Yesterday was the autumn equinox, one day of perfect balance before the Northern Hemisphere starts sliding into the dark. Missing the rhythm of the calendars that once ran my family, the school calendar, the church calendar, the court calendar, I wanted to mark the day. Heretofore, this former Mormon mommy blogger exclusively used Pinterest to catalogue tattoos and short sassy hair, but yesterday it occurred to me I might use it for what I can only assume is its intended purpose: tablescapes and kids crafts! I was looking for ways to celebrate Mabon, the lesser sabbat that corresponds to the autumn equinox on the wheel of the year. I took a few notes, saved a recipe, copied down a blessing to read over whatever my husband made us for dinner. I didn’t have to ask to know it would be a feast fit for a Pagan harvest festival. He always feed us well. I only planned to mull a little cider.
Though I am a cyclical being–moods not wholly separate from the phases of the moon, outlook informed by the seasons–I am not always as in tune with the earth as I might like. Yesterday, for example, I was not especially balanced. I was not especially inclined to look forward into the mystery or back with gratitude for all I have. Much of yesterday I was, in a word, pissed. Much of yesterday I was, if I had another word, and I do, because I’m the writer, scared.
I’m in meetings from 8:30 to 1:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I come up for five minute breaks to use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, grab a snack. I mostly have no idea what’s going on with my daughter’s e-learning during that time except that my husband (and, ugh, fine, the school) are doing the Lord’s work making it all happen. Yesterday, when I came upstairs at 10:35 my husband and daughter were watching Puppy Dog Pals. What. The. Fuck.
I tried to hold my fire, I really tried. I know I don’t know what kind of break they were on from video calls, what work she might have finished early, what kind of day they’d had, what kind of judgment calls my husband was making, what meltdowns might have preceded or been prevented by a few minutes in front of the cartoon equivalent of boxed mac and cheese, my daughter’s favorite meal.
None of that stopped me from going off in my mind, though. Why isn’t doing school work? If they’re on a break, why isn’t she outside? If there’s not time to go outside, why isn’t she jumping on the mini trampoline, that eyesore we brought into our house in April when we realized we’d be stuck inside for the rest of the school year? If she doesn’t want to move around, why isn’t she playing with LEGO or drawing? If everybody needed an easy break, why weren’t they reading a book? My questions were like hypercritical flies buzzing around an elephant they really didn’t like, a distraction from the questions that keep me up at night. Why the fuck isn’t my daughter in school? When is she going to go back? How is a lost year of the kind of movement and play and meaningful interaction with kids that she has always gotten outside our house going to affect her. How is any of this going to work if I don’t micromanage it?
Mabon is about balance, and it’s also a time for gathering up what we need to survive the winter and letting go the rest. Goodbye to long sun drenched days and hitting every art festival and sprinting up and down the beach. It’s time to tuck in, start saving energy. Do I have any relationships that need to end? Unhealthy habits? Self-destructive beliefs?
Of course the things I want to kick to the curb are not the ones that really need to go and vice versa. I’d like to give hyper-responsibility the old heave ho, not just the hyper part, but the responsibility part, too. I’m tired of holding my world up on my shoulders! I’m tired of working and and cleaning and negotiating and, oh god, so much caring and trying. I want a break from all that! But as a parent and a partner and an employee and a citizen suiting up and showing up is my only option.
What I really need to get over is trying to control other people and blaming them when behave the way I’d like them to. But power, even just the illusion of it, is hard to give up in the best of circumstances, and just about impossible when it feels like the world is spinning out around you. They call it a coping mechanism for a reason! Putting a lid on the pot and turning the stove up to boil when my husband does something differently than I would is easier than admitting that we have no guarantees that anyone will come out of all of this okay.
After stewing all afternoon, I went on a run to burn off my rage. When I came back, a neighbor was knocking on our door, wanting to play with our daughter. My husband answered and sent our daughter outside with a mask and a water bottle. When I finished with work for the day, I called my daughter in to help me measure cloves for the cider and round up the pinecones she’s collected over the last year to arrange into a centerpiece. We set out citrine and carnelian and a tiny jasper dog. We lit candles. We sat down to freshly baked challah and a broccoli tomato salad and sausage with apples. I read a prayer for the ones who light the way and the ones who take care. We sang a song about blackbirds. We talked about what it means for the emperor to have no clothes. After dinner we rolled toilet paper rolls in peanut butter and fruit and nuts and hung them in trees for the birds. We decided to take the leftover seeds to scatter in the park and walked over sipping cider from steaming ceramic mugs. My daughter pointed at the moon, a waxing crescent. Before bed we ate candy corn and read Harry Potter.
