Quarantine Diary Day 68: Coronavirus Postscript

It took over a decade for me to fall out of love with my church. I’m an ex-Mormon and my exit narrative is not one of escape. The church was where I was from and where I was going, my home and my promised land, my mother and my father, my sibling and my cherished friend, my first language and the only one I wanted to learn. For ten years I moved from ward to ward and my religious beliefs morphed with me. I was young and impossibly idealistic. I wanted to be an intellectual, a radical, a revolutionary, and I wanted the bohemian lifestyle that came with, and I wanted it all as a Mormon girl. Mormonism was such a part of me, and I was so wrapped up in the fold, that I saw no conflict, though I had to be careful with my beliefs, shape them just right so that they I could fit them neatly in the body of the church and hold them close to my body at the same time. Remake something malleable enough times eventually it becomes formless. That’s what happened to my beliefs. I prayed and read my scriptures and paid my tithing and sat in the pews and took the Sacrament and taught Sunday School and did my visiting teaching and made an honest effort to try to live the life of an active member of the church, but I dared not let another Latter-Day Saint peek into my head for fear they wouldn’t recognize what they saw: universalism, skepticism, a great big formless god.

When I decided to leave the church it was all at once. On November 5, 2015, a few short months after the Supreme Court of the United States recognized marriage as a fundamental right belonging to all God’s children, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declared same-sex marriage to be apostasy–so anathema to the teachings of the church as to be tantamount to a total renunciation of the religion. The church barred the children of married gay parents from baptism absent special permission from the church president in Salt Lake City and  denouncement by the child of her parents’ marriage. I went to church on November 8, 2015 to register with my bishop my disagreement with the policy and walked out never to set foot in the building again.

The November Policy has since been walked back, but I haven’t.

I clung to the trappings of Mormonism in the days and weeks after I left. I read the Book of Mormon and saw myself in the prophet Moroni, the last of his kind who foretold and witnessed the destruction of his people, who wrote their stories and carried them with him to the bitter end. In my grief in the wake of the November Policy, I cried out to God and felt peace in my heart. I prayed for direction and felt the spirit telling me to go. That surprised me. I didn’t expect to hear God outside Mormonism’s brick walls.

I followed this revelation into other churches. I worshipped with the Unitarian Universalists. I liked their spare sanctuary, their earnest intentions, their white take on world music, and their mind-bending sermons, but they didn’t like me, a messy woman with a wiggly toddler, both of us crying in the back row. A woman told me to take my daughter out, because she was distracting, so I did and never went back. I wondered if leaving churches would become my new thing.

I found my way into a United Methodist Church. I trusted the rainbow flag out front and was heartened to see activity bags for children hanging on a coat rack outside the chapel but I was wary of putting my family and my heart on the line again. I kept my emotional distance but brought my body and my daughter’s back week after week month after month until the years piled up and I knew we were safe.

I spent thousands of hours in church basements fortifying myself against the demons that had been threatening to wrest me away from love since I was a teen.

Mormonism became just another place I used to live, an interesting story to tell. I trotted it out at second step meetings. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. “You think you’ve got religious baggage because you grew up an alcoholic Catholic family on Chicago’s west side? Let me tell you about a story that starts in Utah.” I dusted if off when the United Methodists faced their own moral reckoning, threatened to split down the middle over gay marriage. “You think your religion has it out for gay people? Let me tell you a story about Proposition 8.” or “You think it’s hard to feel betrayed by your religion? You’re right. It’s the hardest thing there is.”

By the time I told my stories they’d been drained of all their emotional weight, but I still identified as a Mormon. People asked why I didn’t leave the church for real, pull my name from the records in Salt Lake. I didn’t see any reason to leave. The church stopped hurting me the moment I stopped offering myself up to it. The grief and rage died when I left and my world kept turning. You need love to keep a fire burning. In the after I felt nothing for the church but relief that I was no longer part of it.

I am nothing if not thorough, though, so when I worked the fourth step I dredged up all my old resentments against the church and wrote them down. Prop 8. The November Policy. A lifetime and an eternity of subservience to men. By twelve step logic, my list of fourth step list of resentments I nurtured automatically populated a separate eighth step list of people I’d harmed. I needed to make amends. As I worked to clean up my side of the street, I had to admit I had not been a perfect Mormon. I judged the church for judging me. I picked fights about everything from politics to policy, culture to theology. I insisted I knew better and blew up when people disagreed. I refused to see the forest–shelter and sustenance for millions of people–for the copse of diseased trees poisoning me. I saw that there were other reasons not to leave. The church gave me my family, and my membership meant something to my parents. I might have been a lost sheep but I was still part of the fold. I might be destined for outer darkness but there was a chance we’d be together in heaven. Besides, what could it possibly cost me to keep my name on the rolls of an exclusive heaven I no longer believed in?

