Before you ask me how I’m doing, kindly check your bandwidth, and your tolerance for “too much.”
Ask yourself if you’re ready to see my ebb – my mud covered, shit smeared, sun baked, claw-crawling self as I inch toward a faint scent of water. Not pretty.
Ask yourself if my abrasions, shiners, banged-up deep-seeping splits still left open to heal slowly – my 1000 cuts gaping like tiny mouths or vaginas, filled with ooze of “not ok yet or maybe ever” – will be “too much.”
Do you have the bandwidth? (Do any of us?) If not, kindly tell me so I can put on the well-polished half-smiling mask – don the nodding camouflage of “ok” – sustain the Illusion of “l have my shit together” – prop myself up against something more solid – and confidently voice the “no problem” and the “I’ve got this.”
Some wounds simply cannot be reached by our own hands. We try to deny this. We ignore the rot because tending and tenderness seem too much to ask.
Yet, if we could see – really see each other – we might find a sea of extras for The Walking Dead – carnage shambling toward unspoken needs, but with light pouring from fissured skins like miracles – glowing slivers of what we are underneath meat suit and culture – the not fine yet sublime.
Can we, though wounded, become fingers dripping with poultices? Sinews and needles and stitches? Conduits? Hacksaws? Tongues tracing scars and tender spaces? Ears tuned to whispers of barely speakable truths? Witnesses gazing, unphased, as exposed truths furiously burrow back underground? Can we be hands that hold through screams and labor and deaths without letting go?
I hope so, but I do not know.
I cannot to fix any of this, so I weave a secret fort – invite you into sanctuary brimming with pillows and blankies and plushies – hope that my cries to some greater force to enfold us in healing light as we enter is heard – that divinity might open us like poppies – to embraces and cuddles and naps and snacks and flashlight stories – curled together as littermates once more.
This post honors the 20th anniversary of my excommunication from the Mormon church by offering an image and a poem.
The image is my attempt to put the bones of my birth culture to rest (hence the text in the speech bubbles which are taken, like a found poem, from a Swamp Thing comic). I used the image as part of the invitation to my 20th anniversary party – which was held at a pub on a Sunday and included both champagne and coffee 😉
The poem chronicles my emancipation.
May this image or these words fit the shape of someone’s wound and bring healing.
First, the image:
Now the poem:
The original version of the poem was written in a class taught by Patti Trimble – an amazing poet and artist – then honed in a wonderful memoir class taught by the poet, activist, and inspirational womyn Dr. Judy Grahn. When I explained all of references to Mormon culture and doctrine contained in the poem Judy suggested I create footnotes – so those who are not Mormon can understand the nuances. I thank her for that suggestion.
Kicking against the Pricks (with endnotes for the doctrinally disinclined)
If you want to hear me read it, click here:
“The natural man is an enemy to God…” (The Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3:19)
“Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.” (TheDoctrine and Covenants 121:38)[i]
[iv] Eve was supposedly created by God from Adam’s rib (The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:21-25)
[v] Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) consider Eve a heroine rather than the cause of all sin. Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit and therefore know good from evil. In fact, Adam and Eve could not have children in the innocence of the Garden of Eden and had to transgress for God’s plan to be successful: “… Adam and Eve made a deliberate choice to partake of the forbidden fruit. Their choice did not come from a desire to disobey the Lord, but from a desire to gain wisdom. Because of this choice, we have the opportunity to come to earth and learn, as Adam and Eve did, how to choose good over evil. Express your gratitude for Adam and Eve and the choice they made.” (Preparing for Exaltation: Teacher’s Manual, (1998), 13–16)
[viii] The term “set apart” is typically used when someone is given a calling, or unpaid job, in the church like teaching lessons to the children, or being a Bishop, or becoming a full-time missionary. “Setting apart” is done by the laying on of hands by a priesthood holder. LDS doctrine explains it this way: “The setting apart is an established practice in the Church and men and women are ‘set apart’ to special responsibility, in ecclesiastical, quorum, and auxiliary positions.” President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985), The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (1982), 478. Note that women cannot ever set anyone apart as they do not have priesthood authority, which is given only to males.
