Quarantine Diary Day 61: Twenty-Seven Questions About The Fleabag Finale

We finally watched Fleabag. I say “finally” like I didn’t hear about it for the first time only a few weeks ago, and like I didn’t just figure out what it was–a British TV series starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge–last Friday. It took me a minute to get around to watching it because every time I saw it mentioned on social media or heard my husband say that someone had recommended it, I developed Memento-style short-term memory loss and immediately forgot all about it. Conversations about it went something like this.

Me: So, _________ recommended this show on Amazon, I think it’s called Fleabag?

Husband: Yeah, I know. We talked about it last week.

Me: We did? I’ve never heard of it before.

Husband: Yeah. It’s one of the shows the cashier at Trader Joe’s recommended. He said it’s great. Remember?

Me: No. What’s it’s about?

Husband: It’s a British comedy.

Me [groaning loudly]: Ohhhhh, never mind.

I say “Ohhhhh, never mind” like I historically haven’t loved them, like the UK Office wasn’t my gateway drug into the golden age of television just like everyone else in my generation, like I wasn’t obsessed with shows like Fresh Meat and Pulling and Gavin & Stacey and even, briefly, a pretty bad show about teen parents called Pramface, like the first few episodes of Breeders didn’t absolutely delight me as recently a few months ago.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m pretty bad with accents. I’m embarrassed to admit it, because I’m afraid it’s a trait that carries whiff of ethnocentrism or at least lack of sophistication, and when I go on to explain that it’s just hard for me to follow a show or a movie where most of the dialogue is spoken in heavily accented English, I feel lazy and selfish and like I should just try harder and be better, goddamnit! I don’t mind watching shows with closed-captioning. In fact, I prefer it, because I’m also pretty bad with rapid-speed dialogue and hushed voices and lots of background noise. Maybe I just have poor hearing? I tend to forget that closed-captioning/subtitles are an option, though.

Here’s the other thing. Without knowing anything about it, I assumed Fleabag was about a man. I think it was a quick association of the word “fleabag” with “dirtbag” and another quick leap to all the raunchy comedies out there about shitty dude and while it’s true that I’ve known and loved these comedies and the men who make them over the years, I don’t need or want to watch another show about a shitty dude. I don’t even want to watch a another show about a decent dude. I definitely don’t want to watch anything with a redemption narrative: shitty dude has realizations, tries to become decent dude, starts treating women like they have value instead of like garbage but ultimately still sees them as objects.

Back to last Friday. Just as I was groaning away the prospect of struggling through a British comedy about a dude, husband pulled up the show so we could watch a trailer and I didn’t need to see anything more than Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s mascara streaked face before I changed my mind.

Me: We’re watching this.

I’m very interested in female dirtbags, though, in women with unpleasant and irredeemable characteristics. I like women who are a little gross.

We finished the series in four days. It’s really short, but also really wonderful. Now that I’m finished, all I want to do is talk about it with girlfriends, but moms’ night out isn’t happening anymore, so I’m taking to the internet. Mostly, I have questions.

THE REST OF THIS POST IS ALL SPOILERS

Here are my questions:

  1. What is Fleabag’s name?
  2. What is Fleabag’s mom’s name?
  3. Does anybody care about the Godmother’s name?
  4. What is the significance of the breaking of the fourth wall?
  5. Is Fleabag insane?
  6. Or is she just grieving?
  7. Was she like this before Boo died? Before her mom died?
  8. Why was the Priest able to see her breaking the fourth wall?
  9. Why is the Priest so sexy?
  10. So, is Claire a lawyer or what?
  11. How adorable are Claire and Klare?
  12. Will Jake be okay without Claire?
  13. Do we agree that the bassoon is a cry for help?
  14. Do other instruments fall into this category?
  15. Can a guinea pig bond with a hamster?
  16. Is Hillary’s cage too small?
  17. How will Fleabag process what happened to Boo?
  18. Has Fleabag made amends for what she did to Boo?
  19. Why aren’t there more shows featuring women with unkempt hair and bad makeup?
  20. Is there any hope for a future between the Fleabag and the Priest?
  21. What is the significance of the bus being cancelled at the end?
  22. Does Question 17 contain the answer to Question 16? (Please say no (I know you won’t.).)
  23. What’s up with the fox?
  24. The Priest definitely has an alcohol problem, right?
  25. Would it be very foolish for me to open up a cafe when the pandemic is over?

