I Finished Watching The Keepers

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I finished watching The Keepers this week. I started it last summer when we were still really wading through our rough patch trying to navigate all the changes in our life. I had a bit of a meltdown at my husband after episode three which subsequently triggered a much-needed hard conversation. It was good, and we got through it pretty well, I think, but I had to stop watching the show. It was just too much at that time. Six months later, I was able to finish it without getting stuck in the rough emotions it brings up. (For those that are completely in the dark, The Keepers is a documentary about the murder of a nun that ended up being wrapped up in some pretty severe abuse in the Baltimore Catholic church.)

I had a thought when I first started watching this, and it’s something that I’m not sure that a lot of people understand. I don’t even know if I can communicate in a way that will be clear enough to shift perspectives, but I’ll try. This story follows several women who tried to prosecute their abuser who happened to be a priest. One of the women, Jean, begins telling her story by outlining her family history and how she had these amazing, devout parents who were truly good and god-fearing people. She then goes on to chronicle her absolutely unbelievably horrific abuses within that Catholic faith. These were experiences where the power invested in the church had been used as the most evil and vicious weapon against this then child. I vividly remember watching this last year and having this crystal clear realization that Jean’s church was not her mother’s church and that she could never have the pure and positive experience with Catholicism that her mother experienced – it had become a poisoned well for her.

I talk to a LOT of people. People share their abuse stories with me. People share their struggles with faith with me. I think that many people do not understand what it is to navigate these experiences, and there are narratives built up around them that, while they serve to shield the teller, are really hurtful and untrue. Jean’s story is quite extreme – it goes way beyond anything I have to deal with in my daily life. Still, it illustrates so clearly that not every environment is good for every person. Jean struggles and works her entire life to connect with divinity in a way that feels safe and supportive, but it absolutely, unequivocally cannot be in the Catholic church. There are too many devils there for it to be God’s house for her – ever.

Life is NOT one-size-fits-all. More than anything else, I think most people want to share their stories with others. They want to be heard. They want to have the freedom to choose paths that are healthy and productive and whole for them. They want to do this and still have family and friends see the bigger picture with compassion and understanding and love.

I think so many people look at other people’s lives from the outside in and think, “Gosh, I feel so sad for them because they are giving up something that is so important/fulfilling/helpful to me, and I want them to have that, too.” I understand that sentiment and where it comes from. But, please understand that you are interpreting their choices through your lenses. Another approach I hear a lot is the idea that, yes, these things are hard/wrong, but XYZ Belief System is the only way and so you just have to suck it up and push through and keep dancing with the devils until God sorts it out. The simple fact is that being healthy when your background includes significant trauma is incredibly difficult in the most supportive environments, and each person’s individualized experience requires unique and creative solutions that often include thinking outside the box. Going against your entire culture to achieve that isn’t the easy way – it’s actually quite traumatizing itself, and you have to be pretty over paying a high price to maintain that status quo to be brave enough to do it anyway.

I do not inherently have an issue with religion. I don’t think Catholicism is bad any more than I think Mormonism is bad. They are very positive parts of many people’s lives. Still, that is not the case for everyone. You don’t have to wear someone else’s shoes to acknowledge that as understandable and valid. You don’t have to get comfy on their bench to concede that is seems truly healthy for them. You don’t have to give up your belief to love someone who has had to let that go. You don’t even have to be sad that they choose different priorities than you do. I believe God is big enough for all that. Are we?

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Belief and the Color Blue

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Untangling the webs that weave together through your life is an interesting process. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? But, one of the most interesting questions that I have chewed on over the last few years is this one – “Is belief a choice?” There are dozens of talks and articles in Mormon vernacular that suggest that choosing to believe is synonymous with looking for the good in things. Doubters are painted as Negative Nellies. I have come to believe, however, that belief isn’t a choice at all.

Let me explain using an analogy (because we all know that I love them.) If you were to look at the photo that I chose today, what color would you say it is? Blue? What if I were to tell you that, historically, there is no word for blue in any ancient language? I’m not suggesting that blue did not exist. I think one would be hard pressed to prove that the sky has changed as history has progressed – it’s most likely exactly the same as it’s always been. Still, for hundreds of thousands of years, people did not distinguish blue. This is incredibly bizarre, I know. I have no idea what color people called the sky or ocean or blueberries. But, it wasn’t blue.

