Sunday, December 16, 2012

CTR (or, as Grace would say, cuh-tuh-err)

It's been almost three years since I came out. As an unbeliever, that is. I don't mean to hijack the phrase from a group of people for whom it has deep meaning, but there are parallels. Telling the people closest to you that you aren't who they always thought you were, whether straight or religious, is painful, and potentially life altering. Looking into my husband's eyes, and revealing to him that I did not believe what he believes, felt to him (as he told me later) like I was asking for a spiritual divorce. The eternity he had envisioned for us disappeared in an instant, and he was left trying to figure out who we were without our joint Mormon identity. No easy task.

We had many emotional, painful conversations over the next few months. He pleaded with me to endure to the end, to pray more, to read my scriptures as I'd been commanded. He struggled to understand how I could not believe what was so clearly true to him. How we could look at the same evidence, and come to completely different, and opposing, conclusions. How I could contemplate giving up my eternal glory with him and our future spirit children for the sake of 'authenticity'. He even wondered if our marriage could survive my change of heart. He thought since I'd changed my mind about the church, I might change my mind about him. Once he spoke those words out loud, I quickly put to rest that notion. I didn't change my mind about the church; I simply allowed myself to accept what I'd deep down suspected, that I wasn't a believer, not in any religion, and I had no desire to worship deity of any kind. With that acceptance came peace, the first real, true peace I'd ever felt, and it resonated deeply within my heart.

I had no intention of changing my mind about him. Marrying my husband was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Maybe the best. He is home to me. He is the calm at the center of my stormy life. He stills my soul. He provides a peaceful place to rest when all about me swirls frantically out of control. When the world is just too much. When I don't think I can tolerate another tragic news story, or crappy day at work, or disrespectful child. Whatever comes my way, I can take it, so long as I have him to lean on. He is my rock.

I'm still not sure what he is getting out of this relationship. Sex? Yeah, but I'm not convinced that what he is currently getting is enough to put up with the crazy. I'm not sure if any amount would compensate! So, why does he stick around? It's a puzzle to me, but he assures me that he loves me, is still in love with me, and wants to be with me forever. Whatever forever means. But, I think it took awhile for him to reach that conclusion. I made sure to express my love and appreciation for him frequently and fervently, and I tried to show him through my actions that I still valued our marriage. And we briefly consulted a counselor. I wanted Daron to hear me say some difficult things, with a third party present to soften the blow, and I needed him to know that this wasn't a mid-life crisis, or a passing phase. And, slowly, he seemed to get the message.

His heart attack, in the middle of that first year, served as a catalyst for both of us to re-evaluate our priorities, and to determine what mattered more: shared religious beliefs, or the bond we'd forged through two decades of married life. Yes, we married each other partly because we'd found someone who presumably shared our faith, someone worthy to marry in the temple, someone who wanted to raise a family in the gospel. Those things were all factors in our desire to be together. But, there was more to our relationship than the common bond of church. From the beginning, he was my best friend, the one person I most wanted to see first thing every morning, and the last one I wanted to talk to every night. And I know he felt the same way about me. I don't pretend to understand mortality or eternity, what came before this life or what will follow it, but I do feel very strongly that Daron and I were meant to be together for this period of time, and that has not changed. Not even a little.

After that first year, Daron seemed to find some peace regarding my religious leanings. I'm not sure exactly what it was that changed in him, but he came to accept me as I am, not as he'd like me to be. When asked by the counselor how he was able to make this work, as a change of faith seems to be a dealbreaker in many marriages, his response was that he believed in a loving, kind God, one who would not punish him for loving his wife by sentencing him to an eternity without her. And he said, and I quote, "I'd rather go to hell with Verlyne than to heaven with anyone else." Pretty awesome words. Pretty awesome man.

So, when all was said and done, he chose me. He chose our life together, imperfect as it is, rather than start over with someone else, someone who might see eternity as he sees it. He chose to support me as I've questioned some of our deeply held religious and moral convictions, even holding my hand as I got my first tattoo. A tattoo he helped design. Which, incidentally, is a four-leaf clover with the word 'lucky' in the center, placed over my heart, chosen as a symbol of our life together, which started on St. Patrick's Day, 1989. And I feel 'lucky' that he chose me. And that he continues to choose me. Lucky. Yep, that's me. Lucky.

Today, December 16, 2012, is an auspicious day for Mormon Feminists. It is "Wear Pants to Church" day. This event was created to give Mormon women, those who struggle with patriarchy, a place to begin a dialogue that many hope will lead to greater equality within the church. All that has led up to this day, and the many reasons it is needed, would take more words than I have to spare in explanation. I have stated my feelings on patriarchy elsewhere in this blog; suffice it to say that it was the last nail in the coffin that held my testimony. I walked away from the church, and all it represents, and have not looked back. No regrets. I can identify with those women, my sisters, who stay and hope for change within the ranks, but for me, it is done.

That being said, I have struggled this week as I have contemplated returning to church, wearing pants, showing solidarity with my sisters in their struggle to be heard, to have their pain acknowledged. Many of the women who have spoken out on facebook, and through other social media, I consider to be my friends. Women who love the church, who believe it to be the church of Jesus Christ himself, a divine institution led by their Savior. Women who know it isn't all it could be, as long as it continues to deny women the voice they believe their God intends them to have. I love these women, and I want them to see their hopes fulfilled. I want them to have what they want, what they need, to assume their rightful place next to men of God. As women of God, divinely inspired to lead and govern with all the power available to their male counterparts.

But as much as I want to support my sisters, two things hold me back. First of all, I do not share their testimony of the church. For me, patriarchy is a clear indication that religion is man-made, and simply reflects the greater society. And the social mores of the mid-nineteenth century, when the Mormon church got it's start, dictated that women assume a secondary role. So, even if the church decided to level the playing field and allow women to serve alongside the men, (truly alongside them, not presided over by them), it wouldn't change anything for me. It wouldn't make the church any more true. As a non-believer, I'm afraid that my support will not lend credence to their cause.

My other reason for staying home today: my husband. He has lovingly supported me as I have looked for answers to life's big questions. And he has continued to stand by me in spite of the fact that I have found my answers outside of his chosen faith. As stated above, he chose me. So, today, I choose him. I choose not to enter the sacred space he has carved out for himself to worship his Savior in peace. I choose not to make his pew a place to make my stand. I choose not to call unwelcome attention to him and our still-active children, to place them on the radar of those who would punish them for loving me. I have made my exit quietly, without fanfare, out of respect for them and their desire to worship how, where, and what they may. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience reenter their world in protest, even though my decision to stay home hurts a cause I believe in. Hurts women I love and respect.

My thoughts have turned frequently today to the many sisters who chose to worship clothed in their 'Sunday best' pants. I truly hope they get what they most want, and indeed deserve. But I'll have to be content to support them from the vantage point of the unbeliever, and hope they'll understand my decision. And support my choice, as I support theirs. Long live Pantsapalooza 2012!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

God moves in mysterious ways. . .

Gracie was slow to dress this morning, as is usual for her, and Daron had to meet someone at church before the meeting, so it fell to me to run her over as soon as she was ready. As I pulled into the parking lot (hoping that no one would notice that I was still in my jammies!), I saw happy, peppy people exiting their cars and heading into the building. I thought to myself how glad I was not to be joining them for yet another boring church meeting, and I felt a little sorry for those poor souls who can't get out of it as easily as I do. Because nobody likes church, right? They aren't really as happy as they look; they were just putting on their 'happy' faces and faking it, because that's what we do, right? Right?

But then a memory hit me. I remembered walking into our last ward building before a meeting, and I remembered the feeling of anticipation as I contemplated joining my fellow saints and ward members in worship. Happy anticipation.

