I’ve turned the corner into my fourth year with the United Methodist Church, so surely I’ve been in attendence on All Saints’ Day before, but I have no clear memory of it. There is something about a bell, but it’s vague. The church calendar, it seems, takes some time getting used to. Or, more likely, it takes the body longer to acclimate to the pace of Christian life than the mind (wrestling with the new theology from day one) and tongue (learning the new language on the fly). Who knows where my heart is in this transition. Miles ahead or years behind, I’m sure. So today is All Saints’ Sunday and I’m a foreigner to this quality of grief. I’ve lost hardly anyone that wasn’t supposed to go. So I’m quiet in Sunday School, so quiet A asks if I’m okay, but I am more than okay, I feel terrific, just listening and learning from people who know more about death than I. The services are as usual, though the choir director brought saxaphones in for the day, and they are loud and jazzy. The children come back to the group for communion and gather on the steps in front of the sanctuary, which is different. I see D in her shiny winter hat watching Pastor Grace bless and break the bread intently. She serves the children first. I approach the table–it’s an open table, which means it’s okay that I’m not technically a member of this church, okay that the church for whatever stupid pedantic reason does not recognize my Mormon baptism–and take the bread, dip the bread, eat the bread sweet with Welch’s grape juice, walk down the stairs. I find D and we head into the courtyard, join the congregation huddled around the labyrinth. It was cold this morning and still is, but the sun is shining. D’s hat looks like a disco ball. We stand with my friend J and her daughter L in the fluffy hot pink earmuffs. The pastors take turns reading the names out loud, the names of everyone lost from our congregation this year, and it guts me because I knew some of them, but none well enough. I know enough to feel that some of them should be here still. After each name, a clear bell, the silence. The pastors move onto the names of those that the members of our congregation have lost, the parents, and grandparents, and brothers, and sisters, and children, and friends. There are more bells. J weeps. And then we sing in Latin, a three-part round. D learned the words in choir so she sings too. Something about peace. We file inside, upstairs to retrieve the electric tea light all the kids got today from the children’s chapel room upstairs. I try to hug J, but we are both walking, and it’s awkward. We go back downstairs into the Great Hall for fellowship. D brings me a handful of broccoli, “all the broccoli they had” and instead of chiding her, I eat it. We pack sack lunches for the soup kitchen. D and L run to the stage to play. J and I lean against the stage, drinking coffee, talking about her brother, talking about our husbands, talkimg about our kids. We are all saints.
Is apparently a real day, a day of note during Holy Week, a week of numerous notable days. (The first time I heard it mentioned I thought the pastor was saying “Monday Thursday” and I thought what kind of boring backassward holiday is that?) Maundy Thursday is today! My daughter joined the children’s choir this year and the wonderful, charitable, brilliant choir director lets the children’s choir lead precisely two services, the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday family services, which I gather are the most sparsley attended services of the year. This, of course, is how I found myself at church on a Thursday evening taking my assignment as greeter entirely too seriously as I threw open the church’s heavy wooden doors against the wind, thrust programs into the hands of other weekday worshippers, mostly parents of other small children, and enthusiastically welcoming everyone to Maundy Thursday! Before I had anybody to greet, Pastor Grace saw me standing by the door with nothing but a fistfull of programs and an expectant look and gave me a job, not realizing I already had one, I think. First, she asked me if I knew where the communion goblets were, a question that stumped me on many levels. How would I? Why would I? Where would I even look? This church is huge. Would I know them if I saw them? Should I check with the office, I wondered? The basement? The other greeter peered at me curiously and suggested the kitchen and cleverly offered to assume that task. Pastor Grace told me she had another job, if I would wash my hands. I trotted off to the kitchen to wash up, vaguely worried that people would enter the chapel ungreeted and programless but powerless to say no to our new charismatic leader. I just want her to like me! When I returned, cleansed, she gestured to the front of the chapel told me to find two loaves of bread and put them in two baskets. I found the loaves in a cabinet! And the baskets were in plain sight on top! I couldn’t remember if the loaves went on top of or underneath the linen napkins in he baskets and decided to wrap them because that seemed right. My husband, watching from the pew stage whispered something snarky about my bare hands. “I WASHED,” I hissed back. I blinked back heavy, happy tears. Never did I ever prepare the sacrament in all my thirty years as a Mormon, not because I wasn’t worthy but because I was a girl. Here I am, not even a member of the UMC, not even baptized in the eyes of that church, brand new to the very existence of a whole Holy Week, let alone freaky deaky sounding Maundy Thursday and they are letting me handle the body of Christ? Later, when I was back at my post, waiting for stragglers to greet, Pastor Grace told me I was doing an excellent job. She smiled winkingly and motioned to my hands and told me I was now officially authorized to carry holy things.
What if I wrote here every day? What if I told the whole story, in real time? What if I let you inside my mind? What if I stopped waiting for the wound to heal? What if I didn’t glamorize or stylize or editorialize?
