In Strange Ways
For many years I believed that the beginning started when I was twelve. It was only after reflection that I realized it had started long before my birth; at least it had for my parents. For me it started when I was fairly young. I wasn’t more than the distant flash of what was called a sunbeam. Sunbeams in that time were young children who had not yet risen to the age where the ritual into teenage years could be performed.
The first church I remember going to is now a faded yellow color, there are streaks of brighter yellow on the bricks as if God had built it for a quick place to pee. But in my memory it will always remain a dull gold. It was a small church, at least in comparison to the newer churches, and housed at least thirteen wards (not mental wards, though I questions this now, but the name for a timetable of the neighboring towns that came to it). Even though it was a small church and was all that I knew of my religion, the Mormon faith itself had a majority in the rest of the Utah public.
It was here that I first started questioning my faith, and it was here that my parents decided it wasn’t theirs.
Our family would have been considered avid church goers to the rest of the world, we attended a three hour meeting every week on Sunday, sometimes as early as half past seven in the morning, which should be considered an ungodly hour. We prayed at every meal, despite my stomach’s protest, and I remember being taught to pray every night. I prayed out loud for the first several years of my life. Besides church we attended mid-week meetings of Primary activities, Relief Society and Priesthood (I mention only these three because at the time there was only my Mama and Papa and me, be aware that besides these there were also Young Woman’s, Young Men’s, and Singles). Not that I ever went, I was busy with Youth theatre which was on the same day as Primary activities.
One of the few things that carried on past our religious phase was the weekly families get together; then called Family Home Evening. I later renamed it to – Awesome Family Movies on Sunday Time.
It was during the Sunday meeting that I first thought something disparaging about what I was being taught. After the Sacrament meeting (a time in which we practiced vampirism by imbibing the blood of Christ, and cannibalism by masticating his body), we were split into ages and sexes. I went to Primary.
The Primary school teacher sat across from me and the other sunbeams. We sat in a semi circle so that we could see the picture and diagrams she had brought. She smiled the smile that I have come to know very well. It has a touch of kindness, sympathy, and happiness all wrapped up in the sort of blankness that you usually only see painted on marionettes when the artist could think of no other emotion to portray. It is the smile of those who have spent more than twenty years believing everything they hear.
The teacher wore a dress that went past her knees and had a floral pattern that is now reserved for the exclusive use of old lady curtains. Her hair was tied back in a loose bun and was a mousy sort of brown color. We had dresses and suits on as well.
As we began the lesson she pulled out cardboard cutouts of characters and began to talk about them.
“Our Heavenly Father created man in His own image,” said the teacher, “and put him on the world He had created. He could see Earth because His planet is very close to ours. And after He put us here, He said that He would test us, to see if we were worthy to become like Him.” She danced the figure of God around the small circle. “Heavenly Father was once like us, mortal, He worked hard to become what he is, and He expects us to as well. But not everyone agreed with His plan. There was a man named Lucifer who thought Heavenly Father should tell us all what to do, then all of us could get into heaven and become like Him.” The figure of Lucifer argued with God, then another male figure came up to them. “Jesus, Heavenly Father’s first son, told Lucifer that it would be wrong to take our choices from us. Lucifer said that it would be worth it if we could all get into heaven. Soon the argument got out of hand and Lucifer, always jealous of Jesus’ close relationship with their Father, said that Heavenly Father had chosen Jesus’ plan out of favoritism. Heavenly Father became sad at this accusation and declared that Lucifer could not remain in Heaven if he opposed them. Lucifer refused to acknowledge Jesus’ true view and was cast down from heaven…”
I remember thinking at the time, besides ‘I’m starving, when is this over so I can have lunch?’, that Jesus and God were jerks for making Lucifer leave just because he questioned them. At the time my parents were teaching me the unorthodox view that I should question everything.
The next rite of passage for a Mormon child is baptism. This takes place when the child is eight, instead of a newborn. This is so they may have a choice in getting baptized or not… or at least have the illusion of choice. I remember the surprised look on my Bishop’s face when my Mama brought me in and I told him I didn’t want to get baptized. Don’t think it was because I was becoming enlightened at such a young age, it wasn’t. There was no overly complex theological reason for refusing it.
A week earlier my older cousin Anna had been baptized by her father, who was a part of the Bishopric, had her baptism as a private event. I was informed that I would have to get baptized with five other people.
To an eight year old this is the pinnacle of unfair.
I didn’t really notice at the time, but my Mama had an amused smile on her face through the whole conversation that followed my refusal. The bishop was very insistent that I should be baptized, until eventually he told me I had to because Heavenly Father wanted me baptized. The next week I was baptized by my Papa.
I was the only child ever baptized in my family.
