journals made their content available in digital format. It’s in her 1991 short-story collection A Long and Lonely Ride, and even that book is hard to find a copy of these days, though it’s in the NL public library system and well worth checking out. It took me a little while to dig up a copy myself — there was one at my dad’s house — and re-read this story that has been lingering at the back of my mind for more than three decades.
I would have been 26 when the collection was released, though I think I read this story earlier than that; most of the stories in that collection were originally published in various journals over the years. Re-reading it now at 57 I am much closer in perspective to the story’s protagonist than when I first read it, yet even then I knew I was reading something that touched a chord with me that hardly any other writer’s work had touched.
Since I can’t link to the story “O Take Me As I Am,” here’s a brief recap. Noreen, a middle-aged married woman with teenaged or young-adult children, is going to church. Noreen was active in the Salvation Army as a younger woman, but both she and her husband have stopped attending church regularly. (For further context, if anyone outside Newfoundland is reading this: if you think of the Salvation Army primarily as a charitable organization, you’re missing the background of this story. Here in Newfoundland, the Army is the fourth-largest Protestant denomination; while it carries out the same charitable work here as elsewhere, its main identity is as an evangelical church).
Noreen, the story’s opening line tells us, still goes to church “whenever things [get] too much for her.” So on this Sunday night she goes to a Salvation Army service, immersing herself once again in the religious atmosphere that was so much a part of her adolescence and young womanhood. She sits through the service, deeply moved by the singing, falling into a well of memories that track back through her own spiritual life, the waning of her involvement with the church, her questions and doubts about what she now believes.
Many of her memories centre around a young man named Andrew, who is not a family member nor or a former lover nor even a close friend — just a young man Noreen knew in the Salvation Army, who went off to become an officer (basically, a pastor) and then resigned in disgrace when his affair with another man came to light. The service Noreen is attending ends with the inevitable altar call and the worshippers kneel at the front of the church (Porter’s writing is, as always, wonderful in the use of specific detail, like the fact that the Salvation Army refers to the place where you kneel for an altar call as a “penitent-form”); as this happens, Noreen is carried back in memory to another altar call when she was a young woman, at which Andrew, returning after his disgrace, comes forward to confess his sin and weep bitterly. All around, his fellow worshippers assure him that God has forgiven his sin and taken him back.
It’s a wonderful, deeply insightful story, probing into Noreen’s mixed feelings about her faith. She leaves as the church service ends, thinking of Andrew’s experience, and of her own, thinking that the church preaches and sings about a God who will “take us as we are,” and yet rejects many people just for being who they are. “But perhaps she wasn’t being fair to the Lord, whoever or whatever He was,” she thinks. “Perhaps it was only those that called themselves His people who felt that way.”
I was in my 20s when I first read this story, and it cracked something open in me. It was like nothing I had read before.
In my 20s, I was not like Noreen, although I think the seed of her was inside me. I was a young Seventh-day Adventist Christian, going to an Adventist college, preparing for a career where I would likely teach in church schools. I was deeply committed to my faith and actively involved both in my home church and in youth ministry activities on campus. I was, I guess, much like young Noreen in this story. I had been raised with an attitude of healthy skepticism towards authority which prevented me from being an unquestioning believer, but my doubts and questions were, in those days, small and nascent compared to my faith and commitment.
I was also a writer and a reader. And I had learned by that time that there were basically two ways to write about faith/religion/spirituality. One was the way found in books sold at Christian bookstores, especially our own Adventist Book Centres — the path my own early writing career would follow. In books like these, faith was largely unquestioned. God was active and real; church was a good place; characters might struggle with their faith but would end up committed and believing.
In the other world — the world of the secular novels I read — faith either didn’t exist at all, or it was something to be treated with a mixture of pity and ridicule. In most fiction, a church was something you left, or a place your grandmother went which made her bitter and judgemental.
I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about reading Jewish writer Chaim Potok, especially his novel My Name is Asher Lev, in my college years. I was delighted to discover a writer who wrote about faith in the way that made sense to me: that tug of war between faith and doubt, between feeling both embraced by and restricted by a religious community.
