Why I Left the Religion I Loved

affirmation card 2I write this while sipping my daily mocha—a ritual I’ve come to love, even though I’d never even tasted coffee until I was 35. Now I walk my kids to school, come home, put water on to boil, measure grounds into the French press, and eventually sit at my desk basking in the quiet morning hours as I type, sip, type, sip, type. It’s bliss.

I mention the mocha because it represents part of my reason for sharing this story, which I’ve told family members and close friends but have debated making public.

Fifteen months ago, in November 2017, I walked away from a community I dearly loved. I gathered up my children after three hours of church the way I would any other Sunday, we waved goodbye to friends with smiles they probably interpreted as “See you next week!” And then we never went back.

When our church friends see us around the neighborhood, I’m sure they wonder why, and I’ve spent fifteen months wondering how to explain it. If they were to guess, what do they have to go on except what they see, like the coffee in my cupboard and the wine glasses on my shelves? Because those were taboo when I was Mormon*, it might be easy to assume that I left in order to drink lattes and cocktails and experience a lifestyle that was off-limits before. How do I convince anyone otherwise?

Only by sharing my story.

(*After I left, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared that the term “Mormon” and also the shorthand “LDS” for latter-day saints, though previously embraced, were now considered offensive. I mean no disrespect in using those terms to tell my story, but I consider Mormonism to be my heritage, so I claim an insider’s right to label my personal history as I knew it to be at the time.)

Deep breath. Here goes.

A month before leaving, I read a beautiful quote from the poet Rilke:

I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.

unfolding

It was in Anne Lamott’s book Hallelujah Anyway, and she went on to say that “In unfolding, we are enfolded.”

I don’t know whether unfolding my story will enfold me in anyone’s heart, but I know that as I’ve unfolded myself over the past fifteen months, I’ve been enfolded in a tremendous peace that’s felt life changing.

A year ago, I wanted outward ways to show how different I felt inside, so I gave myself three identity-shifting presents for my birthday: an asymmetrical haircut, new eyeglasses, and a request for official membership removal from the religious institution I’d actively belonged to my entire life. Their letter confirming my fresh outsider status had my 36th birthday on the top—February 23, 2018. I interpreted that as divine timing.

I cried when I submitted the request, but not when they verified its completion. The tears surprised me until I realized they were tears of relief, discarding the weight of cognitive dissonance that had crept in so gradually it took 35 years to recognize it.

When I got the confirmation letter, I felt no regrets. I felt light and free.

But why? I still look back at my sweet Mormon community with its happy hymns (due to an adorable discomfort with minor keys) and happy people (due to continuous loving service) and feel shocked by the level of pain I felt inside it, especially since I seemed to fit just fine. I was (and still am) contentedly heterosexual and married, had produced an average number of mini-Mormons (four), loved being put to good use in various church jobs (that paid in brownie points), had plenty of Mormon friends (from childhood to present), and enjoyed the contemplative hours of temple attendance (and the convenience of having one nearby).

temple

There was really only one way that I didn’t fit, and I’m not sure how to explain it.

My coffee mug is now empty, the blissful rhythm of type–sip–type over for today, and I find myself stuck, staring at the blinking cursor, wondering how to proceed—not for lack of caffeine but for lack of words. Even though I’ll revise this 50 times before I hit publish, I’m including this paragraph to show how difficult this story is to tell. Please remember that what I’m conveying about Mormonism isn’t fact, only generalized opinion. The way I see things could be (and probably is) very different from how others might see them. But I am doing my best to be fair in my depictions, however many revisions it takes.

In Mormonism, I encountered a cultural phenomenon commonly referred to as “the shelf.” It probably exists in other religions too, and I understood it as a coping mechanism for maintaining faith in hard times. A good Mormon trusts that, when we are uncomfortable with the way God has chosen to do things, there must be a loving explanation that’s too difficult for mortals to understand. So you set the idea on a “shelf” in your mind with the plan to ask God about it after you die.

The shelf for an average Mormon is full of things like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” as well as “Why can only men hold priesthood offices?” or “Why are some people burdened with homosexual attraction or gender dysphoria?” In some cases it’s their own children who are LGBTQ+, making the shelf sag under that heavy weight. They might offer long, sob-choked prayers to God at night, begging for understanding, but if understanding doesn’t come, they have been instructed to “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.”

The items on the shelf are the set of doubts each person has stockpiled, but the shelf itself represents faith. Mormons are eternal optimists and believe God will make everything right, even if it’s not until the “next life” in heaven.

For those of us who have left, the common expression is that “my shelf broke.”