A little over two years after I started worshiping with the United Methodists, I decided to finally, formally join the congregation. Early on I’d been nervous about commiting to a new church, but I’d been attending long enough for the church to feel like a safe second home. I was already raising my daughter there. When I realized I was already living out the membership vows–upholding my local congregation with my daily prayers, my weekly presence at services, my gifts of dollars and time, my service to the children’s program, and my witness of God somehow at work in this church, too–I figured I had nothing to lose. It was well past time for me to start checking “member” instead of “visitor” on the sheet inside the welcome folder at the end of each pew. I emailed Mary, the membership coordinator and the first person who’d ever greeted me at church, excited to make it official. Mary’s response was tactful but the message was not. Due to differences in beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, the United Methodist Church does not recognize Mormon baptisms. To join the congregation, I would need to be re-baptized first. To avoid the apparently dire consequences of double counting, UMC strongly urged me to initiate my formal removal from LDS membership rolls.

I couldn’t believe it! I thought my baptism was good. I’d gone all the way under, like Jesus, at eight years old. The idea of denouncing my Mormon baptism, I was surprised to discover, crushed me. The sensation of finding myself severed from the body of Christ a second time was akin to shock from blood loss. I was pissed, too. The hypocrisy coming from a church that serves communion at an open table–one where all are welcome without regard to age, race or ethnicity, gender identification or sex orientation, without regard even to membership in the United Methodist Church–made me want to scream.

My sorrow and anger told me I’d fallen in love with this new church. “I need some time,” I told Mary, “to think and pray over how I want to proceed. Of course I will still be attending services. I look forward to deepening my involvement with the church and community in whatever form that takes.” Unlike Mormonism, official membership in the United Methodist Church didn’t seem to come with any special privileges, so I decided to stay and act as if I were a member. I wore a nametag, served on committees, showed up early for Sunday School and stayed late for fellowship, volunteered to teach the kids, washed coffee mugs, tithed a portion of my income, put my daughter in the children’s choir and the Christmas Pageant, and went to all the services, even the unpopular weekday ones during Lent. I became a regular church lady and my heart only broke fourteen times a year: on the semi-annual new member Sundays and the first Sunday of every month when the pastor led communion with her open table spiel. People asked why I didn’t join the church for real, put my name on the records as a member. I explained that I couldn’t without cancelling my Mormon baptism, they understood and agreed. Besides, I lied. I don’t see any reason to join.

That I didn’t leave either church is a testament to my twelve-step work. Sobriety taught me to show up for my life and to take responsibility for it too. Inside the church basements I discovered other character defects–festering insecurity, deep-seated fear, and a mean perfectionistic that made parenting terrifically difficult–and worked tirelessly to address them. There was no problem in my life that I couldn’t resolve by taking a long hard look at myself and fixing up what I saw.

I clung to this maxim until January 2020, when a particularly sustained and severe winter depressive episode, when I was scratching tiny frowny faces into the calendar at the front of my planner more days than not, made me admit that I needed to call in reinforcements. I called the number on the back of my insurance card and a week later perched carefully on the edge of my new therapist’s couch. Not sure where to start, I offered that I was sad, deeply, unspeakably, unshakably sad. Not all the time, I told her, but much of the time it felt like I was living in a dark room. My new therapist thumbed around the bruise, trying to find where it hurt the most. I confessed that I was tired of fighting with my husband about our roles, about my job and everything he does at home. I was tired of snapping and screaming in front of my daughter and hating myself after. I was afraid I’d done irreparable damage with our explosive fights with my ruinous temper. I’d ruined so much already. Haltingly, I told her I thought my family was better off without me. Before I left, she told me about suicidal ideation.

In that first session, we honed in on my family relationships, my greatest gift and biggest priority, as a trigger point for all my pain. The problem was with my expectations of my marriage and myself as a mother. They were too high, and when I fell short I went down hard and fast. I mentioned the church only briefly, by way of background. “I left the Mormon church four years ago. They have a few ideas about marriage and family. That might be where some of this is coming from.”

In later sessions, I told my therapist about the church’s teachings about the “ideal” family. My therapist visibly reacted to that word, with a sharp inhale and a straightening up in her chair, but she regained her professional composure quickly and I went on. The ideal family is made up of a husband and wife who have been married in an LDS temple and their children, born and raised in wedlock. In an ideal family, the husband presides over the family and provides for them, while the wife nurtures their children. Not all Latter-Day Saint families are ideal, but they should all strive to be.

My family is not ideal. My husband is not Mormon. I’m not anymore, either, but he never was. We did not marry in the temple. I work and he stays at home. We only have one daughter. We tried to have more but it didn’t happen and we decided not to pursue fertility treatments.

