Quarantine Diary Day 68: Coronavirus Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarantine Diary Day 132: When Things Change Shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why wasn’t this enough before?

I thank God that it’s enough.

I thank God for a worldview that can change shape.

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

Quarantine Diary Day 94: What Even Is This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

I’m Sorry J

We sat on my dorm room floor, huddled around a Tupperware dish, an immersion blender, a bag of frozen mixed berries, ice, and a stack of plastic cups. There was also a handle of tequila, the only evidence that we were trying to make margaritas, not fruit smoothies. It was Friday night, a few weeks into our freshman year of college, and I was with Saira, Danielle, and Jamie. Saira and Danielle and I had been best friends since since tenth grade, though the strength of our relationships had been tested over the last few months, and would buckle before the semester was through. Jamie had gone to high school with us, too, but we didn’t know her as well. Unlike the three of us, she’d lived her whole life in the same town, and she’d run with a more popular crowd than we did. She was small, with straight, shiny blond hair. She was on the student council and hung out with athletes. I only knew who she was because her dad and stepmom were in my parent’s ward. I never saw her at church, and figured she lived with her mom. We’d connected over the summer when she’d learned that we were all going to UofA, and that our dorms were near each other, and now here we were, mutilating a perfectly good bag of frozen fruit together on the floor.

Having Jamie around made me nervous. She was fun and friendly, but I didn’t like sharing my friends. I didn’t know how to share them. Danielle and Saira and I had been through a lot over the last few years, and I didn’t know how to balance our intimacy with the topical friendliness you extend to someone you don’t trust. And I didn’t trust her. She was Mormon, like me, and I had no idea what she made of our evening’s plans, or if she questioned why I was keeping the bottle in my room and manning the blender. I also felt a nagging sense of obligation to stay sober with her, which was irritating. This instinct was born out of politeness more than out of religious loyalty, because I suspected it couldn’t be fun to watch your three new friends get trashed without you. Because I had no practical experience in turning down libations, I muddled through my preparations without acknowledging either my conscience or my social anxiety. The cheap blender wasn’t liquefying the berries the way a food processor would, only chipping bits of raspberry off of larger chunks. And it wasn’t making a dent in the ice. I decided to switch tactics and used the handle of a butter knife to break the berry cube into a few blocks, which I then mashed into cups. This was as close to smoothies as we were going to get, and smoothies were as close to margarita mix as we knew how to get. I poured a glug of tequila into three cups and paused over the fourth, glancing up at Jamie. “Do you want to drink?” I asked skeptically. She responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” so I poured, and then the four of us toasted, drank, and gagged, because the berry slurry I’d concocted was nowhere near sufficient to cut the sting of the bottom shelf liquor we were now choking down.

Four hours later, we were huddled together on the ground again, this time in the parking lot next to a 7-Eleven, shielding Jamie from the street while she emptied the contents of her stomach into the dirt. After margarita night didn’t turn out as planned, Saira and I had stumbled out of the dorm looking for adventure and boys and better drinks, and found a fraternity party that said they would let us in, even though we had no Greek affiliation and were unconventionally attractive at best. We called Danielle and Jamie and gave them directions to join us. For me and Saira, the party was disappointingly uneventful. There was no music, just a mass of people talking in the courtyard of a big white stucco house. I saw one of my neighbors from back home, a tall band geek named Kristen. We talked about our parents, which made the night seem almost wholesome. None of the fraternity brothers showed any interest in speaking to us, and the keg never materialized, so we decided to take off for the second time that night. We didn’t think twice about leaving our friends. For one thing, we didn’t know better. We hadn’t seen anything threatening at the party and, as the daughters of Muslims (Saira) and Mormons (me), didn’t have enough experience to know that frat parties are inherently dangerous for young, drunk women. We were almost home when Saira’s phone buzzed. It was Danielle, begging us to come back. “It’s Jamie. She’s too drunk. They’re making us leave.” Saira and I bitched incredulously the whole way back. What were they thinking, getting so rowdy they got kicked out of the party?! Danielle had sounded really worried, though, so we ran while we bitched. Back at the house, we found our Danielle sitting with Jamie out front, Jamie slumped against Danielle’s shoulder. A few guys hovered behind them, and started yelling as soon as they saw us. We ignored them, and knelt to look at Jamie, while Danielle quickly explained to us that the guys had taken them into a bedroom, and fed them drinks, practically pouring them down Jamie’s throat until she was couldn’t move. Then, when they realized the girls were too drunk to respond to their attempts to hook up, they’d gotten pissed and dragged them out. That’s when Danielle called us. Saira was livid. She screamed right back at the guys, “You can’t do that to girls! You can’t force alcohol down their throats; look at her, she’s tiny!” as she pointed at Jamie. I directed my attention to getting everybody back home. Saira and I put our arms around Jamie and hoisted her up. She could walk, and talk, but didn’t remember anything about the last few hours. We dragged her home, stopping for just the one pit stop puke behind the 7-Eleven.

