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 Day 167: Breakfast for Dinner Part V

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage was doomed from the start. My church taught me that that we would be “unequally yoked,” righteous and unrighteous, light and dark, because I was Mormon and you were not, and I never could shake the image of you and I, two beasts burdened with a plow we’d never be able to drag. The bishop said he’d marry us in a church but not in the temple. The bishop said he’d marry us for time but not eternity. A church leader’s wife asked, pity shining on the surface of her eyes, “What about your poor kids?” The internet said you’d never convert and we’d end up divorced.

We are so unalike it’s a wonder we ever manage to haul anything in the same direction.

I am a lawyer who’d rather be an artist. You are a stay at home dad who should be an artist but won’t admit it. We both work our asses off for our family but manage to fight about who does more.

Your are non-religious, agnostic, a technical Catholic, less lapsed than never really get started. I’m a former Mormon cultural Christian universalist more spiritual than religious but also still weirdly religious.

You like clean lines and modern, minimal aesthetics. I want to live in an old bookstore with piles of rugs and a cat (you know I don’t like cats, but that’s just the kind of old hole I want to cozy up in, maybe throw in a pot of beans for your mom).

You spend all your internet time in subreddits. I spend all of mine on Instagram.

You are a skeptic, a cynic, and a news junkie. I am a believer, a truster, and a social justice warrior.

You’ve wished COVID on more than one Republican politician but bristle when I talk about the prison industrial complex and these are just two ways our political and moral compasses diverge.

We may not see eye to eye, but we sure as hell have a lot talk about.

On the other hand, there’s also this: during her wedding toast, my sister said she couldn’t think of two people more perfectly suited for each other, and she wasn’t wrong.

When we were getting to know each other over AIM we kept trading answers on those stupid personality quizzes and we both answered trapezoid for our favorite shape, west our favorite direction, and you and I both know these are not meaningless preferences. Trapezoid is a way of being in the world. West is a state of mind.

These days you ride centuries and I run marathons for fun. The shared value is not physical fitness but going as far as we can and leaving it all on the road.

We go all out on every holiday, vacation, special occasion. April Fools’, Festivus, and weddings and birthdays for all of our daughter’s stuffed animals are all cause for celebration. The shared value is not pleasure but family.

When people come to visit you get stressed out cleaning the whole house and I lose my mind planning the perfect itinerary. The shared value is not perfection but hospitality.

We are both voting for a Biden/Harris ticket. The shared value is not Democratic politics but love of country.

You trusted me to raise our daughter in a church you didn’t believe in and I trusted us enough to leave the church of my childhood the moment I realized it would drive a wedge into our family. The shared value is faith in each other.

You’d kill to protect me, our marriage, our daughter. I’d walk through fire to save us all. The shared value is love.

Last year, one of our shared friends claimed he figured it out, the glue that binds us fast, two people who are so remarkably different from each other. “You’re both nerds who think you’re smarter than other people, but it’s okay because you are.” I look around at the comic books and records and Lego bins stacking up against our walls and I think he might not be wrong about the first part, and if we’re not smarter than anyone else at least we have better taste. He also observed, “You live in your own world. It’s hard for anyone else to get in there with you.” That’s true, too.

We’d both do anything to sit down at a diner again, wolf some hash browns, pick at some carrot cake, sip bottomless coffee. Breakfast is not a value but it is a shared language. I’d drive a long way with you to eat a real brunch these days. Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club. Publican. M. Henry. Tweet. It could be any diner, though. I’d risk COVID to eat at one of our places that closed. Duke’s. Melrose. That greasy spoon in Tucson with the pictures of John Wayne on the wall. It doesn’t have to be good. Those meals were never about the food. We just liked each other’s company and the idea of a shared life.

