Turn Away From the Light…A Dark Invitation

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And if the dam breaks open many years too soon

And if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too

I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon

-Pink Floyd-

I got bitch-slapped on Facebook last week.  I was in one of those on-going, soul draining never-gonna-go-anywhere heated discussions with someone I am FB friends with,  regarding LGBT rights.

—Deep Breath—

Every once in a while, I am deeply triggered by this whole equality thing, particularly when the perpetrators of righteous discrimination are centered in my cultural roots.  So I found myself upset and riled up. At the end of the evening, a stranger stepped in, and basically called me an agent of darkness.  She urged her friend to ignore any and all things that upset her, and to step out of the darkness (me) and only focus on the light.  It was a huge bitch-slap moment for me, and I thank her for it.  It stung, as those moments do, but it brought me right to awareness of why I felt so triggered.

And it has everything to do with the dark.

There has been many times of struggle in my life when my father has told me this beautiful metaphor.  He talks about how the Self is an ancient holy temple, filled with rooms.  Some have windows and sunlight, and we allow people to come into those places.   But inside each temple there are also windowless rooms, places that sit dark and locked up.  There is one room at the center, the inner most sanctuary, called “the holy of holies.” It is the center of the temple, and of Self, where we store our most secret and dark parts of who we are.  It takes courage to open the door to these dark places, shine a light inside, and find out what we have stored there.

I have always loved this metaphor, as it validates a deep yearning in me, and makes me feel brave.  Because I am a person who wants to look inside those places.  And see what is there, to name it, to own it.  It has been my personal quest, to become more aware, more conscious.  My drive to peer into the dark was emphasized enormously by becoming a mother, and leaving my religion.  I have been bravely opening those doors and peering inside, flashlight in hand, an act that directly defies the teaching to “only be in the light.”

What I have found there has been… unpleasant.  All my darkest thoughts.  My ugliest feelings.  Monstrous and powerful fears that I thought were gone, but were just tucked away in hiding.

The opening of those rooms has sent me deep into depression.  Riddled me with anxiety.  Caused terrible, tear-filled clashes with people I love most.

I am realizing now that this temple story has to change a bit.  I have been at war with my darkness. There are hard and unpleasant emotions stored there… jealousy, anger, selfishness, immaturity, bitterness, loathing, rage, unbelievable sadness.  No one wants to feel those.  No one wants to see those stored up in their innermost spaces.  Shining a light in there has made me feel tremendously ashamed and panicked to the point of blindness.

We are so conditioned to keep ourselves in the light. To be scared of the dark. To run from the “bad emotions” and deny they exist at all. In the culture I was raised in, this teaching is so powerful, people are encouraged to never read anything that opposes their point of view, or makes them feel uncomfortable.  To never allow someone to challenge their ideas or discuss things that bring fear or uncertainty.  There are good feelings, and bad feelings, and people are supposed to avoid those bad feelings.

AT ALL COSTS.

And the costs are untold.   We are denying ourselves.  We are cut off from who we really are.  The whole range of human emotions must be acknowledged in order to experience what we all long for as human beings… love and belonging and meaningful connection.  To ignore/deny/negate/make taboo all of our human emotions that are not joyful and uplifting is devastating.  Either we become so cut off from ourselves, we feel depressed and hollow, or we label every “dark” emotion as “bad” and become crippled with self-loathing and guilt for our humanness…. and judgmental of everything.

What I am starting to understand, is that I don’t need to shine a light in my dark places.  I need to open the door, step into the darkness, take a seat, and get to know it.  Welcome all of my Self to exist and be acknowledged.  When I enter these dark places, I now work to become fully present.  A terrifying endeavor after a lifetime of fighting against these unpleasant emotions.  I sit, and step into my body.  Draining my mind, which is constantly operating in the past or the future, and bring full awareness to my body.  Attention to the physical sensations forces me into the present moment.  I notice how frustration makes my throat throb, and anger makes me hands clench and my stomach burn.   I feel how shame makes my toes curl and my eyes close and my body collapse in on itself.  Rather than deny it or fight it, I just acknowledge that it is there, inside of me.  Manifesting in ways that I was  unconscious of before.  These dark emotions are asking for allowance.  The awareness gives it permission to be there, and I am finding that once permission is given, the intensity of the emotion dramatically drops, but it doesn’t disappear.

Following the recognition, comes a question.

“What do you need?”  

The idea that I should welcome these emotions has changed me.  I have been spinning and sinking in a deep swamp of self loathing, feeling that I only had two choices:

1. to completely deny the existence of the dark.

2. willfully explore the dark rooms, condemn the darkness as bad, and fight like hell.

There is another way.  Radical Self-Acceptance.  Which begins by understanding that those scary places have something to say.  When I give it a voice, and permission to exist, I am finding that there is not a good and bad, just wholeness.

A person.

As I begin to sit in my dark rooms in welcome rather than judgement, I realize the scope of this practice. As a mother of three girls…being capable of modeling self acceptance, showing them how to love themselves, to feel welcome in every room, embody all of the human parts, not just the light ones.  Their beauty lives in the dark places too.

There is a reason the innermost sanctuary, the holiest of holies, is a perfectly dark room.

The most sacred work is done in the dark.  The answers to the simple question,  “What do you need?”   are the real reasons we are here.

The Painful Distinction of Doing and Being

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*Image credit:  Gardner Edmunds

It’s December 17th today, I am sitting in my office (the Panera Bread location) and enjoying the high of just mailing the last of my christmas gifts.  It’s a short-lived high. My to do list, is still a thick, itchy, wool scarf… wrapped entirely too tightly around my neck.

