Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Father's Daughter

My father is one of the best men I know. He is kind, humble, positive, optimistic to a fault, and forgiving. His childhood was very difficult, growing up with a father who was gruff and cold, and a mother who was narcissistic and flighty. His mother left the family when my dad was ten years old, only to return months later to snatch his two older sisters from a street corner and disappear with them into the night. My dad records his feelings about that event in a life sketch he shared with me: ". . it was a miserable, lonely time for me. A lot of months passed before I saw Beverly and Lorene again. Us 4 kids were extremely close those first 10 years of my life, and for my 2 sisters to all of a sudden be gone, was like taking half my life away." My heart breaks for that ten-year-old boy, and at the same time bursts with gratitude that the boy grew up to become the loving, compassionate father I knew. How he came to be that man is a mystery to me, but I feel so very lucky to get to be his beloved daughter.

My dad calls me occasionally just to remind me that he loves me. I have known and felt that love my entire life, and have never, not even once, felt that love withheld from me. When my dad looks at me, I feel like I am somebody special, and indeed, I am. I am my father's daughter.

I know I've disappointed my dad, especially in the last few years. My dad is a devoted Mormon, and has never wavered in his testimony of the church, and the gospel. He still, knowing that I no longer believe in or practice religion, talks with me frequently about his experiences with prayer, and God, testifying to me of his belief in a divine Father who watches over us and takes care of us. He has never told me that he is disappointed in me, has never even intimated it, but has continued to share with me his deepest feelings about the meaning of life, and the importance of loving those closest to him. My dad is the epitome of a loving father.

I got lucky twice. I was born to a loving father, then I married a man who became a loving father. My husband, from the time our children were born, has never hesitated to express his love for them. One of my most tender memories is the day our oldest child was born. I looked over from the delivery bed to where Daron held tiny Erin in his arms, and witnessed the birth of a father. He looked her over from head to foot, and his gaze spoke volumes. He had fallen deeply, passionately, in love with this little girl. I had no clue in that moment how very deep that love would prove to be, but I felt the warmth of it from where I lay, and was profoundly grateful to feel its reflection.

The love born in that moment has never wavered, even though that child's life has not unfolded in the way her father envisioned it would. She grew up to become a beautiful young lady, who, at age 22, discovered that she was gay. Coming to that realization brought with it a variety of complications, and she has had to 'come out' many different times, to many different people. But the most difficult conversation of all, for her, was the one with her father. He was her first love, and she feared disappointing him, and possibly losing his love.

She agonized over this conversation in her mind, carefully rehearsing the words she would use, but could not overcome her fear at his reaction. I finally convinced her to get it over with, so the three of us sat down on a bright sunny Saturday morning, and she attempted to share her deepest secret with her father.

We sat on our couch, Erin between her father and me, with her back to her father, and the tears streamed down her face as she struggled to form the right words. Ultimately she failed, and I asked her if she'd like me to tell him. He sat behind her with a look of fear on his face, watching her back heave with sobs, wondering at the emotions running through her. I looked around her, and said, "Honey, your daughter is gay." At these words, a look of relief flooded his face, and he laughed and said, "Whew! I thought you were going to tell me she had wrecked my truck!" Then he gently took her in his arms, and he told her that there was absolutely nothing that she could say that would change how he felt about her. She would always be his little girl. And they both cried. Well, we all did. It was a beautiful moment, rivaling the moment they met in that delivery room so long ago. A father, tenderly holding his daughter, and loving her unconditionally.

This morning I received a newsletter from the church, thoughtfully left in my front door by a representative from the Relief Society. The topic was the divine mission of Jesus Christ: Advocate. It defined advocate as "one who pleads for another", going on to say that the Savior pleads for us, before our Father, for justice and mercy.

"Listen to [Jesus Christ] who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him- Saying: Father, behold the suffering and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life". (D&C 45:3-5).

Jesus Christ is described as our literal savior before our heavenly parent. His job is to intercede for us and plead for mercy with our father, our creator, as he, Jesus, is the only being beyond reproach. Jesus was our older brother, chosen as the firstborn of the father, the only one of all the children created by our Heavenly Parents who was perfect, and beyond sin. Because of our sinful natures, we were in need of an atonement, and Jesus was able to step up and fill that role. And because of that act, he is in the perfect position to intercede for us with our Father. This, in a nutshell, is Christian theology.

The journey out of Mormonism began with the acknowledgement that I did not believe that the church was True, with a capital T. I did not believe that it was the only way back to God, and I did not believe that its beginnings were divine in nature. I did not believe that in order to return to God, I would have to spend my life conforming to the principles of Mormonism. As I traveled further down the road of disbelief, I began to question the story that formed the roots of all Christianity. And I began to see that the roots of my own disbelief lay in my inability to believe in a Savior for mankind. 

The story, as I understood it, took on the dimensions of a horror tale, intended to frighten adherents into submission. Broken down to its simplest form, it is the tale of a father, who created a family of children who he considered to be flawed and imperfect. Too imperfect, as it turns out, to be allowed back into his presence. So he formed a plan to have his oldest child, the perfect firstborn, sacrificed by crucifixion, in order to make atonement for these imperfect beings, thus enabling them to once again enter his presence. And, as I understood it, this child, Jesus Christ, would suffer exceedingly for the sins of mankind, sort of a proxy suffering, that they, the children, would not have to suffer for their own sins. But only if they professed to believe in him as a savior and redeemer. And then obeyed his commandments, and followed him in word and deed. And then prayed in his name, the name of Jesus Christ, who would then petition our father, the father of us all, in order that he, our father, would hear us and extend his love to us. 

I remember many, many occasions sitting through the sacrament, listening to the prayers, attempting to ponder the act of divine sacrifice, and just not getting it. Not understanding why it was necessary. But shrugging my doubts off as the thoughts of a sinner, a doubter. I heard the story too many times to count, and I knew that God the Father was my Father in Heaven, and that he had created me and sent me here, and had given me a savior who would make it so that I could return to my heavenly home, and my heavenly parents. I knew the story, told in song and scripture, but I didn't understand it. Ever. It just didn't compute. I just couldn't understand why, if he was my father, he required someone to intercede between us. My earthly father didn't. The father of my children doesn't. Why would my father in heaven? Why was I not good enough to approach him myself? To talk to him without an intercessor? Why did I need a savior, if I had been created by a perfect being? These thoughts, though, were blasphemous, and I shoved them back into the darkest corner of my mind. Over and over again, I shoved them back. And over and over again, they worked their way to the forefront to haunt me. It just didn't make sense. The story didn't make sense. It didn't work. 

Then, this morning, as I read the aforementioned scriptural reference to Jesus as an advocate before our father, it came to me why I could not understand this story. I was lucky enough to be born to an earthly father who, while imperfect himself, loved me perfectly. He didn't require anything more from me than to be his daughter, and he loved me perfectly. Still does. No one has ever had to intercede on my behalf. My father loves me, his daughter. 

And my own daughter's father, my husband, loves her perfectly. And he requires nothing more from her than that she be his daughter. She may have needed me to say the words, but she didn't need me to plead her cause. He loves her because he is her father. No advocate required. 

Why, then, would a perfect heavenly father be unable, or unwilling, to hear from me, his daughter? Why would I need an intercessory, an advocate, a savior? Why couldn't my heavenly father love me unconditionally? 

The answer, for me, is that the story doesn't make sense, because the story isn't true. 

I know millions, billions, even, believe this story, and it brings them peace. But I found peace when I allowed myself to not believe this story. I don't believe in that god, and I don't believe in that father. And I don't believe in a savior of mankind. 

But I do believe in love. Because I've felt it, from my father. My imperfect, earthly father, who loves me unconditionally. I'll take that over the fairy-tale any day.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Have I a Mother There?

I stopped in to visit my mom recently, and she hugged me tight, and said, "I've missed you. We don't talk as much anymore, and it makes me sad." It made me sad, too.

My life has changed dramatically in the last few years. I used to be a stay-at-home mom, spending my days seeing to my family's needs. It was a good life, and I don't regret the years I was able to be available to them, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was also a busy life, but it seemed that I always had time for what really mattered, the people who really mattered. I had regular outings with my friends, sometimes as playdates with the kids, sometimes a well-deserved girl's night out. And I spent a lot of time with my mom.

Growing up, I wasn't close to my mom. I have seven siblings, brothers all, so my mom was kept busy caring for us, cooking for us, cleaning up after us, trying to get us to pick up after ourselves, attempting to get us to mind our manners. I don't envy her that job. We weren't an easy lot to raise, and she frequently lost her patience with our antics. It seemed to me that she was always angry, unhappy with the life she 'chose', and I tried to stay out of her way as much as I could. I have a few happy  memories from my childhood, but most of what I remember is colored by the contention that is a natural byproduct of a large family, living in a small home, with limited funds.

Once I reached adulthood, and moved out of the family home, my mom and I were able to establish a different kind of relationship. We became friends. She has always had a fabulous sense of humor, and an ability to see the funny side of most situations. She was, and is, well known for her wit and intelligence. And we frequently found ourselves laughing together at life's quirks and inconsistencies. I considered her one of my best friends, and we talked often, on the phone when I lived out of town, over lunch if I lived close by. I visited with  my mom several times a week, spilling the details of my life to someone I knew would be able to help me make sense of it all, and could get me to see the absurdity in taking any of it too seriously. She was my confidante, my therapist, my adviser, my mentor, and my best friend. I felt lucky to have such a mom.

Then, four and a half years ago, I went through some pretty big changes. I had been raised in the church, by a mom (and a dad) who were devout practitioners of Mormonism. The church meant everything to them, and played a big role in all our lives. Their faith continues to be very important to them, and I don't begrudge them this, as I can see how they have benefited from their devotion, and have found the meaning and comfort that they felt was missing from their own upbringing. Both had experienced traumatic family break-ups, and tragedies, that they attribute to their family's lack of faith in God, and Mormonism. But finally, at age 49, I realized that I did not share their beliefs, and I left the religion my parents cherished.

The past few years have brought other changes to my life, as I returned to work full time, and went back to school, pursuing the master's degree I've always wanted. Those activities, combined with caring for my husband and children, fill my days almost completely, leaving precious little time for relationships I once held dear. Such as my close friendship with my mom. And knowing that I disappointed her by leaving the church has contributed to the distance between us.

