My Closet Shelf

It's a weird time in my life right now.  I just left my teaching job that I've been doing for 13 years and I have this one summer of free-mindedness before I start law school.  Another of my marriages tanked.  I'm nearing middle age (currently 36?).  My children are becoming more sentient as they transition into tweenhood -- they notice things and need emotional, religious, and familial structure that they can rely upon. And I cannot provide it.
You see, I feel like I have mentally, emotionally, socially, and financially put in my oar with the Mormon church.  I've written good things about it because it has provided stability and community for my family.  I have felt the feelings.  I have done the things: married in the temple not once but twice, baptized my kids, hauled them to church by myself throughout their infancy and spent my life in the church hallways, read the scriptures, paid my tithing, accepted my place as a woman in the church, written a book that revealed my testimony, attended the temple regularly, at least attempted to do my callings (despite the fact that they are always made up or minor and never really crucial because c'mon we can't put a woman with pink hair in any real responsibility), given talks and banded with my ragtag band of misfits together around the church.  I feel like I've done my due diligence with an open hopeful heart.
When something doesn't quite sit right with Mormons they often "put it on the shelf in the closet" to deal with some other time.  We're taught to turn a blind or patient eye and just keep on keeping on and put whatever testimony problems we run into on our closet shelf.  We most certainly don't talk about the squirrelly issues like say the Joseph Smith wives thing, or the kinder hook plates thing, or the lgbt thing, or that massacre part, or, really, Christ is the God of this world but God is the God of other worlds so that's like at least two Gods and are we polytheistic?  Little things. Many more than included in this post. Shoved up on my closet shelf.
And we do not talk about these things, hence the shelf.  You feel like a jerk when you learn something that contrasts to what you learned in primary and try to ask about it.  So, the shelf!  Also voicing worries or doubts shoots your family's worry in the stratosphere.  I usually don't make waves publicly because it creates a headache for my parents.  If you're one of their friends don't ask them about it.  Anything other than gun-ho religion is super embarrassing to many families.  Furthermore, I don't like rocking their boat (in that way.  Other ways, haha!) I want my family to not have to worry that the grandchildren aren't getting exactly the religious experience that I received.  And I respect them and their choices.  Would that I could just say "I'm in, I don't care if you tell me I have to only make left turns like Derek Zoolander for the rest of my life" or whatever comes next down the line of authority.  I admire and counted myself amongst the people whose attitude was "I made my decision long ago, this is the right path.  Not reexamining it." That's a legit position. I wish I could close my eyes, shove stuff on my closet, and hope for better times.  But Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living and I have all the weight of my children on my shoulders, and mine alone.

One thing that is on my shelf is the guilt and self loathing I experienced as a teenager in the Mormon church.  I can't make heads or tails of it.  I was a fairly normal teenager who occasionally made decisions not inline with the teachings of the church.  Nobody made me feel less than, but I certainly judged myself and I wrestled with what I felt my life should be like and what my religion tells me my life should be.  Other times I would pray for guilt because I knew I was supposed to feel bad for doing teenager things but I really didn't.  My self worth and self image was foundational designed by the fact that it is nearly impossible to feel like you ever live up to all the standards.  Aren't we supposed to be praying like seven times a day?  Your life problems would be better if you read the scriptures more.  I've been trying like a hamster on a wheel for all 18 of my adult years and I feel very similarly to the way I felt as a teen: jamming that square (rainbow) peg into the round (beige) hole.
Another thing on my closet shelf are my marriages.  One of the reasons I get married (and I would wager many of you too) is for guilt-free sex.  How lame and misguided is that?  I get married because that's what normal acceptable members who want to have temple recommends do.  Because it's better to just seal the deal, for reals seal in the temple, than it is to follow any other path. I believed the other options were bad.  Marriage is what is socially acceptable and religiously expected.  I don't know how to be single in the Mormon church.  I obviously don't know how to be married in it.