Helen Fogwill Porter’s story “O Take Me As I Am,” which I read just a few years later, struck that same note, but so much closer to my ear. I understood Asher Lev’s struggle between belonging to his community and struggling against its restrictions — but the world of a Hasidic Jew in post-WW2 Brooklyn was an alien world to me, even if there were points of contact.
By contrast, Noreen’s world of the Salvation Army in Newfoundland differed in a few points from my experience growing up Seventh-day Adventist in Newfoundland — we were a smaller and more marginalized group; we worshipped on Saturday instead of Sunday; we didn’t call it the “penitent-form” — but in so many other ways, the language of this story, right down to many of the hymns being sung during the service, was my native tongue.
While Asher Lev’s experience chimed with mine like a distant bell ringing a familiar tune, Noreen sat in the pew beside me, so close I could feel her breath while we sang, sharing the mix of desire and cynicism, faith and doubt I always felt during an altar call.
More than thirty years later, I pick up this story again. Like Noreen, I raised my children in the church; like Noreen’s, mine have grown up and gone their own ways, leaving much of that childhood faith behind. Unlike Noreen, I still attend and participate in church regularly, not just when life gets to be too much for me. Like her, I am often deeply moved, especially by the music in worship; like her, I am full of questions and doubts.
This story also resonates because, like Noreen and at around the same age as she is when she observes Andrew’s experience, I was deeply troubled by my church’s unyielding stance towards LGBT people, including some of my closest friends. Though I’m a straight cis woman, it was homophobia that first drove a wedge between my personal faith and the church that fostered it. Like Noreen, I sit in church years later and think about the people who wanted to be accepted “just as I am” but were told instead that they could not be, not unless they labelled themselves sinful because of who they were and who they loved.
This vivid, poignant little story spoke to me when I first read it and speaks to me even more now, when I come back to re-read it after half a lifetime. And what it says, more than anything — more even than assuring me it’s OK to feel conflicted, divided in this way is:
It is OK not just to feel this, but to write about this.
When I first wrote a novel that tapped into my Newfoundland roots, my family history, I wanted the push and pull of faith to be part of the characters’ experiences. I didn’t want to make the family in the story Seventh-day Adventists, as my own family were — that experience was too niche, too singular, and I saved it to write about in two later novels. In that earlier book, By the Rivers of Brooklyn, I made the family at the story’s centre members of the Salvation Army — as another branch of my own family was; as thousands of Newfoundlanders were and are; as Helen Porter once was. And, shyly, I asked Helen if she would read and critique my manuscript, both a general critique and also with an eye to whether I’d gotten the Army aspects of the story right for the time period.
She gave me lots of helpful tips and corrections, and a generous critique, as she was so good at doing. She asked me to remind her how old I was, and when I did, she said, “I don’t think I could have written this novel when I was thirty-eight.”
Maybe not, but I probably couldn’t have written it — and the ones that followed — without her example.
Many Newfoundland women read Helen’s stories and said to themselves, “I didn’t realize you could write about things like this.” And mostly they meant her writing about domestic things, about the minutiae of women’s lives, about women’s anger, about a sense of place here in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
For me, there was all that, but there was also writing about a woman at a church service, weeping at an old hymn, torn by the memory of judgement and condemnation. Of a faith that at the same time draws you close and pushes you away. About how both those feelings are real, and valid, and how you are allowed to write about this.
The writing advice “write what you know” is sometimes used in a limiting way, in a way that confines our writing and limits the power of imagination and good research. I think it works most powerfully when framed not as advice but permission: you are allowed to write about what you know.
Even if the world tells you this thing you know is too weird, or too unimportant, or that nobody else will care about it. Because somebody will, and somebody will see herself in that story.
Helen Fogwill Porter wrote about what she knew, and in what she wrote, I saw my own experiences, my own loves and faith and doubts and fears. So many of us saw our world reflected in what she wrote. And I will always be grateful that she did.
One Reply to “O Take Me As I Am: A Story About A Story by Helen Fogwill Porter”
So very very good! Thanks for the overview and commentary about a great writer and a touching story
Wayne Malcolm Schafer, KC