Check out the Spring/Summer issue of the MacGuffin to read my short story “Pax Romana.”
Check out the Spring/Summer issue of the MacGuffin to read my short story “Pax Romana.”
half an hour from the top we could see through a nook in the valley over the great salt lake to antelope island. the sun was starting to set and saturating the forest and the rust-colored slate with agate light. when we made camp our skin was perfumed by brush and fir sap sublimated into the moist air.
the yellow crescent moon was setting behind sundial peak as our dome tent glowed and the clouds in the west glimmered gray pink from a sun taking its time to settle. lake blanche was glassy and pristine as we luxuriated in our sleeping bags, listening to the basin’s silent music.
in the morning from its rocky bench our tent unzipped to a view of the lake and its ruined dam. we broke camp in the stillness and began our hike back down.
Dan had the best vocabulary of anyone he knew. He worked at it. That’s why it bothered him so much that a student of his, a student, used a word he not only couldn’t define but that he had never even heard. Before he looked it up, he asked a colleague, a fellow doctoral student, to read the paper.
“Why did you want me to read this again?” his colleague asked.
“Did anything stand out to you?” Dan asked.
“Pretty mediocre paper,” he said, seeming slightly annoyed.
This was what he feared–the human tendency to ignore what one couldn’t comprehend.
He succumbed and looked it up, searching the dictionary on his phone while he rode the train home from campus. But it didn’t have an entry. He thought about the spelling, but was confident he hadn’t misspelled it. It was only four letters. Fine then, he thought. It must be too obscure for a regular dictionary.
He checked his dictionary at home and came up short. He would have to look it up in the hefty, hoary dictionary belonging to the department. But he couldn’t do it until tomorrow. He slept fitfully.
As soon as he got in, he looked it up. Nothing. Was it possible the student had made it up? that he misspelled it? His usage was so nonchalant. So confident. Further humbled, he stooped to asking his advisor. Still no luck, though the advisor’s equanimity about the mystery irritated him.
He consulted every reference he could find. Was it a place name? an acronym? a portmanteau? There were no leads, no hints, just a mocking lacuna. He would have to ask the student.
“I didn’t think about it much,” the student confessed. “It’s a word I grew up with. Now that you mention it, I haven’t heard it used much outside my family.”
“Have you heard it at all outside your family?”
“I don’t know.”
Dan stoically refrained from showing annoyance.
“Anyway. What does it mean?”
“It’s hard to describe if you don’t already know. It’s like the feeling you get when something makes you feel bad in some way, but you’re aesthetically drawn to the feeling it gives you. Not just drawn to it but obsessed with it, like you think about it for three days straight because you can’t figure out why you like thinking about it.”
He had never considered such a feeling.
“So the word applies to the feeling?”
“Yep, it’s a noun.”
“Give me an example.”
The student started in on a story he had been thinking about for days.
He was on the bus to campus when a teenage boy got on. He was wearing a backwards hat and too large t shirt but exuded innocence. He stayed in the seat directly behind the bus driver, talking into her ear. When he got off, on the west side of town, the bus driver recounted their conversation to another passenger she knew.
“You gotta get Colonial Life Insurance,” he had said.
“What do you know about Colonial Life Insurance?” the bus driver asked.
“I watch TV.” The driver and her friend both laughed.
“You watch too much TV,” the bus driver told the boy.
The student paused there. “That’s it?” Dan asked his student.
“What does it mean? Why do you think about that?”
“That’s what I can’t figure out. That’s what the word describes.”
He again slept uneasily. Being an English PhD student he was betting all his time and his future career on the virtue of explication and understanding. But here was a kind of anti-word, a container for things that refused to be contained.
In a half asleep delirium, unable to stop thinking about the story of Pharaoh, he dug up his Bible: Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows, then dreamed of seven lean cows. The lean cows devoured the seven fat cows, and insatiably he searched his kingdom for its meaning. Joseph gave him the interpretation in the form of a prophecy: the fat cows were seven years of plenty, after which would come seven years of drought and famine. For scratching his itch Nebuchadnezzar promoted him above everyone else in his kingdom.
