Learning to Leave

Learning to Leave

When I was 12 years old, I sat with my family on the back row of the middle section of the chapel during sacrament meeting. My sister Sheri sat to my left, barely 9, and my mother sat to my right. And as Sister Stratton bore her testimony from the pulpit, I watched my mother turn ashen gray.

She started with the standard ‘I want to bear my testimony that I know this church is true’, followed by professions of belief in the prophets and the scriptures and the love of God. And then her tone changed to something sicky-sweet, words so sincere that they sat like a piece of undigested roast beef in my stomach.

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear my testimony on the blessings of temple marriage. I met my husband when I was 18 and he was 21, just off his mission. My father promised us back then that if we followed the teachings of God and honored our temple covenants, our lives would be blessed beyond measure. We now have seven beautiful children and are so happy. I want to promise you that if you follow the counsel of your leaders and marry in the temple, you can have what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

She returned to her seat on the second row and snuggled up next to her husband, their children on either side of them taking up the entire bench. On the back row, I watched my mother swallow hard and close her eyes tightly as big tears formed and began cascading down her cheeks. She let out her breath slowly and more tears followed. Despite her best efforts, she was soon openly crying. She excused herself as I sat there, not knowing what to do.

My mother grew up in the 1950s in potato country, Idaho. Even the mascot at the nearby high school was a potato. She was the middle daughter of a farmer and a teacher, the only one in the family with blue eyes and blonde hair. They were the perfect Mormon family, descended from pioneers and strong in their faith. Her beauty blossomed in her teenage years, when she learned to style her hair in the perfect beehive. She was asked out constantly, and even years later, she bragged about ‘kissing up a storm’ with her high school boyfriend in the back seat, but never taking it so far that it would disappoint her father. She turned down several marriage proposals before she finally said yes to my father.

He was the good-looking son of a sheep farmer, with four older brothers and one baby sister. He was a returned missionary, and a veteran, and he had a strong testimony of the gospel. When he proposed, he was 25, and my mom just 20, and they were blissfully happy. They had children, finished college, built a house on the hill, started their careers, had a few more kids. My mother had four daughters and a son, the same composition as her family growing up, and she loved dressing them up for church every Sunday and parading them in to fill up a row, just like Sister Stratton’s family would years later. Perhaps she even bore her testimony about the blessings and happiness of marriage back then. Maybe she made promises that others could have what she had, through righteousness and obedience.

But then, when she was in her early 30s, my father started growing quiet. A darkness was developing within him, and she couldn’t make sense of it. When he grew distant, surly, and critical, she threw herself harder in to church service and raising the perfect family. Scripture study, fasting, prayer, and temple attendance weren’t working. He wasn’t getting better. Her testimony remained solid, but he grew darker. And then she started finding out about the credit card debt and his losses on the stock market, things he kept secret for years.

In the mid 1970s, my father abruptly announced his plan to move the entire family to rural Missouri, where he saw a chance to get rich quick. My mother, ever the good wife, acquiesced and packed up their entire lives into a truck. They sold their home and left their parents, foraging into the great unknown, like their pioneer ancestors before them, but for entirely different reasons. Once they arrived, my mother, now more isolated and fighting off a building panic, saw things get worse for my father, as he fell farther into debt and depression. And with her old children now hitting early adolescence, she got pregnant again, this time with me. And then again, with my little sister. And suddenly, it was the mid-1980s, and she had seven mouths to feed, ranging from baby to pre-teen, with maxed out credit cards and a house payment due. All that plus a husband full of darkness.

My mother stayed for far too long. Quiet painful hours in her marriage balanced by the joys she found in her children. Those hours stacked up to years. Two years turned to 5, then 8, then 12. The debts mounted from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds. The older children started struggling with decisions, going off the deep end, straying from her deeply held beliefs. She continued making the dinners, doing the laundry, paying the bills, cleaning the house. My father worked too much, and then came home and locked himself in the bedroom to cry. Well on the days when he wasn’t mean and critical, blaming mom for everything, leaving her lists of all she was doing wrong while telling her that if she was a better wife, then maybe the Lord would bless the more. He closed off, refusing to talk to her, to open, to touch her. She took on a part-time job, then another. My dad went to therapy and to treatment multiple times, but he never listened, it never worked. He grew darker still. I grew up with a mother who was attentive, loving, and playful, and a father who barely noticed I was alive, who sucked all of the energy out of the room.

It wasn’t until 1990, when my mom got spiritual confirmation while visiting the temple, that she knew she needed to leave my dad. Divorce didn’t come easily to her. It had long-term spiritual ramifications, eternal ones, as she felt that leaving her marriage meant severing sacred family bonds that were meant to extend into forever. Marriage was the most sacred institution, and she felt as if she hadn’t been strong enough to make it work. The consequences were astronomical and eternal. But after over a decade of increasing pain and unhappiness, she’d realized that the consequences for staying might be worse. And so she’d boldly packed the truck once again and drove thousands of miles back to her roots.

In her mid-40s, my mother moved back in with her parents. She took a teaching job and eventually started renting a home. She showed super human strength in rebuilding her life in the state she’d left behind. To me, age 11 at the time, my parents’ divorce came as a relief. Finally, I thought even then. Finally.

I grew protective over my mother in the following years. I was the man of the house now. I would set my alarm early and shovel the sidewalks, clean the kitchen, scrape the car windows, all before she woke up. I made myself the moral authority of the house, lording it over my sister. I took jobs doing paper routes and babysitting, and would often sneak the money I was making into her purse to help. Seeing her walk out of the chapel that day with tears in her eyes, hearing Sister Stratton profess how happy marriage was if you just followed the rules, well, it broke my heart for my mom. I had no words. All I knew was that my mother was the strongest and most Christ-like person I knew, and those things hadn’t worked out for her, despite the prophetic promises. I realized even then that sometimes breaking the rules requires more courage than staying miserable ever could.

I wish I could say life got easier after that. My mother fell in love again a year later, and then spent a few more years with a man who used fists, insults, and control to terrorize us. She had seven children, and she would see seven divorces among them happen in the following years, while many grandchildren were born. My father, though distant, would remain a painful presence in her life. And then her youngest two children would come out of the closet. Health scares mounted as well. But over the years, I watched her maintain her church attendance with grace and dedication, all while balancing out her love for her children, even those who left the faith she believed so strongly in.

