the Lion of the Lord

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“Welcome to the Beehive and Lion House. Hopefully you all had a chance to try one of our delicious, famous rolls with honey butter next door. Now, if you will all follow us, the tour is about to begin.”

The two sister missionaries led the crowd of 15 people through a narrow passage and up a flight of stairs, where we gathered in a room filled with a dining room table and chairs. Pictures of old bearded white men lined the walls, with Brigham Young’s being the first.

The two missionaries were pleasant-looking in colorful skirts and shirts, sweaters on their shoulders to keep them warm. One was slightly shorter with brown hair, and she had a tag that read ‘Sister Miller, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ on it, with an American flag fastened beneath it. The other sister, blonde with longer hair, had a similar tag, except her name read ‘Sister Bellows’, and her flag was Canadian. The both held a copy of the Book of Mormon in their hands as they guided the tour in this historical building.

Over the next few minutes, the sisters recounted how the Mormon pioneers had settled into the Salt Lake Valley and how Brigham Young had become prophet, and the first elected governor of the territory. This home, they explained, was where he conducted his business, as he spoke for the Lord in his day-to-day dealings, calling 12 apostles to serve along with him and run Christ’s church. (Thus the other pictures on the wall).

Sister Miller’s voice was low and it droned on a bit, like a college professor reading from a textbook for an afternoon class as sun poured in the window. She kept a false smile plastered on her face as she spoke in a voice without enthusiasm.

“And just as Brigham Young was a prophet, so was Joseph Smith, the man to whom the true Church of God was restored upon the Earth.” She then proceeded to give a full account of the First Vision, when God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. I could recite her entire speech verbatim from my own days as a missionary 20 years before.

As she spoke, I saw a few of the tour group give each other looks, confused. One man muttered to his wife, “What does this have to do with the tour?” and another mentioned something about “propaganda.”

When Sister Miller finished, Sister Bellows mentioned how Brigham Young, no matter how busy he was, would always make sure to be home with his family every night for dinner.

“Family was very important to him. His was a forever family. What do you all enjoy doing with your families?”

After an awkward silence, a few muttered answers cleared the air. “Watch television.” “Travel.” “Play games.”

Then someone interjected with a question. “You mentioned Brigham Young’s family. Isn’t it true he had dozens of wives?”

Sister Bellows smiled, showing no teeth. “I haven’t really looked into that. But in another room you can see a painting of the wife who lived here with her children.”

The tour shuffled into another room, then another, and in each the sister missionaries gave a small historical blurb, then shared more information about the church they belonged to. Their voices maintained a lack of enthusiasm, and they sounded almost bored sometimes.

“Did you know that Brigham Young served 12 different missions? I am happy to just be serving one, here and now, so I can share my testimony of the truth of the gospel with everyone.”

“In this painting, you can see one of Brigham’s daughters who died. But as Saints, Mormons get the chance to be reunited with their forever families in the next life, just as all who believe can be reunited with their families. I’m grateful for my forever family.”

In the final room, the confused crowd asked a few last questions, the answers only increasing their perplexed looks.

“And, um, how did Brigham Young die?”

“He died of old age!” she said, finally, bizarrely, enthusiastic.

“And what about Joseph Smith, didn’t he die in his 30s?”

“Yes, he died in Illinois, a victim of an angry mob of people who had painted their faces black.”

“Ma’am, is it true that the original Latter-day Saints were, according to your beliefs, the actual Native Americans, and they believed in Christ even though they hadn’t met him?”

Sister Bellows nodded, slowly. “Yes, that is true. The Book of Mormon is an account of their ancient history, between 600 BC and 400 AD, and Christ visited them after his death because they believed in him like I do.”

“”I heard from a friend that the Church of Mormons actually owns the mall across the street, is that right?”

Sister Miller didn’t even look at the man. “Yes. Well, if you will all look over here, you will see Brigham Young’s actual desk. Over there are some dishes he ordered but never got to use because he died first. And over here, you will see a picture of a lion. The lion is there because Brigham Young’s nickname was the Lion of the Lord. He was called that because he was never afraid to share his testimony. In his honor, I’d like to share my testimony now.”

She looked straight forward, not at anyone, just through us all. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I believe there are prophets who walk the earth today and who give us new scripture, like that in the Book of Mormon. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. If any of you feel nice feelings of peace in your heart and would like to learn more about the church, we could gladly give you a free copy of the Book of Mormon on your way out. Now please, follow me out the front door of the house here and feel free to come back anytime.”

As I walked out of the tour, I was laughing on the inside. The friend who attended with me, the one I had been showing around Salt Lake City, looked at me with wide eyes.

“What. Was. That. Like what actually was that?”

And I could only laugh because, although this was all very familiar to me, a manifestation of the culture I had grown up in, I still had no idea how to answer him. I could only think of how differently I would have seen all of this ten years before.

So instead, I turned to him, put a false smile on my face, stared out into nothing, and said, “Welcome to Salt Lake City. Would you like to learn about my church?”

Making Gnocchi

Gnocchi

“Everyone else here is Mormon,” I realized as the instructor oriented us into the cooking class.

My boyfriend and I took positions at the end of the counter, white aprons tied around our waists and necks. A bored assistant stood callously off to the side as the chef explained we would be making three different kinds of gnocchi and sauces, and that we would be given instructions and recipes to take home with us, with a ten per cent discount if we wanted to purchase any supplies while we were there.

