Darcey Steinke’s widely praised memoir Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life was published by Sarah Crichton/FSG in June of 2019. Her earlier published works include the memoir Easter Everywhere and five novels: Sister Golden Hair, Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up Through the Water. She also wrote an introduction to the Gospel According to John for the Grove Press Pocket Canons series. She has been a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow, and has taught at Columbia University School of the Arts, the New School, NYU, Princeton, and the American University of Paris. She lives in Brooklyn.
Last summer, when it was released, I read Flash Count Diary in a kind of ecstatic fury, and by the time I’d finished it, I wanted to hand-deliver a copy to every person I know. As I noted in my reflection on the book, reading it made me feel as if I’d spent the day “watching words explode like fireworks inside my own head.” Steinke’s intimate and honest interrogation of her own faith and spirituality, her relationship with her body and the larger world, and her creative drive and process tore me open in exactly the way the best art does. I couldn’t wait to speak with Steinke directly about the book’s foundations and creation.
Image: In reading Flash Count Diary, I was moved by the beauty and honesty with which you write the complications and complexities of your spiritual life. On a personal level, I related. Like you, I’m also the daughter of an ELCA pastor, and in my experience, growing up as a clergy child has made me less capable of magical thinking, but also less able to separate from the influence of the church—from faith—because it is knit into the fabric of my identity and way of seeing the world.
Can you speak to your experience of being raised in—and then separating from—the church, but still being drawn into questions of faith in your work? How does the spirituality of your upbringing continue to influence your creative interests?
Darcey Steinke: I identify with what you’re asking in this question. As a clergy child, you’ve seen your father preaching in the pulpit, but have also heard his complaints, so you can’t just throw yourself into the community of the church and think that it is some perfect holy thing.
I sometimes think I’ve been more defined by the hypocrisy of the church, and the struggle of it. The struggle of trying to have a faith that’s engaged. I think my dad’s example was interesting. I would hear him in the morning preaching to the bathroom mirror, and I would know that he was nervous, and I would also know that he was nervous because of what had gone on at the church council meeting on Wednesday, or whatever. The church was 3-D for me, is what I’m saying. The minister was a person I loved, who was a person of faith, but who was also a person struggling with his own faith in a real and visible (at home) way.
Complicating things further is the reality that clergy families are held up as an impossible model, which, as a child, is a difficult responsibility to hold. I remember once—I can’t remember if I was misbehaving, or was being wild—but my dad said, “I wish this wasn’t true, but your behavior affects my job.”
Image: Right. There can be a sense of resentment of the church as a clergy child because of the unique way the responsibilities of your clergy parent’s role reach into and set boundaries around your own family life. Your identity formation is happening in front of the congregation.
DS: On the other side, though, you can’t just throw off the faith, because it’s you. My family is full of ministers. You know that beautiful hippie-Jesus painting—Jesus with the long, flowing blond hair? There was one in my grandparents’ house, like it was the portrait of an ancestor. I grew up with Jesus as if he were a relative. And the Bible stories were closer because my family was a clergy family. They weren’t just stories I heard in church; they were entwined with the narratives of my own family.
Image: There’s a closeness to the church for clergy children that breeds both familiarity and an inclination to question, I hear you saying.
DS: Yes, but I also sometimes feel very nostalgic for the years when my father was in a parish. We lived in the rectory. We played in the church, and when we wanted to talk to our father, we could just run upstairs to his office. Eventually, after I turned eight, he trained to become a chaplain and didn’t have a church again after that. But those years before are romantic and sentimentalized in my memory now.
It’s never been possible in my life as an adult to go to church, in part because of those early years. I judge the sermons. I’m just really judgmental. And if the pastor voices any mixed feelings about gay marriage, etc., I can’t stay.
I’ve given up searching for a church I can feel at home in, but I feel better since giving up, honestly. I used to think there was a church out there for me. Without that tie to a church, however, I feel more able to address the theological questions of my own life, rather than looking for some grid that’s outside of me.
Image: Do you feel that those theological questions are at the center of the work you do?
DS: I do. Questions about my relationship to the universal force, or God, or how we’re supposed to be oriented to this life, or how we’re meant to live with the fragility of the human body—these questions are central to me. These are the questions that drive my work. I’ve found myself, through my writing, moving even farther away from doctrine and deeper into to the idea that the world itself is divine. People, animals, every plant—it’s all a manifestation of God. It’s just not very worthwhile to me to get bound up in confining ideas of God anymore.
