“I bet you spend a lot of your time talking about Mormons now,” I smiled as I sipped my water.
“Well, we tend to talk about Mormons more when other ex-Mormons are around,” Alice admitted with a smile.
I dug my fork into the delicious mixture of brown rice, almonds, tofu, broccoli, legumes, beets, and other delicious vegetables blended together with savory sauces, and thought about the truth of that statement. I spoke through my large bite of food, trying not to spray food while I talked. “Yeah, I guess that is true.”
Alice placed her hands around her drink, thinking as she looked down. “Growing up, I didn’t know much about Mormons at all. I just thought of them as some weird cult out west. They used to do the plural marriage thing and they send those guys out in shirts and ties to knock on doors.” She paused, adjusting her scarf on her neck. “I grew up Catholic, which I used to think was pretty much the same, but it is totally not the same. And now my best friend and roommate is an ex-Mormon, and I get it on a whole different level.”
I took another sip of water, then laughed. “You remind me a lot of my sister-in-law. My sister Sheri and I both grew up culturally Mormon in a very Mormon family, but in Missouri, not Utah, and those are very different places to grow up Mormon. We moved to Idaho later on, and that’s a lot more similar. Anyway, it totally influenced everything about us, and it took us years to change our way of thinking. Sheri got married to Heather a few years ago, and Heather is kind of a no-nonsense, I-love-and-support-everyone Massachusetts woman like you, and when Sheri and I talk about our Mormon upbringing, Heather will have this strong ‘what in the hell!’ kind of outraged response when she hears about the Mormon collective culture. It’s kind of adorable actually.”
We shared a laugh, and Alice took another sip. “Massachusetts is the most accepting place I have ever seen. It’s still very culturally divided in many ways, but we widely embrace other cultures, and especially the LGBT community. We fight for refugee rights and work hard on equality for women. We still elected have a habit of electing Republican governors, though, it must be kind of a checks-and-balances thing in our souls. We elected Mitt Romney. Come to think of it, that was the first time I really looked at the whole Mormon thing.”
Gary rejoined us at the table, having refilled his drink. An old college friend of mine, Gary and I hadn’t seen each other in nearly 15 years, but here I was in his new city, Boston, and I had met he and his roommate Alice for dinner. After some basic conversation starters like ‘so what do you do for work’ and ‘so how are your kids’ and ‘so tell me about your dog’, we had easily shifted into college reminiscences and then the Mormon talk started. ‘Remind me where you served your mission?’ and ‘so how long ago did you leave the church?’ and ‘how does your family feel about you leaving the faith?’ and ‘do you miss being Mormon at all?’
And then we had spent several minutes talking about our exits from the church, our uncovering of controversial issues in church history that we hadn’t known about in our up-bringing. We talked about the rape culture at BYU, and LGBT teen suicides, and the failure of the church to appoint black leaders, and Proposition 8, and Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives. As we talked, it dawned on me that these aren’t topics that I spend time on in my day-to-day life and thinking patterns, but they are topics that get covered often when I am around other ex-Mormons. It’s like we need to share our experiences, join in our past pain, and seek validation through explaining it to others.
This was a human thing, I supposed. Humans always spend time talking to people from their pasts about their shared pasts, and humans always seek validation from others about painful parts of their lives that we they have been through. Recovering alcoholics find validation from other recovering alcoholics, returned veterans from returned veterans, refugees from refugees, trauma survivors from trauma survivors. And ex-Mormons from other ex-Mormons.
Gary has really made something of himself. I remember him back in college with his wide smile and easy laugh and cool confidence. Now he’s running a business and living a very happy life that I never would have predicted for him.
The conversation broke for a moment, and Gary looked over his coconut milkshake at me. “Let me ask you a weird question,” he said in a soft voice. “Do you still consider yourself Mormon at all? I don’t. I don’t feel like any part of me is Mormon any longer.”
I had an answer ready. I have been asked this many times before. “I consider Mormonism to be my heritage. Some people are Irish or Somali or Greek. I’m Mormon. My family line goes back generations. My grandparents’ grandparents were pioneers who gathered from all around the world. I’m Mormon, in many ways, more than I’m American. It influenced my cultural upbringing and my family on both sides. And Mormonism is the heritage of my sons.
“But I no longer consider it any part of my belief system. It gave me what I thought was solid ground in my childhood, then it hurt me for a long time, then I left and I had to think about it a lot. But now I don’t really give it much thought, except in conversations like this. It’s where I came from, but not where I am or where I am going.”
Minutes later, the three of us joined outside with hugs and laughter and ‘great to see you’ and ‘nice to meet you’, and then I turned and walked down the cold and rainy Boston streets, finding a bit more of myself with each step, Mormonism behind me yet somehow always around.