[ix]The term “Latter-Day Saint” “is a commonly used term for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” https://www.lds.org/topics/latter-day-saints?lang=eng. Latter-day Saints are also referred to, usually by people outside of the religion as “Mormons” in reference to LDS adoption of The Book of Mormon as scripture of equal footing to The Holy Bible.
[x] A reference to the “pearl of great price, which is both included in a parable in the New Testament (see Matthew 13:45-46) and to one of the official books of LDS scripture, The Pearl of Great Price.
[xi] “Gnashing of teeth” happens in a place called “outer darkness.” According to LDS doctrine, “outer darkness” is the worst possible destination after the final judgment – the ultimate punishment. The LDS book Gospel Fundamentals explains it like this: “Outer darkness is where Satan and those who have followed him will live. These people will be those who chose to live with Satan. They will not be forgiven. These people will live forever in darkness, sorrow, and suffering with Satan and the spirits who followed him.” (Chapter 36)
[xii] Latter-day Saints believe that they are part of a chain of believers, sealed by the priesthood ordinances which take place inside of holy temples. This ancestral chain stretches backward and forward into the eternities. Prophet Gordon B. Hinkley, considered a modern prophet, told listeners in a speech in 1999 “not to become a weak link in the chain of your generations.” He continued: “Your children will have children, as will the children who come after them. Life is a great chain of generations that we in the Church believe must be linked together.” He also said, “It is so important that we pass on without a blemish our inheritance of body and brain and … faith and virtue, untarnished, to the generations who will come after us.” Ensign, February 2000. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2000/02/news-of-the-church/do-it-with-a-glad-heart-president-hinckley-advises.html?lang=eng
[xiii] For LDS people, your testimony of the truthfulness of the LDS church is EVERYTHING. Turning your back on a witness from the Holy Ghost, called a testimony, is one of the most heretical acts possible. In fact, the sharing of testimony is so important that the first Sunday of each month is designated as “fast and testimony meeting” during which individual members go to the pulpit and share their witness of the gospel, or testimony, with the congregation. As the official LDS website states: “A testimony is a spiritual witness given by the Holy Ghost. The foundation of a testimony is the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves His children; that Jesus Christ lives, that He is the Son of God, and that He carried out the infinite Atonement; that Joseph Smith is the prophet of God who was called to restore the gospel; that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior’s true Church on the earth; and that the Church is led by a living prophet today. With this foundation, a testimony grows to include all principles of the gospel.” https://www.lds.org/topics/testimony?lang=eng
[xiv] Horned Lizards squirt blood from their eyes as a defense mechanism. “Among the most famous, and spectacular, performers of autohemorrhaging are three species of North American desert-dwelling lizard, Phrynosoma cornutum, P. coronatum, and P. solare, which are commonly known (albeit inaccurately) as horned toads…If the predator is still not intimidated, however, and persists in its attack, the lizard has one final, and quite grotesque, defense mechanism. It uses a series of thin-walled, blood-filled spaces called sinuses found within its eye sockets. When the lizard rapidly increases the blood pressure within these sinuses, it causes the sinus walls to break suddenly. The blood is then forced out in jet-like squirts of crimson droplets. Sometimes, the force with which the lizard squirts this eye-ejected blood is so powerful that it can send sprays shooting up to distances of 4 feet (1.2 m). This bizarre squirting can be repeated several times if necessary, which is usually sufficient to frighten off any predator. Also, the squirted blood may contain a distasteful chemical, which would act as an additional deterrent [sic] to potential predators” (Shuker, 2001:128) Shuker, 2001, The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature. London: Marshall Editions Ltd. 240 p.
[xv] This is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness. If you do not understand the reference, you should consider reading the book, because providing more detail here would be a huge plot spoiler.