What if I told you that I talk to God, almost every night. At minimum, “Thanks,” my knees hardly kiss the floor. When I’m feeling virtuous, the St. Francis prayer. Lord grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand, than to be underatood. I believe it but I don’t know it to be true and also I don’t want it to be true. When I’m feeling lonely, or crushed, or scared, I roll on my side in bed and talk, plead really, to know that someone is there, to know what to do, to feel something more than what I am able to access on my ordinary own. Sometimes it works, and I do feel something unfold inside my body, an expansiveness, a warming, which could be God or simply relief from the pain of being. Kanye said no more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need, and man I get that. Is it wrong to lapse into prayer like a fix, to crave worship for the chance to transcend the limitations of my weekday brain, to believe in God because it just feels better than not. I am not steadfast in my faith. Sometimes I empty out, dry up, flatten, harden, sink. I can’t pray. I don’t give a shit about anyone’s will, not even my own, except the will to feel different than I do. God is gone and I don’t want God back. Back before I lost my faith, I thought the absence of God would feel like freedom. Sometimes I still think that. But the fact of the matter is that, for me, falling off the spiritual plane feels like death.
I suspect this is not normal or regular or typical but I don’t know a better way to live.
Everybody leaves. At least, that’s how it feels when you are a progressive Mormon trying to make it work in the church. You are defensive of your Mormon identity and hopeful you can be the change you want to see, but it’s hard to do either when it feels like everybody who thinks like you stops coming around and a good chunk of the people who don’t think like you want you gone. You worry that 2012-2013 was high tide for unorthodox Mormons. You envision a time that you will look around the chapel and wonder, where have all the feminists gone? You know your daughter will leave. You know it will be because of what you teach her about her worth and about God, about how He or She or They or It love everyone the same.
Even way back when, at the very beginning of my journey into the Mormon hinterland, before the decade-plus I spent traversing the boundary, meandering the liminal space–in and out and in again–I was always envious of the people who came and went easily.
- The boy who found Bud Heavy and decided right away that a life with beer was better than one of deprivation.
- The girl who shacked up with her college boyfriend and wondered what was so bad about living in sin, anyway.
- The Jack Mormons who realized they could ditch the moniker altogether, the first part and the last, and move through their lives like normal people, not transgressive, not special, but also not Other, no longer marked at all.
I liked booze and boys as much as the next mostly straight teenage girl and didn’t even feel guilty about it. (Shame would come later on, when I tried to quit drinking and found I couldn’t, when I fell in love with an atheist and found I couldn’t fall out.) I liked them enough that I understood why people left. I entertained the idea myself. I wanted to want to leave. What I didn’t understand was how people who were raised in the church could just…go. Like it was nothing. Like it never meant anything at all.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I would show up at church high or hungover, reeking of sweat and sex and booze and sit in the pew and try to focus on the ceiling while the room pitched and lurched around me in an effort not to hurl. The wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling of chapels crisscrossing the country from Tucson to New Orleans to Seattle to Ann Arbor looked like the hull of a great ship and I’d be carried away in visions of myself as the brother of Jared, rocking around in an ark bound for the promised land.
Why did I keep going? I guess I just believed.
That pissed me off, by the way. Making bad decisions on Friday is much less fun when you spend Sunday worrying about how to be good.
Years passed and I kicked the drugs and cut back on the drinking and married the atheist and went back to church. I couldn’t ignore the pull I felt toward Mormonism. We were tethered, naval to pulsing, bloody mass. It wasn’t perfect or anywhere near, but I put together a life that looked Mormon enough. I went to church most weeks. I taught a Sunday School class. I visited the women in my congregation that I was assigned to visit and shared uplifting messages about Jesus. I gave people rides. I tithed thousands of dollars to the church. I read the Book of Mormon every day. I read church magazines. I listened to General Conference twice a year. I prayed constantly. Mormonism made me happy, much happier than I’d been before.
But I still tracked the people who left, and wondered how they did it.
- The husband who read mysterious things about the church on the Internet and decided that while he had spent the last thirty years perfectly content to believe Joseph Smith translated gold plates using a pair of spectacles and a breastplate, the notion of the boy sticking his face in a hat to read words flashing across a rock was a bridge too far.
- The young man fresh off his mission who discovered the number–and the ages–of Joseph’s wives and couldn’t wrap his head around this sordid new information about the prophet he revered.
- The woman who lifted her veil and saw for the first time where she fell in the hierarchy of woman, man, and God.
- Entire families that passed out fliers supporting Prop 8 but freaked out when the church invested in a mall in downtown SLC.
I’d spent so long trying and failing at being a good Mormon it never occurred to me that I might not want the church I came back to.
Of course the red flags had been there all along. Once, when I was still very precarious in regard to the church, only sporadically attending a student ward at university, a Sunday School teacher, a woman, college-aged and educated, made the bizarre pronouncement in the middle of a lesson that the Big Bang Theory was “stupid.” I didn’t know church was a place I could disagree yet, so I spent the rest of class silently fuming and called my mom in a rage as soon as it was over. On the surface, I was angry because literal, biblical, six-day Creationism is not even required Mormon doctrine. Sure, some Mormons believe that stuff, but the official party line is that religion and science work together. Mormons aren’t the kind of fundamentalists who tear pages out of biology textbooks. My anger was defensive, on account of my membership in the group. Mormons are already so weird; who did this woman think she was, putting our cultural relevance in further jeopardy by perpetuating backward anti-science gobbledygook without anybody even saying she had to?
