Bag of Treats

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“Welcome, Chad, I bought you a bag of treats. It’s on the floor back there. Make yourself at home!”

I climbed into the back seat of the car and noticed the bag on the floor, then smiled up to the front seat, where Evelyn could see me in the rearview mirror. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”

“Just look through it and see what you like. And don’t forget to buckle up!”

I slid my seatbelt across my frame and clicked it closed, then set my backpack and pillow on the seat next to me. The drive ahead was only four hours, but I didn’t want to get bored, so I’d packed a pillow in case I wanted to sleep, a notebook in case I got any story ideas, and three different books, though I knew it wasn’t likely that I would finish even one of them. Two of them were Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you could read and make choices for the characters, your decisions leading you to different parts of the book where you might meet a tragic end or wind up making yet another choice. I loved those books, and had even written a few of my own, starring my favorite cartoon characters. I’d also packed a Nancy Drew book, taking it from my sister Susan’s collection. She didn’t want me to touch those books, but I loved them so I would often sneak them away and return them a few days later, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I was trying to read them all in order.

The car was quiet for a moment as Evelyn guided it down the road and turned toward the freeway, passing the Snake River and miles of potato fields along the way. Evelyn was a nice woman in our ward, or local Mormon congregation, one I didn’t know very well. She was in her early 70s, and had agreed to give me a ride to Salt Lake City from southern Idaho when my Mom had asked.

“Are you excited to see your father?” Evelyn smiled at me again in the rearview.

“I guess so,” I smiled back. I said I was, but I really wasn’t. My parents had been divorced over three years now, and I’d barely seen Dad since the divorce, since we moved from Missouri to Idaho. He’d moved to Salt Lake, just a few hours away, but he hadn’t made much effort to spend any time with me. He was living down there with some college aged guys, I’d heard, and was working at some menial job now. I was 14 years old and I didn’t feel like he really even knew me. “It will be good to see him during summer break. Mom will come down and get me in a few days.”

Evelyn laughed, I couldn’t really say why, and accelerated the car, headed south now. “Well, do you see anything you like? In the treats?”

“Oh,” I said, “Let me see.”

I picked up the bag and set it on the seat, opening the plastic sides of it. It was a Wonder Bread grocery sack, from the store in Idaho Falls where they sold packaged sugary treats and breads. The bag had no less than eight separate packages of processed pastries, and one can of Shasta, black raspberry flavored, a carbonated sugary punch that could be purchased for a quarter from the vending machine in front of the local grocery store. I thumbed through the different treats. Twinkie. Hostess Cupcakes. Ding-Dongs. Ho-Hos. A fudge brownie, an lemon frosting pie, powdered donuts, and chocolate donuts. My mouth salivated over all of the sugar available, having no thought for Calories or content, only wanting to sink my teeth into any and all of the treats.

“Everything looks really delicious. But I’m not hungry just yet. I’ll just lay back and read for a bit if that’s okay.”

“Of course that’s okay, dear. I’m just going to turn on some gospel music, if that wouldn’t bother you.”

“No, go right ahead.” Evelyn turned on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as I placed the bag of treats back on the floor and arranged my pillow behind my head. I thumbed through my pilfered mystery novel and found my place, beginning to read.

My stomach rumbled, but I resisted the urge to reach for a treat. It was always best to sacrifice needs and to be unselfish, I reminded myself. Evelyn was really nice to have purchased these things for me, but if I didn’t eat them, that meant that she could enjoy them, or she could share them with someone else, someone who might need them more than me. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sacrifice was a regular part of my daily religion, something that God expected. I thought of several scriptures that backed that up.

Where much is given, much is required.

The natural man is an enemy to God. 

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of Heaven.

If I didn’t eat the treats now, that would be another sign to God that I served him and deserved to have him in my heart. I tried regularly to keep him securely in my heart, though it wasn’t always easy. I was starting to notice boys more, and I was very scared of getting caught looking at someone handsome walking by. So I’d developed a mantra of always keeping a hymn and a prayer in my heart. I could sing one of the religious songs to myself, like “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done” or “Called to serve him, heavenly king of glory, chosen heir to witness for his name” or “Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shall my petition bear” or “Nearer my god to thee, nearer to thee.” I found it easier to stay focused on God when I had him on my mind, just like the prophets had taught me since I was a young boy. I tried hard to follow all of the rules, including morning and nightly prayers, daily scripture study, weekly church attendance, and payment of ten per cent of all my earned money from my paper route to the tithes of the church. That also meant fasting to improve spirituality at least once per month.