I once saw my mother get a Priesthood blessing, on a night after my stephfather had hit her. The bishop laid his hands on her head and promised her comfort, then he told her that in the pre-existence, before she came to Earth, she had agreed to give these two men that she’d married the chance to redeem themselves during mortal life. That day, I watched her go ashen again, and that night was the only night I ever saw her go to bed without praying first.

My mother always called me her Nephi, her stalwart one, and I did my best to be that for her. She wrote me literally every day for two years while I was on my mission. And we talked often while I was in college. At a certain point, she started opening up to me about my father and stepfather and why the marriages had gone so poorly. At the time, I was going through training on how to be a therapist, and I was facing some deep depression of my own. I’d grown up believing that following the rules meant happiness and miracles, I’d even been promised a cure for being gay, and I didn’t know any other truth, not yet.

And in time, I recommended that my mother do some therapy of her own. I needed to be her son, not her confidant. Though initially heartbroken, my mother did sign up for therapy. She listened and learned quickly, and I watched a transformation happen. I watched a woman in her mid-50s learn that happiness is a personal choice, and that it does not come simply as a reward for obedience. She learned that staying in impossible situations, even marriages, is sometimes the wrong decision. The consequences for staying can last generations. She learned how not to hold on to pain for so long. And by learning to properly heal from her past and confront her pain, I saw her move forward with new light and strength. She faced life with an internal grace I’d never seen in her before.

I’m 41 today and my mother is 76. She has been happily married to her third husband for many years, and they have been sealed in the temple. She is a loving mother of seven children, and they range from a stake president’s wife to an ex-con, right on down to her two youngest, the gay ones. Sometimes we talk about bravery, and we draw the comparison between her hard choice to leave my father, and my hard choice to leave the closet and religion behind. And though I’m certainly not her Nephi any longer, at least not in the way she’d once hoped, we respect each other. We understand each other. And she remains the best example in my life of courage, grace, power, and love. From her, I learned that sometimes it is far braver to leave than to hold on so tightly to what hurts.

 

Hibernation

Maybe I should start writing again.

Six weeks hardly feels like a long time, but considering that, not long ago, I used to blog every day, 40 days without writing anything feels… sane. I miss that feeling I used to get when I’d witness something, feel or experience something, and I couldn’t wait to get to my keyboard and share my insights with the world. I miss utilizing those parts of my heart and brain. I got rather good at it, and it felt good to do it, to share, to put myself on paper like that. It gave me a continuity.

But lately, I’ve been in hibernation mode. The failure to measure up to some undetermined form of success has been weighing on me. I grew weary of asking for help,  of expecting a particular audience size, of waiting for books to sell. The documentary has taken much longer than I thought, the book has gone quiet, the crowd sizes at story-telling events are in the tens instead of the hundreds. My love for writing and creating has been replaced by pain over a lack of results. And so I face either trying to reformat, again and again, in hope that the numbers go up, or I just let myself go numb a bit. Stop caring about the results and just enjoy the process. Either that, or… I just… don’t. Don’t write. Don’t let my brain get busy and divided. Don’t dream up projects I’ll never finish. Don’t let my awe get inspired by stories I wish I could tell. Because if I dim the frustration, then I can just, maybe, be a peace for a while? But that also means dimming the dreaming. And who am I, who is this new me, without all of that?

And so, I’ve gone quiet lately. I turned 41 a few weeks ago, surrounded by friends at a party I hosted for myself. My boyfriend of nearly 3 years and I took a wonderful vacation to Thailand for a week and I had some of the most foreign and unexpected experiences of my life. My children are stable and content, thriving and happy. I’ve organized the house. I’m setting goals for the new years. My business is doing very well and in a nice building phase. My boyfriend is working from home now. It is nearly 2020, and the news cycles pass by with increasing speed.

I have so, so much to be grateful for. And I am. But that dreamer part of me, the part with more expectations, has gone quiet. I’m at peace, and it is… comfortable. A thousand things I could be writing about, yet I’m not writing. I’m not depressed. I’m not bitter. I’m perhaps a little tired, and maybe a little scared.

There. That right there. That’s why I write. It sorts me out. I just realized I’m scared. I couldn’t have verbalized that before, but now it is so apparent to me. I’m scared of that ongoing unsettled feeling. I’m scared to trust more people who will, in whatever form, let me down. I’m scared to ask for help. I’m scared to expect things from others. And I’m scared that I’m going to remain scared of those things, that I’ll grow callused, sealed up, unwilling. I’m scared that these failures, these inabilities to achieve “success” in its various forms, is going to result in me no longer doing the things that I love.

But there he is, the dreamer. He’s sleeping. He’s gone quiet, but he’s there. Because who else but me would willfully say he is hibernating in one sentence, say how he has gone quiet lately, how he is not writing lately… and then write about not writing in the next.

I miss questing. I miss the process of building the documentary, unearthing mysteries one interview and newspaper article at a time. I miss crafting stories. I miss outlining plays, comic books, projects in my brain, and wondering when I’ll find time to write. I miss the unrest. And it is baffling to realize that, but it makes sense of me. I come alive during those times. Those who love me can see it. My boyfriend can see it. When I come home with that light in my eyes and I have the craziest story to tell him, with the most enthusiasm in my voice. I don’t love the painful parts, but I need them to give me the drive. I need the striving back. I’m not so sure I was made for hibernation, for contentment. (But maybe I can carry some of these lessons with me moving forward…)

So maybe I start writing again. Maybe I don’t care about the numbers of people who read it. Maybe I grow discontent again, and I don’t get so threatened by that. Maybe I stop being afraid of being afraid. Maybe I’m more disciplined with my time. (And who I trust, and my money, and my nutrition consistency, and…) Maybe I lean into dreaming again, into a new project that I can pour my love into.

Maybe.

Maybe it’s time to wake up.

Damn, I didn’t sleep very long.

Cartoon Devil

October 2015

“I’m here! Plaid shirt and blue jeans, corner table, what can I order you?”

I had butterflies when I sent the text message. I hadn’t been on a date in a few months and it was nice to be back on the market. I was so, so sick of dating. It exhausted me. Maybe I was picky or impossible, or maybe I kept hoping to find that unobtainable unicorn out there. I wanted someone with a job, who took care of himself physically, who was good with kids, who was charming. I also wanted someone with some self-confidence, and a sense of humor, who was out of the closet, and had themselves figured out when it came to their family and religion. Utah was so full of these guys who didn’t like themselves, who berated themselves because of their religious upbringings. They were the way I used to be, but once you have got your own shit together, there is nothing quite so threatening or annoying as someone who hasn’t.