My shelf is becoming filled with decisions and actions by the current church that I consider very problematic.  The cultural standards of the Mormon church are problematic, and so are the politics.  Maybe it's just because I live in Utah, but I have been routinely crushed by the public statements about homosexuality and transgender issues.  I do not understand why the Mormon church is currently part of a "friend of the court" brief that unified with five other faith groups to oppose a federal ruling that allows transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their stated gender identity. Why?  That's not very friendly.  Why zero in on the gays with the no blessing your babies policy?  That's not friendly at all.
I wish I could shove all the worthy priesthood holders (or many of the ones I've dated) who have cheated on me, screamed in my face,  grabbed me and scared me, called me names, abandoned me with our children when the electric bill was unpaid and the lights went out, vanished when I was pregnant, vanished again three days after our baby was born, threw things in the hospital while I held my day old baby, etc., etc., right up there.  I want those type of men on my shelf too.  Not all LDS men are that way, but a fair share have internalized the patriarchy and have weird sex issues.  I don't want to look at those things, but I am little by little looking at my part in the failures.  I don't want to live with the deep scars of abuse at the hands of men that I trusted and who had clearance as decent humans from the Mormon church in the form of temple recommends.  One of the nights I was married in the temple was preceded by a day of emotional abuse.  I still went through with it.  I was in too deep.  I was a believer and a truster and a fool.
So here I find myself and my children.  I am their source of education and religion.  Can I consign them to a teenage life full of either guilt or suppression?

Can I sit by while they are told half truths like last week that Joseph Smith used the Golden Plates to translate and write the book of Mormon?  Can I allow them to be taught that gay parents are horribly morally wrong?  Do I want them to sit in a room with people who do believe that? Do I want to be in a room 61% of which voted for Trump?  Goodbye moral majority.  I will never understand how Christians voted for that dude and for shame for not copping to it.  Have they not heard him speak?  Geez, man!
And what about me?  Is there really a place for me, a bleeding heart liberal rainbow who is also body positive feminist?  I mean, I've been legit trying to live the Mormon specific gospel for so many years and frankly the bad experiences have outweighed the good.  My first temple marriage?  Stolen from me.  My second?  Riddled with problems. I pay tithing but I still struggle to pay for all these children whom I bore with the expectation of a temple worthy family.  Can I remarry in this church? Would I ever want to?  What about my politics?  Can I sit through a Sacrament Meeting or Sunday school class a day after some heinous thing has happened in our country and have nobody mention it?  Can I do some of the cultural standards apparently given by revelation from God and not others because they conflict with my conscience? Can I hand down all the trouble this religion has been for me simply because it is my cultural heritage and because parts of it have given me a very real feeling of God?  Why is this religion so difficult for me? I do not try to rebel, I try to live with integrity and I grasp for happiness.  I don't want out but I'm failing at staying in.  I want the Mormon gospel and lifestyle to make my life better.  Have I not done my part?  Isn't this the part where Christ takes you the rest of the way?
There's a common saying in the church that "the gospel is perfect, the people are not."  From where I'm sitting I don't really know if what we are being handed down is gospel.  Is it gospel that my shoulders can't be exposed?  Why? I'm not going to allow my kid to be subject to body shaming brought on by morality standards.  Is it gospel that transgendered people should get the shaft? Is it gospel that it's probably a bad idea for gay people to raise LDS kids? And, as you all well know, these are just the recent things. The church's history is a minefield.  It's gospel mixed with culture in a way that chafes. You find out little things here and there.  Joseph Smith drank alcohol (the real kind) on the way home from visiting members.  All those old dudes chewed tobacco.  But then God was like "Nope, here's some Gospel" and we had the Word of Wisdom, which is interpreted in a variety of ways.  This, the "thinking man's religion," would prefer if you didn't research too much because you will go apostate.  If this gospel ISN'T perfect then the people most certainly are.  They are perfect in their efforts and the desires of their hearts to give all that they can to this organization.
There are so many things on my closet shelf that it is collapsing.
Maybe there's a reason I've never really fit in with church.  Maybe the apparently rebellious spirit that I was given isn't rebellious at all, it's just a rainbow trying to be a puddle.
Maybe I don't fit in.  Maybe I can't do all the things and follow all the rules.
We are approaching religion differently.  Most of the cultural judgments with LDS people are self imposed: if I don't go to church every Sunday what will people think of my family?  That we're not dedicated enough?  We aren't among the tried and true never wavering? We won't get much responsibility?  Will my children be less incorporated in the community if we aren't at church?  Will I be lumped amongst the disbelievers, weak testimony, or just the lower class of Mormons?
No.  It doesn't matter.  Nobody notices, nobody cares -- it's all in my head, years of self imposed cultural behaviors.  Maybe I just can't handle sitting by myself with my five wiggly children on the pew.  Why do we do that to ourselves?
But I have a strong affinity for Christ.  And I believe in religion as a way of interpreting the world around us.  I believe in family and hope.  Can I please just have the Christ part?  The loving God who allows life to unravel and helps us out along the way, not the capricious narcissist God who throws trials at us to make us prove . . . something, and be humbled enough to rely on Him.
The Mormonism I was raised in did not allow for "cafeteria Mormonism" or picking and choosing which parts you want to cooperate with, dependent on whatever your vices are.  But that is better than nothing.  Maybe we just do the parts we believe?
Since November my kids and I have been going to Presbyterian (somewhat random Christian choice, don't actually know who Presbyr is or really what the tenants of the sect are) Church for Sacrament and then we roll over to LDS Primary because my kids love it and because I will not deny them at least the opportunity to learn some basic tools to access God and the feeling of being a normal part of their community.  Presbyterian Church has a nursery during Sacrament meeting!!  I drop off both babies at the nursery and my big kids sit with me on the pew and we actually listen.  And man, the things I have heard.  The sermons are aimed at deciphering what is the most Christian path through whatever happened in the world that week.  This week touched on the new Healthcare bill.  During Christmas they focused on the refugee status of Mary and Joseph.  Is not the purpose of religion to give you a way to think about the world?  Our country is in upheaval. My family is in upheaval.  I need some help knowing what to make of it all.
Religiously I am back to the drawing board and I'm starting with integrity.  I'm not going to give money to support Friends of the Court briefs about transgenders because I don't like discrimination.  I was reluctant to have my own baby blessed if the word of the Church doesn't allow all babies to be born equally and blessed.  I'm going to turn to religion not for my culturally adopted reasons like feeling like a failure if I miss church and making my family worry but to figure out what is true and good.  I want to have religious integrity.
A few weeks ago I heard a story that has stuck with me.  Itzhak Perlman, famed Isreali-American violinist, once walked on stage at Lincoln Center in New York to play a violin concerto.  His body is crippled from boyhood polio so he walks carefully with crutches to his seat.  As the conductor began there was an audible pop.  A string on Perlman's violin had broken.  Most artists would delay the concert to fix the violin but Perlman nodded to the conductor, closed his eyes and played.  He transposed an entire concerto on the fly with just three strings.
When he finished the audience exploded in applause.  Perlman pulled himself up and spoke.  He said, "Sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what remains."