[xvi] “Even a goat” is a reference to the idea that a woman should accept any sacrifice on her behalf, even a substandard one. According to St. Matthew, it is far preferable to be a sheep rather than a goat: “32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.” (The Holy Bible, Matthew 25: 32-33)
[xvii] When a man or woman in the LDS Church goes through the sacred temple rites, they begin to wear the temple garment, rather than traditional underwear, under their clothing. This reminds them of the covenants they made with God during the temple ceremony. The official LDS website explains the garment like this: “In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are no outer religious vestments in ordinary worship services. However, many faithful Latter-day Saints wear a garment under their clothing that has deep religious significance. Similar in design to ordinary modest underclothing, it comes in two pieces and is usually referred to as the “temple garment.” http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/temple-garments
[xviii] Prophets, and even Jesus Christ, went into the wilderness, or desert, to be taught of God. Here are examples: Moses (The Holy Bible, Exodus Chapter 3); Brigham (“When Brigham Young died 100 years ago, on August 29, 1877, he was the leader of an empire of 350 towns and cities blossoming in a desert, and he was the prophet—the literal spokesman of God—to over 100,000 people” (England, “Young Brigham” The New Era, September 1977); John the Baptist (The Holy Bible, Matthew 3:1); and Jesus Christ (The Holy Bible, Luke Chapter 4).
[xix] Manna is food that fell from the sky to feed the Children of Israel in the wilderness (The Holy Bible, Psalms 78:24; Deuteronomy 8:16). It is important to note that LDS people consider themselves literal descendants of the people of Israel. In fact, each person is encouraged to receive a “patriarchal blessing” which tells them to which tribe of Israel they belong: “Every worthy, baptized member is entitled to and should receive a patriarchal blessing, which provides inspired direction from the Lord” (Handbook 2: Administering the Church , 20.12.1). Patriarchal blessings include a declaration of a person’s lineage in the house of Israel and contain personal counsel from the Lord. As a person studies his or her patriarchal blessing and follows the counsel it contains, it will provide guidance, comfort, and protection.” https://history.lds.org/article/chl-pb?lang=eng#what-is-a-patriarchal-blessing
[xx] God also gave water to the people of Israel: “Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint” (The Holy Bible, Deuteronomy 8:15)
[xxi] A reference to John the Baptist, who ate wild honey and locusts in the wilderness (The Holy Bible, Mark 1:6)
[xxii] References to Moses parting the Red Sea, saving Israel from the armies of Pharaoh and leading them toward the Promised Land (The Holy Bible, Exodus, Chapter 14)
[xxiii] A reference to the many revelations given to prophets at mountaintops (The Holy Bible, Exodus 19:20);
[xxiv] A reference to Moses receiving the ten commandments (The Holy Bible, Exodus chapters 31 and 32)
[xxv] A reference to Christ preaching sermons in the wilderness and mountains (The Holy Bible, Matthew Chapters 5-7)
[xxvi] A reference to the burning bush of Moses (The Holy Bible, Exodus, chapter 3)
[xxvii] Whirlwinds are commonly sent in the Old Testament to punish the wicked (ex: The Holy Bible, Jeremiah 23:19)
[xxviii] What God chose to be called by the people of Israel (The Holy Bible, Exodus 3:14)
Does the cause really matter? Whether by wind-ember, arson, or friction-sparked words, the tangled fuel of uncleared underbrush between us ignited. Structures glowed red, then orange, then yellow, then blue, to finally blacken and crumble to grey.
Even the neighborhood is gone, landmarks obliterated as if in a blast zone. Gone is the round barn, our marriage gazebo, lilac trees, altars, your hands on my skin.
Now cool enough to approach, only isolated stones remain, islands emerging from a blanket of rubbled ash – a slate chimney, broken concrete, a sandstone staircase leading nowhere.
A two-pathed question emerges: stay or go, rebuild or diverge? We have long felt the pull apart, a wishbone aching to snap. Perhaps fire, Pele, ashes, are painful kindnesses. Some cones open their seeds only to fire.
Ash bestows fertility. Minerals captured in living tissues return to the soil to be used again. Rainforest cultures know this cycle of slash, burn, replant, repeat. The slash, the felling of the green between us, ached more than the burn. The slash opened. The burn cauterized.