The way that I didn’t fit in Mormonism was that I didn’t believe in shelving anything. To me, the shelf analogy operated upon an underlying assumption that God wants our circumstances and the church’s policies to be as they are. I took a different viewpoint. Since God is Love, I believed that when a reality or policy seemed opposite of Love, it meant God didn’t want it to be that way.

I believed God was anxious for change: anxious for women to be treated as equals in leadership, anxious for LGBTQ+ to be free to love whomever they loved, anxious for transgender transitions to be accepted, etc. I believed that the trouble was too many LDS members weren’t ready to make those leaps, so God was waiting for them to come around.

I believed that I could help by sharing my views. Whenever I spoke in church or taught lessons in Sunday School or contributed comments in class, I slipped liberal perspectives into the topics in subtle ways. I hoped God was placing others like me throughout the worldwide church to create a peaceful revolution that might take generations (since the church is a gerontocracy) but would eventually shift everything.

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, don’t get too attached to what I’ve just said. It eventually flipped upside down.

folding chairs

So let me get to the crux of why I left—the tiny hiccup that upset my paradigms.

The most valuable asset that I gained from growing up Mormon is listening to a quiet inner voice, and I still believe 100% that there is something smarter than me that guides me toward the best possible results. At the time, I thought it was a humanoid white male God sending His Spirit to lead me along; now, I like to muse about various new-age theories, like that my subconscious mind can feel the magnetic energy of positive outcomes, or that my soul preprogrammed my body’s DNA to choose the experiences my soul wants in this life, or that the universe operates at the frequency of love and tugs me toward decisions that optimize peace.

Those explanations are far fetched, so I hope they don’t distract from the point: when I listen to my gut, my gut has never let me down. I could chronicle countless decisions that didn’t make logical sense at the time but my gut said to go for it and I trusted my gut and my life became better in the long run. I could describe choices that I didn’t like one bit but still felt “right,” and then in retrospect I was grateful to have been steered that direction, even contrary to my own preferences.

This is my version of faith, independent of any religion, though I’d assumed my faith went hand in hand with my religion.

The problem? My gut, my deepest knowing, my inner voice, my soul, my authentic self, my prompting from the Spirit, whatever you prefer to call it (to me it’s all semantics now) started to beg me to leave.

I fought against it for a long time. I said no. I didn’t want to desert my community. I didn’t want to turn my back on the religion that had taught me so much. I didn’t want to abandon my friends and my family and my people. I didn’t want to leave.

affirmation card 1

I confessed my struggle to three Mormon friends on a girls weekend in Southern California a month before I left, and I broke down sobbing in the surfer-style restaurant where we were having brunch. I was being torn apart by the fork in the road that I could see up ahead, because I knew my friends would stay on the main path while I would go on a side road into uncharted territory. Religion promises safety and surety along tried-and-true routes; I couldn’t fathom navigating life alone.

So I did what my religion had taught me to do: I studied and I prayed. If a book or article felt like I’d been led to it, I read it with a prayer of gratitude. I read histories of Mormon polygamy that broke my feminist heart; I read counterpoints about The Goddess or The Great Mother or Mary Magdalene (all vague territory in Mormonism) that soothed my feminist heart. I even read conspiracy theories that helped me reconsider the rhetoric of every Mormon tale I’d ever been told. Mormons can be very trusting and very literal, so it took some wild reinterpretations of traditional stories to force me to see that the neat-and-tidy versions I’d accepted were probably not accurate.

(In fact, I no longer believe it’s possible to know history beyond date, time, and place with 100% accuracy. History is just his story (which already eliminates 50% of the truth, since we seldom get her story), and every person interprets events in a unique way.)

When I compare notes with other ex-Mormons, we’ve often read different things, but the universal factor is that we needed new perspectives to shift our thinking. Our guts already knew, but our brains had to be convinced. Mormon theology is semi–closed circuit; church authorities discourage using non-LDS religious resources, and to compensate, they produce more in-house material than any individual Mormon could read in their lifetime. With that size of a denomination-specific library, many of us had never touched non-Mormon religious writings or controversial LDS-produced documents.

I want to emphasize again that the research came after the gut feeling. Along with the coffee and alcohol misconceptions, there’s also a hypothesis that those of us who leave must have read “anti-Mormon literature” and allowed ourselves to be deceived by it. I don’t think that’s the case most of the time. It wasn’t the case for me. I just needed to wrap my head around how and why God could be asking me to leave what I’d been taught was His church.

And really, what ended up convincing me wasn’t the research. It was a Christian concept that Mormonism often emphasized: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Good choices came with good consequences (good fruit), because anything good came from God, so to judge whether something was right or wrong you just had to reverse engineer it: Did it bear good results? Then it must be good. Happiness, joy, and inner peace—those warm, fuzzy feelings we taught the kids at church to recognize by filling a jar with furry balls for every good deed—were good fruits that came from listening to the Spirit and doing the thing God wanted you to do.