I don’t have time to be writing this.  But, if you are a follower of mine, you might recognize that I seem to NEVER have time for this anymore.  And there, my dears, is a dilemma.  Because much to my dismay, I have a lot of complicated needs to keep me from diving into a pit of despair and self-flagellation.

Two most important: I must exercise regularly.  And I must write things…to download these emotions that pile up like the mountain of mail order catalogues that are swallowing my kitchen table.

The real thing I should be doing right NOW, is writing a paper.  A  six page reflective essay  relating to a book about development of the western mind since Zeus ruled the heavens. An essay, due today, on “the identification and interpretation of personal beliefs that influence the creation of meaning in your life.”

Can’t I just turn in a link to my blog instead?  It is ridiculous that this assignment has me hand-wringing, since I have thought of little else in my life over the last ten years.  In addition to grocery lists and christmas cards and the fact that I am still wearing toenail polish put on my toes in August, my brain is mostly occupied with huge, all-encompassing things like GOD.  And Guilt.  And Spirit.  And Shame.  And Worthiness.  And Judgement.  And Redemption.  And Soul-Crushing Inadequacy.

-Deep Breath-

Here is the thing, about my personal beliefs.  And how they affect my daily life…  This mess, that I need to neatly roll into a beautiful, personal, reflective, six page, double spaced essay:

First, an internal audit of my beliefs.  And, I find an overwhelming recognition that the toxic, corrosive, divisive, emotionally blackmailing, schizophrenic, mainstream religious cult that me and five generations of people I love have  been marinating in… is still offering me plentiful chances to learn forgiveness and acceptance and self compassion.

It has been ten years of really hard work, to unravel so much of the control the religious training had over my life.  Like a comically long and preposterous to do list, I have taken care of obvious ones, like wearing the kind of underwear I want to, and the not so obvious ones, like redefining my feelings about sex and morality. Throwing out the devastating metaphors of girls being a “licked cupcake” or “Already Chewed Gum” when they decide to become sexual beings has been a serious chore.

It has been almost ten years of liberation and excavation.  Now, I am free to have a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, wear a tank top, drop the F bomb, watch a rated R movie, buy a bag of apples on sunday or read a book about anything I wish.   And I can do those things without guilt!  I now know that strong families and sincere love and limitless joy and unfathomable generosity exist outside of mormon life.

I can watch clips like this one, and see men I was taught were infallible prophets to revere and to digest their words as God’s words, and finally hear the controlling patriarchal rhetoric and the dark stream of damage that runs through the doctrines and teachings of the faith I was born in, those things I had once taught and defended as Truth.  I have ferociously fought off ingrained belief that my only purpose in this life is to be a support for my husband, and bear children and be obedient to men who know better than I.  I have had to challenge myself to rethink what it means to love someone, what the difference is between faith and magic, how to draw appropriate boundaries for myself and my children.

Much of the DOING is DONE.  There is not much left to DO, when it comes to creating concrete distance between myself and the LDS religion.  So imagine the rude awakening I have had, when I came to the end of that to do list and unwrapped that itchy scarf, ready to breathe freely and be done with the Deprogram the Mormonism Program, and find that the really painful damage, the deepest, darkest wounds… were underneath the all that doing.  The unwrapping has revealed what is left…. raw and dangerous emotion.

Over the past ten years, I have also been busy discovering and declaring what it is I believe.  It has been exhilarating and freeing and I have felt relief and unimaginable joy in the self discovery.

Every human being has inherent worth.  Worthiness is implicit.

There is nothing to prove.

There is nothing to earn.

What happens after this life is NONE OF MY BUSINESS.

The purpose of my life is to practice living each moment in the present.

I am adequate.

Every person longs to be seen and heard.

Good and evil are judgments.  There is only fear and love.

Staying OPEN is the only goal.

Being CLOSED is part of the process.  I will be open to that too.

There is no need to define the Divine.

These things I can comfortably and passionately declare as my belief system.  My list has been scrubbed free from the doctrine I was immersed in since birth. The trouble is, now that the doing has been done, when I look at myself in the mirror, there is still the mormon girl staring back.  

The doing has not created the being.

The act of writing those words sends pain rushing up to my throat like hot bile.  It threatens to expose me.   It is the recognition that the actions taken over the last decade, as terrifying and disorienting and inspiring as they have been, have not healed the anguishing canyon that exists in my soul.  On one side, the powerful, complete woman who embodies that list of beliefs, and on the other, a weeping girl who will never be worthy or adequate or whole.

I have come to the very edge of that abyss.

Maybe the only thing I really believe right now, is that I am not alone here, on this edge.  I know my story is not unique.  We are all good at the doing.  The doing, no matter what is on that list, or how tightly it threatens to strangle us, is a matter of overcoming inertia.

But to be in alignment with our true beliefs, to begin to stitch up the giant chasm within us…requires the being.

Being is where things get real.

There is no doing left for me here.  Not when it comes to healing my spirit.  And the being is the excruciating part.  The part where the emotions must be felt.  The part where the feelings must be allowed to exist.  The part where true compassion is discovered.  The part where I simply exist.

I don’t really know how.  But I know there is no try… that is a doing word.

So for now, I will just breathe.

Peeling Back Layers of Ugly: The Gay Reality

This was it.

The expectant tension was building in our awkward phone conversation to an almost unbearable degree.  I felt myself struggling to regulate my breath and appear nonchalant.  He struggled for words, a way to open the door, for the very first time to anyone.