Mormonism was the central theme to my existence. My family’s rituals were molded around it as were my daily activities, my thoughts, and all of my plans for the future. Months before, I had been ordained a Teacher, an office of the Aaronic Priesthood for all worthy young men ages 14-16. It entitled me to bless and pass the sacrament and to go with older Priesthood holders into the homes of members as a home teacher, where we would check on the welfare of the families monthly and teach them gospel lessons. At 16, I would become a priest, and at 18 an elder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, then I would get to go through the temple for my endowment, serve a two year missionary service wherever I was called in the world, and finally marry a woman in the temple and begin my family. I loved my church, and everything in my life revolved around it.

I fell asleep for a time, and Evelyn drove smoothly, making great time. When I woke up, she asked how I was, and asked if I might like to enjoy a treat now. She reminded me of my grandmother in all the best ways.

“I’m okay, maybe in a little while.”

Besides stopping for gas briefly, we drove the rest of the way in silence. It was early afternoon when we pulled into Salt Lake City, in a spot downtown near Temple Square, where the very origins of my beloved church were on display in museums and visitor centers all placed directly around the Salt Lake City Temple itself. My dad would meet us there soon.

I climbed out of the car and pulled my backpack and pillow with me, leaving the treats on the floor in the bag. My stomach grumbled with hunger, and I wished again for a treat, but I didn’t want to take something that Evelyn could use for herself later.

Soon, my dad arrived and Evelyn drove away with a friendly wave.

“What would you like to do?” Dad asked, his voice its familiar quiet.

“Can we get something to eat?” I asked. “I’m starving!”

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Ensign Peak

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One Saturday several months ago, it rained endlessly, great buckets over the valley, grey skies draining out their excess on the dry land beneath. On Sunday, the skies cleared and the sun washed warmly over the wet expanses. I made my way to the hills and parked my car at Ensign Peak Nature Park, not far from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve lived here four years now, give or take a few months, but I’ve never been to this particular park.

Flags fly at the bottom, which is fitting as the word ensign means a flag or standard. Apparently back in 1847, when the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young marched a group of men up to the top of this hill overlooking the city. He concocted a story about being shown this valley by the ghost of Joseph Smith in a holy vision and declared this is where the Saints would settle and build their new land. They named the hilltop Ensign Peak, referencing an old scripture from Isaiah in the Old Testament.

As I hike the relatively easy half mile incline to the top of the hill, my heart rate increased with minor exertion and my thoughts strayed to the thousands of people who had hiked this trail before me, going back generations. I get like this sometimes, existential, somehow connected to humanity going back to the beginning and pushing forward into the generations to come, my spirit extending outward beyond myself, soul open, eyes wide.

Life stirs in the bushes and trees around me. This Earth that supports life in all its forms, from the smallest of aphids to the largest of whales, from a single blade of grass to a sycamore tree, from one quiet infant to an entire race of humans each warring for their own interests and screaming for validation. A squirrel scrambles to the side, a bird flits up to a tree top, a cricket jumps across the path.

It only takes me 20 minutes to reach the top, and I find a rock to sit against, rolling my jacket up behind the small of my back. There is a little tower of rocks, man-made, up at the Peak, commemorating the space. I don’t let myself look at the horizon, not yet. I just want to experience life here for a moment. It’s warm, there’s a breeze, the ground is hard.

Over the next 20 minutes, I shut my eyes and just listen to the errant conversations around me, snippets of dialogue, voices among loved ones, words that only exist for the amount of time it takes for them to be spoken.

“How long are you in town before you head back to Berlin? We have to take you to a Bees game while you are here!”

“Mom! I already have four likes and two friend requests, look!”

“Sorry about my dog, she just makes that noise when she’s excited, but she would never hurt anyone.”

“Honey, did you forget the snack packs? He’s gonna want his snack pack.”

“I love you, too.”

I notice the quiet within myself, my own internal voices are silent. Those persistent drives and discomforts about the empty bank account, the need for better nutrition, the lack of abs, the lack of a boyfriend… they are silent for now, and it feels amazing. My face, my hands, my neck, all exposed skin soaks up the sunlight and the breeze.