For over three years, I avoided the crucial conversation that I knew would break her heart, in fact generally avoiding conversation with her at all. I lived in fear of her rejection, and I knew that she would blame herself for her failure to keep me faithfully in the fold. I knew my mother wasn't responsible for my apostasy, but I also knew that the church's teachings about a parent's duty had sunk deep into her heart, and I did not want to contribute to her sense of failure as a mother. I have never felt that my mother failed me; just the opposite, in fact. It is to her credit that I stayed faithful for as long as I did. She taught me well the tenets of her faith, and my attempts to live by those tenets were out of a desire to please her. But, once I allowed myself to acknowledge that I did not believe the story of Mormonism, I could no longer go along with the practice. My mom also taught me integrity. I could not act in contradiction to what I believed in my heart to be true. She may not like it, but she has to take credit for that as well. Model authenticity, and your children will follow suit

Finally, I girded up my loins, and I had 'the talk' with my mom. It went as expected, with her expressing her deep disappointment, and wondering out loud how she had failed me. I attempted to reassure her that she was not a failure, but the conditioning runs deep. It was a very difficult conversation, one I am glad is behind me. I don't think I could do that again.

That day was a new beginning for us. The wall that had grown up between us started to come down, piece by piece. We began talking more frequently, as I was no longer living in fear of being 'outed'. But, our talks were still somewhat stilted. It was difficult to know what topics were safe, and which would cause her more grief. She had expressed fear that my decisions would no longer be sound ones, made with God's approval. I tried to let her see that the fruits of my choices were good, that I was still a faithful wife and mother, and a contributing member of society. But there were many things I did not share with her, such as my new-found freedom to explore previously forbidden territory. I knew that she did not want to hear about my occasional forays into the land of the infidels. The drinking of alcoholic beverages was of particular concern to her, as the daughter of an alcoholic, and I shielded her from my experimentation. Not all truth is useful.

Many times it felt like we were dancing around a giant elephant in the room, neither of us willing to acknowledge its existence. And it wasn't the behavioral changes that were the most difficult to talk about. It was my changed philosophy of life that proved to be a sticky, uncomfortable topic. Leaving religion causes one to rethink many other presuppositions, and come to vastly different conclusions than one had previously reached. And many times, believers assume that others share their particular worldview, whether the topic be the purpose of life, or current politics, or what constitutes proper moral behavior. And learning how to navigate these topics without causing offense requires a skill many don't possess. Defensiveness is a natural reaction when one feels their way of life is being questioned or challenged. Emotions tend to run high in these circumstances. So, most of the time, we avoided talking about anything of substance. And I was beginning to accept that this was the new 'normal'. What we once had was no more, and there was no going back. Call it collateral damage. Authenticity indeed comes at a price.

Then came that visit a few weeks ago, when my mom told me how much she had missed me. Then she bravely broached the subject that lay at the root of our disconnection. She told me about a conversation she'd had with a friend, who had been informed of my apostasy, and how they had both cried, grieving together my loss of faith. And, interestingly enough, that conversation did not offend or disturb me, but instead opened the door to honest communication. I decided in that moment that if we were going to have any kind of relationship at all, we each need to be free to express our true thoughts and feelings, without fear of offense. We need to be able to talk about those things that move us, and make us who we are at our core. I don't mind my mom 'bearing testimony' to me about the church, as I know that her testimony is an integral part of her. But in return, I need to feel free to talk about my own hard won convictions and beliefs.

As we began to converse, my mom, for the first time, asked me what some of my issues were with the church. I reminded her of what she had said to me in the beginning of our conversation, about how much she missed me, and missed being a part of my life. I told her that I had missed her as well, as she is my mom, the one and only person in my life with whom I have that particular connection. The mother/child relationship is unlike any other relationship in the world. I grew inside of her, attached to her physically and emotionally, closer to her than I will ever be to another living soul. Except for my own children, of course. I had always felt lucky to have a close relationship with my mom, as I know many people, my mom included, who have not had that same experience with their mothers. The maternal bond can be broken in a variety of ways, and frequently is. And I was lucky enough to not only love my mother, I liked her. I could share my life with her, my feelings and my experiences. We laughed together, a lot, and cried together on many occasions. As I said before, she gave me comfort, and counsel, and support. That's what a mom is, and what a mom does.

Growing up in the church, I had been taught that I had a Mother in Heaven, who existed alongside my Father in Heaven. But she was never a part of our worship, we never prayed to her, we never even talked about her, other than the occasional brief mention of her existence. She was a silent partner to our Father. The only reason I've ever been given for this is that she was too sacred to be exposed to the vulgarities of humanity. And we were expected to become like her. But she wasn't really a mother, not in the truest sense of the word. She was not my mentor, nor my counselor, nor my friend. She was not there for me when I cried out in the 'dark night of the soul'. She did not send comfort my way when I struggled, or cried, or prayed. She was an absentee parent. She had no part in my spiritual upbringing. She existed only in a hymn. And once I allowed myself to consider her non-existence, I let go completely of any remaining belief in God himself. Without Her, I don't want Him.

So, when my mom told me how much she missed me, I asked her if she could envision an eternity separated from her children? Denied a presence in their lives, a place in their worship, simply for being 'too sacred'? Unable to comfort them, or counsel them, or just laugh with them at the absurdities of life? What part of this sounds like heaven?

My mom looked thoughtful, and said that she had never before considered this point. Then she added that she would just have faith in her Father in Heaven, and His plan. And I don't blame her. It is a frightening thing to consider the nature of our existence without heavenly parents. Faith in an interventional, personal God isn't an easy thing to let go.

But for me, if that is the only heaven offered, then I politely decline. The only kind of mother I want to be, is the kind of mother my mom is to me.








Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Truth

Disclaimer: This post will be offensive to active, believing Mormons. I do not mean to offend, but I am speaking my truth. Proceed at your own risk.

"Was it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?" (The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd)

I have just finished reading the aforementioned novel, based on the true story of two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, born to a wealthy, slave-owning family. These sisters grew up to become the voices of abolition and women's rights in pre-civil war America. The story was an emotional read for me, coming on the heels of viewing the movie, "Twelve Years a Slave". Slavery was an abomination, an evil perpetuated on a class of people who were perceived as less than human, not deserving of any more respect and consideration than that meted out to common farm animals. Less than, in many cases. I have no familial connections with slavery, either as a victim or a perpetrator, but I feel great empathy for those affected by this immoral, corrupt, vile, 'peculiar institution'.

As I read the story of these two sisters, and the parallel, fictionalized, account of their family's slaves, I was struck by the inhumanity on display throughout the country. The religions of the day were for the most part not only supportive of slavery, but used scripture to back up their rightful claim to own human beings. And those religions who were vocal in their opposition to this evil (such as the Quakers) were unfortunately still all too eager to keep women in their place: at home, keeping house and tending to the children. The plight of women in this country could not be compared to the plight of slaves, but neither had any rights, and both were regarded as property. We've come a long way, baby.

The Mormon church had its beginnings in the 1820's and 30's, right around the time the book's events took place. As I read this book, I thought about what was happening in the early history of the church, and I wondered why a God who loved his children would be so preoccupied with hot drinks and proper authority, ignoring the very real misery taking place in other parts of the world. The world He created, and populated with His children. Blacks, whites, men, women. All are alike unto God, right? Apparently not.

I realize that I've boiled Mormonism down to a bland porridge of trite commandments, and that the early Saints faced their own very real heartbreak and misery. But, what I can't understand is why God, being all-knowing and loving, would not have instructed the prophet of a new dispensation to oppose oppression in all its forms, including, and especially, slavery. And if He was really the head of this church, as the title claims, and He loved all His children equally, including those of the female variety, why not correct the attitudes of the day that preserved the second-class status of women? He had the perfect opportunity to do it right, create an organization that gave each and every member an equal voice and place at the table. And yet, He didn't. And the only conclusion I've been able to reach is that this new religion had no more truth than any other that existed at the time. Or has existed since. It was as man-made as the Rotary Club.

Which brings me to the point of this post. One of the book's heroines, Sarah Grimke, made the statement I quoted above: "Is it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?" She was on the brink of leaving her old life in Charleston behind, permanently, as she embarked on a speaking tour for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She would be acting in opposition to everything her family stood for, publicly proclaiming her support for abolition, as well as equal rights for women, a platform that hadn't yet been addressed in American politics. She was an embarrassment to her family, and a pariah in polite society. And yet, she knew her truth, and she could not keep quiet, even though the cost would be heavy to bear. Am I willing to do the same? Can I speak my truth out loud, even at the cost of relationships that I hold dear?

My truth is this: I do not hold the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a divinely inspired organization, nor do I believe it has authority from God to speak in His name. I do not believe in the God of the Mormons, and I do not believe that the man at the head of the church is a prophet who speaks in His name. I do not believe that the ordinances of the Mormon church are required for salvation. I do not believe in salvation, nor do I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. And I do not believe that I will be relegated to a lesser kingdom in the hereafter for my inability to believe in its existence. I do not believe that the Mormon church is true.

Believing as I do, I can no longer be content to be numbered among the saints. The easy thing, the expedient thing, would be to coast along as I have, keeping my truth to myself, unwilling to sacrifice my reputation, or my family relationships. But allowing the church to claim me as a member speaks louder than any words I could utter. Being counted among them gives them my support, and my acquiescence, and my approval of their policies and practices. Being a member says that I too am opposed to equal rights for all, be they women, or gays, or lesbians, or bisexuals, or transgenders, or, worst of all, intellectuals. Being a Mormon is not consistent with who I am, and what I believe about humanity. It has become an indefensible position, and I am no longer willing to sacrifice my truth for expedience.

I have formally resigned my membership in the Mormon church. This is a radical step, one I did not envision four years ago, but it is the right step. And it is the right time for me to stand up and proclaim my truth. I will always be a Mormon by heritage, much as a Jew is always a Jew, but I am no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am now just me. And very happy to be so.

Disclaimer #2: This is the story of my path, and I do not believe that it is the right path for all. I do not believe that there is one universal approach to religion, or truth. I do not condemn those who choose to stay in the church. I realize that there is a price for authenticity, and everyone gets to choose just how much they are willing, and/or able, to pay.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I'd like to bear my 'untestimony' . . .

It has come to my attention that certain family  members see it as their responsibility to testify to my children, and save their souls. Your actions are very upsetting to me, as you can probably imagine, and I feel the need to address that here. I understand that most of my family members read this blog, so it seems like a good place to express my own feelings on the subject.

You say you love them as if they were your own, and your desire to share with them your own testimony of the truthfulness of the church, and the gospel, is motivated by this love. I get that, I truly do. But I would assert that your understanding of what is true stems from your own experiences with the church, and your own studies of its history and doctrine. Trust me when I tell you that my untestimony of the church, and the gospel, have come from extensive studying on my part, and I would like to share with you a very small part of my journey to this point.