Look, I know the ending was perfect, and that resolving any of these questions would have diluted the artistry of the show as a whole, but I am who I am and I want what I want and who I am is a sad sappy sucker and what I want is closure. Also, a happy ending for the characters I love and just desserts for the characters I hate. At least Fleabag delivered on the latter in spades.

I do have one more question, which sort of undercuts the last paragraph, and it is this:

  1. How is it that a show can leave so many major issues unresolved and still feel so satisfying?
  2. Is it because that’s how life is?

That was two questions. Goddamnit. This is the last one, I swear.

  1. Will I resort to this Question/No Answer format for future posts?

Almost definitely. [Wink]

Quarantine Diary Day 54

What are we wearing these days? For the first two weeks, I was still reaching for things that you put on a hanger in the closet. You know, blouses and button downs and cardigans and slacks. Work clothes. When it dawned on me that nobody I know in a professional capacity was going to see my lower body for a very long time I switched to jeans, but kept the work shirts because the threat of spontaneous home invasion via Skype, Zoom, and Teams loomed large. But the video calls did materialize in the numbers I thought they might. And when they did, I was startled to realize that it is not a forgiving head and shoulders shot that people see, but rather an unfiltered image of my whole head that dominates the screen. When the weather shifted a few weeks ago, I realized I have a whole drawerful of perfectly good baggy t-shirts and tanks just begging for their time in the sun. My whole professional life I’ve mourned the fact that I can’t just wear a fifteen year old raggedy concert tee to work, and now that time is here. So, these days I wear t-shirts to work, and oversized housecoats, because that’s the kind of future crazy old lizard lady I am. I gave up bras years ago, so nothing’s changed there except for any residual guilt I might have had about, well, you know. As yet unclear as to the next time I’ll have to appear in court or take a client to dinner or speak at a conference, I packed away my suits. And if you’re worried about weekdays blending indistinguishably into weekends, don’t. Remember we’re not leaving the house on weekends, either. They are, therefore, suitable for athleisure and by athleisure I mean full body sweatsuits. There’s still the matter of the ultra closeups of my face and head, but I can’t do anything about the fact that the pixie cut I was so stoked about in November is growing out into a floofy triangle and it’s not like I’m about to start wearing makeup now. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the people who have to look at my face to look at it the way I do every morning, which is to say, with admiration and appreciation and understanding that this is just how I look. Now, I know I had a head start on my sartorial unschooling, having left my office job over a year before social distancing started, but still, I’m eager to see what happens to professional mores if work from home continues for much longer. I hope we all go feral.

 

Quarantine Diary Day 46

I commuted over an hour a day for the first nine years of my career. For the last half of that, I was in transit over two hours a day. For many years, my route to work included a long walk, a train, and a water taxi. When I changed jobs a few years ago and moved into an office a few miles north of downtown and closer to my home in the suburbs, I thought the trip would get better. Instead, I had to take two trains each away, and almost every day included multiple 20+ minute waits on the platform. I defended my commute to people balked at how much time I spent getting to and from work. Sitting on the train with a book, walking on the riverwalk with a podcast, cruising down the Chicago river with music in my ears, that was my me time, the only time in my long days that I wasn’t busy with work, or childcare, or chores. Still, more often than not I arrived at work already exhausted, and by the time I made it home for the night, I was done. It’s no wonder that I spent so many of those train rides home, especially after I got sober, thirsty and resentful, envious of the men in suits drinking Daisy Cutter from a can with another in a paper bag. I wondered if it was the beer or the suits or the fact that they weren’t going home to a second shift that made them able to cope with a life that was grinding me into the ground. 

