Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pioneer, 2.0

I wrote a post this week about courage, comparing my bravery in leaving the church to that of my pioneer forebears who crossed the plains on foot.

Today I listened to a Mormon Stories podcast, and I'd like to amend my previous definition of courage.

Laurie Lee Hall  ( was a convert to the church. She served a mission, then married her best friend in the temple. Eventually, Laurie became the chief architect for the church's temples. She was called to be a bishop, then a stake president, serving for 8 years.

At the time, Laurie was a man. A man who, since she was a child, knew her true gender was female.

Laurie lived with this secret knowledge until well into her fifties. She suffered greatly for her gender dysphoria, unable to be true to who she knew she was, unable to be at peace in a man's body. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts until she knew she could take no more, and must become on the outside the woman she knew herself to be on the inside.

I cannot imagine the courage it took to reveal her true gender to her wife, and then her children. And then her church congregation.

As I watched Laurie tearfully describe her journey, articulating with eloquence the difficulties she faced in becoming the woman she was always meant to be, my heart was touched by her courage. I cried with her as she chronicled her release as stake president, and then her excommunication from the church to which she had devoted her life. She is still a believer in that church. She testified of God's love, and, listening to her, I felt my own heart stir. I was not converted by her testimony,  but I knew that she, with her great faith, still believed in that God, and she believed that He had not forgotten her.

This woman, Laurie Lee Hall, is a pioneer. A courageous, brave, beautiful pioneer.

Thank you, Laurie, for being brave enough to share your story with the world. And thank you for having the courage to live that story out loud.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


I come from Mormon pioneer stock, on both sides of my family tree. Pioneer stories are woven into the fabric of my childhood. Our parents loved to regale us with tales of bravery and courage exhibited by those who abandoned hearth and home in pursuit of religious freedom.

I wasn’t a fan of such stories as a youth. I always felt that I didn’t measure up in some crucial way. I didn’t load my belongings into a handcart and pull it across the plains; any complaint of mine seemed trivial in comparison.

“Pioneer children sang as they walked”…. singing this song in primary didn’t make me admire those legendary children who didn’t complain and whine as they left bloody footprints on the trail. Rather, I felt resentment that their example was being held up as the epitome of faithful childhood. I mean, come on! Any ancestor of mine had to have bitched and moaned and, to use their vernacular, murmured.  Any singing was under duress. I can imagine my pioneer great-great-great-great-great grandmother hissing to her young daughter as they walked beside the wagon, telling her to “Buck up, buttercup! Your ancestors braved worse than you are being called to bear! Stop that whining before I give you something to really cry about! Here comes Brother Brigham… act happy!!”  

Replace “Brother Brigham” with “the bishop”, and you have my childhood in a pew.

Several years ago, when I was mostly a believer, I took my own young family to Nauvoo, the birthplace of these tales of courage and perseverance. We walked through the restored town, eventually wandering down the road that led to the great Mississippi. We paused at the spot from which these brave pioneers launched the ferry that took them across the icy river, seeking refuge from the mobocrats who sought their destruction. I watched my own small daughter play at the water’s edge, and felt, for just a moment, what my ancestor must have felt as she contemplated the journey ahead. What lay behind, clouded in controversy from my vantage point today, spurred this faithful mother to take her young family, including a newborn, into an unknown wilderness. She believed strongly in the doctrine as she had learned it, and fervently wished for nothing more than the space in which to live the principles of the gospel she loved. She did it for her little ones, those to whom she wished to impart her faith and love for this church to which she had converted, leaving her own family and loved ones behind.

I don’t know all the particulars of the life she was leaving, but I imagine her own family, her parents and siblings, did not understand her new faith, and grieved her departure from the beliefs and practices with which she had been raised. Her happiness was their sorrow.

I have grown up under the shadow of this great sacrifice, and have often felt inadequate in the face of their bravery. My ancestors squared their shoulders and said goodbye to all they knew as they faced a frightening and unknown world. I have been admonished time and again to follow their lead and face my future with dauntless determination, “with faith in every footstep”, honoring their sacrifice by holding fast to the tenets of that same faith.

My own journey hasn’t been laced with the hardships of a trek across a hostile wilderness, but I, too, am a pioneer. I have had to square my shoulders and face my loved ones with the news that I have abandoned their faith, and am striking out on my own.

My parents had (and have) a rock-solid faith in Mormonism. They raised us with hope that we would follow their example. That I managed to do so for almost 50 years is a testament to the strength of their faith. But for most of those 50 years, I struggled with doubt. I always managed to come back to faith in the gospel, in part because I couldn’t bear to disappoint my parents. I knew they would feel like failures if I rejected what was most precious to them. But, ultimately, it came down to integrity. I could not continue to profess a belief in that which I did not believe to be true.

It took me three years to get the courage to face my mother with my disbelief. Looking into her eyes and telling her that I did not believe in the church, and no longer considered myself to be religious, was the single most difficult thing I have ever had to do. Seeing the pain in her eyes, and hearing the grief in her voice, knowing that I was the cause of her distress, is a torment I hope to never have to repeat in this lifetime.

Think that didn’t take courage?

I didn’t walk for miles across the wilderness, and I didn’t struggle to provide food and shelter for my little ones in hostile territory, and I didn’t leave my loved ones in shallow graves alongside the trail, but I do know what it is to strike out into unknown territory. I do know the pain of disavowing the faith of my fathers. I do know what it feels like to break my mother’s heart by rejecting that which was most precious to her.

