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Growing Up Almost Mormon

Even though both sides of my family are pioneer stock with a long history in the LDS church (some all the way back to the earliest days with Joseph Smith), none of my grandparents really practiced our religion. My dad’s mom was fairly openly agnostic, and my mom’s parents just didn’t, as far as I know, go to church. I don’t have any idea of how my dad’s dad, who died when my dad was sixteen, felt about religion. I am not judging any of them because if I am certain about one thing in regards to faith, it is this: myriad experiences and emotions influence a person’s religious feelings and decisions. No one really knows the complicated path a person walks through their spiritual landscape, except (somewhat) the person herself.


But coming from that Mormon-in-paper-only sort of background has influenced my spiritual landscape. My dad mostly thought about religion in the way his mother did: it can’t be proved empirically, and look at all these intelligent people who think it’s all bunk. Plus, he really liked coffee. Three or four years before he got sick, he began going to church, but his scepticism continues to play a loop in my brain. My mom went to church by herself while she was growing up, and she was married in the temple to her first husband. But I think that whatever the circumstances were that caused her divorce, something after it broke in her, because for nearly all my growing-up years, we were mostly inactive. I remember a few experiences at church: sitting in the stifling-hot Primary room and not knowing many of the songs everyone else was singing; the time I performed in the road show; the Christmas party we attended and how, when I was running around in the gym with the rest of the little kids, I tripped and fell, but instead of scraping my chin along the wood floor I just tucked and did a neat somersault and landed on my feet (earning the applause of a few adults around me).


I remember the day I was baptized.


But church wasn’t an everyday part of my life. Church was the exception. It wasn’t the place I went to feel close to a supreme being, but a building we drove past on our way to the freeway. An idea that was larger than I could understand, full of hints and innuendos. But I did have my pagan spiritual moments. My happiest childhood moments were the hours I spent in the cornfield that grew behind our yard, wandering around in green shade, watching purple morning glories slowly open in the sun. I know now that the calm, silent peace I felt then came from God.


I’ve been thinking about my spiritual beginnings after reading this post about growing up Mormon at a blog I don’t remember how I discovered. This woman had a typical Mormon upbringing, and as an adult she can continue to draw strenght from it. I read her entry crying, because it is so far from what I grew up with and because of how I continue to fail at providing this experience for my own children. I think about walking around in one’s life with the serene faith her experiences have created for her and I cannot imagine how it might feel. Like taking a slow, pensive walk along a flat, shaded path, maybe.


Growing up almost Mormon is markedly different from growing up really Mormon. It meant puzzlement every first Sunday of the month, when boys would show up at our door and we’d give them money. I was well into my second decade of life before I understood what that was all about. It meant we had one family home evening. Ever. It meant we had silky, oddly-shaped cloth with raw edges and mysterious origins to dust the furniture with. It meant we all had our own scriptures collecting dust on our bookshelves. It meant I grew up never wanting to go to BYU, and thinking it was ridiculous that LDS missionaries have to pay to serve their own missions—shouldn’t the church they were serving support them?  It meant sometimes listening to conference talks in April and October, but usually not. Grocery shopping on Sunday afternoons—and trips to the mall, and to the lake—because it was much less crowded then. It meant wine on the table for Christmas eve dinner. It meant I was the only girl I knew who wore tank tops and bikinis. It meant occasional visits from “home teachers” that left me with a vague impression: stuff was going on around me that I didn’t quite understand.


Sometimes my parents would have a “discussion” about church, and then we’d go for a few Sundays. I knew I was a Mormon, but I didn’t really know what that meant. What little I knew about religion came from the novels I read, but I didn’t know how my religion was different from, say, Laura Ingalls’s.  It meant that after those discussions, there was a vague sense of guilt radiating from my mother, permeating me. There was stuff I was supposed to be doing, but I didn’t know what it was. It meant that there was one specific summer Monday, the day after one of our intermittent church visits, when I sat in our shady back yard, reading my book and listening to the faint shouts and laughter from the kids who lived on the other side of the field, and suddenly had a 10-year-old-sized epiphany: they all went to church together, so maybe if I went to church more they'd ask me to play with them. That day a wound formed in me. Guilt, loneliness, anger, and confusion made it fester. Being almost-Mormon, in the time and place I grew up, meant I would always be on the fringe. Always on the outside.


