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.)
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:
Then we tried again and got this:
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.