Book Review: Thirst by Amelie Nothomb

If you reproach your departed loved ones with not appearing before you, do not forget that you are the one who needs them and not the other way around. When we truly love someone, do we require that they sacrifice themselves for us? Isn't allowing those we love a bit of selfish tranquility the finest proof of our devotion? That takes less effort than you might think, merely trust.

In truth, if your departed loved ones remain silent, be glad. It means they have died in the best way. That they are having a good experience of death. Do not infer that they do not love you. They love you in the most wonderful way: by not forcing themselves to go into unpleasant contortions for your sake.

"What is your favorite kind of book to read?" is a question I am asked often, as a librarian and a life-long reader and a person who tends to bring up books a lot in conversation.  This is actually a difficult question for me to answer because my real preference— "anything well-written"—sounds snobby and also sort of vague but incredibly precise all at the same time. I can't bring myself to just say something like "fantasy" or "historical fiction" or whatever. 

So I try to turn the question around on the questioner. "What do you love to read?" And while it is totally unfair of me, seeing as it is difficult for me to answer that question, I have a very-very-much unfavorite answer:

"The scriptures." (Or, "The Bible." Or, if we're in Utah, "The Book of Mormon.")

Probably this says a lot about me, and perhaps it is horrible of me to even confess, but, I confess: I don't enjoy reading the scriptures. I get caught up in small details that don't make sense to me. (Like, if the sun was created on the fourth day, why are the time periods before that also called "days"?) I get annoyed by the things that happen and the choices people must make, by the violence and, most of all, by the patriarchal view of the world. I cannot relate.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the reason for reading scripture. I even understand figuring out how understanding those ancient stories might make me a better person. There are scripture passages I love and I even have a favorite scripture (Isaiah 12:3). There are many stories in the scriptures that I love as well.

But I don't love reading the scriptures.

What I do love, however, is a good retelling of a scriptural story. (I also love retellings of mythologies and of Homer's and Virgil's epics and of Shakespeare and even of Austen under the right circumstances.) The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is one of my all-time favorite novels; Mark Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve gave me a profoundly altered understanding of my relationship to God, and I still sometimes wake up from dreams about Noah's wife inspired by NaamahI have favorite poems about Mary and Eve and Sarah and Bathsheba.

ThirstLast week at the library, I was going through a pile of new books, sorting them into groups depending on which display shelf I would put them on, I came across a thin, blood-red book called Thirst, by Amelie Nothomb. I read the inside cover: "In a first-person voice as entertaining and irreverent as it is wise, Northomb narrates Jesus's final days, from his trial to his crucifixion to the resurrection." And I read the first page, which describes the trial of Jesus. The first witness is the couple from the marriage at Cana, who complain that Jesus's miracle humiliated them by its timing, forcing them to serve the better wine after the inferior and making them a laughingstock. Other recipients of his miracles also testify, complaining about how they were unfair or changed something else other than what was intended.

I read the first two pages in one rapid gulp and then I decided the book would not go on a display shelf yet, but come home with me for a few days.

This is a short book, only 92 pages. But it changed me irrevocably.

It fits my requirement—"well written." Christ's voice in this book is unique, both sardonic and sincere. He reminds me a little bit of the Adam in Twain's book, except there is no silliness, just wisdom in his type of innocence. 

But it also fulfilled the thing that my absolute favorite books do: they put into words—by way of story, character, plot—ideas I have considered but not been able to put into words of my own. They answer a question I have been struggling to form. They help me see the flaw in my thought, or give a clue to understanding. Truth, I believe, is like the broken mirror in the fairy tale, scattered around the world, sharp and perhaps dangerous but always worth seeking, and sometimes a book is a piece of the truth.

Lately I have been thinking of the scripture Matthew 7:13, considering what "narrow" means. I haven't found the exact way to explain my thoughts yet, and Thirst does not reference that scripture, but it still helped me understand the impulse behind this question, which is really the question that has guided me for the past five or six years: What does it mean to be a good person? What is "good" anyway? The Christ in this novel has ideas on that, and he shares them, and these ideas helped widen my path of thought.

There are many quotes and ideas I could share from this slim novel—Christ's interaction with Simon of Cyrene is such an amazing moment, for example—but the one that first shook me hard was this. Christ is thinking about the couple's testimony, because the miracle at Cana is his favorite, and about the miracles he performed in his life. He tell us: "Later on, I gave it some thought, and I did not approve of my wondrous feats. They gave the wrong impression, this was not what I had come to deliver; love was no longer free, it had to serve a purpose." Christ's love—in the novel but also in the sense that I am just beginning to understand it—doesn't exist for miracles or even for saving us, but just as what it is. Love. Love. That is the reason the way is narrow, because it is simple.

I read the library's copy of this book, but I will be buying my own. I will reread it and underline all of my favorite parts. And then I will get obnoxious with it, I think. I think I will loan it to my friends. I will ask them to read it, too. My copy, I mean. And underline what they love. And tell me how (or even if) it changed them. 

Some books come into your life at exactly the right time. For many people, this happens with scriptures. For me, it happens with literature. In this sense, some books are a sort of scripture for me, sacred writings that help me understand how to be in the world. Not all—not even many—books are sacred like this. So I am always grateful when I find one. 

"Mormon" as a Verb

“Have I left the church?”

This is a question I find myself asking myself a lot lately.

Maybe the fact that I haven’t been to church for over a year is the answer, but it really isn’t that simple.

“Have I left the church?” leads me to a different question: “What would it take for me to start going to church again?”

“But, Amy!” a few people have chided, “It is changing. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

Yes. I do want the church to change. I am glad for the changes. But they are all too late for me.

Women able to witness baptisms? Fantastic, except all of my kids are already baptized. I’m happy for all the women who get to have this experience with their children—but I never will.

The changes to the wording in the temple? Great, if you didn’t already experience the old wording. If you didn’t already say it out loud, in your own voice, even if inside your head you were screaming “NO! This isn’t right.” Changing it now doesn’t take away all the years I questioned my responses, wondered what was wrong with me, squelched my own questioning nature in an effort to be “good.” Even my own mother—when, after I went through the temple for the first time, a friend asked me what I thought, and I said “I think it was weird and surreal and I’m afraid to go back”—even my own mom was so conditioned that the temple is glorious and amazing and perfect that she said “Amy, you shouldn’t say things like that.”

No one has to wait for a year to be sealed in the temple if they have a civil ceremony. I am so glad they made this change—but it doesn’t let me go back in time so I can have a civil ceremony where my dad, sisters, best friend Chris, one surviving grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins can see my wedding. It doesn’t dissolve the ache I have for that one basic fact—my own dad wasn’t allowed to come to my wedding.

The subtle changes to the Exclusion Policy? They don’t change the fact that it never should’ve existed in the first place. Nor help me understand how people twisted into such verbal gymnastics to show that they agreed with it, and then when it was changed, agreed with the changes. Most importantly, it doesn’t unhurt any of the people it hurt, especially (for me) my daughter.

Then there is the “using the word Mormon is a victory for Satan” charge. And the time, effort, and shaming that went into trying to disassociate the church from the word “Mormon.” You know, when things like Australia burning and California burning and kids in cages at the U.S. border and animal extinction and earthquakes and poverty all sorts of disasters that affect human life (that I believe Christ wants us to help with) are happening—we’re using emotional energy (not to mention the cost of marketing and changing everything so that the word Mormon is less visible) on a word?