On a deeper level, I was hurt and baffled. Here I was, at church, during the Sunday school class that meets at the end of a three-hour worship service no less, for the first time in who know how long, desperately trying to inject some spirituality into a life that felt poisonous, and this woman, who was supposedly called by God, who was supposed to be leading the class by inspiration, was using her platform to engage a culture war that had been out of date for decades? A war that was never ours to fight in the first place? Church was a hospital and I was dying and this was the first time I sensed that I might show up and get something that made the hurt worse.
So, yes, I came back to church with questions. How could I not, having been blessed with a brain that works and a family that told me to use it? How could I not, having been raised in a church that taught me that all are alike before God, black and white, bond and free, male and female? How could I not, after years of living and studying and working alongside women with astonishing resumes, men who treated me like an equal, atheists who were kinder than any Christian I’d ever known? Of course I came back with questions. The fact that I’d already come back once, that I’d come back at all, after living through my own approximation of hell, stilled the part of me that wanted to abandon the faith altogether. Even so, I had enough questions to understand why other people did.
What I didn’t understand was how people could do it so quickly, with so much certainty. Like it was so black and white.
Like many people, I found information that challenged my faith online. It started with the mixed-orientation marriage forums. I found my way there looking for resources for people in mixed-faith relationships after I decided to marry my non-LDS boyfriend. I needed reassurance that we could make it, in spite of our religious differences. What I found–lots of women trying to stay in marriages to gay men–was neither especially relevant to my situation, not especially comforting. How had all these men ended up married to women anyway? What were they going to do, faced as they were with choosing between the deepest longings of their hearts and the church they lived and a family hanging in jeopardy in the middle? I couldn’t fathom the difficulty and thanked God I didn’t have to choose.
Next came the blogs. I devoured a secret personal blog by a closeted gay Mormon man. He was married to a woman and they had four children. He kept writing that he wanted to stay, with his wife, in the church, but when he wrote about blossoming friendships with other men, about exploring intimacy outside the confines of his marriage, I thought it was painfully obvious that wasn’t exactly the case.
I couldn’t relate to anything this man was experiencing but I was fascinated by this glimpse into the mind of another tortured Mormon soul.
A friend from law school turned me onto Feminist Mormon Housewives. He was giving a presentation on Proposition 8 in our Critical Legal Theory class and he was careful to mention that not all Mormons are socially conservative, glancing over at me, and citing FMH as proof. I’d never heard of the website and ran home to type the words into my web browser. I was gobsmacked. It was a group blog run by Mormon women and the tagline in the header read, “angry activists with diapers to change.” Who were these ladies, writing about canning jam and fighting the patriarchy? They were simultaneously eerily regressive (absolute piles of children) and wildly radical (there’s a Heavenly…Mother?). Post after post challenged fundamental Mormon beliefs and practices. They questioned the idea that God told the early Mormons to practice polygamy. They suggested that Mormon women once held a version of the priesthood and perhaps the day would come when they would again. They aired horrific accounts of ecclesiastical abuse. They talked in circles around temple ceremonies that broke their hearts they were so inequitable.
This was the most absorbing content I’d ever read. I felt like I’d walked into a conversation I’d spent my whole life wanting to have.
FMH led me to the semi-Mormon Mommy Bloggers, Mormon women with personal websites that were snarky, and funny, and intellectual, and irreverent. I hadn’t realized that Mormon women could be smart and cool. Chalk it up to internalized misogyny or to me not ever giving Mormon women a real chance, I was willing to atone. I had finally found my people.
After the blogs came the podcasts. Hungry for stories about other Mormon misfits, I tore through the archives of Mormon Stories and Mormon Expressions and Mormon Matters, honing in on women’s stories. Dark as they often were, with self harm and loss and painful encounters with religious authority, these were the stories of women steeped in the same tradition as me making it work, often after watching their religious world disintegrate around them.
- Claudia Bushman forced out of publishing the Exponent II after her husband became stake president.
- Sonia Johnson excommunicated after pushing for the ERA.
- Maxine Hanks and Lavina Fielding Anderson and Margaret Toscano and others excommunicated after writing and editing books about the history and theology of Mormon women.
In addition to the giants of Mormon feminism, I discovered dozens of women with far less storied histories sharing about the personal undoing they experienced when they caught onto a loose thread of inequality and followed it into the rich and tangled web of unorthodox Mormonism. Often, this undoing was followed by a re-weaving of their lives into the Mormon whole, by which I mean: they kept going to church. Theirs were stories of betrayal, loss, and redemption.
After years of ambivalence around the church, torn between feeling like I should be a better Mormon despite not really wanting to be Mormon, it was the Mormon feminists that drew me in, and it was the Mormon feminists who would show me how to stay.
As I read more and more accounts of people who disaffected from Mormon orthodoxy, I noticed that my experience diverged from the typical story in one major way: none of the information I was learning about Mormonism shocked me.
Among the many gifts my parents gave me is a Mormonism that is malleable. A Mormonism that, when I was a teenager, easily accommodated bikinis and short shorts and protest songs. A Mormonism that opposed the Iraq invasion. A Mormonism that drew back in horror when, that same year, the ward choir director announced that the Easter program would shock and awe us, in an obvious reference to the campaign in the Middle East, but loved that choir director just the same. A Mormon community that smiled, bemused, at my hot pink hair in college and applauded when I graduated from law school before getting married.