I used to enjoy going to church. Most of the time, anyway. I enjoyed seeing my friends and neighbors, greeting them and being greeted. I loved the feeling of community, the idea that we were in this together. They were like family to me, and I felt a sense of belonging that kept me coming back, week after week. It wasn't fake, or shallow. It was real happiness, and real friendship. Real love for my fellow ward members. Real joy at sitting with them and worshiping our God together. It was real, and this morning I remembered, and I missed it.

About a year after Daron and I were married, we moved into our first house together. The local ward was well-established, full of people who had lived in the area for years, many of whom remembered Daron from his childhood, as we were not far from where he had grown up. They were what would be called 'stalwart' in the church, steady and faithful. Unquestioning believers. Salt-of-the-earth. The kind of people who were frequently called to serve on the stake level, and at the university in the bishoprics of student wards. People who lived the gospel as it should be lived. They were kind, accepting, warm, generous, Christ-like. A lot like my parents. And I fell in love with that ward.

It took a bit of time, about 2 years, before I felt like I was part of the ward. My first real calling was as secretary of the Young Women's organization, then shortly after that I was called to be the Primary president, and that solidified my place amongst my peers. I was one of them, one of the leaders, steady and faithful. At least in their eyes. There was a part of me that resented the notion that, as a ward 'leader', I was more acceptable in their eyes than I'd been previously. But mostly, I was just glad to be a part of things, to be able to participate on that level with people I respected so much. I had found my place amongst spiritual giants, in a celestial ward. And it truly was a 'celestial' ward. There were many people from throughout the stake who referred to us that way. We were known for our inclusiveness, our genuine love for one another, our ability to gather any and all within our ward boundaries to join with us for meetings and activities. There were a few non-members who lived within the neighborhood who were faithful attendees at our frequent ward parties, and who occasionally joined us on Sundays. My memories of that ward might be a little too golden to be accurate, but the point is, I was very fond of that ward, and my time there was a happy time.

Until it wasn't. I've already written of a time when I doubted the truthfulness of the church, and the efforts I made to choose to believe. And the fact that I lived in a ward with so many true friends made that choice easier to bear. I could push my doubts aside because the fruits of my faithful attendance were so sweet. I had a ward family, they loved and accepted me, and that was enough, most of the time.

The house we lived in during that time was not my favorite house. The floor plan was awkward, and the neighborhood was comprised of a gas station, the school district office, the fire station, a group of apartments that tended to attract beer-guzzling, condom-wearing tenants (we know this because occasionally these items would be thrown over the fence into our backyard), and a few scattered houses. My husband liked the neighborhood, as it fit his need for social isolation. I, on the other hand, have always needed and loved neighbors. I'm very social, and very outgoing. (Incidentally, my husband's dream home would be nestled back in the foothills of the Tetons, with only wolves and pine trees for neighbors. I would be delighted to live in downtown Manhattan. Somehow, we have managed to stay together in spite of our differences, mostly because my husband loves me and wants me to be happy. Bless him. He's a good egg.)

Our house was on a street that divided the two main neighborhoods of our ward. I longed to live in one of those neighborhoods, and I went through every house in either area that went on the market while we lived there. But, my husband found something wrong with each house, some reason it was unsuitable. He liked our house, and the street it sat on, and he made plans to remodel it to fit our growing family's needs. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with house plans, daydreaming about living in a house with a more workable floor plan, and neighbors on both sides. I dreamed of living in a neighborhood, similar to the one I'd grown up in. A place where my kids could just run outside and find playmates, where they would be able to frolic without the danger of fire engines, beer cans, or condoms. A place where I could run next door to borrow a cup of sugar, or visit with neighbors while I weeded the flower garden. (That last part was definately dreamland material, as I didn't then, nor do I now have a green thumb. But, if one is going to dream, one might as well dream big, right?)

We lived relatively happily in that house for several years, and I figured, based on my husband's attitude, we'd live there until our dying day (yes, we are going together!). But my husband, being the sensitive, kind soul that he is, sensed my restlessness and desire to move. Not so much sensed, really, as heard me whine, complain, and downright bitch about the house and the neighborhood. I've never been one to suffer in silence. So, one day soon after the birth of our last child, he took me out for a drive, and we stopped at a house he'd been eyeing that was for sale. He took me into the house, where his parents and a real estate agent were waiting for me, to discuss the possibility of buying said house. I was floored. Yes, I'd been vocal about my dislike of our house, but he had never said anything that had given me the slightest indication that he would ever in a million years be willing to move. But he had been listening to me over the years, and he really did want me to be happy, and he knew that I wasn't happy there. And most likely never would be.

The house we were interested in was already under contract at the time, unbeknownst to us. We put in an offer as well, and waited to see whether the original contract would fall through. (We really aren't so heartless as to wish for someone else's plan to fail, but there were conditions on that contract that made it less likely to be honored.) This took several months, and throughout that time we continued looking at houses. I really, really wanted to find something within our current ward boundaries, as I did not want to leave my beloved friends and ward family. There weren't many options, however, as my husband rejected any of the existing homes that were available. There was a small tract of land within our ward that was finally subdivided, and 1/3 acre plots went on the market. There was a corner lot that seemed perfect for us. We had decided that the best way to meet our family's needs would be to build something ourselves, and here was the opportunity to do that, and stay in our ward. It felt heaven-sent.

The house we'd originally wanted finally went to the first offer. I wasn't upset, as I figured that God would not put something I wanted so desperately in my path just to taunt me, only to yank it away from my grasp. I believed something equally as good, or better, would find it's way to us. And then we found the corner lot. We were elated, and started to make plans to build our home. The day we signed the papers to make our purchase official, however, I felt uneasy. I called Daron and told him that I didn't feel okay with this purchase, and I wanted to wait. He was so excited though, and convinced me that it would be okay to go ahead and buy the land; even if we didn't end up building on it, land was always a good purchase. So we signed the paperwork, and the lot was ours. We began to design our house, looking at floor plans we liked, tweaking them to meet our specific needs. But, I still felt restless, not 100% sure that we were doing the right thing.

Unbeknownst to me, Daron had continued to look around our community at property for sale. He really is very much in tune with me, and, though I tried to be excited about building a house on our new lot, he knew how I was feeling. He's just so good at reading me. Plus, as stated, I share my feelings. A lot. Overshare, probably.

So, one day in 2002, Daron asked me to take a drive with him. We went to a neighborhood a couple of blocks away, outside our ward boundaries, where he stopped outside a newly constructed house that was for sale. We went inside and met with the builder. It was a nice house, but very small, and I was confused as to why my husband thought it might be the right house for us. As we finished our conversation with the builder, my husband asked if I'd like to live in that neighborhood. I hesitantly said yes. I didn't want that house, but I did like the neighborhood. Very much, in fact. It turns out that there was one lot left, in a cul-de-sac, that the builder was looking to unload. We walked down to take a closer look at it, and it felt like home. It was just what I'd imagined my neighborhood should look like. Houses on either side, bikes on the sidewalk where they'd been abandoned by their young owners, dogs barking in the distance. A view on either side of the mountains that ring our valley. I think I cried. And I said yes, I want to live in this neighborhood.

So, we bought the new lot, and eventually were able to re-sell the other one, the one in the celestial ward. The one I thought God had hand-picked for me. The one I knew was not the right place for me. And we began to construct our new home.

Building a new home is a lot of work, and a lot of fun. And a lot of work. But it was exciting, and I looked forward to meeting my new neighbors and my new ward. Breaking the news to my old ward was hard, but people are always moving on, and my friends were happy for me. I had mixed feelings. I had been trying so hard to maintain my testimony, but there were days when I wondered if maybe a new start might not be just what I needed. A new ward where I would have opportunities to grow in different directions. I didn't want to leave, but I discovered that, underneath that desire to stay, was a longing to break free. From what, I wasn't sure. But I was excited. And I was confident in my ability to make new friends, and make for myself a niche in my new ward. I'd done it before, I could do it again.