What if everything changed? What if women were given the priesthood and we could bless our own children with our own voices and anointed hands? (Or what if we could even just stand and hold the baby in the blessing circle?) What if the markers of acceptance didn’t matter—what if people could wear as many earrings as they wanted without shame, what if a tattoo was seen as art and personal choice rather than body defilement, what if everyone could be accepted, the beer drinkers and the women in flip flops? Teenage boys in blue plaid button ups? What if the church said “Joseph Smith was a man who made mistakes, especially about polygamy"? What if the sealing practices weren’t painful to all but those with perfect families not impacted by divorce or death? What if the church stopped covering up sexual abuse? What if, despite prophetic declarations, the prophets could say "we made a mistake and are sorry about the pain it caused"?

What if all of the changes I so desperately wish could be made were made?

Mostly, it would still be too late. I will never bless my own sick child. I will never get back the experience of really being sealed to my dad.

When I start asking my question—have I left the church?—I start thinking about a realization I had a couple of years ago. I went for a girls’ weekend away with my friends Jamie and Wendy. They are friends I met through church, but not church friends. (People who can still see you as a friend once you stop going to church are few; Wendy and Jamie are two of mine. The Mcallisters. My friend Julie. Everyone else I was friends with because of church is no longer are involved in my life, because our friendship—and this is mutual, I’m not placing blame—was based not on real, actual friendship but on going to church together.) That weekend at a cabin in southern Utah was lovely; we hiked and ate and relaxed and laughed together.

But it was my first time doing something with them that wasn’t a church activity (strange as that sounds), and it made me realize something. Wendy and Jamie are Mormons. They mormon all the time. Hiking, eating, laughing, relaxing: all of it was focused on the practices and beliefs of an LDS person. For me, this highlighted my own connection to my religion, because I don’t mormon all the time. (I didn't.)

That weekend was when I really started to understand how I was wearing the church, but it wasn’t my skin.

It was a performance, a thing I did because I thought I had to. To be loved, to be accepted, to be good enough.

I wrote once about the church being a dress I pulled over my naked—my true—self. And how it had chafed me.

Since that time, I have not changed. I mean—I have changed, in many ways. But what hasn't changed, what has propelled me to make the other changes, is the desire to be loved or accepted for who I am. To feel like I am enough. Not because I don't want to continue to work, to improve, to be a better person. I do. But, for me where I am, here in my late forties, an orphan, almost an empty nester: at this point in my life, I am done pretending. I am done acting. I am done with needless bloody wounds. If my true self isn't good enough, that's not going to change. So I am embracing (or, learning to embrace) who and what my true self is.

As see it, not as an old white male church leader thinks I should be.

Not going to church for over a year, turning the mountains into my chapel, energy drinks and trail mix into my sacrament: these are some of the methods I’ve used to help myself take off the dress. The chafing has started to heal.

But there will always be scars, and what I mean by that wrought metaphor is that while I am not going to church right now, and I am deeply concerned, hurt, and bothered by many things in the church, it is also a part of who I am. It is long, deep scars on my true self, but there is also beauty in it, too. Memories of friendships and activities I did with my kids; even though they are complicated by doubt and frustration, the memories of their sacred days are valuable to me still.

Have I left the church?

In a sense, I can’t. I can’t because the church can’t leave me.

Will I ever go back to church? I am not sure, but maybe this is only because I am afraid to say “no.” Maybe because I am not ready to draw a line in the sand. Maybe because I don’t ever have to draw the line, because despite the chafing and the bloody dress and all that heartache, anger, doubt, despite it all there is still a hope in me.

A hope that I could take my authentic, scarred, naked, real self to church and be accepted.

If that could happen, I might go back.

Heartsore, with a Lump in My Throat

(Warning: This post is very Mormony. It’s a Mormony rant, and it will maybe only make sense to other Mormon people. Perhaps if it wasn’t so painful I could make it applicable to others outside of Mormondon, but right now? Right now it’s too painful.)

This weekend is the Mormon church’s general conference. Instead of going to regular meetings, we listen to our leaders via a television broadcast.

Well, I’m using the term “we” pretty loosely there. I’ve never been able to fully commit to all sessions of conference (there are at least four) like the good Mormons all do. Partly because it wasn’t a tradition for me as a kid; we didn’t have the kind of family who made sweet rolls and dedicated the weekend to listening. I’d like to think we reveled in the crowd-free spaces of a Utah county drained of most of its population, but honestly, I don’t think we even noticed it.

When my kids were growing up, I did try sometimes to have them watch at least a session or two. When the push back on that was too much, I turned it into a private thing; I’d listen to conference with my headphones on while I went on a long run or worked in my yard. Like everything in my life related to the church, my efforts were incomplete and imperfect.

Last fall, though (general conference happens in both April and October). Last fall is when I truly and freely admitted to myself that I couldn’t bear to listen to it. To the sing-song voices of the women speakers mirroring back what men had told them their whole lives. To men who know absolutely nothing about the realities of my life telling me how to be a good person in the world, what I could wear, how I should feel. How God loves me (or doesn’t, depending). (You can read more about my experience last fall in this guest post I wrote for Sister’s Quorum.)

Of course, I live in the heart of Mormon country. So even though I am actively not listening, I am still hearing. And I am filling up with sadness. I am realizing that I have never been at home in this church. I tried—to teach my children, to be an example, to learn and read and study. To listen. But I have always twisted here. I have always had to try to make it work, to make it fit, knowing that the effort was only for me because my individual voice will never matter here.

There is a litany I could build, of the way I have struggled, of the concepts that sometimes don’t make sense and sometimes just feel entirely wrong.

But they all have help me build a deep and abiding belief that I am secondary, less-than, unworthy because my efforts have been imperfect.

I don’t know how to believe that God loves me.

What I do know is that the church, which has at its core the belief that the most important thing is families—that Mormon church was a wedge in my family. It made me resent my husband when he wasn’t able to support my church efforts. It made my children resent me. It caused wounds that perhaps will never fully heal.

I tried to create the perfect Mormon family and if you asked many other Mormons, they would say I failed. My kids aren’t going to serve missions or be married in the temple or be active in the church.

And I have made peace with that. I want them to thrive and be happy and love their lives. I want them to fulfill their ambitions, to be capable adults who help the world in whatever way works with their skills and personalities. I want them to love and to be loved. They are good people and I love them, and I sorrow over my mistakes.

No—it’s not that I’ve made peace. It’s that I’ve let go of thinking that raising a perfect Mormon family is the only way to be happy. Is the only way to be good, the only way for God to love me.

Not just for my family, but for everyone. Not just for everyone, but for myself. “There’s no right way to do a wrong thing” is something someone said in this weekend’s conference, but I can’t do that anymore. I actually never did only think in black and white. Because what is a wrong thing and what is a right thing? I tried to do the right thing, or at least, what I thought was the right thing, but it turned out to be the wrong thing for my children. Is it because I didn’t do the right thing right enough? Or is it because I let the voices of old white men who know absolutely nothing about the realities of my life guide me in black and white, right and wrong?