By this point, four and a half years after coming out of the closet, I’d had dozens and dozens of terrible and weird dates. Admittedly, sometimes I was the terrible and weird date. I went through a phase where I was too codependent, or where I expected others to put in all the effort while I coasted along. I fell in love too quickly a few times, and fell apart too quickly a few others. I even turned down a few really amazing guys in the hopes that I might find something just a bit better out there. But I was now ready for something to stick, to last more than a few weeks. I think seven weeks in a relationship had been my longest record since coming out, with someone who was 14 years younger than me, but that hadn’t worked out either; he moved to another state to go to college, and there was no way I could do long distance while I had two little kids.

And so, for a time, I had given all of my energy to just being single. I focused on my career, my hate crimes research, my blog, and went to the gym. I took myself on dates and little trips. I spent time with friends, I hosted my own movie nights, and I, of course, spent every possible moment with my incredible sons, at this point ages 7 and 4, two little men who delighted me constantly. They were with me every other weekend and a few nights per week. I loved my time with them, but I also grew to love my time flying solo.

Tonight, this was my first attempt back into the dating scene after over two months of focusing solely on myself. I met the guy over OKCupid just days after I’d reactivated my account. My first impression of his pictures elicited an out loud ‘DAMN!’ I sent the first message and he answered within minutes. He was witty, funny, handsome, employed, cute and fit, but in that guy-next-door kind of way, not in that ‘I stare at myself in the gym mirror for ten hours per week’ kind of way. And then on day three of chatting, I invited him out for coffee. He responded with enthusiasm, in an “I thought you’d never ask” kind of way. I hired a babysitter, got to the coffee shop ten minutes early, and texted him promptly at six that I was there.

6:10 rolled around. 6:15. 6:20. No message, no word. People played chess at a nearby table. Other people studied. We were getting past the point where it was acceptable to be late without some sort of notice. I sipped my decaf coffee and waited, wondering if there were too many red lights maybe, or maybe he’d forgotten an appointment. But maybe he was just standing me up. Lord knows this wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally at 6:32, my phone dinged. I grabbed it in a hurry. The text said, “This is terrible, but I can’t do this. I went there, but I couldn’t go in. You’re a good guy, Chad, but I’m still in love with my ex, and this isn’t right. I’ll understand if you never want to talk to me again. Best of luck, Chad, I don’t expect to hear back from you.”

I felt my upper lip rise into an involuntary sneer, and my nostrils flared with frustration. And then I set my coffee down, put my head in my hands, and… pouted. The old interior voice I had worked so hard to contain came back with a vengeance. All of my demons came back to the surface.

You’re pathetic. You knew it would be like this, but you tried it anyway. There are no good men out there, none. And if there were, do you think one would want to be with you? A guy who waited until he was 32 to come out? You have two kids, you’re in debt, and you are hardly in the best shape of your life. Why would he want to be with you? And of course you’d pick a guy who is still hung up on some guy. If there’s a pathetic guy out there, you’ll find them every time, it takes one to know one.

I lifted my head, pursed my lips, furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “No!” out loud, but not loud enough for anyone else to hear. That voice inside was dark. It was that little devil that appeared on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder in the old cartoons. I instead willfully gave voice to the angel, invisible on my other shoulder.

No! You’re a good guy, Chad! You get to be happy! You don’t get to beat yourself up for trying to find someone! Now you don’t give a second thought to that loser. You live for you! You hired a babysitter, you can do whatever you want tonight, you just enjoy your own company.

Yes. I would do that! I would take myself on a date! Fuck that guy. I was allowed to be happy.

I tossed my remaining coffee in the garbage, marched myself right outside, and noticed the movie theater next door. I would do that! I would go to the movies! I triumphantly entered, got the attention of the man behind the counter, and triumphantly said, “I’ll take a ticket to whatever movie is next, please.”

I was in the Tower, an old indie theater with broken seats, sticky floors, and a balcony. And I was about to see a movie at random, this was my kind of adventure. “And I’ll take that bag of popcorn,” I said.

The ticket agent explained that the next movie would be the ‘Oscar Animated Shorts’, or short cartoons that had been nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming season. I had a night out and I was going to see… short cartoons, apparently.

The devil returned. Oh my god, cartoons, you loser! It’s a Wednesday night! You’re going to the movies by yourself on a Wednesday night and you’re going to see cartoons! You could be doing that with your kids! You’re going to die alone!

No! No, no,  no! You are brave and courageous, and you are doing something nice for yourself on a hard day! You are a good person who deserves to be happy!

Apparently unable to see the talking devil and angel versions of me on my shoulders, the ticket agent took my money and handed me the random bag of popcorn I had pointed to. Then I noticed the flavor. Coconut curry. Well, what the hell.

The movie was starting in 15 minutes, he said. I went in and took my seat, my brave face was on. I was determined to enjoy myself this evening. I opened my phone and played some Pokemon Go  as I sat there, feeling like a real winner. I would watch cartoons and play Pokemon Go and eat Coconut Curry popcorn instead of bantering with a handsome man like I’d planned. Positive self-talk was working!

In minutes, the lights dimmed and I looked up to see the screen come on. There were multiple previews for upcoming indie films, and none of them looked interesting. As the film prepared to start, I opened my bag of Coconut Curry, and it gave off a loud crispy plastic sound. I quickly looked up to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anyone. Then I realized there was no one else in the movie to disturb.

Oh my god, you pathetic loser! You are in a movie theater, seeing cartoons, after getting stood up by a date who is still in love with his ex, on a Wednesday night, planning to eat an entire bag of popcorn, and you’re the only one here! What the hell is wrong with you! You’re going to die fat and old and alone, who lives like this!

No! No, you are a brave and beautiful soul who deserves the very—

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I told the angel voice. I grabbed a giant handful of salty disgusting popcorn and shoved it into my mouth until my cheeks puffed out, and then I ugly cried as a Dutch cartoon called ‘the Single Life’ started on the screen.

Spirit 7: Truth or Consequences

When I was an infant, my proud parents held me up in front of a church congregation so the assembled Mormons could coo at the new baby boy. I wore all white. A group of men, some related by blood and some by belief, stood in a circle and placed their hands on my head to give me a blessing. They did not bless me to go forward and change the world, or to live my best life, or to find happiness on my own terms. They blessed me to be a good Mormon boy, to embrace the true gospel, to be a missionary, to marry a woman in the temple, to have babies, and to spend my whole life serving god. That was the path, the one for every Mormon boy. It was the true path, the right one. Anything else was deviant.  And I understood that right from the beginning.