I surveyed the room as he spoke. Mike and I were the only gay people in the room (well, so far as I knew). To our right stood a blonde and smiling couple in their mid-20s, and to our left a family unit of great-grandmother (in her 60s), grandmother (in her 40s), and two blonde moms (in their young 20s), one of them with a newborn infant wrapped tightly against her chest. The multi-generational Mormon women made conversation about how they could make delicious gnocchi for Sunday dinner the following week, and muttered about how impressed their husbands would be. The younger couple made eyes at each other from time to time, clearly in love. I kept waiting to see if any of them would give us errant glances for, well, for being gay, but they barely seemed to take notice of us, and I started to relax.

I become hyper-aware in situations like this. Something as simple as walking down the  street holding hands with my boyfriend, I’m never quite sure how civilians and pedestrians will treat us, and it can get more uncomfortable in contained situations like this.

“Which one of you does the cooking?” the chef asked the Mormon couple, and the wife raised her hand with a smile. “And how about for you two?” he indicated to us, and Mike rose his hand. This question definitely made it apparent that we were a couple, but again no one seemed to react, positively or negatively. We were just two people in the class, nothing making us stand out. It felt nice to just blend into the surroundings.

As the chef helped us carefully mix, set, and roll out our three different gnocchi noodles (one standard potato, one a semolina flour base, and one a ricotta base), teaching us how to roll them into ridged noodles and cut them into pieces, we all made small talk. All four of the female relatives were housewives whose husbands worked, and they were all Mormon, and the young couple were both students in med school with no children. I admired the 6-week old baby (with the adorable name of Florence) and talked about my children. We asked the couples how they met, and they asked how we met, and how long we had been together.

Soon we broke into teams, half of the group cooking the various types of gnocchi while the other half made the sauces. Some noodles went into the oven to be baked while the others were dropped into hot water, cooked only for 2-3 minutes until the noodles rose to the top of the water. Pans were coated with oil, goat cheese was blended, butter was browned and mixed with chopped sage, olives were chopped, shallots and garlic were minced and blended, and then three kinds of sauces were blended with three different noodles, and soon all eight of us stood around with full places of heavy, salty, starchy pastas, all with buttery, thick, oily, salty sauces. We moaned over the deliciousness of it all, and complained about how full we were, and then went back for more food and moaned some more.

When the class ended, we left with handshakes and ‘hope to see you again at another class sometime’s, and well wishes, and everyone had smiles on their faces. Baby Florence was packed up, we all bought gnocchi-making utensils, and everyone walked their separate ways.

As I walked away, my belly far too full with rich food at 9 pm at night, I anticipated late night stomach aches and a world where I would no longer automatically expect people to be ugly about me being gay and in a gay relationship. It all felt as difficult and complicated as, well, carefully making gnocchi. It was delicate and tender, but in the end, it tasted rich and delicious.

Believing in Angels

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I grew up believing I could see angels.

At least if I was worthy enough.

In fact, the first tenets of my religion, outside of belief in Jesus Christ himself, were tied up around visits from heavenly beings to those who had enough faith. The very origins of the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lay in the tenet that something asked with faith would be revealed. A Mormon favorite scripture lay in James 1:5: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Joseph Smith did that, they believe, and God manifested himself with his son, Jesus Christ, at his side, inspiring Joseph to create a brand new church.

Nearly twenty years later, I can still remember the night I went to bed absolutely positive I would be seeing an angel, one with a miracle in his hand. At the time, I was training to be a missionary, in the aptly named Missionary Training Center, one of the holiest places on Earth according to Mormons. I had had Priesthood leaders lay their hands on my head and set me apart as a missionary, placing a ‘mantle’ upon me, one that was there to increase my spiritual sensitivity and my access to the Holy Ghost itself, so long as I was living worthy. I had literally set aside all of my mortal concerns. I had delayed college for two full years so that I could go be a missionary, paying out of pocket to do so. I had left my family behind, not even allowed to make phone calls to them while I was gone. I was leaving my friends, my home, my hobbies and interests, and sacrificing every moment of every day.

In the days prior, I had been reading the scriptures nonstop, praying constantly, and thinking of nothing but spiritual things, even keeping hymns playing in my heart. I had fasted and listened with my full heart and spirit to the leaders who had spoken to us, listening for every answer.

The night before, Steven R. Covey, the famous businessman, author, and motivational speaker, the man who had written Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, himself a Mormon, had given a speech to a crowd of young missionaries about looking at others the way Jesus looks at us. I had been implementing this view during the day, seeing those around me as children of God, and then I had taken a step farther and turned it inwardly. For one of the first times in my life, I saw myself as a child of God, someone who deserves happiness, someone who can do anything with God, someone who was capable of performing miracles.

And then I saw myself as, perhaps, someone who could have a miracle performed upon him. Someone who was worthy. Someone who could be healed, not for selfish reasons but to make me a better servant of God, a better advocate of his as I spent the next few years bringing other souls to him.

