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 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.
“Look at my legs, mama. They won’t stop wiggling.” For a full week leading up to Christmas, my seven-year-old was a hot jangly bundle of nerves. Bouncing up from her chair in the middle of meals and virtual school and racing around the room has been her M.O. for months now, but her energy was off the charts in the week leading up to Christmas. I started preemptively pulling out the mini trampoline before dinner and encouraging her to burn off some energy. She was so excited. She talked about Santa with such fervor that I had to refrain from crooning “Santa’s my boyyyy-friend” every time she asked, “Do you think Santa likes me? Do you think he’ll write me back?” For her dad and me, the days practically fell off the calendar as we rushed headfirst into Christmas trying to get everything done in time. For her, the days dragged: so single-minded was her focus on the big day that she couldn’t do anything wait.
I know what it is to wait like that. I remember waiting like that when I was a kid for Christmas and birthdays and summer vacation. I still know how to wait like that. Once upon a time, I waited like that for family trips and parties. All last year, I waited like that for election day and an effective vaccine. Last month, while my daughter counted down the days to Christmas, I watched the moon shift around in the sky while I waited for the solstice. Admittedly, solstice has been on my mind a lot longer than that. As an early riser, I started missing the sun when it started disappearing from the sky a little bit at a time back in June. As a longtime sufferer of seasonal depression, shit started getting real when daylight saving time ended in November and sky was dark by four. As a lover of ritual, I am always on the lookout for chances to mark the passage of time by stopping it in its tracks, and as a refugee of religion, I am hungry for ways to do it that haven’t been corrupted by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. How would my northern european ancestors have marked the darkest day of the year? With candles, of course.
I cannot state clearly enough how wholly uninterested my daughter was in the solstice preparations. She tossed the pinecone altar together haphazardly. She wanted to mute the sound on the fake yule log video I had streaming on the TV because the crackling was “annoying.” She eyed the candles nervously, perhaps remembering the time her hair caught on fire when I first started to embrace hygge as a lifestyle a few years ago. Her reluctance turned into full on resistance when we went outside to leave an offering under a tree. She took her irritation out on the squirrels. “You know the squirrels are going to eat ALL of this. They’re not going to leave ANYTHING for the birds. Squirrels are the WORST. By the way, it’s COLD OUT HERE.” I couldn’t help but think of my mom making the whole family wake up early to read the Book of Mormon in the dark. I couldn’t help but think of my mom on her knees next to her bed. I couldn’t help but think about yanking stretched and sagging tights over my little girl legs and shivering in the back of a cold van as we drove to the other side of town for church on dreary winter mornings. In Mormonism, men are supposed to be the spiritual leaders, but it was my mom who set the religious rhythm in our household, who was always trying to nudge us up onto a higher plane. I left Mormonism, but it still feels like I’m trying to haul my family with me into some version of heaven. It doesn’t matter if I’m asking my daughter to give 10% of her allowance to the church or a handful of her snacks to the squirrels, if I’m making her wear a dress to church or a hat on a nature walk. Mom’s rituals are weird and pointless and she doesn’t want to do them.
Fortuitously, my interest in the natural world overlapped with my daughter’s love of all things Christmas when Jupiter and Saturn traveled across the sky and came into alignment in an astronomical event closer and brighter than any humans have seen in nearly eight hundred years. Astronomers called it the Great Conjunction. Believers called it the Christmas Star.
The planets were at their closest on December 21st and I wanted to incorporate them into my solstice observance, but the atmosphere down here did not cooperate with my careful planning. To wit: it was cloudy, we couldn’t see jack. My daughter stomped back inside and I chastised myself for not getting my act together earlier. Both planets had been visible for nearly a week–more dedicated skywatchers than I had already spotted them from Illinois–but I’d put it off. Like a foolish virgin, my lamp was dry. I’d thought I had more time.
The next night was clear when I went for my usual sunset run. I’m mildly embarrassed to admit I wasn’t sure if the conjunction would still be visible to my naked eye. The planets had taken twenty years to get into this position in the sky. What did I expect them to do, bounce off each other like pinballs and disappear from view? Even if the planets moving as slowly as it seems like planets must, I wasn’t sure how bright they would be at twilight or if they’d be high enough in the sky to see over the treeline to the right. I scanned the skies like a magi, rubbernecking every wavering orb and turning away in disgust when they gave themselves away as cell towers and airplanes. For awhile I had my eye fixed on two points of light that seemed promising, but I didn’t trust they way they seemed to be traveling with me as I ran. I know our moon pulls tricks like that, but I thought the gas giants would be more predictable. At last I had to turn away from the southwest horizon to make my way back home, resigned and trying to convince myself that looking for the star and not finding it was more in line with the Christmas story than anything. I didn’t need to see it to know it was there. I didn’t need to witness it to experience the magic of a most singular event.
When I got home, I turned and took one last look at the sky behind me. The two pricks of light I’d spotted on my run were now fixed exactly where they were supposed to be, low over the southwest horizon, but well above the treeline, farther than any airplane and brighter than anything in the sky. I threw open the front door and called up the stairs. “D! Do you want to see the Christmas Star???” “YESSSSS,” she screamed back, barrelling down the stairs and out the front door without a coat. She followed my finger pointing at the sky, finding the lights for herself and letting out a sigh. “We’re just like the magi,” she said. “Yes we are girlie. We found what we were looking for.”
Finding those lights in the sky when I thought it wasn’t possible anymore was the best gift I got this season. The Christian narratives about preparation and blind faith were neat but unsatisfying. Can being a believer mean so little? To drag my child kicking and screaming through ritual that only means something to me? To toil away preparing and afraid of missing out? To hold out hope for things I might never see? I don’t think so. The greatest leap of faith I can take is to believe that the gifts of the universe are here for me too. The greatest act of devotion I can make is to live, to look up, to receive.
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.
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.