Last summer, my employer allowed me to rent an office in my town. After that, I walked to work, about twenty minutes each way. It was still a commute, but it didn’t feel that way, except on the coldest days, and the rainy ones. I marveled at the pleasure of watching the seasons unfold in my own community, up close. More than the walking, I embraced the gift of time. Moving my office gave me 1.5 hours back on my clock every day. Before I got that time, I assumed I would use it to work. I’m an attorney; there are always more hours to bill. I thought I might spend the rest of it with my daughter. I’m a working mom; there is always more to do at home. So for the first few weeks, I rushed off to work early on days that I had client calls and walked my daughter to school on days that I didn’t. I raced home for family dinners. As the weeks wore on, and I adjusted to not having a train to catch, I started to wonder why I was rushing. I also started to wonder if I wasn’t still entitled to a little me time that didn’t consist solely of listening to podcasts while hauling my ass to and from my job. I decided to reclaim the time that I’d been so eager to return to my family and my job. I let my morning runs go longer, up to seven, eight, and nine miles from five or six. I let my husband get our daughter ready for school while I played the guitar before work. I did daily tarot pulls.   

When I realized that I’d be working from home last month, I knew it would be a challenge. Our home is small, with no dedicated home office, and I’d be sharing the space with my husband and newly homeschooled daughter. But I was excited about the prospect of another gift of time. My forty-minute walk commute was going down to zero! Imagine all the quality family time, all the productive work hours! Imagine all the writing! I could barely contain myself.

Of course, you know what happened next. The first few weeks of self-isolation were more about surviving than thriving. I stopped waking up at 5:00 a.m. to work out because what was the point. I stopped making my kid get dressed for the same reason. I woke up late, walked downstairs, and arrived at the futon that is now my office already exhausted. I spent the day trying to maintain a veneer of business as usual with my coworkers and clients and by the time I made it upstairs for the night, I was done. I powered through dinner and bedtime and then collapsed on the couch to eat ice cream and watch comfort TV.   

It was my therapist who suggested that I bring back the commute, on the theory that our pre-pandemic routines can offer much-needed stability in a time of crisis. So I started walking, first around the park, and then around the block, and then around the neighborhood. Sometimes I call a family member on the phone. Sometimes I listen to a podcast. Sometimes I do nothing but walk. After years of wishing my commute away, I’m finding that most days I cannot walk enough. Walking outside, when I can’t go anywhere else, is a pleasure. I like watching the trees bud and the flowers bloom. I like peering into my neighbors’ yards and waving at people walking their dogs. The thing that drained me is now giving me life.    

At the beginning, I invited my daughter with me every time I left the house. She needs to get outside as much as I do, and I like her company. In fact, our walks our glorious. We collect sticks and rocks. We photograph flowers. We race as fast as we can. At least once every walk, my daughter peels ahead of me or drops back, lost in thought or in the wonder of it all. When she remembers I exist, she sprints back to me shouting, “I love you mama!” 

Lately, though, it’s getting harder to get my daughter to leave the house. As much fun as she has when she’s out there, she is getting tired of walking. She is tired of our neighborhood, tired of me. She misses other kids, and playing on the playground. Feeling obligated to make the most of this time, I keep pushing her to join me, and the walks are turning into a battleground. I think, if it were up to me, I would be walking four or five times a day, but I can’t, because I am a working parent and my time belongs to my family and my job. I start to get bitter. 

Just in time, I remember that the gift of this season is the gift of time. This weekend, we finished dinner, and I asked my daughter to pick up her toys. The family room was a disaster and she was starting to fuss. Outside, it was a gorgeous spring evening. The sun was setting, and the neighborhood was all gold. I thought about how much I’d rather be out there than in here. I thought about how there was no reason to rush through the evening, from dinner to chores to bathtime to bed. I walked upstairs, told my husband I was going for a walk. “Supervise the clean-up,” I said. “I’ll be back in fifteen for dessert.” I came back in twenty minutes to a clean house and ice cream sundae ingredients lined up on the counter. 

I am entitled to time to myself. I am entitled to do something enjoyable without turning it into an opportunity for my child. I am entitled to a life that doesn’t feel like a grind, that doesn’t turn me into dust. If I want to go for a walk, I can go for a walk. I don’t have to have a reason. It doesn’t have to be a commute. 

