…Or considering the recent “Mormon-is-not-our-name,” omission, and my need to editorialize, here is the long title:
Please Prove Me Wrong: (Utah) Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Especially the Ones in My Neighborhood, (LDS Ward), even Ex Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or those in the midst of a LDS Faith Transition, Make The Worst Friends.
Before you get all up in my business and ask me who hurt my feelings, let me set you straight.
My feelings are not hurt.
This is my lens, not yours. And through my lens, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. (Maybe this is why I travel so much.) Anyway, I do not understand why relationships seem more defined by social status, or by checking off a worthiness box, or being seen at a Mormon church, and less about balanced friendship. As such, I remain actively puzzled. (If it helps, I have been voicing my opinion on the subject for some time.) Nevertheless, I remain determined to figure it out. I also recognize that I may never understand how to friend in Mormon-land. Better, I may never get how Mormons friend, (and yes, ex-Mormons, who, whether they like it or not, tend to remain steadfastly cultural Mormons). Finally, please oh please, do not tell me that the solution to my discontent is about church activity. Telling me there is a place in the choir for everyone, or that I should just show up and be a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, misses my point [insert exasperated lift of my right hand to my face here]. I am a non-alcohol-drinking non participating member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For me, it is not about worthiness or church attendance. It is about reciprocal friendship.
That being said, in fairness, I did ask you to change my mind (in the title). Before you deconstruct my opinion, please do me a solid, and read to the end. Then, absolutely have at me. Thank you!
There is a lot to unpack.
Sure, I could take the path of least resistance and blame blame my super LDS neighborhood, or the Mormon fringe. (I have done that before.) It would be easy. Whatever the reason, I definitely (still) feel like I moved into the least inclusive place Utah has to offer, I mean, LDS ward (which of course makes all my other connections seem all the more angst-filled).
Here is my nudge: I have always made friends easily. I am also a very social creature. (Probably why I was hired as the greeter at the copy shop back in the day or that my elementary school teacher put a box around me for talking so much.) That is why my need for social interaction is confounded by my inability to fit into the neighborhood completely messes with my head. Needless to say, this is also why I have spent way too much time trying to crack the Mormon code. As a result, I have an entire philosophy about LDS wards being a dysfunctional family (you love them, even though you do not necessarily like, or approve of, them). They seamlessly cement their social structure into the confines of a geographic location. In that narrative, the members of an LDS ward take on certain roles. I am one of the fallen. And even though I no do not attend church, I was baptized. And because I was baptized, I am on the LDS church records. And because I am on the LDS records, my fellow LDS ward members (dysfunctional family) feel a stewardship towards me, albeit an awkward one. In contrast, my neighbors across the street, who are not in my ward, do not feel the same responsibility for my salvation. As a result, I think they are able to act a little more normal.
In truth, I have made some headway. If someone’s daughter is keen on one of my sons, I can guarantee some temporary acceptance. Further, if a woman in the neighborhood wants to talk disparagingly about another woman, I am an easy and safe receptacle. I totally bite. I will always share. I love to empathize. I am like, “yes, she is so lame…” And then the moment comes when I realize I am simply someone to unload on, and not someone to consistently hang out with. Ok. I am not talking codependent hang out with. I am just talking, reliable, or say, wants to hang out beyond me serving as their receptacle. Actually, I get it. Those ladies are also trying to fit in too. Spending time with me and my “big tent” (there is enough room for everyone) thinking only takes energy away from their in-group efforts.
Let me back-up. I was raised Mormon. LDS and former LDS humans have been my people. Because Mormons are my lane, I have written about why I think Mormons-Make-Terrible-Friends before, specifically in regards to my current neighborhood (see additional information at the bottom of this post). As a result, I have received a bunch of constructive feedback like,
“What about me? I am a good friend!” “Why don’t you move?” “It is probably you, not them.” “I live down the street, but am not in your ward. Those women are bitches.”
The feedback is probably correct, especially about me. Instead of running for the hills, I stubbornly believe I will make this neighborhood dynamic work — even if it kills me. Yet, on days like today, if I knew then what I know now, I would have never ever moved into this neighborhood, or better, this side of the street.