I told my therapist I didn’t believe those teachings anymore, but that I was still convinced my marriage was doomed to end in divorce and that my daughter had no chance at a good life. I was still convinced that families with more than one child were happier than mine. I was convinced that every family was happier than mine.

We talked about the same things week after week after week. Our sessions moved to the phone and then to video when the pandemic hit and I was grateful I’d found a therapist before the world shut down. I was especially grateful for the timing because the pandemic put my most tender hurts on display. On my endless walks around the block I saw so many happy families, so many kids playing together in front yards, so many couples riding bikes together, so many driveways chalked with rainbows and hearts. In our house, all I saw was a tangle of mental health issues, a husband and a wife getting on each others’ last nerves trying to share the same small space all day, and a sad, lonely, and scared little girl. Intellectually, I knew other families were struggling too, that other kids had nightmares, that other moms felt like they were failing, but I couldn’t feel my way out of the lie that mine had it worse, and it was all my fault. On my walks, I started averting my eyes from the happiest looking houses and crossing the street to avoid other families even when it wasn’t strictly necessary to maintain social distance. I pretended not to see my neighbors who were stay-at-home moms. I was walking in the light of day but living in a shadow, hiding in plain sight.

It was on a weekday walk in mid-May, when the sun was starting to shine with a little more warmth and the dogwoods were out in full bloom, that my mind turned off in a darker direction. I was sunk deep in an audiobook and the narrator introduced a new character as a writer, a therapist, and a mom. My ears perked up, as they always do when I hear about working moms who are described in ways that make them sound happy, rather than harried, and I thought “Hey, I’m a mom and a writer! I wonder what she writes about?” Immediately, my brain turned on me, attacking the comparison. “She’s probably a real mom. Not like you.” 

What in the world? I’d had some practicing fact-checking the voices in my head from therapy and this particular thought was so blatantly untrue stacked up against the physical evidence of my parenthood–the scar on my pelvis, my daughter watching Puppy Dog Pals at home, the thousands of insurance dollars going to therapy so I could figure out how to be a better mom–that I tested it. What distinction between me and this unknown woman could I possibly have seized upon to feed the idea that I was not, in fact, a mom? My mind supplied the answer in seconds. “She probably has more than one kid. She probably works part time. She’s probably home with her kids right now and you’re out wandering around the neighborhood talking to yourself.” Well then. I had me there. I gave up the fight and walked home, head hung impossibly low. 

Back at home, I climbed onto the couch with my daughter and curled up behind her. I held her as the clock ticked past nine, nine-fifteen, nine-thirty. I was supposed to go downstairs and start working, but I stayed by her side until my husband came down from his own appointment ready to start another day of at-home school. Downstairs in my makeshift office I prepared to start by workday, but there was one thing I needed to do first. I pulled out a notebook and made a list of the lessons from Mormonism I thought I’d left behind. Having a family is the most important thing a person can do. God wants parents to have as many children as they can. Raising children is the most important thing a woman can do. Big families are more righteous. Small families are selfish. Women who work are selfish. Fathers who don’t work are lazy. Children whose mothers’ work will suffer.   

This is the soil that grew me up, the dirt in which I laid the seeds for my own family. I might have stopped paying tithing but my church membership was not free.

I registered for an account at quitmormon.com that day and filled in the forms to have my names removed from the records of the church. I was dismayed when I realized that the process wasn’t automatic. I got the completed forms back in my email inbox. I’d have to print them, get them notarized, and mail them off to church headquarters in Salt Lake City myself. I looked up the closest notary public. Illinois was still shut down except for essential business, but the UPS store downtown was open. I weighed the risks of possible exposure to the novel against continued exposure to the virus that had already made me sick. I hadn’t been inside a building other than my own home in two months. There had to be a better way. I looked at the forms again and noticed that they’d been prepared for a law firm. I’m a lawyer, too. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t need a lawyer to leave my church. I dug up an email address for the bishop of my old ward and shot him off a note. “I’m writing to tell you that I’d like to end my membership in the church and have my name removed from the church’s records. Please let me know what I need to do to facilitate this process.”  

I fell out of love with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on November 4, 2015. On May 20, 2020 I decided to leave. I had my bishop on the phone within a day and a week later I had in my hand a letter dated May 22, 2020. “Per your request, your membership resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been accepted and processed. Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.”

I didn’t have to leave my house to leave the church but I would have if the bishop hadn’t helped me out. If I wanted a chance at sticking around to love the family I made, I needed to start hacking at the roots of the weed threatening to choke off our tree. 

A few weeks after I left, I saw on Facebook that the pastor of the United Methodist Church had performed her first pandemic baptism with a garden hose in someone’s front yard. It occurred to me that I was finally eligible to join the congregation I’d been part of for the past four years. I thought about sending off another email, but decided to keep scrolling. Now that I know what essential looks like I know that joining another church is not. I think I’ll just shelter in place.