Devil’s Haircut

I cut off a foot of hair today. This is not without precedent. I can’t maintain a hairstyle for the life of me. I go months or years between cuts until I am so sick of my hair that I chop it all off. This is my first time going pixie short, though. Though there is really nothing pixie-ish about how I look now. The cut is decidedly androgynous. I’m fairly certain my husband hates it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was kind of the point. When I booked the appointment last week, I was planning on a chin-length layered bob. When I mentioned that I planned to cut my hair short, my husband reacted negatively, worried I would cut it “too short.” It annoyed me he even had an opinion. To be fair, he does ask me about my preferences about his hair, clothes, etc., and I mostly don’t have strong ones, but when I say I like something, he does try to do that thing, even when it is not exactly advisable from a fashion standpoint. I’m thinking of the year we were super into Sons of Anarchy and I kept telling him to grow his hair out long like Jax. And he did it! I know he knew it was a questionable look because he kept asking, “Are you sure?” and I kept saying, “Yes, yes,” even though a clean cut style is for sure more flattering on him. Preferences aside, I would never dream of criticizing a style he likes even if it doesn’t match my aesthetics, so, like I said, it irked me when he did. It didn’t help that his knee jerk reaction against short hair aligns with sexist societal beauty standards. Fuck that. Not fuck him, just fuck that. The beauty standards. So when I got in the chair I asked the stylist to take it all off, and she did, and I love it. I couldn’t quite picture how my face would look with short hair and it turns out it looks like…my face…but more in YOUR face, if that makes sense. Do I look better with short hair? I don’t know. Probably not. I like that I look less feminine, though. I think I look like my friend M, who is a badass (an overused label that I myself use sparingly…M is one of my few friends who deserves it). I like the way my neck looks, like a swan, and my jaw, all defined. I don’t miss the knotted curls on the back of my head or the ragged ends or the frizz around my crown. I am all about the unbrushed flower child look in the summer and feeling like a witch in the fall but now that the cold has set in leaving the house in the morning with a wet mop hanging around my shoulders is unappealing, as is trying to stuff an oversized top knot into a winter beanie. This evening I ran into a male acquaintance at the church and he did a double take and then freaked out, in a good way, when he realized it was me. He took in my all black, my work boots, and my new short hair. “You look like every girl I had a crush on in middle school.” I liked hearing that. So clearly I’m not exactly trying to escape the male gaze. I’m not flouting all the beauty standards. Just the ones that don’t suit me at this particular moment, which is nothing admirable. I still want to look sexy. And I do. Except now I look like the women that I think look good.

What A Body’s Good For: Part Two

I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.

Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.

I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.

I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.

This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.

In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.

It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.

It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.

The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.

We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.

Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.

I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.

When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.

[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]

The Unpeeling OR How To Leave The Mormon Church When You Don’t Really Want To OR That One Clash Song Even Your Mom Knows

Stay

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.

Go

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.

Stay

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.

Go

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.

Stay

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.  

Go

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.

Gone

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 was 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.

 

 

What A Body’s Good For

I ran a marathon last Sunday: my second-ever in life, my first in over seven years, and my first race longer than a 5k since giving birth 3.5 years ago. I only signed up a few weeks ago, but I’ve been running a steady 3-4 times per week since January, thinking in the back of my mind all along that I was in training for “something.”

These last eleven month have been a harsh reminder that long distance running is an exercise in wrecking your body to make it stronger. Because I am a runner, I will never sport a pair of strappy sandals to a dressy event. My soles are completely calloused over. On any given day, I have a few blisters in various states of healing on the backs of my heels or the sides of my toes. Some of my toenails have fallen off and grown in so many times that they are thick and leathery and impossible to disguise with a coat of glossy Essie nail polish. On runs over eight miles, my sports bra chafes against my chest, leaving raw marks that scab over and last for at least a week. When I run outside in the afternoon, sweat drips from the tip of my ponytail onto my skin, inviting a rash of angry red pimples across my shoulders. In July, I crashed into the asphalt after stepping sideways into a pothole and it looked like I took a cheese grater to my knees, forcing me to wear long pants to work for two weeks in the middle of summer. I wrestled with a foam roller off and on all year, trying to tame my IT band into submission.