I know how to sift. Little-used skills gained in archaeology field-school on the banks of the Snake River. First map, then shovel into screens, then collect jumbled pieces – some smooth, some jagged, some too small to recognize, some too large to ignore. Turn over each shard, decide to bag and tag – or to trash. Later, spread the rescued pieces onto long lab tables, look for patterns, fashion a plausible story, publish the results, await peer review.
So, I sift, I assess, and I write. Trying to weave sense from senselessness – knowing any tale reconstructed from fragments will always hold more questions than answers.
I watch to see what rises. I hope for green, but not with you.
I wrote this in 2017 when fires in Sonoma County, California – a place I inhabited for seventeen years – echoed profound changes burning through my personal landscape. Enough time has passed to share these words, that like a cairn, mark a pivot point. Old structures are missed. New structures have formed. I’m still sifting – learning that green rises at its own pace.
Keep your hands on the handlebars. Age 13. Ten speed bike. Ambulance ride. Stitches. Scars. #StrangersCare #cuteEMT #BlacktopStillEmbeddedInElbow #BackpacksProtectBacks #RememberedMyFirstAidTraining #ToldThemToElevateMyFeetBecauseOfShock
Sharpened trowels cut through more than soil layers. Age 19. Archaeological field school. Reaching into backpack. #MadeALeatherSheath #ProblemSolved #StaySharp
Sometimes people need stickers on windows. Ongoing. #CantWalkThroughThat #StickersAreNotJustForBirds
Microwaves superheat water. Age 32. Spilled soup. Trip to university clinic. #DoNotBalanceOnLap #UseATray
Chances of spraining ankle just walking is greater than while doing something dangerous. Ages 18, 19, 22, 25, 27, 30, 31. #JustFuckingWalkingAcrossTheLawn #OrAFlatSurface #NeverRockClimbingOrCaving
The steeper the slope the greater the gravity. Ongoing. #WalkingStick #RidingDownslopeOnAssWorks #NoShame
Carbide lamps create actual fire that singes hair. Age 19. National Youth Science Camp caving trip. #MiniBlowTorch #CompanionsBeware
I met her while walking the wrong way on the trail. I felt her before I encountered her story. I circled, fascinated by the pattern of lines and holes covering her trunk and by her absence of bark. Though she looked dead, hollow with an open knot in the shape of a heart, her presence lingered.
After I read the signage, her story, I had to sit on a nearby bench until I had strength to walk again.
They skinned The Mother of the Forest alive, segment by numbered segment, and reconstructed a shell of her as an exhibition, later destroyed by fire. Only this scorched skeletal, yet still rooted snag of her remains.
She continues to defy erasure.
Her legacy also remains. Outrage at her exploitation saved the grove, now protected as a park.
In 1854, as the bark of The Mother of the Forest was being excised, my 4th great grandmother, Mary Ann Williams prepared to immigrate to Utah, despite the recent death of her husband. Determined to join the Mormon Saints, she sailed to New York and joined the ill-fated Willie handcart company. Mary Ann and her six children all survived low provisions and being stranded by early snowfall, partly due to her ingenuity. To combat freezing temperatures, Mary Ann warmed rocks each night by the fire to keep the children warm. Because of her resourcefulness, I exist as DNA and experiences passed to her daughter Eliza, then to Emma, to Nellie, to Maxine, and through my father, to me.
Like the Mother of the Forest, these women defied erasure through sacrifice. They are the threads I am made of, stitched together through stories, actions, and heart. Their legacies live in me.
From Mary Ann, who left home to follow her faith, I gained resourcefulness and flexible thinking. From Eliza, who weakened by the trek, died young in childbirth, I learned creation despite risk. From Emma, who raised her children and those of her sister, rather than disavow their husband when he married a third, younger wife, I received the gifts of storytelling and endurance. From Nellie, who died of downwinder cancer caused by government nuclear testing, yet who never said an unkind word, I gleaned a love of learning and teaching. From Maxine, who remained with her secretly cruel husband to nurture each of her grandchildren into believing they were her favorite, I gained a sense of playful disobedience.