At the end of the night, I sat on the couch with my husband. I thought we’d might have it out over Puppy Dog Pals but instead I waxed poetic about Mabon and then let him update me about school. He’d spent the evening at curriculum night on Zoom. Last year I did curriculum night because I wanted to have a sense of how my daughter was spending her time while I was at work all day. I wanted to be the kind of working mom who also knows her way around her kid’s school. This year we thought it would be a better use of resources for the parent managing e-learning to try to figure out what the school is up to. When it was over, he said he felt better about our daughter’s teacher, and when he said that I felt better about everything. I don’t have to volunteer in her classroom or sit in on e-learning or get to know her teachers to know that she’s going to be okay. Her real education was never going to happen at school anyway.
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.
After a sweltering August, summery sun like liquid gold, I was fully expecting August to stick with us through September. I was counting on more beach days with my daughter and more early mornings on the paddleboard for me and more weekday evenings walking around the park with a popsicle listening to the cicadas drone. September, it seems, has other plans. We went to the beach early on Monday, too early, we were almost the first people there except the sunrise watchers and the volleyball players and it was like the beach wanted to turn us back to where we came from. The sand at the edges was covered in seagull shit. A different pair of hostile bees guarded every couple of square feet we tried to lay our towels. I watched a woman walking her laps down by the water with a halo of bees flitting around her crown. After we settled, chased away the birds and nervously eyed the bees, we jumped in the water and, good Lord, I have never known such a hasty rejection. Just four days ago the water was fine; now it was frigid. I tried to fake it for my daughter–I always think the water is too cold and it always warms up when I go under–but today even her thick kid skin was not impervious to the change. “It’s cooooold, mama. Can we go back to the sand?”
Since labor day, the sky’s been gray and drizzling rain and it’s cool enough to trade short shorts and baggy tanks for the fall uniform: leggings and a cardigan and a pair of rubber wellingtons for walks. I felt the season shift before the weather did. Truth be told, I’ve felt it since the full moon last week. It feels like something wild inside me being summoned by something wilder outside. It wants to break out. It also feels the opposite of that, like something yawning open inside me wants to pull the wild in. I wonder, briefly, if this sensation is new, something I’m only noticing since I started studying the wheel of the year and the witchy holidays: Imbolc in February, Beltane in May, Lammas just past, and Samhain still to come, I can practically feel it crackling under my skin.
I know I’ve been sensitive to the shifts longer than that, though. Fall is always a darkening. First I was nostalgic for something I never experienced–crunchy leaves and football games and pumpkin ales–and even after my life did look like that the fall still made me sad. I marked the days with sad songs and rain tracking down the window of the bus, the car. I never wanted to be where I was going. In the fall I wanted to get blotto, to disappear in a cave of pills and TV and not come out ’til Christmas and even then only briefly, reserving my rights to go back under until spring.
So, summer to fall always messes me up good and this year we have so little to look forward to, no back to school, no tailgates, no fall festivals or trick or treat, no nights out with my mom friends and, I fear, no police reform, no new administration, no justice, no peace. I was sad at first, but under the sadness I feel something more savage rising up.
This Sunday is Rally Day at my church. Usually, there would be balloons and a procession of children to start the service and a picnic and a pledge drive to kick off the new church year. I can’t worship in my church right now.
I can leave offerings for the trees.
I can clear space on my altar, start bringing the earth inside.
I can source ingredients for simple spells.
I can burn sandalwood and brew tea for dream magic.
I can light a fire under my intentions and will the world to change.
I can sit inside a sacred circle, stand up, and take a step in a new direction.
I can practice the craft the craft that carried women where Christianity refused to go, that served women when Christianity wouldn’t, that let women and the world be wild.
The world is rewilding itself now. I’m still civilized enough but hating it in this new incarnation. Without all the barbeques and picnics and parties to trick yourself into thinking there’s a point, I’m thinking, what’s the point? Maybe in the midst of another month of stupid sameness, it’s time for something radically different. I’m not talking about purple hair or a new house. I’m talking about a whole new worldview.
This post is the fourth in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first, second, and third posts here, here, and here.
May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.
May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.
May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.
May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.
May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.
June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.
June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.
This post is the third in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first and second posts here and here.
April 19: For the first month of shelter in place Sundays were the high point of every week, the mountain crest after last week’s long slog up, the top of the roller coaster before next week’s long slide down. With Easter, it felt like we were really building up to something. After that highest high point, this second Sunday in Easter is something of a let down. It is an effort to locate and name the good, but I do it anyway, because it’s good for me. D won’t walk with me before church, so she misses the crow cawing way up in a tall tree, the flash of robin red, the calico cat creeping in plain sight in front of a row of houses along church street, and the chance to wave at neighbors out walking with their dog. It’s hard to hear them behind their masks all the way across the street but the connection is there. I take many deep breaths. D does watch virtual church with me and she sees the bright side in the viewer count rising in the corner of the screen. People are logging in from all over the country and this is exciting. “People can watch church even when they’re out of town!” The church is trying something new, a virtual fellowship hour after the service is over. I make up my second coffee of the day and click the Zoom link eager to see some familiar faces, parched for conversation. The host lets me in and almost immediately kicks me into a breakout room. Hey, I know these people! There is a man from the parenting class I attended my second year with the church, the father of a hilarious little girl a few years younger than my D, who recently relocated to Colorado. There is also the pastor herself. We talk and talk even though the system is glitchy and our husbands and daughters keep wandering in and out of the frame. Actually, it’s hard to have this conversation in the middle of my living room. My daughter is annoyed that I am still staring at a screen and keeps asking questions about what we’re talking about. When we get kicked back into the main group I see my chance but it is with resignation that I drop out of the chat.
