When you’re raised up on visions of the promised land, there are a couple of things you take for granted:
The promised land is a place that exists and you can get to; and
That you’ll know it when you arrive.
Leaving your childhood religion is an exercise in splitting. You want to smash the beliefs you once held dear; you need to keep them intact to hold on to a sense of self that’s no longer clear. You end up excising them from the body of your old belief system and grasping the quivering strands of what’s left. You relocate your vision of the promised land. You think it’s still there but you couldn’t find it on a map if you tried.
On Wednesdays, I take my daughter to choir practice. She’s in children’s choir at our church and they’re practicing for the annual Christmas pageant, which is in it’s 100th year. This week we are running late, so I pull up in front of the church and ask if she wants me to drop her off before looking for a place to park. She surprises me by saying yes. She’s never walked around the church by herself before. The staff has strict rules about parents signing their kids in and out of Sunday school and the building was locked down for the last year. I make her talk me through how she’ll get from the front door to the choir room and then let her go, watching from the car to make sure she doesn’t need help with the heavy hundred year old doors and, when she makes it inside, watching the top of her head through the window as she struggles with a second set of doors. She’s so big, I think. And she’s so little. With that, she opens the door to a new level of independence, for both of us.
I find a spot on the street, park the car, gather up my daughter’s hat and gloves, and make my way inside the church building. I offer a chipper hello to the gentleman who works the front desk during the week and he, per usual, buzzes me in without a word. I am still on the first floor when I hear the strains of Joy to the World floating down the stairs. I almost can’t believe it’s the children’s choir and not a recording of some different group altogether. They sound magnificent. And loud. The group doubled in size when we all came back after the pandemic and the kids are all almost two years older than the last time they sang together in person. The choir director is nothing short of a miracle worker. Last year, he stitched together a couple dozen videos to put together a surprisingly watchable virtual pageant. In person, he’s somehow coaxed them into not only singing all of the worlds but hitting most of the right notes.
I pick out my daughter’s voice as I make my way up the stairs and the tears come. I can’t believe we made it. I can’t believe we landed here. Nine years ago I was carrying her inside of me and coming to terms with the fact that I could not raise a daughter in the religion I grew up it, not as I knew it. Seven years ago I was driving my baby to churches all over the city wondering if we’d ever find one that worked for us. Six years ago I carried my toddler out of a chapel for what I swore was the last time. It was so scary. When I tried to picture life after Mormonism, I saw mists of darkness. I imagined my daughter lost and confused. I imagined myself miserable, knowing I’d made the worst mistake. I couldn’t imagine anything good or sweet. My imagination was lacking. The light was always waiting for us on the other side. I just needed to step into it.
These thoughts flash by in the time it takes to ascend two flights of stairs. The third floor is brightly lit against the early dusk outside. The choir lets loose with a series of glorious glorias. I duck my head into practice room to wave at my daughter and then I ease my body into a comfy chair in the room next door, where I will chat with the other choir parents. I think, after five years, I can call them friends.
I feel like I survived something. Like I fled a famished land, crossed a stormy sea, and abandoned a sinking ship to wash up here, in this ordinary life that feels extraordinary. I’ve been here for so long now, I can’t believe I didn’t see it. I’m already in the promised land.
I walk into an LDS meetinghouse for the first time in 5.5 years and the one woman in the ward I know well enough to know I respect is speaking at the pulpit. It is a farewell address. Her family is moving to the Bay Area this week. She thanks the ward for making room for her, for her family, for her faith and her doubts. She peppers her talk with calls for inclusion, beginning by greeting the women in the room first. “Good morning sisters and brothers.” This woman has daughters. She knows what’s happening to them here. She mentions girls’ camp fondly, and I remember my years camping with the young women in my childhood ward the same way. For a fleeting moment, I think: I could raise my daughter here, too.
Twenty minutes later, the deacons file into the aisles to administer the sacrament while the little girls all stay in their seats, and I think: Absolutely not. Never again.
This church needs to ordain women and marry gays or it needs to topple. There is no middle ground.