All day that day I had been filled with light and love. My nerve endings were on fire, my stomach felt full with no food, my head felt light and brimming with hope. I climbed into my bed at the MTC that night with more hope than I had ever felt before. I muttered a prayer to God, with tears streaming down my face, that I was ready. I was ready, at last, to be cured of being gay. I had been hoping for this cure since I was in elementary school, and I knew now that finally, finally, I could be made whole, be made straight, be made right in the eyes of God. I had been promised I could be cured if I tried hard enough, and this time I knew I could. I had faith.

As I closed my eyes that night, I remember wondering if I might actually see an angel. My desires were righteous, my heart was pure. I might actually get my  miracle.

And then I fell asleep. And then, hours later, I woke up. I came aware suddenly, my stomach rumbling, my head clouded, and I swiftly sat up. I scanned my insides. Nothing felt different, but everything would be, I just knew it.

Within a few hours, walking around outside among the other missionaries, I had immediately noticed a few of them were attractive, and I silently cursed myself. I instead made myself look at the women around, the sister missionaries and the employees at the MTC, and wondered if I could find them attractive now. But it was the same as it had always been, there was nothing there, no attraction, no noticing.

I found a quiet corner and prayed, asking God for guidance, and I felt that I just needed to be patient. No angel, no cure, but perhaps a bit more patience. I needed a blessing.

That entire day, I squirmed in my chair, still mostly fasting, and I struggled to stay focused. I needed that blessing and I needed it now. Finally the evening had arrived, and I rushed into the man who served in a leadership position over me, a branch president, a man I had never met but one who was assigned to help the missionaries during their training.

Brother Christensen listened kindly as I told him everything. I told him about being gay, about being here on a mission for the right reasons, about knowing I could be cured, and about needing his help to make the cure happen. Tears had spilled down my cheeks the entire time and I had made no effort to wipe them free. My heart had thudded in my chest, my fingers had been tightly clasped into fists.

Brother Christensen listened. And then he stayed silent. And then he spoke the words that would haunt me for the next several years.

“Elder Anderson, your desires for a cure are righteous, but it is not your lot to be cured of your same-sex attraction. This is your cross to bear. It’s a condition you were meant to live with and to learn from. Perhaps a cure can come in the future, but this is not something I can help you with today.”

He had given me a blessing that night anyway. One of comfort. But I couldn’t hear a word of it through my own shame. My ears and heart had been filled with foolishness and embarrassment. I had felt so sure, so pure, so trusting in God. I had believed in angels.

A small part of my spirit died that day, and stayed that way for a long time to come. I finished my missionary training, and I spent hours, days, weeks, months knocking on doors, teaching others how to make themselves right with God so that they could join his church. But the entire time, I felt like a hypocrite. Because how could I teach them to be right when I was never right myself?

I had believed in angels. But they had just flown on by.

ex-Mormons in the Boston rain

Boston

“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.

Mormon coffee talk

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“I mean, seriously, what a douchebag move, am I right? Why else do people go to weddings if not to get drunk? I mean, unless you are getting married yourself or you are like the mother or father of the bride, then you just go there to get drunk or to get laid or, I don’t know, to meet people and get drunk with them. It’s free alcohol. Everyone expects it. You drink and you flirt. And this guy, he refuses not only to drink with me, but then he doesn’t even want to talk to me because I’m a little bit tipsy. Who is he to judge me?”

This woman must be the most unhappy person I have ever heard speak, I thought as I tried to tune her out. She has been going on like this ever since I sat down. She won’t stop! She’s being so loud!

And then there is that stupid Mormon girl, the one bridesmaid who won’t wear the dress that the bride actually chose because she feels it is too immodest. The dresses were cute! They were pink and like sleeveless but this bitch feels like exposing her shoulders will give the boys around her unclean thoughts or whatever and she isn’t even that cute. So she has to go and ruin the wedding because she wants to wear like a sweater over her shoulders and she is the only one in the line who looks different than the rest, and she is like taking attention away from the bride which is basically the worst sin you can commit on someone’s wedding day, don’t you think?”

Stop talking stop talking stop talking. I sipped my coffee, trying to focus on the stack of paperwork I had brought to the coffeeshop with me. There was nowhere else to sit, and this woman was talking so loud. I thought about turning to her and asking her to be quiet. The friend she was with wasn’t even talking back, just making mm-hmm and oh-no and oh-yeah statements. Just breathe. You’re cool. Just focus on your work. I managed to turn her out for a few minutes before she got louder.

“So then I get back to work on Monday after and I’m still hungover and I’m still pissed, but then, bam, guess what, my manager puts me in charge of that work project we have been working on. Like I’m finally in charge of the stuff that no one wants to be in charge over. Probably because I’m the only one who gives a shit. And no on there in the whole company even cares about the little rules anyway, and how do you think they are going to feel when I start making them follow the rules. Like everyone takes drinks to their desks and they aren’t supposed to. How do you think they are going to feel when I start walking by their desks and taking their drinks away, one by one, and just tossing them right in the garbage. I mean, they are going to be livid. I can just see the one guy next to me like ‘hey, I just spent four dollars on that energy drink, don’t throw it away’ and I’ll be like ‘well, guess who’s in charge now, bitch!'”

Okay, I have to admit this is kind of entertaining, I thought. It is unlike me to get so annoyed with someone so easily, she was just so loud. I kind of like eavesdropping on people sometimes. Instead of working on my notes, I instead got out my computer and started writing down what she was complaining about. This woman is a character.