Image: In Flash Count Diary you write, “For decades I’ve tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get out of the way so the force of the universe could use me as a conduit.” I think many artists share this feeling of wanting—and failing—to be channels. In the book, you note that the “breakdown” of your “former identity” during menopause allowed you to feel that you were “making a little progress.” What has that progress looked like for you since you wrote the book? What does it mean to you to get out of your own way as an artist and thinker?
DS: As a younger person, I felt sort of obsessed with being appealing, with being a physical force. That was a false self, though. I think of Thomas Merton’s idea of a true self/false self here. Menopause was a wake-up call, a chipping away of the false self. I felt conscious that time had gone by and that moving in the world so focused on my physical self wasn’t working anymore—and frankly hadn’t ever worked.
I think that as you get older, you start to bore yourself a little bit. You get over yourself. You think, Do I really want to be in this same loop of my identity? I’m able to listen more, to take in ideas more fully. I’m better able to shove over who I was in order to see who I am going to be. And in that frame of mind I wrote the book [Flash Count Diary] in a rush. Writing it, I felt like I was a conduit, like the divine force was moving through me as I wrote. It was an amazing sensation. I was focused enough on the project that I could feel myself as a machine of grace. A conduit of grace.
And since the book, while I feel less like I know what I’m doing, I also feel a greater sense of wonder. Maybe this is also part of the pain of living—the self-violence we commit and have to learn to stop. I feel like I’m trying to be more tender with myself. I’m trying to think of myself now as another part of Earth, of creation. I’m trying to lean into the idea of myself as an animal—not a person who has to stand out. That’s a nice place to be.
Image: Let’s talk about anger as you discuss it in the book. There’s a great deal of conversation in our culture at the moment about women’s anger, and about that anger as a force that can drive change, create action, and speak for justice. You write that you began to see your own anger as a “gateway to authenticity.” You also say, “Rage focused my attention.” In what way has anger led you to greater authenticity? And what has the “expansive” quality of self that anger enables allowed you to see differently?
DS: If you don’t know what you’re angry about, it’s hard to have good boundaries. I think it’s hard to even understand yourself without acknowledging and having an outlet for your anger. When you push aside anger, it’s easy to just become this un-formed “nice lady.” In light of that, I’ve been trying to locate my anger instead of letting it go crazy in my life. If you can be angry and figure out what you’re angry about, maybe you can do something to change your situation. Are you being treated in a way you don’t like? Are you angry about the society at large, about systems of violence? About misogyny or social injustices? Until you bring it up to the surface, anger will move in your life in all sorts of destructive ways. It can really define you.
Having said that, it’s not helpful to go around being angry all the time. You need to be responsible for it. The point of understanding your anger is to have less of it. For me, thinking about that and working to understand my anger led to a more expansive sense of myself and my own power.
I’ll give you an example. I was sexually harassed in my job about fifteen years ago, and I had to leave that job. One of my better friends kept in touch with the person who had harassed me, which was hurtful. Around two years ago, just as the Me Too movement was first in the news, I had dinner with that friend, and the harassment came up in conversation. She again said something hurtful and dismissive, but instead of tamping down my anger in the moment, I thought, “No.” I got up, put down money to pay for my own meal, and walked out of the restaurant. It was so unlike me. As I walked through the New York City streets after that, I felt so light. I felt filled with light. I had actually stood up for myself. I realized how rarely I had done that in my life. It was a good and expansive feeling. I thought that maybe if I could do this more often—feel my anger and use it to stick up for myself—I would feel more powerful. That situation eventually led to my friend and I talking it out, which led to growth in our friendship. It showed me that truly embodying your anger and speaking the truth of it can be expansive.
Image: I want to ask you another question related to that same desire to see and exist more expansively. In the book you detail your fascination with orca whales, and describe a trip you made to Washington State’s San Juan Islands to see the Southern Resident orcas who live in the Salish Sea. You write, “Whales are like God […] Not seeing them is just as important as seeing them.” You then quote Alan Watts as writing, “Here is the great difficulty […] in passing from the symbol and the idea of God and into God himself. It is that God is pure life, and we are terrified of such life because we cannot hold it or possess it, and we will not know what it will do to us.” How has this not seeing—this recognition of what cannot be held—altered or affected your way of being in the world?