Quarantine Diaries Day 180: Something Wicked

After a sweltering August, summery sun like liquid gold, I was fully expecting August to stick with us through September. I was counting on more beach days with my daughter and more early mornings on the paddleboard for me and more weekday evenings walking around the park with a popsicle listening to the cicadas drone. September, it seems, has other plans. We went to the beach early on Monday, too early, we were almost the first people there except the sunrise watchers and the volleyball players and it was like the beach wanted to turn us back to where we came from. The sand at the edges was covered in seagull shit. A different pair of hostile bees guarded every couple of square feet we tried to lay our towels. I watched a woman walking her laps down by the water with a halo of bees flitting around her crown. After we settled, chased away the birds and nervously eyed the bees, we jumped in the water and, good Lord, I have never known such a hasty rejection. Just four days ago the water was fine; now it was frigid. I tried to fake it for my daughter–I always think the water is too cold and it always warms up when I go under–but today even her thick kid skin was not impervious to the change. “It’s cooooold, mama. Can we go back to the sand?”

Since labor day, the sky’s been gray and drizzling rain and it’s cool enough to trade short shorts and baggy tanks for the fall uniform: leggings and a cardigan and a pair of rubber wellingtons for walks. I felt the season shift before the weather did. Truth be told, I’ve felt it since the full moon last week. It feels like something wild inside me being summoned by something wilder outside. It wants to break out. It also feels the opposite of that, like something yawning open inside me wants to pull the wild in. I wonder, briefly, if this sensation is new, something I’m only noticing since I started studying the wheel of the year and the witchy holidays: Imbolc in February, Beltane in May, Lammas just past, and Samhain still to come, I can practically feel it crackling under my skin.

I know I’ve been sensitive to the shifts longer than that, though. Fall is always a darkening. First I was nostalgic for something I never experienced–crunchy leaves and football games and pumpkin ales–and even after my life did look like that the fall still made me sad. I marked the days with sad songs and rain tracking down the window of the bus, the car. I never wanted to be where I was going. In the fall I wanted to get blotto, to disappear in a cave of pills and TV and not come out ’til Christmas and even then only briefly, reserving my rights to go back under until spring.

So, summer to fall always messes me up good and this year we have so little to look forward to, no back to school, no tailgates, no fall festivals or trick or treat, no nights out with my mom friends and, I fear, no police reform, no new administration, no justice, no peace. I was sad at first, but under the sadness I feel something more savage rising up.

This Sunday is Rally Day at my church. Usually, there would be balloons and a procession of children to start the service and a picnic and a pledge drive to kick off the new church year. I can’t worship in my church right now.

I can leave offerings for the trees.

I can clear space on my altar, start bringing the earth inside.

I can source ingredients for simple spells.

I can burn sandalwood and brew tea for dream magic.

I can light a fire under my intentions and will the world to change.

I can sit inside a sacred circle, stand up, and take a step in a new direction.

I can practice the craft the craft that carried women where Christianity refused to go, that served women when Christianity wouldn’t, that let women and the world be wild.

The world is rewilding itself now. I’m still civilized enough but hating it in this new incarnation. Without all the barbeques and picnics and parties to trick yourself into thinking there’s a point, I’m thinking, what’s the point? Maybe in the midst of another month of stupid sameness, it’s time for something radically different. I’m not talking about purple hair or a new house. I’m talking about a whole new worldview.

Quarantine Diaries Days 58, 65, 72, 79, 86, and 93: The Great Fall

This post is the fourth in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first, second, and third posts here, here, and here.

May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.

May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.

May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.

May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.

May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.

June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.

June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.

Quarantine Diary Days 37, 44, and 51: Slippery Slopes

This post is the third in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first and second posts here and here.

April 19: For the first month of shelter in place Sundays were the high point of every week, the mountain crest after last week’s long slog up, the top of the roller coaster before next week’s long slide down. With Easter, it felt like we were really building up to something. After that highest high point, this second Sunday in Easter is something of a let down. It is an effort to locate and name the good, but I do it anyway, because it’s good for me. D won’t walk with me before church, so she misses the crow cawing way up in a tall tree, the flash of robin red, the calico cat creeping in plain sight in front of a row of houses along church street, and the chance to wave at neighbors out walking with their dog. It’s hard to hear them behind their masks all the way across the street but the connection is there. I take many deep breaths. D does watch virtual church with me and she sees the bright side in the viewer count rising in the corner of the screen. People are logging in from all over the country and this is exciting. “People can watch church even when they’re out of town!” The church is trying something new, a virtual fellowship hour after the service is over. I make up my second coffee of the day and click the Zoom link eager to see some familiar faces, parched for conversation. The host lets me in and almost immediately kicks me into a breakout room. Hey, I know these people! There is a man from the parenting class I attended my second year with the church, the father of a hilarious little girl a few years younger than my D, who recently relocated to Colorado. There is also the pastor herself. We talk and talk even though the system is glitchy and our husbands and daughters keep wandering in and out of the frame. Actually, it’s hard to have this conversation in the middle of my living room. My daughter is annoyed that I am still staring at a screen and keeps asking questions about what we’re talking about. When we get kicked back into the main group I see my chance but it is with resignation that I drop out of the chat.