Growing up, once per month, meetings at church were reserved for members to go up and bear their testimonies of the truth of the gospel. It was an act of boldness, of solidarity. Sharing beliefs according to the pre-established formula, in front of your like-minded peers, was to be admired. They all followed the same format. I was four when I tried it myself for the first time.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I love my mom and dad and my brother and sisters. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of god and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Some small variance from this format was allowed, but not much. This profession of beliefs was a tried and true process, and there was a right way to do it. That single opening phrase was uttered more than any other. I KNOW (not believe, not hope, not think, but KNOW) that THIS CHURCH (this one right here, the Mormon one, the one we are in) is TRUE. The word true here is the operative one. In Mormonism, the tenet that if one part was TRUE then it was all TRUE. It was a power word, something to evoke loyalty, pride, ownership, a depth of power and rightness, and above all, conformance. It was a word like Freedom, or Justice, words used regularly in the American vernacular. For if Mormonism was true, then everyone else was false. If Mormonism was true, that meant it was all correct, all right. The bad parts were worth overlooking to focus on the greater good, because of TRUTH.

And so all the little rules blended in to the TRUE. Many Christians hold on to their understanding of the Bible, as justification for even unkind behavior. “I can believe this/do this/act this way because the Bible says it’s okay.” Mormons take that a step farther. They have a prophet who leads and guides the church, and one who communes with god. He has 12 apostles at his side to back him up, just like Jesus did. He gives regular addresses in which he uses prophecy and revelation to tell people what god wants them to do, to believe, to say. Thus if I say it is all TRUE, that means the prophet speaks TRUTH, and I have to follow his directions because it is what god wants.

And so, people pay ten per cent of their income to the church. They saved themselves for marriage. They marry young and have babies early. The devote two years of their lives to unpaid missionary service. They try and convert their friends. They go to church for three hours every Sunday. They wear the sacred underwear, and keep their haircuts and clothing styles in particular ways, and women avoid having more than one piercing per ear. They keep their sins secret and repent of them as needed. They conform, and blend in, and feel special for doing so, because they are part of the TRUE church, the only one who has it right. And, in many cases, they sacrifice happiness as they try to follow all of the rules.

This concept of TRUTH was huge for me, for all of them, because there consequences attached. If I didn’t follow one of the rules, that meant I was a sinner, that I was denying truth, that I wasn’t conforming or fitting in. Everyone would see, but worse, god would know. Some sins, some small rebellions, could be easily shaken off, like missing a church meeting, or wearing a blue shirt instead of white, or missing a month of home-teaching. But others had vastly greater consequences: sexual activity outside of marriage, NOT going on a mission, NOT marrying in the temple, turning down a church calling, or, the worst possible scenario, being gay. If the rules weren’t followed, that meant there was a denial of truth, that one was turning their back on god. Sometimes this resulted in minor consequences (a conversation with the bishop or not taking the sacrament for a time) and sometimes in more severe ones (being disfellowshipped or excommunicated). And even worse, sinning in this life meant an inability to be with family in heaven in the next life. An entire eternal heritage cast aside for laziness, or orgasm, or the easy way out.

When I was actively LDS, I looked at those who were sinners, who were cast out, or who didn’t conform which such sadness and disregard. I saw them as failures, as selfish, as weak, as poor in spirit. Look what they gave up, I’d think. Look at all they cast aside. How sad, how pathetic. There were believers and sinners, the righteous and the apostate, the member and the non-member.

And yet if I turned my gaze inward, I didn’t fit either. God had made a design flaw. I was gay. It took me years to sort this out, but there were deep psychological wounds that formed within me because I was born wrong. I was born gay, and I knew it early. And so I didn’t fit the standard. I couldn’t conform naturally, I could only do so by hiding in plain sight. I held on to the rules tighter than most. Any aberration, any entertaining of alternate thought, meant denying what was true, and that meant losing everything. I held on tighter than almost anyone I knew. I had to be the best if I had any hope of belonging at all. (I would learn later that many other gay men held on in similar ways).

Whenever I bore my testimony, I held tightly to the truth, and I never spoke the doubts out loud. “I know the church is true.” What I could have spoken, what I should have spoken, was an entirely different sort of testimony.

“I desperately want to believe the church is true because I so badly want to fit in with all of you. I’m afraid I can’t, and that I never will. I’m different on the inside, I’m gay, and I am worried that by telling you that, I won’t be accepted here, that you’ll look at me like you do the other sinners. If I admit I’m different, I’m afraid god won’t love me and that I won’t have a place in my family. I’m following all of the rules because I want to be what you are, I want to have what you have. I want to feel sure, but I don’t. I have doubts. I don’t believe deep down that it is all correct. I think that there is some good here, in this church, in these meetings, but as I look around, there are a lot of people in pain here, and I think all of you have doubts as well. I think our leaders get things wrong, and I think that people get hurt because of it. And I think that people here are so focused with fitting in that they allow themselves to compromise their own morals, and then they convince themselves that these actions are sanctioned by god. And I’m worried that I’m going to grow up and have to redefine every one of these beliefs, every aspect of truth, and that is going to cause me to leave the church I love, both because I won’t believe it anymore and because I won’t fit here anymore. And there are consequences for that, according to your rules. I stand to lose my salvation, my family, my entire belief structure.

“But I’m worried that one day, I’m going to have to ask myself the opposite. What are the consequences for staying? And I don’ think any of you are going to like the answers I find.”

Spirit 6: Inspiration

The Catholics call it the Holy Trinity, or the Three-In-One. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. They are easily understood with clearly delineated roles, yet they are impossible to understand. They are the same and yet different, and it is in the mix of understanding and non-understanding that the beauty of the belief exists. At least, that’s house I understand it. I was never Catholic.

For the Mormons, the three are separate and distinct entities. The Father is the god of heaven and all things, the literal father of every spirit on Earth. The Son is the son of god, Jesus Christ himself, who came to earth and died for the sins of man. And then there is the Holy Ghost, an ethereal presence that is everywhere on earth at once, in the heart of everyone  simultaneously.

The Holy Ghost was difficult to grasp when I was a child. It sounded like some haunted being in a church, but it was the most sacred of things. Words in the scriptures called him things like the comforter, who was there to teach and warn. It was explained to me that every human had access to the holy ghost, through the “light of Christ”, which was never really explained to me, but that believing faithful Mormons who had been baptized had a honed access, a special receptor if you will, an ability to commune more directly with the spirit itself. Mormons were baptized at the age of 8 and then, after they had been purified in the water, there was a laying on of hands by someone with the priesthood who confirmed them a member of the church and gave them the GIFT of the holy ghost. After that, it was up to each member to stay worthy of the gift by doing things that god commanded, being obedient, following all of the rules, and then the spirit would guide them in their daily lives.