Around this time, the mother of one of my current ward friends came to their baby blessing. She had at one time been in my mother-in-law's ward, and I had met her a few times. She was, and is, one of those rare individuals who could probably make the devil want to be good. She's a very loving, kind, sincere person, the embodiment of a saint. We visited for a minute in the parking lot, and she asked about our plans for our new home. She mentioned how much she loved my ward, calling it a celestial ward, remarking that, while she loved her own ward, she felt that my ward was truly a heavenly place to be, and that, if she could, she'd move just so she could be in my ward. She then asked where we were moving, and I told her, "Into your ward." She was silent for a moment, looking like she'd swallowed her tongue, then tried to backpedal and tell me what a great ward we'd be moving into. Too late; she'd already told me that her ward was not a particularly friendly ward. I can't remember the words she used, but she made it very clear that she much preferred my ward. And I remember thinking to myself, "It will be okay. I'm friendly and out-going. I can make friends with anyone." I really believed that. And I was at peace with our decision to move. It felt right. I didn't have any misgivings. I felt God had led us to our new home.

The time finally came to move. It had been a a difficult time, as our old ward knew we were moving so we had been released from our callings. It felt like we had already moved on, and were just visitors in the ward each Sunday. Our first few weeks in the new ward were somewhat exciting, being the new family, greeted by a few ward members who introduced themselves. But then the excitement wore off. And we became bench warmers. There were many Sundays when nobody talked to us, or asked how we were doing. Many Sundays, I would leave the ward building without anyone even saying my name. It was weird to me. And it isn't because I didn't try. I am truly an extrovert, and I went each week with an open, friendly spirit. I smiled at those I passed, I asked, "How are you?" I attempted conversations with others. But they were always rushing off to teach something, or to get the front seat in Sunday School, or to calm a crying child. I had never felt so invisible.

This was a new experience for me. I was always popular in school, due in no small part to my inability to be quiet for long. I'm a smart-alecky, sarcastic, loud-mouthed, funny, fun-loving girl. And people are usually drawn to that. (I'm not really all puffed up with pride, I'm just acknowledging the personality I was born with, one that has generally been a positive thing.) But, for some reason, I just couldn't make friends in my new ward. After a few years, I was called into the Relief Society presidency, which provided a great way to meet people. And I did meet, and get to know, some really great people. But it wasn't the same as my previous ward. I still didn't feel like I was worshipping with family. I didn't feel like I belonged. I didn't have the social connection that made my doubts seem insignificant. And so, much to my dismay, my doubts grew. My depression grew. And my anxiety grew.

There will be many people, I have no doubt, who will read this and assume that I left because I was offended, that I didn't feel loved enough, that I didn't get that sense of belonging I needed. Boo-hoo, woe is me. So I left to go eat worms. (Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms. . . my parents recited that little ditty to us frequently when we complained about our social status. And it usually could make me laugh and get over myself!) I see this situation a little differently than those naysayers. I think God led me to this place, because God, whoever He or She is, knew that this was what I needed. I needed the space to leave, and I would never have found it amongst so much love. I needed to not belong, so that I would be compelled to find myself. To discover who I really am, and what I really believe. And being the social extrovert that I am, I never would have been able to break free from the bonds I had formed with my fellow saints, had I not been forced to it by loneliness.

I believe that I was led to my new home, by whatever force is at work in the universe, because it was time for me to get in touch with my center. To figure out that while I love religious people, I do not love religion. I do not love church. But I could never have acknowledged that to myself, or my community, had I not come to this place where I had little to no social connections. I was finally at peace with our decision to move when we found this particular lot, in this particular ward. And I have finally found peace within myself now that I am not bound by friendship to my ward family. I have no deep connections here, beyond a couple of people who I can and do still see outside of church, so I have been allowed to walk away. And that is exactly what I needed to do.

Mormonism does community very well. And the people who are active in that community generally find happiness there. I would never argue that they should leave, or that it isn't 'true' for them. But, for me, community wasn't enough. For me, it isn't 'true', and I don't believe I would ever have found the peace I sought within the bounds of a religious community. I am finally in the right place, at the right time. I am at peace. It is well with my soul.

Monday, October 22, 2012

For Karen. . .

Hey, Karen, guess what? You get your own blog post! This one's for you! . . .

Imagine my delight at opening my email inbox today, and receiving not one, not two, not even three, but four new comments on my blog today. I was excited, thinking maybe someone had read what I'd written, and wanted to let me know they'd been touched by it. It's happened before! Honestly! But, sigh. . . not today. Each response was from just one person: my new friend, Karen. And each one was a recitation of all the ways in which I was wrong on that day's topic.

My first inclination was to respond to each comment, point by point, and explain what you'd failed to see in the original post. To refute your criticisms. To defend myself and my hard-won positions. And then I realized the futility in such an effort. Because I realized, Karen, that you haven't come here to engage me in enlightening dialogue because you're interested in my viewpoint and perspective. You want only to point out where I am wrong, and to bolster your own views by tearing down mine. As I pointed out once before, you seem much more interested in confrontation than conversation.

Karen, you have expressed yourself in a most articulate manner. Your faith seems to be well thought out, and your testimony well grounded intellectually. You obviously are committed to the church, and seem to have spent considerable time studying the gospel. But, I think maybe you have missed the point. Granted, this is only my opinion, but you don't seem to be communicating from the heart, with love and compassion for your fellow man (or woman). Your comments feel condescending, written only to point out the flaws in my arguments, not with any attempt at truly understanding where I'm coming from. In other words, I feel attacked and condemned. Misunderstood. Misjudged. Is this how I've made you feel in my posts? And I ask that question in all sincerity, as I'd hate to think I've made you feel a smidgeon of what I'm feeling. If that is the case, I'm sorry. I am truly sorry.

Karen, you said that your sister-in-law has also left the church, and has said many of the same things I've posted. And I think maybe you are reacting to that situation much more than to my writings. Are you perhaps scared, fearful for her soul, and sorry for her family's loss? I understand those feelings. But maybe you would be better served addressing those concerns with her, and not here, where it does little good. Maybe it's time for a conversation with your sister-in-law. And keep in mind the admonition to seek first to understand, then to be understood. That's what we all want, isn't it? To be understood, and then loved, in spite of our flaws.

Yes, Karen, I am flawed. Deeply so. And I admit that I could be, and in fact probably am, wrong on so many things, in so many ways. I blame it on the human condition. I try to stay open to new ways of looking at life, and the meaning of our existance. But, like you, I have also spent considerable time considering my positions, and my beliefs. Many years, in fact. And I came to the conclusion that, for me, religion does not have satisfactory answers. I have found the peace I seek outside of the Mormon faith; in fact, outside of Christianity. I never anticipated finding myself here, but here is where I am. And I like it. It doesn't feel dark and lonely. I don't think I am under the influence of Satan. I feel happy, lighter, peaceful. And I'd really like to know, Karen, why my feelings are less valid than yours, that the church, and the gospel, are true? How can you be so sure that what I feel, what I've experienced, comes from a dark and evil source? Why are you so convinced that I've been deceived by Satan? Why can't you admit the possibility that I'm okay where I am, and that I'm right before God?

I made a decision early on that I wouldn't debate believing members of the church, for several reasons. Mostly, because I have no desire to win converts to my way of thinking. I have no desire to convince you, or anyone else, that I'm right and you're wrong. I have absolutely no intention of swaying anybody toward my way of thinking concerning religion. I'm of the opinion that we are each entitled to believe what makes sense to us, what leads us to peace, and what inspires us to make the world a better place. And believe me when I tell you that I have found all of that outside of the Mormon church. Of course, you don't believe me, and you won't, no matter how eloquent my argument. And that will have to be okay. I can't convince you that there is any validity to my views. We will have to agree to disagree.