His fear became so present, it felt like we may shatter when he finally found the words.

My brother is gay.

When he finally told me, a few months from graduating high school in the spring of 2004, every single bad, derogatory, judgemental comment I had ever heard about gay people played out in my memory. We did not grow up in a home where bigotry and hateful speech was ever uttered.  But we grew up mormon.  A place where they talked about the sin of homosexuality.  A place where t.v. shows like Ellen, or Will and Grace were considered immoral and inappropriate.  Where traditional marriage was considered vital in protecting society and moral character.  Where being gay was being a sexual deviant by choice.  Where in 2008, the mormon church would rally tremendous money and forces in  to support Prop 8 in California.

 It was not a safe place for my brother.

 I remembered every single off-hand remark or gesture he must have been exposed to.  The jokes that were just not funny.  The gossip that had been circulating in our ward in Colorado about a girl my age, who had “decided” to be a lesbian, cut her hair, and ran off with another girl after high school.  The head shaking and tsk-tsking and whispers of how painful that must be for the family, how disgraceful.

Shame and horror over those flashes burned in me, a small taste of how it must have burned in him for years.  I wanted to crawl through the phone and wrap my arms around him.  I wanted to look him in the eye and tell him how I loved him.  How it changed absolutely nothing about how I felt about him.  How it was going to be fine.  But I was thousands of miles away, and he was hiding in his basement bedroom in my parents house, filled with fear at being fully seen for the first time.

We went from rarely ever speaking on the phone, to talking for many hours every day for several months. If more than a day would pass, he would call, filled with fear of what I must be thinking of him, the judgement I was making, the disgust that must have been percolating for him. His vulnerability made me throb with empathy.  My mother and father called too… begging for me to tell them what was going on.  What was wrong.  Demanding that I let them in on the reasons for our daily contact.  Their fears were an endless ticker tape of threatening possibilities in their minds.  It was the only time in my life I lied consistently to my parents.

Here is the part where I have to be brutally honest. and own the course I had to take.  It’s not easy to write now, but it is real.

I had no idea what to think.  Like anything else, if it isn’t happening TO you, it is easy to dismiss.

I never considered that my brother had chosen to be gay.  That was ridiculous. I heard the pain in his voice.  I could feel his fear.  I knew that an alarming number of gay kids take their own life.  There was no issue of choice.

But the first thing I wanted to know was… why?

I did research.  I read about sexual abuse.  Or having a broken and damaged relationship with a father.  There wasn’t a lot more to read about the subject, in 2004.

I confronted Gardner, asking questions without malice, but honest innocence and a desire to understand.   He was not abused.   Nor did he blame my father.

Eventually, I realized, it simply doesn’t matter.  If he is not choosing to be gay, it matters not what the origins are.  The result is the same.

Then…  HOW?  I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  How could he possibly be attracted to… MEN???    He was so patient, calmly explaining things to me over and over.  He asked me to tell him why I loved Rick.  Why I was attracted to him.  And when I did, he said, “me too.”  And I understood a bit more.  I never made a conscious choice to like men instead of women…  It just IS.  And the things that I loved about my husband and reasons for my attraction were all basically things that my brother was also wanting in a relationship.  I am not interested in having a romantic relationship with a female, and neither was he.

It was the first time I had ever really pondered love, attraction, relationships, sex, so comprehensively, and from such a distance.  I realized that my perception of being gay was just about the sex.  What a ridiculous, simplistic view.  Love is love.  Sexual attraction is important, but certainly not the most important part of a romantic relationship.  DUH.   It seems unnecessary to even write about this, but it was a revelation to me.  An idea that had never presented itself in my community, in my upbringing, in my religion.

Then… what can be done?  I  read and researched ways to “cure” being gay.  He could go to  terrible places that teach inauthenticity, repression, shame, and impossible expectations.  When those don’t work, they hook you up to electrodes and physically “shock” those deviant gay feelings right out of your body.

Erm, NO.

Several months in to these discussions and as my understanding unfolded, I remember telling my brother that after careful consideration, I felt that if it meant fitting into mainstream society, avoiding painful rejection and ridicule, and being able to have a traditional family, I would give it a go… and have a relationship with another woman, despite it not being my preference. So… maybe he should go try to date women first.

In that conversation,  my ability to empathize with desperate gay people who marry, have four kids, and are caught cheating on their wives with other men was born.   These horrifying, naive suggestions… this  ill-formed advice was rampant in mormon culture at the time.  Marry!  Have kids!  Find out that you were wrong about who you are all along, and we were right!  Jesus will change you!

Thank God my brother weathered these inane conversations with me.  He watched my understanding unfurl from a tightly folded, tiny piece of closed-minded ignorance into a greater understanding.  With the understanding came more real support and love.

Eventually, we made plans to tell my parents.  It was truly a scary time for me, knowing it would change my family in drastic ways. I didn’t know if my parents would be able to handle it, to be honest.  I felt fiercely protective of him… the idea of him witnessing their shock, the potential of hurtful words and tears… I could barely stand the idea of it.   If it was scary for me, it must have been a time of blinding, paralyzing terror for my brother.

We knew the long road we would be going to down to redefine expectation and the story of how everything has to be.  What it means to support  and what it means to be honorable and authentic.

What it means to really LOVE someone.

It’s crazy what happens when you are willing to take a step outside of your judgement and examine what you have been standing on.  The foundation of your ideas about something that seems so foreign and threatening…. is really just irrational fear.  It is dishonorable enmity born out of ignorance.