This kind of Mormonism would readily expand to make room for fallible prophets and bishops behaving badly and confusing and incomplete doctrines about women, people of color, and gay people when the time came. This kind of Mormonism not only tolerated but welcomed big questions. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? What do we do when people claiming to be God’s servants get it seriously wrong.
Make no mistake: I had a healthy fear of “anti-Mormon literature,” which is what my Mormon parents called books and websites that were critical of the church in the 1990s and early aughts. I fretted when my non-LDS boyfriend read things about the church online, worried he’d stumble into something so profoundly ugly that it would ruin any chances of him ever joining the church. Well into my twenties, when I was Hoovering in stories of people who had doubts about the veracity of the church’s teachings, who had had negative experiences in the church, and who, whether as a result of their particular makeup or their unique history, were on their way out, I nervously avoided seeking out information about the church that wasn’t filtered through the lens of a personal story.
Vacuum cleaner that I was, I picked up the bad news anyway. Bad news like:
- Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon–e.g., references to horses and coins when there is no archaeological record of such things having existed in the Americas during the time periods covered by the Book of Mormon. For some people, this is all the proof they need that Joseph Smith faked the whole thing–the One True Church is a scam. It made me want to learn more about the art of translation and how a translator’s worldview impacts the subject text.
- DNA studies–e.g., evidence that ancestors of American Indians migrated from Central Asia and not, as it happens, ancient Israel. For some people, this information undermines everything they thought they knew about the origins of the Americas as told in the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t get through more than 30 minutes of academic discussion on the subject, because it’s dry as hell. Also, everybody gets killed off at the end of that book; it made sense to me that they wouldn’t have left a significant genetic record.
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre–e.g., that time (1857) when a band of Mormon settlers murdered 120 men, women, and children emigrating by wagon from Arkansas to California. This one threw me a little more than the others. I honestly had no idea my people were capable of that. On further thought, though, it is tragic but not senseless. The Mormons were isolated and hysterical, persecution memories were fresh, and tensions were high. Plus, there is evidence that Brigham Young helped orchestrate the attack, and Mormons are nothing if not obedient. History is a bloody mess and I was a natural apologist.
Because nothing shocked me, there was no turning point, no clear demarcation between then and now. I learned something new and it was like I’d always known it. I polished off the whole apple without realizing I’d even taken a bite. I did everything short of walking out of the garden.
My Mormonism was, in addition to being malleable, porous. Teachings that made no sense slid along the membrane and slipped right out. So Joseph Smith married a 15-year-old. My qualms with wrapping my head around the idea of a prophet fucking up to such a monumental degree were few. But I was not about to twist my conscience up in knots pretending that God told him to do that. Or that God just changed his mind about black people in 1978. Or that God cries anything but tears of joy when two men, or two women, fall in love and decide to be family.
Each new, unpleasant pebble of church history dissolved smoothly into the bubble of my belief, as though I had always known it. Those that didn’t passed through. The new information did not rock my faith so much as change the composition and the shape of it, slightly, over time. If anything, these revelations made me more attached to the church. A moody, complicated faith suited my rebellious nature. I knew I’d stick around longer if I could fight for something within the faith, even while I defended it on the outside.
What I didn’t expect is that the church would fight me back.
The first shots rang out in 2012, when I marched with a contingent of LDS supporters of gay marriage in the Chicago Pride Parade. The men wore white shirts and ties and the women wore pioneer dresses and we walked quietly with the other religious groups armed with rainbow flags and signs announcing our allyship. The event organizers were generous enough to put all us Jesus freaks at the front of the parade, and the moment I went from grinning my face off waving at drag queens to rounding a bend and being booed by the Westboro Baptist Church remains one of the most powerful of my life. Humans built bridges that day and God was pleased. A month later, a friend and former law school classmate called me to repentance. He told me that I couldn’t hide my sin by slapping a progressive label on it. He told me that my dissent made me something other than a real Mormon.
The firestorm came later that year, when a ragtag band of Mormon feminists organized Wear Pants to Church Day. What started off as a day for us to show solidarity and raise awareness by wearing pants instead of the customary skirts or dresses to church blew up into an international event with press coverage in major outlets from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to NPR. I got emails from other Mormons, strangers, condemning me.
- Anyone who supports this protest is revealing more about your feeling jipped for being born a woman than it is showing you are proud of womanhood.
- I have you to thank for the hate that is overcoming my facebook today. You incited a verbal riot. Is this what you intended? If not, please remove your event.
- If you wanted to create contention with your page, you have succeeded marvelously. What does the scripture say, “Contention is of the devil”. I wonder what you thought you would accomplish with this. If it was anything other than dividing the membership of the church, you were sadly mistaken.
- Shame on you for trying to make a place of worship, and women in the church feel even more divided and making an issue out of one that really shouldn’t be there. Church leaders have said nothing about wearing pants. This distracts from Christ and being united. It’s not right. People should not be judging others for wearing pants if necessary, as well as those who choose to wear skirts. This idea and day to wear pants is just wrong. Are you truly following Christ and uniting and loving, or are you like the great divider….you decide.