Dan thought he was a dreamer, a creator. He thought he was inventive, imaginative. But he wasn’t Pharaoh; he was Joseph, grafting fictions onto the irreducible details of life. He slept miserably.
The next day he taught his class, he graded some papers, he did some research. His heart wasn’t in it. He treated himself later to a nice meal that night with a glass of wine. He walked around downtown in the artificial twilight of shop signs. He became aware of sensations flickering across the surface of his brain too rapidly to pin down to paper. He was overwhelmed by failure–it was as vast and humbling as the desert–and the stark improbability of his existence stared back at him bleakly, comically.
There was the feeling, he realized. It had been there all along, incomprehensible. That night he slept well enough to dream.
Recently two prominent LDS reformers/critics, Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, were summoned to disciplinary councils on the charge of apostasy. It’s been over twenty years since the LDS church has disciplined such high profile figures of progressive Mormonism, and many had allowed themselves to believe that the leadership was embracing a new era of pluralism and loyal opposition. The excommunication threats worry many that this vaunted era was illusory, and that the reward for challenging the accepted orthodoxy, even if non-canonical, will be a purge. The last couple days has found many Mormons, practicing and otherwise, reconsidering their relationship to the institution and its authority. Friends who I had thought were stalwart and conservative have surprised me in their compassion for or agreement with Kelly and Dehlin, and others have disappointed me with their callousness. It is in this newly polarized environment that I want to tell my story. This is my coming out (as “inactive”) letter to my family. I intentionally wrote it to deconstruct the typical insider/outsider and faith/doubt narratives that normally overwhelm the subject. My frustration, when I was trying to commit to the church, was why my mere desire to be a part of it all wasn’t enough. I’m sure Kelly and Dehlin and thousands others are grappling with the same question. My letter follows.
I haven’t been going to church for over two years now. While originally I thought I could be a non-practicing believer, getting some distance from the Mormon community has caused me to reevaluate things from the ground up. I still have respect for the church and for the enormous influence it has had on me. I’m grateful for your examples and the devotion you’ve had. I would never want to disparage anyone’s faith, and I know your beliefs are all sincerely held. I just reached a point where I ran out of energy.
I always had total faith in the church as an institution led by God through a living prophet, and being Mormon was a huge part of my identity. This faith sustained me through the discomfort I felt at BYU, as well as the general eeriness of Provo. Specifically, I remember being very disoriented from the emphasis placed on conformity at BYU. I grew up believing that it was good to follow your own values against the current of the majority, only to find that there is no concept of individual conscience in Provo.
My faith also sustained me, unfortunately, in a precocious certainty about the nature of good and evil. Outwardly, especially as a missionary, I preached an exacting morality in line with the teachings of the modern prophets. Internally though, I increasingly felt conflicted. I didn’t know what to make of my sometimes overwhelming sadness. In a culture and religion focused on happiness and blessings, I often felt unworthy simply because of ordinary teenage angst. As a perfectionist, I was constantly trying to rationalize the “irreverent” music I listened to, because I couldn’t possibly abandon it; at times it was the only comfort.
During my mission I was miraculously free from the anxiety that I felt as a teenager and freshman at BYU (I’ve only hinted at this with some of you, because my denial of any emotional problem extended into my early twenties, when it turned to shame. Now it’s just my pride that keeps me from going to a therapist.). But when I got back to BYU, I rebelled against the pat, free-market absolutism that the majority of students espoused, based both on my first-hand experience of systemic poverty in the Philippines and my lifelong contrarianism. I wasn’t socially aware enough to anticipate that my sterling behavior and frequently renewed temple recommend weren’t enough to excuse my flirtations with Marxism in the eyes of many of my peers. In fact, I felt so confident about my footing on the strait and narrow that I started swearing in order to change attitudes when I noticed how some ward members steered clear of my good-hearted home teacher because of his rough language.