After a time I stand and I take in a slow view of the horizon. The sun hangs low over the Great Salt Lake in the west with the Oquirrh Mountains on the horizon, the city stretches on endlessly to the South with buildings and roads as far as I can see, the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains give color and life to the east. The beautiful State Capitol building lies just below the peak, the smaller Salt Lake City Temple (the Mormon holy building) just beyond that, the University of Utah to the west, enormous apartment buildings jutting all over the valley.

I think back to the how the horizon has changed over the years. Back in 1847, this was a wide open expanse, all brown rock and blue skies. By 1900, the Mormon temple must have been the biggest building, with only small roads and homes around it, now it is dwarfed by concrete and metal businesses and dwellings, beautiful but barely noticeable unless you are right next to it. Before that, this peak must have been used by the fur traders and trappers who moved into the region, seeking to pillage its resources for wealth. Still before that, Native Americans likely used the same view to scout out resources, water sources or animals for hunting, or perhaps as a vantage point to watch for enemies. And it will keep changing as humans die and new humans take their places, as buildings and roads crumble and new structures are built over the old. What will be the view from this peak in ten years, fifty, one hundred?

I keep my back to the others who come and go behind me, still catching bits of their conversations.

“Dude, if you can’t run up this hill, you definitely aren’t ready for a marathon.”

“Should I text her again? No, you’re right, I just gotta wait for a response.”

“This is my first climb since my knee surgery. I can’t wait for a real challenge.”

“Humans,” I think, and I realize I’m smiling. Humans indeed.

I’m there for another ninety minutes, thinking, peaceful, centered, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow. These are the moments to live for, these spiritual moments in nature. I find them in nature, in the human story, in myself.

As the sun sets, I descend. There is a poetry to this place. An ensign raised for a new land, a peak from which you can see with clarity all around you, every potential, every pitfall. An ensign for myself, and one I plan to return to often.

Mormon wedding night

June 17, 2006

My cell phone alarm goes off at 5:30 am promptly, giving off a soft pleasant beep with a low vibration that rattles the phone against the nightstand. I sit up suddenly, stretch my arms wide, and feel my back pop. I twist this way and that, adjusting, yawning, moving my body from sleep to wake. I slept better than I thought I would, considering the significance of today.

Today I’m getting married.

It’s maybe the most significant day of my life thus far. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tend to mark spiritual milestones as the most life-altering and noteworthy events in life. Baby blessing, baptism, confirmation, ordination, patriarchal blessing, endowment, temple sealing. It is more than just a wedding. There is a commitment, a legal signing, and an exchange of rings still, but it is a special event that takes place in God’s holy temple. A holy man has the couple dress in white, kneel across the altar from each other, and, surrounded by family and friends who are worthy to be there, join hands to be married for all time and sealed together for all eternity. It is a beautiful ceremony, so sacred and enduring. Every religion has special rites, passages, and ceremonies, but this one is the big one if you are LDS.

As I make my way down to the continental breakfast in the time-share where I’ve been staying with my family for the past few days in Salt Lake City, I think about how different my life is going to be from here forward. That was my last night sleeping in a bed alone. And tonight means not only sharing a bed and starting a new marriage and no longer being single, it means… sex. When the word comes into my mind, I can hardly take another bite of my cereal. I’m so nervous!

Mormon kids aren’t taught about sex. They are only taught not to have it. There are long lists of Do Nots. Don’t date before you are 16. Don’t date other people who aren’t Mormon. Don’t kiss frequently and don’t make out, and it’s okay if you never kiss until you marry. Don’t dance too close. Don’t “heavy pet.” Don’t dress immodestly. Don’t touch any private parts, your own or others. Don’t engage in any form of sexual activity prior to marriage. And the biggest don’t of all: don’t be attracted to someone from your own gender and definitely don’t act on it if you are.

I can still remember when I was 15 and the group of boys in my ward were taken in for a talk about chastity. The man in his 60s looked at the group of us and, trying to level with us, said, “Boys, I know how good it can feel at times when you touch your pecker.” I’d been shocked and confused as he explained how our bodies are temples and need to be treated carefully and in accordance with God’s commandments. I’d had dozens of moments like this as a young man, as a missionary, and as an adult where parameters are taught and set up. Some indiscretions are excused while others are responded to very seriously. But I’m not worried about that because even though I haven’t been able to rid myself of same-sex attraction, I have saved myself for marriage, and Megan is the only girl I’ve kissed. Our physical relationship has stayed safe; small kisses, hand holds, and back massages, but always very tame.