Stephanie L., the woman who started the movement, received a death threat. My mom accused me, with hurt and fear in her voice, of wanting the priesthood–the ability to act in God’s name with God’s power, a privilege available to all Mormon men but only to Mormon men–for myself. I responded to every email graciously, practically begging the question, “What would Jesus do?” I quoted liberally from the Book of Mormon, determined to show them I was the better Christian.
I was besieged in 2013, after I had my baby. I dutifully took her to church on Sundays, alone, desperate for support and reassurance that I was making the right choices as a mother, that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my daughter by going back to work while my husband stayed home, that I hadn’t already screwed her up royally by marrying outside of the church in the first place. What I got was people asking me when I was going to quit my job, was leaders reminding me that a woman’s job is to nurture and a man’s to provide, that women and men are different but equal.
In the spring of that year, Kate Kelly launched her website advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Mormon church and members pushed back. Feminists tried to attend the all-male priesthood session of the church’s semiannual general conference in the fall and were turned away at the door. I quietly posted a profile on ordainwomen.org and didn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t want my family to be ashamed.
The war waged in 2014, when the church excommunicated Kelly for her role in pushing for ordination. I wrote about being crippled after watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. Up to this point, I’d been crawling along the boundary of what was acceptable in Mormonism, pushing against it and enjoying the way it flexed and stretched. There was always more room, it seemed, for me and for the people I loved. In 2014, the skin snapped back. The pores clogged. My once airy bubble sealed shut, in the world but not of it, a place unto itself. At church, I watched my daughter watch the deacons pass the sacrament. Those twelve-year-old boys had more power in the church than she would ever have. I lived six days a week as a human and went to church on the seventh a failed mom. I could not breathe.
I started drinking again. I got high.
People have been leaving the church for as long as there’s been a church to leave but in 2014 my people started leaving in droves. My friends in Chicago. The women I planned Wear Pants to Church Day with. Women I’d admired from afar. For the first time since I’d come back to the church in my twenties, I wanted out.
Why did I keep going? It wasn’t because I got a thrill out of being an iconoclast. I mean, I did, but it’s not the life I would have chosen for myself. I went because I still believed.
But what did I believe? That the church was “true,” whatever that means? In my heart of hearts, I’d been a universalist for years. I had to be. I was married to a non-believer. My grandmother is an atheist. I had too many friends who would never join the Mormon church in large part because of the irredeemable positions it took on social issues. I had to believe that things would work out for these people or I’d have drunk myself to death years ago over the tragedy of it all.
My belief system was big and slippery, but only for other people. When it came to my own salvation, I was certain that I would live and die in the Mormon bubble. I remembered what my life had been like without the church, how lucky I was to have survived addiction, depression, and insanity, and knew I couldn’t go back. I remembered the experiences that had led me back to the church, the angels that lined my path, the voice of God in my head, and knew I couldn’t discard their power. Mormonism was the only place, the only language, God had ever spoken to me and so I believed it was the only place God would. I believed Mormonism was where and who I was supposed to be. My God was as big as my mind was small.
The irony is that, although it was the church’s rejection of the movement to ordain women to the priesthood that was pushing me to the edge, I never wanted to be a priest. How could I? The notion of a woman acting with authority in the church, in any church, was beyond my wildest imagination. Plus, submitting to the laying on of hands would mean giving up my spot in the cheap seats and my identity a fringe Mormon.
Some months after Kelly’s excommunication, I had a vision of myself in robes. It was during my morning commute. I rode the red line from my neighborhood on the north side. My mind, at that point, was a minefield of anxiety, alcoholism, and fear. The train descended from the elevated tracks to the tunnels below. I couldn’t think of work or family or church without tripping the wire that told me I was failing, that I was falling apart, across the board. The doors slid open and I pushed out into the dark. A comedian’s voice buzzed in my ears; I’d taken to listening to podcasts to muffle the noises in my head, to blunt the existential dread. The escalator closest to my office was under repair so I took the long way to the stairs at the other end of the tunnel and emerged blinking in the bright morning light. I couldn’t get myself to and from work without courting disaster. I stepped off the curb ready to cross State Street, ready to walk out of my life, when it happened. I saw myself standing shin-deep in the water, draped in white, with an embroidered stole. My arms waved, beckoning somebody to join me. I didn’t need more context to know that I was not being baptized into another church; I was doing the baptizing.
Something clicked into place and the pressure in my chest released, breathing life into my cramped vision of how women relate to God. As a Mormon woman, I had been fighting for something that women of other faiths already have. I’d spent so long convinced that, for me, the options were Mormon or nothing, and vacillated wildly between the two. In a moment, I saw that could go somewhere else, and that that place would be filled with light, and that my passions and talents and questions would not just be tolerated, but received.
Is revelation ever easy to take? The vision dissolved into the bubble with every other unsettling thought I’d ever had. Like Jonah, I fled and spent the next year in the belly of the beast.