If you have read other posts I've written, you are aware of my struggle to obtain a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. I never took lightly the admonition to study it out in my mind, then to take it to the Lord in prayer. I spent many, many years in the pursuit of this testimony. I spent much time on my knees, and many hours studying the scriptures and other writings by leaders of the church. There were many times when I thought maybe I had been the beneficiary of enlightenment by the spirit, but, in retrospect, this was my own mind attempting to confirm what my beloved family members already 'knew'. I so much wanted to have what they had, to know as they knew. I begged and pleaded with God, but, in the end, what I got was confirmation that I didn't believe, and that it was okay go with that.

I didn't, and don't, believe that The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints is the one true church on the earth. I don't believe any church, or religious philosophy, deserves that distinction. And the overwhelming feeling of peace I experienced upon that realization confirmed to me, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had arrived at the right conclusion. For me, anyway. I do not attempt to speak for anyone else. Including my children.

Once I realized that I did not believe in the church, I struggled to know where to turn for answers to the questions I had about Mormonism, and religion in general. I received some much needed guidance from another family member, a compelling story of its own, which will need to be addressed another day. Suffice it to say that I was directed to some books that proved invaluable in my search, and I'd like to recommend these same books to you as a source of knowledge about your beloved church's history, and changing doctrine.

Every one of the books I turned to was written by an active, believing member of the church. The majority of these authors were historians, whose only interest was in chronicling the events that transpired in the early days of the church. Mormon history, you must acknowledge, provides some fascinating stories. These stories have much more to offer us than the faith-promoting tidbits we are fed in Sunday School and Seminary. Much of it is inspiring, as it details the courage of a people who wanted to follow the God they worshiped, and who believed that they had found a prophet to lead them in this pursuit. However, there have been many details omitted from the history as presented to the general membership, and these details reveal a history rich in contradiction and human frailty.

We so want to believe that the founder of the church, and his contemporaries, were men of God, inspired and led by God, who were pure in heart, and only sought to do good. This is the picture painted for us by the church. The reality is that they were first and foremost human beings, subject to all the missteps and failings of the rest of humanity. Maybe they were truly seeking God's will, and believed they were receiving it. Maybe they were evil men who desired to take advantage of those who looked to them for spiritual and temporal guidance. More likely they were somewhere in between these two extremes, which, to me, is a much more compelling story.

The first book I was directed to was "Rough Stone Rolling", written by Richard Bushman, who is currently serving as a stake patriarch in the church. This book goes into great detail on the life of Joseph Smith, and has stories that most lay members of the church have never heard. In fact, my own husband (your brother, and a co-descendent of Hyrum Smith) challenged me early on in my studies by asserting that "this is family history, and you can't tell me anything that I don't already know". I took his challenge, and shared with him a few facts I'd learned from Mr. Bushman, such as the fact that Joseph Smith was married to at least 33 wives (a fact that can be documented in the church's own archives); that 11 of those wives were currently still married to another man at the time of their marriage to Joseph; that there is documented evidence of sexual relationships with some of those women; that a few were teenagers, at least one as young as 14; that there were a couple of sets of sisters and one mother/daughter duo; and that he lied to his own legally and lawfully wedded wife, Emma, about the existence of these other marriages. That's just for starters.

Your brother was visibly sick when I told him these facts, and I regretted the direction the conversation had taken. I have no desire to shake anyone else's testimony, especially my beloved husband's, but these are facts that can be verified by the archives of the church. Archives that have been closed, incidentally, to any but a select few historians, hand-picked by the church for their devotion to the mission of the church. The point is, don't tell me that you know more than I do, if you haven't availed yourself of the sources I have read.

The next book I read was "In Sacred Loneliness", written by Todd Compton. This book didn't just solidify my untestimony; it broke my heart. Mr. Compton's book was rich with detail, footnoted with extensive references to other verified church sources. It told the stories of the many wives of Joseph Smith, and the hardships they experienced throughout their lives, much of which can be attributed to their association with the church as plural wives, both of Joseph and other leaders of the church in its early days. Read it and weep. Literally.

From there, I read "Mormon Enigma", a biography of Emma Hale Smith, written by 2 women who were at the time believing, active Mormons. Linda King Newell was an associate professor of history, and Valeen Tippetts Avery was a writer, editor and researcher who had an interest in early Mormon history. These women told Emma's story in such a way that I felt deeply her devotion to her husband, and her pain at what she perceived to be his betrayal, and her desire to continue to follow him as a prophet of God. This was another heartbreaking read for me.

You might guess from the above paragraphs that polygamy was a major trigger point for me, and you would be right. However, there were many other issues that came to light through my reading that were new to me, a lifelong member of the church, and further confirmed my untestimony. In fact, the more I read, the more I became convinced that I'd been deceived. Maybe it was with the best of intentions, and those who attempted to educate and teach me throughout my life were most interested in saving my soul. And, most likely, they were not aware of the true, un-whitewashed version of our history. I believe this is also true for you.

You say that you are motivated by love for my children, and that you want what is best for them. I am also motivated by love for them, and also want what is best for them, but what that 'best' is will most likely always be a source of contention between us. All I ask of you is that you reserve your judgement until you have read and studied the history as I have, and can base your opinions on more than your conviction that what you have is a sure knowledge of the veracity of the church. I know that your testimony is deeply meaningful to you, and you have likely arrived at that testimony through prayer and scripture study. My aim here is not to ask you to question what you believe to be true, but to simply walk in my shoes, read what I have read, consider what I have considered, and give me the same respect I have afforded you.

After all, I have not seen fit to bear my untestimony to your children, nieces I love as if they were my own daughters. And I only want what is best for them, motivated by love. Same as you.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gone, but not forgotten

When I was 19 years old, my good friend, Carolyn, was killed in a car accident. She and I had spent a lot of time together that summer, and I was in awe at what a genuinely good person she was. And that she wanted to spend time with me, a known reprobate! When I heard the news that she was dead, I was stunned. I couldn't assimilate the information, couldn't get my brain to accept that she was gone. I would never get to see her again. I would never again hear her voice on the phone, or her giggle when she was embarrassed at something I'd said, or see her eyes light up when she talked about her boyfriend. She was gone, and I wouldn't see her again.

Friends tried to cheer me up by reminding me that we would be reunited in the hereafter, and what a glorious reunion that would be! Only it didn't help. That seemed far, far away, in some nebulous future I couldn't quite imagine. I spent that first night sitting up on my bed, unable to sleep, wondering where she was and what she was thinking. And missing her. Because I knew that someday, probably fairly soon, I would go on with my life, without her, without her friendship, without her giggle, without her delightful personality. There would come a day when I would not think of her several times an hour, or several times a day, or at all. My life would go on, and she would not be a part of it. I would not see her get married, and have babies, and become the mother she'd always dreamed of being. We could no longer be buddies, sharing secrets about boys, racing around in my car with the tunes up as loud as they could go, singing along to our favorite songs, being young and carefree and happy.

In all likelihood, we would have lost touch at some point anyway. She was anticipating marrying her boyfriend, and our lives would have diverged onto different paths. I believe she would have gone on to be a fabulous mommy, and would have become so wrapped up in her little's lives, she would not have had much time to spare for old friends. It's a common theme. I can think of quite a few friends from my past who are not part of my present. Some I've run into when I visit my hometown, and we spend a few minutes catching up on one another's lives. Some I've run into on facebook, and we have become new/old friends.

But because my friend left me in her youth, I cannot hope to run into her in the grocery store, or see her 'like' a post on facebook about my kid's accomplishments, or visit with her at a high school reunion. She is just gone, and I still can't reconcile myself to her absence. I still miss her, and her giggle.

Four years ago today, my mother-in-law passed away. She had fought the good fight for three long years, and I was glad that she was out of her misery. But, as Grace said, "When Grandma died, it put her out of her misery, and put us into ours." Profound words. And, while I can't say that we have been miserable without her, our days are frequently punctuated by expressions of loss and grief, as her name is mentioned on a regular basis, remembering the gentleness and compassion she brought to our lives. Grandma was the steadying influence, the rock upon which the family was built. She was unflappable in the face of adversity and conflict. She was, after all, married to my father-in-law, a person I have always struggled to understand, or to like. But, she made it look easy. I'd ask her how her day was going, and she would always respond, "Plugging along." Said with a smile. I wasn't the only one who loved my mother-in-law, and I'm not the only one who misses her. Her passing left a hole a mile wide, and it has yet to be filled. I don't anticipate that it ever will be.

As I sat with my mother-in-law during her chemotherapy, I'd frequently look at her face, and try to memorize every detail. She was 78 years old when she was diagnosed, and we both knew that she would not outlive the diagnosis of cancer. It would eventually win, and she would leave us. I looked at her features, and her smile, and I listened to her talk, and I told myself to hang onto this, lock it away somewhere safe, so that I could take it out someday and have her with me still. Only, as it turns out, that is impossible to do. At least for me. I remember how much I loved her, and I remember her profound influence on my life, but I struggle to recall her features, or the sound of her voice. The memories do not suffice. I miss her presence.

At the time of my mother-in-law's passing, I was in the midst of a faith crisis. I was struggling to figure out what would remain of my religious beliefs, once I realized that I did not believe the Mormon church was true. What did I believe, about the afterlife specifically? Where did my mother-in-law go when she died? I was there, in the room, when she passed, and I wanted so much to feel her spirit as it left. But I felt nothing. I don't interpret that to mean that there was nothing to feel, or to tell anyone else that what they may have experienced wasn't real. Just that, for me, it was over. She was gone, and I wouldn't feel her presence ever again while in this life. It was too much at the time to absorb, so I back-burnered it for a few years, refusing to consider the possibility that she had ceased to exist anywhere, not just here. That death was the end of all consciousness. That the essence of Norma had disappeared into oblivion.

Over these past four years, I have considered many different explanations for this life, and the possibilities are indeed boundless. There are almost as many ideas about what happens to us upon death as there are religions. Even among people of the same religious persuasion there are variations. Ask any two Mormons what happens after death, and you will get two different answers. Each interprets the doctrine in a way that makes sense to them. And since no one has returned from the other side to confirm or deny an afterlife, we are left on our own to figure it out. No matter what religion you belong to, you still have to come to your own conclusions on the specifics. Many will argue that they base their beliefs on revelations received about the destination of our souls, but, in the end, they still have to decide what to keep, what to discard, and what to backburner for later dissection. Coming to terms with death is no easy proposition, not for any of us.