April 26: Pastor Grace says that God makes us family and today I feel agitated with mine. They are not doing what I want them to do. I want them to sit quietly and listen to the sermon or, if that’s too much to ask, I want them to quietly do the things I want them to do: read the paper, do the crossword, draw a picture, make sourdough. Instead my husband is sleeping on the couch and my daughter is hunched over on the floor, still in her sleep clothes, building with LEGO. I am annoyed, as though rest and play are not perfect Sabbath activities. I thought D wasn’t paying attention during Children’s Chapel before church but when Pastor Jane asked what water is for, D piped up, “Oh, I know!” and clambered over to the laptop to unmute herself. “Water is important because you get baptized in it.” I am surprised that baptism is on her radar, since she’s not baptized herself. I am surprised she’s been paying attention. Back to the sermon, Pastor Grace says that the church was born during shelter-in-place, that it found its voice during lockdown. She talks about Thomas like doubt is a good thing. D chimes in to chant “Hear our prayer” while I tune out. I am anxious because the day is unplanned. I have no Sunday School lesson for D, no art project, no family movie. I am running out of steam, patience, and ideas. At the end of my own rope it seems the only option is to observe Sabbath the way God intended and just let the day unfold.

May 3: I’m watching church alone today. My daughter finally opted out of church altogether and is up in her room listening to stories. My husband is on his bike. In spite of the silence, I can’t hear a word of the sermon because I am fixated on Pastor Grace’s stole. There was a time my mind associated grapes on the vine with kitchy kitchen decor your friend from high school or your coworker’s wife might pick up on a whim from TJ Maxx. My mom had a triptych of bottles and vines hanging over her last kitchen table, I guess because they look vaguely European. She doesn’t even drink wine. No one in my family does. The church is transforming the image, ruining it and then making it better, like it always does, I suppose. The church never knew how to let well enough alone, never let me leave my drinking alone anyway, and now it’s after the symbols too. Jesus labored in the vineyard. The grape is not God’s original fruit, but like all God’s gifts, it comes with a price, a dark side. The vines in the sanctuary aren’t closing around anyone’s neck, or least they aren’t closing around mine. In the church, the grape signifies abundance, fertility, celebration, joy. In the church, the grape is the fruit of my labor and yours. It’s been a long time since I found these things inside a wine bottle and two months since I went looking inside a communion cup. My teeth, my tongue, my sheets are still stained with the contents of both vessels.

May 4: I email a postcard from home for Mary to include in the week’s e-news.

Hello First Church Family. We are missing you and, along with looking for new life, we are looking for signs of you on our many long walks around town. Whenever we see a rainbow in a window or message of hope we wonder out loud if it is from one of you. This week, we noticed that the spiky red buds of a certain shrub near Mason park resemble the illustrated rendering of the coronavirus that’s dominated the visual news media for the last four months. This led daughter D to muse about how funny it would be to see a bush coughing, which led to a conversation about Moses and the burning bush, which led to me telling the story of the Israelites chasing a pillar of fire through the desert, which led to D recalling the tongues of fire flickering over the the heads of Jesus’ disciples, which led to us walking down the street hand-in-hand singing “Carry the Flame.” She didn’t know the words to that song before quarantine, but hearing it during virtual worship every week has seared it into our hearts. We are looking forward to the day we reach the promised land and sing with you in person. It will be a celebration.  

Quarantine Diary Day 132: When Things Change Shape

There is no part of my drinking and sobriety that’s not covered over in religion. I was Mormon for all but the last couple months of my drinking career. I was a Jack Mormon and a Lapsed Mormon and a Cafeteria Mormon and an Unorthodox Mormon and Disaffected Mormon but I was always a Mormon. Much of the time I was a believing Mormon. People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Mormon alcoholic but that’s what I was. Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. I was born and raised in a religion that preached abstinence and I loved my church and the good life it gave me but I loved drinking more. Loving booze is not what made me an alcoholic, though. I knew I was alcoholic because drinking was a destructive force in my life and I kept drinking anyway and because when I tried to quit I couldn’t. That’s when I first really leaned into religion. I thought that being a Good Mormon would help me quit drinking. It didn’t. Or, maybe it would have, but I couldn’t quite get there.