It is both terrifying and exhilarating to be in this place I find myself in. I don’t know what my next step will be. Maybe this is yet another mistake I am making, maybe if I just tried harder to be a good Mormon everything would be repaired. But I don’t want any more magical thinking. I want to live in this world where I am, I want to love these people who I have in my life, and those who cannot love me because I’m not good enough are free to turn elsewhere for friendship. I want to define for myself what makes a good person and a good life, and that is exhilarating.

But I still find I am heartsore, with a lump in my throat.

Because, maybe, I invested so much of myself there. Because there is still that voice in my heart that tries to scare me, to make me make decisions based on fear. Because I wanted it to be true, to be as easy as “follow my voice and you will find happiness.”

Finding my voice, soothing my heart, dissolving that lump. Knowing how to proceed: this is difficult. I don’t know what my life might look like even six months from now. This isn’t a declaration, really. It is just me taking one more step into greyness without fooling myself into believing that the shadows aren’t there and that the grey is all the light there is.

The Grounds Outside of the Temple

(Preface to this post: This is a really Mormony post. The audience in my head for this one is a Mormon person who already knows the Mormon culture and belief system; I have to write with that audience in mind, because if I stopped to explain all of those details this post would be a novel. And it’s already long enough.)

The last time I went to the temple, it was for my nephew’s wedding. In the ceremony, the sealer said something that was deeply healing to some of the wounds that had been festering in me. I had gone to the wedding with a little bit of trepidation, as I hadn’t been going to the temple regularly for many years, but just hearing those words made me be able to settle into my seat and relax just a little. As if I needed to be there to hear just those words; I needed them, and I heard them deep down into the aching tunnels of my spirit, and they ached a little less.

As I relaxed, I looked around me. There was my sister-in-law with her adult children next to her. There were my brother-in-law and his wife and their daughter and her husband. I looked across at the bride’s family: couples sitting together, daughters and sons, adult grandchildren. All together. Then I looked back into my lap, where my hands rested, held by no one. My peace dissolved; tears fell.

Before I went inside a temple for the first time, I would sometimes go to the temple grounds. I would wander them, and feel a sense of peace and comfort and of being loved by holiness, even when I was rebellious and angry and hated everyone. So for me, the outside of the temple is equally (or perhaps, I am learning, more) important than the inside.

Outside the temple
On that day of my nephew’s wedding, after the ceremony, I wandered around the temple grounds. This was a temple I hadn’t been to before, so seeing the architecture and the landscaping was my excuse if anyone asked. But really I wanted to find a quiet place to sit for a minute, to think about what I had experienced inside: an uncomfortable aversion at first, as if I really shouldn’t be there; that trickle of healing words; the way the peace dried up and was replaced with—I had to struggle to find a word, but then it came to me: loneliness.

I am not a lonely person.

I am comfortable in solitude. In fact, the peace and quiet of solitude are inherent to my happiness. Loneliness—how lonely it is here, and how well it suits you (Kafka)—loneliness isn’t something I feel very often, and never when I am by myself. I feel it most in a crowd of people, honestly, when I realize how I don’t fit in.

There, that day on the bench outside of the temple, as I named my feeling loneliness, I had that same experience I’ve had so many times, sitting on the grounds outside of a temple, a flash of understanding from God, the Universe, or Whatever it is that exists. This time, it was a heavy pressure on my shoulder, words in my head like a voice: You will always be alone here. You can continue to come, but be prepared: you will be alone.


Of course, “alone” is anathema to the temple. It is supposed to be the place you are not alone. You go there to make connections between people. Husbands and wives. Families. Ancestors. Even strangers.

My children aren’t interested in the church. My husband waffles. I could go with my mom, I suppose, or friends from church. But, looking back, I have almost always experienced the temple on my own. And this is mostly OK, except for the fact that the point of the temple is uniting families.

Sitting there that day, in the hot summer sun, I understood that my family will not be united in that way. That I can continue forward, trying to live this faith, but that I will never really be a whole part of it.

I will always be the person who doesn’t really fit.

Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever fit. I became active in the Mormon faith when I was 19, although I was born into a family that was, on paper, Mormon. When I decided to try out the religion I had (sort-of) been raised in, I thought I was doing it because it was what I was supposed to do. Now, looking back with the knowledge I have accumulated in almost thirty years of trying to be a “good” Mormon, I am not so sure it was about what I was supposed to do. Instead, I think it was about me trying to prove something, to my parents and to myself and to God: that I was Good. That my years of being bad (as a teenager) were just a blip, that I wasn’t deep-down faulty, destined for hell. I drew the church around my nakedness like a cloak, like a gown that glittered with Goodness. Look how good I am, living the way I’m supposed to live! Do you love me now? What if I try harder? Do I fit in yet?

But it was never my body. It was always a covering.

Now, on the other side of so many life experiences, I am starting to want to embrace my body. By which I mean, my naked self, uncloaked by religion. Ungowned.

I don’t want to hustle anymore. I don’t want to work for love. To prove myself to my mother, to my neighbors and friends and family members. Even to God. I want to stand naked and be loved for who I am. Deeply faulty, cracked all over, stubborn and rebellious and questioning. Angry and determined to wander where my feet take me. Unable to follow the rules and regulations. I want to be loved as God has made me, both through birth and through the experiences of my life. Not despite my failings, but along with them.

The first time I went to the temple, when I was at the beginning of my quest to Be a Good Person, going to the temple was itself part of the quest. Good Mormon girls get married in the temple to a returned missionary, so that was what I did. But even then, even my first time going, when I listened to the words of the temple endowment, it was jarring. It was a place of fear for me, because one wrong step or action or breath would prove I wasn’t Good. And besides: the words themselves didn’t make any sense. My thoughts were: hmmmmm, I think what they just said means this, but of course God doesn’t mean that, so I must not understand.

I stayed because I was also going to the temple for my future family, to make sure they could all Be Good People too, and hopefully without the same struggle I had to Be Good.

Still, future family aside, I didn’t go back for years after my wedding. When I did return, I went alone. It felt like it required courage; I needed to be brave, to go over and over until it wasn’t a place of fear.

I went enough that the fear faded away. Mostly faded. But what never went away was that thought: this isn’t really what God means. I grappled over and over with how male-centric the experience was, and how it didn’t make sense. Despite getting over my fear of the temple, despite the fact that I had many beautiful spiritual experiences there, it was never fully right to me. If the Mormon theology was a garment I had put on, the temple was a badly-sewn seam, at first only bothersome, but as time passed, irritating and then chafing and then bloody and then finally too painful to bear.

I haven’t gone to the temple regularly in years.

Not even to sit outside of it, anymore. I couldn’t get rid of the abrasive seam without deconstructing the whole garment. So I ignored it, as best I could, and continued to bleed.

This week, the church made some changes to the wording in the temple. In theory, these changes repair the seam.

But by making these changes without acknowledging the pain the earlier version caused, the church does more damage. The changes are important for the people who are going for the first time, but for me they are too late. The wound is still here. I am still bleeding. I still have the memories all of those times of trying to grapple with words and ideas that felt like they were not from God, and the way I grappled with them was by turning inward to myself and trying to figure out what was wrong with me. When I tried to grapple with them by talking to other people about them, I was met with raised eyebrows: if I were faithful enough, wise enough, good enough, the things that seemed problematic would no longer be problems.

