Thursday, October 16, 2014

Re-Learning Normal: Post-Mormon Edition

        When I was twelve, my Sunday School teacher was a very sweet woman with short silky hair and a wry sense of humor. One day she mentioned how happy she was in her marriage. At the time, I doubted her words: after all, her husband wasn’t Mormon. How happy could she be, really?
        Now, I cringe when I think back to that moment, with its casual bias against non-Mormons. I had been raised in an environment that taught me to dismiss anyone who wasn’t Mormon as second-rate, even really nice husbands. But this was normal. This was the attitude I heard echoed around me every-day. The first Sunday of every month, members would stand up and talk about their belief in the church and then express how sorry they felt for the nonbelievers who hadn’t seen the truth of Mormonism.
        I’ve been invited to a wedding this weekend. Perhaps the strangest thing about this wedding – at least, to me – is the fact that I am allowed to attend. This is not a close friend, but rather my husband’s coworker. We don’t share a common religion. To be honest, the subject of religion has never come up. And yet, I am invited. I can go and see the wedding. It sounds like a small thing – and in the outside world, it is – but given my post-Mormon background, this is not something I can take for granted.
        When my siblings got married, my non-member status relegated me to sitting outside the temple while everyone else went inside for the wedding. This is what passes for normal in the Mormon world. Worthy Mormons are allowed to attend the weddings of their loved ones. 
        The unworthy or the unbelieving ones? Not so much. We ask for time off work, pay our money for a plane ticket, buy our wedding gifts, and then sit outside, in a weird painful sort of heartbreak, as our loved ones exclude us from an event that is supposed to bring people together. Then, if our loved ones make note of the fact that we can’t come into the temple, we are usually told something along the lines of “But you could come inside if you wanted to!” (Translation: if we wanted to fake full membership in a church we don’t believe and sit through a probing interview about our worthiness, during which we would have to lie about our beliefs, we would be allowed to attend the wedding.) But most of the time, we don't say anything. This is a wedding and for the sake of our loved ones, we will keep quiet about how much this practice hurts. In the Mormon world, this is “normal.”
        Perhaps the hardest part about leaving the cocoon of Mormonism is re-learning the concept of “normal.” It’s normal to respect people of different religions. It’s normal not to talk too much about religion. It’s normal not to try and convert others to your religion. It’s normal to have a wedding where everyone is allowed to attend, regardless of religious belief.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Miracle of Modern Medicine


         These past few years, there have been a lot of medical emergencies and surgical interventions in my family. I was hit by a car. My husband had sinus surgery and tore a tendon in his hand. I had LASIK done. My husband tore his ACL and had an ear surgery that restored his hearing in his right ear.
        Four years ago, I had surgery that stitched up a laceration that had peeled my skin down to the bone and exposed my right eye. I later had surgery that tightened up a drooping muscle in my right eye. Now the scar is almost invisible, just a little line that stretches across my forehead. Three months ago, I had an all-laser surgery that shaved nanometers off my cornea, forever changing my vision from 20/2700 to a perfect 20/20. Every morning, when I wake up and reflexively search for my glasses only to realize I don’t need them anymore, I am astonished at the miracle of perfect vision, all thanks to a surgeon and a highly-advanced piece of machinery.
        My husband had surgery that removed a cyst in his sinuses and fixed a deviated septum. With the cyst removed, the allergies that had plagued him are almost disappeared. Then, a year later, the same surgeon went in and separated the bones of his middle ear, fixing a congenital issue that had been steadily causing progressive hearing loss. Had the surgeon not corrected the issue, he would have gone deaf. Now his hearing is restored. In another month, another surgeon will go in and reconstruct my husband’s ACL, performing a surgery to fix an injury that could have crippled him but won’t, thanks to the many medical professionals who spent years perfecting this particular surgery.