Imagine living in a world where blue wasn’t recognized. (For the sake of our analogy, let’s make the assertion that all other colors were known.) I suspect that some blues would get lumped in with green or purple while others might even lean grey or black. This would be the norm – the paradigm held by everyone in society. If you were to pick yourself and plop yourself down in 800-something in a community that didn’t know blue, could you cease to see it yourself? If you were persecuted for being someone who saw blue, could you make yourself fit into a paradigm that no longer saw it for the sake of conformity? (If you could, I don’t think it would be good for your mental health to be that disconnected from your actual reality.)

In my experience, belief is like the color blue. Either you do or you don’t. Either you interpret available information based upon what you know and see it one way, or you pull from other information that makes you distinguish it differently. Belief is based upon your background, the way you think, the way you see and interpret evidence and your life experience. If you don’t see blue, you don’t. If you see it, no amount of mental gymnastics can make it disappear.

I believe lots of things about lots of different subjects. Many of my beliefs have changed over time as I have learned new things or understood things differently. Some of my beliefs have not shifted much at all as my life has progressed. While I can certainly choose to not explore any new information on any particular subject and be more likely to keep my beliefs from altering, I can’t actually choose how I believe about something. My brain either sees it one way or sees it the other based upon what information I have available to me.

I’d like to take credit for this light-bulb moment like it was my own little glimmer of genius, but it turns out that this is a long-discussed question, and I’m not even particularly original in my conclusion that you can’t choose what you believe. When I did a quick search of “Is Belief a Choice” for this blog, there was a variety of perspectives that ranged from religious discussions to psychological approaches all of which are quite interesting and worth consideration.

I understand that the way we feel about belief is, well, a belief. I understand that it can be incredibly frustrating to have a loved one or friend believe differently than you about something fundamental (boy, do I ever!) In my experience, people don’t upset the apple cart on purpose, especially when they’re riding in it. If you find yourself in a situation where you just want to blow a fuse in frustration because you can’t get through to someone, I invite you to take a deep breath, look up at the sky and squint your eyes until it becomes green. Just kidding – do it until you remember that we’re all unique and understand the world differently based upon our own unique experiences, and then rejoin the conversation with fresh eyes (maybe even blue ones?)

 

We Can Break the Silence

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This week, a woman took her own life. I don’t know her, but she travels in some of the same circles I do, and it’s given me pause. While I didn’t ever talk to her, this event is incredibly heartbreaking to me. I can’t tell you all the details of her story because I don’t know them. I won’t even say her name or give any more information because this story isn’t mine to tell and there are real people affected by this. What I can say is that this woman had experienced a faith transition and was in an unexpected and unplanned for mixed-faith marriage. This cuts me to the core and hits so close to home because, you see, I am also in a mixed-faith marriage. My husband is still a believer (though quite nuanced) in the truth claims of Mormonism while I am not.

This is the first time I have really come out and said this in any open forum. I’ve hinted. I’ve danced around it. I’ve even been quite bold in some of the statements I’ve made. But, I’ve never been completely transparent about this. I don’t owe this information to anyone, really. Faith and how a person relates to it is quite private and personal. While I’m nervous to publish this, I find myself compelled to do so. For no other reason than the fact that I have come to believe that silence can be deadly. I know this woman’s battle. I know what she fought, can imagine how she felt and understand what would cause such a deep and cutting tragedy. Because I’ve been there.

There is a incredible shame in religious community associated with “losing one’s faith.” It is seen as an act that only happens to the lazy, the unmotivated, the weak. You haven’t tried hard enough. You didn’t study enough. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is a narrative that hurts people, and it is deeply unfair. Until you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you really do not understand. (And, if you ever do, I’ll be the first one to step on that path with you because it’s incredibly lonely to walk alone.)

I’m in a good place right now. We spent many months redefining our marriage, but I know this woman’s pain. My daughter had surgery in July and was given a too-generous dose of hydrocodone. I made her flush it as soon as her pain was manageable, partly because I was concerned about its addictive nature, and partly because I was having way too many days of despair to trust myself with it in my home. This is hard to say out loud. However, it is the reality of a faith transition. When the emotional bottom drops out of your life and your most trusted loved-one feels it as a personal affront, it is devastating. When you would do anything to just go back to the paradigm you had for so long, but you are unable to force yourself to see things in the way that you’re supposed to, and the person you trust the most to hear your innermost thoughts reacts to them with anger and defensiveness and hurt, the fear and loss and heartache are unimaginable.

I am one of the lucky ones. My husband has processed this in a pretty healthy way. We’re differentiating. We’re focusing on the health and well-being of our marriage and family. We’re doing our level best to work as a team and support each other. Many, many families are not this lucky. There is no current narrative in Mormonism that allows for people to step away from the faith with respect, dignity or honesty. (This recent devotional given by Elder and Sister Renlund is a perfect example of how this is still preached in such a harmful way.)

