Love IS Advocacy

Last week, one of the tidbits of local news catching everyone's attention was a story about a high school chemistry teacher. She taught at the same high school where I used to teach. On the first day of school, something set her off and she went off on a rant. She talked about how much she hates trump because he is a horrible person, her opinion of her students' parents who haven't gotten them vaccinated yet (she thinks they are stupid), how students who think environmental issues are a hoax can get out of her class, as could anyone who takes offense at her willingness to defend LGBTQ students.

One of the students in her class very carefully recorded this meltdown. As I watched her pace and shout, my body responded; I have been in her same shoes, feeling like a cheetah trapped in a cage, unable to get the words out fast enough to express my anger and frustration. I never melted down quite so spectacularly as she did (and no one recorded it) but I did have a few meltdowns. So as I watched, my response was one of empathy and compassion.

Friends and family members, and some of their friends, did not respond the same.

I should've just stayed out of the discussion on Facebook. I mean, when will I learn? I believe so firmly in standing up for my opinion. But when I do, especially over the last three years, it has been met by so much staunch opposition. Strike that—it's not the opposition to my opinion that bothers me. I am OK with not everyone agreeing with me, and wouldn't, in all honesty, want a world where everyone had the same opinion.

What I am struggling with is the derision that accompanies the opposition. The suggestion (or sometimes the outright spoken) idea that I'm one of those flaming left, special snowflake libtards who don't live in the real world. Last week in that discussion, someone much younger than me tried to explain both teaching and the difference between fact and opinion to me. (Gee, thanks. They didn't teach us any of that when I got my English degree. Or my TEACHING degree for God's sake.)

Even though I didn't engage as much as I could have, I left that discussion feeling a little bit bruised.

Definitely feeling that my extended family, for the most part, neither understands me not respects the types of intelligence I have. I felt supported by my daughter but very lonely otherwise.

All of which is the reason why I am writing about this week's local news on my blog instead of my Facebook feed. I still want to share my opinion but it feels safer here because of course most of them are too busy to read my silly little blog, which is just fine with me.

One of the leaders of the LDS church, which is the dominant faith in Utah, gave a speech yesterday. A very divisive speech about LGBTQ+ support and how it contradicts all of the church's teachings. The essence of the speech is that BYU is not a place that should be promoting equality. Alumni are hurting to see their old alma mater have things like Pride parades and Departments of Equality and especially, God forbid, professors who actually discuss gender equality in any form. The higher learning institutions of the One True Church shouldn't be places where those creepy gays feel welcome, and especially not the married ones. (If they keep it hidden it's OK to overlook it though. Secret, not sacred.) This leader actually, literally said this:

"We have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy."

And then he declared that students should defend traditional marriage and heteronormativity with bullets. With a musket. (Yes, yes, backpedal, it’s all metaphorical, but I hardly think that matters. Just using a metaphor of violence is violent.)

Deep breath.

I am so, so tired.

I am exhausted by all of the things in society (both specifically to Utah and in the world at large) that are cruel. Overwhelmed by how many issues there are to discuss and to fight for. Salary disparity. Poverty and homelessness. The stupid gondola some rich bastard wants Utah taxpayers to pay for in the canyon where his ski resort is. The fact that a news reporter yesterday said "Afghanistan is about to undergo a femicide." The fact that she is right. Global warming. Anti-vaxxers. The threats to Roe v. Wade. Housing and tuition prices. Racism. Women’s rights. Wildfires. Garbage patches in the ocean. (Just some of the issues I pay attention to, worry over, and contact my senator about.)

And over and over and over again, the church I used to think I loved reminds me that it is not a safe space. It isn't a place—the building nor the institution—where I can turn for refuge, comfort, acceptance, or love, but more tension, stress, and disappointment.

Let’s be clear: I’m not gay. In theory, what the church says about LGBTQ+ people doesn’t affect me personally.

But, then. My daughter is bisexual.

And I have many LGBTQ+ friends.