Which brings me to another reason I don't debate believing members, such as yourself. These conversations rarely bring understanding. Neither party walks away feeling better about the other. It's a no-win situation. For that reason, maybe it's time for you to walk away. Maybe it's time for you to go back to your life and focus on how the gospel of Jesus Christ can penetrate your heart and bring peace to your soul. Maybe you can take a little of what I have said to heart, and look for ways to connect with your sister-in-law, outside of religion, and maybe reach a different understanding of her. Just think of the difference you could make in her life if you reached out to her with a desire to understand rather than to convince. Maybe you could be friends. Imagine the pain and loneliness you could alleviate just by loving her. Without judgement. Without condescension. Just love, Karen. You can do that, can't you?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

To be continued. . .

I've struggled to keep up with this blog, for a variety of reasons. The biggest being my dislike of feeling 'vulnerable'. The idea of putting my thoughts and experiences out there for strangers to see, as well as family and friends, makes me anxious. I fear not being good enough. I fear that I won't be able to express myself well enough to be understood. And I fear that my feelings will not be respected, but mocked instead. I've tried to keep in mind my reasons for writing in the first place, my original intention of telling my story, in my words, for my posterity. But the praise I've received for my writing gets in the way, and my ego gets involved, and I develop writer's block from the anxiety, and months go by without a word from my pen (or computer!). And I get more anxious. Arghhhhhh. . . . I need to push through the anxiety and vulnerability, and just be. Because it's not about you, and it's not about me. It's about the story. It's about the journey.

I was born of goodly parents. Isn't that how most Mormon stories begin? Good, kind, earnest people, who wanted only to live according to God's plan. And to bring their offspring along for the ride, kicking and screaming if need be. My parents both suffered difficult childhoods, with alcohol and abuse playing a big role. They were both descended from original Mormon pioneers, but their own parents were not particular about following the plan, and my parents both learned at an early age the lesson that church = stability. Relatives who had fallen by the wayside suffered a variety of social ills, and their lives generally did not end well. My parents decided that they would hold tight to the iron rod, and benefit from the safety of the fold. They married in the temple when my mom was 17, my dad 21. And to my knowledge, neither has experienced any doubts about the path they chose to follow.

My family was the quintessential Mormon family of the sixties and seventies. If there was a meeting, we were there. A potluck dinner, a cannery assignment, a temple trip, we attended them all. Attendance was so important to my parents that I can remember a Sunday when I'd been throwing up all morning, and they left me on the couch by myself while they attended Sunday School. I was 10. I needed and wanted my mom to be with me, but it was Sunday, and church came first. Always. My older brother fell head first off his bike one Sunday, and after taking him to have his face stitched back together, my parents went to sacrament meeting. They weren't cold and heartless, they were just faithful and active. They were Mormon to the core, testimony-bearing, tithe-paying, temple-attending, hymn-singing, faithful Latter-Day-Saints. To this day, I don't think either one of them has turned down a calling. Saying no has never been an option. They believe the church to be headed by Christ himself, and the prophets and apostles are His voice to His people. And that extends all the way down to the local leaders, so when the Bishop extends a call for service, it's as if the Lord has spoken. My parents are true believers.

Being raised by such righteous, gospel-loving, church-attending folks should have led to a testimony of my own. And that notion has led to one of the great puzzles of my life. Why couldn't I believe as they did, immersed in it as I was? Why was it not as simple for me as it was for them? Granted, I don't know for sure that they have never doubted, but they have certainly never given voice to any uncertainty about the church. And it was expected of us, their children, that we would follow in their footsteps and continue faithful, as they have. Alas, as it stands currently, their offspring are at 50% and falling.

There are eight children in my family. Two older brothers preceded me, then five more boys followed. I'm the only girl. Three of those younger brothers left the church in their early twenties, soon after each returned from serving a mission. In talking with them since my own disaffection, the reasons they gave for becoming inactive was a combination of laziness, the desire to sin (that old devil, alcohol!), and a general inability to convince themselves to believe in the truthfulness of the church. Their falling away was very painful for my parents, especially my mother, who internalized the saying, "No success can compensate for failure in the home". In her mind, she had failed with these sons. If she had done a better job, been a better example, loved them more, they would have continued faithful. I heard her say on several occasions, "Where did I go wrong?" She agonized over their apostasy, cried many tears, doubled down on her efforts to strengthen her own testimony. She expressed to me her heartbreak that her family might not be together in the next life, and found some comfort in the teachings of past prophets who said that children who have been sealed to their parents in the temple will not be lost, but are bound to faithful parents. I personally find this teaching to be manipulative and slightly creepy, and in blatant violation of one of the basic tenets of the religion, the agency to choose. But, to my mother, it is hopeful. And I understand her need to cling to hope when faced with her sons willful rejection of religion, at least as she sees it.

I also have an older brother who left the church for several years during his young adulthood. He came back in his late twenties, a joyous occasion for my parents. He has proved to be one of the most stalwart of the bunch, but the particulars of his story are unknown to me as he and I don't share details of our lives with one another. We are content to be siblings who get along for the sake of our mother, nothing more. I suspect that if he were aware of my current religious leanings, he would be less than accepting, judging by his generally self-righteous, condescending personality. No love lost there! ;)

As a child, I remember sitting on the pew with my mom and brothers, my dad on the stand serving as a member of the bishopric, struggling to maintain any level of interest in the proceedings. Church was, and is, boring. And I frequently felt my mother's fingers pinching the tender skin on the underside of my arm in an effort to bring my attention back to the service. It worked momentarily, then my mind would wander again, or I would pester one of my siblings, or be pestered, or find some other way to pass the time. I was never very moved by what was being said, or the tears shed in the bearing of a testimony, though I always enjoyed some of the wackier stories told by the few regulars we could count on feeling the spirit and desiring to share. I remember once, a friend and I put Vick's Vaporub underneath our eyes to make them water, and we pretended to be moved to tears by the sharing and bearing of testimonies. The only draw church had for me was social. I loved seeing my friends, sitting with them rather than my family once I became a teenager (this was not discouraged back in the good 'ol days), giggling at the boys, passing notes, mocking our elders. But the spirit never testified to me that what was going on around me was 'true', or that it had any value beyond the fun of hanging out with my peers. And that didn't worry me as a youngster. Maybe it was a clue of things to come.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bright Colored Packages Tied Up With String.....

I married a really great guy, one who adores me and wants nothing more than to make me happy. But, he is a terrible gift giver. For our first Christmas after we were married, he knew that I needed a new purse, and he knew that I liked the color red, so he bought me what basically amounted to a red briefcase. When I opened it, I got a lesson in diplomacy as I tried to keep the dismay off my face. What was I going to do with a red briefcase? Sling it over my shoulder, of course, and head off to work. I loved my new husband, and I didn't want him to feel bad about his gift, and I figured if I used it for a few months, I could then go shopping for something that I liked. Which is what I did. But I learned that I needed to give him specifics as each gift-giving occasion rolled around, so as to avoid such awkwardness in the future.

A few years later, as my birthday approached, I'd seen a picture on the wall in Deseret Book that I thought would look really nice in my kitchen. I described it in detail to my husband, telling him that it was a shadow box of a vase full of sunflowers, with a saying about making a house a home, and that it was hanging right behind the check-out counter. On the day of my birthday, he came home with a wrapped box that looked much too big to be the picture I'd described, but I thought maybe the store hadn't had an appropriately sized box in which to wrap it. Imagine my surprise upon opening it to find a framed picture of a poem about sisters. I have no sisters. I looked up to see his red face, chagrin written all over it, and his apology, "I couldn't remember which one you wanted, so I just pointed to the wall and said 'that one', as I knew you could exchange it for the one you really wanted!" I realized in this moment that my guy would require much, much more detailed instructions in the future. In fact, I've since started buying my own gifts and giving them to him with instructions to wrap them in advance of the intended occasion. Sometimes this works, and sometimes I've been handed a plastic bag with the gift and receipt still inside, just as they were when I handed them over to him. He tries, I know he tries. And because he shows his love in so many other ways on a daily basis, he gets a pass in the gift-giving department.