So, why am I talking about this now? I don’t need anyone to respond to this post with sad faces and worry that I’m lost forever. (If you think that and don’t want to have an honest and open conversation with me, please keep the random response to yourself.) I don’t want anyone to glance at my husband and feel sorry that he has to be stuck with me. (Even now, I think he’s happy to be married to me most days.) I don’t intend to start proselyting anyone with my thoughts or beliefs outside this blog (which any of you can choose not to read.) If we meet in person, I’ll talk about the same benign things I always have – my kids, schooling, what’s going on in your life, what we may have in common. However, what I do want is that this woman and others like her will not die in vain. I hope that what I have to say will strike a chord and that it might, in some small measure, change the way that you interact with the people like me in your life. If you hold callings and leadership positions, I hope that you will choose to support the families in your congregation wherever they may fall and not make them the punching bags of a dogma that is long due for reform. I hope that feeling crushed to death by abandonment, public punishment and shame becomes the exception in our communities rather than the rule. I believe that it’s what Jesus would want.

Finally, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I did not lose my faith because I couldn’t hack what we went through this last year. I experienced my faith transition due to extensive and intense study of church history via primary source records about two years ago – a good year before the details of our story became public. The two events weren’t really related in any significant way. I likely would have attended as a silent non-believer indefinitely had there not been extenuating circumstances, and none of you would have been the wiser. (I would put money on the fact that there’s people in your congregation right now that are doing so.) I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m not out to drag anyone down. (I would actually prefer not to share the specific details of what I’ve studied because I have no desire to complicate other people’s lives.)

In life, one of the most consistent expectations we can have is that it will change. We can not always control how things change, as much as we try. There is a deep unfairness in putting people in a box where there is an intolerance for natural change. As the foundational building block of society, I believe that there should be no institution that should get a higher priority than the family and that its destruction ultimately undermines the strength of everything, including our churches. While it may not always be possible to be helpful in every situation, I think we can all make a commitment to be the change we wish to see in the world. To borrow a medical term, every one of us, in any faith, any community we may travel in, can first, do no harm. We do not have to continue to make this experience so painful that people choose to end their lives rather than walk through it. People are going to walk through it. Put down the stones and take their hands.

Lifting Your Hands Toward Holiness

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It’s 8:30 at night, and this blog is due for publication in the morning. Some days I have been chewing on something and just need to gather it up and lay it in print. Days like today ebb and flow and nothing is settling. (I’ve been sewing all day and, dangit, I’m proud of what I produced today! Follow me on Instagram @rosazerkle if you want to see my crafty side.) I’m sitting on my bed listening to my husband listen to a Christian band on YouTube. Contemporary Christian music is my husband’s absolute favorite genre, and he listens to it a lot as he works. He found a new band today, and it’s really good. I feel emotion in it.

In many ways, I am religiously homeless. I live in a space right now where I don’t know where I want to settle. When you’ve been chewed up and spit out by what used to feel natural and comfortable and yours, you become very wary of anybody and anything that makes promises that you can’t verify. I’m not someone who can’t take direction or change an opinion, but I’ll be damned if I hand my life over to anyone else’s authority again that isn’t worthy of that faith. I don’t know what this means. It’s equal parts liberating and disconcerting. I had a friend ask me the other day if I was looking to visit a new church. I had to tell her that I didn’t know. I don’t know if it’s the right time for that.

One of the challenges of my marriage right now is finding our touch-points and rediscovering what the roots of our relationship are. I think every couple does that, but we’ve become so mindful about it. We had the most beautiful Christmas this year. (I’m not even going to be modest – I killed it!) Months before, I was talking to my teaching partner (she teaches; I take notes.) and mentioned that I had never been to a concert and that my husband loves Christian music. She sent me info on an artist that was going to be playing this year about an hour from us. On Christmas morning, my husband opened a calendar that I had lifted from his own desk and wrapped up with the tickets to see Mercy Me, his second favorite Christian artist. There were tears – something that I haven’t accomplished very many times with very many gifts in our marriage. (I filmed it and begged him to let me put it on Facebook. He was such a good sport!) I felt like a million bucks to give him such an amazing surprise, and I can’t wait to share this experience with him.

For our anniversary this last year, my husband took me to a “hand-raising church.” It was the first church I had ever been to in my entire life that wasn’t some flavor of Mormon. I’m 41 years old. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t feel like home. The live band was new and different, but a little too much to feel like a church to a multi-generational Mormon girl.