As such, I am sure I am not the only one who has observed the anthropological phenomenon of an LDS ward boundary. Especially in densely populated LDS areas I would suggest when a LDS ward boundary changes, or you move, you shove your social world into whatever ward boundary you reside in. Hey and I am all for necessary boundaries, just not harmful or arbitrary ones. To prove this street-based/boundary-controlled assertion, come to my Salt Lake City neighborhood on Halloween Night. I live on the edge of our LDS ward boundary. Hundreds of LDS ward members, I mean, trick-or-treaters, literally live across the street. They never cross to trick-or-treat on our side of the street. Dave noticed. He was like,
“Do we have the plague? Is there an impassible lava field flowing down our street?”
To which I answered, “Dude, that’s the other ward. They never come over here.”
Halloween night is literally where you can see the collective energy being focused into one boundary. Pushing the boundary-analogy further, I do have friends who live across the street (in the boundaries of the other LDS Ward). Interestingly enough, these across-the-street neighbors do not seem to struggle as much with being my friend (or feel the responsibility for my salvation).
Here is probably a good place to address the feedback I have been give about “you” being a good friend:
“Well, yes, you are a good friend.”
Here is the conundrum: I think how we understand and do friendship is different. That is why I hope this next part does not sting. Even though you are a great friend, from my vantage point, your idea of friendship seems contingent on your religion (religious-based culture), or better, how your religion taught you to friend. Again in this scenario, it is definitely me, not you. I do not come from a long history of Mormons, or Utah culture, or LDS culture, or even LDS fringe culture.
That is why I never understood the concept of friendship based on LDS ward boundaries. Additionally, I never understood that say Visiting Teachers (now Ministering Sisters) came to your house, would totally get you to unload your most personal issues, and then be so impersonal when you saw them outside of the context of their purpose. I find this behavior jarring. I think others find it normal, (it is me, not you).
So, when I stopped participating in church, I decided to try out the LDS fringe culture assuming I would be less jarred. I was like,
“It will be different. Those people will get me. We can have a balanced connection.”
The LDS fringe culture was not different. In this huge, Utah-based faith-transition-Mormon group, I found that many of these folks seem to follow similar social constructs and cultural patterns as the faith they were raised in. As such, the social issues (friend-shipping) I had with the Mormons also seem to exist within the ex-Mormons. Even though they no may longer believe in Joseph Smith, or attend Mormon church, the faith transitioners, (and yes, even the ones in my own neighborhood), still maintain their hot and cold disclosing and weird social boundaries. With them, the confines of a ward boundary simply morph into say followers of a certain podcast, a cause, a Facebook group, or where you land (how nuanced you are) regarding your faith transition. That is why, even my friends who were raised in the LDS religion, but have left, not only seem to fare better socially (here in Utah), they also seem to understand and abide by these cultural patterns and norms.
It all boils down to in-group/out-group. Within the groups people are vying for position. It does not matter whether it is a competition to be the blondest, most worthy Lululemon-wearing-LDS mom, or the hippest LGBQT Mormon-fringe activist. I may be super (fake) blond and I love a good protest. Nonetheless, I know my place. I am the cipher. As my tenuously-Mormon friend (who lives in Texas) told me,
“Beth, you are different.”
She continued, “Your tent is big and fits everyone. It is a tent where we can all be friends, whether we drink coffee or Red Bull (yes, there is a group distinction) — [insert eye roll here]. In contrast, most people are more comfortable existing in a much smaller tent.”
“I am sure freak them out.” I replied.
“Of course you do. They don’t know where to put you.”
“Yep.” I responded. Then followed my own response, “They quizzically say things like, ‘she doesn’t go to church, but she is happy.’ and of course the people who have left Mormonism say things like, ‘she is not part of a cult anymore, but why won’t she drink alcohol?’ Then I am like, there has to be a space for people like me.”
This is when my friend tried to relate my comments to the tents.
“It is what it is. Yet, you know the thing about small tents? They don’t have as much space. That is why everyone is fighting so hard to stay in said [small] tent.”
My friend is on to something. It is my big-tent-philosophy (delusion) that keeps me trying bridge the LDS ward/LDS-fringe boundaries, or the fringe LDS culture. I would also argue that it is the small tent-philosophy of others that stops me dead in my tracks. I want to say,
“Big tents also have healthy boundaries.”