         I am constantly amazed at how much humans are capable of, how as human beings we can come up with so many creative solutions to so many problems.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mormon Control

              I have tried three times to have my name removed from the membership rolls of theChurch of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly called the Mormon Church, only to have my requests go ignored. Technically, I am still counted as a member, in spite of my strong agnosticism and sinful habits, such as my undying love for all things coffee.
              Last week the Mormon Church excommunicated Kate Kelly, who does believe in the Mormon faith. Her “sin” was to found an organization called Ordain Women, which called on the authorities to prayerfully consider the matter of granting women the priesthood. A mild request and one that would have made Mormonism a much friendlier religion. But Kelly was excommunicated, kicked out of the church that she loved so much.
              Kate Kelly wants nothing more than to remain a member of the Mormon Church. I want nothing more than to leave. Neither of us have had our wishes fulfilled. I have had authorities talk down to me, questioning my maturity and the wisdom of my decision. Kelly’s worthiness was discussed in a private meeting, which Kelly was not privy to, with an all-male board deciding that excommunication was necessary.
              One woman wants to stay in. Another woman wishes to leave. Neither of us have been granted what we desire. And in the middle is a church that seems desperate for control. Control over a pesky woman who dared asked for equal rights. Control over a pesky apostate who wants to leave.
              Perhaps it seems small. Kelly can continue to advocate for equal rights outside of Mormonism. I haven’t been to church in years. But the reality is that these actions create a long chain of undesirable reactions. Already Kelly has been branded a sinner, a troublemaker, by the simple act of excommunication. Everything she has worked for has been tainted by the label of apostasy. I, on the other hand, run the risk of being hunted down by the missionaries and local authorities. Within Mormonism, being hunted down is the norm, rather than the exception. When I have children, their names will be put on the membership rolls. When these children turn eight, there is a strong probability that the missionaries will turn up on my doorstep to convince my children that their eternal salvation rests on baptism. No parent wants a nineteen-year old kid telling their child that Mommy and Daddy are wrong and bound for hell. I could hope that the missionaries and church members would respect my rights as a parent – but I have seen members and missionaries overstep the boundaries a thousand times before, all in the name of religious zeal.

              I sincerely hope that Kate Kelly finds peace in moving forward. I have found my own peace, although it fluctuates at times. 
             But maybe the secret is in not letting the Mormon Church control us. I’ll find a way to get past my failed resignation attempts and see the manipulations of the Mormon Church for what it really is – the futile attempts of a church that is desperate to avoid facing its own impotence and irrelevance. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Exhaustion and the Kate Kelly Excommunication

              Kate Kelly, leader of the “Ordain Women” group, was officially excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly referred to as the Mormon Church. Kate Kelly is the leader of the Ordain Women group, which advocated for giving women the priesthood, which in the Mormon Church is a necessary prerequisite for any positions of authority. 
              To give you a little perspective on the issue, boys are given the Aaronic priesthood at the age of twelve. At sixteen, boys are granted the Melchezidek priesthood. Ultimately, holding the priesthood is a necessary prerequisite for any position of authority within the Mormon Church. There are a few women who hold offices – but even these leadership positions can be over-ridden at any point by the male authorities.
              When I was a young adolescent, I went to girls’ camp every summer. The camp was directed by women who had volunteered their time to organize and direct the camp. At the time, I never questioned the fact that there was always a male member of the priesthood present at camp. Sometimes the bishop, sometimes one of the counselors, there was always at least one male priesthood holder in residence. I didn’t realize that there was a policy that all-female must be chaperoned by a male priesthood holder. Church authorities – by definition male, by virtue of the priesthood exclusion on females – are allowed to sit in on any female meeting. The authorities are also allowed to over-ride any decision made by the few female leaders within the Mormon Church.
Kate Kelly, with her Ordain Women movement, was seeking to make Mormonism a friendlier, more egalitarian religion. But, as they have shown, the Mormon authorities are not ready for change. Once again, the Mormon Church is heading backwards.
Over the past week, as I have been watching as the Kate Kelly sage unfold, my predominant emotion has been exhaustion. I’m tired. I’m tired of my Mormon legacy, of having to deal with the inherent sexism that I grew up with, the inflexibility and obfuscation of Mormon leaders. The Mormon authorities don’t release their financial reports, aren’t honest about the unsavory aspects of their history, and continue to oppose any broadening of social rights. My Mormon past is an uncomfortable burden to bear. I wish that Kate Kelly had been granted the opportunity to make Mormonism a friendlier religion. But she wasn't and I'm no longer Mormon. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bicycle Art