In November 2015, the LDS church updated its handbooks to include a new policy. Per the policy, members of the church in same-sex marriages were apostates subject to excommunication from the church. Children of same-sex couples were forbidden from being blessed as babies and baptized into the church as children. Instead, they had to wait until they turned eighteen, moved out of their parents’ homes, disavowed gay marriage, and obtained approval from First Presidency–the prophet and his two counselors, the highest leaders in the church.
The policy came as a shock after half a decade during which many progressive Mormons perceived the church as softening its stance toward gay and lesbian members and the larger LGBTQ community. The effects were immediately devastating. Church members across the spectrum expressed bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow, online, at family members. Thousands gathered in Salt Lake City to submit letters resigning their membership in the church. Many more just stopped going. Those committed to the church circled the wagons. Straight people reached out to their gay friends to tell them they were welcome. Bishops and other church leaders offered to meet with their congregants to answer their questions. Ward members invited people into their homes, to hold each other, and to talk. I drank rye whiskey from the bottle and wept.
As with most people, it was the aspect of the policy that barred children from being baptized that hit me hardest. I knew the church sometimes made people leave. I’d seen it in my own lifetime, with Kelly, and others. This was the first time I’d known the church, my church, a young and eager church, a proselytizing church, turn people away who, against all odds, actually wanted to join. The policy dangled the possibility of baptism at a later date, and some kids will probably grab for that chance, but others won’t. I was baptized when I was eight years old. It was an easy choice. Back then, thinking about the church was like wrapping myself in a warm blanket. By the time I was eighteen, all I wanted to do was to get high–I never would have gotten baptized at that point. The new policy told me that the church was okay with losing kids like me. The policy told me that the baptismal covenant wasn’t the essential, life-saving ordinance the church proclaimed it to be. The policy told me that, for some of us, a life inside the church was negligible.
Word of the policy spread like a contagion, and I had an appointment with my bishop within days. He struggled to put into words the reasons for church’s new position. “The church respects families,” he said. “We don’t want to put children in the confusing position of receiving conflicting messages about the sacred doctrine of marriage at church and at home. We don’t want to undermine the parents of those families.”
“But that’s my family. I married outside the faith, outside the temple. And my husband and I believe that people have the right to marry whoever they want and we are teaching our daughter to do the same. How are we different?”
He looked at me with compassion and concern and a profound inability to answer my question. “I want you to know that you and your family are always welcome in our ward.”
But I wasn’t looking for permission to stay. I didn’t need that. Mormonism was my birthright. I’d rejected it and gotten it back and now my heart and my mind were a mess with it. Nobody could take Mormonism from me. I was looking for permission to go, and in the policy I finally had it, from the mouth of the Lord’s anointed.
A few days later, I went for an early morning run outside. It was warm for November. The sidewalks were wet with rain from the night before and the sun was coming up gold over Lake Michigan. I was glad nobody was up yet because every few blocks my face would crumple and I’d let out a horrific barking sob. My relationship with Mormonism had been an agonizing intellectual head game for so long it bizarre to hear my body finally emit the grief. I needed to get away from where people might be so I ran to Lake Michigan and followed the trail out to a little peninsula with a dock that looks south to the city. I dropped to my knees and traced the shoreline past all the neighborhoods I lived before, untethered from them all. A vee of geese knifed through the sky. It seemed late for them to be leaving, but when I looked it up later, I learned that the migrations are nothing to set your watch by. Canada Geese pass through Chicago most of the winter and, thanks to warmer winters and urban feeding, some never leave it all.
These days, I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t go to church anymore, but it’s different than before, when I was still a Mormon living in the land of should. Ex-Mormon is too harsh, Post-Mormon too smug. I still envy the people who know how to rip the Band-aid off. I could never be so rash. My relationship with Mormonism was a long, slow unpeeling. Mormonism wasn’t adhesive. It was epidermis and it pulled the follicles of my faith up and out one by one. Once I called Mormonism my whole heart, but that was wrong. Mormonism was skin. I can live without it, but I will be raw for years.
You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled.
As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway.
A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?
Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.
My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.
Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.
When I started practicing law, I started measuring time in billable hours, broken down into six- and fifteen-minute intervals, depending on how the client wanted time reported. Marking time in this scale made my heart race, made me cut off my husband mid-sentence, made me power-walk to Sunday brunch.
When I became a mom, I started measuring time in weeks, switching over to months when the numbers got too big and non-parents had to start doing math just to figure out how old my daughter was. Compared to the down-to-the-minute accountability of legal practice, motherhood felt like strolling through an actual sunlit meadow. Time slowed and stretched and I lost hours looking at my baby, bouncing her on my knees, pushing the stroller for two unplanned hours in the afternoon and coming home with nothing to show for my time except for a bubble tea and a sleeping baby.
When I got sober, I started counting days. I hated days. Days made my skin crawl. They were too long to properly account for the suffering that occurred on a minute-by-minute basis in a single twenty-four hour period: the dozens of times I white-knuckled my way through a craving, the hundreds of minutes spent turning the critical question (Do I really need to do this?) over in my head, the hours of shame-wallowing as I forced myself to re-live the worst of the experiences alcohol gave me, examining each bottom in exacting detail in a Sysphean struggle to determine whether I had, in fact, sunk low enough. At the same time, days were too short for one passing to feel like progress, not when I kept starting over at Day One, not when I found myself questioning my decision at Day 90, and especially not when I had only double digits to show after trying to starve the beast for a decade. Counting days is torture. I’ve been doing it steadily for 180 of them.