“I just, this isn’t where I thought I would be in my life right now, right? I thought I would meet some guy. Instead it is just me and my dumb dog. I say dumb but I love him, you know that. In fact, he is probably the love of my life. I am done with men, at least for a minute. Did I tell you about that last guy I tried dating, the one from the singles’ ward? I mean, I’m not active or anything but I still want a good Mormon guy. I should have known something was completely wrong with him based on the fact that he’s 30 and not married. I know I’m almost 30, but it’s different for girls. Guys can have whoever they want. I just haven’t had the right person come along yet. So anyway one day he lectures me because he sees wine in my fridge and we haven’t even kissed or anything and it’s like our third date and he wants me to be a good Mormon girl and I’m feeling embarrassed and tell him it’s not mine that I just keep it there for friends who come over and I’m lying of course and he goes ‘yeah, but you should avoid the very appearance of evil’. I’m all embarrassed but then a few days later I find out that he has a porn addiction problem. He tells me that he doesn’t want to get too serious with me before he tells me the truth. And I’m like ‘what a hypocrite’ and I ended things right there. ‘The very appearance of evil’ indeed. I mean, I deserve someone amazing, not just some guy. You deserve someone amazing too. I mean, everyone does, even gay Corey.”

Gay Corey? Who is gay Corey? The two women laugh hysterically for a moment, some inside joke between then, and then I hear a loud slurp as the woman finishes her iced latte, sucking the last bits of liquid from between chunks of ice. She stands up and walks by me, giving me a slight sneer-slash-smile before dumping her drink in the garbage. From behind me I hear her summon her friend.

“Come on, let’s go.”

Her friend says ‘oh, okay’ and quickly gathers her things before rushing out. My fingers are moving on the keyboard, and all I can think is, wait, what just happened? 

 

Leaving Provo

provoSometimes when I travel I find myself wanting to create an alternate origin story for myself, skew just a few details to make my story a little bit more even-keeled.

Today on the flight to San Diego, I sat on the back row of the plane. We flew out of Provo, Utah, departing from a tiny little airport surrounded by dry fields and, farther off, breath-taking mountains. My car in the long-term parking lot was just across a small road from a literal cow pasture.

I was placed in the middle seat, and the woman to my right snored gently as the baby across the aisle cooed and cried, alternatively. The girl to my left, I later learned her name was Kimber, dutifully scrolled words in her leather bound diary as I read my book, the autobiography of Greg Louganis. She was gorgeous, a shapely blonde with her hair in pigtails under a ball cap, and she wore only a modest amount of makeup, something rare for Utah girls. I glanced at her moving pen from time to time and caught glimpses of angsty words.

Why can’t the world understand that people are just people and I’m so tired of having my heart broken and I just wonder what Heavenly Father has in store for me.

About halfway through the short flight, Kimber cleared her throat a few times, gently trying to get my attention. I could tell she wanted to talk. When we made eye contact, she opened our conversation with a casual “So are you from Utah?” and within minutes she was telling me her entire life story. I have the odd ability to get strangers to open up to me, likely my social work background and my empathic nature; sometimes I love this about myself, and sometimes I don’t.

Kimber talked about being the youngest of four kids and growing up in southern California with her single mother after her father left when she was a child. She talked about playing softball in high school and dealing with getting teased for being a lesbian all the time, even though she wasn’t gay. Her eyes flashed to the cover of my Louganis book, and then she glanced back up, seemingly trying to tell me that if I was gay, she was okay with that. She said she joined the Mormon Church when she turned 18 and moved to Utah for college.

As Kimber peppered me with a dozen rapid-fire questions about myself, I found myself filling in the facts wrong, creating a slightly different timeline for myself with the basic facts of my current life staying the same but my past vastly changed. I told her I grew up in Missouri, went to college in Seattle, and moved to Utah to launch a business. I told her I was a single father of two sons, that I was a therapist, and that I taught college.

Kimber leaned forward in the small space, her eyes alive with wonder, as she told me she served a mission in Oklahoma and had been home for two years, when she began therapy herself, and it changed her life, she said. She held up her journal and said it had become her best friend and her best coping mechanism.

Her voice lowered as she began asking me questions. She had an insider, a therapist as a captive audience for the rest of the flight, and she was going to take advantage of it. Is porn addiction real? she asked, as she confided that her current boyfriend had problems. Is it true that Mormons have more depression and teen suicides? she asked, as she talked about a suicidal friend. Is it normal for girls to want to wait until they are 30 to get married? she asked, as she talked about wanting to explore the world before she took the plunge. Is it more important to be in a relationship 100 per cent, or to have a life outside of the relationship? she asked, as she told me about her desire to be a career woman and not a housewife.

At one point, Kimber held up a finger to stop me. She had to write this down, she said, and began furiously scribbling notes in her journal as the flight attendants announced our landing in San Diego. I showed Kimber pictures of my sons, when she asked, and she commented how they looked just like me.

As we stood to gather our bags, Kimber and I exchanged names, finally, belatedly, and wished each other well. She gave me an extra sincere look in my eyes as she firmly shook my hand. “It was an honor to meet you,” she said, and her intense gaze seemed to convey the subtext that this meeting was meant to be, orchestrated in the pre-existence by God himself perhaps. I smiled at her genuineness and sincerity.

