You aren’t what they made you to be; does that negate what you are?
I have been reading N. K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky during my surgery recovery, the third book in her The Broken Earth trilogy. Yesterday, I read that sentence. I keep reading for a few more paragraphs and then I thought wait, what is hurting me? and then I went back and read it again. And again.
To orient you within the story, but without really spoiling anything, at this point we are learning the origin story of Hoa, the stone eater who has become Essun’s…travel companion, sort of. Hoa and the other stone eaters were, at their beginning, bioengineered life forms created to help with a massive project that would provide endless, pollution-free energy to humanity. But the humans who created these beings don’t really understand much about who they really are. In this scene, Hoa is starting to understand that it is OK that he is not what they wanted him to be.
“I’m not what they made me; I’m something different. I am powerful in ways they did not expect. They made me but they do not control me.”
This is what I love about fiction, how a story, created by a person I’ve never met and who likely never considered a person like me in her writing, how just a few sentences within the context of the book itself, can reveal something I didn’t know about myself, but needed to know.
(I am glad I read this book now, instead of in 2017 when I bought it. I needed those words now. Then they would’ve just been part of the character arc.)
For many years, I struggled within my self-defined role. After my years of adolescent rage and rebellion, I went through a traumatic experience that, for lack of a more elegant phrase, scared me straight. I started going to church and I did everything I could to earn the “good” label within the rules of the LDS church. I went to the temple, I wore underwear I hated, I tried to ignore all of the ways that the teachings felt dissonant to me.
I wanted my mom to think I was good in these ways so she didn’t have to be ashamed of me. I wanted my neighbors to think I was good so they would be my friends. I wanted to teach my kids these good ways of being so that they could be blessed in ways that I, with all those mistakes I made in my past, would never be. I wanted to be good so that my marriage would be happy, so that my kids would be healthy and never have heartache, and so that I, too, would have a big beautiful house on the hill.
I was 18 when all of this started. So young. Still so malleable, so raw. And the church was happy to take on the making of me. It told me the things I could be: a stay-at-home mom married to a successful husband. It told me how to accomplish these things: paying tithing, going to the temple, going to church, accepting the callings, teaching my kids the gospel. Being in the world but not of it. Wearing modest clothes. Voting Republican. Not worrying about the environment because God would take care of that. Praying. Fasting. Reading the scriptures.
I tried. I tried so hard to do all the things. But despite that, I didn’t get the blessings. Not the real ones that matter to the actually “good” members of the church. My marriage is stressful. I never got that house on the hill (which is the external proof of God’s love for you, of course.) One by one, my children lost interest in the faith of their childhood, which is the ultimate proof of how not-good I was, because good mothers create children who go on missions, go to BYU, get married in the temple.
There have been several turning points in my journey away from the church. One was when a family member asked me “where is your compassion?” during a stressful time when I was literally doing everything I could to make things better. That what I could do wasn’t enough, that I still lacked compassion in this person’s eye: I turned then. I realized that my best would never be good enough, and so I would never be good enough, and maybe it was time to stop fighting that. To accept who I was, whatever goodness I might have despite my flaws, instead of always trying to be better. Always trying to achieve “good.”
The church was never my skin, but a dress I put on. A role I performed. (There are some of you who will we judge me for not being authentic. There are some of you who will judge me for not trying harder, for not making it my skin. Both ways I have castigated myself.)
Eventually I was too chafed, and I took it off. Here I am: I don’t go to church anymore. I wear regular underwear. I have turned away from “follow the prophet” and “God’s plan for you” and yes, even “the covenant path” to simply thinking for myself. To not letting someone else shape me, but to making myself as I go.
But in many ways, I am still what the church made me. Strangely enough, the times I have felt closest to God were the times when I was breaking the mold—tearing the skirt or the bodice. As, for example, when I took my teaching job, even though what I wanted to do was magically erase our financial troubles so I could continue being a stay-at-home mom. God (or the universe or whatever you want to call them) told me, in a nearly-audible voice, that I needed to do that work, and one day I would understand why. I clung to that when people criticized my working-mother status and reminded me that if I had more faith I would stay home with my children.