My last time in a Mormon church was November 2015. I was serious about quitting drinking by then, too. I’d been to twelve step meetings, admitted I had a problem, started piecing together weeks without alcohol. I convinced myself I deserved to give drinking a shot without the influence of Mormonism, though, so I picked up intentionally on New Years Eve 2015 and drank my way through January. Even those first months of freedom from the religion were not free from religion. I went to the Unitarian Church, shaky, hungover, afraid. The wheels were coming off. My last Day 1 was January 30, 2016

When I quit drinking for good I dove headfirst into spirituality and, eventually, back into religion at a new church. I used to think that was because I needed God to get sober. Now, in the pandemic, I’m unmoored from all that. Not God, but the walls that gave my spiritual life structure. I don’t go to church. I don’t do devotional practices. Without that framework, I tell fewer and fewer stories about God. I really thought I needed all the accouterments of religious ritual and belief to not drink. But here I am not drinking and wondering if God was just something I needed to give my abstinence meaning.

These days, I am less inclined to search for meaning in not drinking. I am less compelled to tell a story with a grand overarching moral narrative about about my sobriety. Not drinking does not need to serve some higher purpose. It need not be preordained. It’s just, for me, a better way to live.

Truth be told, it’s only very recently that I’ve come around to this idea. For most of my sobriety, I was convinced it was the way I was supposed to live–it was an obligation, a duty, a should. I would have said that it was a better way to live but I would not have been talking strictly about life without booze. I would have been talking about the spiritual life I found in sobriety, a life abundant with purpose and connection.

Now, in the pandemic, I’m realizing that the benefits of the dry life stand on their own. Four months in, my spiritual life is drained. Connection is nil. Purpose is I don’t know what. I knew this was a possibility and I was terrified of what would happen if and when I washed up on this shore. Relapse was certain. A mental breakdown for sure. Last month, I came close. Without meetings, without community, without structure, I was starting to falter and fray. Frankly, I was coming apart at the edges.

And then I got sick, really sick, stomach sick. I was in bed for two days. It felt as bad as my first and last hangover and every one in between.

When I came out of it, I couldn’t believe it, how incredible it felt to stand up and walk around without the room spinning. Weeks later, I still can’t believe it. Here I am, clear-headed. Here I am, awake to my life. Here I am, alert to what’s coming down the pike. Here I am, alive.

Why wasn’t this enough before?

I thank God that it’s enough.

I thank God for a worldview that can change shape.

I thank God for a sobriety that doesn’t depend on God.

Quarantine Diary Days 27 and 30: Live Streaming the Resurrection

img_20200411_193015921

This post is the second in a series about church in the time of pandemic. You can find the first post here.

April 9: Holy week has been a holy hell. School’s out for spring break and I took the week off work so we could take a family trip that, absurdly, we thought might still happen as recently as a few weeks ago. A road trip across state lines was, unsurprisingly, not in the cards. Instead of cozying up by a fire in a cabin in the smoky mountains we are getting on each other’s last nerves in our townhouse in the suburbs. Tonight I am making dinner. Husband is working out. D is making art in her room. We all need our space. I stream the Maundy Thursday service while I chop vegetables. Pastor Grace is standing in front of an altar dedicated to the COVID-19 relief effort–holy water, hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks–reading from a list of names of over 1,000 healthcare workers who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving on the front lines. I am glad that D is upstairs so I don’t have to explain, though I wish she were here to repeat the Lord’s Prayer with me after each batch of names. It moves me to hear her recite by heart at six a prayer I learned in church basements in my thirties, that I still fumble when left to my own devices. Pastor Grace blows out the candle on the altar and moves to a chair in the corner of the sanctuary. From her place in the dark she tells us that the last thing Jesus did before he died was sing a hymn. Like me before I leave D to face the nightmares she’s been having every night.  

April 12: We don’t do the bunny in our house, but we wake up on Easter Sunday to three baskets, the one that husband put together for D and the two that D made for each of us. Lately, D is trying to figure out where she fits into our family. As the only kid in the house, she doesn’t appreciate the difference between kids and adults. She sincerely believes we’re all on the same level and doesn’t understand why we get to stay up late while she goes to bed early, why we share a bed and she has to sleep alone, or that sometimes we are just pretending to give her a say because we always have the last word. Sometimes her confusion on this point works to our advantage, like on holidays when she spoils us with as many gifts as we give to her, our beloved one and only. My basket is stuffed with a polaroid picture of the two of us, a paper airplane, a homemade card, a sticker sheet, drawings of our family, and hand-crafted bird’s nest with plastic eggs. Her basket is stuffed with candy, and she is thrilled. She mainlines jelly beans on our walk around the neighborhood, which we spend peering at people’s windows looking for the paper eggs that the church sent around for kids to hang for a drive-by socially distanced egg hunt. Back at home, D and I pull chairs up to our altar at home to watch the virtual Easter service, while husband busies himself making Focaccia in the kitchen. He’s been on a sourdough bender like everyone else, but Focaccia is our Easter tradition. We’re running low on yeast, but had the good fortune to find some self-rising flour. On the screen, the choir pulls out all the stops, singing complicated arrangements from the safety of their own homes. D and I count the Hallelujahs, which have been locked in a box for the forty days of Lent. This week was dark, but we went into it knowing it would have a happy ending, and today we get the good news–death is conquered, man is free, or will be, when we finally get a vaccine. In the meantime, we are trying to be an Easter people which, in my mind, has nothing at all to do with what happens after we die and everything to do with how we live now–without fear, loving our neighbors, and working for something better than what we have. 