Gifts have been on my mind a lot lately. Not the gaily wrapped-in-pretty-paper-with-a-bow variety, but gifts of the spirit. Those gifts we are each given upon birth, that help us navigate mortality successfully and return to the home of our spirits, wherever that may be. I'm not sure anymore of the identity of the gift-giver, but I'm convinced that we, every last one of us, has been the recipient of spiritual gifts of infinite variety. And that one of our tasks here is to discover the nature of those gifts, and use them to further the cause of humanity. Not an easy task, at least for me.

Many years ago, in 1999 to be exact, I had decided, during one of my many crises of faith, that I was done with church. I was tired, soul-weary, and exhausted from the many battles I'd fought with myself in my quest to 'know' the truth of the gospel. I gave myself permission to take a break from attending, but I had determined that a condition of that break was that I would study the scriptures during those hours I would have spent in church, and once more seek a testimony that the church was true. So, I got my family off to worship, and I settled in with my big book of scripture, ready to be enlightened by the spirit.

One Sunday, I found myself in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 46, where verses 11, 13, and 14 seemed to leap out at me. "For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God..... To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful."

I felt something when I read this, an answer for me, maybe? I knew that my husband 'knew' that the church and gospel were true, and I'd been envious of his knowledge many times before. So, maybe that was his gift, to 'know'? The following verse, about believing on their words, the words of those who 'know', spoke to me, and I determined in that moment that I would have that gift. I would believe on his words. I could, and would, choose to believe. He 'knew', and I could tell that by the way he talked about church. He has never been one who needed all the extras the church pushes, the programs and activities, or even scripture reading and prayer, individual or family. In contrast, I'd noticed that when I slacked off in my scripture study and personal prayer, my ability to maintain any semblance of a testimony wavered. It had bothered me before, this disparity in our ability to 'know', but here, in the D&C, was the solution. He 'knew', and I could believe on his words. That became my mantra for the next decade; I believed, and I shut out my doubts and concerns. I believed on his words. I chose that gift for myself. The problem is, unlike the gifts we receive from our loved ones on special occasions, I don't think we have the option of choosing what spiritual gifts we will receive. They come unbidden, chosen for us by whatever unseen force is doling out gifts.

For a solid decade, I set aside any doubts I'd had about the church, or the gospel. Or at least I attempted to. It wasn't always as simple as mentally choosing to believe; sometimes it felt like physical work to ignore what my soul was trying to tell me. But, throughout all of that time, I truly thought that the fault was with me, that the church was true, but I was deeply flawed. And I thought that if I just powered through, faithfully attending church, obeying each and every commandment, participating as I thought a believer should, I could 'choose' belief. But, occasionally, a small, little doubt would creep in, and I'd scramble to tamp it out. More scripture study, marking them in pretty colors; rolling out of bed in the morning onto my knees in fervent prayer, begging really, like in "A Child's Prayer," asking Heavenly Father if he was really there; getting myself to the temple as often as I could, hoping to arm myself with enough spiritual power to keep the darkness at bay. All to no avail. Eventually, my unbelief caught up with me, and I had to admit, first to myself, then to my husband, that the gift I'd thought I could choose for myself was not mine to choose. I had not been given the gift to 'believe on their words'. I could not just choose to believe. And thus began a painful awakening to my true gift, one I would not have chosen for myself, but one that has proven itself to be a blessing. In disguise, certainly, but definitely a blessing.

I have the gift of unbelief, of skepticism, of uncertainty. To many others, this would not appear to be a gift, but rather a curse. However, as I've come to understand this gift, I've felt true peace for the first time in my life. Relief from the anxiety of trying to choose another gift, one I was not meant to have. Acknowledging my disbelief has allowed me to pursue my thoughts and feelings about God and divinity, the origin of man, the nature of our spirits, where we came from, why we are here, where we are going. The 'big' questions, the questions no mortal man has been able to answer to my satisfaction. I was never satisfied with the answers given at church, always proffered with certainty and fervor, but I accepted them as 'truth'. I guess because I'd been told, by people I loved and admired, that truth was to be found within the confines of the gospel, as taught by the church. That they alone had the authority and knowledge given by God to man. I dismissed my own voice as ignorant and uninformed, allowing others to determine for me what God wanted me to know. I allowed them to convince me that my doubts came from Satan, Lucifer, Son of the Morning Star. I know better now.

My voice, my heart, my mind are to be trusted, respected, adhered to. Because my gift, the gift of skepticism, has the same origin as my husband's gift to 'know'. The great giver of gifts, that entity who is bigger than life and infinitely more mysterious, a being I cannot define with my mortal mind, had a plan, there in the beginning, when he (or she, or it!) was bestowing gifts upon humanity. Just what that plan is I do not know; that's just one of the many things I'm still trying to figure out. What I do know is that there is room for all, the believers, the knowers, and the skeptics. The greatest task before us is to respect one another's gifts, and to acknowledge the value of each one in the grand scheme of things. Of this I am sure. I think.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Are You There, Goddess? It's Me....

Last January, while out for a walk one sunny Sunday afternoon, I noticed a phenomenon in the sky that I'd never seen before. Living in Cache Valley, we are in the flight path of jetliners on descent to Salt Lake International airport, so I am accustomed to seeing airplanes flying high overhead, one or two at a time. What I observed that day was a myriad of contrails criss-crossing the sky, and I counted seven actual airplanes in the act of creating their own trails. I was astonished at the sight, and I'm sure I attracted a bit of attention from passing cars as I walked along with my head flung back, taking in the view. It was a sight I'd never seen before that day, and haven't seen since. When I got home, I excitedly told my husband what I had witnessed, and he very casually said, "Yeah, those airplanes are there every day. You can see them today because the atmospheric conditions are just right for the contrails to be visible. It's just cold enough, and clear enough." No big deal! I was still wowed, however, and take a moment on each clear day to look up for evidence of those jetliners winging their way toward some far-off destination. But, I haven't caught another glimpse. The conditions haven't been right.

I've had a similar experience with regards to the church and feminism. I've been a member of the church all of my life, and I've been female all of my life. And, at various stages in my life, I've felt vague discomfort when experiencing patriarchy up close and personal. But, generally, the conditions have not been right for me to really see the male-dominant nature of the church I've called my spiritual home all these years. It was too risky to allow myself to dwell on it when I did feel it. So I put it on a shelf, tucked safely away; out of sight, out of mind. Only not quite.

Consider my bishop at the time I decided to serve a mission. He told me that he wouldn't allow any of his daughters to serve missions, that their mission was to marry and start a family. And that a college education for girls was not only wasteful as they would never need it, it was foolhardy because it gave girls something to fall back on, hence an easy out if marriage and motherhood got too hard. I just shrugged it off; it was his opinion only. Fortunately, my parents were very supportive of my desire to serve a mission, and the assumption in my family when I was growing up was that every one of us would attend college, male or female; gender made no difference to my dad. So I was able to back-burner my bishop's words. They didn't apply to me.

After my mission, I had the opportunity to visit with Jacob de Jager, then a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, considered a General Authority of the church. I'd met him on my mission, and I'd felt an instant bond with him. He must have felt it as well, for he called my parents before I returned home, and asked that I visit him in his office upon my return from my mission. So, I trekked to the administration building of the church, sat myself down in his office, and proceeded to ask him the burning question on my mind. "Why was I born female?" I asked. "Did I somehow offend God?" I can't remember what precipitated this particular query, and I can't remember the words he spoke in reply. I just remember the feeling that I'd been figuratively patted on the head and reassured that I was loved deeply as a cherished daughter of a Heavenly Father. And I tucked that conversation away on a shelf deep within the recesses of my mind, not taking it out for examination for many years.