Sometimes art is found in surprising places. I recently watched the documentary, "The Sea of Rock," that followed the mountain-bikers Harald Philipp and Thomas Ohler, as they attempted to bike the Sea of Rock in Austria. Watching these athletes, as they finessed their unwieldy looking bikes into navigating an impossible terrain, all I could think of was that this was its own form of art.

"The Sea of Rock" can be found on Youtube - it's about 15 minutes long and well worth the watch.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

        There is a homeless man living at my local library.  I began piecing the clues together about a year ago: the rickety white sedan with a backseat stuffed with clothing that was always in the same parking spot, and the quiet man, dressed in clean but threadbare clothing, with swollen sandal-clad feet, who was at the library day after day.  One day, as the library closed, I saw this man walking slowly to the old white car and get in.  The pieces clicked together.
         I suppose, if you weren’t a regular at the library, you might never realize.  The neighborhood that my library is located in is extraordinarily wealthy.  I used to go for runs here, watching as vans full of gardeners and maids parked on the streets, entering the huge homes to work long hours so that the owners can return at the end of the day to a fairy-tale home.  And here, in the library, a homeless man is found, hidden from sight.  
Even now, I hesitate to write about this man, out of fear as to what might happen to him should people put together the pieces.  The way we treat the homeless in this country - criminalizing and stigmatizing people who are already down on their luck - says a lot about who we are as a nation.  There was also a homeless man that rode my morning bus, always getting on at the same spot and exiting at another.  In this case, I could identify him as homeless both by the sign he carried as well as the odor.  The others who rode the bus with me - most of whom had been riding the same bus for years - treated him with a certain wary distance.  No one said anything against him.  No one said anything to him. What I usually thought about was just how distressing it would be to go through life with no warm bed and no access to a proper bathroom. 
A few months ago, I read the book "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City  This memoir, which was later turned into the movie "Being Flynn," deals with the author's relationship with his father, who turned up at the homeless shelter he was working at.  Nick Flynn writes of the instability that pushed his father into homelessness, as well as the instability that he himself inherited from his father.  He also writes of simply working in a homeless shelter, as he sees all of the people that fall through the cracks of our society, whether by hard luck or illness.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Empathy Pizza

         On Saturday, I attended a mandatory training session for my teacher certification program. The program was supposed to provide a pizza lunch. When lunchtime came, the pizzas had not arrived, so the directors shuttled us into our next training session. An hour went by. Still no pizza. One of the directors, a blonde woman in her late 20’s, came in to tell us that the pizzas still weren’t here.
         “We appreciate your understanding,” she said. She looked frazzled. I felt sympathetic – I have spent most of the last six months as a teacher feeling overwhelmed.
         Most of us shrugged. We could wait for lunch. Then someone stood up, a big burly Teach For America fellow with a deep authoritative voice.
        “Life happens,” he said. “You get a flat tire, your kid gets sick, you get stuck in traffic. But if we are even a minute late to these sessions, you lock us out. So why are you coming in here asking us to be understanding when you don’t extend the same courtesy to us? So no, this is not acceptable - get your act together.”
         All of the teachers started talking about all of the times they had been penalized for being 5 or 10 minutes late. A few teachers cheered. I gave the TFA fellow a high-five. I could feel all of my anger and frustration bubbling under the surface. That was all it took for me to switch from feeling sympathetic towards another frazzled human being to being angry about all of the times these same frazzled people had failed to extend a similar empathy towards me.
       The woman looked like she wanted to either shout or cry. “OK, I’ll do whatever it takes – next time I’ll have them deliver pizzas an hour early.”
       I wanted to tell her that the issue wasn't about the pizza - it was about us wanting to be respected as responsible and conscientious adults. But I am not sure the message would have been heard.
        I work in a district that boasts about its mentoring program for first-year teachers but fails to mention that the funds for this mentoring program are taken from the first-year teacher’s paycheck. Every paycheck about $20 is deducted to pay my mentor, a fellow teacher who continually tells me what I am doing wrong but doesn’t offer any solutions. I also work in a district that keeps adding more and more requirements – tutoring, a heavier teaching load, extra students, extra training responsibilities – while at the same time eliminating the tenure system. Tenure, as imperfect a system as that may be, still offered teachers enough job security to say no to extra responsibilities. Now that security is gone and teachers are getting pressured into taking on extra responsibilities. I myself was given an extra subject to teach in my first week of school as a teacher.
       I look around at other teachers in my certification program. I see them working and stressing and getting burnt out. I see how much they work and how much they care. I know how much I care. I also see myself turning into an angry person, all because I am stuck in a program that doesn’t respect me as a responsible adult, that is constantly adding more and more burdens onto my workload, and that is currently punishing me for not doing enough. I remember why I became a teacher in the first place and a very big part of me feels a keen sense of loss at the way my dream has turned out.