After we got everyone to their rooms in one piece, and over the next few days, Saira and I talked incessantly about how scary the experience must have been for Jamie and Danielle, how horrible those guys were, and how we would never leave each other in that situation again. We beat ourselves up for missing the danger. We excoriated our parents for our sheltered teenage years that we blamed for our naivete. Privately, I felt especially guilty for my part in corrupting Jamie. Every good Mormon kid knows her role in social situations is to be a good example. If I’d passed on the booze, Jamie might have felt comfortable enough to do the same. Certainly if I’d never stumbled out of the dorm looking for trouble she would never have ended up at that party. I felt like those guys, screaming at us in the middle of the night. They should have known better than to force feed shots to somebody who was already wasted, and I should have known better than to offer the first drink to an unwitting Mormon girl. I did know better, but I did it anyway, and Jamie ended up on the verge of alcohol poisoning with sexual assault lurking in the corner. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but a few days later she bounced back to my dorm room like nothing had happened, asking “Where’s tonight’s party?”

As I got to know Jamie better, I learned that she was not as squeaky clean as I’d thought. In fact, she’d been way wilder than me in high school. She had stories about partying with our hometown’s resident hardcore band and then doing improbable things like getting knocked out in a bounce house, with all those flailing limbs. I gathered that at some point between her sophomore and junior year her parents had intervened and she’d cleaned up her act and aligned herself with the popular Mormon kids I’d seen her sitting with in the cafeteria. I allowed this information to ease my guilt. I hadn’t corrupted Jamie. Her rebel years were what I wanted mine to be; instead, I spent my senior year getting stoned by myself and zoning out in front of the television until somebody ratted me out to my parents over spring break. I spent the rest of the school year detoxing, seeing a counselor at LDS Family Services, and counting down the days until I could move out. Clearly, Jamie could teach me a thing or two.

As the semester marched on and my relationship with Saira and Danielle underwent the strain of transition, I spent more and more time with Jamie. Saira and Danielle spent most of their time studying for our honors chemistry class. I was in the same class, but was also lazier and found myself with more time to kill. Jamie was always available. We were unlikely friends, with next to nothing in common besides Mormonism. She was an unquestioning Republican because that’s how her parents voted; I was an increasingly staunch (and obnoxious) Democrat. She was an ambitious chemical engineering student with a clear career path; I was a dreamy English major with unspecified plans; she was flirty and confident; I was introverted with a tendency to be overly serious. Still, I liked being with her. She drew a carefree silliness out of me and we spent many afternoons dancing to tinny indie rock blaring from her laptop speakers and cracking up over stupid jokes. As a thin blonde girl, Jamie also opened up doors I’d never realized had been closed. Boys wanted to talk to her. She asked people to do things for her for no other reason than she wanted them to and they inexplicably said yes. Which is a roundabout way of saying she was really good at getting drugs and alcohol. She pinpointed the men in the drugstore who would buy us booze. She found the freshman living in Coronado dorm who would sell us a bottle of high-end vodka that wouldn’t last two weeks and enough weed to last all semester. She was also generous to a fault. She let me keep the weed in my room even though I always smoked when she was in class or visiting home for the weekend. She borrowed her mom’s van for a camping trip with Saira and Danielle and let us hot box the car on the long, winding drive into the White Mountains. More than once she gave me money that it hadn’t even occurred to me to figure out a way to pay back.