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage works because we want it to. It runs on creativity and resourcefulness and a willingness to help each other out. I picked up the croissants at Bennison’s yesterday, and D woke up early to stuff them with melted chocolate, honey, and pepitas. I could have bought croissants with chocolate already inside them, but D insisted on plain so she could doctor them up herself and now she knows how to use the microwave. You ordered the fruit with a grocery delivery last night and D sliced the berries herself this morning and drizzled them with more honey, plus powdered sugar. I’ve never had berries so sweet but now she knows how to use the sifter. We both wondered how she’d manage the big pitcher of sun tea and the heavy tray with everybody’s plates but she delivered a perfect breakfast and a pile of gifts to the foot of our bed at 7:30, which means we got to sleep in, the greatest gift of all.

The miracle isn’t that we found each other. Since the beginning, we were drawn to each other like honey to D’s little hands. The miracle is that ten years ago we decided to make a family and every day since then we’ve made it stick.

Happy Anniversary, Love.

This post is the fifth in a series. See Parts I, II, III, and IV.

Quarantine Diary Day 58

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This is the time of year my husband runs the holiday gauntlet: Easter, daughter’s birthday, mother’s day, and my birthday all crammed into a three week period, each special day involving gifts and elaborate meals and tender feelings. This year, husband was a little nervous about mother’s day. He apologized preemptively. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we can’t do any of the things you like the most.” He was right. Illinois is still under lockdown until May 30 and mother’s day was slated to be 40 degrees and rainy. I told him it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I understand the logistical and emotional challenges of making a day feel special when every day is the same.

On Sunday, husband and daughter let me sleep in before waking me up with breakfast in bed–a smashed cinnamon roll concoction with macerated strawberries, bacon, and coffee–flowers, homemade cards, and gifts. You know, the usual. Okay, maybe not quite the usual. Daughter drew me a picture of my favorite things: us taking a walk, chatting up a stranger, while it rained cheetos, beets roasted in a mysterious outdoor oven, and two narwhals (mama and baby) hovered in the sky. She also gave me a double-sided paper cutout of a whippet (inexplicably her favorite dog, not mine, never mine) and a polaroid picture of a plastic dog house from the animated series Puppy Dog Pals (a recent birthday present and her new favorite toy). Husband gave me a jar of melatonin gummies, a tin of sardines with lemon, a bright yellow cotton dress, and a polaroid of me and daughter he’d snapped a moment earlier. I ate in bed and red The Times and read a book to daughter and when I finally got up I thanked them profusely for my gifts, an embarrassment of riches. I had no idea the real gifts were yet to come.

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The first of these gifts arrived the moment I stepped out of bed, when husband informed me that he had planned the day so I could “watch” virtual church services or not, whichever I preferred. I come from a world where the security and stability hinge on religious sameness. Religious differences block whole families from being formed, and changed beliefs upend families ties that have stood for generations. God forbid you lose your belief; you might just lose your whole family. The gift that made my family possible, that saves my family every day, is probably the gift I most often overlook: the freedom to believe what I want, and the freedom to change my mind. I opted to go to church, if you’re curious. My weekends need the structure these days.

The next gift came when church services wrapped up, and husband asked if I wanted to go for a walk or a drive. It was drizzling pretty hard, so I chose drive. When I climbed into the passenger seat, I saw two bags of David’s sunflower seeds in the middle console and, at my feet, two cases of CDs, 96 sleeves each, the same two cases I hauled around for for all of high school, college, and law school as I drove thousands and thousands of miles on Arizona highways and cross-country road trips. We popped in the first mix that husband ever made me fifteen years ago in 2005. We popped shells in our mouths. We wound our way up the north shore and tried to explain to daughter what it was like to live in a time when you had to work to hear the music that you loved. This is the most thoughtful gift of quarantine: the gift of being known.

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The next gift came the moment we got home, when husband handed me a bag of cheetos and a bottle of sparkling craft tea and told me I had an hour to do whatever I wanted, because he and daughter were leaving. He didn’t tell me where they were going and I didn’t ask. I haven’t been home alone in over eight weeks. I read. I called my mom. I ate half the bag. Later, I found out that husband and daughter spent the hour sitting in the car in the parking lot of Home Depot watching episodes of Puppy Dog Pals on husband’s phone. This is the most precious gift of quarantine: the gift of being alone.