But this was all “culture vs. doctrine” stuff that I explained away. The church was still perfect in my mind, though I increasingly grew frustrated with the imperfection of its members. (You might wonder why I was so harsh toward others who were probably going through the same things that I was. The reason is that at this point I had no understanding of mercy or forgiveness and had to cling to obedience as a way of hoping for blessings: love, success, salvation.) I rooted my diversions from Utah County orthodoxy in doctrine: I became fond of the passages in the Doctrine & Covenants that outlined avoidance of war and eating meat. I learned that the D&C provided the procedure for disciplining the President of the Church if necessary. I quoted Hugh Nibley on consumerism. Meanwhile, I defended the church and its members against accusations of being socially regressive and quashing individual thought.
When BYU accepted Dick Cheney’s solicitation to speak at my graduation commencement ceremony, I can’t say I was extremely surprised, even though it smacked of insularity to have the single most hated, controversial politician in the world, infamous both for war profiteering and shameless cronyism, speak at a church-owned university. But I still felt confident in my ability to have a dissenting opinion. The backlash to the backlash mounted, with some of the finest young minds in Mormondom appealing to the university’s tenuous connection to the Prophet to silence any criticism of Dick Cheney’s speech. I fully expected the administration to reiterate the tenet of Mormonism that I had always been most proud of: the agency to decide for oneself what was true. When that never came, I implicated them, fairly or not, in the stifling of discourse that was shameful in the religion that I loved, but absolutely inexcusable in an institution of higher learning.
I bolted from Provo, largely because of a fear of losing my testimony. I moved to DC and after staying with friends temporarily I found my own place outside of their ward boundaries. I was disappointed to find a similar culture as what existed in Provo, since the singles wards were populated primarily with graduates from Utah schools. Even as I critiqued the black-and-white perfectionism I was trying to flee, I entertained the idea of not going to church anymore until Mom and Dad suggested I just go to the ward my friends were in. I had always been so by-the-book that I honestly hadn’t considered it.
Church got a little better, but I still felt so out of place, so indicted by my own heterodoxy, that I stayed at church only as long as I could avoid an anxiety attack. One Sunday, an afterthought in a stake president’s talk about the virtue of music without dissonance sent me home sobbing and furious. I was still considering the guidance from leaders to be inspired; it felt like God was trying to take away the thing that mattered most to me.
Meanwhile, I went to the temple a lot. Whatever I felt when attending church—inadequate, confused, frustrated, silenced, angry, alienated—I felt the opposite in the temple. One particular session, I had started chiding myself for letting my mind wander too much. I expected when I got to the Celestial Room that the experience would be underwhelming. Instead, I felt a distinct warmth. I interpreted that feeling—which was very subtle, fleeting, and not at all like the sentimental, tearful experiences I had used to build my testimony—as God’s pride in the person I was and who I aimed to become. In church I felt like my critical mind was a liability to be suppressed, but in the temple it became a strength.
I also interpreted that feeling as a testimony that the church was true. My experiences in the temple gave me motivation to try, for the next four or five years, to recommit myself to Mormonism. I had never felt such a strong endorsement of my divine worth than I had in the temple. I began to think differently about myself. I remember the youth program talking about what a special generation we were, but the flattery was laced with constant comparisons to the hardier pioneers, handwringing over supposedly wayward souls, and very little confidence in our ability to repent. Ironically, the feeling of self-worth that my temple experiences engendered gave me the courage to leave the faith of my childhood. For the first time in my life, I started to allow myself to risk making a mistake.
I never made a conscious decision to stop going to church. When I became so exhausted with trying to make myself comfortable in Sunday School amidst the rigidity of Mormon hierarchy, I granted myself what I jokingly called a sabbatical. The idea was to reset my ideas of what the church was and could be and approach it in a fresh light that didn’t trigger the inadequacy and guilt that I had battled since adolescence. I thought it might last a few months. As time went on, the more I realized that not going to church freed me from the dilemmas and double binds that I had become obsessed with. At one point, about six months since I hadn’t been to church, I lay in bed experiencing a sort of identity crisis: I realized that I felt completely ok about myself. It scared me. I didn’t know how to make myself better without punishing myself for failing to meet some standard.