In the long months of fighting against my gut, I couldn’t find peace. Those months were full of struggle and emotional pain as I tried to convince myself I could stay where I was. It’s human to fear change, but that fear is multiplied when you’ve been taught to fear a certain choice. I’d been taught to fear coffee and alcohol and premarital sex and a whole slew of things, but at the top of the list was fear of apostasy—because then I’d be putting my eternity in jeopardy.

It’s a peculiarity of Mormon doctrine that Mormons sometimes grieve more for the “lost” than the dead. Mormon funerals are conspicuously void of black attire, like their eschewal of minor chords, because death is a happy day of being reunited with your Maker and with all your loved ones who’ve gone on before. The living are encouraged to keep their covenants and stay true to the faith so they will likewise receive that great reward. It’s a sobering reminder (indirectly, since Mormons are already alcohol-free and prefer to focus on the positive) that some choices are worse than death.

Parents with “wayward” children often got weepy when they described worrying that they wouldn’t be with their kids in heaven. I never wanted to put my parents through that.

But then I did. When I broke the news to them, they were full of tears and concerns about being together after we die. In the next sentence, they used the shelf to grasp at faith and optimism, saying that they’d have to trust God to make it all right. At the time, I wanted to tear their shelf down and beg them to see that none of us were dying and I was still right there in front of them. Even after separating from the church, I was operating from my long-held misbelief that I needed to fix other people’s paradigms. It took a little more time to release my grip on that too.

I read a Salt Lake Tribune article recently that claims a whopping 93% of ex-Mormons surveyed describe their post-Mormonism feelings as “freedom, possibility, and relief” vs 7% who feel “loss, anger, and grief.” The article hinted that the 7% might not be happy yet because they are still wrestling with what I would describe as the emotional fallout of disappointing the people around them.

I had to release myself from that responsibility for my tribe. I’d spent decades helping them however they wanted me to, be it playing hymns on the organ/piano or giving fifteen-minute talks or teaching Sunday School classes. I’d also spent those decades with ulterior motives, trying to morph an entire multi-million-member population into what I thought it should be. I finally walked away when I realized what message my inner voice was shouting: to let them live their lives the way they wanted without my constant push for change, and to stop forcing myself to live within a set of doctrines, policies, and expectations I didn’t like.

They were happy as they were, but I wasn’t. So I was the one who needed to change. I’d had it backwards all along.

braving the wilderness

I’ve been grateful for the love and acceptance and understanding I’ve felt from family and friends. A few months after I broke the news to my parents, my dad shared with me that he’d been praying to understand my change of course and had felt that this is the right path for me and that God really is guiding me. After all, God moves in mysterious ways. That’s a big deal, and I gave my dad a huge hug after he told me. Not everyone who leaves their community is as lucky as I’ve been in my relationships.

But the truly great reward is my relationship with myself. The inner peace has felt incredible. That’s the real bliss, which has very little to do with the mocha I sip each morning. I’ve come home to a place that’s a perfect fit: inside my own skin. Most of the shoulds I’d internalized throughout my life have fallen away, creating a freedom in how I view myself that also transfers to others. I’m no longer (as) guilty of thinking I know what’s best for those around me; I didn’t even know what was best for myself until that relentless gut feeling forced my hand! I’ve given up certainty in exchange for mystery—and it’s taught me to marvel and laugh at the ironies of life.

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How My 100th Query Letter Revealed the Story I’ve Been Wanting to Read

queries
character notes and failed queries, including side-by-side comparisons on screen

I love to start a post with a good old confession, so here it is: Last year I thought my manuscript was done, I thought I was ready to query, I thought that I just needed to keep drafting new versions of that letter and getting feedback and even paying professional editors for help until I had an amazing query that would get instant responses from an agent and I’d be on my way to publishing.

I spent six months trying. I went through almost a hundred drafts of that query letter and a few hundred dollars in editing fees.

And then I accepted a conclusion I didn’t like—a conclusion so depressing that I didn’t open a single writing file for the next six months.

It wasn’t the query letter or even the complex plot that was the problem. It was my main character.

Here’s a hiccup I’ve observed about main characters: they make or break a story, and it’s easy for an author to inadvertently make them flat because the author identifies with them and assumes too much is obvious. You’re used to being in your own head, and in some ways you don’t see yourself as clearly as others do, and this transfers to your MC as well.

I spent the second half of 2018 stewing over this. Not working on it in the butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard sense, but rolling it around in my head.

