Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Highway to Hell

Coffee. Sin in a cup. Dark, bitter, aromatic, delicious coffee. 

As a lifelong Mormon, I had tried coffee exactly one time. And it was decaf. And it wasn't that great. Not worth the trouble. Keeping that portion of the Word of Wisdom, abstaining from hot drinks, was easy for me. My parents didn't drink coffee, so my experience with it was limited. Though I have to admit I loved the smell. But I was never tempted to drink it, and I had no idea what delights a cup of coffee held. Not until I was almost 50 years old.

That year, 2010, I had come to the conclusion that the church was not true. In February, my mother was hospitalized for surgery. I spent the night at her bedside, wanting to be close enough to tend to her in her time of need. Which meant, obviously, that I got little sleep. In the morning, when my dad came to relieve me, I was exhausted. As I drove away from the hospital, headed for my parent's house to freshen up, I struggled to keep my eyes open, and I considered stopping off at McDonald's for a diet coke to revive me. As I drove, I began to contemplate my options for refreshment, and the idea of coffee entered my mind. 

I had been pondering for some time my loss of a testimony in the church, and what it would mean in my daily decisions. I truly believed, in the beginning, that nothing would change for me. I would continue to attend church weekly with my family; I would continue to wear the garment of the holy priesthood as instructed in the temple; I would continue to abide by the instructions contained within The Word of Wisdom as I understood it; I would continue to be a worthy temple recommend holder. I may have ceased to believe that the church was true, but I still believed that the rules I followed religiously (pun intended) made sense. 

But then I started to wonder about the 'commandments' I had been so rigorously living. And I began to take them apart, one by one. I decided that if a commandment, as taught by the church, moved me in the direction of love, either toward myself or others, it stayed in my lexicon of belief. If it was arbitrary, it was jettisoned. And the more I learned about the Word of Wisdom, as practiced by the church, the more arbitrary it seemed. 

The Word of Wisdom had its beginnings in a conversation between Joseph Smith and his wife Emma. She objected to the use of chewing tobacco in The School of the Prophets, primarily because the job of cleaning up after the men fell to her. I can only imagine how nasty that chore was. So she told Joseph that he needed to put an end to it; she is quoted as saying, "It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding it’s suppression."

The story continues thus: "The matter was taken up and joked about, one of the brethren suggested that the revelation should also provide for a total abstinence from tea and coffee drinking, intending this as a counter ‘dig’ at the sisters.” Sure enough the subject was afterward taken up in dead earnest, and the ‘Word of Wisdom’ was the result. (http://www.mormonthink.com/wow.htm#introessay) 

The Word of Wisdom began as a "principle with promise", and, somewhere along the way, it became a commandment, and a marker of righteousness. History is not clear on when exactly this change took place, but certainly by the time I came along, in 1960, adherence to the Word of Wisdom was a requirement to obtain (and keep) a temple recommend. It also became a yardstick with which to measure a person's devotion to God's true church.

Throughout my life, I had taken seriously the church's teachings to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, coffee or tea, and any other substance that was known to be harmful to the body. (With the exception of meat unless in time of famine. I'm a carnivore. 'Nuff said.) So, up until that morning in February of 2010, I was a faithful and devoted temple recommend holder who had never partaken of a cup of joe. My 'caffeine infusion' came only in the form of diet coke. Which I drank by the gallon at one point in my life. Healthy living, right?

As I pulled into the drive-through at McDonald's, and perused the menu, the coffee options fairly jumped off the screen. "Iced Mocha..... Frappe' Mocha..... Latte'..... McCafe' Coffee..... Frappe' Caramel..... Caramel Mocha....." How was a girl to choose? Especially one as uneducated as I? I knew next-to-nothing about coffee! So I picked the most innocuous yet tempting drink I spotted, the Frappe' Caramel. And I drove to my parents' house with my devil's brew in the cup holder, glowing so brightly I was sure everyone who passed me wondered what the hell I was doing with plutonium inside my car.

When I got to the house, and carried my cuppa in, I felt such excitement as I had not known since my wedding night. Okay, hyperbole. But I was inordinately excited about the prospect of trying something that had been previously forbidden. I was going to drink coffee! I WAS GOING TO DRINK COFFEE! OMG! I was visibly trembling as I carried the cup into the house, and I felt as if I was engaging in a life-altering event. It felt big, momentous, huge. I WAS GOING TO DRINK COFFEE!

And then I drank coffee. And it was 'meh'. Mediocre. Granted, it wasn't much more than a milkshake with the slightest hint of mocha flavoring, but it was technically coffee. What a letdown. 

I drank coffee, and nothing changed. I didn't grow horns. Lightning didn't come down from the heavens and strike me dead. I didn't feel different at all. It was just coffee, and I was still just me. I didn't feel guilty, and I didn't feel sinful. I did feel a little disappointed, though. I thought it would change me fundamentally, at the cellular level, so deeply convinced was I that to drink coffee was to sin grievously against God. 


Coffee had not lived up to its promise. I was not a devotee the first time out. I was not a fan. I was not addicted. And I left the stuff alone for another four months. 

