Story 1: I gained my testimony at the age of 14, was baptized exactly one week before my 17th birthday, and entered Relief Society the Sunday following my 18th birthday. I couldn’t wait to get out of the Young Women organization and its non-stop lessons on what I should wear and who I should date and marry. I chomped at the bit to get into adult classes where intelligent things would be discussed. (Stop laughing.)
My very first Sunday in Relief Society, the mother of a young woman who had graduated the year before and was now off at BYU sat by me so I wouldn’t be alone, a thing I appreciated deeply, not having a mother, sister, or a friend in the group. I don’t recall what the lesson was about, but I can still see the teacher’s face, though I’ve forgotten her her name. I remember the lighting in the room, the way the chairs were organized, the smell of hairspray. The lesson was bland and, when it devolved into a discussion about what mothers should allow their daughters to wear, I felt deeply disappointed.
But then a hand went up and a woman a few seats down the row from me asked a wonderful, probing question about the gospel. I don’t remember the question, but I remember being excited by it. I leaned forward to see who had asked it. I could draw that woman’s sculpted hair, her earrings, the wide orange-red collar of her dress. But even before the teacher could formulate an answer, a hand landed on my thigh and my friend’s mother leaned toward me. She whispered, “Don’t pay any attention to that sister. She intellectualizes everything.”
She couldn’t have slapped me harder. I sat back and watched as the teacher dismissed the woman’s question with a trite answer that answered nothing. In that moment, I craved a connection with the woman who had been ignored. I admired her. I wanted to be her. And I understood what that meant.
Story 2: I spent my teenage years hiding in my bedroom. My home was a turbulent one. To say my parents didn’t like one another is an understatement. It wasn’t that they argued (though the air always felt tinged with their contempt for one another’s objectives) or had physical altercations. Never that. But there was a certain vehemence, a definite lack of respect, that permeated our home. The family habit was derision. I was the middle child and the only girl. Although outgoing and social by nature, I became quiet. Invisible.
But they came to me anyway. My mother, my little brother, my father, and sometimes even my older brother. Most often in the early or late hours of the day. One by one. Always alone. They’d sit at the edge of my bed and tell me, the one detached member of the family, how it was for them, what their side of a story was, how they felts about things, and how someone else in the family had judged them unfairly. I’d listen. It wasn’t hard to understand, to feel compassion. And then they’d leave, whoever it was. Most of the time, I’d roll over and cry, at least just a little, because there was nothing else I could do. As pathetic as it sounds, sometimes I pressed myself against the wall to appease the things inside of me that ached.
Story 3: I attended Brigham Young University and was a terrible flirt. Every now and then, I’d get wind of some girl or another snarking that I was desperate to get married, a thing I found amusing because, the truth was, I was scared to death by the prospect of marriage. The Church told me I was supposed to want marriage, but coming from the dysfunctional place I did, I was terrified of it, terrified of making the wrong choice and being stuck with it. But these young men! All these young men! So kind and giving and generally amazing … I flirted so I could be around as many of them as I could and as often as was possible.
Of course, as a faithful Latter-day Saint, I was a young woman in conflict. I didn’t want a serious relationship and yet I was supposed to find one. So I developed a litmus test to use against every boy I dated. I’d asked: “What do you think of Heavenly Mother?” When they answered (as they all did) that they believed She was so holy, so sacred and so important to Heavenly Father, that He was protecting Her by not telling us about Her, I had my excuse to forget about them. I flirted on.
And then I met this reserved, thoughtful young man from Provo, whose father taught Ed Psych at BYU, a guy who made me laugh and think. I dated him, knowing I’d never marry a guy with such a quiet nature. I also knew I never needed to put him to the test. I saw from the way he treated me, the way he listened to me, the way he disagreed with me, that I didn’t need to worry he’d someday put me or my ideas on a shelf. I knew I’d always matter to him. That I’d not have to hide and never be hidden away. Needless to say, this quiet man soon became my favorite human being. When he asked me to marry him on the Skyride over Fantasyland, I was brave enough to admit to myself that I truly loved him and smart enough to say yes.
