Douglas & McIntyre, 2019
Reviewed by Margot Fedoruk
Laid out in 12 chapters, Anne Bokma’s My Year of Living Spiritually is an inspirational calendar for the secular set. Let the pages fall open randomly in November to be reminded to practice gratefulness. Hum a tune when you land on Ella Fitzgerald’s quote, “The only thing better than singing, is more singing” (Bokma devotes the entire month of June to finding her voice). Bokma makes her way through 20+ non-religious practices and activities to inspire a more meaningful life. For the millions of Canadians who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNR) this is literary soup for the soul
Bokma’s journey begins in January and is titled, “Waking up,” possibly in recognition of Sam Harris’ similarly themed bestseller, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. The first few chapters feel familiar as Bokma tries to reduce both her drinking and her screen time. “Netflix had become my church; I regularly worshipped from the comfortable pew of my couch.”
In May’s chapter, “Into the Woods,” Bokma experiences the Japanese art of shirin-yoku or forest bathing, where she is led by a nature therapy guide who instructs the group to taste the air. Bokma says, “I notice the tang of morning coffee lingering in my mouth. When I open my eyes, I catch sight of a single dewdrop glimmering so brightly on the tip of a leaf I can see it from two metres away. How like that dewdrop we are, I think, so often trembling and hanging on for dear life.”
July’s chapter is called “Tripping,” a fun account of the author’s psychedelic mushroom trip. Bokma is drawn to them because they sound “earthy, relatively safe, and well, magic.” She attempts to keep a coherent diary, but discovers that “everyday vocabulary is woefully insufficient. What feels profound comes out platitudinous.” Here readers begin to suspect Bokma’s quest may have been born of her broken relationship with her mother and a marriage that “no longer sparked joy.”
Bokma left The Dutch Calvinist Reformed Church when she was 20, something for which her mother never forgave her and the church sent her a letter that said she was “barred from the gates of Heaven.” Leaving her family’s religion meant a life plagued with guilt. “I’ve been discontent. The dissolution of my relationship with my family is a wound I’ve compulsively picked at. It has made my foundation seem fragile, and I have often felt I can’t ground myself properly, especially if other dissatisfactions are heaped on the pile.”
Bokma downloads meditation apps and practices journaling. She tries both aerial and goat yoga, only to discover, “I’m too distracted by the sheer cuteness of the goats to focus on my poses.” She attends witch camp and visits Walden Pond to reflect on the ideas of Henry David Thoreau.
The plethora of quotes often makes it difficult to discern whose words you are reading, but the words are entertaining. Readers will be jotting down book titles, punching their personal data into death-clock.org, and taking notes on how to shop for an eco-coffin. There is also an eight-page bibliography to drive you into other titles like Emily Esfahani Smith’s 2017 book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters and others for those with a propensity for spiritual wanderlust.
Bokma’s 30 years of journalism, including writing the column “Spiritual but Secular” and then a blog for The United Church Observer, has prepared her well for this fuller length and well-researched book. It won’t take you 12 months to read these 12 chapters, but it will take you a lifetime to live them.