It was very hard and very sad to let go of the community that formed a large part of my identity. It was hard to adjust to evaluating a different set of consequences for my actions. It was hard to come to terms with uncertainty about what happens after death. I’m glad that I took so long to leave because I’ve seen friends engage in all sorts of self-destructive behavior once they left, having only ever relied on the church structure for discipline. But if I pinned my leaving on one factor, it’s not the church’s preoccupation with denying equal rights to gay or trans people; it’s not the $5 billion spent on a mall that sells luxury goods; it’s not the church’s silence in the face of record levels of inequality or constant war; it’s not the culture’s embrace of appearances and a prosperity gospel; it’s not the whitewashing of church history or the fact that I didn’t know Joseph Smith was a polygamist until after I had represented the church for two years; and it’s not the distorted emphasis on obedience that has left many, me included, with the impression that one is saved by following rules. I can work with all of those things, as I did when I was a BYU student who was frustrated but committed. I left because I couldn’t speak up in Sunday School. There are no channels for expressing any of these feelings, rooted though they may be in scriptural principles. There is no room for autonomy in the church, and therefore no ability to take responsibility for one’s spirituality. Agency is a mere binary: accept the Prophet’s teachings or don’t. Only stultifying certainty is allowed in the formal discourse, so the rich, varied, nuanced experiences of the diverse membership is funneled into the same, formulaic mix of labored allegory, sentimentality and cliche. I’ve had honest, uplifting discussions with ward members about the ups and downs of the Mormon experience only to have everyone, myself included, go mute once we put on a tie and step into the chapel.
I have theories about how the most common responses to doubts are subtly hostile, how they invalidate personal experience that lies outside the official narrative while, crucially, making the doubter feel alone. I have theories about how this mechanism of isolating and marginalizing the weak has been so effective at silencing heterodox views that the mainstream church hasn’t had a schism in nearly one hundred and fifty years. But those are just theories, and whether it’s a social phenomenon or my own inability to reckon with feelings of inadequacy, I feel undervalued and stifled at church. Even now, when I step into a church building, I feel my throat tighten.
I used to believe that there was a place in church for everyone. I induced that from an axiomatic belief in the necessity of church attendance for salvation. While I now believe that the church is not for everyone, I believe in a God who is more generous than I ever had allowed myself to imagine. I’ve been blessed and continue to be blessed, but now I see these moments of grace as acts of love, not disbursals from a heavenly bank account. The questions, doubts, weaknesses, bad habits, and mistakes of humanity that I used to strive to tolerate with transparent condescension I can now empathize with. The older I get, the more I know I need to learn, and the more patience I have for my own ignorance. Rather than ceasing to progress after letting go of my constant guilt and doctrinal quibbles, I’ve become less irritable, less self-centered, and more giving.
If the choice comes down to asserting the perfectness of the church or validating the concerns of someone feeling disaffected, who exactly is served by defending the organization? I don’t mention this for my own sake; I’m a grown man and my biases are calcifying. I mention this for your children, or perhaps more importantly, for the people for whom a ward could be a home. A nationwide survey of gay and lesbian teens found that 69% of Utah teens had been verbally abused, 27% had been physically assaulted, and 74% said churches in their community are not accepting of them. These percentages are all at least ten points higher than the national average. What invites more outrage in Mormon culture: people advocating for women to wear pants to church, or the intolerance and bigotry that fellow members display toward a historically misunderstood and persecuted class of people? Are Mormons more disturbed by criticism of the prophet or by the judgmental “culture” (as opposed to the doctrine) that everyone seems to acknowledge is wrong-headed? I’ve witnessed a lot of indignation about rank-and-file members speaking out of turn but not nearly as much about the everyday cruelty that occurs in Mormon communities. If the cardinal sin of Mormonism was hatred instead of disbelief, it may have been a church I could be a part of.
Preface: I truly hope I’m not guilt of whitesplaining, if that’s a thing, with the below post. I’m open to thoughtful criticism. Please try to meet me halfway.