The holy ghost was supposed to warn of danger and evil, to provide comfort, and to whisper direction, but it could only dwell the loudest in places of reverence, love, and kindness. I mean, it dwelled everywhere and always, but could only be felt most acutely in places of obedience, of holiness. I was taught early to watch for this spiritual guidance form this holy entity. We sang songs like “Listen to the Still-Small Voice” and “Sweet is the Peace the Gospel Brings”. We were trained to search for a “burning in our bosom”. We were taught repeatedly that following the rules would elicit the spirit in our lives and result in happy, positive choices that god was proud of. Tell a lie, fight with your sister, or disobey your mom, no spirit. Tell the truth, get along, do as you are told, the spirit is there.

It was all rather esoteric, and there was a whole level of bizarreness beyond that, subtle mentions of the dark spirits of the devil constantly trying to tempt you into doing wrong. Always follow the right path, hold to the rod, listen to that still-small voice, otherwise you are giving in to the devil and god will be disappointed.

Mormon conversions are almost solely based on this spiritual concept. Non-members are challenged to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. I handed out dozens of copies of the Book of Mormon as a missionary, and I always highlighted the same verse at the end of the book. The verse basically invited people to read the book, then think and pray about it with “a sincere heart and real intent”, and then the spirit would teach them if it was true or not. How did it do that? By bringing peace. If they felt peaceful and good about what they read, it was true. And if it was true, it was ALL true, every part of the church. The priesthood, the baptism, the tithing, the policies, the requirements, every ounce of it. If it feels good, it’s true, and if it’s true, we are right about everything. And if you didn’t feel peaceful or good about it, well, you didn’t try hard enough so try again.

What I didn’t realize until later is that feeling peace, experiencing conscience or internal thought, experiencing a gut reaction to something… that are HUMAN qualities. They aren’t divine messages from god through an ethereal spirit. They are just human nature, impacted by nutrition, sleep, endorphins, and weather. And what Mormons have done, what many religions have done, is the taking of these HUMAN principles, bottling them as a product to ensure religious conformance. If I stand on a pulpit and tell you that you are special, and if that warms your heart to hear that you are special, then that means I speak for god because you felt warm, and now you have to follow my rules.

Holy ghost? Holy shit, it’s just the normal human brain, and I believed in some godly alien entity who has no form and dwells in the hearts of billions, but mostly those following the rules. How did I believe that? How did I teach that to others?

But the Mormons take it one step farther. They teach that those who feel the holy ghost are also entitled to “personal revelation”. In other words, god will give direction and guidance through his spirit to help people make decisions. Women can get guidance for themselves and their children. Men can receive it for themselves and their families, and their revelations supersede the others because they hold the priesthood. Bishops get it for their wards, and so on and up to the prophet, who gets revelation for the church. A man can get a revelation that says his wife should have another baby, or his son shouldn’t go to college, but he can’t receive it for the neighbor family. Mormons use this spiritual guidance constantly to reaffirm their own decisions and lives, sometimes positively and sometimes otherwise. “I prayed and God told me I should have soup for lunch/ should quit my job and go back to school/ should ask Sally to marry me/ should take a different road to work today/ should try to convert my cousin.” And I’ll notice people who grow up Mormon using the same spiritual feelings to justify their decisions later, even when they are entirely contrary to Mormon rules. It’s a bizarre form of programming that takes people years to clear their heads from.

I listen to my gut, my conscience, my inner thoughts all the time now. It’s crucial for me to hone in on that inner guidance system. But I no longer think of these parts of me in accordance with ghosts, or rewards for obedience. I don’t use my guidance system to justify my bad behavior, or to judge others by. Instead, I use it to try to be the best version of me that I can. On my terms.

And I still balk at what it was I used to believe in.

Spirit 5: Chastity

Sex was always the most taboo of subjects growing up. It was forbidden to even talk about it. The only understanding I had about sex at all growing up was in accordance to the rules around it. The older I got, the more those rules stood out, but it was always about the rules.

I knew sex was to be saved for marriage. I knew that babies should only be born to married couples. And I knew that families meant fathers and mothers and kids; there were simply no other alternatives. Men held the Priesthood and were to provide for their families. Women were to be in the home and raising children. That was simply the way of things.

I learned about masturbation at the age of 12. The bishop asked me if I followed the law of chastity and I asked what that was. He then asked me if I masturbated, and I asked what that was. And then he told me. But it turned out that I already knew. An older sibling had molested me when I was younger, had had me do that very thing to him. Lots of times. It had never occurred to me to try that for myself. After the bishop told me, I went home and tried it. And, god, was it amazing… but the release was accompanied by a deep and abiding shame and nausea. God was disappointed in me.

Between the ages of 12 and 18, almost every conversation at church for my age group seemed to revolve around chastity and morality. I couldn’t have even defined the words, but they were part of every conversation. And every conversation was about the rules. Never be alone with the opposite sex. Kissing was fine, but it must be chaste. Only date other Mormons, and then only in groups. Women should be modest. When dancing, it was always best to keep space between the two people. No dating until 16. No “heavy petting”, no “dry-humping”, no removal of clothing, and definitely no intercourse. Pregnancy before marriage was the ultimate shame, except for homosexuality itself. And definitely, definitely no viewing of pornography. Porn was talked about almost more than anything else. “One single image of pornography will seer itself into your brain forever and ever and will never leave. Even one second, and you are permanently tainted.”

Strangely, there was no sex education. There was no talk about consent, or avoiding disease, or self-defense, or a sharing of statistics about the rates of sexual violence. Only those same lines, over and over again. Modesty. Chastity. Purity. Repentance. Sexual six was among the greatest of sins.

As a teenager, I was a part of groups that received lessons about spirituality. The men were told repeatedly to avoid temptation. And the women were told that their virtue was their single greatest asset. They must save themselves for their husbands. If there was a plate full of un-chewed gum, and one single chewed piece, everyone would take the un-chewed pieces. If a girl wanted a good husband, a worthy priesthood holder, she should never let herself be, well, pre-chewed. Damaged goods worth less than the other pieces.