Once armed with my newly developed understanding, and countless hours of conversation, once my brother had moved out of my parents’ home and lived a comfortable distance away, I told my parents for him, as we had planned.  Their initial reactions, their shock, their questions were first absorbed by me.

Even then, I did not support gay marriage….because what about society?  and the children?!!?! what about the children!!!  Every single message I had ever heard in my life surrounding gay marriage was about how it would destroy the very fabric of society, and children would suffer.  It sounds real.  And scary.  Who wants the fabric of society shredded?  And poor little children to suffer?

I remember a specific, terrible night when my brother and mother and I went out to dinner and my brother was left to defend himself on this issue.

I loved him.  I supported him.  I did not think he chose to be gay.  But should he be allowed to destroy traditional marriage?  Bring kids into a home without a mother?

I had two little girls at the time.  How would I explain their uncle to them?  Will I allow him and a boyfriend to come visit?  Display affection?

It all seemed so scary…. so scary because it had been presented that way to me by my culture and my religious leaders, and the politics I subscribed to.  It takes a lot of de-programming to see the underbelly of this particular bigoted beast.

Fear.

Fear unfounded.

Gay Love is simply  LOVE.

Love is love, people.

It turns out, it was really not that hard to explain to my kids.  One day, they asked me if my brother had a girlfriend.  I told them he did not, but he actually wants to date boys, so he would have a boyfriend someday.  They nodded, shrugged, and asked for a snack.

One day, my brother had a boyfriend.  I showed my kids pictures of them together.  They thought he was really cute, and their uncle looked really happy.

One day, they came for Thanksgiving.  And they held hands, and kissed after the Thanksgiving toast.  They played games and made the kids laugh and made memories.

One, big, happy family.   It was normal because it was normal.

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We are complicated beings.  Emotionally.  Sexually.  Intellectually.

Being in love can be complicated, as most of us know.

But supporting love is not complicated.

The other day, my husband and I were visiting my brother in New York.  His roommate asked how it was, when we found out my brother was gay.  And I wanted to say it was great.  I was the loving, supportive sister who made him feel totally safe and secure and loved.   While that was always my intent, that is not what happened.  Most of that journey is a great embarrassment to me now.    Peeling back layers of judgement and fear can expose some pretty ugly pieces.  Under all that, is the glorious recognition that none of the differences that  keep us separate and critical are there.

I felt the need to outline this story because I recognize there is a huge leap in understanding that must happen to help people out of their locked-in beliefs about the LGBT community.  I try to exercise patience with others as my brother did for me, while I found my way out of that trap of intolerance.  In fact, it is not a leap, but a shedding of skin, the callous layers that we keep to protect us from people that are simply wanting all the same things everyone wants.

Love.  Acceptance.  Safety. Affection.  Respect.

Surprise findings:   Giving another human being these things is not going to shred the very fabric of society, or ruin your children.

Your children will benefit from your willingness to get rid of those callouses and be open to more LOVE in the world.  They may be one of those tender souls that the anti-gay movement is so visciously attacking.   It may be your vulnerable child you are burning painful scars into with your bigoted remarks and support of anti-gay rhetoric.  It might be your child that will sit at the lunch counter and be refused service because of who they are.

Enormous, painful, angry, wrenching rejection… that is what has been happening in my family since my brother came out.

But thankfully, my brother was not the target.  My parents refused to be a part of their culture, an organization that they had previously devoted their entire lives to. My other brother and his wife refused as well.  We have all marched out of the mormon church.

We reject the notion that my parents should reject their son. We reject the ridiculous stand that suggests that my brother should live his life void of the most basic human need… the need to love and be loved.   We reject the idea that being gay is like be an alcoholic.  For holding hands with someone, feeling love and affection and connection found in romantic love is not the same as having a beer.  We reject the  preposterous suggestion that only a married mother and father can raise a healthy child.  We reject the idea that being openly bigoted toward the LGBT community is in anyway associated with being Christ-like.  We reject the theory that eliminating more judgement, bigotry and hate in our society by allowing gay people to get married and yes, buy a wedding cake, will threaten others’ ability to carry out their religious freedoms.

It is not “hate the sin, love the sinner.”  That is not love.

The fact that you watch Ellen, are friends with a gay person, tolerate them at your dinner table or let them give you a hair cut does not translate into real love and acceptance.

It is not possible to “love gay people” and stand against their ability to be a normal, everyday, respected members of the community.  That is not love.

Love thy neighbor as thyself.  Do unto others.   Magnify joy.  Celebrate love.  This will not shred us, it will make us whole.

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Sleepless in Zion: A Study of Romance vs. Reality

I didn’t really love my husband when we got married.  He didn’t love me either.

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Can you fall in love with someone you have never met?  Really, truly, in LOVE?  In the age of internet dating, chat rooms, email,  can you cultivate deep, committed love,  without being together?

I don’t think so.

Rick and I met for the first time on top of the Empire State Building.  It was just like that movie, Sleepless in Seattle. I had imagined myself like Meg Ryan, arriving breathless, flopping her wallet open to buy a ticket, and moments later, stepping out on top of the world to meet the love of her life.  They were MFEO. (Made for each other.)

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With a few minor changes, that is how it happened for us.

I got lost walking to the Chrysler Building instead of the Empire State Building.   In a New York August heat wave… 90% humidity,  102 degrees.   I finally arrived looking like KISS with a sunburn and bloody blistered feet.   I was two hours late, and then waited in a 90 minute line in the basement of the building to buy my ticket.  Other than that, it was super romantic.  We fell into each other’s arms.   People took our picture, and clapped.  We held hands,  he kissed me softly after we gazed out into the night cityscape, dazzled by the enormous city.