And even if I didn’t. I’m also not a bear in the woods but I still care how they are treated.

The implicit violence and disgust, the explicit lack of understanding. The way that talk makes the church the victim.

It is wrong.

Even if it doesn’t hurt me personally, it is wrong.

The church isn’t the victim. The irony is, the church created the victims by the way they treated—continue to treat—people who aren’t cisgender. They have excluded, derided, cast into outer darkness. And then they have the gall to say that members are hurting because of what professors are teaching about equality at BYU?

I’m sorry, but are you fucking kidding me?

Not many people have asked me. Even though I was an active church member for more than 25 years in the same congregation, when I stopped going to church only one very close friend in my neighborhood has discussed why with me. For the rest of them, I just disappeared. Which, really: that’s fine. I’m just acknowledging that I understand very few people might care to read what I’m going to write next.

But this: I could write an entire book about it (and have considered it, in fact), but when it all boils down to one specific point, this is why I stopped being able to go to church.

In the LDS church, there is one way to be good. You follow all the nintybillion rules they’ve made, for starters. And then you have to be “normal,” which is: white, preferably male, wealthy, and heterosexual. You must have children and then raise them to be the same way.

If you deviate from that normal, there is the appearance of acceptance, but deep down? At the root of it?

You aren’t really good. You can achieve good-ish, maybe, if you work really hard and are willing to accept that label, but you’ll never be really, truly, actually good.

I stopped going to church because I accepted two things: I am not their version of “good” and the vast majority of people I love deeply aren’t either. For the most part, the only marker I have for Mormon goodness is the color of my skin and my sexuality. I couldn’t pretend their version of goodness resonated with my version. Not for a second longer.

Once I began to understand and see that, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Even from the outside, it is glaring.

The church’s very narrow definition of what makes a good person does not work for me anymore. I am finding my own definition of goodness, and if I boil that down, here is how I see it:

Good people love each other. Good people try to treat each other kindly, take care of each other, and try to see people as individuals. They also try to take care of the earth, to see the world in realistic ways and understand their place within it—we all have so much to learn, improvements to make, and answers to seek out (no one knows them all. No one.)

So, for me, loving people who are LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean I love them despite that part of them. But because it is a part of who they are.

Love can’t be advocacy?

I believe advocacy is a part of loving people. We advocate for what we care about. And what I care about is people having access to the same freedoms—love, marriage, families, happiness, success, no matter their color, race, gender, religion or any other label.

And while I am tired, while I am right now finding it hard to advocate in large ways, I will continue holding on to knowing what I know. (Can an opinion be a fact too? I think it can.)

People deserve to be loved for who they are. My job is never to “fix” anyone, but to love them, and often loving them does look like advocating for them. If the LDS church doesn’t understand that, they don’t get to have me in attendance, and if that doesn’t bother them, that is OK.

One of my favorite thoughts comes from Rachel Carson:

We must be able to separate the trivia of today from the enduring realities of the long tomorrow. Having recognized and defined our values, we must defend them without fear and without apology.

For far too long, the trivia of today has been to invalidate people outside the norm. I hope I can somehow find the strength to contribute something more meaningful than that to the long tomorrow. Her words—and those of so many other writers, thinkers, creative types, artists, philosophers, and everyday people—have given me so much more courage to choose the right than those of the leaders of the church. I grieve for that still—I grieve to know I will never find peace or acceptance there, partly because I don’t fit but largely because so many others don’t fit either.

[I purposefully did not include a link here to the speech in question. You could google the quote I shared to find the complete text if you want to read it.]


There Where You Have Landed, Stripped As You Are

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.


Eau de Good Mormon

[This post is long and touches on religion. In fact, it sparked me making a new category, because it is a topic I would like to explore more even as I know it's not a topic that most people care about reading. I wanted to put a name to where I am at with my religion right now, and I ended up with "Mormon Fringe." As in...that is where I am. Still thinking about Mormonism but not really IN the church.]