Quarantine Diary Days 2, 9, 16, and 23: One Month of Virtual Church

img_20200404_104553334

March 15: I tentatively click the link that the church sent around, wondering what I’m going to see. It’s a live video, streaming on Facebook. Hundreds of people are watching. I see so many names I recognize popping up in the chat box. D and I wave and thumbs up the families we know. D goes crazy with the reaction buttons, but she is indiscriminate, and sends dozens of hearts and smileys and frownies and even rage faces floating up and off the screen. Pastor Grace is preaching into an iPhone and is almost impossible to hear. Brian, the music director, is playing the piano at home and his phone is doing something weird to music. It actually sounds demonic. I don’t turn it off, though. I watch all the way to the end and can’t wait to see what they come up with next week.

March 22: I heed the pastor’s call to prepare a space for worship. I clear off the long ottoman that is actually a storage space–filled with all the DVDs and CDs that my husband not only refuses to give away, but inexplicably keeps buying–and set up an altar. My altar includes: a Bible, a King James Version that I bought earlier this year to replace the Joseph Smith translation that I used from 1993, which is when I was baptized into the Mormon church, to 2015, which is when I left; a notebook and pen; a tablet for streaming the services; and a candle shaped like an owl. The prelude music sounds better, or at least not evil, but I still have to lean in close to the tablet to hear the sermon. I rustle up a portable bluetooth speaker that we use for camping and picnics–miraculously, it’s still charged–and suddenly I have ears to hear.

March 29: D signs into virtual children’s chapel and when her little face pops up on the screen with all the other kids waving eagerly I think it doesn’t matter that she’s not baptized. I print out activity sheets to keep her attention during the main service, connect-the-dots to make a candle, color a shepherd, find all the words in Psalm 23. If we were at church, Pastor Grace would call the children to gather at her feet and tell them stories about Kenya, show them pictures, remind them that they are mpendwa (beloved), and bless them with a prayer. We are not at church, but Pastor Grace still brings the children in, calls them close to the screen, shows off the stuffed bears she brought into the sanctuary, reads a story, and closes with a prayer. After church, I sit down with my daughter for Sunday School at home. I note the irony. All last year I resisted volunteering to teach the kids at church because I don’t like preparing lessons and I’m reluctant to give up the company of other adults, even for a week. Now D still wants to go to Sunday School, and I’m the only one who’s going to make it happen. We make a sign to hang on our front door, a heart with a rainbow of hearts inside, all decreasing in size. We declare in Sharpie that we are a First Church Family and I think it doesn’t matter that we can’t see our friends, pass the peace or set foot inside the building. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t technically members of this church. I have never felt more connected.

April 5: Holy week is here, right in the middle of what Trump warned would be “a hell of a bad two weeks.” That’s what he said. “Lots of death.” The virus is supposed to peak in Illinois later this month, which means that people are dying and more people are going to die. The CDC says we’re supposed to wear masks now, though of course we don’t have any. We were saving them for the front line workers. The governor says don’t go out, stay at home, so that’s what we do. At home, we eat sourdough pancakes for breakfast and listen to the Palm Sunday sermon. Did you know that the message of Hosannah is “God, Save Us!”? After church, D and I dump all the clean laundry on the floor, a motley carpet for Jesus. We trace palm leaves onto paper and tape them onto straws and wave them back and forth as we parade around the neighborhood, singing Hosannah. It’s cold and D is afraid the virus is everywhere, so we run home quickly and stay put. We dwell in the shelter of the most high.

Quarantine Diary Day 94: What Even Is This?

img_20200613_203232716_hdr

Something about my quarantine diary has been nagging at me. I keep worrying that the day counts are slightly off. I don’t write every day and my entries aren’t always chronological, so it wouldn’t be obvious if my entries were off by a few days. Hell, I could be off by weeks and nobody would know. The piecemeal nature of the response in the U.S. means you don’t know when I went into lockdown mode, and human nature means that you don’t care about the minutiae of my life. I pulled out my calendar this morning to count up from March 14 anyway and confirmed my suspicions. My count was off, but only by one day. It was bound to happen, especially since fudged the numbers on purpose once or twice. What can I say? I wanted to write about my daughter’s birthday on on Day 40, and I needed the heft of a godly history behind me. I know you get it.