I am grateful for these changes. I am grateful that in the future, no other 19-year-old who is trying to prove she is Good will enter a place that is supposed to feel holy and leave feeling less.

But it doesn’t heal anything for me. That wound is still a cut the church refuses to see. Wants me to continue to pretend doesn’t exist.

And maybe I could do it—if I weren’t standing alone. If I could have the togetherness of what the temple promises. But that day at my nephew’s wedding changed me. God’s voice in my head, their pressure on my shoulder. My family is my family and I love them all, and I have no doubt at all that even without the temple, they are all good people. My family is perhaps not the typical Mormon family. But I wouldn’t change any of them for anything else. I wouldn’t, I am realizing, want any of them to carry the chafe, the bloody messy wound. I want them each to know they are good, and that goodness isn’t really about the temple or missions or church.

I am finished (or, at least: I am trying to be finished) with placing all of my self worth in Being a Good Person.

Because that prompting I had the last time I went to the temple is perhaps one of the truest things I know: I am alone. All of us are. Some people are able to go to the temple and not be scarred at all, to only find joy there. More people in the future will be able to do that, I believe, because of the recent changes. But that isn’t because they are a part of the group I will never fit into. It is because that is who they are, the way God made them and their life’s experiences have shaped them. Just as I am and mine have.

A friend asked me if the changes would make it easier for me to go to the temple. My husband asked me something similar, as did my sister. I am struggling to put my response into words. Part of me overflows with rejoicing. Part of me is exactly the same, scraped raw, bleeding, and pretending that my white, glittering gown isn’t seeping red at my side.

The changes are a start, of course. But they cannot be the end, if the church honestly wants to heal me and the other women who it has damaged. Until the pain is acknowledged, until it is visible, the wound cannot heal.

So I think my answer is this: I don’t think I can go inside yet. Maybe not ever. But maybe I want to go back to the grounds. To wander through flowers and touch the marble stonework. To maybe find again that God I used to find, before I tried to cover up who I am with the dressing of a Good Person, the God who loved me anyway.

I’m just not sure yet what I’m going to do with this bloody dress.

What is Written on My Heart: Thoughts on Jeremiah 29

My responsibility at church for the past three years has been teaching about the scriptures. I have a complicated response to this responsibility. On one side, I love teaching. I love having the opportunity to explore more deeply ideas that I only have vague concepts about. I love having thoughtful discussions with different members of our congregation. I have learned so much about the scriptures and the life of Christ.

On the other hand, there is a moment in nearly every lesson I have taught—sometimes more than one moment, but several—when I find myself deeply buried in frustration, disbelief, annoyance, and incredulousness. Not only have I learned more about Jesus and the Bible, I have learned many things about Mormonism that have troubled me. I think this comes as a result of having grown up in a family that looked sort-of Mormon, even though we rarely acted very Mormon, or did Mormon-y things. (You can read more HERE about what I mean if you're interested.) I look like a life-long LDS person, but really I am a convert, but since I don't seem, on paper, to be a convert no one noticed just how little I actually knew about Mormonism.

Myself included.

So many times during the last year, while I've been preparing my lesson, I will reach a point of exasperation when I cannot believe that this is what my faith believes. An extreme example: the moment I realized that many people think the story of Noah is a literal historical fact, a thing that actually happened. (Give it two seconds of critical thought and you start to see that while it's a great story you can learn quite a bit about faith from, it cannot be literally possible.) This is likely a belief that's found in many Christian faiths, though, if not all. I've also bumped against many, many supposed "truths" that LDS people believe that I simply do not. My life and my holy experiences have taught me other things.

So in a sense (a very large sense, in fact), this teaching of the scriptures has been damaging to my faith as a Mormon person. I ask myself every time I prepare a lesson: why am I doing this? And I am not sure: is that why referring to the lesson itself? or Mormonism in general?

But then, with almost every lesson I prepare, I also have learned more about Christianity in general. While I am far from a learned scriptorian, I have gleaned some knowledge that has helped me in personal ways. A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson based on Jeremiah 29 and 31. One of the sections I read and discussed has continued to stay with me; it was one of those rare lessons when I could totally overlook what the Mormon take on the scripture was in order to have my own spiritual experience with it.

We started by discussing the idea of having God's truth written on our hearts. The lesson guide suggested that we illustrate this when we do things like dressing modestly, reading "good" books, and listening to appropriate music. This idea made me frustrated, as for me, God's truth that has been written on my heart is far, far deeper than external proof or cultural rules.

What having God's truth written on my heart made me think of, actually, was a scene from American Gods. When I read it in the novel, it impacted me, but when I saw it on the TV show? I literally had to walk out of the room I was crying so hard. In this scene, an elderly woman, after dying while cooking dinner for her family, is taken by the Egyptian god Anubis to a place where her heart would be measured. If it is light as a feather, she has made a good life and can choose how her afterlife is spent; if it isn't light enough, she is banished.

This made me cry so hard partly because dying while I cook dinner for my family seems like a good way to go, but mostly because I could picture myself in her place, kneeling in the sand, my beating heart being measured. I thought of all of the ways I have failed to be good, the kindnesses I have withheld, the way I have buried the light of whatever talents God gave me, the mistakes I have made as a parent, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. Were it my heart on that scale, it would never be light enough. 

As I thought about that scene and my reaction to it, mixing it with the concept of God’s law being written on my heart, I started to imagine what, in fact, my heart might look like at the end of my life. Both the literal heart shape and the metaphorical “heart”—my personality, my goodness, my self in its totality. I saw my heart as a giant, weighty thing, with the knowledge I have gained inscribed deep into the flesh, some sections wild, meaningless swirls, others intricate and beautiful fleur-de-lis patterns. And what was it, what made those etchings like scars and paths and tattoos on my heart?

The sacred experiences of my life. Not the times I followed the rules, but the times I made the right choice. Or the times I made the wrong one and learned something. The times I forgave and the times I was forgiven. The simple, sweet moments: laughing with my children in our backyard, pushing a baby in a swing at the park, talking with a friend, holding my husband’s hand. Sitting on the floor of my kitchen eating pizza and watching the snow fall. Moments when time seemed to stand still while I was deep inside the creative process. Falling asleep; waking in a comfortable bed to a new day.

Is that God’s law written on my heart?

Maybe some would disagree, but I think it is, and here’s why. Chapter 29 of Jeremiah is a letter he wrote to the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon. In this letter, he writes something that reveals an important thing about God. He said that God has “caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon” these Jewish people. He allowed it to happen, for them to have to leave the city of their nation and to live somewhere strange, with new customs and people they haven’t known for decades. God allowed them to be banished.

But he doesn’t say “sit there and weep.” Instead God says: build houses, live in them, plant gardens, create families. Make a life.

This: this is what is holy. This is what matters. Making our lives. Living our lives we are given. We are all of us eventually or occasionally exiles in our lives. We all find ourselves banished, in some form or other. That God lets this happen is, I believe, one of God’s laws. Horrible things happen everywhere to everyone. And even in the midst of these sorrows, God wants us to still work on creating our lives.

