Readers’ Guide

Swinging on the Garden Gate

Swinging on the Garden Gate book coverThe Spiritual Journey
At the beginning of her memoir, Andrew tells how she avoided telling the full truth about her bisexuality. In what ways was this avoidance hurtful? What keeps us from telling our inner truths? What are the results for us?

Kathleen Norris writes that fear is a good place to begin a spiritual journey, because you know that where you have to go is through the fear. In what ways was this true for Andrew’s journey? Is it true for your own?

In “Woman in a Wilderness,” Andrew paints a disturbing portrait of a woman she finds face-down in a path. Why does she not help this woman? What did the woman come to symbolize on her journey? How do you understand the chapter’s end, where there’s no evidence of the woman’s fate?

Andrew’s trip in Wales is replete with external landmarks (a raging sea, a difficult mountain, the woman in the path, the women lovers) that help guide her through her internal landscape. Explore how this works in her story. In what ways do external landmarks reveal your own internal journey?

The Internal Journey Impacts the External Journey
Parker Palmer, in his book, Let Your Life Speak, examines the nature of people who start liberation movements-in Latin America, South Africa, among women, African Americans, and queer people. He finds that “the movements that transform us, our relations, and our world emerge from the lives of people who decide to care for their authentic selfhood… In spite of threat, or because of it, the people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live ‘divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out-and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood of millions of others.” In what ways is this transformative dynamic demonstrated in Andrew’s story? How have you claimed authentic selfhood? Can you trace larger transformations that have happened as a result?

In “Thinking Only of the Magic” (p. 163), the author offers her body as a prayer. What feels comfortable or uncomfortable for you in this passage? Why? In what ways do you (or might you) pray with your own body?

Facilitator might lead group in an exercise using movement as prayer, or have the group outline their bodies on large sheets of paper, filling them with written or visual prayers. Poems such as Anne Sexton’s “Ode to my Uterus” or Mary Oliver’s “Poem” could be read as other examples of verbal body prayers.

In an interview, the author has called “coming out” a metaphor for the spiritual journey. In other words, the challenges of bringing some deep truth about ourselves out into the world are what make us grow in spirit. In what ways does Andrew “come out” in her story? What do you see as the stages of “coming out”? How might this analogy apply to your own story?

Thinking about Tradition
What were you taught about the sacraments? In “Thinking Only of the Magic,” Andrew defines “sacrament” as “an outward and visible manifestation of an inward and invisible reality.” What in her story can be understood as a sacrament, using this definition? What in your own experience might you understand as a sacrament?

It could be said that Swinging on the Garden Gate is a book about incarnation-where the spirit resides in relationships, in people’s bodies, in objects, in the landscape… How do you understand incarnation? In what ways do you recognize God dwelling in your life?

One reviewer wrote, “Andrew’s story about coming out as a bisexual is embedded in a much broader tale of Coming Out as a complete human being. Ultimately, Swinging On The Garden Gate effects a reversal of Genesis 2. Instead of hiding like Adam and Eve, suddenly aware of their nakedness, when God came looking for them in the Garden of Eden, Andrew demonstrates the sweet liberation, the immersion in the sacred that comes to us when we find the courage to answer God’s call without shame, clothed only in the naked reality of who we are.” How do you reconcile your beliefs about incarnation with the story of the fall?

According to Tim Hansel, all of our theology must eventually become biography. For memoirists, this work means literally writing ones life story in the context of ones beliefs. In what way might this also be true for those who do not write?
In the final passage of Swinging on the Garden Gate, Andrew invites the reader to “lay your story down.” How might you envision your response?

Commenting on her book, Andrew wrote, “In the middle of writing this memoir, the question Jesus asked the disciples – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ – grew unrelenting and insistent in my head. What began as an intellectual exercise, to respond to feminist theologians with my story, became a challenge of faith. I am called out of complacency not just to worship but to articulate, as best I know how, spirit living among us. In the story, Jesus will not settle for the rumors the disciples have heard from people. He holds each individual accountable for naming the experience of God-with-us. It’s not enough for me to parrot back what I’ve been taught. I must rummage through the details of what I know, what is immediate and relational and particular to me, and in the naming perhaps like Simon Peter I can touch what is true, just, and near everyone’s heart.” How do you respond to Jesus’ question?

One reviewer wrote, “As with many of us, Andrew’s unselfconscious love of the physical world became stifled by adolescent longings for perfection. Swinging on the Garden Gate is a haunting account of how she regained that love and with it her sense of a divine presence throughout creation. It is, in essence, a story about her triumph over Western culture’s legacy of dualistic, hierarchical thinking, in which spirit is privileged at the expense of the body, and the soul starved of that contact with the sensory world that is our primary source of grounding, and the place we must go to nourish joy, awe, and compassion.” In what ways have you experienced or not experienced the detachment between the physical and spiritual realms this reviewer speaks of? In what ways does your faith tradition contribute to or combat this dualism?

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