We Called It Zion
Everyone agrees, Utah is one of the most beautiful States in the Union. Standing on the east rim of the Great Salt Lake Basin with the Wasatch mountains at your back, the view is bewitching. If you're driving east from Wendover, Nevada, the mountains take your breath away. If you’re a ski bum and you die in Utah, you're already in heaven. Me? I waited until the divorce was final and headed southwest. Knew I had to get away. Little did I realize it was the beginning of a lifelong journey. Eight years later, I was being summoned back.
Mom and Dad had called. I made an excuse. Been there, done that. They called again. Bring Danny. I relented. The whole clan was gathering for Thanksgiving. Ignoring a dull slug of bile under my belt, I angled northeast out of Vegas.
It was midnight. One prearranged stop on the way. My son Danny lived in Ogden with my ex. Midmorning, I turned into a small neighborhood. It had been a cold, bleak drive until Danny shot out the door. His round face was changing, beginning to elongate. Couldn’t help wishing he’d stay that way. How could I insulate him from the harsh switchbacks of life? Until we parked in front of the folks' place, which seemed smaller than it used to be, he hadn’t stopped talking. His voice, the excitement – the stuff time was invented for.
Nine years since I announced my re-evaluation of all things Mormon. Mom called me the prodigal, because I'd moved from the City of the Saints to Sin City, Nevada. "Prodigal" was her way of dealing with what she called my wrong-minded and wicked ways. Mom had a way with words, depending on when she popped the morning Valium her good Mormon doctor prescribed for her.
I was beating myself up for getting talked into another visit to the opposing team’s home court. The familial glue pulled at me. I wanted things to be like they used to be. I wanted to be accepted for me, not for what they wanted me to be.
I forced a deep breath and focused on Danny, the real reason I'd come. I didn’t want him to know my emptiness. It was important for him to have roots and to know his grandparents, even though for me it would end, as always, with a bitter taste in my mouth. I had no idea this time it would be so much worse. The trips had shrunk in length and frequency, but I didn’t seem to be getting any smarter.
I caught up on the usual family gossip. I had forgotten how limited their world was. When I was in the room, they tried to make conversation that was other world.
“Bagged a beauty this year. Eight points. Couldn’t carry it out of the hills, it was so big,” a brother-in-law said.
I give them credit. They tried hard, which only made it more awkward. We could talk about mom’s cooking or killing animals; otherwise . . . while some subjects were off limits, dad always tried to get me alone for serious talk. Maneuvering had become an acquired skill. Survival instinct. What I found curious was that my family seemed to have no idea how alien my birth culture had become to me.
I couldn’t get enough of Danny. He was like a book I couldn't put down, each day a page. The book his mother read contained mostly filled pages. The one I had was mostly blank.
Saturday rolled around. Time to start back. A sister would return Danny to my ex-wife so he could stay an extra day. I threw everything in the car and spent my last minutes with Danny. In his eyes, ever the echo of our love.
When kids want something, waiting doesn’t compute. It tore something inside when Danny and I parted. He felt it too. Dad attempted to corner me one last time. As I shook his hand, I reminded him that nothing had changed. “I’m weary of seeing you hurt, Dad. Let’s leave it there.”
I did the hugs. A peck on Mom’s cheek, and I was out the door. Half a block away I glanced at the rear view mirror. A small figure in the middle of the street was running after me. My insides turned over. It was Danny. He didn’t want me to go. He wanted to catch me, stop what was happening, change it. I backed up, left the car running, the door swinging wide. His tears were mine, DNA dear.
We walked back with my arm over his shoulder. As we came to the front steps, I looked up. Instantly I wished I hadn’t.
Behind the picture window were shadows that reached out and pulled me in like a close-up lens. I felt like I had been slapped. Each was a silhouette I knew. Mom’s sheer curtains filtered out the expressions, but the shadows were all too familiar.
Cement for legs. They had let my son’s anguish escalate without lifting a finger and had congregated behind the window to watch. I'd thought I had his distraction arranged with my sister and her kids. I knew after I was gone they would subtlety maul Danny with my sinful, rebellious nature. It was a one-true-church-only craft that came with the territory.
With a staring, fixed gaze, I forced a breath. As I did, the images disbursed like pins in a bowling alley. They had seen me see them. A bilge pump spewed sour into my stomach.
Danny and I entered the house. We were met with a loud hush. Every eye looked away and at me at the same time. I turned to Dad, but it was was Mom who spoke.
“You brought this on yourself.” She said, biting the words. “When are you going to grow up? You went on a mission, for heaven's sake.”
She obviously hadn’t had her Valium yet.
My son had enough emotional anguish for one day. I had to think of him first. I was still looking at Dad as he closed his Book of Mormon and placed it on the end table, then rose and took Danny into the next room.
I was raised in Zion. Was taught that true freedom only exists through the one-and-only true church and that we are free precisely because we are obedient to the law of God revealed to us though our prophet. I was taught that the church is a true democracy, one that cannot be understood without a testimony of the restored gospel. I was schooled in the right questions, along with the right answers. Anything beyond that was intellectualizing and wrong-mindedness. I remember something Dad said in one of our serious talks.
“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.”
It was something he had read in church literature. He’d been careful to explain that if I returned to the fold, paid a true ten percent tithe, and repented of my wrong-mindedness, my testimony of the church would return and I would know the truth again. I realized I could not attend another church service without feeling like I was being forced to shut down my brain in some kind of deep freeze.
As a good member of the only true church, I had been a man being tested. Wow! I actually stopped holding my breath. I realized mistakes were learning opportunities, and making them was how we grew. Doing what I was told was so much simpler.
Re-calibrating my moral compass was so challenging a task, I couldn’t relax for a moment or the old tapes would loop and re-loop. The reward was the liberating effect, a whole new dimension of understanding. I began living, not for tomorrow’s promises, but for the adventure innate to each day’s experience. It didn’t happen overnight. Inch by inch, mistake by mistake, I was reshaping my life.
Leaving my first set of values was one of the hardest things I ever did. That primary set of cultural software was set deep. It wasn't erased by driving across a state line. I discovered that I had never had to think for myself before. Choices were complicated at first. Many disastrous.
When you finally experience the reality of independent thought, something happens to the mind. You can’t go back. To try is painful. Cells, alive with excitement, have to be turned off, and you can’t find the switch. There isn’t one.
My genetics, experience, and perception were utterly unique, a one-time deal. I was learning by my own mistakes, those tailored to my specifications, and not those designed by someone else to meet their purposes. My choices and desires created opportunities, problems, and solutions as unique as I was. There were always learning experiences requiring adjustments – customized lessons peculiar to me. Mistakes are as individual as people, and I wanted to make my own choices, determine my own values. Didn’t mean I couldn’t learn from others. Meant I had to be self-responsible. The church fathers were no longer who I looked to for answers. I had to find my own.
I came to realize I’d never known what true democracy was. Instead of being obedient to another’s set of rules, I had to be true to myself. There were other liberating moments. I discovered I had no desire to liberate my family, but I remembered the curtains of life and the shadows behind allowing a child to suffer for the cause of righteousness.
These were defining moments provoking me into action. I found myself reading books that were not approved by Mormon leadership. The worst thing I did, in my father’s eyes, was to break the silence.
When I read a statement written by the sociologist Dr. Jan Shipps in her Book Sojourner in the Promised Land, separation of church and state took on a significance that blew my hair back. Dr. Shipps said, “Utah is a theocracy.” Finally I understood. Leaving Zion was taking a ship to the new world. It was a Boston tea party. It was a Declaration of Independence. I needed a Bill of Rights, a personal Bill of Rights. To find it had required a journey.