It is through these acts of creation that our lives gain meaning.

And it is through these lives that God teaches us the individual things we must learn, each in our own lives. It is through these things that we come to know God, that his law is written in our hearts.

I felt this thing, and I tried to express it in my lesson, although I’m not sure I did. But a few days later, I had what I had tried to say, what I knew was true but couldn’t find the exact words for, put into the exact words I was trying to find. In a novel, Eternal Life by Dara Horn:

“Many days and years and people had passed before she understood that the details themselves were the still and sacred things, that there was nothing else, that the curtain of daily life itself was holy.”

The curtain of daily life itself is holy.

I don’t know if my heart will ever be light as a feather. I don’t know if I will ever be good enough, or understand exactly what is right. I know I will continue making choices, the right ones and the wrong ones. I know that this is what is sacred, what is holy, what is God’s law inscribed on my heart: live my life.

The LDS Church and its Relationship with Abuse in Marriage

In my life, I tend to figure out things by writing about them. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but for me, writing is a thinking process (as well as a form of therapy sometimes): I start with a concept that is troubling me, and if I write about it enough I can eventually understand how I feel about it. It is much harder for me to do this with spoken words.

One of the concepts that I write about quite a bit in my personal journal is my relationship with my faith. I am a Mormon person, and this relationship shapes quite a bit of my life. I cannot say it is an easy relationship, and sometimes I’m not sure it is a good relationship. But not always, and there are things I love about my faith. It helps me be a better, kinder, more Christ-like person.

I don’t blog about my faith very much, however (even though this is my second religion-based post this week!), because my relationship is so complicated. I think the non-Mormon part of society sees LDS people in two lights: weirdos or saints. I barely have the emotional energy to work out my own issues, let alone explaining how we fall somewhere in between that spectrum (as all faiths do; as all people do).

But I woke up this morning thinking a strange thought: not my church. In the same tone as the hashtag “not my president.” This is because of the Rob Porter issue happening in Washington right now, not because there is yet another example of trump-era squalor, but because Porter is also LDS. It really isn’t the White House I am upset with. Like draws to like; I am no longer surprised by the corruptness driving our nation’s leadership. Of course trump would hire a man who beat his wife, because trump is a man who sees women as objects, not as people; he would likewise be drawn to men who see women in the same light.

No, who I am upset with in this issue is the LDS church. My faith. Because both of Porters’ wives went to their bishops (which is the ecclesiastical leader we are closest with) and asked for help…but neither of them received it. The details of these conversations aren’t shared anywhere that I know of, but as an LDS woman I can surmise what the “advice” was. “Work harder at your marriage.” “Be forgiving.” “Pray more.” Even, I would imagine, “you might be overreacting.”

This, friends, is not help. This is abuse. This is shaming. This is prioritizing appearance—LDS churches are full of happy, perfect families!—over reality. This is saying that keeping a marriage together is more important than safety, calm, kindness, or love.

This is making a golden calf out of marriage.

These sorts of things happen because in the LDS church, the leadership is made up of lay clergy: everyday members who are chosen as leaders. There is wisdom in this practice—sometimes. But there is also the possibility for great folly here. Being called to be the bishop doesn’t impart all of the world’s wisdom. A bishop is still just a man with his usual knowledge. And unless that bishop also happens to be a trained therapist or psychiatrist, he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to help an abused woman. He can offer to pray for her. He could give her a blessing of comfort. But if his first piece of advice isn’t either “here is a list of therapists who might be able to help” or “what can I do to help you get to a safe place?” then he is perpetuating the abuse.

In my life, I have asked a bishop for help exactly one time. This was when I was a teenager, and my bishop also happened to be the principal of my high school. When I was deep inside my darkest and hardest years, I went to him and asked for advice. His answer? “You used to be a gymnast. Why don’t you join the cheerleading squad? You would be comfortable in those short skirts they wear.” No effort was made to explore why I was behaving the way I was. It was just assumed that I was a bad person, and that could be redeemed by…what? Encouraging the football team to win via flashing them my lovely legs? Those aren’t the words of a loving, religious leader. Those are the words of a man who has no clue how to help someone with mental health issues, and also a man who has no clue as to how damaging words can be.

That conversation was a form of spiritual abuse.

Nor was it, I have learned, an isolated incident.

Abuse isn’t a thing that can be “fixed.” The abuser’s actions aren’t caused by the abused person’s behaviors; they are the responsibility of the abuser, not the abused. Praying for it to end won’t make it end. Working harder to be a “good” wife won’t make it end.

Ending the relationship makes the abuse end.

I’m obviously not a trained psychologist. I’m no more equipped to help a woman who is being abused than my bishop is. Except for the fact that I am a woman. And I have friends who have been physically abused by their husbands. And also because I am not sure I have ever met a man who isn’t capable, in some form or another, of emotional abuse (not even my own husband). Except, the first thing I read this morning was Colby Holderness’s essay in The Washington Post. Even without that photo of her black eye, even with just her words, there is no doubt that Rob Porter is lying when he denies these accusations. The voice she writes with is the voice of a woman who has experienced abuse. You learn those intimate details only one way: by experiencing it.

And when she did experience it, her religious leaders didn’t help her get out.

Leaders of my faith tell us often that they value women. But this sort of story makes me ask: what are we valued for? As living, breathing human beings with purpose, ambition, goals, with the burning desire to live all of this life we’ve been given? Or as wombs?

If it is as wombs, then the church is no better than the president: it sees women as objects (albeit in a different light).

If it is as human beings, it is time for the church to act instead of just offer words. It is time for the church to listen to women and then to help them in functional, productive, healthy ways. I have no doubt that the Mormon church can do this. There are probably instances when it does. But Colby Holderness’s experience is the reality, not the exception.

And I know: I know some of my very closest friends might be cringing at this little post of mine. They might be thinking I am apostate, or I lack faith, or who are you to criticize the church? Who I am is a person with a conscious and a brain that God gave me, and a faith that is centered in Christ who said “do unto others.” I am a woman who believes with every ounce of my being that women matter as much as men. And I will not be quiet. I will not hush my voice or squelch my knowledge. And my knowledge is this:

The church must do a better job. It must stop being afraid to acknowledge the fact that abuse, both emotional and physical, happens. Even in the very “best” of LDS families it happens. Prayer isn’t action; faith without works is dead. When a woman opens up to a religious leader about abuse, that religious leader has a moral obligation to assist rather than to shame. To act, to serve, to do something.

Sometimes I write about my faith in order to figure out how to make sense of it. But I will not twist this into something sensible. It is something wrong. It is a symptom of a deeper problem: the belief that holding the priesthood makes a man into a good man. It doesn’t, just like becoming a bishop doesn’t make a man into a professional capable of helping people with emotional trauma. But it is also easily fixed; bishops and other leaders should receive better training, and a large part of that training should be the skill of listening and then acting.

If the church truly values women as people, it must change.

on Finding Answers at Church

I have a confession: I have not been to all three of my church meetings since the beginning of November.

My excuse was Kendell’s surgery; I didn’t want to chance bringing home any germs whatsoever.