Then, one afternoon in June, I found myself in Provo, Utah, of all places, with my young adult daughter. We were talking about coffee, and my disappointing experience with it, and she informed me that I had not yet had coffee; I had had a milkshake with coffee flavoring. "Want to try real coffee?" she asked. 

With some trepidation, I agreed to let her introduce me into the world of java. 

We started at Krispy Kreme. I ordered a cup of black coffee, and sat down anticipating an earth-moving, phenomenal experience. 

OMG! People actually drink this?! It was bitter, nasty stuff. It tasted like liquid burnt popcorn! Burned my tongue and made my eyes water. Coffee, with its enticing aroma, tasted gross. Horrible. I added sugar, then cream, then more sugar. Then more sugar. Then more. Then I told my daughter that there wasn't enough sugar in the world to make the stuff palatable. She laughed, and suggested we move on to Starbucks.

Yuck. Still horrible. How could anyone get past the first sip? Blech! 

This was the drink people raved about? THIS??

So we moved on to a gas station. No luck. I hated the stuff. There didn't seem to be anything I could add to temper the bitterness, and I gave up. I would have to find another way to rebel. 

Fast forward a month, and I began working a shift that started at 5:00 AM. That's five o'clock in the morning. I wasn't a morning person, and I could not wrap my head around a 4:00 AM alarm. How was it possible to wake up at that ungodly hour and be a functional human being? 

And thus my love affair with coffee began.

My first day on the new shift, a coworker suggested that I try coffee with a packet of hot chocolate mix added to the cup. And it worked! It was palatable! I could drink it without gagging and wincing in pain and disgust. I was drinking coffee! Granted, it was mostly hot chocolate, but I was drinking coffee! 

I continued to drink a cup of coffee-infused hot chocolate each morning, and one day, I made a surprising connection. That little habit had begun to work on an intestinal issue that had plagued me for most of my life. The exact issue shall remain nameless, in the interest of pride, but suffice it to say, my bathroom habits became more regular, and I began to feel less bloated and, well.... I've already said too much. Let's just say that I was no longer full of sh*t. Metaphorically speaking. Actually, it was a literal transformation. But again, I've said too much...... Just know that I had realized the benefits of regular coffee consumption. And I became a fan.

It took awhile, years actually, to adjust my palate to the bitter taste of coffee. But eventually, I was able to take my coffee without the added chocolate mix. And eventually, with time, I was able to take my coffee black, and I learned to love it. I felt like such a grown-up!

However, there have been drawbacks to my coffee consumption, all related to my beloved family and friends' reactions to my new-found love.

My best friend, who is a die-hard believer, learned of my disaffection in the fall of 2010. She took it very hard, struggling to understand how I could turn from the 'truth' upon which I had based my life. Then she found out that I drank coffee. And she cried herself to sleep at night. Because I drank coffee. 

My teenage son also struggled with my loss of belief in the church, and was understandably upset that I would break the Word of Wisdom. He asked me one day, "Mom, are there any studies that show that coffee is bad for you?" I replied that I was sure there were, but that there were also many studies that showed the benefits of coffee consumption. However, I told him, there were no studies that proved any health benefit to soda consumption, and yet he could drink 64 ounces of Dr. Pepper a day and still get a temple recommend, whereas I could not get one because of my 8 ounces of coffee a day. I told him that I had no problem with the Word of Wisdom as a code of conduct, a way to identify with one's co-religionists. But it should be noted that the WoW is about obedience, not health. It is not about health. And my coffee habit has been good for my health. (I never was all that into obedience anyway.....)

Then my mother got wind of my new habit, and she shook her finger in my face. (I may be a grown woman, but my mother can still put the fear of God into me!) She admonished me for my 'sin', and I responded that I drank coffee because of its intestinal stimulant effect. I explained that it brought me much needed relief from my lifelong struggle to..... um..... you know..... "Do I have to spell it out?? I am no longer full of sh*t!" (That did make her laugh!....) Then she said, "Just so long as you don't enjoy it! That would be a sin!"

Sigh. I promise I don't enjoy it, mom. (Now I've added lying to my list of transgressions.)

The truth is that I enjoy my cup of coffee more than I have ever enjoyed a beverage in my life. I love coffee. 

I love the smell. I love the feel of the cup in my hands, the warmth emanating through the ceramic. I love the deep, dark, velvety color of black coffee, and I love the caramel color when a bit of cream is added. And I love that first sip. The bitter taste as it hits my tongue, and the jolt as it hits my bloodstream. I love coffee. 

Am I a sinner? Am I going to hell? Is this a condemnable offense? According to my believing loved ones, yes, it is. It approaches unforgivable. And I think I've figured out why. Breaking the Word of Wisdom is a rejection of the prophet Joseph Smith, and every prophet since who has admonished us to follow this 'principle with promise'. Breaking the Word of Wisdom is shouting to the world that I no longer practice Mormonism. My cup of sin separates me from my Mormon family and friends like the Berlin Wall separated East from West. 

I wish I could broker peace between the loves of my life, but I am resigned to the fact that my family will never accept my coffee. 

And that will have to be okay. Because I'm not giving up my coffee. And I'm not giving up my loved ones. Maybe this can be a lesson in tolerance for them. Maybe they can learn to love me in spite of my faults and transgressions. 

Because if loving coffee is wrong, I don't wanna be right.