Fast forward a few years to June 1985. I had just graduated from nursing school, and was working in a nursing home as I prepared to leave Ogden for my new job at LDS hospital in Salt Lake. I had become friendly with a coworker, a guy who flirted with all the girls, and I ended up at his apartment, alone, late one night. This is a difficult story to tell, and I will leave out many details, but the gist of it is that we had sex that night. In retrospect, I came to the realization that I'd been manipulated and, if rape means going ahead with the act even after being told "No", I'd been raped. I was 24 years old, and had planned on being a virgin until marriage. In my mind, I'd been complicit, and I got what I deserved. Therefore, a visit to the bishop of my single's ward and a confession were in order.

The bishop was surprisingly flippant and casual in my conversations with him, as if we were discussing the use of four-letter words. He said that, as I was a returned missionary and temple endowed, I was subject to a disciplinary 'court of love'. A date was set, and I showed up with a friend in tow, a woman who was RS president in her own ward, the only person who had heard my story. She was a trusted friend, and she had offered to accompany me to provide some much needed support. I hadn't shared this situation with my family, in fact I wouldn't do so for many months yet, so I was very much in need of support and friendship.

When we arrived at the bishop's office, I was invited in, and my friend was invited to make herself at home in the foyer. I was very dismayed, as this meant that I would be alone with the three men who comprised the bishopric, and would have to share intimate details of my sin with them, these men who were virtual strangers to me. Yet, this was the way it was done, and I didn't have the strength, or the knowledge, to protest. My memories of this situation are understandably fuzzy. I do remember one of the men cried; I couldn't look at him for fear that I would lose my composure as well. The bishop, however, was still as flippant as when we'd first met. I was asked some questions, I told the story as best I could, facts only, they asked me to step out for a moment while they considered my fate, then, after maybe half an hour, I was informed that I was to be disfellowshipped from the church. I had to relinquish my temple recommend, I was not to take the sacrament, I was not to talk or pray in church, and I would have to meet with the bishop weekly to discuss my progress. I was told it would take at least 6 months, maybe a year, before I would once again be a member in good standing.

I remember feeling exhausted, spiritually and physically, and I felt as if I were viewing the world through old-fashioned glass, all wavy and thick. And I remember feeling alone, abandoned, set adrift in a sea of testoterone. I don't understand to this day why I couldn't have had my friend accompany me into the office. She already knew the details of my story; what was the point of making me face three unknown, unfamiliar men during what I still consider to be one of the most traumatic moments of my life? Why were my judges men only? Men, who didn't seem to have the capacity to understand what had happened to me, who didn't even know the right questions to ask. Men, who had never known the vulnerability of a late night alone with a physically stronger male, subject to his whims due to my failure to think like a man and prepare myself for a possible assault. Men, who didn't stop to think that I might be in need of female support and comfort after having my spirit brutally attacked and maimed.

All these years later, and I still feel pretty raw. And angry. Time has not healed these wounds.

Last week, I read the book, "From Housewife to Heretic", by Sonia Johnson. She was excommunicated from the church back in 1979, presumably for her political activities with the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember when it happened, and I completely bought the rhetoric, spread by the church, that she was an uppity female who got what she deserved. I didn't give her situation any more thought, until last week. While reading her story, the conditions were just right, the atmosphere cleared, and I saw the contrails patriarchy has etched into my soul. Instead of throwing my head back in awe, I stumbled under the weight of a lifetime of believing that I was less-than, inferior, incapable of hearing the voice of God for myself. God's word has been filtered through the priesthood, through men, some of whom were kind and gentle, many of whom were arrogant and flippant. I was complicit, and I got what I deserved. What I can't figure out is why I was content to sit in the pews, week after week, and be 'presided' over. Why I didn't question the mostly implicit, occasionally explicit, admonition to be submissive, meek, compliant, feminine. Why I let someone else define for me what it means to be female, and feminine.

What I really can't get over is that for all these years I've been content with the idea that our only model for deity is male. That, while a Heavenly Mother has been vaguely referred to in hymns and on one or two occasions at the pulpit, she is not present in our worship, she is not acknowledged as God's wife and our mother, we are not to address her in prayer. We are discouraged from even talking about her, or speculating about her role in our creation, and some have lost their membership in the church for doing just that. Why has this been okay with me? Why have I not risen up in protest, demanding that I be allowed a relationship with my Heavenly Mother? And how could I have accepted the notion that celestial glory would mean the same non-existent relationship with my own offspring on their own planet, striving to return to their Father and me without the benefit of my loving presence or wisdom? Why has it taken until now to allow myself to see clearly, and to acknowledge the pain patriarchy has caused? Why?

I'll tell you why. Because to acknowledge the very patriarchal nature of the church, to admit my discomfort with priesthood authority being exclusively male, to allow myself to be angry at the men who have run this show, is to acknowledge that maybe they don't speak for God after all. That maybe they don't have the last word. That they aren't any more deserving than I am to hear God's word, to administer the affairs of the church, to sit in judgement of their fellow men, or women. To tell me what my inner spirituality should look like, and how that should be manifest in my daily life. That they are just men; flawed, imperfect men. No more worthy than I to be God's mouthpiece.

I have been very lucky to have a man in my life who loves me for me, who has never made me feel like he 'presides' over me, who stands next to me as we lead our family together. Sometimes he leads, sometimes I do; depends on the day, and the situation. I have not experienced the bitter fruits of patriarchy within my own home, so I haven't had to examine my feelings about men, God, and church. Until the conditions were right, and I could see.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The God Debate

Please forgive me for what I'm about to write. I am very aware that my feelings and opinions are controversial and offensive to many people, especially in regards to religion. You have been duly warned. If you choose to continue reading, use what I have to say as a springboard toward a greater understanding of your own feelings and opinions, whatever those may be. I promise to give you as much room as you afford me.

One benefit of growing older is a greater ability to understand myself, and to accept those parts of me that have in the past only brought confusion and/or pain. One of the more problematic aspects of my personality is the propensity to see both sides of an issue. This has at times made me feel wishy-washy and weak. (Maybe Mitt and I have something in common?!) In debating deep, philosophical topics, such as religion and politics, I can be easily swayed to consider another's viewpont as valid, and have been known to change my mind mid-debate. Needless to say, I am not a champion debater! I have developed strong opinions on a variety of topics as I've matured, but I still find myself thinking, when confronted with someone else's well-thought out approach, "Huh, makes sense. Hadn't considered that." What is that old proverb about not keeping such an open mind that all the smarts leak out?

The point of this post is that I'm a fence-sitter, a position that is frowned upon in most religious circles. Isn't there a scripture that says you're either with us or against us? Paraphrased, of course. You can't serve God and Mammon? I remember hearing about those who were borderline neutral in the war in heaven (a misnomer, by the way). They came to earth and received bodies, but are relegated to living out their mortal existence in lowlier circumstances than those of us who chose Jesus' plan, and were privileged to be born to latter-day-saint homes. Most people I know reject this idea as it smacks of elitism, and leads us to judge others unrighteously. But I do recall being taught this as a child; it was a way to maybe understand why we were born to such privilege, as opposed to those born into a life of starvation, deprivation, and spiritual darkness. Maybe they were fence-sitters, unable to decide between Jesus and Lucifer, but enough in the right camp that they were allowed to continue on to the second estate? Neutrality is not encouraged by anyone on either side of the God debate.

I do find compelling evidence of God's existence. Having grown up in the mormon church, I've been taught all of my life that He is there, that He is my father in heaven, that He knows me personally, and that He is interested in my every thought and action. I have had experiences that felt spiritual in nature, and at times I have felt certain that He was in charge and was watching over me, directing my life from afar. I can't be sure if what I felt was a result of lifelong conditioning to believe, or if God is really there and really notices each hair on my head. I have felt at times a yearning for 'home', a desire to be in the presence of unconditional love and acceptance. This God, however, is not the God I learned of in church. The mormon God (my own interpretation!!) does not feel loving or accepting. He feels judgmental, condescending, self-righteous, demanding, narcissistic, capricious, egotistical, cruel, vain, arrogant, haughty. So, if the mormon God is the real one, I'm really not interested in a relationship with him, I don't want to return to live with him, and I don't want to become like him.