Really, after the election I was so disappointed in my fellow Mormons, 61% nationally and 45% in Utah, for voting for Trump, especially after so many before the election were not going to vote for him. I just did not want to go and sit in a congregation who, as religious people, could feel comfortable choosing someone who only “shares” one traditional Mormon value, being pro-life. (And I put “shares” in quotes because let’s be honest here: does anyone really believe that Donald Trump cares one bit at all if women get abortions? He cares about votes and he used “pro-life”—a term that is rhetorically ridiculous anyway—as a way to get votes.)

But this isn’t a political post.

This is a post about finding answers in church.

Colossians 3 15

Don’t get me wrong: I am still bitter about all the Mormon Trump voters. But a few conversations and some carefully-read Facebook statuses have reminded me that my little congregation has fewer than 45%. And after almost three months of only sporadic church attendance, I felt I needed to go more than I needed to object by not going.

So, I went to church this morning. All three meetings. And I paid attention. I went with a prayer in my heart, one of those prayers that, if uttered, would be a combination of a keen and the word “please.” I don’t even know how to name the help I need right now, as recent events (and I have now turned from political to personal) have ripped my heart out and left me absolutely stunned and in mourning (but which I can’t blog about, I’m sorry).

The answers I found at church were not solutions to these events. Not one thing has been solved. I still don’t know what to do or how to fix this problem I’m being vague about.

The answers reminded me, though, that the only thing I can shape, influence, or change is myself, because I only get to make choices for myself and how I will react.

And they gave me a little bit of peace.

So much of what I am trying to cope with has to do with choices, and with boundaries, and with knowing how to choose to act within or outside of those boundaries. In one of today’s classes, which was about reading the scriptures and nothing even close to my issues, the teacher reminded us that God does not force himself inside of our personal boundaries. He gives us a way to find Him, but he doesn’t make us come to him. He waits until we are ready to have Him enter our personal space.

I wish I could explain exactly how direct an answer that was to my “please.”

Even though it is a hard answer to cope with. It means waiting, outside. It means trying to be patient, like Christ has been patient with me. It means I cannot fix, or help, or do, but only try to send love through space and into a heart. It means the keening of my heart will continue indefinitely.

Maybe I did learn, a little, what to do. Maybe I just don’t know how yet.

Two of my answers came through hymns. We sang “Now Let Us Rejoice,” which is a Mormon hymn through and through, written by one of the early saints after a particularly trying experience they had as they crossed the plains. I’ve likely sung it one million times in the past twenty years, but this time, this time. I couldn’t get through the third verse, which has these words:

In faith we'll rely on the arm of Jehovah
To guide thru these last days of trouble and gloom,
And after the scourges and harvest are over,
We'll rise with the just when the Savior doth come.
Then all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And they will be crown'd with the angels of heav'n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Christ and his people will ever be one.

This experience I am vagueblogging about is one I can only witness. Much damage has already been done in the making of space. It has been made clear that my help is unwanted and unhelpful, and even though I love this person, the only thing I can do is watch. And I very much will have to lean on Christ’s shoulder to do this. These are some days of trouble and doom for me, darker than I know how to cope with, and I think we are only at the beginning of the scourges. I’m not particularly good at this—at relying on Christ. But with this situation, it is all I can do. So that promise at the end—really, I don’t want crowns. I just want to be one with my people, in the way I had imagined but am not being allowed to right now. That is what I want.

The only way out is through and I think there will be a long road of stumbling in the dark for me.

So I will try to remember to lean on Christ’s arm. Maybe even cry on His shoulder.

The other hymn that moved me was “Count Your Blessings.” Especially these words:

Amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all.

I mean to count my blessings in this blog post. To write a long list of everything I am grateful for right now. Perhaps I will do that tomorrow. But tonight, I think I needed to write this instead: I am having a hard time. With my family, with my faith. I didn’t want to go to church, but I did, and I found help there. It wasn’t the miraculous, everything-is-fixed sort of help. But it was miraculous in a small, gentle way. My answers were this: give space, lean on Christ, remember there is light even in this darkness.

The keening in my soul is still loud and sharp. I am still unable to articulate what might need to happen for things to get better. But, I went to church with a prayer in my heart, and I found some things that brought me the smallest bit of peace and knowledge. A little bit of light to illuminate my next few steps. And that will be enough to keep me moving, if not exactly forward, at least not backward. At least I am not standing still.


Sunday Thoughts: Whosoever will Come

A few years ago in Relief Society (the women’s organization of the LDS church), something infuriating happened to me that made me vow to change how I react. We had a lesson about modesty—never my favorite lesson to teach, let alone listen to, as I think our rhetoric places too much blame on women’s bodies and not enough responsibility on men’s thoughts. But I sat through the meeting, gritting my teeth a little bit, until one of the women in the class raised her hand to make a comment. “The mothers of teenage girls in our ward need to set a better example,” she declared, “at dressing modestly. There is just too much skin shown here, and who else will these girls learn from if not their mothers?”

I sat for a few seconds in stunned silence. I knew exactly who she was talking about: me and a few other women (not of whom, actually, have teenage daughters anymore) who dress…I don’t know. In pencil skirts, in skirts that skim our knees, in tops that show our structure. I don’t think I’m immodest. Maybe she thinks my clothes are too tight or my skirt is too short, but mostly I don’t care because A—I dress to make myself happy, not anyone else and B—I am teaching my daughter (and my sons, for that matter) that what matters most is our voice and how we use it, not our external appearance. But instead of saying anything, I blushed. I felt, for a second, literal shame. And then I felt annoyance and frustration and resentment, and instead of saying anything I just walked out of the class for a few minutes.

But this isn’t a post about modesty.

That Sunday afternoon, that women’s comments, but mostly my lack of courage, changed me. I went home fuming and was ranting to Kendell about it when he asked me what my response was. And I had to tell him: my response was silence.

And silence is implicit agreement.

I decided that day that I will not be silent any longer. I don’t want to be aggressive or antagonistic, but God gave me a brain, thoughts, and opinions, and just because they might not coincide with the majority way of thinking doesn’t mean they aren’t valid.

For the most part, I have stuck to the promise I made to myself. Then, a few months ago, I was asked to be the gospel doctrine teacher.

And for the entire week before my first lesson, I thought about that Sunday experience, about how often I doubt myself because my normal thought pattern or response is so wildly different than a “typical” Mormon’s. For many years I have let this truth make me feel less-than. But I am learning that it doesn’t. Sitting in a room with people who only echo back what everyone else says isn’t learning. It’s not really thinking, it’s just going through the motions.

So I made another decision—another promise to myself: If they want me to teach Sunday School, I will happily teach it. But they called me, not pretend-Amy, the one who is silent because she thinks her non-typical response might offend someone or, even worse, make people think she is weird. I am weird, I am different, I am the person my choices and experiences have created. And I’m not a mirror, reflecting back what everyone thinks they already know. I’m a person, and I will teach with my personality, my experiences, my truths; I will share my ideas even if they are different than what everyone else might think.

I think I have done that so far. Or, at least, I am getting better at it. I know my every-other-week classes aren’t the Amy Show. The classes should be about learning and understanding the doctrine of the church. So I have strived for a balance and I haven’t always shared my most radical thoughts. But I have stayed true to what I know.