Story 4: Days before my oldest son turned eight, I told him about the Urim and Thummim and its place in the translation of the Book of Mormon. He told me he didn’t believe it, that it was too much like the magic mirror in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and he didn’t want to get baptized. I explained to him that miracles are science we don’t yet understand, but that God understands. My son acquiesced and was baptized. As he grew up, I found myself reminding him over and over that science is part of our faith. One day, our bishop handed me a seminary paperback Bible and said, “I think this is your son’s.” On the side, on the edges of the paper, in red highlighting pencil were written the words, “Magic Book of Jesus.”
I keep a pile of stuff here by my desk and in it is the letter from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informing this son that, as per his request, his name has been removed from the records of the Church. Its been there maybe two months. I can’t throw it out, but I also can’t put it in his Book of Remembrance.
Story 5: Before I was baptized, I attended a Youth Conference that I believe was held at UC Santa Barbara. Like most social things I did as a youth in the Church, it was a difficult experience for me. I had been a popular, well-liked child, but once I became a Mormon, I became uncomfortably like the infamous Cipher in the Snow. I didn’t know any of the kids from the Stake. To make it worse, I didn’t know the Mormon lingo yet. Heck, I didn’t even know the songs. All that meant I wasn’t in on the inside jokes. That weekend, I felt every inch the outsider. That’s just how things fall out in such circumstances.
But by the last day of the Youth Conference, I was worn thin by the effort to fit in. When it was time for dinner, I slipped away unnoticed and rode the elevator to my assigned dorm room, just for a few minutes alone. I stood at the window, feeling a little sorry for myself because no one came looking for me. After a few moments, my bishop and his wife emerged from the building and headed toward the dining hall. They’d walked only a few steps when he reached for her hand and she gave it in return. I stared, mesmerized, stunned, as they walked away, hand-in-hand. In love. That was the precise moment I began to believe not only in miracles, but in magic.
Story 6: I have the most beautiful daughter, a middle child and, just like her mother, the only girl. Her birth was a difficult one and resulted in nerve damage at C5 and C6. She began life with a right arm that hung as limp as a noodle. Erb’s palsy. We prayed fervently for her recovery, and her father and grandfather gave her priesthood blessings. I followed through on every therapy, and while she made progress, her arm was not recovering fully. I took her to a new doctor, hoping for a better answer, and this doctor looked me right in the eye and said, “You do know the paralysis is permanent, don’t you?” I reeled. No one had used the word “paralysis” in front of me and no one had uttered the word “permanent.” I told her, “Yes, I know.” But I didn’t. I hadn’t believed that for a moment.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a special Relief Society fireside in Vernal, Utah, where we lived for a brief time. My daughter was fussy, so I took her into the foyer and stood rocking her as I listened to a former General Relief Society President speak. She told of the birth of a very special grandchild, one who had had such a traumatic birth, he was born with an arm that hung limply due to nerve damage. But the family had faith, she said. They believed with certitude that Heavenly Father would heal the child and so the father anointed the infant’s head and, using his priesthood, he called down the powers of Heaven to heal his son. Faith provided the miracle, she said. The babe was healed. He was healed.
When the final “Amen” sounded, the doors to that chapel burst open and sisters I didn’t know even knew who I was engulfed me and my daughter, providing me comfort I didn’t have the strength to ask for.
A year or so later, in another state, my little girl ran wild under a park pavilion during a Ward picnic. Being new on her feet, she lost her balance and fell to her right side. Unable to catch herself because of the paralysis, she landed hard on her forehead. Her father and I ran to her, but she popped up, looking a little stunned and with a bright red knot swelling on her forehead. And then she laughed. She threw her head back and just laughed and laughed and then ran on. My tiny hero. Healing.