       Sometimes I just wish that we could all just sit down for a pizza lunch and empathize.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mormon Open Letter

I have spent a lot of time writing about some of the disillusionment and estrangement I felt during my exit process from Mormonism, a lot of which stemmed from the misconceptions surrounding Mormons who leave. Currently, there is an open letter to the LDS Leaders, which was released with the following statement.

"As current and former Mormons, many of us have been through emotional turmoil as we’ve struggled with our beliefs. Some of us even made the difficult decision to leave. Our most cherished relationships have been strained or lost. We’ve experienced pain and distress, sometimes having to keep silent out of fear—all because of a lack of understanding between active members and those who question their faith."

There are a lot of different people who read this blog.  Our common connection is Mormonism, whether it is curiosity about Mormonism, a past connection with Mormonism, or just a need for practicing Mormons to understand those who chose to leave.  Our common denominator is that we want to understand each other. The actions of the current leaders - and the lack of historical transparency - has only served to cause divisions among family and friends.  So, if you have the time, I would recommend checking out the Open Letter.  

The Mormon Open Letter can be found here:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Girl With The Mormon Background

         “When people talk to you, the first thing they want to talk about is Mormonism.”

          Last summer I attended a writer’s workshop, where one of the participants made this comment over lunch. Of all the many things that I am – scientist, writer, ex-Mormon, victim of a freak auto-pedestrian accident – the primary information that my classmates wanted to know about was the Mormonism. It is, after all, the topic of a hilarious Broadway musical and also a source of confusion, sometime hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, to a lot of people. Who are these crazy Mormons and why won’t they be honest with us? I suppose, as an ex-Mormon, they saw me as someone that could give a more nuanced answer than an active Mormon who just wants to convert others to Mormonism.
          One of the workshop attendants was a black Puerto Rican woman, whose brother joined Mormonism shortly before the priesthood ban on blacks was lifted. She spent a lot of time talking to me about the effect her brother’s Mormonism had on her extended family as well as the personal toll Mormonism had had on her brother. I could sense her confusion, as well as some of her heartbreak. The Mormon Church has caused a lot of hurt over the years, from the racist teachings of past leaders to the current antipathy of the current leaders towards gays. I often feel torn between needing to come to peace with my legacy as a former Mormon and wanting to erase that part of my life like a stain.
         I waver sometimes when bringing up my Mormon background and my post-Mormon status. Mormonism was a big part of my up-bringing. Leaving Mormonism was a big part of my growth towards adulthood. And yet, the minute I mention the subject, I feel as though I have been marked. The Girl With The Mormon Background. (Which isn’t nearly as cool as being, say, the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) Maybe I should tattoo an M on my forehead and be done with the matter. But I still haven’t figured out the right approach and I’m not sure that I ever will.