I've listened to many people talk of their relationship with God, and they certainly don't agree with my assessment of His personality. They speak of feeling loved, accepted, guided, inspired, lifted up, supported in their weaknesses. When I hear this, I am sometimes persuaded to consider that I am wrong. Just this week, I read an account written by someone who had given up on God, only to have an experience with the spirit that felt otherworldly to her, and confirmed to her that He did indeed exist. She cannot account for the experience in any other way than that God spoke to her heart, and she felt a desire to remain a member of the church, even though she continued to take issue with many of the practices of church members. I did feel something while reading her story, a small flicker of desire in my heart to have a similar experience. I want to feel God too. However, I don't want to hear from the mormon God; too much baggage, in my opinion. But it is experiences like these that convince me that there is something out there beyond our understanding, some higher power or entity who is interested in what we are up to here on planet earth.

That being said, I've found much food for thought in the atheist camp. Richard Dawkin's book, "The God Delusion" was an enlightening read for me. I had never considered the atheist point of view before; as a mormon, my exposure to such an idea was very limited. Atheism is threatening to religious people, a stance I sort of get, but on the other hand (see? wishy-washy!), I don't think God is particularly threatened by a thoughtful consideration of His existence. I have also thoroughly enjoyed reading Sam Harris. He is a reasonable, rational man, who does not denigrate those who believe in God, yet provides compelling reasons to question the reality of a supernatural being capable of moving mountains. Julia Sweeney is another prominent atheist who has given me much to think about. She details her journey away from the Catholic church in a one-woman show titled, "Letting Go of God". So much of what she went through mirrored my own path, and I found myself laughing and crying at her descriptions of delving deeper into scripture in order to understand a God who defies understanding. She finally reached a point where she allowed herself to think the unthinkable, to try on unbelief in God, to see what the world looked like from an atheist point-of-view. And it was okay. She felt peace, and self-acceptance. I had a similar experience when I tried on my un-testimony of the mormon church. It was okay, and I felt peace.

However, when I have considered the atheist position, I find that I cannot make that leap. I cannot not believe in God. I did try on the atheist hat; it didn't fit. Or maybe I just can't let my mind go to a place where there is no life after this one. I cannot accept that it all ends here, that my loved ones and I will simply cease to be. I cannot accept that there is no greater meaning to our existence, no purpose beyond a biological and evolutionary one. For whatever reason, I can't go there. I don't want to go there. So I'm kind of stuck in between camps. Sigh....

I have been accused of choosing doubt as a philosophy of life. I don't think that's true. Doubt certainly fueled my quest for answers, as it does for anyone. By the way, when did doubt become a dirty word? What is wrong with doubt? Yeah, I know, the scriptures say to doubt not; the scriptures also say not to wear linen with wool. I 'doubt' that God cares much about mixing fabrics.

So, what is my philosophy of life, if not doubt? I can't really sum it up in a sound-bite, but if I had to choose one word, that word would be uncertainty. It has a somewhat negative connotation, but it's the word. I am not certain of the existence of God; neither am I certain of His non-existence. I don't know. I don't think I can know. For me, the God question is unknowable. I hope there is something beyond this life. I want to believe that there is something beyond this life. I don't know that there is something beyond this life, but, most of the time, I am content with not knowing. I guess maybe agnostic sums it up best.

One thing I do believe is that, if there is a God, He is okay with my philosophy. If He created me, this cannot have come as a surprise. And I don't feel Godly displeasure at my questioning. In fact, I believe that He applauds my efforts to seek Him. I think He is glad that I am not satisfied with pat answers to the big questions. Somewhere, out there in the vastness that is the universe, there is someone who is cheering me on, who wants me to keep searching and asking, who accepts that I am not content with God as He has been presented to me. I think. Or not.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I Hope You're Happy, My Friend

I have a very dear friend, who has been part of my life for over 20 years now. We've referred to one another as BFFs, adopting teenage lingo because it seems to reflect how we feel about each other, even though we are very far from our teenage days. We can go for many days, even weeks, without talking, then can pick up our conversation pretty much where we left off, and talk for hours about anything and everything. She is someone I've been able to talk to about every facet of my life, stuff I don't even tell my husband. We once drove to Iowa with our daughters for a dance competition, and literally talked for 1000 miles and back. I thought she might sleep for part of the drive, but we never ran out of topics to discuss! And we both relished the opportunity to hash out life's problems and come up with what we thought were perfect solutions. I miss those days. I miss her.

Life throws many changes our way, sometimes seemingly out of the blue. Such has been my journey the past couple of years. I've discovered things about myself that have surprised me, and those closest to me. I'm no longer a practicing, devout, card-carrying, active Mormon. And I'm happier than I ever thought I'd be, joyfully embracing my beliefs, and lack thereof, allowing myself to explore wherever my heart and mind lead. My new favorite song is Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." It perfectly describes how I greet each new day, and how I feel about this world we inhabit. And the people who inhabit the planet alongside me. I feel lighter, unburdened by other's expectations, more authentic and whole. More me than I've ever been.

My friend has been very distressed at the changes in me. She is very devout, and the trials of her life over the past few years have strengthened her devotion to the church, and her testimony of the Savior. She finds great comfort and strength in actively living the LDS life, and I don't begrudge her this. To the contrary, I think she is exactly where she needs to be, surrounded by those who feel as she does, who provide for her the sense of community that she has desperately needed. In my limited understanding of God, I think it's very possible that He, or She, provides for each of us what we need to thrive here in this life. The universe has seemed to be very responsive to my pleas for help, leading me to people who have assisted me in finding my way, and I believe the same is true for her. This is where I'm supposed to be, and the church is where she is supposed to be. There is no condescension in my position, no feeling that I'm somehow more enlightened than she is. We are each simply where we need to be, where we can figure out who we are in our centers, and how to live with integrity and authenticity.

Problem is, I don't think she has reached the same conclusion. She tries, I have to give her that, but I can feel her condescension. And her grief. She has told me of the many nights she's cried herself to sleep thinking about me and my 'loss of faith'. I know that she disapproves of my position; she has told me so. She has asked, "Why can't you just believe?" And she wanted to know if I felt 'dark' now without the presence of the Holy Ghost in my life. She asked if I was really so stubborn that I could stand in front of God at the judgment day and refuse to acknowledge the truthfulness of his church and gospel. And she looks at me differently now, a look that speaks of superiority, secure in her position as one who is in the right, though still loving the lost sheep. I feel her pity, and I know she does not recognize the joy I feel in my life now. She sees only darkness where she believed there once was light. Her grief is coloring our relationship gray, at least from my perspective. I'm sure she'd say that my unbelief was the game-changer. Herein lies the dilemma. How do we maintain a friendship that was once so rich and meaningful, when we are looking at one another across a deep, expansive, seemingly unbreachable divide?

Early in my journey, I heard the song "Defying Gravity", from the musical Wicked, and it touched me deeply. I felt the words as Elphaba sang them, "Something has changed within me, something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game. Too late for second-guessing, too late to go back to sleep, it's time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap." I'd belt the song along with Idina Menzel while driving, moved to tears many times by the idea of calling the shots for myself, being my own authority, taking my life into my own hands and making it mine. Mine. Not a reflection of my parents, or church leaders, or friends. Taking the leap, "through accepting limits 'cuz someone says they're so..." It has been one of my favorite faith transition songs.

I heard this song again this week while listening to Pandora radio, and I heard something new this time. The relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is played out from the beginning of the song until the end. Glinda asks, much like my friend did, "why couldn't you have stayed.... I hope you're happy now... you hurt your cause forever, I hope you think you're clever." I hear my friend's voice asking me the same things. I hope you're happy now. With that tone that says, "Of course, you can't be happy now! You're so clearly on the wrong side of the issue!" And Elphaba responds with the same tone, both then singing, "Though I can't imagine how, I hope you're happy right now..." There is that great divide.