Story 7: One day I started a blog. Me. This damaged, whole, broken, healed, brave, cowardly, optimistic, and worrisome woman started writing stuff down and sending it out to Who Knows Where. And here it is in front of you. Here I am, all tied up with with my arrogance, my brokenness, my confidence, my curiosity, my weakness, my humility, my intelligence, my confusion, my faith and my doubt. I think, maybe, deep down, I recognize I need a bigger tent. Someplace I can be me, right here, right with all the other damaged, whole, broken, healed, brave, cowardly, optimistic and worrisome people. Some place where we could all talk it out, no matter the baggage we carry or the destination we seek. All adventure. No wall.
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. John 13: 35
5 thoughts on “Seven Little Stories of Me”
I loved reading this…getting to know a little more about sweet Lisa Downing. You are one of my favorites!!!
Ah, there might be a few people who would have reason to contend with your use of “sweet,” me being one of them. 🙂 But thanks. I have my moments.
“Someplace I can be me, right here, right with all the other damaged, whole, broken, healed, brave, cowardly, optimistic and worrisome people. Some place where we could all talk it out, no matter the baggage we carry or the destination we seek. All adventure. No wall.”
Ah, the place we’re all looking for–
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
This is lovely, Lisa. Thank you.
“So I developed a litmus test to use against every boy I dated. I’d asked: “What do you think of Heavenly Mother?” When they answered (as they all did) that they believed She was so holy, so sacred and so important to Heavenly Father, that He was protecting Her by not telling us about Her, I had my excuse to forget about them.”
Could you provide me details about why that was the wrong answer for you? What did your husband say differently?
Interesting that you pick that out. For me, the answer these very good young men gave demonstrated that they were more comfortable repeating things they’d heard than in seriously considering the question in a meditative and probing way. Remember that I had been a teenage convert. I didn’t come into the restored gospel without asking probing questions about the religion into which I’d been born and about the LDS faith. I felt I needed to yoke myself to someone who was like me in that way. There was nothing necessarily wrong about their answer, but there was also nothing necessarily right about it–except that it was the accepted answer.
I came from the Catholic church and was sensitive to Biblical passages related to the apostasy. In 2 Thessolonians 2, we read, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. (v 3,4)” Then in V 7, we read, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” I understood this to suggest that the gospel remained in effect after Christ’s crucifixion only as long as there were followers who would let it, or allow it, but once they were gone, the gospel disappeared. So in my head, I imagined early church “members” simply accepting what was said to them as the “gospel truth” even though that truth (what was being taught them) had wandered. I wanted to find a man who didn’t simply follow the authority over him, but who felt strongly about his own authority, his own ability to obtain truth (much as I had done in my conversion process). This litmus test was only meant to show me who was willing to think through difficult, unknown things and who attached to the authoritative statement which was poetic, but not a “deep” answer. I suppose I wanted to hear, “I know they say X,y, or z about Heavenly Mother, but that doesn’t really help me know who She is. And I wonder about that.”
I never asked the man I eventually married the question. To be honest, he’d have probably said the same kind of thing and I knew that then. But conversation with him made it quickly apparent that he was a seeker. I wanted to marry someone I felt would have found the gospel on his own if he hadn’t been born into it. He used to say he wasn’t sure he would’ve been able to do that, but I’m certain he would’ve.
The litmus test may have been a rather immature thing to do. Maybe it did help me. Maybe it was just a defense mechanism because I had commitment issues. Probably it was all three. Don’t hold my question or my rejection of the answer against me. From the beginning of my life as a Latter-day Saint, I have yearned to understand more about my Heavenly Mother. I still do. So that’s probably why I went to that question as opposed to some other “mystery.” This one mattered–and still matters–to me in a personal way. I often feel oddly adrift because I cannot know more about the Goddess, her role, and her connection to me as daughter on earth.
Hope that’s salve to your curiosity.