DS: Apophatic theology, or negative theology—seeing God through darkness—has always been the theology in which I’ve been the most comfortable. This is the theology of St. John of the Cross, which considers God through what cannot be known about God. As I said earlier, my dad has been a chaplain for thirty years, and his model of ministering to dying people has been formative to me. It’s a model that says you should minister to the dying with respect to their fears about the unknowns of death. You shouldn’t tell them that everything’s going to be okay; instead, you should listen to their anger and their sorrow. That’s been a strong influence on where my faith is centered. Unknowing is the best way to approach the problem of God. I just think there’s so much spiritual energy in doubt. I can’t believe that anyone gets behind spiritual certainty, actually. That kind of certainty seems so dangerous to me. It goes so wrong when people believe they are sure about what God wants. Dismantling the things you think you know about God and yourself and other people seems to me a better way to be theologically engaged. To question your beliefs. To question what you think you know about the way God moves in the world. For me the only way I can have a relationship with divinity is through the unknown, through mystery. If your idea of divinity is leaning into the mystery, you’re more likely to find grace in a variety of places. In my fiction I have tried to make traditionally ugly places beautiful and filled with grace—garbage dumps, malls. I’ve always had that impulse to try to see things not the way the world sees them, but to see the spark of movement and divinity in what is considered to be darkness, ugliness. That makes the most spiritual sense to me.
Image: It strikes me as we’re talking about this that being freed from the rigidity of doctrine and leaning into, as you’re saying, the unknown might also shape the form your writing takes. The form of Flash Count Diary is not linear or traditional.
DS: Yeah. Exactly. I always wanted to write a book in little chunks. I’ve been very excited by books that have done this—Maggie Nelson’s books, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. I think this form fits me better than a linear form does. I have a very discursive mind. But I felt like I had to write my way into the form with Flash Count Diary. For a long time, I struggled to write my way out of the linear form I was trying to impose on the book. I’m proud of how much of myself I was able to bring to the book, and also of how much weird ground it covers. I remember sitting at my desk thinking, “Am I going to be able to do this?” I wanted to be able to write a book that truly showed the movement of my mind, and this book feels like a step forward in that direction. Now, I want to continue writing in this way, gathering things that are congruent in emotion or subject matter, but not necessarily congruent in time.
I also think an unexpected outcome of Flash Count Diary’s form was that it allowed me to write about religion in a way that has brought in more readers—readers who might not typically pick up a book engaging ideas about God. More people are able to identify with me in this book, I think, because in it I’m not just talking about religion; I’m talking about the body and the spirit, about menopause. I think I was able to hit a more universal note because the book’s form allowed room to encompass a range of subjects.
Image: Let’s close with just one more question. Early on in the book you quote Katha Pollitt as saying, “Questing is what makes a woman the hero of her own life.” What’s your next quest?
DS: The thing I’m working on now is just such a strange thing! Nick Cave, the singer, read Flash Count Diary and contacted me because he liked the book. He has this show based on his life and his writings—it will open in Copenhagen—and he asked me if I would be willing to write an essay for it. The essay will end up in a book alongside his writing and photographs. I’ve always been a fan of his, so this is amazing. He uses so much traditional, sometimes blues-heavy, religious imagery. He talks about the devil, about Jesus, about angels. His work is sometimes gospel-religious, but he also speaks this idea that I love, which is that the true religion is one based on your human relationships. He’s very interested in the divine, very theologically engaged. Working together has been interesting for me because in my own work I’ve gotten away from traditional Christian images and now I’m being thrown back into a world where they’re very potent again. It’s a crazy project, but I’m thrilled to be doing it.
I’d also like to write something about my family history. As we’ve discussed, on my father’s side, I’m Lutheran; however, on my mother’s side I’m a direct descendent of William Miller, who was the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My grandfather was actually born in the Miller church. That history is on my mind right now. I’d like to write about people who are world builders—artists, writers, the better theologians—versus people who are world destroyers. Those two forces are so dominant. We’re in a moment when it seems possible that so many people will be given more rights and more justice, and that’s exciting. But we also have this very destructive and dark killing force in the world happening at the same time. I’d like to write about that. It’s what I’m thinking about.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is a fiction writer, editor, and educator living in the Pacific Northwest.