Marlena Fiol is a scholar, spiritual seeker, and celebrated author who has appeared in a variety of newsletters and literary magazines. In her book, Nothing Bad Between Us, Marlena details the journey of her life from her childhood in a close-knit Mennonite community all the way to her present life as a renowned writer sharing her wisdom with the world.
Marlena’s story, however, does not dwell on her past. Her story is based on her path to finding inner peace and her road to self-discovery and self-improvement. In Nothing Bad Between Us, Marlena shares how she put in the work to heal herself and face her vulnerabilities head-on and in doing so has brought inspiration to countless individuals all around the world.
Your book, Nothing Bad Between Us, details your journey to forgiveness and inner peace after growing up in an abusive household within a close-knit, restrictive Mennonite community. When did you decide you were ready to put pen to paper and tell your story?
First, I want to emphasize that this is not a story that blames my childhood Mennonite community, no matter how flawed it was. The book centers primarily on my own failings and my path to forgiveness and reconciliation with myself and my clan.
Regarding your question about when I was ready to tell my story, when I retired from my business career five years ago, I began journaling as a way to uncover previously hidden, recurring patterns in my life. I gradually began to understand that vulnerably facing my many failings and flaws was the surest path to personal healing and growth. I published expanded versions of several of those journal entries as literary essays and blogs. My readers asked me to share more of my journey, which led me to the writing and podcasting I do today.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Nothing Bad Between Us? What has been the most rewarding aspect of the whole process?
My biggest struggle in writing Nothing Bad Between Us was battling my fear of exposing myself so vulnerably to my readers. I try to handle this ongoing fear by reminding myself that this vulnerability is an invitation to healing for myself and others.
The most rewarding aspect of the writing process has been that people from my distant past have begun to contact me after reading a blog or essay I wrote, allowing me to re-connect with folks I would otherwise probably never have heard from. Also, it’s been rewarding to have friends from my current life support the vulnerable openness of my writing and respond by more authentically sharing their own lives with me.
In your book, you discuss how growing up you felt a deep desire to both be more fully accepted by your parents and Mennonite community in Paraguay and simultaneously to escape to somewhere new. Fifty years ago at the age of 19 you came to the United States from Paraguay. What is your favorite aspect of your current life, big or small, that makes you feel especially grateful?
It’s true that I wanted to escape. I now know that it was escape from myself and my shame that I really longed for, rather than escape from any particular place or people. Today, I am grateful for experiencing the healing balm of self-compassion and self-acceptance.
What does inner peace look like and feel like to you?
It looks like a soft white light. It feels weightless.
One of the most difficult things we can do in life is truly forgive someone who has hurt us to our core. How do you find the emotional capacity to offer forgiveness while also moving forward with your life?
This is such an important question. I believe forgiveness is a really misunderstood concept that is too often grounded in the language of debt. From a debt perspective, when I harm someone, I incur a debt. This reduces our relationship to transactions, to what is or is not owed. Of course, this can often become a power play – who is really at fault and who is owed more?
I prefer to think of true forgiveness as compassion based on recognizing our common humanity and shared brokenness. When my father and I were gradually able to vulnerably open up to each other and become aware of each other’s broken places, compassion began to flow between us without ever stating the words, “Forgive me” or “I forgive you.” When we were able to compassionately see the victim inside the culprit, we didn’t need to forgive each other. Instead, in our connectedness, forgiveness happened naturally – and from there, reconciliation.
All that is not to say that forgiveness means that we ignore the truth of our suffering. On the contrary. Forgiveness is not weak. It demands courage and integrity and brutally and honestly facing the wrongs and our own contributions to them. If we don’t do that, we short-cut the process, leading to fake forgiveness, which is really no forgiveness at all.
If you had to choose one, what would be your favorite lesson or passage from Nothing Bad Between Us?
Excerpt from page 216:
We [my father and I] sat side-by-side on their worn, dusty-pink sofa with squeaky springs that sagged in the middle. Just sat there, silent, watching the commotion around us. I grabbed his hand, a hand with the big knuckles and thick veins running across it, like lots of crisscrossing dark blue rivers.
“Doa ess nuscht tsweschen ons, [There is nothing bad between us,]” I said hoarsely in our native Plautdietsch.
“Ne, doa ess nuscht tweschen ons,” Dad repeated.
After that, we always spoke those words to each other at every goodbye.
How do you want your readers to feel after they turn the last page of your book?
Inspired and hopeful.
On a personal note, how are you nourishing your own soul and taking care of yourself during this chaotic time?
I snuggle with my husband Ed. I write. I practice tai chi.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Favorite place in the world? Ed’s arms
Go to coffee (or tea) order? Green tea
Summer or winter? Winter
Pancakes or waffles? Neither
Last book you read? Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues that Will Change Your Life
A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness
This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.