There may be a place here for me, but I will not subject my family to the psychological violence of being second class, of being taught bigotry dressed up as doctrine. There are other churches that will take us in, other hospitals where the wounds they treat are not of their own making.
I sit with a hymnal on my lap and sing the alto part to every song.
I am a pioneer, to be sure, but the trail I’m blazing is out of this church.
Lately, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the experiences I am not having. That’s what the pandemic did: it robbed us all of the new experiences we would have had and replaced them with a bunch of experiences we never wanted. Of course, I worry about what the isolation means for my daughter first. Even when she seemed fine, the nightmares told me it was making a dent. When she started acting out in new and surprising ways, that made sense. Now she’s just listless. Bored, you know? One of my strengths as a parent is exposing my kid to all kinds of new experiences. Would-be bohemians become adventurous moms. Pre-pandemic, I rolled out of bed with big plans every weekend, took my kid on food tours of Chicago, and stopped at new-to-us playgrounds just because. When the pandemic shut us up indoors and then released us back into the wild as long as we stayed away from other people, I took it as a challenge. I pushed and stretched way outside the box to find of things to do and when my daughter and I flip through photos I took last year, I think, Damn. We made some magic.
But now I’m all out of steam, and it’s too cold anyway. The Adventure Express has ground to a halt. Mom is tired. In the old world, that would be okay. Even without me going out of my way, new experiences would be transmitted to by way of ordinary day-to-day living. My daughter would be feeling the sting of rejection and the sweetness of belonging at school. She’d be sipping cloying grape juice from the communion cup at church. She’d be inhaling the pyramid of fragrant soaps stacked up by the register at the grocery store. She’d be tasting chlorine and steaming or freezing under the wildly unpredictable showers showers at the YMCA. She’d be pressing the cool glass of the window against her cheek on long car rides. She’d know a different kind of boredom waiting in line at the post office and stumble onto the curative properties of people watching. She’s not getting any of that now. She’s not interacting with anyone besides her parents. She’s not seeing anything but the inside of our house. In a turn both welcome and sad, she very recently and suddenly outgrew or tired of the imagination games that colored her world (and mine) for the last year.
Just in time, she turned a corner with reading, and started disappearing into books. We went to the library a few Saturdays ago and she finished a small stack of “Princess in Black” and “Ivy and Bean” and “Billy and the Mini Monsters” by Tuesday. I was delighted–I hadn’t realized she enjoyed reading outside of school–but she was disappointed. “I wish I’d gotten more books. I didn’t think I’d finish them so quickly. And I know we can’t go back so soon.” We’ve only been to the library a handful of times since it reopened last year, a marked change from the trips we used to take every weekend of of her life. Regular trips didn’t seem worth the risk points when we could just stockpile books. “Hey kiddo. It’s okay. We can go back this week.”
The library is open late on Tuesdays, so that’s when we went, after a hasty dinner at home. Bundling up in heavy coats and piling into the car after dark was something we haven’t done for a year. It used to feel like such a hassle. Now it was something to look forward to and something to do in the long stretch between the end of the work day and bed. Driving through the neighborhood, looking at the colored lights at houses hanging on to winter and peeking into people’s windows–hey look, a cat! a happy family!–had something of the familiar to it. “Hey kiddo. Remember when we used to do this every week for swim lessons? It seems absurd to think that we left the house after dark so often.” My kid’s response was matter-of-fact, maybe a little defensive, maybe a little sad. “No it doesn’t.” “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’ll get to take swim lessons again.”
Taking advantage of the library’s late hours ws a stroke of pandemic genius. The people counter glowing on the wall said there were only 5 patrons in the building, out of a maximum capacity of 100. When we went on Saturday it was at 70. We had the run of the place and took our time. We sat on the floor and browsed. We looked at the recommendations from the librarians. We checked out the new titles. My kid grabbed as many chapter books as she was carry, and a few that I forced on her. I even sniffed out the occult shelves on the second floor and picked up a few books on tarot and witchcraft. Why? Because I’m starving for new experiences, goddamnit, and how else am I supposed to get my kicks? Because magic is the exertion of a person’s will to alter their reality, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now? Autonomy. Control. A change of fucking scenery.