I turned 12 in 1990. In the following 7 years, I was given multiple books that preached against the evils of sexual sin. I was told constantly, almost obsessively, that I needed to avoid being alone with women, avoid pornography, avoid masturbation. If I was good and faithful, as a priesthood holder and as a missionary, a beautiful wife would be my reward. The prophets grew bizarrely specific at times. They said that singing hymns in your head constantly was one way to keep your thoughts pure. They said that having wet dreams was normal, but touching yourself was not. One prophet suggested tying your hands to your headboard at night to keep from touching yourself. (I tried it once). They emphasized that all sins could be forgiven, but sexual sins carried greater consequences.

And the words they used to describe me, a boy who was attracted to other boys, were harsh. They called homosexuality aberrant, a crime against nature, the sin next to murder, a perversion, an abomination. I was evil, sheer evil, just for being different, and I could never, never act on that sin.

As I grew older, I began to realize how obsessed with sex the Mormon church seemed to be. The founders of the Mormon church bartered for wives. The first leaders had them by the dozens. The gave counsel to the women to submit to their husbands, to follow the commands of god. They wanted to not only acquire women, but to control them, to obtain and rule over them. Seventy year old men with 30 wives, some also 70 years old, kept marrying young women, ages 22 and 19 and 15. They possessed them. They at times promised destruction by the swords of angels if these women didn’t submit.

But it started long before then. Men in the old testament were granted concubines, harems, and handmaids to do their bidding. Jesus himself was born to a virgin. The bible obsesses with sex like all the rest.

Heavenly father, or god, was to be revered and praised and worshiped. Heavenly mothers, all the millions of them, should never be discussed or mentioned. Women belonged behind their husbands, in clean organized lines. Male children got to become like their fathers, female children like their mothers. Save yourselves for your husbands, then belong to them forever.

In recent years, these topics are finally being talked about, and outrage continues. The issues are still there. The rules are still in place. Just a few days ago, the current prophet gave a speech about how he can’t apologize for these words as they are commands by god. Homosexuality remains forbidden; gay young men and women are meant to be celibate to be right before god. Abortion is forbidden. Sex education and consent and pregnancy prevention topics are still frowned upon. And the abuses of men in power, in the Mormon religion and others, are being exposed, with the reaction being those of outrage and deep pain.

Statistics are showing that 1 in every 4 women (some statistics say 1 in 3) are subjected to sexual molestation or violence at some point in their lives, and almost always, almost universally, by men. And it is 1 in every 6 for men, also hurt by other men. And these statistics increase in societies that are highly religious. And Utah is very, very religious. I could comment a lot about other societies out there that have strict sexual purity or morality laws. Issues like rape, genital mutilation of women, the killing of “sexually impure women” and homosexuals, and domestic violence are part of the very foundation of these societies.

The world is slowly, slowly changing, slowly beginning to understand, that protecting children doesn’t mean protecting the religious definitions of virtue and chastity, but instead focuses on fair health care, education of women and girls, sex education, conversations about consent, etc. The world is getting there. But far too many are being hurt.

I am one of seven in my family. There are two boys and five girls. I’m gay. I also have a gay sister. So far as I know, I’m the only one of we seven who was sexually abused. Despite being so different, so damaged, so tainted, I held tightly to the sexual purity laws implemented on me. I did my best as a teenager to avoid pornography and masturbation, I considered sexual sin to be horrible in god’s eyes, I even avoided being attracted to others. I felt impure just for existing. I never kissed a woman until I was 27, and I never kissed a man until I was 32. I felt divided, at war with myself, for all that time.

But since then? Since leaving it all behind? I am a sexually active male, and sex is incredible. I don’t follow any of the church’s rules any longer, and I don’t judge others for doing so. I still focus on morality, on clean ethics, but by entirely different definitions. Consent, communication, fair treatment, kindness, love, consideration, education, equality.

I have a new religion. And it has nothing to do with keeping women and homosexuals in their place with strict rules. Instead, it creates entirely new seats at the table. It understands history, learns from it, and seeks to change the future. A future where we are outraged not by whether or not women are “pure” until marriage; instead we are outraged by child abuse, by rape, by societies being subjugated, and we are outraged by the men who are causing the harm.

Spirit 4: Moral Authority

I was 12 when I received the Aaronic Priesthood. They explained that this was the lesser Priesthood, or the official authority to act in god’s name, to perform his ordinances. It wasn’t the first Mormon ritual I underwent: I was blessed as a baby, then baptized at the age of 8, then I was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I received the Holy Ghost. All of those ordinances were done by Priesthood holders, men who were given the Priesthood by other Priesthood holders when they were younger. It was like a treasure map with necessary stops along the way, all necessary to reach the final destination: salvation.

At 12, as a deacon, I was allowed to pass the sacrament, the blessed bread and water, to members of the congregation during church meetings. At 14, as a teacher, I was given additional responsibilities, those of home-teaching. At 16, as a priest, I could bless the sacrament, sanctify it. At 18, as an elder, I was given the higher Priesthood, called the Melchizedek, which gave me many more abilities. I could perform baptisms, perform blessings of healing and comfort, consecrate oil, and dedicate homes, among other things.

It was all very official, very coming-of-age. Other cultures let young men go on their first hunt to become a man, I received the Priesthood for mine. First, I had to pass the worthiness interview: did I pay my tithing, obey the law of chastity, believe fully in the church and the prophet and the teachings, etc, and if I said yes to all the questions, I was deemed worthy. I said yes to all the questions, but at the same time, I didn’t believe I was worthy, not truly. I hoped God would find me as such, but I didn’t believe it. I was attracted to boys, even back then, and that made me less than the other boys. Less manly, less straight, less worthy.

Worthiness was the key component to holding the Priesthood. That and having a penis. Boys held the Priesthood and ran things and girls got to be wives and mothers. In the temple ceremony years later, I would stand with the men and promise to follow God; the women would, with veiled faces, stand together and promise to follow their husbands. Clear chain of command.

All the Priesthood holders I knew had it rough, living up to the strict expectations of the church, paying ten per cent of their money, giving much of their time for free to church activities and meetings, all while providing for their families and keeping their families happy. They had to do so willingly and worthily or they wouldn’t be fit to carry god’s authority any longer. There was the full-time job, the full-time calling, and the busy household to maintain. All while staying worthy.

And even if you had the Priesthood, you couldn’t use it if you weren’t worthy, that was evident. See, god gave the authority to certain prophets before Christ, then he gave it to Christ, who gave it to his apostles, but they all died and the authority was taken away from the earth, but then god gave it back to Joseph Smith when he founded Mormonism in the 1830s, then Smith passed it on to his apostles, and it got passed right on down to me. One long chain of authority. Baptisms would have to be done for everyone who ever lived on the earth, as well as temple work, because Mormonism was supposed to fill the whole planet stretching back to the earliest days of the earth and on into the eternities.