In today’s lesson, we discussed this scripture:

Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me. (3 Nephi 9:14)

I love this scripture.

It is Christ inviting us. It is Christ telling us how we can find Him: we just have to take his hand. So much is implied. Namely, that it is a choice. He doesn’t say “you have to come to me.” He says if. He gives us room to choose, and in that space all the difference is made for me.

And He also says this word, this ungainly but infinitely important word: whosoever. He doesn’t say All of you who are perfect can come to me. Or All of you who haven’t ever sinned, not really, you can come. He doesn’t say “only men” (even though that “him” might suggest that), he doesn’t say “only white people,” he doesn’t say “only those with the correct lineage.” He just says whosoever.

Whosoever choses.

I discussed this. And then I discussed my dad, who was a good man raised by an agnostic mother, who struggled with many things about the church, who went to the coffee shop nearly every morning of his adult existence. And I can’t help but think what if? What if someone had made it clear that he, too, could come unto Christ, even though he drank coffee?

Then I suggested to the class that we have to be better at this.

But I didn’t stay entirely true to my goal of being regular Amy instead of pretending-I’m-a-real-Mormon Amy. Because what I wanted to say is this:

I think as a church we are horrible at encouraging people to come to Christ. I mean, sure. We encourage each other, all of us who go to church. But we have ideas about who can really come unto Christ. As a woman, I have felt it harder to reach out and grab his arm of mercy, because it seems that men have all the real power and Christ, after all, is a man. As a person with a rather brightly checkered past, I have felt I couldn’t really come unto Christ, because sure: repentance and atonement, but deep down I don’t really feel the same as the blithely non-checkered I am surrounded with.

But it is, of course, bigger than me. Because what if my dad could’ve been loved and welcomed at church, despite his coffee drinking? What if your friend who drinks beer could also come to church and not feel like someone’s project, but just like a member of the congregation? What if we all only worried about bringing our own selves to Christ, and assumed everyone else was also worthy of bringing themselves to Christ?

Because Christ Himself told us: whosoever.

I was a little bit brave—suggesting that my dad should’ve been loved and embraced by our home congregation. Some people even nodded in agreement.

But I wish I would’ve been more forceful. I wish I would’ve been braver. I wish I would’ve said: we need to love more freely. Even though part of how we come unto Christ is through our obedience, everyone is learning different truths at different times. Everyone is somewhere within the process of reaching to grasp Christ’s hand. And feeling loved and accepted by the people around us makes it so much easier to reach out.

Christ doesn’t want us to wait until we’re “good enough” to reach for Him. It is through coming to Him that we reach different levels of goodness. That is why those who do reach for Him are blessed, and as a church we need to encourage all of the reachers, rather than batting their hands away and telling them to come back when they are all worthy.

Because we are all worthy—even me in my pencil skirt and flouncy top, with my baggage and my mistakes and my history.

And maybe that’s why I needed to say what I didn’t say in my lesson, and why I am writing it now: because I also needed to be reminded that all can come to Christ.

Why I Don't Go to the LDS Women's Conference

In the LDS church (of which I am a member), each year we have two conferences where our leaders speak to us. These happen during the first week of April and October, and the week before the general conference is the women’s conference.

What’s that? A conference for women?

It seems like a thing I should love. But every year when it rolls around, I find myself in a little bit of agony. In theory, I should adore a night with talks by women (mostly) about what women might need to know.

But every year—at the end of September, at the end of March—I get a little bit sad, and frustrated, and annoyed, and sad again.

I confess: I do not go to the Women’s Conference. I don’t go to the meal beforehand that is sometimes held, I don’t listen to it on the radio or watch it on TV. I usually read the talks when they are published a month later. But attending the actual conference is untenable to me. Tonight, as I was discussing this with Kendell over a bowl of pumpkin curry at our favorite Thai place (after he’d noticed that the tables were mostly full of dads and sons), I felt like it was a thing I should write about. (Perhaps in the hopes that I am not the only one.)

So here it is, my list of the reasons why I don’t go to the Women’s Conference:

  1. I liked the old system better. When Haley was still a teenager, the church handled the conferences in a different way. In March, the focus was on the young women (ages 12-18); in October, the focus was on the Relief Society (women older than 18). Right after she graduated, the system was changed. I feel very grateful that this change didn’t happen until after she finished with the Young Women program, as the times we went to Salt Lake for the Young Women’s Conference were some of my favorite outings of her adolescence.

Now, however, each Women’s Conference is for all girls ages eight and up. And while I partly understand this change—to be welcoming and inclusive to the younger generations I suppose—it takes away my ability to feel like the talks can focus on my needs. Does that sound selfish? It probably is. But such an age span means the talks must be both more broadly applicable and less oriented to specifics, so as to appeal to so many different ages, needs, life experiences, and knowledge. I have found less personally-relevant talks since this new system was put into place.

  1. I dislike being spoken to like I am a child. Some of the speakers, maybe knowing that the audience includes younger girls, modulate their voices in a way that makes me—well, quite frankly, it drives me bonkers. It is the way kindergarten teachers speak to their charges, the tone of smiling women speaking encouraging, kind, simple words very, very gently. Maybe they speak that way all the time, maybe I am old and crotchety and bitter and harsh (actually, strike that “maybe"); maybe I will never be one of those women who think all women need mothers and so step in to mother them. I’d like to write “I don’t need a mother” except I sort of do, as my relationship with my mother feels so fractured and troubled right now. Really what I don’t need is someone talking to me in a high, sing-songy, kind voice. Whatever they are saying gets lost for me in how they say it.
  2. It isn’t really a women’s conference. Much as I usually like what the male leaders happen to say during the women’s conference (at least they don’t say it in that treacly tone of voice), their very presence “presiding” at a women’s conference frustrates me. Until women do the whole damn thing—or, shockingly, until women are invited to speak at the male priesthood session of conference—calling it a “women’s conference” isn’t quite right. In fact, it is a symbol of what frustrates me most about the church right now.
  3. It is too painful. Much of the social context of the conference is about women going with their tribe of women and, as pathetic as it sounds, I don’t have one of those. I have one daughter who isn’t interested in the church right now. I have a mom who would likely go with me if I asked, but remember that fractured/troubled thing? As much as I love her, asking her to go with me hurts more than going by myself. I have a sister who lives only two miles away from me, but she doesn’t need to go with me—she has daughters to go with, or a bunch of women friends. Ditto my sister-in-law. I have friends, of course—but they already have their tribes of friends or sisters or big family groups they go with. Would they invite me to come along? Of course. Would I feel awkward and on the outside? Yes; in the words of Luna Lovegood, “It's like having friends.” No one wants to get a sympathy invite. And sure, I could go by myself and sit by myself, I could even go and sit with someone friendly in my ward who I sort-of know. But watching all of those women in their tribes while I am tribeless only reminds me of the complicated relationships I have. It reminds me of what I don’t have, of what I messed up, of what I don’t know how to fix.

And it’s not just during the meeting. It’s after the meeting, too, when the Thai restaurant and every other eating establishment will have filled up with women. Moms, daughters, grandmas, granddaughters, aunts, cousins, sisters, friends. Keeping their tribes strong while I walk home by myself. And then it’s the Facebook posts, the photos of generations together, of old friends hanging out in their church clothes.

