By Josh Bell
My name is Josh Bell. Not to be confused with Joshua Bell, the famous violinist. I was born in England to parents in the Air Force, and raised in South Dakota. Within several minutes of meeting me, I will give you these facts. What I have never really considered is what all those facts really mean about me.
Okay, let me take a step back and to the left. Growing up in the Midwest is sometimes how they picture us on television, racist, religious fanatics. Wait. Before, you scroll down to the bottom, or click back. This is not going to be just another story about a queer kid in the Midwest. There’s nothing wrong with that, and yes, I am queer. Fun fact, though, South Dakota considered a Plains state. I use Midwest cause even people in South Dakota call it Midwest. Him being queer in a Plains state is only clarification. I am getting off course. Let’s go back to how you can also see the Plains state as really great place to grow up, under the right circumstance. When I grew up, Christianity was, and I guess still is, everywhere.
Each town had at least one church. Many had both, a Lutheran and a Catholic Church just to please everyone. On Sunday mornings, the church bells would ring and the edges of gravel town streets became parking spots for Parishioner. On Wednesdays at my K-12 school, the Catholic kids talked about Catechism, and we Lutherans talked about Confirmation. No one ever said anything negative about the other denominations outright. As teenagers, church was only our focus during the hours we spent within our respective churches.
I still remember the feeling though. There was this feeling that if you didn’t believe in Lutheran God, you were going to hell. And the Catholics were more ceremonial about being the top religion with their limbo to give the Hell-goers a bit breathing room, while simultaneously making heaven more exclusive. I was already headed to hell, according to both sides, for something I was born with. If you were a queer kid hiding a queer secret in his queer story-filled notebook, hell was your only destination. And if hell was my destination, I really hoped to end up there before anyone found out I was gay.
This is the queer Plains state part leading into the whole point part:
I was already different. My first church wasn’t in the small town like most of the kids. I was effeminate and liked to read. The other boys played basketball. I liked heroes of all types from Power Rangers on television to Achilles during the Trojan War. It was not the naked sculptures of Eros and Mercury. Or the fact every painting of a Greek or Roman god during the Renaissance showed penis. It was the magic and journey within ancient stories of Greece, Rome, and Egypt that started to pull me away from a secular religion.
My love of mythology started in sixth grade. We actually studied the ancient lands. I remember making a foam sarcophagus with a Set animal on top of it for a project on ancient Egypt. I always got so nervous bringing those oversized Greek and Roman mythology filled with Renaissance art. I was cultured, but remembered talking to the teacher about bringing them or my classmates seeing them. All they would see is tits and dicks. People accepted mythology. They were stories, but I never saw them as just stories. They were fantasy and history that everyone knew pieces about. No, these deities never called me to worship them or leave behind Christianity. It was see the broken logic of the church itself that allowed me to open the door to a truly universal spirituality.
I did look beyond Greek and Roman mythology that year. Norse mythology just felt cold. Every picture had snow in it, and I would not give this those gods a real chance until Neil Gaiman wrote Norse Gods. Most Eastern mythologies also never intrigued me like those of Egypt and Greece, but intrigued or not, they changed my world view. The teachings from the Vedas of Hinduism made me reevaluate my stance on the Judeo-Christian God. Teen me would explain it like this: Brahma was their creator god. The other gods were not his children like in the Greek and Roman myths. All the gods were him. They were aspects of him. Like the Saints in Catholicism. To me, that meant they were basically the same.
Teen me mentally dumbed down the ancient and deeply spiritual philosophy of Hinduism and every religious institution based around the Hebrew God as the same. I still can’t see otherwise over 15 years later. I should have known my Christian life was dying, especially knowing they already sentenced me, a 13 year old kid, to eternal torment for loving other men. I rationalized. I believed in God, the father, Jesus Christ, his son who died for our sins, and the Holy Ghost, which whom Christ’s death allowed us to commune with. I believed that was my truth, but I could not forget what I learned. They were the same.
My actual break from my church, and inevitably all organized religion, happened after I was confirmed in front of the whole church at fourteen. My former babysitter owned a book on Wicca. She still stayed over to watch my brother and I when my mom was out late. My brother and I could not be trusted. She was three years older than us. She had straight black hair and her consistence in wearing black tee shirts made her the closest thing my school had to a goth. She told RL Stone stories of magic from memory, and let us watch horror moves. She pulled out this book one night from her book bag. I probably thought she was daring having brought such a tome to school with her, when in reality she just used the backpack to carry it from her house. She let me flip through the pages filled with spells, Wiccan history, and rituals. It was my first step into the world I inhabit today.