But then suddenly, when you do get married, not only is sex permissible, it is expected. And with no education in a highly conservative religious culture that doesn’t talk about sex, newly married couples are supposed to know what to do, and when, and to what, and for how long, and are supposed to want to do it often. Birth control is somewhat frowned upon. Intercourse is allowed and other sexual stuff, like oral or other things, are never really taught about on the don’ts list so it seems to be up to the husband and wife to decide.

I’ve been nervous about the wedding night for weeks. I’m worried for a lot of reasons. I find Megan to be absolutely beautiful, inside and out. But even though I’m excited about sex in some ways—I mean it is my first time in 26 years!—I just don’t feel the same drive and passion and lust toward women that I hear my friends talk about with their wives. Where they feel aroused and excited, I feel scared and a strange sense of duty. It makes me feel like something is wrong with me. And I can’t shed my own attractions to men, but I know those aren’t natural or right. Once I’m married, I just know things will work themselves out. Things will finally be right in me, and I’ll be right in the sight of God.

A few weeks ago, in a panic, I’d called up my old friend and roommate Jesse, who’s been married a couple of years, to ask him about the expectations and details about sex. Does it hurt the girl the first time? Do I need any supplies or, like, sexy underwear or anything? I asked frightening questions about female anatomy and felt both confused and ill-at-ease as he’d explained the answers. He’d discussed male and female arousal, emotional connections, and foreplay. In another conversation, my brother-in-law had compared women to an electric stove that takes time to heat up and cool down, and men to a gas stove that heats up quickly and go out right away. I’d wondered how I was supposed to know all of these things, and if it was a sin to know now, and what other things I should know but didn’t.

After making a bit of small talk with various family members, I get dressed and head over to the temple by myself. Megan will be there in moments with her parents, who I adore, but I have just a few minutes to reflect on the beauty of this building and this place. So much sacrifice and symbolism went into its construction. So much heritage and love and pride mixed into this landmark, this Mormon Mecca. The grounds and the building itself are beautiful. The weather is perfect. It feels right that it is here that my life will change.

I turn and see Megan walk up. She’s radiant. She’s glowing in a way that can only come to a bride on her wedding day. Her parents look so proud and happy. We go through the next several hours in sacred temple ceremonies and we are soon married and sealed together in a simple and beautiful ceremony with our loved ones all around us. Mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other a thousand times, showing the eternal nature of our newly formed family. Then it is the reception, where we are greeted by all the eager well-wishers in long lines to congratulate us. Gifts, cakes, a string quartet, hours of photographs. And Megan looks so beautiful in her wedding dress, a red sash down the back adding flair to the sequined white. This all in conjunction with the festivities, events, and dinners of the past few days have made this a truly amazing week for us.

I don’t get nervous until we are in the horse-and-buggy ride on our way to the Romeo and Juliet honeymoon suite. Tomorrow we’ll leave for ten days in Canada, but this is where we’ll spend our first night together. I think about what this must mean to Megan: her first night with her new husband. She wants, needs, and deserves to be desired, loved, held, and cherished. Her first time should be gentle, full of love and heat and desire, free from physical and emotional pain and doubt. And I think about what this means for me: my first night with my new wife. A chance to show Megan that I love her, and how much. A chance to finally be a man, to work through all my doubts and fears and just do what is expected of me. A chance to finally prove to God that all my unholy desires can be taken away and I can be right in his sight.

The night goes well, I think. Even though I am really nervous, I do my best to try and keep my focus on her and I try to make it as special as possible. There are times when it feels really good and I am able to just be in the moment and focus on the emotional and physical connection and pleasure. There are times when I feel dirty, like what we are doing is wrong, all these things that are on the don’t lists. And there are times when I feel… unnatural. Like this just isn’t how it is supposed to be or how I am supposed to feel. Still, it’s fun and I do love Megan.

That night, I feel grateful for this amazing woman, I feel exhausted from the day’s lengthy festivities, and I feel confused about myself. We fall asleep to a movie and leave the lights on. It is so strange having someone else in my bed. Just like that, I’m no longer a virgin. I think about all the torture I’ve put myself through over my own sexuality and decide again, in that moment, that this is the right thing. I’m married now. I made the right choice. I did what God wanted, what I know is right, and I hope to be blessed for it.

And oh how I love this woman next to me.

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