Lately, something else has been bugging me, too. The failure of leadership from the federal government and the resulting state-by-state, town-by-town, person-by-person reaction to the pandemic means that you don’t know what quarantine means to me. What am I even doing over here? Quarantine diary was never a wholly accurate moniker, but it’s starting to feel strained now. For the last two weeks, my daughter has been playing outside with neighbor kids without strict regard to social distancing. This weekend, I met up with friends and went for an early maskless run. I’ve been sheltering-in-place for 94 days, but what does that even mean? I mean, I’ve been trying to tell you what it means to me, but I can’t tell you everything.

What else haven’t I told you? How often I cry. How much it hurts.

What kind of diary is this anyway? I bend the timeline to my will but am compelled to fact-check myself later. I play fast and loose with people, places, and things but find it imperative that I communicate my innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires so accurately and absolutely as to leave no room for possibility that I will be misunderstood.

In the parlance of first year English lit, I tend to think of this diary as being closer to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography than James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, by which I mean: Could a scholar of my life find some inconsistencies between the way I lived and what I wrote? Probably, but I’d stand by it as memoir even if Oprah herself tried to take me down.

In deep-Mormon vernacular, I’d say that this diary is more like the Doctrine & Covenants than the Book of Mormon, by which I mean: Look at this extraordinary life I lived, the people I’ve known, the things I’ve built. You will know my history. Can I prove I talked to God? Probably not, but you can’t disprove it either.

In my heart of hearts, I believe this diary is more like the Bible than anything else, which is to say: I’ve got a lot of fear, a lot of love, and a lot of nerve.

I am Eve in the Garden, the Woman at the Well, the Boy in the Grove. I am the Finger pointing at the Moon.

Quarantine Diary: Day 40

Pastor Grace says 40 is no ordinary number. In the Bible, 40 is less a measure of time than it is a clue that God is up to something. 40 years in the wilderness before the Jews reached the promised land. Nothing but manna to eat. 40 days on Mount Sinai for Moses to come down with the Law. 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert before Jesus began his public ministry. Temptation under every rock. No food at all. 40 days with his disciples after throwing open the doors of death. 40 days before being restored to God.

40 days is a really long time. It is time enough to be lost and found, time enough to be tested and tried, time enough to come to an understanding, time enough to prepare and come out the other side.

When the men who wrote the Bible tell us something lasted 40 minutes, days, or years, they are telling us that God is behind whatever happened next.

And so it is that 40 days into quarantine, we are celebrating a birth. Seven years ago, I pulled my daughter into the world. Seven is a God number, too, it turns out. I didn’t learn that from Pastor Grace, or the Bible, but from Frank Black singing This monkey’s gone to heaven.

My daughter is my promised land but my waiting was not 40 years of wilderness. In the most literal of ways, I didn’t have to wait at all. I had her at 27. She was conceived the first month we tried. Still, her coming to us was not as easy as all that. The idea of a daughter was seven years in the making, conceived in New Orleans as her dad and I sheltered-in-place during a hurricane. “What if I get pregnant?” I whispered. We were children ourselves, only 20 years old. “We’ll have a baby and we’ll name her Dylan.” We did wander after that. We had to. We crossed religious differences that spread like a chasm to find a land hospitable to us both, to the believer and the skeptic alike, a place that would be safe for our interfaith family. Eventually, we found a way.
Dylan turns seven today.

The second wandering came after Dylan was born. We waited two years after she was born and then tried for four more to have another that never came. This makes people sad. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “I know you wanted another baby. At one point that might have been the case, but I am so far removed from that wanting it’s hard to know if it was really mine. What I know now: every passing month and year shined a light on the gold I already had. Dylan is everything I could ever want in a kid. Any heartbreak I have is for not being able to give her a sibling. Luckily for all of us, she never wanted one, and still doesn’t, even after a 40 days of being the only kid in quarantine.

Every year, but especially this year, I’ve been anticipating Dylan’s birthday like it was my own. The anticipation is ingrained. I didn’t wait to have Dylan but she made me wait to have her, through 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. That long week before she decided to join us on this plane of existence was its own kind of probationary period. We were prepared for an April 15 delivery. I’d had my hospital bag packed since Braxton Hicks kicked in around week 35. I’d taken the week off of work. My husband had checked our little dog into a very fancy overnight kennel. There was nothing left to do except wait and walk and wonder what life would be like on the other side.

I’m not waiting anymore, not for a miracle, not for a sign. For me, the miracle happened seven years ago, after 30 hours of labor, eight days after she was due. The miracle is every day I’ve spent with her since.

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.