I gave Kimber a bright smile as I walked away. “Kimber, you’re my favorite kind of Mormon,” I said, then turned to the waiting San Diego sunshine, ready for adventures ahead.

Spiritually Obese

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I spent most of my life drowning in religion with very little understanding of spirituality.

My experience with religion was very ritual-based, and very closely related to an all-encompassing sense of shame. Pray before meals, pray at night, read scriptures before bed, attend church every Sunday, go to youth meetings on Tuesday nights, pay ten per cent of earned income to the church, take the sacrament, prepare for baptism and then the Priesthood and then a two year missionary service and then marriage in the temple and then have children and then spend your life serving in church positions. When you sin (which you do just by existing) then consistently repent. Be modest, be chaste, be morally clean, keep a hymn in your heart, avoid temptation, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol or coffee, don’t have impure thoughts, don’t see rated R movies. Strive toward perfection, even though perfection is impossible, and know that this is the only way to salvation. When you have questions, listen to the men God has called as prophets for answers because they will never lead you astray.

Except they did.

But religion also gave a strong sense of purpose and destiny, of community, of belonging. It made me feel as if I was chosen, if I was special, as if every mystery of life was laid bare with answers and spiritual assurances. I had answers to everything, in scripture, and I had a group of people who were just like me to rely on along the way.

Religion has a way of bottling up human spirituality and marketing it to a particular brand. Spirituality is an inherent human quality, regardless of religion. Spirituality is the human ability to find inner peace and purpose, and to connect to the wider world through gratitude and wonder. Spirituality can be found within religion, and it can also be found in human relationships, in travel, in service, in nature, in accomplishment. No religion has a monopoly on spirituality. No religion has the ability to say, ‘look, if you come to our church and you feel peaceful, well, that is God telling you that our church is true, and only our church is true, so now you must follow our culture and rules in order to be right with God.” No church can say that because every human feels peace. Peace isn’t something you can bottle and market.

Religion has a habit of saying that in order to be right you must be worthy, and in order to be worthy, you must follow a particular set of rules. Anything else is sinning. And if you sin too long or too much, if you make a choice to not be religious and to instead be selfish, then you stand to lose not only your religion, but your eternal destiny in the long run, and your family and  community in the short run. They will be ashamed, and so will God.

And so as a young man, I set a particular standard for myself. A high, unreachable standard. And since I could never reach that standard, I could never feel worthy. If I had an errant thought, if I sinned, if I struggled, then I knew I was not good enough.

I learned very early on that being gay was absolutely not allowed. Not only wasn’t it allowed, it didn’t exist. And I grew quickly to equate religious devotion with worthiness to be cured of being gay and thus made heterosexual. And so every morning when I woke up gay still, I knew, over and over, that I had no worth.

Which brings us to the topic of this blog: spiritual obesity. I was spiritually obese. I had put on so much spiritual weight, over years of learned behavior in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, that I was morbidly obese in my heart. I had no inner peace, I had no purpose except to try harder, and I had no internal balance. I developed terrible coping mechanisms like cognitive dissonance, placing any doubts or struggles high on a shelf where they couldn’t be seen or consciously felt–I simply needed more evidence to support my religious theories in order to make sense of why I was so broken inside.

When I began to lose my physical weight, I began to realize my spiritual weight as well. First, I needed clear introspection. I needed to actively realize my doubts and concerns. That was intensely painful at first, and required a lot of soul-searching and juggling. If the prophets I believed in got some things wrong, if the church and scriptures I gave myself over to were incorrect on some things, then by their very teachings, that meant they were incorrect on all things. My brain was in a tailspin for months as I passed through intense stages of grief: anger and bargaining and denial and depression, until I finally arrived at acceptance. And once I did that, I could begin to figure out what spiritual health was.

I realized swiftly that spirituality is an intensely personal thing, it is different for everyone. I needed to find the things that brought me inner peace, gave me purpose, and made me feel whole. Parenting hit the list first: spending time on the floor playing with my children. Then nature and travel: being outdoors and wondering at the sky and the trees and moving water, and being in new places among new people. Giving to others came next: the sense of pride, gratitude, and accomplishment I get from being there for a friend or helping a client in therapy realize their goals and achieve them. The list grew longer and longer: human history, befriending a stranger, excellent fiction, journaling, yoga, meditation. And perhaps above all else, the ability to treat myself with kindness and honesty, to accept myself as a fully realized person.

Becoming spiritually healthy took me months. I had a lot of spiritual weight to shed. I had to do it one spiritual pound at a time over a long time. I grieved a lot. I spent a few weeks crying intensely about the loss of my religion. Then, over time, I got in spiritual shape. And now it’s easier, now I can maintain my spiritual health through regular spiritual exercise and nutrition, daily practices that keep me centered and balanced.

After this mighty work within myself, I started recognizing other spiritually healthy people. They can be found anywhere, or can be missing from anywhere. Picture an excellent movie where one person is engrossed in it and moved by it while the other is bored and disconnected; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a Mormon sacrament meeting where one woman is doing careful self-introspection and has tears of gratitude running down her cheeks, and a boy who is playing on his phone during it; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a college lecture on the workings of nature where one student is furiously copying notes with underlines and exclamation points, and another is sleeping on her arm; only one of these is spiritually invested.