I've spent considerable time myself trying on different philosophies of life, testing the fit to see what makes sense. What brings me peace when dealing with loss and grief, and, more importantly, what I can live with. After much deliberation, I finally arrived at agnostic atheism, albeit with a hopeful bent. A happy, hopeful agnostic, if I must have a label. Basically, the idea that I don't know why we're here, or where we came from, or where we are going, and I'm okay with that. Generally.

But, a couple of months ago, I dabbled in pure atheism, bordering on nothing-ism. The idea that there is no greater purpose to this life, and there is no final destination. This is it. This is the end. Finito. Over and out. Norma, and Carolyn, are gone forever, worm food. And whatever it is that made them them, gone. The idea sunk me into deep despair. I sat in my favorite chair and cried, all day, watching the rain come down outside, and I felt empty. Completely empty, and void of hope. Life felt bleak, and pointless, and I struggled to come to terms with this conclusion. Fortunately I only spent a short time in this desolate place. I can't exist in a place with no hope, so I retreated away from the edge of the abyss. I decided that, for me, the notion that death is the end of all existence was an untenable proposition. And I decided that it would be okay for me to embrace hope in something more, even if I don't know, or even believe. Hope would have to be enough.

Belief is a funny thing, and feels elusive to me. I can't just decide to believe something, just because I want to. And I certainly can't know a thing that others claim to know, just because they say it is so. But I have an imagination, and it can be pretty powerful when I need it to be. And I can hope that what I imagine to be true, is actually true.

So, what do I hope about my mother-in-law's ultimate destination? In my imagination, she is walking through a meadow of wildflowers, with our beloved dogs, Sammy and Libby, frolicking by her side, and the sun is high in the sky warming her face, and the breeze picks up the scent of the flowers, and she is smiling with that beautiful Norma smile. Carolyn is there, too, pulling petals off a flower, saying, in her little-girl voice, "He loves me, he loves me not." And Elvis sings in the background. 'Cause there can't be a heaven without Elvis. And, since it's my imagined heaven, I can put anybody there I want to. Imagination is a beautiful thing.

And so is hope.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Casper, the friendly roommate

I love ghost stories. Not horror flicks, or gory slasher movies. But stories about people who have moved on beyond this mortal state, and are yearning to maintain some sort of connection with life, and the loved ones they left behind. Or stories about people who can't seem to make peace with death. Like "The Sixth Sense", or "The Others." If you haven't seen either one, and you like ghost stories, I recommend them. Especially "The Others". It will tug at your heartstrings. And scare you just a little.

Do I  believe in ghosts? This, for me, is a tough question to answer. The best I can come up with is, "I don't know." I really don't. I think life is incredibly mysterious, and the more I learn, the more I know I don't know. And since nobody who has ever truly left off this mortal coil has been able to come back and tell me about it, I have nothing real to base a belief on. However, I cannot discount completely the experiences I, and others, have had that cannot be readily explained by modern science. At least to my satisfaction. So, do I believe in ghosts? I don't know. I really don't.

I have had a few experiences in my life that could be called ghost stories. I wasn't drinking at the time, so they weren't the hallucinations of an alcoholic stupor. And most of the strange happenings at my apartment in Salt Lake City took place during daylight hours, while I was awake, so they can't be blamed on that weird half-sleep state that seems so conducive to other-worldly visits. I love relating these stories to my children and seeing their awe-struck expressions. They think I'm really brave because I didn't run screaming from my apartment. The truth is, it wasn't scary at all. Just weird, and slightly disconcerting.

Way back in the last century, 1988 to be specific, I moved into an apartment all by myself. I was working in Salt Lake City at the time, as a nurse, and living by myself fulfilled a lifelong dream. I grew up in a large family, so having my own space was literally a dream come true. My first night alone, I rolled around on the living room floor, reveling in my own private heaven, soaking up the silence. It was awesome. So, so awesome. I had my own space, and I could do whatever I wanted to it, or in it. The freedom was slightly intoxicating.

Shortly after moving in, I started to notice some strange things. Odd things that were out of place, like bobby pins on the floor in front of the couch. I didn't use bobby pins, didn't even own any, so their presence in my apartment got my attention. Then, the plant I had in my window ended up on the floor of the kitchen, which meant it had traveled across the living room seemingly all by itself. I had a bubble gum machine in my apartment, a fun novelty item at the time, and a large picture of a bubble gum machine with a goldfish inside it, that I'd placed on the wall above a bookcase, with the bubble gum machine itself standing next to the bookcase. The wall was a load-bearing wall between the living room and the kitchen. One day, I came home to find that the picture had been taken down, and placed in the kitchen, on the floor, leaning against the stove. It couldn't possibly have landed there had it fallen off the wall, as it was around a corner, and seemed to be carefully placed so as not to break the glass. I put the picture back on the wall, feeling a little uneasy, but brushed it off, as my mind was not willing to accept that anybody, real or imagined, had been in my apartment and was messing with my stuff. But, when I got home the next day, there was the picture again, leaning against the stove. Weird. I put it back, and, about a week later, it was again on the floor. I was a little unnerved by this, so I had the lock changed on the door to the apartment. And, once again, came home to find the picture off the wall, leaning against the stove. I finally gave up and left it leaning against another wall in the kitchen, out of the way. And there it stayed. Whoever kept moving it apparently didn't approve of my taste in 'art'.

Then there was the stereo I had on the top shelf of the bookcase. I favored 80's pop music, and kept the station tuned to my favorite channel. One day, while I was showering, I had the music turned up loud and was rocking out, singing along to Elton John. In the middle of the song, I heard the sound of the station being changed. It sounded as if someone was turning the dial, searching for a particular station, then it stopped on rock-a-billy country music. Blech. Not my kind of music at all. But there it stayed, until I finished showering and changed it back. And I yelled out to the room, "I don't care about the picture, but leave my music alone!" There was no response, of course, but by this time, I was feeling a little annoyed. Fortunately, for me and my otherworldly visitor, the stereo stayed tuned to my chosen channel. Not sure what I would have done otherwise, as hand-to-hand combat with spirits usually doesn't turn out well for the corporeal being.

The strangest occurrence of all happened late one night, shortly after I'd climbed into bed, and was laying there contemplating the wonders of the universe. Or fantasizing about Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle. The apartment was silent, and as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the bubble gum machine rattling, as if someone was shaking it in an attempt to get a piece of gum to drop out. I stiffened, frozen in place, my heart beating rapidly, as I envisioned someone, or something, just outside my bedroom door, robbing me of my precious gumballs. The nerve. He, or she, or it, wasn't even trying to be quiet about it! I didn't dare move, as I didn't want to confront the stranger who had invaded my space. I was imagining a piece of gum being masticated by a ghost, hanging there in mid-air, teeth marks showing up on the gummy surface. And I had to giggle a little. Seriously, what kind of a ghost steals bubble gum? Casper? My fear faded as I realized that I was in no danger from this spirit. If all he wanted was bubble gum, he was welcome to it. And I peacefully drifted off to sleep, feeling safe from more sinister beings, as I had my own private ghostly security guard stationed just outside my bedroom door, happily munching on bubble gum.

A few days later, I was relating these tales to a friend, and her mother overheard our conversation. She exclaimed, in horror, "Your apartment is haunted! You can't stay there! You're not safe!" And I laughingly told her that I felt no danger present, no evil spirits haunting me, no feeling of unease whatsoever. Whoever was haunting me did not wish to do me harm, I said, and I didn't feel unsafe at all. She stared at me fearfully, and said, "Let's call your bishop. He can do an exorcism." I couldn't keep my laughter inside, which, unfortunately, just confirmed her suspicion that I was under an evil influence. I told her I didn't think Mormons believed in exorcism, nor performed it. She replied that the priesthood could, and should, be used to bless and sanctify our living spaces, making them amenable to only the best of spirits. I'm paraphrasing, as I can't remember exactly what she said, but that was the intent. Exorcise the ghost who disliked kitschy art, listened to sappy country music, and enjoyed an occasional piece of bubble gum. Who surely meant me no harm. I mean, come on, he had a point about the art, and he left my stereo alone after I yelled at him, and I didn't mind sharing my gum. I wasn't happy about the plant, and the bobby pins could have messed with the inner workings of my vacuum, if I'd ever attempted to use such an appliance, but having an otherworldly roommate wasn't anything more than a minor inconvenience. I didn't see the need to call down the powers of heaven on his head. For whatever reason, he was stuck in my apartment, and he certainly made things interesting. Never mind the fact that if I called on a bishop to come perform an exorcism, he'd be more likely to have me committed to a state facility. No, my ghost was welcome to stay. After all, it was probably I who was the intruder. In all likelihood, he was there first, and I didn't want to anger him by demanding that he leave. Just so long as he left my stereo alone! I do kind of wish he'd offered to help pay the rent. But the entertainment value of the stories he gave me were worth more than money, to be fair, and I've continued to reap the benefits in the ensuing years. I love telling people I lived in a haunted apartment. And that I had a roommate from another world!

I did consult my dad, a man who is both visionary and reasonable, and I value his opinion. His only question for me was, "How do you feel in your apartment? What does your gut say?" I felt safe, and at peace, and at home. I did not perceive any danger whatsoever. I never felt threatened, and, except for the brief moment lying in my bed listening to the bubble gum machine rattle, I was never truly frightened. He said it sounded like I had nothing to fear, and saw no reason to call for a priesthood blessing. This, from a man who highly values the priesthood and views it as actual power from heaven, was reassuring to me, and I continued to live in the apartment, sharing my space with my ghostly friend, until I met and married my husband.

To this day, I have no explanation for the strange happenings in my apartment in Salt Lake. My logical self knows that an explanation exists, but my mystical self is satisfied to believe that I lived with a ghost. A country music loving, bubble-gum chewing, art critic, who seemed to have no agenda beyond making our apartment a livable space for us both. I kind of miss him.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Temporary Insanity

My mom has brown eyes, the kind of brown that looks like melted chocolate. When I was a kid, I wished that my eyes were brown like my mom's, and I'd imagine all the ways my life would be better with brown eyes. Can't remember any of them now, but I do remember thinking, "I wish my eyes were brown like my mom's." But alas, they're not brown. They're blue. Like my dad's, sort of, only not as clear. Blue-ish, really. I realize that I could change this fact with colored contact lenses, but the expense combined with the awkwardness of actually putting my finger in my eye seem like pretty significant barriers. I'll stick with blue-ish. For now.