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I won’t bore you with the details from the rest of my day except to say that it continued to be beautiful and delicious and relaxing in every way. Did daughter start to lose her mind from the boredom of being cooped up with her parents and the pressure of having to be on her best behavior for mother’s day and the struggle of missing her routine and the emotional turmoil of being seven years old? Obviously. But that’s when I got the greatest gift of all, the one husband doesn’t even know he gave me because he does it every day, and that is the gift of being an infinitely loving and incredibly capable co-parent in the best and worst of times.

The last gift was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, which we ate after the tarts we shared with our daughter earlier in the night and after she went to bed, while binge-watching Fleabag. This is the gift of second dessert.

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.

Ashes To Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Semi-Mormon Love Story

Growing up, I spent way too much time worrying about the impact that Mormonism would have on my dating life for somebody who didn’t go on a lot of dates. In a lot of ways, my parents were not typical, by the book, Mormons. Perhaps the simplest way to explain my family’s commitment to the church is like this:  we went to church every Sunday, but never on vacation. We never drank coffee but the Dr. Pepper flowed so freely that I was surprised when I moved from Ohio to Arizona and heard a seminary teacher refer to it as “sin juice.”  

But there was one area where my parents were practically fundamentalists: boys. In Ohio, school dances started in sixth grade, so my friends were going to dances for two full years before I was allowed to join them when I turned 14. This was so embarrassing to me that the one time a boy asked me if I would be at a dance, in seventh grade, I just said yes, and then when he called me from the pay phone at school to ask where I was, I lied and told him that I had been there earlier, but that I got sick and had to leave, and hadn’t he seen me there?  

My parents were equally firm on the rule that I wasn’t allowed to date before I turned 16. Or, at least, I think they were. Nobody actually asked me out between the ages of 12 and 16, so I didn’t have the opportunity to put the rule to the test, but they reminded me about it often enough, simultaneously amplifying my embarrassment about my datelessness and ensuring that I knew they would never budge on the rule.

When I did start dating, my parents constantly reminded me about the importance of going on group dates, warned me against the dangers of just “hanging out,” and, most importantly, drilled it into my head that I should only date boys who “shared my standards,” which, of course, is a nicer, less exclusive, way of saying don’t date outside the church. All of these rules were just build up to the biggest, most important rule, which was not so much a rule as a deeply ingrained fact of life: I would get married in the temple. Of course I would. In my mind, that was what Mormonism boiled down to, and even though I started chafing at the boundaries of Mormonism early on, getting married in the temple was the one thing I knew I would do. When I was in high school, my best friend, a half-Canadian/half-Egyptian atheist with a strict Muslim father challenged me on this certainty constantly. “What if you fall in love with somebody who’s not Mormon?” she would ask, incredulous. I would swear back, “I just won’t.” “But how can you be sure?” “I just am…” 

You know where this story is going, right? I fell in love with a non-member. Of course I did. His name was R and he was funny and sharp and artsy and shorter than me but had these amazing arms. I was 19, he was 20. He wasn’t the ideal non-member, just waiting for the missionaries to share the good news of the gospel. No. He was an atheist. He didn’t like organized religion. He’d read Krakauer and, you know, the internet and he had some serious questions about Mormonism. Not the kind of questions I wanted him to have, like “What happens after we die?” or “Does God have a body?” I could have answered those questions. No, he had questions like, “How could Joseph Smith have carried all those gold plates?” and “How did they end up in upstate New York if the Book of Mormon went down in Central America?” “Why is the Angel Moroni so buff?” He asked harder questions, too, like “Why didn’t God answer my prayers when my brother died?” 

I couldn’t answer those questions. I was too naive to realize it was because they were unanswerable. I thought it was because I just didn’t know enough about the gospel. I wasn’t the picture of a good Mormon girl when we met. Shortly after I turned 16 and proclaimed to my best friend that I’d never fall in love with somebody who wasn’t Mormon (a conversation during which I also swore I would never give a blow job because that sounded disgusting), my life took a hard turn. By the time I met R, I hadn’t been to church regularly in over two years and on the rare occasions that I did make it to my student ward I was either hungover, high, or still drunk from the night before. I don’t know why I ever thought it was a good idea to get loaded and then go to church. I guess something in me just couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I didn’t know if I believed in God anymore, but if I did, I knew that he looked like Heavenly Father. This is what I told R the first night we met. I told him that I didn’t know what the future held, but that for me, it was Mormonism or nothing. Mormonism was how I was raised and it was how the world made sense. 