But I am still where the church wanted me to be, at least as far as my career goes. Middle-aged and with just enough education to hold a job, but not a job that could actually support me without my husband’s career. (Definitely not a career that might provide me with that house on the hill.) More of a hobby, really, than a career. An indulgence. Dependent, frankly, on my husband. Not independent. Not equally powerful. Not someone who matters much in the world, just a quiet, pointless person in a support position.
Men hold all the power. Women do the laundry.
I am where I am because of my choices. But undeniably those choices were influenced by the church in its striving to shape me. To make me into the person it wants all women to be.
So I guess that’s why Hoa’s realization gutted me. He, too, was made to be a cog in the wheel, to perform a function that supports other, more powerful ideals. Not to think, to create, to feel, to act, but just to do. To work. To be acted upon.
And he is more than his creators created him to be.
Does that negate who you are?
I tried to be who the church was shaping me to be, but I am something different. Their opinion of who I am becoming no longer concerns me. It doesn’t negate me.
But if I am honest, I also know this: I don’t know who I am.
There it is. That ever-present Mormon Man Voice, telling me that I don’t know who I am because I’m not following the prophet, the plan, the path. That I will only find who I am at church.
I reject that voice.
But I put my book down, I found myself crying an absolute river of tears, because…what is there for the church to negate anyway?
I gave all my years of self-formation over to an institution. A patriarchal institution.
And now, here I am. Naked, whatever underwear I might wear, but without enough time to make a self. Without the courage and self-belief from my twenties. Forty nine, which is basically 50. Tribeless, not acceptable to my family of origin, almost an empty-nester. I don’t know where to start. I do know where I want to start, but I don’t think I have enough time to do it.
When I was deep within the church, even knowing that I didn’t quite fit, I felt like I was at least part of a group. Like I had friends. But when I left, I learned I didn’t, mostly. Aside from a few very excellent friends, everyone I knew at or through church was only a church acquaintance. I wasn’t essential in their lives at all.
And now that I am outside of the church, I don’t really fit within the post-mo groups either. I’m not going to start drinking (addiction just runs too deep within my genes) and I don’t want to mock the faith I used to hold (because it feels like mocking myself, and I can’t, I just can’t add that to my list of ways to dislike myself) and I don’t want to convert a single person to my way of thinking.
(I’m not really a good post-mo either.)
There really isn’t a place that I fit.
I find myself thinking backward: who did I want to be, when I was strong and brave and rebellious and seventeen? Writer. I wanted to be a writer. If you’ve read my blog for very long you know that. I wanted to be a writer. I never really wrote. Laziness stopped me. Fear stopped me. Wanting to be “good” stopped me. I wanted an MFA, I wanted a PhD, I wanted to teach at a university while I wrote books that somehow saved some other person, as other’s work had once (and continues, as with today’s post about a novel) saved me.
And all those years I had when I could’ve been writing, instead I was trying to be good.
When I stopped crying, when I wrote some scribbles in my book about my response, I found myself thinking of a line from a poem by Adrienne Rich: there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
I landed, naked. I, to twist a common Mormon saying, left the boat. I swam on my own to shore while they floated away to whatever eternal celestial happiness they are guaranteed.
And here I am.
I am fighting this idea: there isn’t anything left for the church to negate. I lived all the best years of my life within the church, and since I left there isn’t anything that’s actually worth the act of negation. Because I gave up, for church-approved goodness, who I was.
Maybe under the dress I was wearing, I withered away. Maybe I am nothing but a femur and a ribcage and a few strands of hair.
Maybe I will figure this out. Who I am. Who I can be with the time I have left.
But today? Today, on this shore, I am feeling lost. I am feeling like nothing. I am feeling like I lived an entire wasted life.
And what I am thinking is that I didn’t know this was here, this magma under my surface. I thought I was OK with my leaving. I didn’t know, until I read those words, that I had all these tears, all of this sorrow, so much regret. I don’t want to go back to the church. I don’t want to put the dress back on.
But I am not sure if there is anything left to make of me.