For a year, I’ve been cataloguing all we lost in the pandemic. Collectively: people, dignity, livelihoods, homes. Personally: relationships, security, purpose, a plan. I’ve written ad nauseum about all the things we used to do and had to stop. It’s harder to keep tabs on the new experiences we might have had but never materialized.
We were supposed to go to North Carolina last year. What would I have seen on that road trip with my family that might have changed me? “You’re going to fall in love with Asheville,” a colleague told me. “You’re going to want to pack up and move.”
My daughter and I had just started a volunteer assignment at the soup kitchen last January. Our first time there, we set up the dining room, and then greeted the guests. We welcomed them as filed in in a line that stretched out the door of the church and then, after the meal, bid them good night with bagged lunches pressed into their hands. The experience was jarring for my daughter, who has never seen poverty or anything like it, and boring because we were there for a long time. What effect might a year service and small talk had on her?
We were supposed supposed to see Josh Ritter play at Fourth Presbyterian. The show scheduled for last March was kicked to September and then canceled indefinitely. It would have been our daughter’s first concert and our first show as a family. How might the music have moved all three of us?
My daughter is the only kid at church who hasn’t been baptized. I was waiting for her to turn eight because that’s how old I was when I was baptized into the Mormon church. My daughter turns eight next month. I can’t say for sure whether she would have taken that step in the church we go to now, but a year ago that’s what she wanted. Baptizing her into a congregation we haven’t seen since then, into a belief system I’ve since deconstructed, seems unfathomable, like crossing the red sea. How might her spiritual path have unfolded if we hadn’t been ripped away from our congregation? How might mine?
I was supposed to celebrate five years of sobriety in January. How many hours would I have spent in church basements listening to people tell stories about traveling to hell and back and finding God, and how might they have helped me along the way?
Last Sunday, I got in my car and cruised for a few hours down Clark Street into Chicago and back up Broadway til it turned into Sheridan. There were so many restaurants, open of course, masked patrons spilling and milling around out front. A friend recently texted about a brunch we ate eight years ago. I had been thinking about it, too. It had popped up as a “memory,” courtesy of my phone. It the best fucking brunch. Decadent. Indecent, even. How many meals might I have tasted that marked me so indelibly?
How many transcendent moments might I have had with strangers and with friends?
I’ve changed in quar, but the change has been a wearing down, a letting go. But erosion doesn’t always leave things smooth. This last year has also seen a crystalizing of every one of my sharp edges.
What would I look like if I’d been in the world mixing it up, knocking into everyone, tasting everything? What if I’d spent the last year filling up on new experiences instead of drying out trying to get by on the old?
Might my life look more like how it used to feel–like an expanding balloon, a gas giant, a star burning off hydrogen and throwing light and heat in every direction–and less like it feels now–like a collapsed lung?
This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.
Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”
On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.
Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.
Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”
Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”
I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.
A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.
A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.
A year ago I was slammed at work.
A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.
A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.
A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.
This year I gave up giving things up.
The pandemic took too much.
A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.
In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.
A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.
I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for all of my life until I turned thirty years old. Some members might object to my use of the term “active.” There were a few stretches in college that I didn’t darken a church door for months at a time, but I was always trying. There was always a Book of Mormon on my nightstand. I always prayed. I always answered the door to the missionaries and picked up the phone when my visiting teachers called. Before I ever left the fold, I was already on my way back.
When I made it back to regular church attendance, I tried even harder, but I never saw myself as a full-fledged member in good standing. All I could see were the ways I didn’t measure up to what I thought were the church’s standards:
I went to church but not every week.
I taught Sunday School but I prepared lessons at the last minute.
I did my visiting teaching every month, but I let my companion plan it.
I prayed every night but not on my knees, and never in the morning.
I read the Book of Mormon every day, but nodded off a few verses in. I still hadn’t taken Moroni up on his promise that if I read the book all the way through and prayed, with sincere intent, I would know it to be true, but that was only because I didn’t need to; I already knew.