The beginning of our relationship was an intense, storybook romance. That first night we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking about our baggage and our shared obsession with Bob Dylan. Our second and third dates were also middle of the night affairs, eating hashbrowns and pie at the dingy Waffle House diner on the edge of town, and then driving into  the desert to smoke clove cigarettes. Our third date found us at the Waffle House again. It was 2005, which happened to be the year that the Waffle House was celebrating its 50th anniversary and giant posters are hanging across windows on two sides of the restaurant were emblazoned with the slogan “Here’s to the next 50 years!” There are two old guys on the signs and they are raising their coffee cups in a toast and I think they are funny so I lift my own mug of bad diner coffee and read off of one of the signs, “Here’s to the next 50 years!” and give R a cheesy grin, waiting for him to laugh. He just stares at me, until it slowly dawns on me that the signs were only visible from my seat and he thinks I am a psychopath toasting to our next 50 years the morning after our first kiss. 

He did some pretty embarrassing things early on, too, though. The first time he drove up to visit me at my parent’s house, a few hours away from our college town, he was so excited to see me that he left his Ford Ranger parked a full three feet away from the curb, driver’s side door hanging, and keys in the ignition. Later that summer, he used all of the airline miles he’d accumulated when his family lived abroad during his teenage years to come visit me in New Orleans, where I had an internship. Remember when I mentioned that it was 2005? The week he visited happened to be the week that one of the hurricanes that hit the gulf coast right before Katrina landed. The city was evacuated, but we couldn’t afford a rental car with the exorbitant insurance rates for drivers under 25 so R found us a room in a tall hotel and we stocked up on junk food. We probably would have died if that had been Hurricane Katrina, but Dennis turned out to be a bust, so instead we spent the weekend wandering around the French Quarter in the drizzle. That was also the weekend that I asked R what would happen if we got pregnant and he said, we’ll have a baby and name it Dylan. 

One of the things I liked best about R was that he rarely drank and didn’t get high. It was also the most annoying thing about him because I wanted to do those things all the time. Spending time with somebody who had such a healthy relationship with substances made me realize that maybe I didn’t. Being with him made me want to be a better person. After we’d been together for about a year, I decided I wanted to go back to church. Cue flashbacks to middle school, when I was so embarrassed about my religion that I pretended I was at the school dance so I wouldn’t have to tell my boyfriend I couldn’t go. I was terrified that R would want to break up with me if I started practicing again, or that he would resent me for tricking him into a relationship with a freaky Mormon. So I made my religion as unobtrusive as possible. I would pray silently in my head as we lay next to each other in bed. I would make up excuses to stay at my house on Saturday night and wake up early for sacrament meeting and be back at his house with two iced Americanos from the drive through espresso shack before he woke up. I would read the Book of Mormon surreptitiously while he was in the shower, slamming it shut and stuffing it in my bag when he walked in the room. 

My parents loved R. They didn’t even mind that he wasn’t Mormon, because they saw how much happier, not to mention healthier, I was with him. Of course, they wanted him to join the church. And, if I’m being honest, I did, too. Being in a serious relationship with a non-member who wasn’t taking the missionary discussions and had no intention of doing so put me in a weird no-man’s land at church. I was attending a single’s ward, where almost every other member’s single-minded focus was on searching for his or her eternal companion and getting to the temple. Except for me. I’d already found my eternal companion and I felt like my life was moving forward–since I’d met R, I’d gone from a being a drunk and a drug addict to landing a prestigious internship, working as a teaching assistant, and deciding to apply for law school–but I couldn’t figure out where the temple fit into my future. In fact, when I pictured my future with R, I drew a blank. Without a temple marriage, what was there? 