I ran along the lake in the pre-dawn, I ran through the city after dark, I ran north to Winnetka past mansions that will never not blow my mind, I ran south to Uptown past the parks and beaches that remind me of being newlywed, and then a new mom in Chicago, I ran through neighborhoods where I would not feel comfortable slowing to a walk, I ran in the pounding rain, I ran in the snow, I ran off hangovers and anxiety and period cramps and rage, I ran until my lungs burned and I fell into the dirt sobbing when Brock Turner was sentenced three months in prison, I ran to the grocery store, I ran awkwardly through what looked and sounded like a bumping block party, I ran 18 miles on a treadmill at the gym, I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

Last weekend, on a calm, warm day in between the Cubs win and the Democratic loss, I put my training to the test with the marathon put on by the Milwaukee Running Festival that I’d signed up for just four weeks earlier. I’d been wanting to run another one since I crossed the finish line at the Chicago Marathon back in 2009, and even made it halfway through training for one back in 2012, but things kept coming up (pregnancy, 60 hour work weeks, a two week trial in Delaware, parenting, life) that stopped me from committing until last month, when I realized that I had the weekend of November 6th free and that I’d put in enough miles that I could probably survive 26.2.

I drove up to Milwaukee from Chicago on Saturday, swung by the race expo to pick up my packet and some 30% off workout gear, hit up our favorite pizza joint for some carbs, and hit the hay early in a hotel that was even dirtier and scarier than I expected it to be based on the discounted rate. In the morning, I woke up early and ran.

The first half was exhilarating. I went out fast and hard and was thrilled to be speeding down the middle of the road through a beautiful Rust Belt city on a Sunday so gorgeous you’d never guess it was November. I was moderately surprised by a series of hills, as Chicago is pancake-flat, but delighted that they sloped down as often as they climbed up. I hadn’t been certain that I would be able to finish the race without injury, but now it looked like I was going to knock an hour off my first marathon PR!

I couldn’t keep up that pace forever, though, and the second half became exhilarating in its brutality. The day turned hot, my legs burned, and my feet turned to lead. Somewhere between miles 18 and 20 everybody around me started walking and the goal shifted from keep running at a 9:30 pace to keep running period. The hills doubled in length and grade. The course took a turn through Milwaukee’s more industrial neighborhoods and I pounded pavement past brewing complexes and broken glass. I repeatedly jammed my rubber earbud into my ear canal because it kept slipping out. I dutifully choked down energy goo and shot blocks every 20 minutes, as well as a fibrous chia bar around mile 23 that I immediately regretted on account of how quickly it went through me. I managed to pick it up in the last two miles, which ran along Lake Michigan, and I crossed the finish line one minute under my 4:10 goal.

Every part of my body was sore and shaky and sick and soaked through with sweat and I was ecstatic that I’d not only accomplished something I’ve been wanting to do for years but that I’d left every ounce of energy on the road behind me. My husband and daughter were waiting for me the finish line, and I lurched over to them, grinning and gasping for air. After a desperate pit stop at the port-a-potty, I laid in the grass and split a chocolate milk and a giant cookie with my three-year-old. We stayed there until my legs started to seize up, and then we got up and wandered around, slow, woozy, stomach roiling, happy as I’ve been in recent memory.

When I lost the will to continue propelling myself forward, we headed back to the car. I’d packed fresh, soft clothes to change into for the drive back to Chicago, and could not wait to get them on. I dug the extra-large concert tee and american apparel sweatshirt and clean mesh shorts out of the duffel in the trunk and ripped my disgusting race shirt off my aching body. There were a fair number of people milling about between their cars and the race course, other runners, beat up, with medals hanging around their necks, and their families, helping them along. Amid the noise, people shouting, music from the post-race party pounding in the background, I heard a voice above the rest:

Check it out! Over there! Taking off her shirt!