But the thing was, men lied about being worthy all the time. Even as a young kid, I saw Priesthood holders performing ordinances like blessings for the sick and blessings on the sacrament, when I knew they weren’t worthy. There were members of my own family who did this, and many members of my friends’ families. Men who molested children, who viewed pornography, and who hit their wives were regularly attending the temple and participating in ordinances. And these men were the same ones guiding the families and the wards. These were the men that the women and children were supposed to follow. I used to believe these stories were few, but they seem to be a large minority of the households out there, these corrupted leaders guiding others with the sanctioned authority of god.

I brought up these concerns with church leaders a few times, and I was generally told to just be patient and trust that god would work it out. I knew at least seven girls in high school who were being molested by their fathers, and some of these men had high positions in the church. But we were to just trust in god. Just trust that he will work it out. These men are the leaders, and god knows their hearts, and god will guide them to do what is right. Only god could judge. God is in charge and he says the men are in charge, even the ones who hurt others. Just trust.

Some examples of this stand out more than others in my mind. I once reported to a church authority that a man was molesting his daughters; that man was given a ‘talking to’, I was told, but he was never released from his calling, never excommunicated from the church; he stayed right there where he was and he kept molesting his kids. And when my own stepfather’s physical abuse was exposed, he was temporarily disfellowshipped, and then reinstated three months later, still serving in the temple, still sitting in church every week. Meanwhile, the men who were exposed as being gay were being excommunicated right and left.

The whole ‘authority of god’ thing felt pretty special in the beginning, but as with all things in religion, it grew more complicated the more I learned. Joseph Smith claimed angels had come down from heaven to give him the authority. He used it to get revelations for the whole church, for the whole earth even, and the revelations were often complicated and contradictory. He used it to marry four dozen women, and he gave other men that right, but later men couldn’t do that anymore. He said only white men could have the power, but that changed too in the late 1970s. Certain men could do certain things, but only if they were worthy, and it all depended on their jurisdiction–one man could run his family, other men ruled congregations or geographic areas. There were “keys to the Priesthood” conferred to various men in various positions for various tenures.

Me? In the beginning, the Priesthood made me pretty special. But it added a burden to what I was already carrying. This intense pressure to be right before god when I knew I was wrong, it caused a deep rift within me, one that resulted in deep depression, pain, and anxiety. And eventually, when it all came apart at the seams, the release of that pressure gave me a new lease on life. Ultimately, giving up this pressure to be good according to a list of rules was replaced by just being good for its own sake.

And something I’ve learned almost more than anything else since leaving it all behind: women should be the ones in charge, and the men agreeing to follow them.

Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

Spirit 2: On Divine Potential

I was raised to believe I was one of the chosen ones. I was of a chosen generation, saved to be born in these latter days to help usher the kingdom of heaven to earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This was the ned of human mortal history, we were taught. The dispensation of the fullness of times. The creation of the earth and every ounce of human history that preceded would be culminated in this one, when Christ came again and men would be judged.

And where much was given (i.e. being one of the chosen ones, being born into the true gospel), much was required (i.e. a full life of dedicated service to the church, ten per cent of my money, and strict obedience to all of the rules).

And like all things in the religion, this could be very simple or very complicated. God had billions of spirit children in a spirit realm that we called the pre-existence. He created the planet and had humans born so they could be tested to see if they were worthy to return to him. In the thousands of years of human history, billions of humans were born in different eras. Some humans were born with advantages and others with disadvantages, the way I was taught. I could have been born into poverty or into slavery, during the dark ages when god didn’t allow his word to be taught correctly, or in the wrong religion. But I was born American (in the country god set up to establish his church), male (the gender god allowed to hold his priesthood), and white (seemingly god’s preferred skin color). On top of all of that, I was born Mormon, because my parents were Mormon. So I already had the true religion. See how fortunate I was?

The scriptures were full of stories about choosing the right paths, sacrificing everything for god, and following the rules with exactness even when life got difficult. I was born gay, but I could change that, they said. The rest was there, there were no questions and there was no room to question. I had a hero’s quest ahead of me and it was all laid out. I had every tool I needed to succeed. Baptism, Priesthood, two-year missionary service, temple marriage to a woman, and a life of service to the church. I was one of the chosen ones. I could stand up in my white shirt and tie next to all my brethren and be proud that I had it right while everyone else had it wrong. But they could have it right, also, if they learned to be just like me.

What I never realized at the time, what I couldn’t realize, is how inherently arrogant those messages made me. By teaching me that I was chosen, that meant I was superior. Inherently better. I had something that everyone else needed, and they had to be like me to get it. They had to follow the same rules and ordinances. I had no concept of human history, of slavery, of war, of poverty, of gender discrimination, of sexual assault, of addiction. The message I had to share was just ‘turn to god and be like me so you can have what I have’. Gay men were told to make themselves straight, people with disabilities were told they could be healed, women were told to be happy with their station in life, people of different races were (for a time at least) told they could be made white. We were all god’s children, and he wanted us to look the same, one happy family of white men with women behind them, stretching on for generations.

As a missionary, I taught people these things. I sat with the elderly, with the poor, with ex-cons and addicts, with the abused and the disenfranchised, with African-Americans and Pennsylvania-Ducth and Methodists and the Amish. I was 19, and I told them how to make their lives better by being more like me. And if anyone challenged this inherent arrogance within me, well, I could just shrug and fall back on what I was taught. I wasn’t being sexist or ageist or racist or homophobic or xenophobic. I was just preaching it the way I was taught. I was chosen. And this was how god wanted it to be.

I look back on that era of my life with shame and embarrassment now. I can’t believe what I used to believe. But the truth is, I just didn’t know any better at the time. Once I knew better, everything was different. I had to change myself and the way I look at life. Once I learned about the world, I couldn’t put blinders back on and ignore it. Superiority is no longer my religion. My spirituality is now more closely associated with fairness, equality, and human potential. It is about learning from history, understanding privilege, and fighting for the underdog. It’s about celebrating diversity, embracing all of god’s children, and sharing, or even surrendering, power to those who have been disenfranchised for too long. I listen now. I hear. I inquire. I learn. I don’t spout my dogma and silence the voices of others, I instead seek my place at the table of good and ethical people who want to make the world better. I suppose that makes my spirituality a bit more socialist than capitalist, a bit more Democrat than Republican, a bit more humanitarian than industrial revolutionist, but I like it that way. I like my current ethics, the way I want to preserve this planet and improve the people on it. I’m proud of my journey now and I have no doubts about it.