But access wasn’t the most valuable thing Jamie offered. There were plenty of kids selling fun and drugs. Jamie provided something they couldn’t, and that was validation. Mormonism made us different. We weren’t just two college kids making mildly risky life choices; we were breaking with a way of life that demanded strictest obedience. Our parents wouldn’t just be worried if they knew the truth; they would be profoundly disappointed. We weren’t just experimenting; we were gambling with our souls. Jamie understood all that. She understood what it meant to flee a stifling life, but not be able to shake the mindset that made such a life possible. I had other friends who’d made a cleaner break, who’d stopped attending church, moved in with boyfriends, and never called themselves Mormon again. That wasn’t me and Jamie. You couldn’t keep us out of a church if you tried. We were like drunks who couldn’t stop calling our exes, except our ex was Mormonism, and he wasn’t technically an ex. More like on-again off-again. We shared our first joint next to the dumpster behind the LDS student center on campus because it was the safest place either of us could think of. We went to church hungover and lingered for the Sunday afternoon potlucks. We showed up at game nights, flirted with boys at Family Home Evening, an activity that never paid off with Jamie by my side, she was so much cuter than me. We made a game of sniffing out other deviants. It almost always backfired. We met a spacey girl at a pool party who we could have sworn was high but turned out to just be dumb. One night toward the end of freshman year we hit up an ice cream social and met a particularly interesting and good looking guy. His name was Jason, and we stood around with our Styrofoam bowls making pretentious small talk. He read Dostoevsky and thought String Theory was fascinating. I was sweating in the May heat, but was also being particularly charming, and thought I might actually have a chance until I saw Jamie whip out her phone and get his number. I turned on my heel and walked out. It was moments like this that I missed Saira and Danielle. I wouldn’t have to explain to them why that bothered me, and besides, we never liked the same guys. I sent Jamie a passive-aggressive text from my room. “I really liked that guy we were talking to . . . .” She responded immediately. “Then come back, he’s still here! I got his number so we could find out about more activities at church.” I wondered why I was still withholding my trust, nine months after she went all in with me on the margarita sludge and forgave me when it ended in disaster.

A few days later we texted Jason. After some initial “I’m busy-ing” we managed to extract an address and invitation to hang out. We rolled up his driveway slowly, taking in the gravel lawn and concrete walls, not unusual for Tucson, but a far cry from the red brick buildings and olive tree-lined sidewalks on campus. We smelled pot as soon as we stopped up to the front porch. The windows weren’t even open. “Bingo,” said Jamie, as she flashed me a wolfish grin. When he let us in, Jason did not offer any explanation for the smell. Instead, he offered us a seat on a futon and put himself in a desk chair across the room. All of our chemistry from earlier in the week evaporated in the seedy apartment. Jason kept looking back at his computer. We’d clearly interrupted his studying, or gaming, or whatever he was doing. The mystery of the marijuana was solved when a bedroom door opened and a slightly older guy, presumably a roommate, stepped out in a cloud of smoke. The roommate told Jason he was taking off and Jamie and I shared a look that said “too bad.” It became apparent that we would not be getting high at Jason’s house, and also that there was no way to leave gracefully, us having just barged in and forced him to hang out twenty minutes earlier. Jamie asked Jason if he wanted to come to a party with us at our friend Ryan’s house and he said yes. Well, friend is an overstatement. Ryan worked the front desk at my dorm and liked a bunch of the same bands as me and we’d been to his house all of three times. Party is an overstatement, too. There were less than ten people, mostly guys, sitting around the living room when we arrived. They offered us red wine in mugs, which Jamie and I accepted, and which Jason disappointingly declined. Jamie and I folded ourselves onto the second futon of the night while Jason perched uneasily in a dining chair across the room. His location made it hard to talk. As did his utter unwillingness to engage. After a few stilted attempts to start a conversation, I turned my attention to Ryan, who had asked if I’d heard the new Aimee Mann album. My eyes lit up. Music was one of the few things I didn’t need to be drunk to talk about, and I adored Aimee Mann. Ryan waxed on: “There’s definitely a harder edge to the new album than her last….” I took issue with that. “Her last album may have been melancholy, but there was some incredible solo-work with the electric guitar. She isn’t exactly a folkie.” “Just listen,” Ryan said, as he jumped up and put on the album, and I realized what he meant. The first track was more driving than the perfectly self-contained pop ditties of her last album. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice Jason leaving until he was halfway out the door. “Wait!” Jamie called and we rushed after him. “Where are you going?” “I’ve just got to go,” he said. “Well let us give you a ride, at least. We drove you here! You’re not that close to home.” “I can walk.” He took off down the street. I felt like a jackass. I wondered if he left because we were drinking or because we were ignoring him. I thought about his roommate and how I’d never seen Jason at church before that week and wondered if it had been hard for him to make himself go. I hoped he didn’t derail as easily as Jamie. I stared at my mug of wine and realized that this was the first time I didn’t want to finish my drink.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year did a number on mine and Jamie’s friendship. First, I hit her up for money to buy drugs that never materialized. That was bad but not unfixable. I told her I’d pay her back. But then I screwed everything up for her. My dad smelled smoke on me when I came home late one night and went through my purse while I was sleeping. I woke up in the morning to him sitting next to my bed holding a pipe in his hands. He grilled me about what I’d been using, how much, and with whom. He thought I’d been clean for over a year, and it crushed him to have to tell my mom I wasn’t. I told him I’d been getting high with Jamie. I thought it would make him feel better, knowing I was with a neighbor, a friend, a member of the church. It didn’t occur to me that he would feel obliged to tell her dad or that her dad would threaten to cut her off financially unless she submitted to random drug testing for the rest of the summer. I spent the next month feeling like a horrible person; Jamie spent the next month standing in lines at a drug testing facility and praying she wouldn’t lose her tuition money. I wouldn’t have blamed her for never speaking to me again, but after she somehow, by the grace of God, passed the first drug test, she bounced back into my life like nothing happened. “We may not be able to smoke, but we can still drink! Where’s tonight’s party?”