As we reemerge from our shutdowns and quarantines, blinking again in the light of interacting with people in the same space, I am remembering that there is something I still have to process. I put it aside during the pandemic because I could, because my world was comfortably small: home with my family, and a few stints at work, passing people during a hike but not really engaging with them. Now I am out in the world a little bit more, I am rediscovering this. It didn’t ever get better, I just put it away because I wasn’t forced to pick it up, examine it, figure out what to do with it.

The thing is this: I don’t really fit here anymore.

(It’s also that I never really fit, but I didn’t clearly see it. Now I do.)

The reason I don’t fit in here (and by “here” I mean: deep in the heart of Utah County, where some ridiculously high percentage of people is staunchly LDS and so the majority is safe to assume that everyone is staunchly LDS) is mostly because I no longer go to church. There are many stories I could tell to explain why. Many experiences and realizations, so many months of grieving and aching and crying and then finally coming to a sort of peace and a sort of acceptance. Some things I have shared on my blog, but most of them I haven’t. Not because I am ashamed or don’t want to talk about it, but because most of the people in my life don’t want to listen to it.

One of the last public things I did in 2020 was a sewing class. I got a new sewing machine for Christmas in 2019 and it came with a free class, so I spent a Saturday at the Bernina shop, learning about my machine. I arrived with my machine and my hydroflask and my always-present hope…maybe I’ll find a new friend here? But, nope. I learned a ton that day about my machine, but I also learned something about myself. I had already not been going to church for a year, so honestly it had been awhile since I’d hung out with people from the UC at all. So as I watched and listened to the other people talking, laughing, and connecting it felt like anthropology. Like observing a society from the outside. That was my realization. I really don’t fit here, there is something different about me.

It was like…there is something they can read about each other’s body language that is an invitation. They just immediately find their connections: a son and a cousin who actually were mission companions in Guatemala, they are both primary presidents,  they each bought their machines because they wanted to learn how to sew ruffles to skirts to make them modest enough. My personal favorite were two women realizing they live only three blocks away from each other, in one of the fancy neighborhoods in Orem, on the east side of course. “Oh, don’t you just love living in there? The views are so amazing and the air is so clear and everyone’s landscaping is gorgeous!”

(And meanwhile I’m like…well, thank God they won’t even ask me where I live because I’m just down here on the flat part of Orem with the dirty air and the views of everyone’s trash landscaping and if I admitted that to them then they would know I am NOT seriously so blessed like they are.)

(I’m not bitter.)

Here in the Provo/Orem area, what it means to be LDS is to be a person who is ALWAYS and WITHOUT A DOUBT LDS. They prove it with their big east-side houses, with their top-of-the-line Suburbans (to carry their seven children of course), with the mission references and the temple-wedding references and the this-is-my-calling references. With their blonde hair and their modest clothes and the occasional flash of garment just so everyone knows they follow The Rules. They talk about it. (It seems it is all they talk about.) They assume everyone knows the cultural language they speak. They never have a thought enter their heads that someone else might be different than they are. And if you do happen to be different, it’s like they can smell it. They know there won’t be any connections to be made with you, so there is no reason to be friendly.

Even when I was trying my hardest to fulfill that appearance of “perfect Mormon person” I still didn’t really fit. They could still smell my wrongness. I was accepted on the surface, but actual, real relationships with my Mormon neighbors were few. And then as life progressed and I didn’t “earn” all the righteous blessings they did—I mean, it’s OK to start on the west side, it’s never being blessed enough to move up that proves your worth, and then none of my kids went on missions and actually none of them are even interested in the church and my husband was never a bishop and I was never a Relief Society president—my lack of those “blessings” proved I had earned the way I smelled. I didn’t do it well, I wasn’t righteous enough, I didn’t get the blessings I wanted because deep down I wasn’t good enough. If I were I would’ve earned those “good things” and would be happy.

Finally accepting that in part they were right—deep down, I am different—was one of the most freeing, if painful, processes of my life.

