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.”

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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.

 

Heaven or Hell?

“Dad, how come you don’t believe in God now?”

I sat at the stoplight, looking up at a Christian billboard, one of those aggressive ones that shows up all over Utah lately. “Will you be in Heaven, or in Hell?” it asked, with dramatic images on each side. There was a phone number, and a scripture that I would never look up.

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I cocked my head, looking back at A, my precocious 7-year old. He was bouncing his new plastic red-eyed tree frog around in the back seat, idly playing. Although he’d been the one to ask the question, he was barely paying attention now. His older brother, J, now 10 years old, was looking out the window.

“Why do you ask?” I said as the light turned green.

“Well, you’re an atheist now, right? But why?”

I looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Well, I’m happy to answer, but I’m just wondering why you want to know that right now?”

A shrugged, looking at the frog in its red eyes. “I was just wondering, I guess.”

I considered for a moment. My kids had been asking me hard questions for years, and I had learned years before that the direct approach was generally the best one.

“Well, buddy, we can have more serious talks about this when you get older. But I just want you to know that I love you whether you believe in god or not, it just so happens that don’t believe in one anymore.”

I saw J turn his head, more intent in the conversation now. “We know, Dad. You love us no matter what.”

I smiled softly. I loved that he could say that with confidence. Just a few nights before, we had been watching an episode of Queer Eye on Netflix together, and a young woman had talked about getting disowned by her family when she came out as gay. J had snuggled tightly into me and said, “You would never kick me out for anything like that. You and Mom both love me.” I adored that assurance he had in that.

I pulled up to another red light. “Okay, so I was Mormon for a long time, you know that. When I was Mormon, I believed in God and I said lots of prayers and everything. But lots of people told me that I was bad for being gay. Some even told me that God could make me straight if I was a really good boy. And I was a really good boy, but God never made me straight. So when I stopped being Mormon, I stopped believing in God.”

I worried even that much was too much information, but they both seemed to understand. “Okay, cool,” said A.

J looked back out the window. “I haven’t decided if I believe in God or not. But maybe I’ll decide when I’m a grown-up.”

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

And soon we were home, and we played with toys together, then I made dinner while they watched a cartoon. As I grilled the eggs and stirred up the protein pancakes, I contemplated how far removed I am from my former lifetime. I used to be so caught up in the Mormonism of it all, both before and after I left the religion. Now I barely noticed an impact in my life at all, in any capacity.

In November, 2015, the Mormon Church implemented a policy that said that gay people who married a same-sex partner were considered apostate. Then it went on to say that the children of gay people couldn’t be blessed or baptized until they were adults, and only after disavowing their parents. Back then, those three and a half years ago, I had had such a profound anger response to this news. How dare they! How dare they use their influence to shame and label. How dare they use that dirty word, apostate. How dare they make it about children.

Well, this week, they changed their minds. Apparently God decided that it was mean to do this. Now gay people aren’t apostates, they are only sinners. And their kids don’t have to be kicked out any more. A step in the right direction, perhaps. The news came without apology, without acknowledgement for the extreme damage done in the lives of so many three years ago.

But the new news didn’t hit me at all. I barely reacted. When my friends posted notes on social media, heartfelt paragraphs about their coming out journeys, about their struggle to belong to a religion that didn’t want them, about their deep and abiding pain with it all, I just casually observed. I grimaced, I shrugged, I barely noticed the bad taste in my mouth. Look at this as evidence for god. Why would I possibly believe in god when he was always presented to me this way.

After dinner, and pajamas, and a dance party, and brushing teeth, I tucked my kids into their beds. I gave them both huge hugs and told them how much I loved them. I gave them both sincere eye contact. “You’re important to me,” I told them both. And they went to sleep, knowing they are loved.

An hour later, I went to bed myself, and I contemplated god for a minute. I thought of the rituals I had growing up. The shameful prayers on my knees, the waking every morning and reading chapters of scripture, the three hours of church every Sunday morning, the 2 years I spent as a missionary, the ten per cent of my income that I paid to the church for the first 32 years of my life, the pictures of Jesus and prophets and temples that lined the wall of my home growing up. I remembered how ‘all in’ I was, and how hard it was to leave it all.