April 26: Pastor Grace says that God makes us family and today I feel agitated with mine. They are not doing what I want them to do. I want them to sit quietly and listen to the sermon or, if that’s too much to ask, I want them to quietly do the things I want them to do: read the paper, do the crossword, draw a picture, make sourdough. Instead my husband is sleeping on the couch and my daughter is hunched over on the floor, still in her sleep clothes, building with LEGO. I am annoyed, as though rest and play are not perfect Sabbath activities. I thought D wasn’t paying attention during Children’s Chapel before church but when Pastor Jane asked what water is for, D piped up, “Oh, I know!” and clambered over to the laptop to unmute herself. “Water is important because you get baptized in it.” I am surprised that baptism is on her radar, since she’s not baptized herself. I am surprised she’s been paying attention. Back to the sermon, Pastor Grace says that the church was born during shelter-in-place, that it found its voice during lockdown. She talks about Thomas like doubt is a good thing. D chimes in to chant “Hear our prayer” while I tune out. I am anxious because the day is unplanned. I have no Sunday School lesson for D, no art project, no family movie. I am running out of steam, patience, and ideas. At the end of my own rope it seems the only option is to observe Sabbath the way God intended and just let the day unfold.
May 3: I’m watching church alone today. My daughter finally opted out of church altogether and is up in her room listening to stories. My husband is on his bike. In spite of the silence, I can’t hear a word of the sermon because I am fixated on Pastor Grace’s stole. There was a time my mind associated grapes on the vine with kitchy kitchen decor your friend from high school or your coworker’s wife might pick up on a whim from TJ Maxx. My mom had a triptych of bottles and vines hanging over her last kitchen table, I guess because they look vaguely European. She doesn’t even drink wine. No one in my family does. The church is transforming the image, ruining it and then making it better, like it always does, I suppose. The church never knew how to let well enough alone, never let me leave my drinking alone anyway, and now it’s after the symbols too. Jesus labored in the vineyard. The grape is not God’s original fruit, but like all God’s gifts, it comes with a price, a dark side. The vines in the sanctuary aren’t closing around anyone’s neck, or least they aren’t closing around mine. In the church, the grape signifies abundance, fertility, celebration, joy. In the church, the grape is the fruit of my labor and yours. It’s been a long time since I found these things inside a wine bottle and two months since I went looking inside a communion cup. My teeth, my tongue, my sheets are still stained with the contents of both vessels.
May 4: I email a postcard from home for Mary to include in the week’s e-news.
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.
This post is the second in a series about church in the time of pandemic. You can find the first post here.
April 9: Holy week has been a holy hell. School’s out for spring break and I took the week off work so we could take a family trip that, absurdly, we thought might still happen as recently as a few weeks ago. A road trip across state lines was, unsurprisingly, not in the cards. Instead of cozying up by a fire in a cabin in the smoky mountains we are getting on each other’s last nerves in our townhouse in the suburbs. Tonight I am making dinner. Husband is working out. D is making art in her room. We all need our space. I stream the Maundy Thursday service while I chop vegetables. Pastor Grace is standing in front of an altar dedicated to the COVID-19 relief effort–holy water, hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks–reading from a list of names of over 1,000 healthcare workers who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving on the front lines. I am glad that D is upstairs so I don’t have to explain, though I wish she were here to repeat the Lord’s Prayer with me after each batch of names. It moves me to hear her recite by heart at six a prayer I learned in church basements in my thirties, that I still fumble when left to my own devices. Pastor Grace blows out the candle on the altar and moves to a chair in the corner of the sanctuary. From her place in the dark she tells us that the last thing Jesus did before he died was sing a hymn. Like me before I leave D to face the nightmares she’s been having every night.