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 Our lives together began.

Rick had just been released from a two-year mormon mission in Sacramento, CA. He had flown home after his two years of service to Vermont, where he had kissed his mother, barbecued with his father, and greeted his sister with his new niece for the first time. He also planned this trip to NYC. To meet me, a stranger, and the woman he loved. Rick had met my brother, a fellow LDS missionary in Sacramento, when they had been assigned as roommates. Zack was just six months into his two-year commitment, and Rick was one year into his. Like most other missionaries…he was busy, focused, homesick, and trolling for mail. Contact with people from the outside, the real world, was crucial.

The mission rules were strict, and contact with family and friends was only allowed through the USPS.  No phone calls, no email, no text messages.  Rick saw a picture of me, among my brother’s things, and casually asked if I was his girlfriend. Horrified, as any little brother would be, he informed Elder Poulin of our sibling relationship. (Elder is the assigned title men in the mission field use. It is a recognition of the spiritual power they are given. Women are not allowed to have this power, and are referred to as “sisters.”)

A week later, Elder Poulin sent out a letter. To me.

A little desperate? Yep.

But in reality, I had been desperate too.  Not for a mormon missionary.  At that time in my life, a missionary was dead last on my list of desires, but for some inexplicable reason, I wrote him back.  Perhaps it was a mercy letter.   I hated to be rude, or hurt his feelings.  Perhaps I was desperately alone and jumping at the chance to express my innermost fears to a person I was not invested in. Perhaps I somehow knew that he would offer me healing in a way I could not find on my own.

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What ever the reason, it worked. Elder Poulin won the snail mail jack pot. In the 395 days that ensued, we wrote over 150 letters. A few months in, we began carrying mini cassette recorders everywhere we went, conspicuously talking to each other in long, drawn out conversations that took two weeks to complete.  7, 425 minutes of conversation, to be precise. At first, a casual way to insert a bit of excitement into a week of monotony. Who doesn’t love to get a letter…hand written…in the mail?

It grew from casual fun, to inexplicable, illegal attraction, infatuation…love?

Missionaries were supposed to be dedicated only to God.  Elder Poulin and I were not to write of things involving love and lust, so we wrote of ourselves, shared our fears and hopes, mailed pictures of ourselves in hopes of familiarizing the hopelessly unfamiliar.

Can you love someone you have never met?

The question ran through my mind on endless repeat for more than a year.  It defined my life and decisions I made as a young college grad.

We were engaged one month after we met, and married four months later.  Madly in love, or so we thought.   We were ready for the Happily Ever After part.

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Today, we have been married for 12 years.  We have moved across the country and back again.   Welcomed three beautiful little girls into our family.  We have left the mormon religion, and are still healing from the aftermath of stepping off of our foundation of faith.

Here’s what we discovered about love:

You can’t truly love someone you have not met.

Which means, I don’t believe that Rick and I loved each other as much as we thought we did when we became man and wife.  We had been with each other for less than six months.  It’s not enough time.    It was an arranged marriage.  Each of us exchanging parts of a resume.  We presented to each other our truest selves, on paper.  In one-sided conversations, in which both of us listened and imagined being with that person, hand in hand.  But something falls flat.

I loved that Rick was smart and open to adventure.  He was athletic and physically active.  He had a college degree, and ambition.  He wanted to marry and have children, be an active father and role model.  He was willing to show vulnerability, and he was a leader.  He and I both wanted the same kind of life.  We had the same interests, the same priorities.  He was willing to work with me and my struggles of faith.  He had strong, muscular hockey-player legs, dark wavy hair, a strong jaw, and an amazing ass.  (Not that I was allowed to be looking).  I still love all of these things about him.

But.

What I didn’t know, was how he would look at me when I throw frustration fueled temper tantrum.   If he would make me feel safe when I was scared.  I didn’t know what Rick would when he felt threatened.   I wasn’t sure if he would give me the space I needed to cool off when my feelings were hurt, or if he could be cruel and let biting words leave permanent scars in a fight.    Would he let ego or fear of appearing weak, drive his decisions?  Would he use his gender as a weapon, insist he had the final word?  I couldn’t tell if he would be able to look through the letters, the pictures, the tapes, and see me.

Really, and truly see me.

The answers to these questions are needed to give dimension to real love.  They only come with experiences life gives you as it unfolds over time.  More than months, spent in a flurry of wedding planning and job hunting and moving.

We came together knowing so much about each other… so many questions answered, so many topics explored.  But we were missing so much, the breath that brings the relationship to life.  I have so often wondered, was it luck?  Or are we such a good match because of the soul baring resumes we created in those 150 letters?   The naive faith I placed in our ability to fill in all of the cracks… fissures I could not see or anticipate  in my young twenty-three years… was that real intuition, or just blind luck?

Maybe it’s both.

Our courtship, engagement, and marriage has been a study in romance vs. reality.

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You can not love someone you have never met.

Not a full, living, breathing, multidimensional love that can carry you through the joys and the gauntlets life lays out for you.  We did not marry with that love, but it came to life for us in the small moments that create memories, history, trust.

I remember the first time Elder Poulin signed a letter, “Love, Rick.”  And my heart cart-wheeled in my chest.

I remember the first time I admitted to Rick, whispering into my mini cassette tape, curled up in bed, that I was falling in love.