Before I’d even registered that it could be directed at me, half obscured by cars behind and in front of me, in my sports bra and shorts, I had the clean shirt on, and I heard the voice again:

I feel cheated!

I turned and saw that the voice belonged to a middle-aged man, and I considered throwing him the finger, until I saw he was accompanied by his two young daughters, so instead I just turned away. I’d planned on changing completely behind the car, because who cares, but decided to finish up in the front seat instead.

To recap: I trained for eleven months and accomplished a physical feat of Lifetime Achievement-level proportions, one that makes men bleed from the nipples and women shit themselves, and this idiot thinks my body is something to look at. He tried to take my body–in that moment, an apotheosis of strength and stubborn persistence–and turn it the butt of a truly lazy joke premised on the assumption that women are sexual objects.

Of course, as a woman, I experience things like this, and much worse, all the time, but the unusual circumstances of this encounter threw the disconnect between our ideas of what a woman’s body is good for into relief and revealed societal obsession with female form over human function for what it is–completely and utterly absurd.

Growing up Mormon, I was taught that my body was a temple. Temples are sacred, inviolate, literal houses of God. They are also magnificent to behold. In the early days of the church, pioneer women donated their best china, which was dusted into fine powder and mixed into concrete so that the walls of the temple might shimmer like the walls of heaven itself. The first time I went into an LDS temple, I was 14 years old, on a youth trip to Washington DC. I spent the entire worship session trying to catch the eye of a cute boy from Chillicothe, Ohio. There was a dance at the church later that night and I dusted glitter powder from Bath and Body Works on my face, arms, and bony adolescent chest. The temple in DC is a many-spired architectural marvel meant to draw the eye and so did I.

An LDS temple is far more than just a pretty (or ostentatious, depending on your take) building, though. It is an edifice in every sense of the word. A building, yes, but also the pinnacle of achievement in Mormon theology, the solid center around which everything else grows. Permission to enter the temple, granted by a bishop following a formal interview, proves you are worthy. Getting married in the temple qualifies you for salvation. Going back to the temple, to participate in rites and ordinances on behalf of your ancestors, to receive direction, to commune with God, means you belong. The temple is a symbol, a stand-in for everything Mormons believe, and my body was too. As a teenager, keeping it covered, refusing permission to enter or even touch, meant I was worthy. Attracting attention from men meant that I had value. Later, giving birth and nursing a child meant that I was fulfilling my most elemental role, the one that would get me into heaven. Looking, acting, and talking the part of the believing Mormon wife and mom–covering my shoulders with sleeves even though I’d never qualified to wear the sacred LDS undergarment, turning down a cup of coffee even though I was secretly locked in an exhausting battle with booze, offered a chance at being saved and the illusion of belonging.

The only trouble with being a symbol is that I hated it. Or rather, when my body was a symbol, I hated my body. I poisoned it with drugs and alcohol. I starved it and stuffed my finger down my throat, not often, but enough to do damage. Men pawed at it and I blamed myself. I lifted my shirt in the mirror and grabbed the fat around my stomach every day for more than a decade, only stopping when my daughter became old enough to follow me into the bathroom.

Until I’d had enough. This year, the year of running, the year of recovery from fear and lack and shame, this is the year I started fighting for my body. I forgave it for being female. I forgave it for not making babies on demand. I forgave it for going haywire upon ingesting so much as a drop of alcohol.

I forgave my body, and then I started to defend it. My body is not something to look at. It is not a symbol. It is not a temple because it is not God’s house. It is my house. I’m the one who has to live here. If I take off my shirt or even (gasp) my bra, it could be for any one of a million reasons. Maybe I am hot, or sweaty, or there is a tag worrying at the back of my neck. Maybe I just finished a longass race and want to change my clothes. Maybe I am running in the sunshine along Lake Michigan and I feel so goddamn happy to be alive and moving that I just want to feel the wind on my bare skin. Whatever it is, you better believe it has nothing to do with you or any other person, thank God (and it has nothing to do with Him either).