It is what it is. I know, as a saying that has taken on a life of it's own, and become quite cliche. But if I claim that I used it before it was in vogue, will anybody believe me? 'Cause I did. I've been telling my kids for years, whenever they have expressed a desire to escape reality, "It is what it is, kids. Best get used to it, then move on." I don't see the point in wallowing in wishes. Because, as we all know, wishing something was different doesn't make it so, but instead results in discontent with things as they are. And discontent breeds ingratitude, which leads to unhappiness, and before you know it, we're all just sitting around bingeing on chocolate and whining.

The other day, my son asked me what led to my current position with regards to religion. My skepticism, agnosticism, ignosticism (not sure what this is? Wikipedia, my friend!), whatever you want to call it. For the first time, he wanted to know why I don't believe the church is true. I tried to explain it, and found myself struggling to get the words right. His teenage mind can't seem to come to terms with why I can't see church, and God, the way he does. The way I taught him to, when he was a child. And my explanation of my journey didn't give him any comfort. I looked at him with tears in my eyes, and said, "I wish I could believe it, son. I really do. It would make things so much easier."  He looked back at me uncomprehendingly, and said, "Then why can't you? If you want to, why can't you?" Sigh. Because, it is what it is. I have blue eyes, not brown. I like chocolate, not tomatoes. And I just can't believe that religion is anything but a man-made construct, intended to give purpose and comfort to human beings struggling to make sense of this thing called life. It is what it is.

I have a daughter who is gay. She came out to us this year, and revealed that she had been struggling for several years with her sexual orientation. It has been a difficult journey for her, and for us as her parents, as we've watched her try to figure out how to fit into a very heterosexual world. She looked at me one day, tears rolling down her cheeks, and said, "Mom, why can't I like boys? This is too hard. I don't want to do this anymore." My response to her? You guessed it. "It is what it is. I don't believe in God, you like girls. Life would be easier for both of us if we could conform to cultural expectations, but that's not who we are." It is what it is.

That daughter had her 23rd birthday this past summer, and to celebrate, she asked me to get a tattoo with her. Obviously, I'm not against tattoos. But I wasn't sure I was ready to add another to my collection. However, it was what she wanted. And her chosen tattoo was the saying, "It is what it is." I guess it has sunk in after all these years, huh? So, off we went to get inked. She chose her ankle; I chose, well, something else. I've always joked that I was going to tattoo "It is what it is" on my ass. I got as close to it as I could without adding insult to injury. To myself, that is. I'm sure the artist has seen his share of derriere in his life.

I went to the appointment with script in hand, and an idea in mind of how I wanted it to look. The tattoo artist spent some time redrawing my concept, and came up with a reasonable facsimile. It looked okay on paper, so I gave the go ahead. I can honestly say that what came next rivaled birth in terms of pain. I was tempted to call uncle after the first word, but I thought it might look weird having "It" stamped on my backside. This was my fourth tattoo, so I knew it would hurt, but this one inspired the utterance of previously un-uttered swears. It hurt like nothing I'd here-to-for experienced. I gritted my teeth throughout, telling myself that it would all be worth it in the end (literally), because I'd have my favorite saying stamped on my backside for the remainder of my earthly existence.

Finally, he was done. He got a mirror and showed me the finished product. At first, I thought it looked weird because it was backwards in the mirror. So my daughter took a picture with her phone and handed it to me. And then I thought it looked weird because of the swelling and blood. (Yes, tattoos bleed. Don't do it.) Then, I realized it looked weird because it was weird. The finished product looked nothing like what I'd envisioned in my mind. I'm not a fancy-pants kind of gal, and I'd wanted to keep the script simple. It wasn't simple. It had curlicues, and flourishes, and extra lines and curves throughout. And it was permanent.

I'd tattooed "It is what it is" on my ass! And it was permanent! And it looked awful. I hated it. I really and truly hated it. I was embarrassed to show it to anyone, even my husband. How was I going to go through the rest of my mortal life with this monstrosity on the back of my front?!? Sigh. It is what it is.

There is no more fitting illustration of the concept "It is what it is" than a tattoo gone horribly wrong. It is what it is, indeed. It could be removed, of course, but not without a great deal of pain (been there, done that, not going back), and an insanely large chunk of change. Might as well get used to it, accept it, and move on. The stages of grief flashed past rather quickly, and I arrived at acceptance with an ease I hadn't thought possible a few moments earlier.

I have blue eyes. I hate tomatoes. I don't believe in God. My daughter is gay. And I have an ugly tattoo. It is what it is, y'all. And I wouldn't change a thing.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Doing it my way. . .

I was recently accused of being a Deist. The nerve! Can you imagine how that felt to an agnostic-atheist/secular-humanist? However, I can see how one could arrive at that conclusion, based on past blog posts I've written. For most of my life, I believed what I'd been told about God, Elohim, Jehovah, Yahwah. My parents are fervent believers in the God of Abraham, as taught by the Mormon church. And they passed that belief on to me, with the hope that I'd cling to it as they have, living out my days on this earth as a Latter-Day-Saint, expecting to receive celestial glory as my eventual reward.

Unfortunately for my parents, I couldn't hang on to that belief for the duration of this life. Not for lack of trying, though. Because they believed, and because they so wanted it for me, I believed. The church was true; I was deeply flawed. Or so I thought.

I've had several experiences in my life that felt spiritual in nature, other-worldly in origin. And because I'd been raised to believe in God, I naturally assumed that He was the messenger, the source from which sprang assurances that He lived, that He loved me, and that He was watching over me. This gave me comfort as I struggled through various life-altering events, and an anchor I clung to when life got too stormy. As I've re-examined the stories that have made me who I am today, and written about them, I've come to conclude that what I thought was God communicating to me was actually my own voice, my own wisdom, long hidden and unrecognized as valid. And allowing myself to listen to my own voice has brought me the greatest peace I've ever known.

There was a time in my life when I would have been appalled at the arrogance in that last paragraph. But the last 3 and a half years have brought me to a place where I am able to acknowledge what I believe, both to myself and to my loved ones. As I've previously written, I no longer accept that beliefs can be chosen, simply because we want to believe. That it is a sin to reject God, or the prophets, or the church. That I have allowed myself to fall under the influence of evil. Church members are taught that there are few reasons a person would choose to leave: they are lazy, they have been offended, or they have unresolved sins. The day I realized I was not a believer, none of those applied to me. I had doubled my efforts to study the scriptures, pray multiple times daily, faithfully attend all of my Sunday meetings, attend the temple as often as I could. I was a full tithe payer, I wore the sacred garments day and night, I adhered to the word of wisdom as it had been taught to me. I had never in my life had a cup of coffee, nor had I taken a drink of alcohol since my days of youthful experimentation. I was doing everything I reasonably could in order to be worthy of God's love, and his spirit. I wanted to 'know', as my husband has always known. I wanted my lifelong doubts to be resolved. I wanted what I thought others had. I wanted a sure testimony that God lived, and that the Mormon church was the one true church. I pleaded with God, on my knees, begging for some confirmation that what I'd always been taught was true.

One of my favorite singers is Amy Grant. Her music did more to keep me faithful than any LDS artist, as I felt what I believed was the spirit in her songs. I thought I felt God's love when Amy sang. Through the last year or two of my belief in the church, her album, "Legacy, Hymns of Faith", was a favorite. I played it over and over, wanting so much to believe as she did. Wanting to feel what she felt. When she sang, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing", I sang along with her the words, "never let me wander from thee. . . here's my heart, oh take and seal it". Those words were a prayer, uttered to the God she loved, that He would still the disquiet within my heart, and make me His. Forever. That I would doubt no more, just believe. I was looking for peace, begging for relief from the questions plaguing my mind. And finding only more doubt, more misgivings, more disquiet.

One summer day, in 2008, I met a woman at a baseball game, the mother of one of the players. As we visited in the stands, she revealed that she had left the Mormon church some ten years previously. She was friendly and talkative, and very open about her life. And I experienced an unexpected reaction to her story. I was jealous. Intensely. I wanted what she had, something I had never realized about myself. I wanted out. I wanted to be done. I wanted to be an Un-Mormon. Not a Mormon anymore. I realized what a blasphemous thought this was, and I felt like I was spitting in the face of God to wish such a thing. I'd been blessed to have been born to a righteous, Latter-Day-Saint family, to have been raised with the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and I wanted to reject it. Walk away from it, as if I'd never been a part of it. I didn't want to be Mormon anymore.

The next year or so was a time of intense prayer and study, as I tried to forget my new friend's revelation and solidify my own testimony. I tried to reject my heart's desire by following what the church, and my parents, had always taught me. I gave it my all. And, in the end, it wasn't enough. I couldn't hold on to what I'd never had.

October of 2009. I can't remember the exact date, but I will always remember October, 2009. I had spent the previous summer doing as I related above, reading scriptures, praying, and attending the temple. And I was getting tired. Soul weary. Exhausted by the effort. One day, I read an article in The Deseret News about an internet site called staylds.com. It was created for people who were tired, or who had experienced some trauma in the church, and had come to the conclusion that it wasn't true. The intent of the site was to allow people a place to tell their stories, and get support as they figured out how to stay active and involved in the church, while not believing some or all of it. I thought maybe this would be a good place for me to figure out how to navigate the stormy waters of doubt. As I read other's stories, however, I realized that I didn't want to be where they were. I didn't want to continue to be an active, albeit non-believing, Mormon. This wasn't the place. But, there were links to other sites that seemed more fitting for my situation. And, as I read, I came to a startling realization. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to think the most blasphemous words I could have ever imagined. What if the church was not true? And I was okay?

In that moment, my whole being was flooded with peace, the peace I had sought for years. Blessed relief, that peace. The church was not true, and I was okay. I was okay! I was not flawed; I was enough, and I was okay. I cried as I sat at the computer that day, and I felt like I'd finally come home after a long journey. In losing a testimony, I had found myself. In a most unexpected place, assuredly, but I had indeed found myself. I was okay! And the church was not true. . .

Since that day, there have been many changes in my life. Not the least of which is that I'm no longer a card-carrying, active Latter-Day-Saint. This change has been hard on the people closest to me, those who profess a knowledge that the church is true, and that I have been deluded. I respect the opinion of those who believe in, and love, God, but I cannot bring myself to want what they have. Not anymore. I am happier than I have ever been, and more at peace in my own skin.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." The gospel according to Steve Jobs. Not a prophet, certainly, but they are still wise words. Words to live by. Words I can live by. This is my life, and I am living it authentically. And peacefully.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"I gave you life so that you could live it. . ."