I subscribed to the church magazines, and read those too, but never all the way through.
I listened to General Conference every six months, but skipped the Saturday morning sessions for brunch, and there was always at least one talk that made me furious.
I quit living in sin but I never confessed anything I did.
I quit using drugs and getting drunk but there were so many slips that I rewrote the Word of Wisdom to make room, as Brigham Young did, for beer and sparkling wine.
I quit drinking coffee but I couldn’t stay away from tea. The truth is, I never tried. After (aspirationally) giving up every other earthly vice, I figured the church could meet me on the other side of the veil and pry my hot cup of leaf water from my freshly resurrected hands.
I wore skirts that went to my knees on Sunday but bared shoulders and legs all summer long.
I put the Family Proclamation on my wall, but the wall was inside a closet.
I got married but not in the temple.
I planned Family Home Evening and family scripture study and family prayer but my husband was never going to join the church.
I had a baby but I couldn’t quit my job.
I was a Mormon who cursed, laughed at dirty jokes, read erotic fiction, and watched R-rated movies and all the shows that aired on HBO.
Mormons pride themselves on their ability to be in the world, but not of the world. Even when I was most ashamed of the church, I was proud to be a Mormon. I also believed it. I knew my purpose was to build God’s kingdom on earth, but I was so afraid belonged better in Babylon.
I know better now. Looking at that list, at all those things I thought were so bad, I see that there’s nothing on there that’s so shocking; they just didn’t fit with the vision of Mormonism that had been bestowed upon me as a child. And why would they? I was a child and as soon as I wasn’t, I was supposed to start having children and raising them up in the church. I never would be exposed to a more mature version of the faith.
Looking at that list, I see so many things that I’m sure other Mormons did; I just didn’t know. And why would I? I kept myself at a distance because I was afraid of what would happen if other members of the church knew the real me. It’s not all on me, though. They kept themselves at a distance too. If anyone ever struggled with the things I did, or laughed at the jokes I did, I never knew, because no one ever told me. That was the fellowship I needed, and the kind of faith I needed, too–the kind that could stand to talk about sex and sin and sorrow (“and all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird“) and how to move forward through it all. If I ever went back, that’s the kind of fellowship I’d give.
I stopped going to church five years ago. I pulled my name off the records last May. It’s only now that, for the first time, I can claim my former status as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because the time and separation finally cleared it up for me: that’s exactly what I was. I was not a perfect Mormon, but I sure did live the hell out of my faith.
When I started this blog five years ago I was two days from my last drink and two months out of the Mormon church. Sober Mormon was less description than projection. I wanted to be a person who didn’t need alcohol to feel alive. I wanted to experience life outside what I perceived to be the confines Mormon church. I’d slipped out a side door with no intention of ever going back, but I still considered myself Mormon to my core. I’d heard other people describe themselves as Recovering Catholics/Evangelicals/Baptists, and I thought the application of terminology from the world of addiction to religion made a lot of sense. The last few years before I left, being a feminist in the church felt like being a junkie. Try as I might, and believe me, I tried, I couldn’t stop obsessing over everything I thought was wrong with the institution. I didn’t want to see sexism and racism and bigotry every time I opened the scriptures, everytime I went to church, but I once I saw it I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Fixing the church was a fixation and it was also how I got my fix. I never thought I would be able to leave and when I finally did, I thought I would spend the rest of my life deprogramming from beliefs I never thought to question, grieving the loss of a community I never thought I had, healing from the wound of losing my my worldview. That would be my punishment. That was what I deserved. Six months after I left I went to a yoga workshop for women in recovery. The teachers told us about Akhilandeshvari, a Hindu goddess who rides on the back of a crocodile and whose name means Never Not Broken. I understood that they were trying to convey the power of being broken to pieces and coming together again, but I changed the words around in my head. That’s me, I thought. Never not Mormon. By that logic and the transitive property, to be Mormon was to be broken. Mormonism was my original sin.