And, truth be told, that is something I couldn’t say before.

Spirit 1: On Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell were easy to understand growing up. There was the devil on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder that tempted him to do bad, and the angel that tried influencing good. The devil was always gruff, focused on fun, and sinful, encouraging Bugs to lean into his appetites. The angel was always pious, innocent, naive, and focused on self-denial and sacrifice, with a few dire warnings of the consequences of sin.

Bad people went to hell (which was a curse word unless you were referring to the place) and good people went to heaven. And I was one of the good people. Born Mormon, I was baptized at age 8, and my path to heaven was assured, so long as I followed the rules and repented.

But the older I got, the more complicated heaven and hell became. I soon understood them to mean multiple things. Heaven and hell, for example, are both literal and figurative.

Hell can mean being sad or in a place of misery, something that happens even while alive. Hell was both the dwelling place of the devil and those who followed him, and the punishment for those who sinned in life. Hell was the end of progression, an Outer Darkness, a place where humans were unhappy spirits, severed from their bodies, trapped by their addictions, unable to have relationships. Hell was the end of existence. Hell was a place with lakes of fire, the smell of brimstone, and the unending screams of humans. Hell was where everyone ended up automatically because they had already sinned by being born, and only Jesus and his atonement could save them. But hell could also mean being in prison as a spirit before the final judgment. (More on that in a minute).

Heaven, meanwhile, was mirrored on earth in places like church, temple, and home, with worthy families united by religious bonds. Heaven was both the dwelling place of god and those who followed him, and the reward for those who were obedient in life. In addition, heaven was a planet, something called Kolob, but it was also the final state of the earth we dwelled on after god transfigured it into perfection somehow. Heaven also represented those who were in the spirit world after death but before the final judgment, those who were righteous and not in prison. In heaven, family bonds could exist, marriages between men and women (sometimes men and multiple women), who could go on having more children, and who maintained their relationships to the children they had on earth. God himself led this charge, with many wives and many children, as he was the father of every son and daughter on earth and also those in hell who never made it to earth.

I was very young when I learned that heaven and hell had origin stories. But there were origins before that origin as well. God used to be a man. He was a mortal named Elohim who made good choices and made it to his own heaven before he got his own planet, then he was eventually to make his own earth, the very one we lived on. But before god created earth, he had all his billions of children around him in heaven, and he wanted them to be more than spirits (cause god had a body but his children did not). So Jesus made one plan, to make the earth and test men, and Lucifer had another plan, and God liked Jesus’s plan, so Lucifer and all those who followed him (a full third of God’s children) started a war and they were all kicked out and sent to hell (which might be on earth in a spiritual form but could also be somewhere else). They would never get bodies and they would spend thousands of years trying to tempt the other children of god, the ones who did get bodies.

Simple, right? I was born to follow god, to obey all the rules, to make good choices, and then to go to heaven afterward where I could eventually become a new god. See? Simple.

Except as I grew older, it grew more complicated again. The prophet Joseph Smith, in expounding on heaven, revealed that there are multiple levels. Celestial is up on top, and underneath it are terrestrial and telestial, which are like lesser versions of heaven but also kind of versions of hell because they aren’t the top version of heaven. The celestial realm itself was split into thirds, and only those in the very very tip-top most worthy realm had the maximum heaven benefits, like family, eternal marriage, eternal progression, and presumably billions of spirit children and godhood and their own planets. Varying levels of happiness. Varying levels of misery.

But before heaven was the spirit world, the place that souls dwelled until the final judgment. There was a mini-judgment that placed souls in spirit paradise (the good place) and spirit prison (the bad place). Another heaven and hell.

Then it got more complicated again. There were ordinances that had to either be done while living, or in proxy for a human soul after they died, in order to get them into heaven. Baptism, the conferring of the holy ghost, and the temple endowment. In the endowment, I learned of all the sacred laws I had to follow, the covenants I had to keep, and all of the sacred/super-secret signs and tokens that I needed to know to access heaven itself. I got a new name. There were handshakes and whispered code words, a parting of an ethereal veil, a welcoming by god into the new realm.

As I look back on all I used to believe, I scoff. I balk. I swallow a stone. It’s a complex fantasy realm with competing realities. It’s allegory and fable interpreted literally. Transfigured planets, polygamist gods, new names, secret handshakes, lakes of fire, and a war of spirits.

But as a child, this mythos held so much power over me. Earth-life was but a blip. I was temporary, yet all of my choices had staggering potential consequences. I had to conform, follow the rules, stay focused, so that I could be with my family. Sinning, turning from god, and even being gay would mean that I lost everything. Were I to sin, were I to screw it all up, perdition would be the result. Sacrificing my happiness and enduring to the end meant vast eternal rewards. Sinning and being true to myself meant letting down everyone I had ever known and willfully breaking the bonds that held us together. Forever.

I regularly see clients in my therapy office who are so afraid of coming out, of doubting their religion, of divorcing. They are afraid of the consequences, the judgments of god. But they are often even more afraid of their parents, their faithful Mormon parents, finding out about their secret shames. They keep it hidden, often for years. And so often, when the parents do find out, their response is something like this.

“I don’t care that you are gay/sexually active/marrying a non-Mormon/divorcing/smoking pot (fill in any old sin here) so long as you stay in the church.” So long as you stay in the church. So long as we can know that there is a chance you will be part of our family in the eternity to follow. Because leaving the church, losing your belief, that would be the worst thing of all, because we lose our soul to hell. Whatever hell is.

I’m 40 now, and I don’t really believe in heaven and hell. I think every human is inherently good and evil both, and I think both of those words are hard to define, and are easily influenced by culture, morals, ethics, psychology, sociology, and history. I do believe in human potential to be happy, to strive for more, to be good, to be christian even. And if you were to ask me what I believe regarding what comes after death, I’m happy to report that I have no idea.

Perhaps death is a great unknowing void. Perhaps the soul returns in a new form. Perhaps the human spirit is absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps there is a great reckoning and an eternal punishment or reward. Perhaps death is a door to a great mystic realm of fantasy. Perhaps the most righteous souls, the ones who know the names and the handshakes, access the top third of the top third of heaven get to become gods themselves. But I do believe the soul finds peace.

And I believe that it is my duty to myself to find that peace right now, balancing the heaven and hell within me, making me the best person possible. An ethical, good, valuable life on my terms, one that is good to the world around me. And in that, I find all the love and peace that I need.