What does it mean to “feel like church?” What is that magic ingredient that makes you feel spiritually fed, full of gratitude, with an eye looking toward something greater? I’m softly and quietly watching and waiting for it. But, this music flows around me, and it feels like church to me. Sitting here on my bed with my drowsy 5-year-old boy pulling on my arm and making me type one-handed feels like beauty. Having my 7-year-old daughter sandwiched on the other side breathing holiness in my ear is a voice that I recognize. Feeling my husband inches away from me finding the home church of this band on Google Earth is comfort and peace and love. I hope that God authors all these things. I think He does. After being born and bred in a system that makes it their literal business to provide explanations and answers, one of my most profound realizations has been that the beauty is in this mystery. There is so much that I admit I don’t know, but I find that the more I see that, the less I feel like the knowing is the point at all. Maybe, the gift is in the journey, and I’m right where I need to be after all.

What’s Wrong With the Modesty Message?

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When you’re raised in Mormon culture, you hear a lot of messages about modesty. Modest is hottest!! Just say no to porn shoulders!! This subject has been ruminating on my mind quite a bit and more especially lately because it was brought up in the marriage group I participate in. There are some issues that break on faith lines, but I don’t think this is one of them. I think women tend to be more bothered by this regardless of their level of orthodoxy, but that is most likely merely because they are more aware of it. My own opinions about how modesty is promoted in religious contexts have evolved a lot since I was a teen myself and as my own daughters have grown toward the autonomy of adulthood. So, what IS wrong with the modesty message?

  1. Shouldn’t it be their body, their choice? Although this hasn’t been something that’s been a part of my parenting for the duration, it has evolved over time to become a message that even my youngest children are very familiar with now. Simply put, I don’t own my children. I teach them my values and dialogue with them about pros and cons of potential choices. But, at the end of the day, it IS their body, and it IS their choice. (Seriously, if people ask their name and they don’t want to share it, I don’t. If you try to coerce them to hug you, Mama Bear comes right out.) The modesty message reinforces the idea that body choices don’t belong to the individual, and that’s a problem for me. My kids don’t need to think about who might be looking at and assessing them whether it be me, my husband or their church leaders, friends or neighbors. You can’t be comfortable in your own skin if you’re not sure who’s in charge of it.
  2. It puts all the pressure on girls. I have sat through countless young women’s lessons about dress, decorum and standards. (And, based on what I’ve observed, the boys don’t focus on this. Statistics show that teen girls receive six times as many modesty messages as teen boys.) I’ve seen people sit in front of a classroom and hold up specific people as examples of either what to wear or what not to wear. (Seriously, ewwww.) Modesty is promoted as the idea that we are worth more than an objectified standard (which we are.) However, objectification cuts both ways. When girls hear over and over that they are better without their shoulders showing, that is pretty objectifying. I know girls that have stopped participating in church activity because they’re so tired/bored/annoyed by the one-dimensional nature of this message. In addition, the modesty message suggests that girls need to worry about what boys think, and that if they aren’t careful, they could be responsible for someone else’s poor decision. This is pretty gross to both men and women, frankly. Men are better than that and, if they’re not, the absence of a tank top is certainly not going to inspire them to be decent because it’s a much bigger problem than anyone’s clothing choices.
  3. There is no cultural context. Simply put, modesty means different things to different people in different environments. It is the cultural norm in some countries, for example, for women to be topless to promote bonding and easier access to breastfeeding for their babies. In sharp contrast, Victorian cultures found ankles to be titillating which seems downright ridiculous in our modern era. The only difference is context. I think it is pretty shortsighted to preach modesty as if this context isn’t fluid. It is. (Did you know that the 1964 BYU Homecoming queen wore a sleeveless dress? Yep. It was pretty common in that cultural context and not considered taboo at all.) Our children, both boys and girls, would be much better served to learn self-respect, responsibility and accountability than to focus on a checklist of dress standards.
  4. It interferes with the development of healthy sexuality. This is an issue that I don’t think most young women really understand because, sadly, it only begins to rear its ugly head when they are adults. The standard modesty message does not promote healthy sexuality. It promotes the idea that “good girls” stick to a narrative that is prescribed, and they are broken and used if they don’t. Except, once a girl is married, then the narrative changes. The problem is that girls can’t flip that switch overnight, and many, many religious women find themselves mired in shame, heartache and misunderstanding with their partner because they literally do not know how to be comfortable as sexual beings. This is so, so sad to me. (How I escaped this attitude myself with my background is a miracle to me.) And, again, young men don’t get this same message. The modesty message gives a wink and a nod to the idea that boys will be boys, leaving the majority of the long-term burden of this consequence to women.