In August we went ahead with our plan to move into a house off campus together, along with Danielle and Natasha. Natasha was a friend of Jamie’s from the chemical engineering program. She was blonde, blunt, busty, and brilliant. She was a lush, too, and, like me and Jamie, had a complicated relationship with her faith. She also favored the boyfriend analogy. “It’s like . . . God is my boyfriend,” she explained, tracing a stick around in the gravel after a particularly rough night, “and I love him,but I just can’t stop myself from cheating on him all week long.” I was surprised. I didn’t think Catholics had a problem with drinking, which was, for the most part, the worst thing we did.

By contrast, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Mormon dietary code–called the Word of Wisdom–which prohibits drinking, smoking, drugs, coffee, and tea. The irony is that, historically, members of the early church did not treat the Wisdom as a commandment so much as a nice suggestion. Joseph Smith kicked back with a beer, perhaps from his fully stocked home bar, in Nauvoo. Brigham Young, the second president of the church, ran a distillery in Utah. Ladies in the Relief Society fermented their own peach wine. It is said that, back then, the biggest threat alcohol posed was to the pocketbooks of the Saints at a time when everybody’s resources were needed to build a new Zion. Young’s distillery kept the money from flowing out. Over the years, the Word of Wisdom, originally sent by “greeting,” “not by commandment or restraint,” morphed into a strict test of fellowship, a boundary drawing tool. A cup of coffee a day will keep a member out of the temple, out of heaven, and out of the fold.

Our new house was on Elm Street, and living there was like a nightmare. We drank and smoked and drank and smoked and took pills when they were around. We hosted parties and hit up other parties and broke into swimming pools and drove around town drunk and were inappropriate with each others boyfriends and made out with each other and and fought and bitched our way around ever-shifting alliances. Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was the nightmare.

Jamie got into a serious long-term relationship with a Mormon man, and stopped partying with me, except whenever he wasn’t around. We still went to church together, sometimes hungover, sometimes high. Sometimes we got so high we forgot to go to church and ate burritos instead. Sometimes we looked at each other and said, What the fuck are we doing? Jamie would swear she was going to quit, and tell me that I should too. You have no idea how good it feels, she said, in reference to the first time she went back after straying from the church, back in high school, how it feels to be clean. I knew she wasn’t talking about being clean from drugs; she was talking about her soul. And she was right. I knew what it was like to abstain from drugs and alcohol against my will, but I had no idea what it was like to be free. To be forgiven. We knew we couldn’t change our ways in Arizona, so we would fantasize about transferring to Brigham Young University, up in Utah, for a fresh start. We would be different in the mountains. We would be pure. We would finally be the Mormons we were supposed to be.