Every human is inherently spiritual. But learning how to listen to the human spirit, to invest in it and make it healthy and strong, robust and fit, well that takes a lot of knowledge and growth over time, and it generally involves acceptance of self as an organic changing creature who has varying needs and struggles.

It is a difficult balance to obtain after being spiritually obese, just like physical fitness can be hard to achieve. It requires looking inward far more than most people are comfortable with. Yet it is a journey well worth the footsteps.

I close this entry with a view of myself from ten years ago, kneeling at my bedside and begging God to make me whole, knowing I was broken and cursed, and compare that to me now, sitting next to a slow river and breathing in the sheer miracle of nature and existence, grateful for my very sense of self and the person that I am.

While I know many people who are spiritually healthy within religion, it took me leaving religion to find my own spiritual fitness.Ghost.png

 

Supernatural elements in Religion

angels

I grew up in a religion that actively taught about supernatural forces directed by God for the good of mankind. I was taught that everyone who has ever lived on Earth existed in a spiritual form prior to coming to Earth and receiving bodies. In that pre-mortal form, we had relationships and interactions and intellect, and that we made the choice to come to Earth, knowing we would have spiritual blinders placed on us to restrict our memories of that pre-mortal life. Any spirit who didn’t choose to come to Earth could roam the Earth and was called an “evil spirit”, and there were potentially billions of them, all who worked for Satan. Mortals were meant to choose religion and God and sacrifice, and after dying, spirits would go on existing in another realm called the Spirit World, where they would wait for resurrection (or unification of the spirit with the body) and then judgment, so God could send them on to Heaven and Hell accordingly. In addition to that, God, who lives on another planet, had a planetary spiritual force, called the Holy Ghost, through which he could send messages in the form of thoughts and inspirations to his believing children.

Also, I believed in the Priesthood, a magical type of authority passed from one man down to another, so long as they are worthy according to Church standards. The Priesthood had various levels of authority mixed in, and the men who held it were authorized to channel some of this godly force to perform tasks on Earth, such as blessing the bread and water of the sacrament to performing a valid baptism to laying hands on the heads of another to give them a blessing, or special individualized message from God. Again, very supernatural in its essence.

If the spiritual forces, the spiritual realms, and the Holy Ghost weren’t sufficient, I also grew up believing in spiritual gifts, immortal creatures, and mystical artifacts. Each individual (but mostly the men) has inherent individual spiritual gifts that can be enhanced through belief, things like the spirit of discernment or the power to heal others, gifts that, like mutant powers in a weird way, could be discovered and utilized for the good of God with his blessing. Angels appeared all over the scriptures and in Church history, performing miracles and giving advice and causing mortals to speak in tongues, and the devil tried to possess or influence mortals through duplicity and temptation. And prophets used magical stones to translate ancient records or to light up ancient wooden submarines on ocean voyages,  and golden balls to give directions in the wilderness.

As I look upon all of this with a critical eye with a grown-up, I am a bit taken aback by how fantasy novel it all seems. There are such elements of story-telling to the whole belief structure. Epic franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time and the X-Men that so beautifully explore the concepts of destiny and prophecy, and that allow certain characters to be born with special powers so they can fight against the forces of evil. But somehow when we toss the word God in to the mix, these concepts are taken serious. There is a suspension of disbelief in mortals who belief in virgin births and men being raised from the dead, and who use those beliefs to form and shape entire societies through narrow interpretations of rules.

I now consider myself a very spiritual and non-religious atheist, if I have to use a label, and I have a difficult time understanding supernatural religious belief structures in a world that avoids scientific interpretation and quantifiable evidence and results. I do still believe in elements of “supernatural”-ness, however. When I examine my beliefs, I do believe that individuals have special skills and talents that others do not. I do believe that human energy exists after the body expires, not as a ghost or spirit necessarily but perhaps as a consciousness, even if only in the memories of forms of the people and places they lived among.

Regarding individual skills and talents, for example, I have a unique capacity for empathy: I can easily read the energy and emotions of most people around me, particularly when there is eye contact and communication happening. I am also a quick study, and can often make sense of complex human stories across history and find truth and enlightenment in them. I think I also have a talent for teaching, for facilitating groups, for presenting information, and for writing. Other people are builders, or organizers, or are amazing with machines and industry, or are nurturers. The lists of skills is endless.

After my grandfather died, my mother would often speak of being able to feel him around, near her, especially during times when she needed comfort or guidance. While I never felt his presence, I believed her when she said this. And I think anyone who has ever lost a very close loved one has that capacity, to feel the energy of their loved ones, even to hear their voices, in particular places or during particular times of need. I had this same experience after Kurt, my best friend, died in a car accident last April.

This blog entry is a bit more free-form, but I needed a chance to organize my thoughts and experiences in this matter, and it is all here to set up a blog I will write tomorrow. About a month ago, I had a woman reach out to me stating that Kurt’s spirit had reached out to her and that he had a message for me. And a few weeks ago, I met with this woman, who called herself a medium. I went into the meeting skeptical and open-minded all at once. And it turned out to be a wonderfully healing experience. I’ll be back tomorrow to share more.

 

 

Spoon seeking spoon

spoons

I miss being married.

