It all started when young Pam Johnson Davis jumped across the field dreaming of climbing monkey bars and getting a bunch of blisters along the way. But she said her family’s Pentecostal religious beliefs did not allow her to wear anything but “proper” long skirts, which don’t fit the average monkey bar tumbler that flutters above the floor.
“Saying this out loud sounds totally silly to me…but[buying pants]was a request I had to make and my parents discussed it because they didn’t want me to make that transition,” she said. “Eventually, they opened up about the idea so I could decide for myself what I’d like to wear.”
Now, as an author, Johnson Davis released her second book No Unpaid Travelers, a collection of poems reflecting pivotal moments in her life, on September 1. She advises readers to start with her poem “How to Build a House” and continue her journey from there.
This poem reflects her Pentecostal upbringing and her estranged family members, and how this relates to finding her own way of life. Johnson Davis said her background did not provide a foundation on which to build the rest of her life because the life she wanted to live and the life she started was very different.
“The poem ‘How to Build a House’ talks about my 30 years of age, and I know 30 is older (for most self-fulfillment stories and) considering I’ve been out of my parents’ house since I was 18,” she said.
She said that it took until the age of 30 to really start shedding some of the emotional baggage that came with this lived experience. At the time, she was taking a look at everything from swearing away from alcohol to gender roles to what she’s wearing.
“I had different beliefs early on but having different beliefs literally means you get hit in the face,” Johnson Davis said. “Different beliefs can make you shut up, sit down and be a lady – mind your tongue and follow what the man says.”
While Johnson Davis said other people may have a more positive experience with Pentecostal beliefs, she said the way she treats women and puts women inferior is inconsistent with her values.
She said: “The wives are submissive, and the husband is the head of the house.” “It is very much bisexual and dynamic (its historical strength). There is no place for anyone who exists or lives outside of this dynamic.”
“I’ve talked about black femininity and the trauma that comes with being forced to fit in and become a certain type of woman,” she said. “She is a very special woman who strives to be a good church woman, quiet, obedient to her husband, strict about Jesus and so dedicated to keeping her home along with having children.”
The poem “How to Build a House” joins her other poems that have themes of homelessness and divorce—both of which she lived. The collection of poems began, for the most part, as a therapeutic method recommended by her therapist for dealing with these challenges. Eventually, at the end of the exercise, she realized she had a poem written in front of her.
“I enjoy what my therapist calls a meditative diary. It’s where I’ll set a timer for 20 minutes and just write down whatever’s on my mind. How it comes out is how it comes out,” she said. “The key to meditative writing is that it’s not supposed to be static. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t have perfect punctuation or spelling, it’s kind of a way to get rid of that pain.”
She said that her poetry collection has grown over time but that butterflies have filled her stomach because the topics in it are not discussed with everyone.
“(The book version was) very scary because there are poems about things that I didn’t talk about out loud with a whole group of people,” she said. “This can be really scary. What will people say? What will they say if they find out that you have been through these things that you have survived? Sexual abuse, violence, homelessness, divorce, complex family relationships. How will people react to me when I share these things?”
Despite the “horror” that might join the book’s release, Johnson Davis is excited to shed light on these dark areas of her life through writing. She said it was difficult to go through the events of the poems because they were so reclusive. It wasn’t long after her poems were released when she released this and that wasn’t the case.
“What I’ve gained from sharing my pain is how many people reach out and say, ‘I’ve been through something similar,’” Johnson Davis said. “All that loneliness and isolation you felt that you thought you were the only one is gone — suddenly there is a whole world open to you made up of other people who have either gone through the same thing. Suddenly, the world feels less isolated and less lonely.”
Johnson Davis’ book No Unpaid Travelers can be purchased from Amazon. She said she is proud to publish the book herself as it doubles down on her growth to support herself. She didn’t need a post to take her story and tell her how to do things.
“I’d have it all myself,” she said, “and there’s some strength, privilege, and beauty to that.” “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. It actually makes me want to cry. There is real beauty in choosing yourself that way.”
Cory Schmidt is a freelance reporter for the Pioneer Press.