When I was twelve, my grandpa Fuzz died. After that, my mom returned to her religion with a vengeance. She went back to the temple. She went to church every Sunday and wanted us to come along with her. But for me, it was too late to step into the growing-up-Mormon childhood. It was too late for me to simply embrace the church like I’d been there all my life. And it was too late for me to trust the girls in my young women’s class. My spiritual self, which had for all my years been a sort of conglomerate of wondering but not knowing, of feeling the spirit but not understanding it, had begun to to morph into scar tissue: hard to get through. I didn’t want to sit in church with girls who smiled and talked to me at church but ignored me at school. I didn’t want to be in Sunday classes where everyone but me knew all the answers and I was caught naked, unknowing.


So growing up almost Mormon continued to affect me, even when my mom and younger sister really were Mormon. Even though I went to church, and I knew why we paid fast offerings (even though we never fasted), even though I went to youth conference and watched more conference than I had imagined even existed, I wasn’t really Mormon. And when I got a little bit older, when I started truly to rebel, it was mostly against the foisted-upon-me religion my family mostly claimed. I mocked everything about the church. I sat in cars in the parking lot of church dances, never going inside. I partied because we weren’t supposed to. I wore short skirts because everyone said you shouldn’t. I laughed at the kids who took seminary in high school.


In my current grown-up form, I can look back on my almost Mormon experiences and see the path they led me on. I can see where I was a victim of cruel and narrow-minded people and where it was all in my head. I can see how what I really wanted was just, simply, to belong, and since that couldn’t seem to happen I tried to reject the church before the people in the church could reject me. I know the exact, dramatic moment when my trail diverged and I went a different way, and how my faith is something that is my own, based in what I know and experienced, not in what my parents believe. I can see how my spiritual landscape was formed, and it isn’t a smooth, calm path through dappled shade. It is a landscape full of rises and falls, desolate places and secret, shaded waterfalls. My path has been torturous, quite often, and I still don’t walk easy. I still haven’t achieved that seemingly-easy faith that imbued the blog entry I read this morning.


Because the truth is this. I was always on the fringe. I looked like a Mormon among Mormons, so everyone assumed. I felt like a convert, but no one noticed. I continue to feel like I am on the outside, that I don’t really fit, because I haven’t managed serenity, because I still have doubts and questions, because I still have my rebellious moments. I still hear my dad’s voice, questioning God’s existence. I still have my pagan spiritual joy most intensely when I am in nature, not in church. I still wonder if, had I been better at living my religion earlier on in my life, I might have been blessed with the experiences I still long for but won’t ever manage to have, now that it is too late. I still wonder if I will ever be good enough, or if the consequences of my various rebellions will be that I will continue to be almost-Mormon. I still look at my friends and neighbors who are so much more accomplished than I am at truly living their faith and I know that I am failing at giving my kids their growing up Mormon experience.


I’m still on the fringe.


I know women like the one who wrote that blog post. They aren’t pretending. Their serenity is real. They’ve managed to find a peace that they carry within them no matter what. Their faith, their belief, is something that is inherent to their very natures, a part of who they are, just like the blogger wrote: “Changing my Mormon-ness would be as easy as changing my height to six feet tall.” They aren’t almost-Mormon. They are, through and through. Try as I do, though, I still haven’t achieved that sense of Mormon-ness. It still feels like something I put on. It looks like my skin but sometimes it feels like a tattoo. And I continue through the up-and-down landscape of my spirituality, slowly beginning to accept that maybe I will never achieve it, the growing up Mormon serenity, and that for me the process of trying to rise above being almost-Mormon will be the entire point.


Nick Sorensen

Amy, I enjoy your thoughtful approach to life. And I found this particular post fascinating. It made me think about particular threads in my own church and spiritual life (not the same) that keep manifesting in ways I don't entirely expect, although I should know what to expect by now. What I would like to know is: What's the link between growing up not entirely Mormon and what you are now, which I take to be Mormon but with lingering feelings of being an outsider? What brought about the switch from rebellious fringe-dweller to the person you are now? Something in your early 20s, I'm guessing?


Great post Amy! (Thanks for linking back to it. I would have hated to have missed it.)

I love what you had to say and I love Becky's response. She's right, nature is the first temples. I know I can totally feel the spirit when I'm on a hike or camping. It's God that made our world and made it as beautiful and wonderful as it is.

And whether or not any of us admit it, the majority of us aren't truly converted until we're much older. Even though I grew up going to church every Sunday, at home we weren't the typical Mormons. I can only remember a few FHE, I never fasted growins up, and we only watched conference if we had relatives in town.

Now, as an adult, I fast because I understand it better. I watch conference because I love what I learn, I read my scriptures everyday because I want to learn, and we have Family Home Evenings every Monday because I want to be with my family (and eat ice cream).

My name's (not really) Isabel. I'm 35. I've only recently converted to Mormonism. Nice to meet you.

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