Official accounts paint these women as fiercely Mormon – believing, sacrificing, and dying true to the faith. Where they loved men, I love women. Where they chose faith, I choose excommunication. Where they chose to remain in toxic marriages, I choose freedom.
For years I feared I disappointed them – that my choices somehow diminished the power of their sacrifices. That walking the wrong way on trails has ancestral consequences. Part of me wanted to please my grandmothers, to remain Mormon, to honor their legacy through imitation, yet I relish the freedom to walk a pathway resonant with my soul.
One night, years after I left Mormonism, I encountered Maxine in a dream. We sat together, holding hands as I expressed my fear. She took my face in her hands, looked deeply into me, smiled and said, “you were always too big for those temple garments anyway.”
Though I walk a different path, I honor the sacrifices of my grandmothers and The Mother of the Forest by sharing stories of their lives, by showing my daughter that each sacrifice was a choice, an offering to future generations. In these stories I pass my threads and theirs into my daughter’s hands as an antidote to past erasures and as a glimpse of gifts generated in the ancestral past.
Perfection rises as an illusion of light and heat. As straight lines imposed on curved landscapes. As adherence to rules. As dogmas of the one true way.
No human can reach this mirage, Beloved. Not even you.
How long will you wound yourself, insisting that every attempt, step, breath, desire, creation be perfect from the onset?
You allow yourself no learning curve. No compassion. You excise imperfections with white-hot knives.
It is not arduous work or endings which impede you, but fear of imperfect beginnings. You hesitate on thresholds simply because you might fail.
Remember when you stood on the slopes of the Claron Formation, slope-a-scope and plant guide in hand, a site to survey, frozen in fear? Aunt Carole broke the spell, saying “you’re here, you know what you’re doing, trust yourself and just do it.” Gathering your courage, you did. Not perfectly, but well.
Can you imagine life without this drive for perfection?
Stop. Listen. Imagine.
Imperfections are gifts.
Remember your minerals. When you select one from many, you choose those bearing unexpected color, texture, or shape. Elemental imperfections appear red, yellow, green, blue, or opaque, rather than clear. Crystalline imperfections emerge as botryoidal or vesicular or striated, rather than smooth. Imperfections create beauty.
Imperfections invite wonder.
Remember miles of desert interrupted by wildflowers. Green of meadows marked by unexpected splashes of lupine and paintbrush. Once rough hillslopes smoothed and curved. Roadside waterfalls. Trees defying drought. Sage perfuming the wind. Rocks outcropping as resistant cliffs. Green emerging from fire-blackened trees. Imperfections surprise.
Imperfections embrace wildness.
Remember your child self, running through orchards, gathering fruit, climbing trees, untamed. Recall mixing mud pies, following ant trails, illuminating microscope slides, gathering earthworms, fishing, and romping with rabbits.
Embrace the dirty, grass-stained, tear-stained, sweat-stained, imperfect, happy, free, wild one you were before cultural taming. Imperfections defy civilization.
Imperfections curve and meander.
Remember precisely engineered waterways in your hometown – concrete beds imposed to control flow and flood and course.
Imposed perfection kills the river, removing nooks for fish, boulders, log jams, rope-swings over pools, hands splashing, feet balancing on uneven stones, exploration by canoe.
The river has no thalweg, no invisible line connecting deepest points, for all depths are even, equal, boring, predictable. All that remains is concretized flow.
Embrace life curving into unknown territories, cutting banks, leaving sandbars, carrying loads. Trace the curves of your lover’s lips, of your lips, of shapes made by joining and shapes made alone. Imperfections braid and flow.
Find holiness in imperfection. See sanctity in curves of thighs, in pregnancy furrows, in loose skin that once stretched taut over extra pounds of flesh. Embrace mistakes, longings, feelings, aches. Caress fractures in your once-broken heart, cracks now mended with kintsugi gold. Trace the rills in your facescape, the wrinkles carved by concentration, laughter, sadness, joy. Imperfections reclaim.
Imperfections are gifts.
Perfection rises as an illusion of light and heat. No human can reach this mirage, Beloved.