And then I assessed my simple and beautiful life now. Happy kids, a job that makes a difference, and a man that I love who shares my bed. And if God looked down at all of this and saw me as a sinner, as an abomination, as an apostate, well, I want no part of that god.

I thought back to the billboard. Heaven or Hell? I’ll take whichever this one is, the one without god and Mormons and self-hatred. This one suits me just fine.

Pride, Prejudice, and Protest

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HOMO SEX IS SIN

BELIEVE TRUST FOLLOW OBEY JESUS

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL

The signs were tall, large bright capital letters on bold backgrounds, yellow on black, black on white. The word Hell was bright red, the letters dramatically lapped in flames along the bottom. There were no exclamation points, but they were certainly implied. (At least there was no ‘God Hates Fags’ signs this time. That one makes me angrier than the others, somehow.)

And the protestors looked like normal people, men and women in shirts and jeans. They were relatively peaceful as they stood there with their signs of condemnation, their T-shirts (ordered out of the back of some fundamentalist magazine somewhere, perhaps) with similar messages of hate and judgment.

They occupied a prominent corner in Salt Lake City, on a major intersection, right in front of a hotel and restaurant, right where the parade began. Just across the street from the protestors, a large booth blared happy, peppy music like Born This Way by Lady Gaga and Holiday by Madonna, songs about embracing who you are and celebrating life. The streets were full of people assembling for the upcoming Pride parade, a lengthy procession that would last over two hours and would include lavish floats and huge groups of people. Those marching in the parade would include everything from men in leather with whips, mothers holding signs that said they loved their gay children, huge processions from local businesses in matching T-shirts that embrace diversity, Mormons holding signs like ‘Jesus Said Love Everyone’ who were trying to seek change from within, the local gay swim team in speedos and roller skates, mayoral and Congressional candidates with throngs of supporters, and drag queens in flowing gowns on the tops of trucks and busses. Every one of them would march past those signs as they were cheered by the thousands upon thousands of those there to cheer them on.

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.

My little family hovered in the shade across the street from the protestors, waiting for the parade to begin. My sons, J and A, ages 9, sat on the ground, talking back and forth about the adventures we had been having all morning. The night before, we’d rented a hotel room downtown in order to be closer to the parade route, and I had assembled a team of bird toys as super-villains, calling themselves the Bird Brigade. The bald eagle, flamingo, chicken, goose, cassowary, and others all had villain names and super-powers and they had been led by a cartoonish looking Baby Bluebird. The kids had made hero teams out of their animals and they had spent hours laughing at the antics of the Bird Brigade, who, of course, lost every battle. Now, after coffee and breakfast, they were still talking about the adventures and cracking up. (This quality time with them was my very favorite thing about being their father).

My boyfriend reached over and scratched my back. “Are you sure we should stand here? Do you think the kids will wonder about those signs?”

I shrugged. “Well, if they ask questions, it gives us an opportunity to talk about it. They’ve been at Pride every year, and there are always protestors here. They’ve never asked questions before. But I don’t want to move. I am kind of determined to stand my ground.” I put my arm around him as he understood.

Just before the parade began, one of the protestors grabbed a megaphone and began shouting over the music and the crowd. As I looked over to watch him, trying to make out his words, I noticed three policemen standing right behind him, against the wall. They were there to protect us, of course, but they were also there to protect the protestors who, I realized again, had every right to be there, every bit as much as we did.

“God condemns sin! Those who do not repent will all be burned! The Bible is clear in its condemnation of sinners! Turn back from sin now or burn! All sinners will burn in Hell!”

In response, the music was turned up louder. The protestor went silent, then he tried blaring a Christian song over his own megaphone to drown out Rihanna. Ultimately it was ineffective and he gave up, returning to standing there quietly.

I found myself voicing my thoughts out loud, my boyfriend listening as I sorted through my complex feelings. “The thing is, I believe in their right to protest. Freedom of speech and all that. They deserve to have a place to stand and protest. But it’s just… gross. It’s gross! Then again, they think that we are gross, for being a couple out here in public with my sons at our side.”