What remains here for me in my Mormon faith?  Christ.  Family.  Community. Integrity. I'm going to make whatever music I can with those.


LG said...

Amen to all that you've said. We tried the cafeteria Mormonism route, but when the kids hit teenage years the all-or-nothing vibe in the Mormon church proved to shower our kids with too much guilt, too much rigidity to stay.

It's a tough process, but when the shelf crumbles life becomes much less of a struggle. Cognitive dissonance is the process of tuning your heart and mind together, and while the process can be really difficult - the eventual merge of the two can be quite peaceful and full of personal growth and freedom. Following only rules that make sense to you and not trying to make sense of mistreatment and dropping a shitload of guilt..... there really is nothing better. I don't know how to say it, except that life becomes much lighter.

Much love to you as you figure out your way. Those of us who leave the LDS church are a new breed of pioneers. It takes courage. There needs to be an "it gets better" series of videos from those who are on the other side.

Aloicoius said...

Like you, God spoke to me when I belonged to the church. I felt the spirit so strongly sometimes. Jesus: yes!! Empathy: yes!! Love: yes!! But other parts of the "gospel" broke my heart and my shelf just got to heavy and it crumbled. And guess what? My kids are still doing great most of the time with little religious influence. And life still sucks. And then it doesn't. And people judge me and people love me to death. Thank you for being brave enough to voice the struggle in such a public forum. Makes me feel not so alone and I'm sure many others feel the same even if they aren't in a place to comment publicly. You have my support no matter where this life takes you my friend!

Shannan D. said...