Motherhood. A fearsome and loaded word. A life choice not to be entered into lightly, and yet, we do. Rarely does a person consider the ramifications of begetting children, until those children are already under production, well on their way to becoming little people capable of creating chaos and wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting folks who unwittingly invited them into their lives. And then we fall in love with them, and their domination is complete.

I recall staring into the face of my newly-born first child. A beautiful little girl, who looked as if she'd dropped into my arms straight from heaven. I couldn't imagine, as I gazed lovingly into her eyes, that I'd ever find occasion to raise my voice in frustration, or, heaven forbid, yell at her. I would, I vowed, always treat her with love and respect, remembering this moment when she looked so innocent and adorable. It took three weeks. Three long, tortuous, sleep-deprived weeks. She wasn't innocent, and she certainly wasn't adorable. She was a she-devil, come to punish me for enjoying sex.

As she grew, it became ever more apparent that her goal in life was to thwart my every attempt at happiness. Okay, not entirely true. But the child did seem intent on breaking me down and stomping on my soul. From dumping out an entire bottle of maple syrup on the floor of the pantry, to flinging honey all over the kitchen with a butterknife (thus ruining the blinds and carpet), to decorating the baby's room with permanent black magic marker (including the baby sitting quietly in the crib watching), to drawing artful murals on the walls complete with captions, to adorning my bathroom walls with feminine pads and toothpaste, to taking scissors to my carefully crafted dried flower arrangement. All before the age of three. She tried my patience, and found me wanting. Sigh. Had we had any idea of what was in store for us, she would have been first and last. Fortunately for us, we had already put in our order for a second. Then a third, and a fourth. None of whom ever tested our patience like number one did.

I adored this kid. I mean I really, truly adored her. She was so funny, and so smart. And always a step or two ahead of me. I still adore the adult she became, who is still funny and smart, but I wasn't always sure the kid would make it to become the adult. And I wasn't always sure that I would survive those years with my sanity intact. They say insanity is hereditary; you get it from  your kids. And she did make me crazy.

The elementary school years proved to be even more challenging than the terrible two's, three's, and four's, just in different ways. This child struggled academically and socially. Not because she wasn't smart, but because she saw the world in her own diverse and original way, and her style of learning didn't fit well with the style of teaching public school had to offer. We were fortunate to find a teacher in second grade who recognized our daughter's unique gifts, and she helped her learn to use them in ways that propelled her ahead. By third grade, she was reading on a high school level. But by fifth grade, her social skills still lagged, and she couldn't seem to find a way to fit in with her peers. That year was a tough one. The other girls were trying out their teenage personas, experimenting with make-up and gossiping about boys. My daughter was not interested in either activity. She loved horses and science fiction. And her insistence on being uniquely herself manifested itself in ways that led to some pretty intense shunning.

That year was tough on both of us. As a room mom, I attended each class party, and was privy to the bullying that went on. The girls didn't even attempt to hide it from me, her mother. As a kid, I'd always been part of the 'in' groups, so I struggled to understand why she couldn't just fit in. But, she stood out, and not in ways that brought admiration from her peers. For example, her much older aunt had given her a turquoise, floor-length, down coat, that was at least 2 sizes too big. She insisted on wearing it to school, and came home in tears. The kids had made fun of her, as I'd known they would, and she was not just hurt, she was angry. I gently suggested that the coat be put away until she grew into it, to which she replied, "It's my coat! I'll wear it if I want!" I couldn't persuade her to reconsider, even with the memory of the kid's mocking fresh in her ears. She wasn't about to be bullied into giving up what was, to her, a precious gift from her aunt.

And then there was the braid. She got her hair cut early in the school year, a cute chin-length bob, but wanted to leave a small strand of hair at the temple long enough to braid. I figured the kids at school would relentlessly tease her about it (which they did, calling her "Obi Wan Kenobi"), and she'd cut it. Nope. She came home in tears, again, but angrily insisted that it was her hair, and she'd wear it any way she pleased! I so admired this kid's chutzpah, and wished I had some, but I also ached that her elementary school years were being spent as an outcast. And I felt helpless to change that for her. I was her mom, but I couldn't fix this. I couldn't change her into someone more acceptable to her peers. And yes, I wanted to. As much as I admired her strength and courage, I wanted her to be more like me, and at least attempt to conform. I'm not proud to admit that, but there it is.

Toward the end of the school year, I had an experience that forever changed me as a mom. I had been consumed with anxiety over my daughter's inability to make friends. I worried about her incessantly, lying awake at night thinking of ways to help her fit in, strategies to increase her social capital. It killed me to see her spending her time alone, and lonely. I have always been an extrovert, a social butterfly, and I couldn't understand how I ended up with a daughter who seemed to be the exact opposite of me. And while I'd like to say that my anxiety was solely related to her unhappiness, I have to admit that my ego recoiled at the idea that my child was the kid nobody liked.

With these thoughts weighing heavily on my mind, I had a rare moment alone in the car one day. As I drove along, I took the opportunity to talk to God. Those were my best prayers, back in the day, just chatting with him as if he rode beside me. I don't interpret the experience the same way today as I did back then, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. Anyway, my overwhelming thought that day was, "God, you screwed this one up. I'm not the right mom for this kid. I can't do this." And what I heard in my head was a gentle chuckle, and the thought that maybe I was the one getting it wrong. I was worrying about all the wrong things, and wasting precious time agonizing over that which I could not control. My job as a mother was actually much more simple than I was making it: love her, set a good example for her, and let her have her journey, whatever that was. That was it. I could let the rest go, trusting that she, herself, would figure this out. What a relief! The anxiety, the worry, the sleepless nights were all superfluous, unnecessary. It was truly a lightbulb moment for me, the moment when I stopped trying to save her, and learned to just love her.

I'd like to say that all my parenting woes were fixed that day, and I never experienced another moment of worry over one of my children. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I have had many moments when I've wondered what the hell I was thinking, why I thought that I was capable of raising these children adequately before unleashing them onto a world unprepared for their level of crazy. In fact, the idea that I could end up parenting for all eternity was one of the factors that sent me screaming from the church. No thanks. I have zero interest in populating worlds without end, and watching from afar as they screwed up both themselves, and the planet we spent six long days creating just for them. Nope. That kind of eternity is not for me.

But, back to parenting on this planet, the one we call Earth. I think sometimes we make it too hard. We agonize over things we cannot control. Which pretty much includes anything and everything. I may have invited these children here, to be part of the family hubby and I created, but what happens next is on them. The journey is theirs, to be enjoyed or not. I have to give them the opportunity to create something that makes sense to them, that looks like them, and feels authentic to them. Just as my parents have done for me. My parents may have wished it was otherwise, and that their offspring had chosen the path leading back to their god, but they have recognized the futility of forcing that choice on us. And they have given me the room to be myself, to think for myself, to believe differently than they do. Which has done more to preserve our relationship than attempting to push their agenda on me could have. I'm just trying to pass that legacy on to the next generation.

So, what have I learned about parenting? That my kid's choices do not define me. Their failures do not define me. Their successes do not define me. They are not extensions of me, put here to fulfill my hopes and dreams. And that has been the most freeing realization of my life. I can love them, set a good example for them (or at least, attempt to), and let them go. Whatever happens to them in this life will be because of who they are, and what they do, and has relatively little to do with me. I gave them life, now they have to go live it. (Brownie points for anyone who gets the movie reference!)





Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Truth About Weight Loss

I've experienced a few changes over the past few years, many of which cannot be seen with the naked eye. But, the fact that I have decreased in size has become obvious, and has become a topic of conversation with which I am not comfortable. I don't like talking about weight, or weight loss, dieting, exercise, deprivation, discouragement, depression, devastation, disease, death. You see where I'm going with this.

Like most females of my generation, weight has been an issue for most of my life. Even in grade school, the 'fatties' were noticed, and separated into their own social class. I'm not proud of my participation in the shaming, but I cannot deny that it happened. We were kids, and differences were noted and called out. Even now, I think there are few things more painful than a fat kid seeking acceptance amongst her thinner peers, and being relegated to the sidelines of life. It seems to me that fat has always been an acceptable prejudice, and it starts early.

At about 13, my body began to change. That summer, my oldest brother worked as a lifeguard at a pool in Idaho, and we didn't see each other for about 3 months. When he returned at the end of the summer, he looked at me with some surprise, and said, "Boy! Your butt sure got big!" I was humiliated, and devastated. His observation left it's mark on me, though in later years he denied any recollection of his comment. But it was my first experience with shame associated with my body. And it hurt.

Throughout my teens, I paid attention to my peers' attempts to control their weight, and took a variety of stabs at it myself, mostly unsuccessfully. The teen years are emotional ones for the majority of us, and I dealt with my stress by eating. I remember once, as a high school senior, I participated in a fundraiser for the high school choir in which we sold candy bars to earn money for a trip to New York City. Instead of selling the candy and raising the necessary funds, I ate it, several boxes worth, and donated the money I'd earned working at McDonald's. That was some good chocolate, and it went well with the stacks of books I checked out from the library. There's a snapshot of my teen years: me, shut away in my bedroom, devouring books and candy, and ignoring the contention just outside my door. I instinctively knew that my binging was unacceptable behavior, and I kept it behind closed doors. But it was comforting, and stilled the anxiety I couldn't seem to calm any other way. It was a bad habit that would dog me for many years afterward.

As a young adult, I became what I jokingly referred to as a 'dysfunctional bulemic': I'd binge, but not purge. Many of my binges were in the company of friends; we'd get together for Thursday night TV, and enjoy my famous rice krispie treats, or brownies, or chocolate cake, or sometimes all three, combined with ice cream. Whatever was causing me stress could be forgotten, or at least set aside for a few hours, as I got high on various combinations of fat and sugar. Followed by pretty deep lows, as I'd roll around on the floor in gut-busting agony, regretting the choices of the previous few hours, and berating myself for my complete and utter lack of self-control and discipline. Occasionally, I'd take a break from the self loathing, and vow to become the person I most wanted to be: thin, and in control. I would read a magazine article that promised the secrets to weight loss, or I'd buy a book touting the latest approach in weight 'management', and I would get excited at the prospect of shedding the pounds that were masking my 'true self'. I am well acquainted with the euphoria that accompanies any new weight loss plan. And the utter and complete discouragement and despair upon realizing that there was no secret, no magic formula or pill, no spell that would transform my pudgy self into a slender, sleek, desirable beauty worthy of my own, or anyone else's, respect and admiration. And then falling victim to the next big idea, the next revelation in the dieting industry. It seemed to be an endless cycle of triumph and tragedy, though maybe not so dramatic as that. But, anyone who has followed this path knows of what I speak. High highs, low lows. Accompanied by depression and anxiety. And being forever a slave to a number on the scale, whether it was attainable or not.