As I talked, I watched a Latina drag queen with bright purple hair, in a corset and skirt, with bold make-up, walk out in front of the protestors and raise her middle fingers in the air as people cheered her on and photos were taken. “We are responding to their hate with hate,” I thought to myself even as I found myself clapping for the drag queen.

“I just don’t understand why they are here at the start of the parade in such a prominent position,” my boyfriend said.

“Honestly, they probably just got here really early and claimed a place where they would be seen. In past years, they are usually at the entrance to the festival after the parade. In fact, they will probably be there, too.”

The parade started, and went for hours, but my thoughts kept going back to the protestors. Who were these people? Are they just locals who hate gays so much that they want to voice their fury in this way? Do they think that they are saving souls by turning people away from lives of sin? Do they do this professionally? Are these T-shirts their work uniforms, those signs their gear? Do they travel from city to city  at various Pride festivals, paid to promote their cause by a various church or business? There is a website at the bottom of their signs, I noticed. Is that it, are these just paid groupies of some kind? They seemed so calm as they stood there.

I thought back to a few years ago, when some of the protestors chanted hateful rhetoric at a group of gay people. I watched a furious young lesbian couple screaming at the protestors, who stood there silently.

“It’s people like you who fucking ruined my life! You’ve turned my family against me! My whole church disowned me! And you stand here saying that God hates me! God created me this way, you fuckers! How dare you stand here hurting people while you say you love them!”

And she was right, of course. Except her fury was misplaced. The protestors and their messages reinforce messages that most LGBT people hear growing up, over and over again. I was given those messages, and I still am. “If you work hard enough, you can cure yourself from being gay.” “I like gay people, I just don’t support your lifestyle.” “I’m happy you have found someone, but I still think being gay is a choice.” “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Homosexuality is a gross abomination.” “You say you are born this way, but God would never do that to anyone.” And are any of those messages any better or worse than “Ask me why you deserve Hell” or “God hates fags”?

Yet what good does it do to stand and rage at these (likely paid) protestors, screaming in pain and vulnerability at strangers?

Still reasoning out loud, I turned back to my boyfriend. “How different would the news coverage be if we gay people made giant-ass signs like this and we stood outside churches every Sunday with hate messages. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’ ‘God said to love, not condemn and disown.’ Or worse. ‘You aren’t true Christians!’ ‘Burn in Hell!’ ‘God hates you!’ Or, even, perhaps, ‘Ask me why you deserve Hell!’ The media would label us haters, disgusting, sinners, anti-Christian, and the world would leap to support them.”

I looked back at my children on the ground, still laughing over Baby Bluebird. Then I looked around at the crowd of people, all of them, in leather, in purple wigs, in make-up, in tight shorts, in jeans and t-shirts and dresses and tank tops and body glitter, all there to celebrate life. I recognized the change happening in the world.

And I came to my own conclusion. “We are the future. My sons are the future. They are the past. I support their right to protest, and I protest them in return, and I have no desire to sink to their level. I choose to celebrate life rather than hold signs.”

 

I paused for a moment, speaking to myself. “I can’t do much. But I can write about it. I can live my own truth. I can help others. And I can raise my sons to live in a better future.”

Later, my boyfriend and I held hands. J held my right hand, A held his left hand, and we formed a little chain, walking down at the road, a different family, but a family all the same. We took up a whole sidewalk, my little family. And if that made me deserve Hell, well, I’ll see you there.

Bucket O’ Crawfish

craw

“You guys can choose something fish-y if you want to.” I put on a determined face as I drove.

“You hate fish,” my boyfriend, Mike, responded.

“We can get anything. It doesn’t have to be fish. Let’s go somewhere you would like,” my best friend, Tyler, reasoned.

“No, no,” I said, a touch of the martyr in my voice, “I’m not hungry. Plus you guys never get fish when you’re with me. It’s the holidays. Treat yourself. Just pick something nearby.”

We scanned the map and, determined to show them that I could do it, I picked the fishiest sounding place possible and drove there while they both tried to talk me out of it. Bucket O’ Crawfish. How bad could it be?