There is a word that, if you level it against a certain portion of the population, will result in outrage and calls for explanation. The word is “racist.” Even racists these days don’t like being called racist. The provocative nature of such a claim is evident in the pop singer Sky Ferreira’s reaction to accusations of racism in a recent video: “Nothing upsets me more than being called racist because that is one of the most hateful things anyone can be.” In response to the suggestion that she chose black dancers for her video to be portrayed as objects, she counterattacks: “Dancers are objects?!?!?! How dare you!”
I actually haven’t seen the video in question, and I don’t intend to weigh in on whether or not Ferreira is a racist. I only mean to point out how incendiary claims of racism can be. On one hand, it’s a victory that being an explicit racist is taboo now in our society (to a certain degree). But on the other hand it feels counter-productive. If no one can talk about the “r” word without everyone becoming hysterical, important discussions can stop before they begin.
Besides, the bigger problem is not racists, no matter how wealthy or influential. Most racists (in the US) either marginalize themselves by being general assholes or will die off pretty soon. This is not to downplay the very real harm that racists inflict every day, but it’s rather small potatoes compared to the systemic racism of, for example, the justice system.
We are all products of a racist society. The modern day US has inherited a history of enslaving people based on, yes, race, and then repeatedly placing institutional hurdles in their path to equality and respectability. Electing a black president doesn’t erase history, and neither does the diversity of one’s personal friend group. For that matter, neither does one’s lineage. We all know that President Obama is racist against white people, but when he singled out unwed black fathers, was he relying on a racist stereotype of black men? I’m only being a little provocative; I don’t believe the answer is as clear cut that as a black man he can’t be guilty of racism.
One of the premises of racism is that society inundates us, all of us, with false messages about the inferiority of minorities. Black, white, Latino, Asian—everyone grows up in the toxic slurry of disinformation regarding people of color. Rather than engaging in witch hunts about who is or isn’t racist—and the subsequent back-patting of those who rooted out the racists—I believe a more useful conversation would center on those racist parts of all of us. I don’t see how that can happen without removing the stigma. So to break the ice, I’ll admit that, despite my best efforts, I can be guilty of racism.
I’m a white male who grew up in South Carolina in a church with a (rather recent) history of racial discrimination. I remember my friends and I joking about how we were truly in with our black friends if we could say the “n” word around them. I remember accepting explanations of the LDS Church’s prohibition on black males from being priests and receiving salvific ordinances because of their assumed noncommittal behavior in a pre-existence. I remember as a missionary going along with other white people in mocking the people of the Philippines because of the “backwards” way that they did things. I am not proud of my attitudes or my actions at these times, and I strive to become more aware of my privilege and the subtle ways that prejudice can influence my judgment.
The words of an acknowledged racist like Donald Sterling sting. They offend me; I can only imagine how they might feel to a person who encounters attitudes like that everyday, who every day has to start from the bottom of the hill and burnish her or his reputation to total strangers based on the color of her or his skin and the other person’s preconceived notions. But the words wouldn’t have the same resonance in a society where people weren’t still purging those very attitudes from their own minds. I’m glad that Sterling got such a stiff punishment. I worry however that those applauding the punishment will go back to pretending that we’re a post-racial society–that they’ll fail to investigate the racist attitudes that persist.
I believe that otherwise good people can be guilty of racism. Upstanding people who love their families can be a party to the disproportionate arresting and jailing of black people. Warm, caring people can judge a population of people based on one person’s actions. Even thoughtful people who are trying to help can traffic in micro-aggressions against people of color. No one is perfect. If we begin the conversation about the racism that nearly all of us are guilty of, rather than branding and railroading well-meaning people whose error is failing to question society’s racist programming, more people may be able to identify and correct that little racist part of themselves.
A ripe, homegrown tomato at the end of summer is one of the most delicious things you can eat. Chances are, you can also get one, or even a grocery sack full, for free. In the right season in the Philippines, the same is true of mangoes: bigger than your fist, golden yellow and syrupy.
The growing season frustrates the order and impatience of capitalism. The supply and demand curve gets ruined once a year—abundant harvests make it temporarily imperative to give away fruits that one can’t buy for any price during the winter. It is remarkably inefficient, even decadent.