As I progressed into marriage and motherhood, I found food to be an even more endearing companion. But not a very good friend. Pregnancy wreaked havoc on my body, and made a mockery of any vow I'd make to eat for health. Even the thoughts of the young ones I was nurturing within the womb weren't enough to stop the cravings and binging. I tried, I really tried, but I'd become overwhelmed with exhaustion, hormones, emotions, fears, etc, and I'd eat to dull the feelings. And it worked. I look back at those years, and they are coated in a chocolate haze. Between each pregnancy, I did manage to lose a bit of weight, and I basked in the attention I'd receive. (I've always wondered why thin is considered more beautiful than fat. Why wouldn't it be acceptable to say, "Wow! Look at you! You've put on some weight, and you look positively radiant!" I imagine that would go over about as well as broccoli ice cream.)

Throughout my 30s, I managed to lose weight a few times, coming close to my goal on occasion, but always, always, returning to my previous weight. Or higher. Sometimes it was the result of another pregnancy, sometimes it was just a return to my old friend food. Because food is always there, at the ready, prepared to comfort and coat, soothe and sustain. Food was my best friend, and my hated enemy. I couldn't run fast enough to escape the cravings. Depressed? Eat. Sad? Eat. Lonely? Eat. Angry? Eat. Happy? Eat. Excited? Eat. Whatever the emotion, food was the answer. Accompanied by bouts of self-loathing, followed by commitments to try again. It was an emotional roller coaster, and I was getting sick of the ride. The head-spinning, nauseating, vertigo-inducing up and down of it all. I wanted off.

I had my last child at 40, and I assumed that, once I was through with any possibility of a future pregnancy, I'd be free to pursue my life's dream of achieving and maintaining my goal weight. Which, by the way, was higher than my starting weight the first time I attempted Weight Watchers. So, once again, I joined WW, feeling the excitement and enthusiasm that usually accompanied the beginnings of a diet. I lasted a couple of months, I think, then life got in the way, I got discouraged, and I quit. Again. And then I got mad. Mad at God, mad at biology, mad at physics, mad at chemistry, mad at thin people, mad at my parents. Mad at reality. And I really quit. I got off the roller coaster. I turned my back on the entire weight loss industry, and I walked away.

One of the ideas I'd found sprinkled throughout a few diet books was the notion of 'letting go', of divorcing oneself from the calorie-counting, scale-watching, numbers game. I'd read of people who finally found success in the battle for weight control when they stopped worrying about the 'how', and just accepted themselves as is. Their claim that their weight normalized after a time off the dieting roller coaster was appealing, and I had attempted to follow this advice on several occasions. However, letting go as a method of weight control is contradictory and counter-productive. How does one go about consciously 'letting go', with the idea in mind that the situation will resolve itself? It doesn't quite work that way, much to my dismay. I found that I couldn't 'let go' entirely. It was always there, always lurking, the scale always taunting me. In the back of my mind, the hope of weight loss lingered, and I'd find myself back in the game, discouragement and depression dogging my every step. It was the hardest fight I never won.

Until the day I was well and truly done. I could not take the ups and downs any longer, the highs and the lows. I have observed many of my friends' and acquaintances' numerous attempts to control their weight, and have cheered them in their successes, and kept quiet about their eventual failures. Because it seems that everybody eventually fails. It just feels like an unwinnable war. Humans against biology: humans-0, biology-6,000,000,000,000. And counting. I knew I could not take it on again; I just didn't have it in me. I don't have it in me.

So I got off the treadmill. I stepped out of the race. I decided, once and for all, that I would never diet again, and I would never speak of diets again. Weight became a verboten topic, and I began to avoid conversations that center around it. Like the plague. Or I try to, anyway. Dieting and weight loss are popular topics everywhere I go, and it is hard to avoid. But I generally find a way to change the subject, or walk away if that fails. Because I just don't want to talk about it anymore, and I definitely don't want to do it anymore. I can't take another roller coaster ride. I'm out of Dramamine.

So, how have I managed to finally lose some weight? When asked recently, I said that I got here by allowing myself to just be myself. But that's only part of the story. The rest involves letting go. Really, truly letting go. Refusing to give it a place in my life. And meaning it. My letting go is not an attempt to fool my body into thinking I'm not looking, that I'm not paying attention, that it can go ahead and shrink if it wants 'cause I'm indifferent (wink, wink). I honestly had no intention of ever losing weight again, and no illusions about what my future weight would be. I had come to accept that my casket would be a double-wide, and that it would take a crane to lift it into place. And I was okay with that. I was okay with me. I could move on, and fill the extra space in my brain with other things, more interesting pursuits. And, gradually, as the years have passed, the weight has slowly come off. It was disconcerting at first, losing weight without trying, and I even consulted my doctor. But, I'm as healthy as a horse (albeit as big as one!), and the only explanation for the weight loss is that I stopped trying. That's it. I dropped my weapons of war, and walked off the battlefield. Done. Finito. I will fight no more forever.

So, if you see me out and about, and you congratulate me on my weight loss, don't be put off by the awkward smile, and the stammering acceptance of your compliment. I'm not quite sure how to reply to such statements, as saying, 'Thank you", implies that I had something to do with it. And I'm really not sure that I did. All I did was let go.

(And, just to be clear, this is my truth about my weight loss, not the truth about weight loss. Just so we're clear.)





Sunday, June 2, 2013

Agnes and Adelaide

I went for a walk through the cemetery yesterday. The Logan Cemetery is one of my favorite spots in Cache Valley. It is peaceful, obviously quiet, and calm. Being there quells any anxiety I might be nurturing. Life can be very anxiety-producing, and everybody needs a getaway spot. I just happen to like hanging out with dead people. Don't be nervous; I don't see dead people, I just enjoy walking through their final resting place, soaking up the ambience.

Walking around looking at headstones gives me perspective. I think, as I walk, about all of these people for whom it is done. Whatever it is that they intended to do with their life, whatever plans they had, whatever worries rested upon their shoulders, exist no more. Gone with them, into whatever comes next. I don't wish my own life was over, and I don't relish the thought of joining my friends there in the cemetery. But it does help me to realize that most of what I worry about is temporary, and trivial. It reminds me to pay attention to what matters most in my life. Who matters most. The people I love.

Because love is what I feel when I walk through the cemetery. I am not a very spiritual person, meaning that I am not much in tune to what others have described as 'the spirit'. If it isn't concrete, I struggle to get it. Except in the cemetery. I read headstones, with their birth and death dates, and usually some clue to the relationship that existed between loved ones, and I'm moved by the emotion that went into creating that memorial. I'm moved by the connections that were formed, bonds that continue on after death. Some move me to tears. One in particular.

I stumbled across an old marker a couple of years ago, one that I feel compelled to return to, again and again. It is made out of cement, and shaped like a podium, with words etched into the top and sides. Across the top it reads:

To the
 Ever blessed memory of
Adelaide Cochran Barrett
 November 2, 1842 
January 20, 1910
This spot is forever dedicated by her friend
 Agnes C. Cassidy

There are other dates etched into the sides, presumably death and birth dates of Agnes. On either side of the podium, there are small headstones, each with only initials etched into the stone. ACB and ACC. And no other clues as to the relationship that existed between the two women. The first time I saw it, I leaned on the podium itself, read the words, and cried. My husband was with me at the time, and he remarked, "This must be the first feminist gravesite in the cemetery", because the site was dedicated by a woman. Maybe. I tried to research the names, using my friend Google, without any luck. I don't know who these women were; I don't know the relationship between them, whether they were sisters, sister-wives, neighbors, or best friends. Or lovers. All I do know is that Agnes loved Adelaide, so much so that she declared her devotion in stone, for all the world to see. And when I stand in front of it, I feel that love, and that connection. I take a regular route when I walk through the cemetery, pausing for a moment each time in front of this monument to two friends, reflecting on the relationship between Agnes and Adelaide. And vowing to love my own friends and family with the same devotion and dedication.

My religious journey has led me to an entirely unexpected place. I'm not fond of labels, but if I had to apply one to myself, it would be agnostic atheist. Meaning that I don't believe in God, but I don't know that one doesn't exist, and I'm not all that concerned with the question. I don't believe it is a knowable proposition. For me, anyway. Others claim to know, and I can't refute their testimony of their truth, because it is just that, their truth. And this is mine.

This week, a friend asked me about my morals, now that I no longer count myself amongst the religious. She had been in a conversation with another friend, who asserted that those who have lost their belief in God have also lost their moral compass. And she was interested to know what I thought, and where my beliefs came from, if not from God. I replied that I believe in integrity, and compassion, and in applying the Golden Rule in my relationships with others. What I left out was that I believe in humanity, in people, and in the deep, mysterious, powerful forces that connect us with one another. I believe in love. (And not just as a song lyric.) I believe in time spent nurturing those connections, and making sure that the people in my life know how much they mean to me.  Because, some day, I'm going to be six feet under (or sprinkled in the ocean, or mixed into potting soil for a tree), and it will be done. I will be no more. And the only things I will leave behind are the connections I made with the ones I love. Memories of our lives together, and maybe a headstone marking the spot of my final resting place.

I already know what I want that headstone to say. In the words of one of my favorite entertainers:

 
I'm so glad we've had this time together
Just to have a laugh, or sing a song.
Seems we just get started
And before you know it,
Comes the time we have to say,
So long.
Good night, everybody
 
 
That's it. That says it all. I had a great time, a few laughs, sang a goofy song or two, and it's over. And I hope that when people read it, especially my posterity, they will smile. And remember the love.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Little Miss Muffet no more

I have always lived in fear of spiders. Actually, terror. Visceral, gut-wrenching terror. It probably stems from the time my brother killed a spider at my behest, then laid the corpse on my pillow. Or the time a mother spider laid her babies in my light fixture, and all those babies drifted down oh so gently upon my bed as I lay in quiet repose. This fear followed me into my adulthood; I once called my husband home from work to save me from what appeared to be a giant arachnid intent on terrorizing me and my defenseless children. Only, as it turned out, the spider in question was already dead. I can still picture the look on hubby's face as he turned to face me, stifling a laugh (unsuccessfully, I might add), reporting the demise of the poor creature. When I looked closer, I could tell that it was already in an advanced state of decay. Fear had prevented me from noticing this before calling for my knight in shining armor.