It took me a long time to get there. As a young Mormon man, I spent two years after high school knocking on doors as a missionary. After that, there was tremendous pressure to marry, constant and consistent from all sources. Marriage was defined as the ultimate destination in life, to marry young and to have children and to stay married until old, then die and still be married to each other in the Heavens. I don’t believe any of that now, but back then it was the only way to go for young Mormon men.

I was caught in a massive trap. I didn’t yet have the ability to have anything but shame about being gay, and thus couldn’t date men, and so I could only date women, who I felt no attraction toward. I coped by focusing on personality traits rather than physical appearance. I knew what type of wife I should want, but ultimately I just didn’t have any drive. I was scared to death to marry, and yet knew it was my only option. At the time, being gay or being single were both spiritually forbidden.

When I finally married my wife, I was 27 years old, and I had never held hands with or kissed anyone, male or female, up to that time. I found a girl with a tremendous personality and a huge heart, a beautiful woman who wanted to spend her life with me. We had a brief conversation about the fact that I was gay once during the six years (yes, six years) that we dated, and then we took the Mormon plunge and married in the temple.

And honestly, except for the whole gay/straight thing, marriage was awesome. (And yes, that played itself out in many ways, from me being the kind of husband who planned themed dinner parties to a very strained aspect to certain parts of the relationship). It was wonderful, for both of us, to have someone to come home to at the end of the day. We went to church together, we had friends over for dinner, we went to each other’s family holiday parties, we vacationed. We had silly rituals, like playing board games at night and the loser having to do the dishes. We painted bedrooms and planted gardens. We set and achieved financial goals together. Since I was already done with school, I helped her get through school financially, and then we both worked and supported each other. We bought a house and worked on the yard together. We talked, we laughed, we binge-watched television shows on DVD, we gave each other back massages. We were best friends.

And then we had our first son, and he was a miracle, and we both loved being parents. We worked hard together and we resolved conflicts well. Had it not been for the absolute demon of shame and pain dwelling inside me due to me hiding from who I really was, we could have lasted forever. In fact, when we got divorced, after the birth of our second son, a dear friend told us, “but you two were perfect! If you can’t make it, no one can!”

It’s coming up on six years now since I’ve been single. (She has moved on, by the way, and is very happily in love with a straight guy this time; I know readers are wondering that). And I remain single. Exhaustingly and determinedly single.

The first few years out of the closet were incredible and difficult. Being a newly out gay man navigating a divorce, a new job, a new city, and now free from a religion that harmed me, I had to figure out dating with a toddler and an infant who owned my heart, and all of the financial, emotional, and time responsibilities that come with that. Still, single has been good to me too. I’ve learned how to take care of myself. I’ve learned to travel, to set and achieve goals, to self-validate, to spend time alone and appreciate it. I’ve learned how to make friends and live authentically. I’ve learned how to be true to myself. I’ve learned how to be a single father (with shared custody) and how to embrace my time with my children and put them first while still putting me first.

Yet despite consistent efforts to the contrary, I remain single (which is something I’ve written about that an to an obnoxious degree over the years). Today it dawned on me that it took me six years to marry after I returned home from my Mormon mission, and now I’ve been out of the closet and single for nearly six years.

The major difference this time is (well, outside of being closer to 40 then 30, as well as all of the other obvious differences) that I’ve put effort into dating this time. That’s something I had to learn how to do: date. I missed all that as a teenager, so I had to learn to fall in love, to leave when it wasn’t right, to have my heart broken, to compromise while keeping clear boundaries, to be lonely, to know what I’m looking for.

Dating at this stage of my life, with two grade school age children, is relatively simple. You feel a connection with someone, you ask them out for coffee some time. If there is interest back, they’ll say yes. If the guy says yes, and if coffee goes well, and there is conversation and interest on both sides, I’ll invite them out on an actual date–a play or live music perhaps, and dinner. Here is where it tends to fall apart: if the date was fun, I’ll say something simple like ‘I would enjoy seeing you again’, and then… that’s it. There is the expectation that they will initiate the second date. Days will turn into weeks and the guy generally remains silent. And for me, if there isn’t reciprocity and clear communication, well, then I’m not interested.

And that, in short, is my dating life this past year, with a few exceptions. There are the guys who show way too much interest way too quickly, and the guys who don’t have their lives together (as in lacking a job or going through a major crisis of some kind). And then there are the guys who seem interested but are too passive to ever express direct interest. And there was one guy I fell for pretty hard for a few months, but that didn’t turn out well at all. And I’ve certainly broken a few hearts and have had my heart broken a few times. Who knows, maybe I’m picky. But I know what feels right, and I’m absolutely unwilling to sacrifice my authenticity for an unhealthy coupling.

And so, single remains incredible and lonely. I get to set and achieve goals, and travel on my terms. I spend incredible times with my sons, having all kinds of adventures. And yet, I do miss being married. It would be wonderful to have all of those things that you see happy couples having: someone to come home to at the end of the day, someone to host parties with, someone to cuddle up to on rainy days, someone to raise the kids with.

And until that day when/if that relationship happens, well, I have a big comfy pillow that fits right under my arm where the little spoon should go.

Out of the Basket of Deplorables

rifles

“I’m telling you, we are in the wrong war on terror!”

The man leaned over, looking a bit like Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future, his wispy white hair unkempt, his eyes wild and a bit mad. He was wearing black jeans and a dark black shirt with a single word printed on it in capital letters with a period: WHATEVER.

