I get off the train at Harvard, the top of my throat clenching itself into a tight fist. I am still wheeling my luggage. I haven't even gone to the bathroom after my flight. For some reason this is the first and only thing I want to do now that I'm back in Boston.
I walk along the familiar brick sidewalk in a cloud of my own consciousness, only dimly aware of the people, cyclists, autos. 'I could turn back now. I could pretend it is not real,' I think to myself. But my feet are moving, almost of their own accord - it is for this reason they move forward: to make it real. Cool spring foliage brushes by my forehead as evening begins its descent. I think of death, how the force of it sometimes doesn't even fully hit you until you see that body there, lying in the open casket. Hollow shell of the person, the memories that you loved and still love. And then you want to be with people who understand.
I am at a bus stop in San Francisco when Rachel calls me. "Did you hear about our church?" she asks. "No, what happened?" Lauren and I are on our way to Bay to Breakers. "It burned to the ground."
I imagine the flames and smoke and feel hollow inside, exposed. My sorrow surprises me. My relationship with this religion is not, has never been pretty. I do not feel like I belong here. I feel that even the act of saying what I truly think would make a lot of people uncomfortable. I fear they would worry about my salvation, my faith, my testimony.
Two weeks prior, I help to clean the chapel. As my hands care for that building, I find them filled with love, as they move deliberately over the windows, the pews, the exterior, setting things in order, tidying, preparing it for worship the next day. I imagine the hands that crafted it, decades ago, remember all the people who have worshiped in it since then. Savor the love that I feel after wiping down those windows and vacuuming those upholstered pews. I am grateful for the chance to cleanse, to perform this simple action which has apparently taken on ritual meaning for me. But then I go in to church the next day, curl up on the floor in the kitchen, and want to cry at the distance I feel between myself and others or perhaps the god they worship.
But I am reaching out. Overall, I am.
A small group of us gather to plant: peas, zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers. There are little beds behind the building, filled with rich, dark soil. Earthworms. Dreams. Gardening has always possessed a magical power for me. We meet on Saturdays or early evenings to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, set the bricks in straight lines along the edge. We take turns watering on days the rain doesn't fall. We are hoping for a good harvest this year.
I come around the bend and the chapel appears in front of me, my church, with its windows boarded up, its roof sunken in, charred wood littering the grass. Around it a chain link fence has been erected. And there, in the middle of the sidewalk, the tears begin to tumble from my eyes. Tears of a dozen other sorrows spilling forth, released, multiplied, by this tangible loss. With a shift and a sigh, the world positions itself so that I am facing the front of the building. The beautiful round window is smashed, patches of sky and cloud gaping through. Luggage and bags fall at my feet, and my eyes move over and over the metal letters fastened to the bricks, spelling "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints."
I have and have had friends, good friends, dear friends, old lovers who are uncomfortable by this aspect of my being. They are delightfully progressive, care about all the things I care about, fight for the things I fight for. They are happy to work alongside me to make the world a better place. And they truly care for me, love me, so they put up with this weird and embarrassing religious stuff. But I actually think that some would prefer this facet of my life did not even exist. Cannot, do not want to understand what it means to me, why I grapple with such heavy, often distasteful matters. Why I torment myself. I cannot answer their wonderings, since I hardly know myself. And yet these feelings remind me.
Though at times I have failed to acknowledge it to others or even to myself, this religion is more than the anxiousness it often causes me, the unresolved questions which may remain so until I die. It more than unequal treatment of homosexuals, women, people of color. How can it be so? How can I live every day in this paradox? Sometimes I do not know. And yet, there is something deeper there. Something I hope for, FEEL, at an instinctive level. Reflections of eternal hopes for a kinder world, for better, more virtuous and loving selves. Of transformation. Of grace. To me, the most beautiful parts of it are those which parallel ancient truths, which bring new light and insight to already meaningful tradition. Of course there are cultural influences which are outdated, which are only slowly beginning to change. Of course there are things that don't really make sense.
This religion, though, I cannot get rid of it. It cannot get rid of me. This messy, awkward, often painful, beautiful, hopeful, rewarding, entity. More than a culture, but not easily or neatly extricated from the culture. Learning to love this religion in all of its imperfections has involved me learning to love myself, even the embarrassing, awkward, unfortunate sides that I would prefer to hide forever. Things I would prefer never existed. And yet here I am. In spite of it all. Shining. Carrying something bursting and brilliant behind my heart. What that something is, I cannot say. I don't "know" that the church is "true" any more than I know whether there is a god or where we go when we die or where dreams or thoughts come from.
Hope. I think that is the thing that I carry.
I sleep. My flight back to Boston is in a couple of hours. In dreams I return to the site of the building. It is just as the pictures on Boston.com show: hollow, darkened, gaping wide. I don't give the building more than a glance though. The garden we had planted behind the chapel, tender little shoots, quiet little hopes, that is what I hurry to see, certain it has been buried by ash, crushed by gallons of water or falling debris. I round the corner, and those very same forces I'd feared would destroy the garden have nurtured it beyond comprehension. The plants have grown to several times their natural size, overnight. The pea plants tower over me, curling up towards heaven, green, strong, rising from these dark, steaming ashes. I awaken, know in my heart there's no way it could be real, but let the imagery linger anyway as I pack up and head to the airport.
A young mother is walking with her two little girls. "And that is where the chapel was. And that is where the gym was." She notices me and asks if this had been my church. I just nod, still crying, and she says "I am so sorry. Oh no, now I am going to cry too. This is where my husband and I met." She begins to cry as well, and then we just hug. Two total strangers, embracing on the sidewalk in front of a burnt-out church as the two little girls look on awkwardly. Who knew?
We WILL transcend racism, sexism, homophobia. We'll carry on beautiful traditions, embark on frightening new journeys. We will learn to embrace ourselves and everyone in this spinning chaotic ball of water and land and wonder. I feel more Mormon than I ever have before. This sorrow, this love, this solidarity - all surprise me, overwhelm me.
We, humanity, will become whole. We will learn to reach out and create heaven for ourselves. Well, I hope so. I hope.
And that is what is different now. I am a Mormon. And I hope.