         So I suppose I shall just have to remain as The Girl With The Mormon Background.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mormon Bullying

        I have been having long-running issues with a co-worker, one that I have been trying to ameliorate for a full six months, ever since starting a new position as a teacher. I don’t want to go into details, other than to say that the relationship has been rocky from the very beginning. I have tried my hardest to keep the peace but doing so is exerting a pretty high emotional toll.
       Today, when I finally broke down and told some of my co-workers the specifics of my issues with this co-worker, their response was unanimous.
       “This is bullying,” they said. Five teachers, ranging in age from early career to veteran teachers, all saying the same thing.
       I always thought bullying was for high schoolers. But bullying doesn’t end with high school. And being raised Mormon is an especially potent combination for bullies and victims.
      Growing up in a Mormon community meant an erosion of personal boundaries. Being Mormon means being subjected to yearly interviews by bishops, none of whom have been trained as professional clergy and who aren’t bound to confidence. I had my first interview as a twelve-year old, where I was interviewed by the bishop, whose day-job was as a hospital human resource manager, about my worthiness and personal life. Had I stayed, these interviews would have continued throughout my adult life, had I wanted to remain a Mormon in good standing. Requiring an individual to answer personal questions about their private and intimate life – and to ultimately allow another person make a decision regarding their worthiness, a decision that can have social ramifications within the close-knit Mormon community – is to force individuals to hand their identity and self-worth over to someone else, someone who has the power to refuse you.
      People talk. The bishop we had while I was in high school had an especially gossipy extended family. But to refuse an interview with the bishop was unthinkable. You just did it. You did it because you were supposed to and if you didn’t, you were a bad Mormon. And nothing was worse than being a bad Mormon.
       Add in to this the teaching that the Mormon authorities, from the local leaders all the way up to the leader Thomas Monson, are given their authority from God, and you have a situation that fosters abuse.
       The truth is, I’ve never learned how to stand up to bullies. My strategy is to either grin and bear it or to tell the individual in question to f*ck off. Or to simply walk away. But I’ve never learned how to navigate a working relationship with a bully. I’ve never learned how to face bullies down or discover their weaknesses. I’ve never learned the more diplomatic ways of telling
       I’m not sure what my strategy will be with this particular co-worker. Perhaps file a complaint and ask to have her removed from her duties. Or simply point out her behavior, although I think the situation may be a little too far gone for that.

       Either way, I need to figure out a way to deprogram the Mormon in me, the one that is too timid to speak out against an authority figure and who is too timid to make trouble.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

January Tune-Up

         I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I get irritated by the hordes of people crowding the gym, most of who will stop coming by February. Over the years, I’ve learned that grandiose resolutions – lose weight!, run a marathon!, cut out sugar! – rarely last a week. As I listen to my co-workers discussing food scales and diet plans, I can only think about the fact that good intentions are eventually replaced by reality.
         But what I find works is to fine-tune my life. Instead of turning life upside-down in search of becoming a different person, I’m trying to take a look at what is going on and to make a few tweaks.
        2013 was a pretty rough year. I got caught up in an ugly family drama, which ended up throwing me straight back into the rage-filled morass that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Then I started a new teaching job that took over my life. I’ve spent the last four months working long, hard, exhausting hours, to the point that I’ve lost track of my old life.
        And so, finding myself back in school after the winter holidays, I find myself looking to tweak my life a little, finding ways to cut down on the workload and carve out a little more time for the things that I enjoy. The truth is that I don’t know if I am in the right career. I don’t know if my current job is going to be a long-term gig or if I am going to be searching for new job in May. My hunch is that I may be looking for a different teaching gig, if not a new profession. I am hoping to start up grad school again in the fall. That may be possible – or it may not be, I’m not sure. But for the moment, I’m simply looking to find a little extra time to do the things that I enjoy and the things that will benefit me in the long term.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mormon Busy-work