“We keep getting ourselves involved in the wars in Iran and Iraq and all those places, when they have already been at war for years! Have you ever heard of the Iranian/Iraqian war? Look it up, I’m telling you!”

He took a long sip of his coffee, an iced caramelly drink pumped full of cream and sugar, then leaned forward, speaking more loudly.

“Those ISIS guys, they are just the new version of the Taliban. And what’s the worst that could happen? They send some suicide bomber in, all crazy with some bomb in a balloon or something, and they blow up some stadium and kill, what, fifty sixty people at most. But North Korea, there is your real problem! We just keep ignoring them with all their political games! I’ve been saying this since before Obama, since before Bush, we just keep ignoring North Korea and they are gonna send a nuke to, I don’t know, Seattle or San Francisco or something and we have a couple million dead! Then they will see I was right!”

“Yup, I hear ya.” His companion, looking like a stand-in on the Duck Dynasty, had an ample stomach that stood out over his jeans. He had a long white beard, rather Santa Claus like, and a pair of dark sunglasses under a red ballcap.

“And those suicide bombers, I totally get it! They get a few seconds of anxiety and nervousness or whatever, then they blow up and they get to Heaven where they get all the virgins they want! I mean, according to them, they go out on their terms! They get to do it how they want! What’s their other alternative, to submit to, what is it, Sharia Law, and they get to get hung up in some public square with their throats slit! So, yeah, you go out on your terms and you get the reward. It’s like, kinda like, Mormons get to have all those wives in Heaven and they are just waitin’ to get there!”

Duck Dynasty laughed heartily. “Oh, I love a good Mormon joke in the mornings.”

Doc Brown took another long sip from his drink while his friend sipped his coffee. They were silent for a second before Duck Dynasty started talking, much lower and more even, leaning back in his chair comfortably and choosing his words carefully.

“The way I look at it, 90 per cent of people who are devout about their religion were born and raised in their religion. There’s a bunch of studies on that shit. And we got billions of people in the world in certain religions, and parts of them is pushing their religion to those crazy levels. That’s Mormon, that’s Muslims, that’s whatever the North Koreans are, and it turns into war wen we start killing people, but maybe the war needs to be on the religions themselves. That’s why I liked Trump better before he brought religion into it. He’s gotta get more voters and everyone is all God and Jesus in America, I know that, but I had more respect for him before he was swaying in those churches. But at least he’s not that bitch, Hillary.”

Doc Brown almost stood up he was so excited. “She thinks she is so smart, but she is so stupid! Just like all of them! All of them who think ISIS is like some world-wide problem, it’s so freaking stupid! We need, you know what we need, we need Harry Truman back in office. Or–or Porter Rockwell. We gotta dig them out of the ground and put them back in the White House to make more sense of the world, to make it look like sense again. It’s the same damn thing over and over. The Civil War, and here we are a hundred years later with the same problems. You can’t get people to change how they think and feel. People in the South would still take us to war over blacks and slavery. ISIS is the exact same thing. But I tell you one thing, Trump has a lot of things right! He stands up and says that if he was in charge, ISIS wouldn’t have the money they have to blow things up! And he isn’t gonna tell the whole world his military strategy, that’s stupid! You tell everyone what you’re gonna do like Obama did and they know what you’re gonna do and fight back! Trump is keeping it secret, that’s smart!”

“You know what I like about Trump is he’s tenacious. He’s put up Trump Towers all over, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York, all over. He sees the whole country and he builds it up, and when he gets shot down, he gets right back up. He’s got what it takes. Clear vision. He’s the only guy we can put up to the top. And you don’t get there unless you’re a bit of a rebel.”

“Yeah, I think when history is all said and done and in the books or whatever, they are gonna chop Obama up for what he’s done in the Middle East! He’s a politician, but he isn’t no president. Besides, it isn’t the liberals we have to thank for where America is now, it’s Japan. If Japan hadn’t ever bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II, we would never have entered the war and beefed up our military and economy and become the strongest guys ever in the world. I hate when the liberals try to take credit! And that’s what we need is to draw together as a country after 911 after we did in World War II, that’s all we need.”

Duck Dynasty nodded. “Maybe that’s what we need. Someone to piss America off again. 911 happened and we got pissed and look what we did. It’s just like Japan. We get pissed enough and we stop worrying about all this stuff that keeps hitting the news. We quit talking about cyber-terrorism and mental illness and the LGBT community and all of that, and we just go about our days kicking butt.”

Doc Brown threw his arms up in the air again. “Yes! That is exactly what I’m talking about! I don’t care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or whatever you are! It’s just time for things to change! We may not be the best country in the world anymore, may not be number 1 anymore, but this country still has a lot of life left in it!”

“Yeah, it makes me damn mad. The whole thing makes me damn mad.”

“Well said, my friend. Makes me damn mad, too.”

After a few pauses, Doc Brown stood up. “Well, I gotta head in to work before the wife kills me. It was nice meeting you here. I’m Chris.” He extended a hand.

“Don. Great to meet you, too.”

The two men clicked their drinks together in a cheers and headed out of the Starbucks, where I sat at a table nearby, my fingers furiously clacking at the keyboard to capture their unbelievable words. I watched them embrace outside before heading their respective ways, viewing the world, like every other person, with their own sets of eyeballs.