180 days, or six months, doesn’t feel like much. It’s not even the longest stretch of sober time I’ve put together. A few years ago, I went nine months without touching a drop of alcohol, nine months that conveniently coincided with pregnancy. I felt so proud of myself, but also a little bit like I was cheating, so I planned on using the forced dry spell to jump start a new and better life. Then, a few days after my daughter was born, I read some enabling pseudoscience on the internet about using beer to stimulate milk production and decided that the new life could wait awhile longer.
I tried again after my daughter’s first birthday and I guess it sort of worked because I went nine more months without drinking. I don’t count that time, though, and don’t like to think about it either, because I spent most of it unraveling. I was dry as a bone and crazy as a loon and, worst of all, lonely. I still hadn’t told anyone how badly I wanted to quit, or how inexplicably hard I was finding it to be. By the end, I was losing hours in creepy online forums trying to figure out a way to relapse into a decade-old drug problem without blowing up my beautiful relationships with my husband and daughter or accidentally killing myself. (Apparently law school turned me into the kind of risk averse person who does “research” before getting high instead of just swallowing whatever I can get my hands on.)
So what’s different this time? It’s harder, for one thing. The days are heavy with forever. That goes against the old school “one day at a time” alcoholic logic, but one day at a time doesn’t work for me. It offers too many opportunities to question the decision, and I am a master of delayed gratification. Tell me I can get loaded tomorrow and eventually I will. So, forever it is.
If you know me in real life, it probably comes as a surprise to learn that not drinking is a choice I have to make every day. I don’t look like a person who used to have a drinking problem. To quote John Mulaney, “I don’t look like a person who used to do anything.” I have a good job and a loving family and a cute little townhouse. Oh, and I’m a Mormon, at least if you define the term loosely.
Growing up in a religion that preaches complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol simultaneously amplifies and obscures the warning signs that mark the path to addiction. I grew up oblivious to the distinction between normal and abnormal drinking. Spiritually speaking, sharing a bottle of wine with friends was on par with getting shit-faced by myself, and because I didn’t see a marked difference between the two, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t normal to prefer the latter. Drinking in any quantity was so transgressive that I also got in the habit of hiding my habit. First from my parents, which is not so unusual for a teenager, but later from my roommates, friends, and boyfriends. Because I was so used to lying to people, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t normal to carry a water bottle full of vodka in my purse on a first date.
Mormonism continued to complicate matters after I realized I needed to quit. Growing up Mormon, I learned that perfectionism is not just an attainable goal but the purpose of life. I thought that I could do anything if I prayed hard enough. Every time I found myself with a drink in my hand days, sometimes even hours, after waking up with yet another debilitating hangover and swearing the stuff off for good, I chalked it up to moral weakness and vowed to pray harder, be better. My faith blinded me to the reality of physical and psychological addiction. I believed so absolutely in an omnipotent God–or maybe in my own omnipotent self–that it never occurred to me that another person might have something useful to offer.
Over the years, I dedicated a not insignificant amount of time trying to sniff out other people like me. I cozied up to new converts to the church and asked questions about their lives before Mormonism, desperate for a hint that they missed drinking, that they’d had a hard time kicking it, or, better, that they hadn’t given it up at all. I contorted the phrasing of the religious text underlying the ban on alcohol to suit my evolving preference for craft beers over hard liquor and to rationalize the blatant hypocrisy of showing up at church after spending the night at the bar. I searched endless iterations of the phrase “Mormon alcoholic” and “Mormon addict” and, later, “sober Mormon” and “Mormon in recovery,” in janky 1990s forums for Mormon apologists, in subreddits for bitter ex-Mormons, in secret Facebook groups for the faithful Left. It is worth noting here the one thing I did not do is attend a meeting of the church’s addiction recovery program–i.e., the one thing guaranteed to put me in the same room as other Mormons who knew precisely what I was going through–because that was the one thing that would have required me to want to change.
When the time finally came that I did want to change, I knew religion wouldn’t work. I’d been approaching the problem from that angle for years and all I had to show for it was knees worn out from praying so hard and a big bag of shame I’d been dragging around for so long I couldn’t fathom the relief that would come from setting it down.
Here are a few things that did work:
I asked for help of the non-divine variety. By which I mean I got my ass to a twelve step meeting. When I felt my heart break open, I kept going. When I felt annoyed by the dumb and crazy things people said, I kept going. I kept going until I felt grounded and even though I don’t go regularly anymore, I make an effort every time I feel the floor of my commitment shift beneath my feet.
I started seeing a therapist.
I went back to things that I used to like more than drinking. I started running again. I started a new blog. I put new strings in my guitar and started re-learning the songs I used to play with my dad, CCR, BoDyl, a little Grateful Dead. I ran slow and wrote clunky blog posts and fumbled over strum patterns that I used to pound out in my sleep, but I kept going, even when the existential boredom of doing all those things sober made my skin hurt.
I found new things that I liked more than drinking. I signed up and trained for a Tough Mudder. I joined a post-Mormon storytelling group. I started researching emerging legal issues and publishing articles. I bought an adult coloring book.