Of course BYU was just a pipe dream. At the end of sophomore year, we let our lease on the Elm Street house expire, but not before I sublet my room for the summer, to another party girl who trashed the place and ran up bills for all the utilities that were in Jamie’s name. Natasha and Danielle moved into a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood and Jamie and I saw the opportunity to get out of dodge, not together, but in different directions as fast as we could. Both of us finished up our four years at the UofA, but we only saw each other two more times. Junior year, I went to a housewarming party at Jamie’s new apartment. I brought my new boyfriend, didn’t get drunk. We left early, after chatting awkwardly with Jamie about her shower curtain and the White Stripes. Senior year, we met at my request in the parking lot of the LDS student center, where we’d smoked that first joint together three years prior. I gave Jamie a check for all the drugs and utilities I remembered I owed her plus a little more for the things I forgot.

It took me nine more years to get sober, and may take nine more than that to make things right with Jamie. After college, I went back to the church and then left again. As far as I know, Jamie never went back at all. I don’t know if she’s sober; I doubt she needed to be. I just hope she found what she had before I sent her spinning off course. I hope she got clean and by clean I mean free.

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.   

Rough

Stumbling onto Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling on my parents bookshelves years ago, before I left the church, before Ordain Women, before Pants to Church, was like finding contraband. I only knew about the book from borderline apostate podcasts, I knew it had a questionable reputation amongst the most orthodox Mormons, and my parents were true blue. I grabbed it off the shelves, like I grasped at anything that looked like clarity in those days, ambivalent as to whether I hoped it would lead further into or out of the church, and shuttled it back to Chicago in the bowels of my duffle bag.

I never did read it, though I did let it live on my nightstand for a number of years. It’s a really long book.

My workouts are long, too, though, and so is my commute, so I am finally listening to the audio version of the book. It feels like a long time coming. It also feels less dangerous. It’s not like I can leave the church again. The biggest risk is that I’ll gain back a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Joseph Smith, of the Priesthood, of the restored gospel, which, now that I think of it, would really fuck up my shit, so I hope that doesn’t happen.

I see how it could though. I’m only a few chapters in and can’t stop relating to the Smiths. Not just Joseph Jr. but his firebrand mom Lucy Mack, his wayward family man dad Joseph Sr., his skeptic uncles, his brilliant wife Emma, his children, all those sick sons and daughters.

Am I a seeker because I was raised in the religion Joseph Smith created to justify and redeem his wandering, wondering family? Do I quest because they questioned? Or was I Mormon because I was a seeker? Was I Mormon unthinkingly, because my parents and my parents’ parents were Mormon, or did I last as long as I did because I inherited their yearning?

When I left did I get free, or did I follow Joseph Smith’s finger pointing to the moon, my grandpa’s righteous desires, my dad’s big brain, and my mama’s bleeding heart to something more true?

8 Minute Memoir – Day 1 – I Remember When

I remember when I was baptized.

I stood waist deep in the font, small like a hot tub, water warm like a bath. I was dressed in neck to ankle white, my jumpsuit—baggy and sexless—cinched only slightly at the waist. The zipper flipped up at my neck. I remember it bothered me that you could notice it sticking up in the picture of me and my dad taken just before or just after—it must have been just before, my hair was dry—the main event. I remember my dad standing next to me in the water. I remember his hand in mine and his other hand–I get the lefts and rights mixed up trying to figure out how it all went, it’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone baptized this way–behind my head when I went under. I don’t remember what he said. I don’t remember what I thought. I remember plugging my nose. I remember meeting with my bishop a few weeks earlier, to be interviewed and found worthy to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There’s a twist in my perception. In my memories of the baptism, I might as well be a teenager. I am autonomous, grown. I am the same person I am now. In my memories of the bishop’s office, I am a little girl.

I was eight-years old.

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).