I remember feeling him grab me in the throng of tourists on top of the Empire State Building, and the thrill of believing I had just met my soul mate.

I remember watching a tear roll down his cheek when Fantine dies in broadway’s Les Miserables… how that tear cracked me open.

I remember spying on him as he bathed our daughters since they were a few days old, singing Peter, Paul and Mary’s Marvelous Toy, kissing their toes.

I remember how he would take their hands as toddlers and skip down the sidewalk with them like Dorothy in the wizard of Oz, unconcerned with anything but their thrilled giggles.

I remember the first moment I felt completely safe… when I knew without a doubt that we had survived leaving the mormon church, and he loved the real me.

I remember the moment I looked directly into his eyes as I was overcome with exhaustion and fear while trying to birth my last baby girl.  I saw the real, breathing, luminous love for me in his eyes, and she was born.

I remember when someone asked me to conjure up an image in my mind of safety, a representation of the thing that would make me feel completely protected…

That image is me, in Rick’s arms.

There is no other place.

What Can You Know for Sure?

know

verb (used with object), knew, known, know·ing.

1.  to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty

2.to have established or fixed in the mind or memory

3.to be cognizant or aware of

4.be acquainted with, as by sight, experience, or report

5.to understand from experience or attainment

What do you know for sure?

My entire life has been driven by this question.   KNOW… the most powerful word that exists in mormon culture.  When I say or even think this word, I hear the definitive crack of a slamming of a gavel.   It is done.

I left my faith because of the misuse and abuse of this word.

As a mormon girl, I ached to know.   I wanted it so much, the need swirled, undefined and cloudy within me until unmet, it settled itself into my bones.  Infused itself into my muscles and fibers and tissues.

“I know the church is true.”

“I know the scriptures are true.”

“I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.”

 These declarations of truth are scratched into my psyche. Imprinted.  The desire to make those words my own drove me to the brink of despair.  I followed all of the mormon formulas, but the words were not mine to profess.  To be surrounded by people with such concrete proclamations burrowed a deep well of failure inside me.

Once a month, mormon worship includes  holding an open mic testimony meeting, where members of the congregation go up the pulpit and declare what they know is true.

tes·ti·mo·ny

 [tes-tuh-moh-nee, or, esp. British, -muh-nee]  Show IPA

noun, plural tes·ti·mo·nies.

1. Law. the statement or declaration of a witness under oath or affirmation, usually in court.

2. evidence in support of a fact or statement; proof.

3. open declaration or profession, as of faith.

4. Usually, testimonies. the precepts of God.

Although there is no script, the conditioning that begins in the preschool years leads to the inclusion of certain key phrases that most people use while “bearing their testimony.”  It almost always begins with

“I’d like to bear my testimony…I know the church is true.”

There is no age restriction, so usually the open mic hour will begin with children in the congregation.   Parents will lead their toddlers and preschoolers up to the mic, hoist them onto their hips, or let them stand invisible behind the thick wooden lectern.  They whisper the words to their tiny children.  The little ones must hold their breath with the strain of listening to their mom or dad’s sentences, which they repeat in a breathy burst.

I know this church is true…

I know the scriptures are the words of God…

I know Heavenly Father loves me.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Then the adults get up.  They will often tell a story to illustrate their “knowing.”  They often cry.  I remember my mother’s soft hands, twisting tissues around her fingers, dabbing her eyes.  She is moved to tears with ease.  My father, sitting straight and attentive, was less emotive.   Neither of my parents brought me to the pulpit.  I never felt their lips and their breath tickling my ear, feeding me their words to declare.  They did not pressure me as I got older to participate in this public ritual.  I felt weak with relief that they never required it of me.  But, the opportunity to “bear your testimony” was presented with great regularity throughout my upbringing.  Sunday school, scripture studies, youth activities, church camp, and family gatherings.  I have witnessed my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents, mentors and friends all tearfully bear their testimony throughout my life.

My best friend through middle school and high school was not a mormon girl.  She was delightfully agnostic, and her life was not an internal storm of powerful statements and concepts  (God, testimony, truth, sacred, salvation, purity, modesty, worthiness).   She came with me to a youth overnight camp for teens ages 14 + when we were juniors in high school.   It was one of the few times I ever invited her to a church activity.  At the end of the overnight trip, there was a testimony meeting.  I sat next to her, feeling as if I might erupt with expectation, as one by one, my peers and friends got up and declared their testimony.  My friend began elbowing me, urging me to get up and do it.  “Go.  Go.”  She prodded after each teenager sniffled their way back their seat.  She wanted me to do it, she wanted to hear what it was that I knew.  I shook my head in refusal, and finally,  I turned in my seat and caught her eyes.  I let her see it, for just a brief flash…the devastation I felt in not knowing.

I decided to give the mormon church one last chance when I was a young student teacher, writing to a mormon missionary whom I felt I was falling in love with.  I wanted the door to be opened to me… the door that seemed to close me off from the knowing that my family and peers all spoke of so reverently… I had been knocking until my knuckles bled, and the mantle of shame, being shut out of this special place, was crushing.

I read the Book of Mormon.  It took a while, because every few verses I would be overcome by doubt.  I would read a passage and feel resistance.  I would drop to my knees every few minutes and plead with Heavenly Father to release me from the doubts, to open my heart.  To let me in.  A steady stream of tears dripped from the end of my nose onto the flimsy pages of text.  I finished the whole book this way, reading, weeping, pleading, praying.