The biggest surprise when I left the church was how easy it was. I did so much pre-grieving there was nothing left to recover from when I got out. I’d stopped believing the most gripping doctrine–the One True Church thing–years before. My husband was not a member. My family did not threaten to cut me off. My livelihood was not tied to my membership. I didn’t even have any friends in my ward. Nothing was keeping me in the church except me. Life after Mormonism was just life, but better.
For some time, I tried to connect with other ex-Mormons, but I found little of my own experience in theirs and I imagine they saw not much of theirs in mine. That was the other big surprise about leaving. I realized I’d spent my life identifying with a church I’d barely been a member of. I wasn’t a real Mormon. I didn’t serve a mission. I didn’t receive my endowment. I didn’t wear the garment. I wasn’t sealed in the temple. I drank and cursed and fucked around. I loved coffee and tank tops and R-rated movies. No wonder the church hardly recognized me. I’d been stripping Mormonism off in layers since I was old enough to choose my own clothes.
The other thing I couldn’t stand about the ex-Mormon communities, at least the online ones dominated by ex-Mormon men, was how all they wanted to talk about was the church the church the church. They proselytized against the church with the zeal of a nineteen-year-old in the mission field. The railed against the saints with the vigor of a convert bearing testimony. I’d burned off all my anger sitting in the pews on Sunday and scribbling on the internet at night. Now that I was free, that shit was boring. This was supposed to be a blog about leaving Mormonism, but by the time I left I had nothing left to say.
This was also supposed to be a blog about getting sober. I’d sworn off alcohol because I was tired of thinking about drinking. I’d been doing battle with a beverage for thirteen years. I was waiting for things to get bad enough that someone other than me would step in and revoke my drinking privileges, but on January 30, 2016 I woke up thirty years old and nursing the same hangover I had at seventeen and realized that even if it never got worse, I didn’t want to spend the next decade doing the exact same thing.
I had a lot to say about getting sober, and about doing it as a former Mormon. Having religion will go a long way to support a recovery program that is fundamentally religious in nature, like mine was, but it will fuck it up, too, because you wonder if you would have had a problem without the religion and when you leave the religion you wonder if maybe your problem is gone too. That was the question I asked in my very first post in this blog.
I spent most of the last five years sober but I sure as hell didn’t stop thinking about drinking. Was I doing sobriety wrong or was my belief that I could control my thoughts as misguided as my belief that I could control my drinking?
When I started posting Quarantine Diaries nine months ago, I wondered “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over? How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside as my life is stripped to the bare essentials?”
Anyway, I drank. Relapse played out exactly as I figured it would and is probably not at all like you’re imagining it to be. Am I sober? I guess so, but it’s more complicated than it used to be. I’m sober today, but not drinking 24 hours at a time is not an identity you can package up and sell (though I know quite a few people who have done just that). For what it’s worth, I am okay. Better than I was before. For the sake of the art, I don’t want to have to say even that, but I’m offering it out of respect for the people in my life who might worry, the ones who’ve heard me talk for the last five years about being in recovery from a deadly disease. I am tired of talking about drinking, though. I don’t want to be doing this five years from now. I realizing that it will take as long as it takes to get through, that this might be my thing for the rest of my life, but this shit is getting boring. I have almost nothing left to say, unless it’s to someone like me (you know who you are).
Sober Mormon is retired, but I’m still here putting words into the world.
In my family growing up, we never put a tree up, hung a strand of lights, or breathed a word of Christmas before December 8. My brother’s birthday is on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, yes; we have a few birthdays that coincide with tragedy and loss of international proportions in our family) and my parents never wanted him to feel overlooked. I continued to observe the first week of December as a neutral zone long after I no longer lived with my brother and started celebrating holidays with my own family. We only first put a tree up the first week of December a couple of years ago and I loved it so much for how it stretched out the season and gave me time and space to breathe.