I never really thought to question my faith again until fifth grade. It wasn’t in church, this time it was during an activity for plain old normal public school. My fifth grade teacher had put up on the board a list of priorities, I don’t remember very many of the now, but it was things like ‘Television, school, friends, etc.’ we went around the room and everyone erased one priority, one that we didn’t care about. I was the first and I erased ‘Popularity’ fairly quickly. At that point in time I hadn’t realized that I would need popularity to get jobs and get into Medical school, etc. What I was thinking was that what you looked like and thought shouldn’t be dependent on the people around you. I still hold to that.
My memory of what was erased throughout isn’t very good, but I do remember the end. We ended up with “religion” and “family” as our top priorities. I remember a very quiet classroom as the last person debated on what to erase, or perhaps my perception has been clouded with how I feel about it now. The boy stood up and moved toward the board. He picked up the eraser and passed it over family.
A sick sort of feeling settled into my stomach. It’s there every time I think about it. The teacher didn’t look surprised, no one did. We were always asked after we erased a priority why we did it. This time was no different, the teacher asked the boy why erased family instead of religion.
His reply, “I thought of it as a man putting a gun to my family’s head and threatening to shoot them unless I renounced my faith. I believe that I will see my family in the next life, but Heavenly Father wouldn’t let me see them in heaven if I renounced my religion.”
I looked down at my desk, and imagined the situation. I imagined a gunman shooting my Mama and Papa, my five-year-old brother, my baby brother… I thought about it for a long time, but I couldn’t reconcile letting someone shoot my family. I thought about off and on for years. This was the true start of theological dissonance for me. I couldn’t understand why God would punish someone for saving the person they loved.
I was disturbed for the rest of the day, but I didn’t talk to my parents about it. I didn’t think it was right to worry them, I wasn’t saying the church wasn’t true after all, and I didn’t want them to think I was. I didn’t know that at the time both my Mama and Papa were deep into studying the fundamentals and history of the church. I was used to Papa talking about history and philosophy, that was something that I enjoyed listening to ever since I was able to open doors.
Perhaps the whispered conversations that Mama and Papa had reached my ears and I internally processed them. I remember listening to Papa say in slightly disturbed slight angry terms that the type of horses in the Book of Mormon didn’t exist in the New World at the time. I remember a big black book that they would read (I discovered later that it was a book about the wives of Joseph Smith).
Later, I remember sitting out in the moon lit clubhouse and swing set Papa had built and listen to my Papa and Mama talk. Mama had basically left the church by this time, but Papa was still meticulously going through ever scratch of evidence he could find. Within the next few years we began to stop going to meetings, my Papa turned down a teaching position in the Elder’s Quorum, Mama stopped being the Relief Society first counselor (compassionate service leader).
I remember very well when they finally told me they didn’t believe in the church. We had just moved to our new house in Pleasant Grove, it was a hard change but it pales in comparison to the whole foundation of my childhood being yanked out from under me. Though perhaps that isn’t a very good comparison, it makes it sound like it was a bad thing. It did hurt, like all change does at first, but it leaves a shallow scar that just emphasizes other features instead of detracting from them.
I remember sitting on our wood floor in the kitchen eating (we didn’t have a table yet), my back was up against the arch. I was twelve by this point. My Mama and Papa came up to me and told me that we weren’t going to be going back to church, that they didn’t believe in the Mormon faith. Then they handed me an envelope from Aunt and Uncle.
It was a letter saying that I could go to church with them since my parents weren’t, I don’t remember the exact wording, but I do remember what happened after. My parents told me it was my choice; that they wouldn’t make me give up my faith. That I could go with my Aunt and Uncle if I wanted to. That’s when the very movie like flashback happened. I remembered clearly that moment in the classroom, when the word family had been erased forever. No one was holding a gun to my family’s heads, they weren’t about to be crushed by an anvil if I decided to go with my Aunt and Uncle. But I was old enough at the time to realize, this was the type of decision that changed relationships forever. If I decided to go with my Aunt and Uncle I would lose the close relationship I had with my parents, and I treasured that. I treasure it even more now that I’m older. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
And I didn’t… because family was a higher priority to me then religion.
That was the beginning. Not an end, but me being on one stage and then taking a step through the back curtains only to find another stage on the other side. It took a while. I floundered in those curtains for a long time, but when I ended up at the new stage I found it was beautiful.
Most people talk about the innocence, magic, and fantasy they left behind in childhood, I never regret leaving that. The wonder of the world, the strange exotic places, the food, the creatures of the sea and sky, the unknown of the stars, the beautiful people, the majestic buildings, the snow covered mountains, the rise of empires the fall of empires, the adaptability, the innovation, the sparkling dust that is only visible in sun or moon, the birth of kittens…
Life. Life, cannot be replaced with the magic of childhood, there is no comparison. Life is huge, it’s now, and it’s real. It’s something that we touch, and hear, and see every day. It’s beautiful.
That was the beginning. It opened my mind to something so wonderful it could never be expressed in mere words, or even pictures. And I can never express the gratitude to my parents, I can never express how much they’ve given me without even trying, they’ve let me fly higher than any religion would have let me. They’ve given me the ability to be me; the young girl full of questions, and curiosity.