        Back in the days when I was a believing Mormon, my church-mates and I often touted the busy-ness of our lives as a mark of pride. We work up early every morning for seminary, showing up at the church building at 6:30 for 45 minutes of scripture study. We had church on Sundays that lasted 3 hours. We had youth activities. Most of our time outside work or school was taken up by church activities. Mentally, we were preparing ourselves for the days when we would go on missions and have children and become homemakers and serve as lay-clergy and do volunteer work for the church, balancing the ever-increasing demands of life and church. 
          We told ourselves – and each other – that the time we invested and the sacrifices we made were for the better good. These were the sacrifices that got us closer to the ever-illusive promise of the Celestial Kingdom and godliness. I too was constantly exhausted, struggling to balance my life with the demands of church. But I told myself that the work just made me stronger and so I persevered.
          Looking back, I wonder how much of that was time well spent and how much of that was time wasted. As Mormons, we were workers. We invested a lot of time and effort, struggling to balance everything that the church demanded of us. But how many of these requirements were impactful and how many of these requirements were simply busywork, tasks designed to keep the members exhausted and stuck in the system?
          As a Mormon, I learned how to work. I learned how to wake up early even when I didn’t want to. I learned how to keep going even when I wanted to quit. I learned to pull long hours and still wake up the next day. I learned not to stop.
        However, what I didn’t learn was to make my work mean something. I never learned how give my work impact and significance. I never learned how to prioritize and to establish boundaries. I never learned how to say no or to question whether I should be doing something. I never learned to value my time.
         I went to seminary because Mormonism required me to. I didn’t question why I was spending 45 minutes a day learning something that didn’t seem relevant. I didn’t learn to ask if it was a productive use of time or simply another activity that lead me towards exhaustion without accomplishing anything significant.
          Sometimes I feel this idea of busywork strikes at the heart of what Mormonism is. Mormonism is a demanding religion – members are required to invest significant amounts of time, money, and emotional energy. This has been the case from the earliest days of Mormonism, when the early converts gave up their homes and their families to follow the leaders across the US. However, we were never allowed to ask why. We couldn’t question the leaders. We weren’t supposed to read the outside literature on Mormonism.

          We were just supposed to stay busy following directions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Attendance Lessons

Last month, my bosses at work decided to institute an attendance competition.  As high school teachers, we are required to submit attendance electronically every period.  In order to improve our record, which factors into the amount of funding our school receives, the deans of instruction started a competition, declaring that the team with the best attendance record would be treated to breakfast by the losing team. 
Some teachers are very methodical and always get their attendance in on time.  I am not one of them.  As a first-year teacher responsible for teaching 3 different subjects, I feel like I’m juggling chainsaws, trying to remember to do everything that is required of me.  Everyday, I teach three sections of anatomy and physiology, two sections of AP Biology, and one section of a research class.  On the days when I am more frazzled than normal (and there are many of them), my attendance record slips. 
At the end of every day, the deans sent out attendance records, with details of which teacher forgot to take attendance during what period.  Inevitably, my name was always on the list, a badge of shame as to my sloppy record.  The leader of our team – the head of the social studies department – began to get into the habit of stopping me in the hallway to talk to me about my attendance.  Then she started to send out team-wide emails every period to remind us to take attendance.  Emails that I never saw in time for them to be of any use. 
I am a pretty stubborn person.  Put enough pressure on me and my first instinct is to do the opposite of what people are pressuring me to do.  However, this was the workplace and the competition, misguided as it may have been, was for a worthy cause.  I did want to be better at taking attendance even if it did irritate me that my name and attendance record was sent to the rest of my colleagues on a daily basis. 
So I swallowed my pride.  I bit my tongue, holding back the sarcastic comments, and I nodded along to my colleague’s suggestions.  One of my students, in a burst of energy that I have yet to see being applied to biology, made a huge sign for my classroom that said “TAKE ATTENDANCE.”  My problematic class was the last period of the day, when I was too tired to remember much of anything.  So a teacher down the hall assigned a student to come and remind me.  Everyday, this student, who at the beginning of the year wrote down that his goal for my class was “to remain invisible for the entire year,” came walking into my room to remind me to take attendance. 
My attendance-taking improved, if only marginally.  I was still the teacher that marred my team’s record but my average improved and eventually the competition ended, with my team coming out as the winner.  When the holiday break ends and I return to work, the other team will be required to bring us breakfast. 
I also suspect that I learned something.  Although what that lesson was, I still haven’t figured it out.