We started having these intense conversations about the church that would end in me begging him to just read the Book of Mormon already and pray about it. I was certain that the Angel Moroni would sweep in and uncross our stars. I also asked him to meet with the missionaries, but he never got past clicking on the “Chat with a Missionary” button on mormon.org and signing off in frustration when the missionaries couldn’t answer his questions about the church’s racist past.

The conversations got easier as I kept going to church. I accepted callings that forced me to talk about the church with other people (ward missionary, gospel doctrine teacher), and so I re-learned the language of Mormonism. Eventually I learned how to talk about it with R, too, without feeling crushed by disappointment every time he rejected my invitations. I even convinced him to start parking his bike at the institute, telling him it was safer than the bike racks on campus and reassuring him that nobody would talk to him. I took this as a good sign that he actually did it. I didn’t know what to do when faced with evidence that he still wasn’t comfortable at church, like the time that he showed up at the institute wearing a t-shirt that he’d borrowed from me. It had the name of a painting company owned by a family in my parents’ ward on it, and they were known for printing up tons of shirts and passing them out for free to all the teenagers in the ward for fun and for free advertising. Lang Painting, it said. So one day R showed up at the institute wearing a Lang Painting shirt, and a group of kids, including a set of missionaries’ accosted him. “Hey, you know the Langs?” “Uh, no, this is my girlfriend’s shirt.” R tried to tell them he wasn’t Mormon, mistakenly thinking this would make them lose interest in him, rather than piquing it. They were particularly interested in the fact that he was dating a Mormon, and took this as a sign that he would be an easy target. They progressed from complimenting his shirt to asking him if he wanted to take the missionary discussions in five minutes. He ran out of there and when we talked later that night, he was pissed. 

Other times, R seemed like he was softening toward the church, and I LIVED for that. Once, after I moved into a new ward, he came to watch me give a talk. He sat in the second row, over to the side of the chapel, and I sat on the stand. The person speaking after me, a man of course, said a few words about how everybody in the room of a child of Heavenly Parents, and is loved by them. After the meeting, a girl I knew who was sitting near R told me that she saw him tear up when he heard that and she knew, she just KNEW that he felt the spirit. Of course she blew it by pouncing on him immediately after sacrament and asking him to take the missionary discussions. 

One of the reasons I was so obsessed with whether or not R would join the church is because of my patriarchal blessing. I got it when I was 14 from my grandfather, who was a stake patriarch, right before he died. I ignored it at first, because it was not particularly interesting, but when I came back to church after those years of wandering through the wilderness, it took on totemic importance. I carried it with me from apartment to apartment, reading it when I felt lost to remind me that I had divine worth, even after all the bad things I’d done. I didn’t know what to do with the promises about my future. I was afraid that I’d fucked up so badly that I’d forfeited the right for them to come true. One thing my patriarchal blessing said was that I would have the opportunity to be married in the temple to a companion of my choosing. I hated this phrasing. It was so imprecise. It didn’t say I would get married in the temple, it said I would have the opportunity. What if I already blew this opportunity? What if I was in the process of blowing it by wasting my best years with R, a boy, actually, by this point, a man who had no interest in or ability to taking me to the temple? 

Years passed without the situation resolving itself. After graduation, I moved to Michigan for law school, and R stayed behind to finish an extra semester required by his journalism program. We didn’t split up, but shortly before I left we had the most depressing conversation of our relationship, where we took a long walk through the desert wash behind our house and I told him that I couldn’t see a future with him, not because I didn’t want one, but because I literally couldn’t see what it would look like, and we both cried. After he graduated, while I was plugging away in my first year of classes, he went on a soul-searching solo bike trip around the country from his parents house in Texas to Manhattan. I asked him to take a Book of Mormon, but he said he didn’t have enough weight on his bike. We still didn’t break up but I wondered if we would ever live in the same city again.