April 12: We don’t do the bunny in our house, but we wake up on Easter Sunday to three baskets, the one that husband put together for D and the two that D made for each of us. Lately, D is trying to figure out where she fits into our family. As the only kid in the house, she doesn’t appreciate the difference between kids and adults. She sincerely believes we’re all on the same level and doesn’t understand why we get to stay up late while she goes to bed early, why we share a bed and she has to sleep alone, or that sometimes we are just pretending to give her a say because we always have the last word. Sometimes her confusion on this point works to our advantage, like on holidays when she spoils us with as many gifts as we give to her, our beloved one and only. My basket is stuffed with a polaroid picture of the two of us, a paper airplane, a homemade card, a sticker sheet, drawings of our family, and hand-crafted bird’s nest with plastic eggs. Her basket is stuffed with candy, and she is thrilled. She mainlines jelly beans on our walk around the neighborhood, which we spend peering at people’s windows looking for the paper eggs that the church sent around for kids to hang for a drive-by socially distanced egg hunt. Back at home, D and I pull chairs up to our altar at home to watch the virtual Easter service, while husband busies himself making Focaccia in the kitchen. He’s been on a sourdough bender like everyone else, but Focaccia is our Easter tradition. We’re running low on yeast, but had the good fortune to find some self-rising flour. On the screen, the choir pulls out all the stops, singing complicated arrangements from the safety of their own homes. D and I count the Hallelujahs, which have been locked in a box for the forty days of Lent. This week was dark, but we went into it knowing it would have a happy ending, and today we get the good news–death is conquered, man is free, or will be, when we finally get a vaccine. In the meantime, we are trying to be an Easter people which, in my mind, has nothing at all to do with what happens after we die and everything to do with how we live now–without fear, loving our neighbors, and working for something better than what we have.
March 15: I tentatively click the link that the church sent around, wondering what I’m going to see. It’s a live video, streaming on Facebook. Hundreds of people are watching. I see so many names I recognize popping up in the chat box. D and I wave and thumbs up the families we know. D goes crazy with the reaction buttons, but she is indiscriminate, and sends dozens of hearts and smileys and frownies and even rage faces floating up and off the screen. Pastor Grace is preaching into an iPhone and is almost impossible to hear. Brian, the music director, is playing the piano at home and his phone is doing something weird to music. It actually sounds demonic. I don’t turn it off, though. I watch all the way to the end and can’t wait to see what they come up with next week.
March 22: I heed the pastor’s call to prepare a space for worship. I clear off the long ottoman that is actually a storage space–filled with all the DVDs and CDs that my husband not only refuses to give away, but inexplicably keeps buying–and set up an altar. My altar includes: a Bible, a King James Version that I bought earlier this year to replace the Joseph Smith translation that I used from 1993, which is when I was baptized into the Mormon church, to 2015, which is when I left; a notebook and pen; a tablet for streaming the services; and a candle shaped like an owl. The prelude music sounds better, or at least not evil, but I still have to lean in close to the tablet to hear the sermon. I rustle up a portable bluetooth speaker that we use for camping and picnics–miraculously, it’s still charged–and suddenly I have ears to hear.
March 29: D signs into virtual children’s chapel and when her little face pops up on the screen with all the other kids waving eagerly I think it doesn’t matter that she’s not baptized. I print out activity sheets to keep her attention during the main service, connect-the-dots to make a candle, color a shepherd, find all the words in Psalm 23. If we were at church, Pastor Grace would call the children to gather at her feet and tell them stories about Kenya, show them pictures, remind them that they are mpendwa (beloved), and bless them with a prayer. We are not at church, but Pastor Grace still brings the children in, calls them close to the screen, shows off the stuffed bears she brought into the sanctuary, reads a story, and closes with a prayer. After church, I sit down with my daughter for Sunday School at home. I note the irony. All last year I resisted volunteering to teach the kids at church because I don’t like preparing lessons and I’m reluctant to give up the company of other adults, even for a week. Now D still wants to go to Sunday School, and I’m the only one who’s going to make it happen. We make a sign to hang on our front door, a heart with a rainbow of hearts inside, all decreasing in size. We declare in Sharpie that we are a First Church Family and I think it doesn’t matter that we can’t see our friends, pass the peace or set foot inside the building. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t technically members of this church. I have never felt more connected.
April 5: Holy week is here, right in the middle of what Trump warned would be “a hell of a bad two weeks.” That’s what he said. “Lots of death.” The virus is supposed to peak in Illinois later this month, which means that people are dying and more people are going to die. The CDC says we’re supposed to wear masks now, though of course we don’t have any. We were saving them for the front line workers. The governor says don’t go out, stay at home, so that’s what we do. At home, we eat sourdough pancakes for breakfast and listen to the Palm Sunday sermon. Did you know that the message of Hosannah is “God, Save Us!”? After church, D and I dump all the clean laundry on the floor, a motley carpet for Jesus. We trace palm leaves onto paper and tape them onto straws and wave them back and forth as we parade around the neighborhood, singing Hosannah. It’s cold and D is afraid the virus is everywhere, so we run home quickly and stay put. We dwell in the shelter of the most high.