I did not see myself as a Wiccan. I did not want to do spells or rituals. I wanted to know about them. I was still a Christian. How else were we supposed to know a witch and be weary if all we knew about them was they existed? There was also the other side. The sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast in me wanted to know if anything in the comics or books in ancient lands were right. I would never have thought my Spiritual Path would lead me to energy healers, mediums, and extraterrestrial channels. I subscribe completely to the esoteric world, and the religious institutions are the places that feel unbelievable.
After thumbing through that Wiccan text, I wanted to share it with everyone I could and learn more. My mom didn’t care, and all she knew about magic came from her smutty romance novels. My friends already thought I was weird. They just nodded at me talking and let me hang quietly with them off to the side. They were living their very grounded lives, and my head was already in the stars. The naive kid I was decided to bring up witches to one of the other kids at a church pot luck. I found the information exciting and hoped someone there would too. One of the Sunday school teachers overheard. She had blonde hair, and wore pink shirts with jeans. Her name was ironically enough, Mary.
Mary got quiet for a second, but her blue eyes were ice on my skin. She spoke slowly with a Lutheran drawl. ‘Witches are real, and they’re dangerous.’ I didn’t need to ask why she paused. I had waited for that pause constantly. It’s the pause before they ask the question that you’re not quite sure if you can lie about. This was not that. See, not just about a queer Plains state kid.
She had hesitated not because she wanted to spare my feelings or give me the right response. She had hesitated because she had to decide whether or not I was the dangerous one. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft was all about magical exploration for personal growth. Was it dangerous? It could be. Even then, I knew anything could be dangerous in the wrong hands. After that experience, baby me quickly saw Christians as more dangerous as they were the ones who burned, drowned, and hung women they guessed were witches. Hell, the Crusades was one giant war to show whose God was the right God. Baby me weighed those against what he’d read as the Wiccan Rede’s ending. “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” It meant have a good intent in what you do, and everything will be okay. I no longer saw the church having a good intent.
In the next twenty years, my life swirled as decades of life do with everyone. Religion, spirituality, or any sort of personal belief system barely made it past the alcoholic victim I let myself sink into. Major changes still happened mostly after that first decade. I had moved first for college at 18, then across the country to Jersey City at 24. I went from being completely in the closet, to being in the queerest most open city in the nation.
In 2012, I met Michael Billy who helped me make an about face and opened my eyes. He wanted to get to know me. As I spoke about the people who abused me and how they hurt me. He stopped me. He asked me what I did not like about them. I said they were angry. They were abusive. He then said ‘You’re angry’ and ‘You’re abusive’. I was floored. I didn’t see it. He said my supposed ‘wrongs’ done to me were just lessons taught to help me grow. I needed to see myself in them to complete the circle. We are the same. That was my first truly spiritual moment, and many more were to come. And now is the first time I’ve stopped to ask any questions of myself.
Spirituality can be our connection to each other. And it is our direct connection to the divine. It shows us that we are divine. But, outside of that, what does that mean? Is that supposed to be simple? Is there more? I don’t have the answers. I really don’t know. Some questions never can be answered, but we can try. This brings us close to the now, when I have some questions to start a whirlwind of research.
Two weeks ago, I had a strange thought. Out of nowhere. “You should start over spiritually.” I rolled my eyes. After a brief uncomprehending thought about it, two text messages, and a conversation with my friend, I thought it was a stupid idea. There would be too much to unpack and forget to start over with anything near a clean slate. I went back to social media and ignored a clearly intuitive thought.
On Friday, the thought suddenly returned, ironed out, and ready for me to fully understand. “You should start at your beginning spiritually”. My name is Josh Bell, but what does that mean? Is there anything significant about my birthday outside my Zodiac signs? What is all the information I can gather of my spiritual self at the moment of Joshua Todd Bell’s was born on Sunday, May 18th, 1986 at 6:59am in RAF Lakenheath, England. What can I learn from then about who I am now?
The easy answer is. I don’t know any of the answers. I don’t even know where to begin with a lot of these questions outside of a google search. I have a starting point, internet access, and willingness to find out. I don’t have any idea of where I am going to end up. But, I’ll have more facts tomorrow than I did today, and probably have even more questions. Exciting.
Happy Days, Friends, Strangers, and Everyone Else.