The American answer to the exuberance of seasons is to source produce from a shifting swath of the globe, aided by too-cheap fossil fuels and hegemonic trade agreements, not to mention the tinkering of genes to turn food into both packaging and product. Whether it is January or August, your tomatoes are perfectly round and sunburnt red on the outside and jaundiced on the inside, but they are available.
I am in fact praising the decadence of the natural growing season, though that doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful for the so-called Green Revolution or so privileged that I’m blind to the benefits of a food supply that reliably feeds hundreds of millions for a small percentage of their income. But, similar to the paradox of a system that can’t produce tomato-flavored tomatoes in the height of summer is the paradox of such efficiency in a country in which 40% of food is wasted.
Jesus, when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, stated that people will not live by bread alone. He was referencing Jehovah’s commandment to the Israelite recipients of manna, the hoary, fluffy bread that appeared in the morning while they wandered in the wilderness. Jehovah promised to feed them daily, but if they tried to stockpile the food it would get wormy the next day. Science has created the anti-manna: our bread never gets moldy, but all the chemical preservatives require loading it with sugar to make it palatable. We’ve turned the gift of manna, of delicious food, into a commodity. We feel entitled to waste it because we paid for it. Conversely and correctly, we’d rather give away a homegrown tomato than let it rot.
The push for techno-food isn’t, after all, about efficiency. It’s about profit. Ag corporations grow watery tomatoes because once the produce is out the door of the supermarket, they no longer care about it. They have their dollar. If you throw it away they could care less; in fact they’ve wasted many more tomatoes in the mass harvest. They are only concerned with threats to the whole crop: pests, weeds, anti-slavery laws.
The desire is for ownership. Big ag companies have patented genomes of crops that they purport to have invented. The domestication of plants like corn represents a beautiful chain of cooperation among farmers across generations stretching back millennia. These farmers knew their crops well enough to preserve the seeds of the best plants. Patenting the end result of these efforts is like running the last leg of a thousand person relay and keeping the medal for oneself. It’s disrespectful, wrong, and illustrative of the distorted way we think about food.
I remember when I first heard about a community garden. It sounded unrealistically utopian to my young, American mind. I scoffingly asked how well something like that worked out. I couldn’t imagine a bunch of white folks weeding a zucchini plant only to share the spoils. The reply was bemusedly matter of fact: it works well. There is something magic and humbling about pulling one’s dinner out of the dirt. No matter how much understanding one may have about cellular mitosis and photosynthesis, it will always feel miraculous to sow a seed and witness a green shoot coming up days later. It feels like a gift, and since we can’t exactly repay the gift to the soil, it only makes sense to pass something along to our neighbors.
If community gardens can work in one of the most atomistic, property-obsessed cultures in the world, then food is truly something special. What I would like to see is more people grow their own food. I would like to see food considered more a gift than a product. And from there? Maybe it could be shared across boundaries. Maybe the sense of blessing we get from homegrown food could extend to all property, and greed could erode away. It sounds unrealistic, but have you had my tomatoes?
Every society has its rituals. US capitalist society has sports. A week doesn’t go by without a pro sports team somewhere drawing crowds to worship collectively the virtue of Competition. It’s a fitting ritual, since late capitalism engenders fervent devotion to the similar conceit of the American Dream. Both rely on the semblance of competition while the real engine of prosperity is state sponsorship of the already wealthy. There are few other industries as heavily subsidized as professional sports. David Cay Johnston estimates that the entirety of pro sports’ profits actually comes from public money. The first cut of state taxes that provide benefits for single mothers and the salaries of public teachers winds up in team owners and investors’ pockets. But US society turns a blind eye and points to the gridiron as a self-evident example of competition. It’s a shadow of the trading floor, where a loophole-ridden tax code, toothless regulation, and the military enforcement of “free” trade agreements worldwide guarantee a pristine arena for Ivy League sociopaths to duke it out with money siphoned from millions just wealthy enough to pay their bills. Go fight win.