After that sewing class, I confess: I went home and cried. Honestly, every time I sit down at my machine I feel a little bit of a scrap of that feeling, that realization: I never fit because I don’t fit. I tried to fit for two decades, but just broke and tore and cut and scarred. It was a turn in my path, a realization and acceptance: stop trying to be someone you are not.

Of course, church members would say “no, there’s a place for you here, too. And maybe if you come and work harder, if you pray more and do more and believe more, if you stop being a lazy learner and just have a little faith, your children will turn around and everything will be OK, you just have to not give up.”

But here’s the thing.

I don’t want to sit in church and continue to feel bad that my kids didn’t turn out like everyone else’s did. I don’t want to be in a supposedly-holy place that demands I feel that way about my own children. I don’t want to pray that they will want to “go back” to church. I want to pray that they have happy lives. That they find relationships that fulfill them, careers that give them confidence and purpose. I want them to have meaningful experiences, to help others, to be healthy and safe. If they choose to get married or have families, I want them to do that because it will be a part of them being happy, not because it’s what a religious institution told them is the path to happiness.

All told, what I want for them, what I pray for and hope for, is that they don’t have to live their lives this way. Feeling like they are odd, like they don’t fit. Like they smell wrong.

❦❦❦

So, here we are, more than a year after the start of the pandemic. I’m starting, just a little bit, to go out into the world again. Last week, I reluctantly started going to PT again. Reluctantly because while I trust the PT I’ve been going to now for seven or eight years, I don’t love going there. My not-a-good-Mormon smell is especially potent there.

I knew to expect it so I was pre-hardened.

But this morning I struggled. Everyone talked about their weekends. “My nephew was ordained.” “I got to go to in-person church for the first time!” “I went to my cousin’s baby blessing.” One woman and her tech discovered they both went to the same mission in Switzerland, twenty-odd years apart, and then she glistened and glowed about her husband, a BYU professor who served in Belgium and also speaks French and so they decided to move to Provo instead of Orem so they could put their kids in a school that does French immersion and “of course it didn’t hurt that we’re only a few blocks away from the temple” (ie, east side on the hill) and now they only speak French in their home. (“Home” is spoken with a special reverence in LDS parlance, an extra-rounded O and a drawn-out M. It is never a house.)

I listened to them, patients and techs and therapists, speak their Mormon language, smell each other’s correct and pleasing smell. I started wishing again—wishing I could speak it, too. Wishing I had the right smell. Wishing I could laugh and start conversations easily and just…be involved, wherever I go.

And then I wondered: what do people outside the Book of Mormon belt talk about?

I don’t even know.

(Like, literally. I don’t know.)

I looked at Mrs. We-Only-Speak-French and young I-Know-Everything-About-BYU-Sports dude and the lady talking about how sweet it was to go back to church and hear signing again and the tech expounding on the church’s policy with polygamous families and how gracious it is. The guy getting his knee massaged with 4 inches of garments hanging out from his shorts and the older woman working on her shoulders, her g top exposed with each weight lifting.

I thought you are all insane. They don’t know what to talk about or how to be outside of their religion, and even more disturbing is they don’t know how strange that is. They fit because they fit here, so nothing hurts because why would it? Round pegs, round holes.

And I stopped with the wishing. I can wish this thing away all I want, but it isn’t going anywhere: I don’t fit here. My shape is spiral and convoluted and angles, and that is who I am.

And maybe if I were at another physical therapist’s office in, say, Seattle or Helena or Orlando or Detroit, I still would listen to the easy conversations around me and not know how to be a part of them. Maybe there is no place my shape fits.

(Actually, strike that “maybe.” More than likely.)

But I want to write this thought anyway, this thought that I had as I came home, again in tears, to write this post. The thought I had after putting into words this thought: I hope my kids don’t have to live this way.

Do I have to?

Is there somewhere I could fit, some place where I am the missing piece?

I’m not sure. But I am sure I don’t fit here. I could ignore that during the pandemic, but I don’t think I will be able to for much longer.