Through the course of the song, they both come to understand that what is right for one is not right for both. Elphaba needs to follow where her heart and conscience lead, as does Glinda, though they will not end up in the same place. And they come to understand that the divide isn't unbreachable after all; they can love one another from where they are, and truly hope for happiness for the other. Glinda says, "I hope you're happy, now that you're choosing this..." to which Elphaba replies, "You too-- I hope it brings you bliss." Then comes the refrain that burned itself deep into my heart, sung by both: "I really hope you get it, and you don't live to regret it. I hope you're happy in the end, I hope you're happy, my friend."

(The universe does indeed work in mysterious ways.... this song just started on Pandora radio, playing in the background while I write! Karma, indeed! And I'm in tears again!)

This is what I want. I want my friend to hope that I'm happy, and to let me go where my happiness leads, without judgment or mourning. "I hope you're happy, my friend." My friend. I want her to see my journey as legitimate, right for me. I realize that my hope may not ever come to pass, that her beliefs may not allow her to rejoice with me as I pave new ground. But, until that day comes, I will mourn our friendship with as much grief as she feels for my path. I miss her, and I'm sad as I contemplate a life without her phone calls, and Sonic runs, and long intimate conversations about anything and everything. I miss my friend, and I hope she's happy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Food for my Soul

I've never been a big fan of fasting. It felt like punishment disguised as devotion. I remember as an eight-year-old, sitting in the hall of the meetinghouse waiting for my parents, with a lap full of vomit. Fasting made me literally sick. My mom let me eat soda crackers on subsequent fast Sundays after that until I outgrew the nausea.

As an adult, I've dreaded fast Sundays. I have a brother who, while decidedly non-religious, has discovered the spirital aspect of going without food. He says it helps him connect with himself on a deeper level. Or something like that. I'm a hedonist, I guess. I love fulfilling my physical appetites too much, and find it challenging to set them aside, even for a few hours. Obviously. As reflected by my BMI. Pregnancy and breastfeeding provided me with the perfect excuse to forego fasting each month, and I never really got back into the habit. And I cannot recall a single time in my life when I felt a greater connection to the divine by going without food. But that's just me. I recognize that, for others, fasting allows them to access a level of spirituality that they don't feel at other times.

My son, now 14, has had a particularly difficult time with fasting. We discovered, when he was about 8, that he became a completely different person when he didn't eat. He has always struggled with anxiety, amongst other issues, and lack of protein seemed to feed his inner demons. He has some compulsive tendencies, and, after hearing about the importance of fasting from his church teachers, he became convinced that a perfect fast was essential to his spiritual well-being. We encouraged it, of course, as he'd been baptized and had entered the realm of a practicing latter-day-saint. We'd taught our kids that fasting was an important aspect of religious worship, recognizing that learning to do so was a process. We didn't require a perfect, complete fast from any of our kids, especially at age 8. But, this kid wasn't content with attempting to fast. He was determined to obey completely, and always seemed to know when fast Sunday rolled around. He reminded us, much to our dismay, that it was time to observe the monthly fast. Ughhhh.... like I said, I've never been a fan.

It became apparent early on that fasting did not bring out the best in our son, and wasn't spiritually edifying for any of us. Fast Sundays quickly became a battle ground, with him insisting that he needed to abstain from food, and us knowing that if he didn't eat, the monster within would be unleashed and would devour us all. One such Sunday stands out vividly in my memory. It was the first Sunday in September, 2005, and hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast. The leaders of the church had called for a worldwide fast to benefit those affected by the disaster, to coincide with our regular monthly fast. It was Labor Day Weekend, and we were camping with my extended family, but we all planned to participate in the fast and then attend church with a local congregation. We were in our trailer, and Daron and I had prepared a simple breakfast of cereal and fruit for the two youngest kids, our son included. When he saw that we'd fixed breakfast, he became incensed, furiously accusing us of purposely thwarting his desire to obey God. Maybe not in so many words, but we got the gist. My husband and I attempted to explain to him the importance of not letting his blood sugar drop, and keeping some protein on board so that he could stay the pleasant, reasonable little boy we'd come to know and love. And he wasn't buying it. He started to weep and wail, pointing his finger accusingly at us, repeatedly saying, "You're evil! You're evil! My parents are evil!" This at the top of his lungs. In a campground full of other campers, my extended family included. We were humiliated, and tried to get him to lower the volume, but once he has started in on a rant, there is no stopping until he has exhausted himself. And us. We were all drained, emotionally and physically. Nevermind spiritually. There was nothing uplifting about the experience. I don't recall how the episode ended that day, but once we returned home from the camping trip, I put in a call to the pediatrician.

Dr. Anderson was also our congregation's bishop, our ecclesiastical leader. I thought that, if he couldn't help our son physically, maybe he could perform an exorcism? We were desperate for help. After a brief physical examination and one-on-one interview with our son, the good doctor explained that there was no physical reason he couldn't fast. But there were emotional ones, and mental ones, and spiritual ones. While our son wouldn't be damaged physically by going without food, the experiences we'd been having were damaging to our souls. He told the boy that, yes, he could observe the fast perfectly by not eating for 2 meals, but how much good was that doing if he then beat up on his parents emotionally and mentally? He explained that, for many people, fasting does not mean going without food, but is a mental state of mind. People with diabetes, for example, cannot abstain from food. Pregnant women, as well. But they can find ways to observe a spiritual fast that edifies and lifts them closer to God, but doesn't place their loved ones in harm's way. Coming from his doctor/bishop, it seemed to have the desired effect. Our son agreed to change his definition of fasting to include toast and some sort of protein to sustain himself physically, while focusing on turning his spirit toward God. And it made a difference. Through the intervening years, fasting has ceased to be a problem, and we haven't had any more Sunday morning meltdowns. At least due to fasting!

This weekend, our next-door-neighbor's son experienced a life-threatening event that bought him a helicoptor ride to a Salt Lake hospital, and brain surgery yesterday morning. My son's quorum advisor called him last night and asked him to contact each of the boys in his quorum and ask them to fast today for a speedy recovery for their friend. My husband informed me of this development when I returned home last night from dinner with a friend. I know my son fasts periodically when the first Sunday of the month rolls around, but he doesn't seem as hung up on perfection as he used to be. When he got up this morning, he reminded me that he was fasting and wouldn't need breakfast. His demeanor was serene, a descriptor I never thought I'd use on my teenage son. I was impressed with his devotion to the cause, and surprised as well. He isn't particularly close to this other boy, but he seemed genuinely concerned for his well-being. And I saw, in my son's face, what it really means to fast.

Not only have I struggled to physically abstain from food and drink for two meals, I've also struggled to understand a God who hands out blessings based on who has the most prayers sent heavenward on his or her behalf. It just doesn't make sense to me to petition God to heal the sick or provide for the destitute, when he should take care of them just because they are his children, and he loves them. If the entire ward fasts for this young man, will God then bless him equal to the number of petitioners? What about the kid in the room down the hall who has no one to pray on his behalf? Is he just out of luck? Destined to die or suffer needlessly because nobody thought to ask God to spare him? Of course it doesn't happen that way, and sometimes people who are dearly loved and prayed for, die. And sometimes people live, who have only godless heathen loved ones who wouldn't pray on their own deathbed. It isn't fair because it isn't. If there is a God, he doesn't operate that way, and we cannot know the reasons why with our finite, mortal brains.

So, fasting. What good does it do? This morning, looking at my son's face, I saw love and concern for a fellow human being, the beginnings of compassion and charity towards another. His fast may not effect the outcome of our neighbor's surgery, but it has changed my son. It gave him a sense of community, of joining together with others in solidarity of purpose. As a ward, as a community of believers, they have been transformed into one body, of one mind, one in purpose, each pleading with God for the return to health of one of their own. Knitted together in love. Whatever the outcome, I hope they will always remember the experience as one that lead them toward a greater love for humanity, which is all God really wants anyway, right?