by isaac black
Two weeks ago a new LDS Church policy leaked that classifies gay couples who marry or cohabit as apostates, the worst offense in Mormonism and an excommunicable one. Additionally, children of gay couples can no longer be blessed or baptized while living at home, and only then at the age of 18 if they disavow the validity of their parents’ relationship. The change came as a shock to many in the community, who had felt that the church was making slow but steady progress toward acceptance of gay people within the church and in society. In fact, the change was so significant, and having arrived without any official statement so soon after October’s General Conference, many thought it was an anti-Mormon lie spread to discredit the church.
My friends, who exist on a spectrum from fully active to ex-Mormon, were all upset about it. It was discouraging and, given the church’s top-down structure and typical intransigence of the faithful, now set in stone. My family wasn’t upset at all, and in trying to tease out the implications of it with them I only made them defensive and condescending.
True to my goal of prioritizing relationships I spent much of the week commiserating with friends, as well as working through my own, complicated feelings toward the church. I posted publicly on Facebook that I no longer associated with the church in any way and did not agree with the church’s stance on gay marriage. Friends reached out to me with supportive words, regardless of their church affiliation. I came to decide that I would request a disciplinary council to be tried as an apostate, extinguishing whatever faint hope I may have retained that some heavenly bureaucrat would let me be with my family in the next life because I had the right box checked.
I talked to a friend who had left the church recently. She was going through a breakup, but when she called me in tears she was wondering what life meant and what she wanted out of it. She had wanted to be a mother but now wondered about the selfishness of bringing more people into the cruelty of life. She was able to talk to the guy she was seeing about things, but with him gone she had lost that temporary foothold on reality. Mormonism promises permanence–everyone lives again, and families can be together for eternity–and letting go of that belief system brings mortality into sharp, immediate focus. A younger friend’s jokes about her age–twenty-five–gave her anxiety.
She had been married, and her friends and family weren’t supportive when she tried to tell him about the emotional abuse she experienced in that relationship. They encouraged her to stay in her marriage. She left him, but after years of therapy the scars remained. She mentioned swallowing a bunch of pills as a solution to what she was going through.
I spent the day with a close friend whose marriage was in trouble. After dating for a year long-distance, her husband had become fixated on her flaws. Her brother is gay, and the recent policy change proved divisive with her and her husband. Her disagreement with it prompted him to dissect her views on the divine guidance of church leadership.
I talked to a friend who had decided to resign from the church after the recent change, something which several of my friends had also decided to do. She supported my decision to go through a disciplinary council, and despite the years of not attending church and holding a principled opposition to the church program, she wanted to get free of it as quickly and easily as possible. She wasn’t going to tell her family, and when I pointed out that her parents would find out, if not through some other way, when they went to tithing settlement at the end of the year. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to give her parents the opportunity to try to convince her otherwise.
She empathized with the frustrations I felt with my family. While we were talking, because of my own inability to cope with my parents’ mortality, I asked if she was afraid of her parents’ dying. She admitted that it was her biggest fear. My mom is the oldest of her siblings, and her twin sister was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple years ago and had recently gone into a home. My friend’s parents, like mine, are in their 70’s.
It was an emotionally exhausting week. At one point, having felt physically almost like I had run a marathon, I broke down in tears. I found myself looking forward to my planned trip to Yosemite and San Francisco. I was craving the disconnection and isolation that camping promised. But, as I was leaving Sunday morning, I checked the weather. It was supposed to snow in South Lake Tahoe where I was going to camp that night. Later in the week it was supposed to be sunny and clear, so I changed plans (without a touch of anxiety!) and texted my friend in the South Bay that I wanted to stay with him that night instead of Wednesday as I had been planning. Luckily he and his family were able to accommodate.
I caught up with an old friend in San Francisco, and we were able to talk about things openly in a way we hadn’t been able to before. She was Mormon, but because she didn’t live that lifestyle she was facing a dilemma of how to identify and how to embrace that liminality. She didn’t know how to navigate the expectations that come along with the identity that she wanted for herself.
After drinks we talked about her observation that Mormons, because of the patriarchal blessing we typically receive in our teens, are in the practice of second-guessing their decisions–if we lived more righteously, if we were more open to the Spirit, would we fulfill more of that blessing? would we be happier? She hadn’t gotten that same sense from talking to those not raised in the church. It was something I hadn’t considered before, but it made sense. She self-effacingly advised me against seeing a psychic, since it further hampered her ability to live in the moment.
The next night I went to Golden Gate Park after lunch with a couple old friends. I walked from the park to Ocean Beach. A sign warned me that people had drowned swimming in the undertow. I thought of the dichotomy between untimely death and the comfort of the pastel rowhouses lining the beach. It made me recall how impressionable I used to be to the energy of cities I would visit, whereas I had now become so critical, always looking for the flaw, the dark secret, that new places rarely moved or excited me anymore. I resolved to let places speak to me on their own terms.
On my way out of the city I dropped in at the California office of the company where I used to work to see an old coworker that I had become good friends with. As we were catching up, she told me she had just come back from a cruise where a passenger had jumped over the railing and drowned. When she got back to the office she learned that a former coworker had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was in his 30’s and fit. He was very friendly to me the few times that we had met.
I drove to Yosemite. Fire had denuded the forest bordering Yosemite’s west entrance, leaving blackened tree trunks spiking up out of the meadow. I noticed a little manzanita bush clinging to a sandy bank beside the road. It wasn’t hard to imagine erosion uprooting the bush, leaving it to shrivel and snap into kindling. I thought of giant sequoias, imposing even in death with their tall, exposed root systems clawing the air.
As I hiked over snow to Tuolomne Grove, I got a call from my mom. Her twin sister, my aunt, had died. I walked back to my car, following snowshoe tracks in the half moon. A layer of haze on the western horizon was such a deep red it made me gasp.
I drove to my campsite and burned a bundle of wood to coals. The forest was dead silent when I crawled into my sleeping bag. I thought about my aunt. Lying in the unforgiving dark it occurred to me what a long, beautiful life she had been able to live.