I need to make it perfectly clear that this is not a treatise on what anyone should or shouldn’t wear. In fact, it is just the opposite. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who follows a strong internal compass. I just happen to think that every person should feel free to choose these priorities themselves. I don’t always approve of everything that my kids wear out my door. I hope that my children will choose to invest intimacy in a long-term, committed partnership that includes marriage because I think there’s pretty practical benefits to doing so. We talk about these things, and I give my kids my opinion. But, I am pretty dang defensive about anyone who tries to leverage cultural messages in a way that is unhealthy to them. I haven’t always recognized the modesty message as harmful, and I internalized an awful lot of it myself as a teen and young adult woman.  But, when you know better, you do better, and I hope to give my kids better than what I got in this department. For the rest of my readers, maybe it will, at the very least, provide a different perspective that will give you something to think about. Could we do better? Is there a healthier way? I think so.

Marking The Year That Changed My Life

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I’ve been mulling this post over for at least a week. How do I address the year that changed everything? What can I say to even begin to do it justice? I probably won’t, but I will try. There are some things in life that are so earth-shattering, so groundbreaking, that you mark them by before the thing and after the thing. You can remember your life before them. You can even look back with fondness, but you can never, never go back to the way it was. This year was that year in my life. 2018 will forever mark that before and after.

I have been called brave for standing up to someone who took advantage of me. I have had women open up and share their own “me too” stories that they do not feel able to expose publicly. I don’t know how I feel about that honor. The truth is that I didn’t feel brave; I felt desperate. My life had become riddled with minefields that were no longer avoidable, and they were tripping in our marriage and home life every time we turned around. I needed out of the almost constant adrenaline fest of fear and insecurity. Going public was the only way I saw, and we took it.

There have been many times over this year that I have wondered if it was worth it. I vividly remember falling apart in the arms of my daughter’s future other-mother-in-law when she came to look at my girl’s foot that was hurting yet again. See, she had chronic sprains, and we were afraid that she had maybe broken it this time. Except, my life had been utter chaos for six months at that point, and things like renewing our insurance had fallen through the cracks. Which meant that I didn’t even have the resources that particular day to take my girl to the doctor. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I did take her, I did sort out the insurance, and she did get the care she needed, but I was so deeply aware in that moment how much of a price we had all paid, and I felt completely and utterly broken by that fact.

I have seven kids, and I truly hope that they either do look up to me or will come to as they become adults. But, having other people see me as representative of something bigger than myself is new, different, humbling. The truth is that my life is largely quite boring. I’m a homebody – a private person, even. I sew. I make soap. I raise my kids. I try to be a good neighbor and friend and not put my foot in my mouth too terribly often. (I don’t always succeed – ask my friends and family.) I write because it’s good therapy and people seem to think I have words worth reading.

I am not a perfect person. I yell at my kids way too often. (The other day my 5-year-old told my 7-year-old that she better do what I asked before I was “tired of this sh*t.” Yep, that happened. Oy. For the record, I don’t speak that way to young children, but I have teen boys and adults that push my buttons like you can only understand if you have them as well. :/ ) I have stolen zippers and laundry soap before (on accident) and been too frazzled to run back in and pay like a proper citizen should. I can be ridiculously self centered and me-focused. We all have a baser nature – inner selves that aren’t pretty or polished. But, I really and truly try to live by a set of values that lead me to be better. All this was true before January 2018, and it will be just as true as the calendar turns again.

Things are different for me. My relationship with religion is different – everything has shifted and adjusted. It’s quieter. There’s less expectations and more uncertainty. It’s more honest. I don’t know how it will look going forward, but I do know that it will be mine. My marriage is different. There’s less fear and insecurity. There’s more mutual respect and room for our own individual expressions.We’ve both had to face the prospect of losing our relationship and found reasons to remain and thrive.

It’s the end of this year. It’s almost officially the after the thing mark. This makes me understandably introspective. How do you process what could arguably be considered the biggest event in your life? What is the debriefing process? I don’t even know. I’ve dealt with it like I think anyone else does: you take it one day at a time and do your very best to cope and learn and grow and survive. It feels more like learning and growing as the year wraps up and less like coping and surviving. And, I guess that is the most important thing to communicate about this year – I made it THROUGH. I’m not really special – truly. My journey may be different than yours, but I would put good money on the table that you have what it takes to get through hard things, too. It may be that you haven’t walked through a year that changed your life. It may be that you have. Either way, when you find yourself faced with your own giant, take it one day at a time. Do your very best to cope and learn and grow and survive. You will. You have what it takes to fight the battles put in front of you. I promise.