I waited for the affirmation that what I read was “true.”  I waited for the burning in my heart, the warmth and knowledge that had been declared to me by everyone I loved.   It was a knowing I would not be granted.

It could not be formed out of my desire.

Over the weekend, Rick and I  watched the fifth Harry Potter movie with my girls.  In the story, Harry has to write “I must not tell lies”  on a sheet of paper with a magic quill.  As he does this, the words are painfully etched into his flesh.  When he asks how many times he must write the words, the professor responds, “Until it leaves a mark.”

There did not need to be a magic quill like Harry’s to wound me, only the continual and absolute declaration of truth and knowledge by everyone important to me…and their insistence that my inability to join them was my own retched failings.  The etched over words “I know this church is true” were not a delicious imprint, but a searing scar I carried.

They had left their mark.

I was never allowed to shape my own personal testimony.  There is only one answer to  arrive at… the church is true. How is a child supposed to explore and come to their own ideas about God, spirit, worthiness, sacrifice, scripture, and prayer, when the answers are whispered into their ears, etched into their souls since infancy, and kept there with the fear of losing their culture, their identity, the acceptance of their people?  The notion that what one knows to be personal truth should also be accepted or can be experienced as universal truth is limiting, damaging, and confining.  People need opportunity to explore who they are free of shame and fear.  Children must not be spoon fed what we feel is our truth.  It is our job to be witnesses to the unfolding of their own knowing. To present all the possibilities we can and watch with fascination as the differences and similarities emerge.

What do you know? What IS knowing?

I have known things.  That knowing came in a flash of recognition, the way a deep breath fills your lungs and then is carried into every organ, every tissue, every cell, through your beating heart.

When I comb through my life for the most significant moments, KNOWING are the shimmering stones on my pathway.  The moments I KNEW.   They vibrate with tension and energy….  The moment I knew I would marry Rick.  The moment I knew I was pregnant.  The moment I knew the force of a mother’s love.  The moment I knew that I must look for my own knowing.   The moment I knew I must reclaim myself.

The only thing that we can truly know is ourselves.  Knowing oneself is a work that spans a lifetime of inquiry and analysis and forgiveness and fortitude, and what I believe, is the purpose of our life.

To know oneself, is to know God.

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”  – Laozi

The Mormon Anthem

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I am a child of God,
And he has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home
With parents kind and dear.

I am a child of God,
And so my needs are great;
Help me to understand his words
Before it grows too late.

I am a child of God.
Rich blessings are in store;
If I but learn to do his will,
I’ll live with him once more.

I am a child of God.
His promises are sure;
Celestial glory shall be mine
If I can but endure.

Chorus
Lead me, guide me, walk beside me,
Help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do
To live with him someday.

The song I am a Child of God is one of the quintessential hymns in mormon childhood.  A solid mormon upbringing will include this song as a childhood anthem, and my home was no different.  I sang it for comfort in dark, scary places. I sang it to remind myself that I was extra special.  I hummed it, summoning courage in my bed at night.  I sang it with gusto with the rest of my young classmates in church, proud of the touched expressions on our mother’s faces.

But then, things changed for me. I sang it with tears dripping off the end of my nose and into my clasped hands as a teenager kneeling at my bedside, begging to be more faithful and desperate to believe.  In my search for comfort, my mother’s love, the thought of her soft hands squeezing mine would ease me back into bed and under the covers.  But the words tortured my young heart, as a glowing piece of my childhood suddenly felt  threatening.

 I am a child of God,
And he has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home
With parents kind and dear.

My parents were kind and dear.  The first verse was a way of establishing the expectation that the rest of God’s plans must be accomplished because of their kindness.  And dearness.  It played on my fierce, child-loyalty.  It made me feel as if my struggle to believe in God was a rejection of my parents.  Maybe it was.

 I am a child of God,
And so my needs are great;
Help me to understand his words
Before it grows too late.

“Help me to understand his words, before it grows too late.” Too late for me, a girl who sensed innocent, blind, parent-lead faith dripping through my cupped hands like water I was trying to carry in my palms. I felt desperate to comply…to understand.  The pressure was real, unrelenting.

 I am a child of God.

His promises are sure;

Celestial glory shall be mine

If I can but endure.

“Celestial glory shall be mine, if I can but endure…”  This one.  Am I worthy of glory?  Do I want to endure my life? To endure…to suffer patiently, to tolerate with out wielding.  It made me feel bleak, and as a teenager, bored.  Life can be more than enduring.  The idea that I could fully enjoy my life and each moment and not fear what would happen when I was dead was a unfurling in my rebellion.

 Lead me, guide me, walk beside me,
Help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do
To live with him someday.

Teach me all that I must do…to live with him someday.  This one broke my heart.  I was the teacher’s pet, after all.  If there are things I must do, I wanted to be valedictorian.  And I wanted acceptance, praise.  A feeling that doing the things that I must do would make me special.  To live with him someday made me envision a thick, heavy door.  And would he open it for me?  The thought that Heavenly Father would possibly not let me in, if I did not perform the things I must do, filled me up with leaden fear, and a sense of failure.

And the song, which used to bring me peace, felt corrupted, dangerous.  I clamped down on it tightly, storing it away.

A few months ago, I was kneeling at the bedside of my youngest daughter.  She was three, and golden, and trouble.  I was stroking her soft platinum hair and kissing the tears from her round cheeks and wet eyelashes, a sore toe causing her newest despair.  I sang her “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and  then, quite unexpectedly, “I am a Child of God,” a song dug out of the tombs of my now locked up mormon vault.  I felt my love for her crack open my chest, and white, warm, mama love encased my little girl.