When I was working my way up the ladder at a big law firm, I inevitably had massive multi-week trials scheduled to begin in December or January, and it was a fight to flip the switch and make room for Christmas in my work-obsessed mind and overbooked schedule. The cases always settled–year-end has a way of bringing people together, for the shareholders, you see–and I spent meaningful time with my family every holiday season, but I could never count on that and the first few weeks after Thanksgiving always felt like being squeezed. Bringing a tree inside the first week of December was like magicking a whole extra week out of thin air and it helped. In the lights of the tree, I could sit still and see past the next twenty-four hours without holding my breath. I wondered if maybe the Christians, with their four weeks of Advent–a whole season of waiting–were onto something.
If the idea of a month of Christmas makes you anxious, I get it. I get that this month sucks for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the millions of Christians who don’t observe Christmas (including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ). I get that this holiday sucks for people whose lives don’t look like the Hallmark specials. Christmas can suck when you live alone. Christmas can suck when you are estranged from your family, whether you asked for the separation or not. Christmas definitely sucks when you are physically separated–by virtue of work, sickness, disability, immigration status, military service, addiction, or imprisonment–from people you love and with whom you very much want to be. Christmas sucks when you are the one who is sick or addicted. Christmas sucks when your family is in the process of changing shape. Christmas sucks in a pandemic.
I don’t want Christmas to eat the end of the year for people for whom the holiday brings no comfort. And believe me, what I want to draw out for myself is not the hustle bustle or the making merry. I’m not spending the extra week shopping, for Chrissake, or blasting Pentatonix, or slamming nog. I’m staying home with my family. I’m bringing the wild outside in. I’m turning on the lights and turning up the heat. I’m freeing up a weekend day to take my daughter, in better years, to see the Joffrey Ballet perform The Nutcracker downtown.
This year, Thanksgiving came late enough that it made sense for us to get a tree the weekend after, which means we had it up in November. My spouse was cranky about it. Behind his back, I rubbed my hands together, greedy with anticipatory glee, already relishing all the extra time. The tree we picked out had a wonky branch on the bottom, so we lopped it off and wound it in a circle for an Advent wreath. I held off on lighting a candle, though. Surely, it was too early to start waiting in earnest. I didn’t realize my mistake for a few days, when I flipped the calendar to December and counted up the Sundays left before Christmas. We’d missed the first Sunday in Advent, the one where we remember to have hope.
Of course, we could have lit the candle on December 1. There’s no meaningful distinction between Sunday and Tuesday anymore, now that we don’t go to church, and there’s no wrong time for ritual. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. When my daughter popped out of bed on December 1, she shouted “Merry Christmas” at the tree, the lights of which are hooked up to a smart plug, which is connected to a smart speaker, which is programmed to play thirty seconds of Deck The Halls followed by a feel-good news story. She ran around the house playing with a plastic figurine of Buddy the Elf that she got out of a cereal box last year. She built Santa’s workshop out of LEGO. No sooner did we have the decorations up than it hit me: I couldn’t come close to matching that energy. Not this year.
When I think about Christmas, I feel overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of shopping or parties or travel–obviously we’re not doing any of that–but by the task of manufacturing Christmas magic on my own in a house that is still reeling from the trauma of this year. I am scraped clean of belief, wonder, and joy. Those feelings are currently inaccessible. I was not a literal believer when the year started, but I found meaning and value in the Jesus story. Now the waiting season is upon us, but it’s been eight months since I set foot in a church and the story has lost all relevance to my life. It’d be going too far to say I’m angry at God, because you can’t get mad at an absence; all the emotion just disappears.
Later in the week, I seized on an upswing in my mental state to light a candle with my daughter and read aloud the devotional materials from the church. They gave us this poem by Maya Angelou, “A Plagued Journey,” and it was so distressing I did a double take. No doubt, I could relate to every miserable turn of phrase (“bone of fear,” “bonds of disconsolation”) but I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it in the first place. The Advent reflections spelled it out for lost readers like me: candles do their best work in the dark. Hope is most valuable when we are utterly without it.
This is a dark time, but that’s okay. We were never meant to walk entirely in the light. Preparation takes time to pay off. Anticipation takes time to build. Hope is a thing we can hope for.