Summer of 2003. I’m almost thirteen years old. My parents separated a year ago – and by separated, I mean my mother took all eight of us without warning and moved across the country because she realized Dad had left the Mormon Church for good. That their relationship had been on the rocks for a long time was no secret us kids, but we had no concept of divorce when we abruptly left behind our bantam chickens, our newborn pygmy goat, and our ten acres of Kentucky farmland.
The night before we left Kentucky, we awkwardly killed all the roosters with a blunt axe (follow the big mean black one through the nooks and crannies of the barn until it bleeds to death! Isn’t it funny how that red one runs and jumps with its head flopping around at its side?) and threw their bodies in the garbage. We divvied up the remaining farm animals – mommy goat, baby goat, two sheep, dozens of chickens – amongst our church-going neighbors, left the cats to fend for themselves, and took Delilah, our dog, with us. Mom chastised me for bringing a whole garbage bag of my stuff. She told us we’d be coming back.
But we never did go back, and so a year passed by and it was summer again. By now, I had stopped sneaking away into the unfinished parts of my grandparents’ house so I could cry in private, sobbing so hard I had to stifle my choking. I didn’t think so much about the old back pasture with spring daisies and a wide tree whose biggest branch was perfect for sitting and watching the neighbors’ horses. I didn’t miss the mama pygmy goat, Sweettart, that I had unsuccessfully tried to milk with my big awkward fingers. I hardly missed my old best friend, the yellow-haired Joanna who was in love with my older brother. I hardly missed my dad.
Now, I had a new best friend who lived right across the street and whose older brother I loved, much to my friend’s consternation. I played basketball for my church team, babysat for a couple of families, and was generally liked by the girls I went to church with. My hair was finally long again, albeit with a horrendous perm, recovered from the even more horrendous buzzcut I’d had in Kentucky.
That summer, I went to a special camp for 13- and 14-year-old Mormon girls called Oakcrest. My camp counselor was a young woman named Carebear whose boyfriend lived overseas, on a mission for the Mormon Church. Carebear loved the Lord, and right away, I knew that she loved me. Every day during the week we were there, she gave us so much special attention that we probably each felt we were her favorite. I thought Carebear was beautiful and perfectly exemplified a good Mormon young woman, and I adored her. She told us her real name on the last day of camp, but I can’t remember it anymore.
During the week at camp, we hiked, we prayed, we ate and sang and did all kinds of fun, silly camp activities. I tried to keep up socially with the girls, some of whom had known each other for a very long time. Because I was homeschooled, and, as they say of homeschoolers, “didn’t get out much,” I found myself picking up colloquialisms and repeating them until I irritated the people around me. “My bad,” I’d say fifteen times an hour, whenever I dropped a pencil or misinterpreted someone. Or I’d loudly proclaim, “That’s garbage!” every time something required vocal disapproval.
But I had a great time. I was a mighty pious little Lizard at that time of my life, and I took God, Jesus Christ, and the gospel very seriously. During one sermon about only listening to that which uplifted us, I vowed to go home and snap all my pop music CDs in half (which I actually did, and later regretted sorely). I had prayerful moments late in bed at night that felt so powerful they threatened to lift me right up and ascend me into heaven. I trembled at the thought of the Second Coming, and hoped with fingers and toes crossed that I had been good enough to make the cut.
One night, the last night we were at camp, we did an exercise. Us campers were blindfolded and let out into a large field. All around us, our counselors were assigned to act as the influence of either the devil or God. I’d stumble along for a few steps, when I’d hear someone yell in a very wicked way, “Turn left! Do not go right, what are you thinking? Go left!” And, startled, I’d bump into a chain link fence and find that I had listened to Satan. Dang it.
So along I bumbled for quite some time. Into trash cans, other people, potholes, trees, etc. I wasn’t moving quickly so I never got injured, despite the urgent insistence of Satan to “Run! Move faster! Come with me, I have a special treat for you.” Suddenly, a gentle hand laid itself invisibly on my forearm, and a soft voice said, “Liz. Come this way. I’ll take you home.” The voice was Carebear’s, spoken almost in a whisper, but I knew right away. She took her hand off of my arm, but continued to urge me quietly in the right direction.
Carebear, a.k.a. the Holy Ghost, led me until she described an iron rod to my left. Just as I reached out to find it, a hideously loud shout in my ear: “STOP! Do not touch that! Back away now, and come with me!” I jumped and withdrew, but the H.G. found me again and at last I grasped the cool, smooth surface of PVC pipe/iron rod. The rod led upward, upward, through a bumpy trail, until at last I was directed to stop. Gentle hymnal music wafted from a distance. Save for the music and the birds, it was silent.
My blindfold was removed.
Standing before me was a lifesized portrait of Jesus overlooking his flock. The picture was softly lit and stood in gentle contrast to the darkening evening. My eyes, which were used to total blackness, did not wander from the picture.
After a few moments of silence, Carebear said, “What do you see?”
I started to cry softly. “Heavenly Father,” I whispered.
“He loves you, Liz. He loves you so much. Do you know that?”
Yes, I nodded. Yes, yes, I knew – God loved me. I felt it with all of my heart. A joy so total, so redemptive, encompassed me. I felt wrapped in the gentle arms of God’s care. The sorrow of the last year was gone, wholly and completely, as I stood and looked at this beautiful picture, and I was happy. I knew, right then, that that was the happiest day of my life and would be for a very long time.
I’m sharing this story because this was a powerful experience. I’ve obviously never forgotten it. But I’m also sharing it because I want you to know that I get it. I’m not just this God-hating, gun-slinging, take-no-prisoners bitch of an atheist, although sometimes I am that.
I take the positions I take having been on the other side, having stood in those shoes, having felt what I truly believed to be God’s love. Of course, now, I don’t think that’s what it was, but I can save that for another time. Suffice to say that for thirteen-year-old me, in that moment, that shit was very real. And I’ll always appreciate and remember that.
I think sometimes we get so caught up in the who’s right and who’s wrong of the religious argument, we forget that on the other side of the aisle sit normal people. Some of those people have a greater proclivity towards assholishness than others, sure, but we’re all basically normal folks with histories, backgrounds, worries and cares. We all poop and we all love our kids. Neither side is necessarily smarter than the other. Neither side is necessarily nicer. The nature of humanity casts a broad net over us all, ensnaring even the kindest among us in the trap of being a dick on a bad day.
Enough pontificating – you get the point. But I’m just sayin’ – I get it. Let’s break bread together and have a conversation about it…
I will bring you to the dark side. <3