In fact I have to avoid Facebook altogether.

Likely there is someone reading this who is thinking “you just have to try harder. Go and find some friends.” Or “why don’t you fix things in your family then?” Or “stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Or even “socializing isn’t the point, learning is.”

And maybe one day in my life things will change and be better. Maybe the church will come to understand what equality really means. Maybe I will find a tribe. (I think the former is more likely to happen than the latter; I’m almost 45 years old. What tribe will have me now?)

But the truth is that, for now, the women’s conference is just too much. If not going makes me a bad Mormon….well, as much as I love the church, we all know that is not the first thing that’s made me a bad Mormon.

Provo City Center Temple Open House

I am a Mormon.

I have a complicated relationship with my religion: I grew up in a Mormon family who almost never went to church, even though we were all baptized when we were eight. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was excluded from friendships because we didn't go to church. I turned into a teenager who rebelled against almost everything the church taught for many reasons, partly because of that wound of being excluded, partly because I did not understand what the church teaches because I hadn't hardly ever gone.

I am sort of like a convert, constantly learning what being a Mormon means.

I am sort of like those Mormons who come from long lines of pioneer stock, since I do, in fact, come from a long line of pioneer stock—doubters and Jack Mormons nearly every one—which means I feel I own my religion enough to question it.

I may not rebel like I used to, but I do always question everything the church teaches. I hear something and I have to learn it for myself, have to understand how it fits within my own ways of thinking and being. And—maybe because I have always been on the fringes—some of what seems like doctrine to a traditional Mormon seems like utter rubbish to me.

I am comfortable on the fringe. I am doing the best I can with the situations I have and I am at peace with knowing my relationship will always be troubled.

But one thing I love about Mormonism, one thing that is the opposite of rubbish for me, is the temple. I love the temple, even though that complicated relationship means I don't go as often as I might.

When a new temple is built, anyone who wants to can tour it during the open house. After the open house, the only people who can go inside the temple are those with recommends, but during it, everyone can come on in, so our children and teenagers can see the temple then. We've had several new temples here in Utah since I was an adult who might choose to go to a temple open house, but I've only gone to three: the Timpanogos temple, the Oquirrh Mountain temple, and, last week, the Provo City Center temple. (Which means I missed Payson, Draper, Monticello, and Brigham City.)

Provo town center temple

I felt strongly that I needed to go to this temple open house. Provo is the next town south of where I live, so it's not a long drive, but it was something more than the proximity. Partly it is the history of the building—the new temple is an old building, which was almost destroyed by fire about five years ago. Before that, it was a tabernacle, and one of my great-great something grandfathers, Thomas Allman, made much of the woodwork inside it, including the pulpit. I always meant to take a tour of the tabernacle to see my ancestor's handiwork, but I never did. Part of my feeling about going to the open house was just to be inside a building that was important in my family history, even if the original work is gone.

But as an endowed person, I can go inside the temple after the open house, so it was something more than that.

It was built on a memory that surfaced very sharply for me this Christmas, when I was working on my Christmas writing prompts. The memory wasn't gone, but it wasn't something I'd thought about for a long time. One Christmas, when I was about nine or ten—about Kaleb's age—my parents took me and my sisters to Temple Square in Salt Lake City. In December, Temple Square is covered in lights, and for whatever reason, that year we went to see them. My memory is this: I'm standing in the dark in a garden square which is full of smaller, naked trees, each one bedazzled with white twinkle lights, looking up at the temple itself, the air made sharp by darkness and cold, and a thought comes. A feeling, but almost words: One day, you will be married here. I stayed there, in the dark, in the cold, in the light from the trees, a little bit astounded, my pagan heart a little bit quivery. It wasn't subtle, this feeling. It left a mark on me and I never, ever forgot how that felt.

Not like coercion.

Just like fact.

Even through my many years of rebellion and anger, I never forgot that moment. And, after many years and much changing and a conversion in my heart I was, in fact, married in the Salt Lake City temple.

And now, even more years later, here I am. The mom of two kids whose own relationship with the church is complicated. The mom of two more who I hope I can help form a less-perplexing relationship with the church. I think about my rebellious and disdainful self, and my friends who felt the same, and which of them came back to the church and which of them didn’t. I wonder—what changes a person’s heart? I can’t choose for my kids. I can’t make them have spiritual experiences or the desire to grown in faith. I can be an example, but in the end, they have to choose, like I chose.

But not a small factor in my choice was that experience at the temple so long ago.

So I took my husband and my two youngest kids to the temple open house. I had in my mind a photograph I wanted to have taken, after the tour, when we were outside the building. A picture I’ve seen on so many of my friends’ Facebook and Instagram pages, and on their blogs. A picture of the Perfect Mormon Family™. All of us together, all of us wanting to be there.

I don’t have that.

What I do have is this family. This family who I love. Some kids not, currently, interested in the gospel. (Or currently highly perturbed by it.) A husband who is sorta-kinda involved with church. My two youngest who came along because I wanted them to come. And me, with my imperfect, doubting faith.

Kendell was afraid that if I handed my phone over to a stranger, he or she would drop it, so I said, “Fine, then, you just take it of the three of us.” This was his first attempt:

Provo town center temple thumb

Then we tried again and got this:

Provo town center temple try again

Which is better but shows almost none of the temple spires, and we're surrounded by random people.

Then a kind old lady walked up to Kendell and said “here, give me your phone, you should be in the picture with your handsome tall sons and your beautiful wife” and I glared at him to yes, hand over the phone and quit acting so weird about it, so he did. And here are the pictures she took:


(That is a burst shot of Kendell's elbow as he walked over to us. Yep.)

I wanted to cry. Because isn’t that it? Isn’t this what life is always teaching me. I can want something. I can want something good. I can do what I can to make it happen. But there’s wanting, and then there’s reality, and there’s the interpretation of “good” in the first place. Maybe some people get the ideal. All of those families on social media, with their seemingly-willing hearts and their faithful smiles and their togetherness. Their kids on missions, their temple weddings. That is the Mormon version of “good.” The ideal everyone shoots for.

But if I am honest with myself, I know this: I’ve never been the ideal. I’ve never been the standard. I’ve always been on the fringe, so how could I expect to make the ideal, the standard, the perfect? There is this truth: I love my kids. Not despite but because. And also there is this knowledge: I might not have perfect kids (in the church’s eyes), but I do have some damn fine kids. They are smart and ambitious and want to make something of themselves. They are kind and they are good workers and one day they'll all be productive members of society. Their relationship with God, with faith, with religion—that is not only on my shoulders. Life will bring them their own spiritual moments and they will choose what to do.

And then, there was this moment:

After we had walked up the beautiful spiral staircase, Kaleb tugged on my sweater. I bent down so I could hear him, and he said “Mom! This place has a really good feeling. I didn’t think I wanted to come but this feels really, really nice. Maybe I will get married here one day.”

I remembered. Myself at his age, feeling that feeling. That feeling that stuck with me through everything. Everything.

Hopefully that feeling will stick with Kaleb.

Hopefully all of my children have been given something, something that will stick with them so that when the time is right, when things are better or hearts are mended or even when things are at their very, very worst, they will feel it again and they will know what to choose.