In summer 2008, his bike broke down and he ran out of money and he decided to join me in Michigan. He got his own apartment even though most couples that had been together as long as we had would be living together. He stayed even after the local newspaper folded and he couldn’t find a journalism job and ended up working in the restaurant industry. He stayed even after my faith journey back to Mormonism led me to start excising the fun things from my life one by one, first coffee, then booze, then sex. He stayed even after I got an internship in Chicago and left him alone in the small town that he’d moved to only to be with me. Over time, I realized that while they may not be on par with converting to Mormonism, the sacrifices R made to be with me were no small thing. He left his family, his friends, he gave up his career, and he supported me 100% in every thing I did, no matter how weird he thought it was. That had to count for something. 

About a year after R followed me to Michigan, my younger brother got engaged to a girl he had known for less than 6 weeks in 6 weeks. He would be the of my siblings to get married. My mom called to tell me the news. She wanted me to be in the temple for the ceremony. I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t even close to be temple worthy. I was also angry. If I couldn’t go to the temple with the love of my life, I wasn’t about to go without him to watch my brother marry a stranger. That was a turning point for me. I realized I wanted R more than the temple. My mom sensed what I was thinking about and brought up something I hadn’t thought about in awhile: my patriarchal blessing. “Your blessing says that you will have the opportunity to marry the companion of your choosing. I know you’ve already chosen.” She didn’t exactly sound thrilled–her voice was breaking–but it was remarkable that for all these years I’d been focusing on the temple part of the blessing, when she was focusing on the part about it being my choice. And I thought they were the orthodox ones. R proposed a few weeks later.

I still didn’t know what our wedding would look like. Neither did our families. His parents wanted an open bar and my parents wanted the whole thing to be dry. We decided to piss them both off by doing a toast with champagne and Martinelli’s non-alcoholic apple cider. We ended up getting married in a tiny chapel in the middle of the desert. Moments before the ceremony my dad pulled R over to the side and said “R, I want to tell you something.” R steeled himself. My dad continued. “Doesn’t this church look exactly like the one in Kill Bill.” R decided not to take the reference to the extremely violent movie where the entire wedding party including the groom is brutally slaughtered as a threat. We got married in a vaguely religious ceremony performed by the bishop of my parents’ ward. After the ceremony, we exited the chapel to Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.

At some point in the next year or so, I was sitting in Relief Society listening to a lesson about the temple. The teacher was a wedding photographer because of course she was (that’s one of the two professions that Mormon girls are foreordained to do, the other one being seller in a multi-level marketing company) and she was talking about how she sometimes photographs non-LDS ceremonies and it breaks her heart because she can tell that the married couple knows something is missing. There is no light in their eyes. 

That’s what I was afraid non-temple marriage would be like. I thought it would be like living a B-version of life, or painting with a paler set of colors. I pictured my life the way a sober alcoholic first pictures a future without booze. But my non-temple marriage taught me that this is bullshit. My marriage taught me that love is love to the point that when the church amped up its anti-gay agenda, I knew I had to leave. My marriage taught my family, too. A few years ago, I visited my family back in Arizona and my dad told me with tears in his eyes that he knows R and I will be together forever, temple marriage or no. That’s right, my former bishop, former CES teacher dad told me that he doesn’t believe the ordinances are necessary. He told me that he and my mother are thankful every day that I married R, because he is perfect for me, and because he such an incredible stay-at-home father to our daughter, Dylan, and that he is all of those things precisely because he’s not Mormon. He’s right of course. I wouldn’t be who I am without the church and R wouldn’t be who he is with it. I don’t go to the Mormon church anymore, but I thank God every day that I found R and managed see past what I was taught to build a family with him.   

Redeemed

I thought that marrying the boy would make up for sleeping with him.

I thought converting my husband would make up for marrying outside the church.

I thought that having a baby would make up for out-earning my husband.

I thought that hating my job and changing my job and still hating my job and changing my job again would make up for being a working mom.

I thought that quitting drinking would make up for being a bad Mormon.

I thought that finding God in the rooms would make up for leaving the church.

I thought that writing my life like it was a story would make it all make sense.

What if I never had to do any of that?

What if I was already redeemed?

What if I’m still glad I tried?