I can see the hubris in comparing myself to the much venerated pioneers of yore, but, in the words of Coco Chanel, “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”

I am thinking for myself, aloud, and while it has brought me to a place of peace, and, dare I say, happiness, I know that my joy is my mother’s sorrow. I don’t take her grief lightly, but I am, as my pioneer forebears, willing to risk pain in pursuit of truth.

I am following in the footsteps of my courageous ancestor, honoring her quest for the right to live according to the dictates of her own conscience.

I, too, am a pioneer.

Saturday, July 8, 2017


My second daughter is getting married this year. She’s 25, and positively giddy. She and her fiancĂ© have known each other for several years, and have been living together for almost two years, so they’re probably about as ready as two people can be.

However, as I watched her face yesterday, as she and her intended picked out wedding invitations, I was struck with a sense of foreboding, and I wanted to protect her from the downfall. Because, let’s face it, one’s coming.

She’s seen a lot of life in her 25 years, from cancer to an abusive boyfriend, so she is well aware that life is unpredictable, and sometimes shitty. She has learned to navigate some pretty big stuff, more than most at her tender age. But I fear she believes the worst is behind her. I fear she thinks she has found her prince, and together they will ride off into the sunset, and life will be grand from here on out.

And the simple fact is that it won’t.

Because life is shitty sometimes.

To quote The Man in Black, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Life is shitty sometimes.

I’ve been married for 28 years, half my life. And as marriages go, mine is pretty good. ‘Course, I married a pretty great guy, one who thinks he was lucky to marry me. Not sure how that happened, but I’m one of the lucky ones. Seems to be an exception to the rule.

Long marriages seem to be rare these days, at least among those of my generation. As I consider the institution of marriage the way modern America practices it, I’m beginning to wonder if we are suited to monogamy. I’ve watched many of my friends’ marriages implode, for multiple reasons from financial distress to sexual improprieties to irreconcilable differences, and I find myself wondering how my own spouse and I have managed to get this far. Not sure it is any more complicated than dumb luck. And a guy who is content with what life has handed him: me.

I’ve watched one friend cope after losing her husband to cancer. She had recently given birth to their third child when he was diagnosed, and within a year, he was dead. So, through no fault of her own, her marriage ended, and she was single. I’m not implying that divorcees are at fault when their own marriages end; I’m just pointing out that any relationship, no matter how good, can, and will, end.

Another friend lost her husband last week to a car accident, an unpredictable and devastating event, leaving her with two young children to raise alone.

Whether through death or divorce, eventually everyone leaves. If my daughter lives long enough, she will end up alone. And either way, whether by death or divorce, her heart will be broken.

And what if her marriage doesn’t end by disaster? Does that mean she’ll always feel what she feels today? I predict, based on experience, that the day will come when she will look at him with annoyance rather than tenderness, wondering if he has to breathe so loud, and if he could possibly do it in another room. Yes, I know that beneath the annoyance will be gratitude that he is still breathing at all, but come on, what spouse hasn’t felt just a titch of irritation from time to time at the sound of his/her beloved’s bodily functions?

And then there is the reality that people change. The man she is marrying this year may not be the same man 10, 15, 20 years down the road. Ask my husband. He is married to a completely different woman than the one he vowed to love 28 years ago. If he had known then what he knows now, would he have gone through with it? He says yes, but I wonder. I didn't intend to change. I was asked, back in 1987, by a man I thought I loved, if I thought I would always be a Mormon, and I replied that yes, of course, I would always be a Mormon. That was a deal-breaker for him. He wasn't looking for a Mormon, so we went our separate ways. My husband, on the other hand, was looking for a Mormon, and he believed he found one. Neither of us saw the change coming. Neither of us anticipated that someday I would no longer be a Mormon. For some people, as for my former crush, a difference in religion is a deal-breaker. I got lucky, and I happened to marry a man who was able to roll with the change, but it could so easily have ended differently, as it has for many of my friends whose spouses could not accept a change in religious beliefs.

People change. And not always for the better.

How do I prepare her for that? How do I inoculate her against the agony of heartbreak, or the tedium of boredom, or plain old discontent? Or change? What if her atheist fiance finds the allure of religion irresistible? Would that be a deal-breaker? 

As I looked at her glowing face yesterday, and contemplated how I could protect her from the pain of living, I realized the futility of my desire. Because the fact is, life is shitty sometimes.

I wanted to urge her to savor this moment, this brief flash of insane happiness, and to relish the feeling of being with the one you love, and loving the one you’re with. I wanted to warn her of the capriciousness of life, and the way it can change in an instant, leaving her with empty hands and a broken heart and a dreary future without the one she thinks she can’t live without.

Of course, I didn’t tell her any of that. I allowed her to have her moment of joy. I looked on as she stared into her person’s eyes, and they shared a tender kiss, and I rejoiced that she gets to have this moment, no matter how brief.

And I wished that, more than anything, I could give her resilience. And strength. Because her life will change, again, and it will bring pain, and heartache, and leave her breathless with grief. And the only way to cope with all of that is to be resilient. To roll with the punches. To be flexible enough that the big hurts that break her heart will not kill her spirit and leave her irreparably broken. To know that, as Celine so eloquently trilled, her heart will go on. And so must she, in the face of unbearable pain and sorrow. Or unbelievable boredom and annoyance.

I hope my daughter will never know grief and pain, that she and the love of her life will have a long and happy marriage, that life’s shit won’t touch her. But I know, in spite of my hope, that it will.

Because life is shitty sometimes. And it will be alternately shitty and awesome until she dies. That’s life.

Roll with it, little one. Be resilient.