I’d been fully vegetarian for a number of years (not vegan, but vegetarian), and I was generally fine with people eating meat in front of me. I don’t like looking at or touching raw meat, and I definitely can’t handle animal carcasses of any kind (it makes me shudder even writing that), but cooked meat being eaten is fine. But there had always been something about fish. Even from my earliest days, the sights and smells of cooked fish gave me a gag reflex response and left my whole body feeling weak and woozy. I have a very difficult time watching someone eat fish, but I can’t stand smelling it being cooked, and I despise tasting it afterward. Not just fish, but seafood, including crab and lobster. Conversely, I love live fish and think they are beautiful.

On rare occasions, when Mike would order fish in front of me, I would respectfully place a menu in front of his plate so that I couldn’t see it, then I would focus on my food and just remind him that I wouldn’t be kissing him until later, even after he brushed his teeth (cause I can definitely still taste it). One weekend while I was traveling, he cooked fish in the house, and upon returning I could still smell it; I deep-cleaned the kitchen, opened the windows, and lit candles, and could still swear I smelled it for a full day. He’s never cooked fish at home again.

Upon walking into Bucket O’ Crawfish, I immediately knew I’d made a huge mistake. The room was well lit, with wooden tables and chairs, and I directed us to a back corner table where I could look out a window without obstruction. The entire room had a thick, cloying, dense smelled of cooked shellfish and pepper-y, heavy, Old Bay seasoning smells that had me gagging. I gave myself lots of positive self-talk as I took short small breaths.

Tyler and I made small talk, avoiding my pale face as they looked over the menu. I had insisted on coming here, and I would stick it out. The waitress soon took their orders: a bag of shrimp, a bag of crawdads, a bag of mussels, some varying levels of spicy seasonings and sauces, and a few beers. (The word ‘bag’ in the order immediately sent me on a spin of nausea and I found myself looking at the floor). Me? I ordered a single cob of corn.

“I’m vegetarian,” I pathetically explained.

“Oh…”, the waitress responded, as if to say, “you fool, what are you doing here!”

Within minutes, plastic bags filled with dead shellfish were placed on the table, steamed and hot, and although I was trying not to look, I realized the shells were still on the crawdads, the tails still on the shrimp. And then I was not okay. Mike reached into the bag for the first mussel and hot fish smells hit the air, leaving me wanting to hide my face in my shirt. I heard the slurp-y sounds of his first tastes, followed by his moan of pleasure from the flavor. Tyler grabbed a crawdad and I listened as he cracked it’s little shell off and then sucked the meat out, followed by a gulp of beer.

Go to your happy place, go to your happy place I muttered to myself in an effort not to be ill, and I thought of a river bed or a beach until I realized the water-y bodies were full of life that men wanted to devour with tangy sauces, and I went even paler. I placed my hands in front of my face to avoid all eye contact, unable to watch them, knowing that a view of those plastic bags full of corpses would cause me to empty the contents of my stomach. Tyler and Mike muttered ‘this was your idea!’ and ‘you can wait outside!’ but I wouldn’t hear it. I would show how tough I was.

The waitress brought out my corn cob, a small yellow thing that looked overcooked. It glistened with red, salty spices, and I quickly devoured it with hearty bites, desperate to be tasting something besides the fish fragrances in the air. It wasn’t until minutes later that I realized it had been cooked in the bags with the fish themselves, and then my face went from pale to red.

“I made a mistake!” I exclaimed softly and went outside the establishment, gulping in oxygen outside until they finished their meals. When we got into the car, I realized my clothing had soaked up the fish smells, and I suddenly wanted to burn my clothing. I drove home with the windows down, despite the winter air. At home, I tore off my clothing and threw it violently into the washer, angry because I knew my car’s interior would still have the scents in the morning. I gulped glasses of water to purge myself.

Later that night, feeling like I had just overcome the stomach flu, I cuddled up tightly to my boyfriend, refusing to kiss him. I looked him in the eyes. “That was my fault,” I said. “I was trying to be brave and do something nice. Never, ever, ever let me be that nice or brave again. That was horrid. God, I’m so stupid.”

Mike wisely stayed silent and just held me close. I soon fell asleep with the realization that I’d just faced my own personal version of Hell, and I’d survived.

