Ashes To Ashes

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Yesterday in therapy my counselor asked if I liked being a lawyer. I said yes, and then went on a tangent about how much harder it was at my previous job at a big firm downtown, where I was petrified of showing my real personality. I established rigid boundaries between my work self and my real self and flattened myself out into a picture of the kind of person I thought people wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about my work wardrobe, buying the cheapest versions of fancy lawyer clothes I could countenance, and then hating them all. I was too weird, I thought, for the workplace. Of course, with few exceptions, I largely failed connect authentically with my coworkers. It wasn’t my law firm’s fault. I was just insecure, afraid of getting fired. Even then, I liked my job because I like being a lawyer. But I was also suffering deeply from the fragmentation. Seven years is a long time to hide who you are.

Yesterday was also the first day of Lent. I left the office a few minutes early to meet my family for the evening Ash Wednesday service. The elevator doors opened to take me down and there was a man, close to my age, with a dark smudge on his forehead. I did a double take. The mark was jarring.

Stop staring, I told myself. It’s just the ashes. You’re about to go do the same thing.

Yeah, but, I shot back at myself. You would never do it before work.

I want to be a Christian in my heart, but only sometimes, and in my head almost never. I want to wear it on my sleeve–or on my face, as it were–not at all.

At the church, R and I had forty-five minutes to kill while our daughter rehearsed with the children’s choir. You can always count on the children’s choir to be featured at the sparsely attended weekday services. We settled down on a bench outside the chapel and downloaded notes from therapy, notes on parenting. We watched our senior pastor walk the labyrinth in the snowy courtyard and burn last year’s palms to make this year’s ashes. Before she went out in her parka and fuzzy hat she warned, Don’t worry about what you see out there, I’m just making some Jesus magic. When the smoke blew up around her, I wanted to take a picture through the wavy glass windows, but refrained. I thought the ritual might be sacred. Also, I gave up Instagram for Lent, so what would I even do with it? A few minutes later, R pointed out that Pastor Grace had her phone up high, snapping her own photo of the fire. For Facebook, she told us when she came back inside.

Later, when we were settled in the chapel, D in the front row with the choir and R and I few rows back, I tucked myself under R’s arm and we traded jokes and snickered as we waited for the service to start. R doesn’t come to church often, so it’s something a novelty to have him there. Our irreverence continued during the service, when R said something blasphemous and a hymnal in rebuke thudded from the shelf under the pew and landed on his feet. We almost exploded in laughter when the choir sang at the way D thrust her tone chime into the air like a sword, face straining, eyes wild, belting out “Now Is The Acceptable Time.” She seems, so far, to have inherited my deep love of performing and utter lack of awareness about the way I move through the world. When the time came, D and I approached the altar together. We each took a piece of coal to rub in our hands. D tried to pass hers off to me. Here, you can have this. It smells bad. We dropped our coal in a plastic bucket and received our ashy tattoos. R stayed in his seat.

I thought about how, when I was Mormon, it bothered me that R didn’t come to church, but it bothered me even more when he did. It bothered me how he kept his mouth closed during hymns, his eyes open during prayers. It bothered me when he stage-whispered comments about the church leader dozing off behind the pulpit or a too-long talk or a painfully sincere testimony. There’s a way to act in church, I thought, and you don’t have to be Mormon to figure it out. I didn’t like what it said about him, that he couldn’t he get with the program, and I didn’t like what it said about me, that I couldn’t just enjoy having him there. We were, I thought, too worldly to be Mormon. I flattened myself out into a picture of what I thought a Mormon needed to be, straining myself and my marriage in the process. It wasn’t Mormonism’s fault. I was just afraid people would find out who I really was, and the jig would be up. Of course I suffered. Thirty years is a long time to hide who you really are.

I haven’t been to an LDS service in a long time. I am wildly grateful to have found a new church home, something I never expected after leaving Mormonism but, honestly, think the church is getting the better end of the deal. Churches in general, in my view, are blessed to have any members at all. And the fact that my new church gets the realest, most authentic version of me? The silly and the snarky and the deviant and doubtful all rolled up with the serious and faithful and the diligent and sincere? The one that comes with a hilarious and filthy-mouthed husband who doesn’t know how to use his inside voice? The church should thank its lucky stars.

This year was only my second getting ashes. Last year, I was mortified the entire long walk to the altar and back again, convinced everyone was staring at me, especially my ashless husband. It felt horrifying to be revealed for the Christian neophyte and, simultaneously, the religious freak I still am. Somehow, though, I grew more in a year in my new faith than I did in many in my old. This time around I forget about them straight away, not just the stain on my own head, but the one on my daughter’s, and the one that R refused to wear. The ashes don’t matter. The baptism doesn’t matter. The church doesn’t matter. We were all dirty and now, headed into Lent, we are all clean.

All Saints

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.

Maundy Thursday…

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?

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.

Take Me Home

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.

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Passing Time

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.

40 Years

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.