It reminds me of that Albert Einstein quote:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

queries and natal
diving into the proper question: who is my main character?

Finally, I dug deeper into what I knew of my main character. What does she want? How is that tied to the story? Who is she really? I even paid $25 for her 30-page astrological natal report, which reminded me of her interesting quirks and issues that I hadn’t brought out in the story yet.

Last week I sat down and tried the query letter again for probably the 100th time. The goal is to sum up the MC’s story in three short paragraphs that tell who she is, what she wants, what’s thwarting her, what’s at stake, and what she does about it. I had thought my book was just so complex with 400 pages and multiple viewpoints etc that it was too difficult to sum up in three paragraphs. But instead, when I heeded the editors’ wisdom and let my MC drive the query, a wild and fun story unfolded. The three paragraphs sounded like a book I’d want to buy and stay up reading because they showed a character I’d want to know and adventures I’d want to experience in her shoes.

I’ve heard you should write the book you want to read, but I had had trouble describing why I felt so passionate about my story. After writing this new query, the trouble is gone. I summed up the book to my husband on our date night and to my sister on her couch with confidence and enthusiasm I’d been lacking before. The story gels in my head. The plot twists make more sense. The whole thing feels just right.

Next step: revise my MC throughout the manuscript so she lives up to the characterization of the query. After six months of avoidance, I’m ready and excited to make that happen.

Grammar & Style: A Book Story

A few weeks before the start of spring semester this year, the department asked if I could rearrange my schedule to accommodate a mid-afternoon course on grammar and style. Partly because I’m a nice person who likes to be helpful but mostly because I’m a confessed grammar nerd who was geeking out at the opportunity, I said yes.

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But it didn’t leave me much time to plan the syllabus, and the first decision was the most crucial: what text to use.

A colleague had mentioned Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to me months before, so I pulled it off my shelf along with a couple of textbooks and hurried to weigh out the pros and cons of each.

The awful truth about most grammar textbooks is that they try to teach style without much flair. Technical definitions and lifeless examples are more soporific than inspiring. Some creep toward being interesting by dissecting sentences from famous writers, but the analysis is usually dry. I’ve even heard a textbook author admit this, blaming the approval process for sucking all humor and vulnerability out of the prose.

Pinker doesn’t believe in trite sentences. He believes, like I do, that to teach someone how to write, you better write well enough to show them what good writing looks like.

My gut said Pinker was the way to go. Read more

“To Kindle a Light of Meaning”

When seventeen people—human beings with names and lives and futures—were killed in Florida on Wednesday, I was writing a draft of a blog post about pain. I stopped, knowing it would take days of perspective to sort out my thoughts in this horrible new context.

braving the wildernessPain brings everything else to a halt, most of all when it’s sudden and violent. I think of Brené Brown’s description in Braving the Wilderness of drivers in Houston pulling over when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. I think of lyrics from Les Misérables after the young revolutionaries are slaughtered: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” There isn’t anything we can say or do, so we stop, helpless.

I believe that’s how humans were created to function. Grief strikes us down because we are meant to feel that torture and use it to reassess our lives and choose a better course. Read more

A Decade? Embarrassing Timeline Confessions of a Part-time Novel Writer

My manuscript is done. It’s a thrilling thing to say—not only that I finished a draft, but that all 100,000 words are what I want them to be (for now, until I revise with an agent and editor) and ready to send off. You’d think I’d be shouting this to the hilltops!

But I worry that after ten years no one will believe me. Even my poor husband probably says “That’s great!” just to humor me. Other people ask, “Wait, is this still your Peter Pan novel?” Still.

I’ve wondered myself why it took so long. I wrote my first full novel during grad school in only a year; how did a second novel take ten? True, that first novel was not so great and has deservedly stayed on a shelf, but come on: Nikki, what in all the vast cosmos have you been doing for the past decade? So I dug into old files and blog posts, looking for word counts and date stamps that would piece together the mystery. Read more

Memes, Movies & Memorability

A year ago I had the fun opportunity to write three articles for the English Department at Salt Lake Community College, where I teach. Last month those articles finally went live, and I wanted to share about them here because I’m thrilled with how they turned out. Click the article titles if you’re interested in reading them for yourself.

“Punctuation, Memes & Choice”

punctuation is powerful

As any of my former or current students could attest, I’m a big fan of punctuation. So when I teach it, I try my best to help students catch on to its power. In this article I felt like I succeeded, thanks to a colleague’s suggestion to use memes. The humor they provide enlivens the whole topic. Even better has been hearing responses from students who read this article and say, “Wow! All of that makes sense now!” Read more