 

 

Heaven

heaven.jpg

“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

Hell

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

I looked up to the rearview mirror in shock, my eyes open wide. I looked at my four year old son, A, in the backseat, his hair tousled from a hard day of play at school, a jelly stain on his beloved shark shirt. His eyes are so blue.

“A, of course you aren’t going to Hell! Why would you ask that?”

My eyes flashed over to J, my 7 year old, on the other side of the backseat, strapped into his booster seat. He looked over at his little brother, ever the supporter. “Yeah, A, y would you ask that?” He must have noticed the touch of concern in my voice.

A shrugged, not disturbed, just curious. “Well, Heavenly Father created Heaven for good people and Hell for bad people.”

I grimaced internally but didn’t show it on my face. Now more of an atheist, I was raised an active Mormon, and remembered growing up with the vision of sunlight and clouds for the angels, and torture and fire and brimstone with the evil laughing devil over them for the bad guys. I try hard to instill in my children a wide world view of living happy lives and understanding all religions. They attend the Unitarian Church with their mother now, but they still visit their grandparents regularly, their grandparents being active Mormons who pray and still teach them about Heavenly Father and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. And they naturally have questions.

“A, you are definitely a good person. You are a great kid.”

J chipped in, still concerned. “Yeah, A. And you have a good family who loves you.”

A was looking out the window. “Well, I know why there is a devil.”

“Yeah? Why is that, A?”

“Well, cause Heavenly Father created one. And he lives in Hell. He’s a really really mean bad guy. He’s more mean than the Joker or Loki or Green Goblin. But he’s kind of like the Joker.”

“How is he like the Joker?”

“He likes to joke! And they are mean jokes!”

I made eye contact with him in the mirror and suppressed a laugh. A has the most serious little look on his face when he’s being dramatic like this, talking about sharks or super villains.

“Yeah, he is definitely a mean guy.” J interjected, looking up at me to back him up.

Before I could respond, A switched topics. “How come there aren’t dinosaurs anymore?”

I smiled, keeping my eyes on the road. “Well, dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago and they all died.”

A talked right over me. “They were born even before Grandma. And Heavenly Father created them, too. But I wish they were still alive. Then I could fight a T-Rex. I’m faster and they have tiny little arms.”

The boys chattered on for a minute, hilarious and random as they usually are, as I thought silently. When there was a lull in conversation, I went back to the concerning topic.

“A, how come you asked if you are going to Hell?”

He looked at me this time, in the mirror. “I was just wondering.”

I gave him my intense dad look, conveying seriousness and pride and silliness all at once, my eyebrows knit down and my eyes on his. “Well listen up, little man. There is no way you are going to Hell. And even if you did, you know what I would do?”

“What?” He asked in wonder.

“I would get all of my friends and everyone who loves you and I would lead them down there and we would rescue you. We would fight the devil and everyone and I would win. Then I would put you on my back, piggy-back, and I would carry you back to Earth.”

He had an expression of adventure on his face. “You could fight dragons! And–and dinosaurs!”

“Yes! I’ll fight them all because I love you! And J would help me! He would use all of his super powers and his super brain and we would rescue you!”

A sat up taller. “Yeah, and after you get me out of my Hell cage I could fight with you, too! I’ll punch the devil right in the face cause I’m so strong!”

J joined in now, sitting up taller as well. “Yeah, and I will dance and run all over and so fast! We will save you, A!”

A few hours later, after a pancake with peanut butter dinner and pretending we are sharks in a swimming pool and bath time and pajamas, I cuddled my boys, one on each arm, and made up stories to tell them about giant frogs and fairy princesses and sabretooth tigers. I sang them their favorite lullabies and tucked them in to sleep. I walked in a while later and looked at them sleeping. J lay in the shorts and tank top he had chosen to sleep in, underneath the three blankets he had pulled around his frame. A lay in thick wool pajamas he had chosen, with no blankets, flipped upside down with his feet on the pillow. I listened to their breathing and wondered about their dreams. But I hoped that if they dreamed of monsters or villains or devils, that perhaps I appeared in some form as their ally, as their dad, as their rescuer.

Because they have certainly rescued me.