I switched to humming the tune after the first line, perhaps unconsciously avoiding the words that carry such weight, and let the song soothe my baby.   I found the place that long ago had soothed me before it hurt. The wounds are healing, the anger dissipating… slowly, ever so slowly.  In the year we have been here in Connecticut, as I write about my life, I am noticing, finally, my ability to accept the beauty under the damage, find the gold thread woven into the cocoon I felt caught in. The song fills me with hope and safety and warmth of childhood.  The feeling that I belong to something.  I am allowed to toss out the words that dish out dogma I don’t hold true…and just sing the song, allowing the spirit of connection be as simple as I need it to be.

The connection that makes me, and Stella, and God, one and the same.

And then she slept.

Stripping down

When worn properly, the garment provides protection against temptation and evil. Wearing the garment is an outward expression of an inward commitment to follow the Savior.    – (First Presidency letter, 5 Nov. 1996).

The garments must be worn day and night.

Mormons are allowed to have sex, (married of course) swim, and shower without the garments, but they should be immediately worn again, as soon as possible.  The prophet and the first presidency of the LDS church are all old men in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.  They are not about to advise women on the pleasures of wearing garment bottoms and getting a period, or having a baby. We figure it out.

They make maternity garments, (belly and boob pouches!) and nursing garments (the boob pouches are designed with flap, to give access to the breast once the nursing bra comes down).  They come in different fabrics, and necklines.  I found them all to be drastically uncomfortable.  I was painfully sensitive to lace, and even the simplest styles had trim that rubbed me raw.  It was always hot, even in the winter months, wearing an extra layer under my clothes.  I hated the way the fabric bunched up around the underwire of my bra, and caused my bra straps to slip around.

I hated sleeping in them, I hated golfing in them, I hated never being able to undress or dress in a locker room at the gym.

But, despite the physical discomfort, I wore them diligently, faithfully.  I tried so desperately to embrace the life of a married mormon woman.  I read material about the garments, their sacred nature, the blessing I would get from wearing them.  I taught young, impressionable preteen girls about the importance of wearing temple garments.  I told them how sacred and special they were.  I left the church on those particular Sundays always wondering if they recognized how resolved I was in convincing my own heart.   I wanted my new husband to see me as a valiant, faithful woman.  I wanted Heavenly Father to validate my efforts with a boost of faith.

 Visiting the Oakland Temple

After our daughter Carly was born, we moved to California.  I became pregnant with Lydia just six months after Carly’s birth.  As I  fed and cared for one baby girl, and grew in my womb another.  My spiritual crisis flourished, growing as fast as the new life inside me.

 

Garments are worn as a reminder of the covenants and oaths taken inside the temple.  They are to serve as a constant reminder of who you are, what your purpose is on earth, and the morals and standards you are striving to live.  They keep you dressing modestly and behaving accordingly.  Putting the garments on your body is like dressing in the armor of God.

These were the true reasons the mormon underwear was hard for me to wear.

 

It was an oppressive,  constant weighing reminder of who I was – a latter-day saint (LDS).

 I would step out of a shower in the morning and stare at the blurred outline of my body in the fogged up mirror.

 I was disappearing.

I pulled the garments on, and the woman in the mirror became visible as the fog cleared.  She looked like all the women in my life…my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and cousins, my ancestors.

 It felt like chain mail under my clothes.

 My underwear was immutable evidence that I was trapped, encapsulated in fraudulence.  I hated when Rick would see me in them each day, knowing my garments were a reassurance for him that I was doing it.  I was complying with the temple promises.  It felt like a bold face lie.

I wanted to fall asleep at night, his skin and my skin unsheathed from our armor…my raw self and his.  But it was against the rules, to spend a night sleeping in our bed, holding onto each other without the barrier between.

The lightweight cotton was becoming so heavy, I could barely get dressed in the morning.

 

It seemed that each passing day, as my belly grew larger, so did my discontent.  I had managed to avoid buying maternity garments while pregnant with Carly, eeking by with my regular sizes and the nursing garments afterwards.  But this second baby, fast on the heels of the first, changed my body quicker.  The garments became uncomfortably tight, rolling up over my abdomen.  Rick would ask me almost daily if I had remembered to order maternity garments, and I would always respond with, “tomorrow.”  I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

 

I had respect for the garments, for the people who wear them, for their sacred and spiritual meaning for my loved ones.  And there came a point where I could not put them on.

 I had outgrown them.

I only had a month or two before Lydia would be born…  I sat on the edge of my bed, Carly calling for me in her crib, and I could not put them on my body.  I stopped wearing them.

 Rick began to ask about it as gently as he could, and I would shrug it off, as if I simply forgot. Both of us knew forgetting was not possible.  I could feel his fear building as the force of our spiritual storm began to build and take shape.   I would try to be nonchalant, tell him, “tomorrow,” and almost gag on my words.  His disappointed eyes and my guilt filled me up like wet cement.

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In that last month, Carly, with her imploring blue eyes, would lift my shirt and pat my bare belly, press against me.  She would squeeze my fingers and leave wet kisses on my cheeks.  My daughter.  My little girl, watching my every move.

And inside me grew a fierce and fearless Lydia, straining against my insides, running out of room, ready to come into the world and become.

 

And… there was…me.

 

A burgeoning woman who knew that the time was coming. The moment where soon, I would no longer be able to hold myself in.

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In the green of a blooming spring, amongst the awakening world, it happened.

I gave birth to us both.

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