I made a genuine effort to get eight hours of sleep a night as often as I realistically could.
I started drinking coffee after seven years off the sauce on account of the Mormon prohibition. A girl can only take so much denial.
I purged every aspect of Mormonism that felt like dead weight, tasted like poison, looked like hate, or somehow just didn’t smell right from my personal theology. Goodbye perfectionism. Good riddance, patriarchy. Farefuckingwell to the marriage doctrine that’s got all those nice Mormons wound up jealously guarding the institution, the culture, the right to live and love according to the dictates of one’s heart and conscience from the gays.
Essentially, after years of conflating the two, of thinking the only force powerful enough to make me want to get and stay sober was the pull of the church I grew up in, I finally began the messy process of disentangling my sobriety from my religion. I needed my sobriety to stand on its own, rather than ebbing and flowing with the tides of my fickle faith. If I was going to have a spiritual life, it needed to be for reasons other than it was the thing keeping me sober.
Many of the last 180 days I have not been especially spiritual. Many of the last 180 days I have not been especially good. All of the last 180 days I have been sober, which means that all of the last 180 days I have been fully present and engaged in my life. Many of the last 180 days I have even been happy, so I’ll keep counting.
In my wildest dreams I am a religious wanderer. A holy harlot. A spiritual slut.
In reality, I’ve only acted on that impulse a few times. When I was 21, on the precipice of leaving Tucson for good after graduation, I took the I-19 south into the desert to explore the San Xavier mission and surprised myself by joining evening mass, sitting and kneeling and standing a beat behind everyone else, struggling to make out the words to the unfamiliar hymns, simultaneously recoiling from and grasping toward the touch of strangers murmuring “peace be with you.” Mormons services aren’t nearly so physical.
When I was 29, on the precipice of leaving Mormonism for good after the church started excommunicating feminists again, I took Lakeshore Drive south, set on finding a church that ordained women and served the poor. I sat in on the Sunday morning service at LaSalle Street Church, my heart moved by the presence of the female preacher, while my mind tripped over reference to the Trinity. Mostly I hushed my toddler. Mormon services aren’t nearly so quiet.
I was enchanted by the threads of mystery and wonder I saw glinting in traditions that weren’t my own. Eating latkes by candlelight with a Jewish family in sixth grade. Rock music in a darkened auditorium with an Evangelical youth group in tenth. Stained glass and gold and towering men made of stone on my honeymoon in Rome. The magic of Mormonism is more practical. A family in my neighborhood growing up surviving their father’s long-term unemployment by the miracle of food storage. Millions of adults miraculously waking up each morning without so much as a drop of coffee.
Even so, my divine dalliances were few and far between. I skipped a lot of church over the years, and while I’d like to think I spent that time in meditation or studying Eastern religious texts, the truth is that I was far more invested in Earthly pursuits. Sleeping in. Sunday brunch. Sex.
I recommitted to more traditional, more visible efforts at worship when my daughter was born. I knew enough to know that she wouldn’t spontaneously absorb my dormant faith. She had to see it. So I practiced the religion I knew. I took her to Mormon sacrament services. I pieced together fragments of melody from my memories of the Mormon children’s hymnbook and sang them to her before bed. I prayed to the Mormon Heavenly Father. I prayed to the Mormon Heavenly Mother, too, when I felt especially lost or heretical.
I meant to raise my daughter Mormon-plus, to give her a community along with the power to walk away from it, by introducing her to other religious traditions and honoring their legitimacy. In so doing I hoped to satisfy both my lust for the unfamiliar and my human need to belong.
Mormonism is so big, though, so all-encompassing, that it’s hard to be Mormon-plus-anything. Hell, it’s hard enough to be Mormon. Before I knew it, I had a calling teaching the women in my congregation that made it logistically difficult to church hop, at least with a baby. Before I knew it, my baby was a toddler, curious and kind but tentative around new people and it took her so long to acclimate to the Mormon nursery program that I couldn’t fathom doing it again with the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Baha’i ad infinitum. We stuck with Mormonism for comfort and convenience and I promised my daughter I’d show her a wider world of worship when we were more settled.
And then the timer running on my relationship with Mormonism hit zero. It was not expected. I’d set the timer myself, but hadn’t realized how little time there had been on it, and had forgotten about it in any case. It was not convenient. I thought we’d have years of dilettante-ing in and out of the other congregations in the neighborhood. Instead, I woke up one morning and realized we had to go.
And, of course, now that I finally have the opportunity to stretch my theological boundaries, to spread my hungry wings, I don’t want it. I didn’t know that community is what I wanted most of all until I was exiled from my own. It wasn’t until I spent Sunday morning fielding dirty looks from church ladies every time my toddler fidgeted in the pew that I discovered that Christianity outside Mormonism isn’t all that family friendly. It wasn’t until I found myself in crisis — struggling mightily not to breathe life into a decade-old monster — that I realized I don’t need freedom. I need a church that will have me. Maybe fix me up when I am ready, but first take me in. After years of wandering around the edges of the desert, romanticizing a life in the sun, now that I’m neck deep in sand no water in sight, all I have to say is fuck wonder. Give me shelter.