You are so brave in saying what so many people think, but would not say. I've noticed that as I've gotten older, I am less interested in pretending to be the person people say I should be and I'm more interested in being the person I really am. It's like cleaning out your closet and realizing that everything in there - even if there is a small amount of clothes in it - you LOVE to wear. Not just things you feel obligated to wear.
I've tried really hard to stay authentic to who I am the past two years and it's a bit scary and alienating. Not because I say offensive things - but because how I want to believe and act isn't the popular cultural choice - especially among the religious set. Idon't know if you know this, but I left the Mormon church in my late teens and "converted" to conventional bible-based Christianity (kind of like your Presbyterian church).I easily spent 5-8 years teasing out how LDS is different from Bible-based Christianity and I've come to a fairly safe place. Even in my little church community (non-denominational, evangelical Christian) there are those who feel very safe and self-assured when they follow "rules" and adhere to agreed-upon moral codes. I know I'm being very vague and speaking in sweeping general terms but that's easiest here in this random comment on your blog. I find I do much better in my faith process when I focus more on how the Bible can help in my faith journey and how it is relevant to my modern day life instead of focusing on how well other people are walking their faith and how hypocritical people in church settings can be. Does that make sense? Cheers Nor! I wish we could have coffee. Maybe one day we can. BTW, I dont' know if you remember but I'm first cousins with the Hazen's. I'm sure Anne would love to chit chat about these things :-)

Lauren in GA said...

What did you mean by, "Can I sit by while they are told half truths like last week that Joseph Smith used the Golden Plates to translate and write the book of Mormon?" I am not asking to be argumentative. I honestly don't understand how that is a half truth.

Cassie said...

As always, your writing is beautiful and thoughtful. I wish I had all the answers. I just want to know I hear you and acknowledge your feelings. Thanks for posting, I love you!

ang :o) said...

I feel the same way. It's tough. I go on my terms now and don't feel bad about it but I worry about the affect it will have on my girls. But my husband still very much believes. Thankfully he respects me and it doesn't affect our marriage but it's not easy feeling like I've never fit in or why can't I just go along with it blindly like my parents and siblings. I always have to be the one to question.I love you for your bravery and honesty.

Chris said...

It is reasonably well documented that Joseph looked not at the plates when he was "translating". Many accounts have him lookin into a hat with the urmum and thumbin.

Unknown said...

Beautiful post. I have/am walking this road...And you know, God is not who man made him to be. God is his own identity, and it takes a strong person to see God as himself. :)

janelle said...

Much of the time the plates weren't even in the same room. He had his head in a hat staring at a brown rock. The same rock he found while digging in the dirt that he then used to trick people into thinking he could find buried treasure with it so they would pay him. All documented, I'm afraid. Just not very testimony building so the church tries to steer you away from such bits of verifiable history.

Vickie Smith said...

Followed a link and read your blog for the first time.... I was expecting something so very different. A "perfect mom" with 7 kids that had it all together... your openness and vulerability is refreshing....interesting how everyone struggles are so different. Will ponder on your perspective....I do have a strong testimony of the gospel and know that the LDS faith is where I'm suppose to be....prophets really were and are regular humans with foibles and failings...and God loves cracked pots.....

Unknown said...

Come to the Eastern Orthodox Church and find peace and people that will have your back.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing, I feel so similarly, and it is so hard. Life is hard. We have mutual friends "in the church," and have met once. Like I said then, everyone has their stuff. I just wish we would all be more willing to talk about our stuff without being afraid. Thank you for sharing.

Angie said...

I love all of this. We met once and I think you are awesome and brave and perfectly capable of doing the right thing for you and your family.

Anonymous said...

I do not come from an LDS background, but here I am, in my 50's, a lifelong church girl, questioning, and seeking, and discovering God is SO much better than He has been presented. This article made me shout "YES!" through tears. Blessings, dear one.


rebecca said...

For the past few years I like to check in with your blog occasionally because you are so real and so funny, and I've been impressed how you managed to be such a free spirit in the Mormon church. I've been going through similar cognitive dissonance between what I feel is truth and what I think I should believe is truth because the authority of the church has said so. It reached the point of anxiety and I jumped ship to a non denominational Christian church that encourages questioning and healthy spiritual practices and it's been wonderful. Finally instead of trying to force things in my box of acceptable beliefs, I've been enjoying reading about spirituality and the wisdom of teachers through the ages and in different cultures. I think the practice of putting things on the proverbial shelf because they make you uncomfortable is passing up an opportunity to search out and be taught truth, not another human but by the divine, God, whatever you choose to call it. If you haven't read a New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, I think you would like it. Thanks for keeping it real and good luck in your journey.