My fear didn't feel to me like something I could control. I once had a therapist tell me that he could cure me, if I wanted him to. No, thanks, I said. I'd prefer to keep a healthy distance. Spiders are creepy, and crawly, and nightmarish. Shudder-inducing. I spent 18 months in Venezuela, the country of origin of the spiders featured in the hit film, Arachnophobia. I have never seen that movie; it was the one time my husband put his foot down and went all patriarchal on me. He said he valued his job, and couldn't waste any more time rescuing me from deceased insects. Just as well. I experienced those spiders first hand; seeing them in a starring role of a movie just might have driven me over the edge.

But, I fear spiders no more. At all. Just the other day, my youngest daughter screamed in terror and climbed onto the kitchen counter, attempting to escape a creepy crawler speeding across the floor. Of course, I rushed to see what was causing all the commotion, then grabbed a glass, trapped the spider beneath it, put a piece of paper underneath the glass, and took the spider outside, releasing it into the wild of the backyard. Leaving my daughter standing on the counter open-mouthed with astonishment. "Mom!", she said. "Why didn't you just step on it? Now it's going to come back in and get me!" Nah, I replied. It's safely outside, away from the possibility of being crushed underfoot. "You rescued the spider? I thought you were rescuing me!!" Nope, my darling girl. You had no need of rescue. You were never actually in danger. It was just a harmless critter, doing what critters do, looking for a place to hide from your screaming. I just helped him out, literally.

What caused this fundamental change? Interesting story, as it turns out. It has been an interesting journey, and I never foresaw this conclusion. Me, unafraid of spiders? Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think that was possible. Nor did I care. I could have spent the rest of my life stomping on them, gleefully sending them on to their next carnation, without a second thought. Except for how to get their squished remains off my shoe. And yet, here I am, defender of the creepy crawlers.

My transformation began over six years ago, when my beloved mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. I loved my MIL, and her diagnosis was devastating to me. She was the best person I've ever known. We didn't always see eye-to-eye, but it didn't matter. Her kind, compassionate soul was capable of overlooking any and all imperfections in her loved ones, me included. Because she had so lovingly raised the man who would grow up to protect me from dead arachnids, I saw an opportunity in her illness to return the love, and I promised her that I would do everything I could to get her through the experience.

For over three years, I took Norma to every doctor's appointment, and every chemotherapy appointment, except for maybe a handful. We became very close throughout the ordeal, sitting for hours together, sometimes talking, sometimes enjoying the respite from our crazy families. I began to see her as more than my husband's mother; she became my friend. My very dear friend. I didn't mind accompanying her, sitting with her, being her nurse when called for, interpreting the doctor's instructions for her, cleaning her up when necessary. I sat up with her all night in the hospital, incidentally the night before Mother's Day. I felt it was my duty to care for her, but it wasn't like most duties I performed, usually with resentment. I look back on those days with some fondness, in spite of the horror of the disease process, and the effects of the chemotherapy. Through serving her, I learned to truly love her. I would never wish such an experience on anybody else, but I can say that I am glad to have been through that with her. It changed my life in ways I'm still discovering, all these years later.

Norma had good days, and bad days, but the last six months of her life were mostly the latter. She deteriorated rapidly, and by the end of the summer of 2009, she was unable to participate in any meaningful way with her family. She had a daughter with severe disabilities, brought on by a brain tumor at the age of nine, and Norma had been her primary caretaker for 50 years. Her husband, my father-in-law, was also dependent upon Norma's ministrations. Their marriage was very traditional: husband worked to support the family, wife did everything else. Everything. She was the cook and housekeeper in every sense of the word. The daily grind laid upon her shoulders was heavy, but she bore it well, in the manner of women from her generation, without complaint. It was her lot in life, as she saw it, and she cheerfully went about the business of making life happen for those in her care. Until cancer stepped in, and put a stop to it. Then she had to lay the burden down, to the dismay of those who had so depended on her. They were unable to face her impending death, and were unable to allow her to accept that it was inevitable. Her husband told her once that choosing hospice was suicide. Ouch.

So, because they were unable to accept what was happening, she chose to keep fighting. Keep going for chemotherapy. Keep allowing the doctor to pump poison into her veins. Keep watching her life seep out through her pores. Keep smiling in spite of the loss of dignity, and the complete inability to care for herself, let alone others. I saw it as part of my job to make sure that she understood the options available to her, but I didn't think it was my place to make her choices for her. She had to be the one to call the game, end the torture. And, finally, she did. She had had a particularly rough day, and her husband had asked me, in despair, "How do you do what you do?" I just shrugged, and proceeded to bath her emaciated body as tenderly as I could. I could do it because I loved her. But, I told my husband that night (in a private conversation) that I could no longer sanction the continuation of chemotherapy by taking her to her appointments. If he, his siblings, and their father wanted it to continue, they were going to have to step up and take some responsibility for it. I could no longer take her into the doctor's office so they could inject her with the poison that was taking her life, and leaving an empty shell. However, the next day, before anybody else had a chance to make a decision, Norma spoke up, and she chose to be done. She looked me in the eyes, and said, "It's time. Call hospice." Hearing those words, I took control of the situation, and I made the necessary calls. With her permission, I stood between her and those who couldn't let her go, and I grabbed for her what dignity remained within reach. I didn't take my job lightly, but she had made her choice, and I was going to see to it that it was honored.

Once hospice stepped in, it took five long, agonizing weeks before she finally died. I was there at the end, standing at her bedside, watching as she drew her last breath, and the hospice nurse declared that her heart was no longer beating. I waited expectantly for some sign, some communication from Norma that she had made it safely to the other side. Some feeling, as I'd heard others express in similar situations, that the death had been attended to by otherworldly beings. Nothing. I felt nothing. She was just gone. What remained was an empty shell, just the flesh and blood remains of what had once been my mother-in-law. She was no more. I was sad, of course, but I also felt some small measure of satisfaction that I had done what needed to be done to release her from the agony that had become her life. I had stood up to those who lovingly insisted that she stay with them, without regards for her health, or her wishes. I loved her too, and would have liked nothing more than to have her stay here with us forever, but, as that wasn't possible, I take pride in the fact that I made sure she got what she really needed in the end.

Norma died in December of 2009. Just over a year later, our beloved yellow lab, almost 13-years-old, became feeble, and too weak to climb the deck stairs. It happened seemingly overnight, so we took her to the vet for a check-up. She had been limping, and favoring her left shoulder, so it was x-rayed to determine the problem. What the x-ray revealed was extensive cancer that had invaded her lungs, and it was so invasive that there was no way to determine the original site. There wasn't any other choice but to put her out of her misery. Libby was just a dog, just a pet, but she had been with us for so long that she was every bit as much a member of the family as I was. And the kids liked her more. It was a very painful decision, but, as I said to the kids when they questioned me, "How are you going to explain to a dog the side effects of chemotherapy? That the chemo will possibly, maybe, but probably not, save her life, but will more likely just prolong it, and make it miserable in the process?" They pointed out that Grandma's life had been prolonged by another 3 years after the diagnosis; why couldn't we do that for Libby? I reminded them of the hell that had become their beloved Grandma's life; was that what they wished for Libby? Of course not, they said. It was just heart-wrenching to have to say goodbye to their dog, their playmate.

The responsibility of that decision seemed to rest squarely on my shoulders. Everybody, hubby included, looked to me for confirmation that we were making the right choice. I questioned myself a few times, but the memory of what my mother-in-law had endured was fresh, and I couldn't see any other option than to put the poor dog out of her misery. We chose the following Saturday morning, the day before Easter, to have the vet come to the house and perform the procedure. It was a somber occasion, and we all walked around in a tearful daze. We went out and sat on the back lawn, waiting for the vet, and watched the dog limp around, wandering from house to canal, sniffing her old haunts. Crying, each of us of taking turns sobbing uncontrollably, petting the dog obsessively whenever she was within reach. I can remember clearly the details of that spring morning, the bright blue sky overhead, and the songbirds in the nearby trees. I can even still feel the damp grass underneath my knees as I knelt beside the dog.

The vet finally arrived, and proceeded to place an intravenous catheter in Libby's paw. Once that was done, she paused, and told us it was time to say goodbye. We were sitting in a circle, with Libby in the center, petting her fur and telling her through tears how much we loved her, and how much we would miss her. I remember noticing that the birds had stopped singing; I think our grief was so loud, we scared them. As the vet injected the heart-stopping drug, Libby turned her head to look at me. I had been feeling the tremendous weight of this decision all week, and it had intensified in that moment. Libby looked right into my eyes, and held my gaze until the light went out. Those beautiful brown eyes closed for the last time, and she dropped her head into Alix's lap. I know, in my rational mind, that she was just a dog, just a dumb animal, but I felt, in that last moment, that she was forgiving me for the events I had set in motion, and thanking me for insisting that we let her go. It was one of the most meaningful moments of my entire life, and, even now, I am moved to tears at the memory.

A few weeks after Libby died, I was sitting in an Adirondack chair on the front porch, visiting with a friend, enjoying a lovely summer evening. I happened to glance over at the table that sat between the chairs, and noticed a medium-sized, black spider slowly crawling along the edge. Hubby was standing nearby, and I said, with some alarm, "Honey! Kill that spider! It's creepy!" He ambled over, peered down at the spider, and said, "Spider! You, having been deemed creepy by my wife, have hereby been sentenced to die!" And he smashed it. Smashed that sucker flat. And I had a very unexpected reaction: I burst into tears. I had been the one to sentence the spider to death, and for what? Being a spider? A creepy one, sure, but still. I had held in my hand this creature's life, for a brief moment, and I had cavalierly decided its fate. It died, because I felt threatened by its creepy existence. I had taken upon myself the responsibility to determine another living being's fate, and I had taken it lightly. And it was too much. It was just too much.

It had been me who had taken steps to honor Norma's wishes, and it had been me who had decided to end Libby's life. And it was me who decided that a measly spider was too creepy to live. Life, in all its carnations, is sacred, and should be cherished. I know, I know! It was just a spider! And they're still creepy, and crawly, and, to be honest, if I were facing down a spider with an ominous red hourglass marking on its belly, I just might have to rethink my position regarding the sanctity of life. However, until then, I'm done playing God. I have no way of knowing where all these deceased loved ones, and creepy things, have gone, no way of knowing if they have gone anywhere at all; therefore, I'm through playing judge and jury. Creepy things, crawly things, rabid squirrels, all are safe within my presence. Except maybe for the squirrels. I'm not stupid, after all.