And because the terms of friendship are heavily dictated by these very same LDS ward boundaries, or fringe LDS social groups, I still struggle to find a space in their small tent. Consequently, I continue to feel like an outsider, a loser and a human who is unable to make a consistent neighbor friend. Really? If had a dollar for every neighbor (ward member) who asked for my number so we could go walking (people see me out walking all of the time), I could cast a whole entire series of the “Bachelor.” Of course it would be the “LDS Bachelor,” (and yes, that is a thing). Similarly, if I had a dollar for every time I connected with a Mormon fringe person only to find rejection as soon as they learn I do not drink alcohol, well, then I could use that money to cast a whole series of, “The Bachelor in Paradise.” (Yes. This is also a thing. And duh, of course there would be a lot of swinging and booze.)
The thing is I still think we can have a large tent, maybe not a perfect tent, but a large, inclusive, tent. I have proof. We have lived in other Utah neighborhoods, including two other Salt Lake City homes, a home in Provo and in Park City. Park City was hilarious. Even though the logistics of our Park City home were at times tenuous, I never felt excluded or less than. In fact, one neighbor sued us (like for real sued us because his basement flooded and he needed someone to blame), and another would abruptly turn her head away every time we crossed paths (in our shared driveway). Regardless, we always gave each other holiday cards. The husband of the head-turning neighbor lady always greeted us. He never turned his head. And after the other neighbor dude sued us, he was like,
“Hello neighbor! How are you,” (sincerely interested and I must admit a little weird). “Hey, no hard feelings. Someone had to pay for the flooding. And your house was the one upstream (true story).”
Then recently, Dave and I went to dinner with some former SLC neighbors. We moved out of their neighborhood twelve years ago. When we moved, I was in the midst of infertility treatments (crazy intense hormones). Dave and I stopped going to church regularly, and I was in a big public conflict with my former friend, who was a famous blogger, and also a neighbor in that neighborhood. Needless to say, at the time, I was totally unhinged. Yet, somehow through it all, Dave and I remained good friends with our former neighbors and now dinner companions. Not only have we remained good friends with them, we are still connected with many people in the old hood. In the interest of full disclosure, even these awesome friends have their limits. Their time and focus still seems directed to their specific LDS ward boundaries. In fact when the wife spoke of her neighborhood acceptance, the acceptance was filtered through the behavior of her specific LDS ward. So, yes, our dinner companions remain our friends, but their neighborhood friendships (LDS ward boundaries), will always be where their energy and commitment lies. (Still way better than our current situation.) Do I kick myself for not moving back into that more accepting SLC neighborhood like the one I left twelve years ago? Absolutely.
I still do not have a happy solution.
In the end, we may have to move. (For real and I am working on that. I send Dave MLS listings daily.) I am tenacious. I will continue chipping away at the cultural norm.
Thankfully, as I chip away, I see that I am not the only one who feels alone, isolated or alienated. I hope I can reach back and be a better friend. I hope I can let someone out there know they are not alone. I see them. I also see the good. Additionally, I have found some very empathetic, awesome and like-minded souls. They are the people who seem less concerned about fitting into small tents, and more concerned with being a friend. They are the ones who keep texting me to go climbing, who sign their LDS missionary letters with their first name. They are the ones who consistently love my boys (even when their daughters are no longer in love with them). They are the ones who text me out of the blue with their theories on appropriation and understanding of astrology. They definitely ask me how I am and then mean it. They stay late at every get together, just to help me clean up. They are the ones willing to listen, even when it is terribly uncomfortable. Of course they seem to care more about being kind than making sure everyone knows how much good they do. It is obvious they care more about people and less about status. Ultimately, they are the ones who (I imagine) think cultural boundaries are arbitrary. They see similarity more than difference. They are not afraid to stand in their own space. They teach me. They are the folks who always help me get through the day.
For them, I am grateful.
Now have at me!
As I mentioned, this is not my first public attempt at solving my neighborhood issue. I am including a screenshot from my January 16, 2018, Instagram & Facebook post:
I also exchanged an email with my local LDS Relief Society President. She shared much of my email with a local Relief Society (LDS Women’s meeting) lesson, so I think it is ok I share it here. The email was in response to questionnaire she sent to our local LDS ward/neighborhood. I think it is clear through our exchange that I am not the only one who feels out of place.
By the way, I really like her.
- MY EMAIL RESPONSE:
“Hey (Relief Society President),
I hope all is well with you. I will give your questions a shot.
1) How do you feel like you could be a better neighbor?
I definitely could make myself more available and known/seen. So, in an attempt to get to know my neighbors, when I am on my daily walk, I make an effort to get out of my head, to look up, smile and wave to all my neighbors, (which is not always easy). And sure, sometimes they turn their heads when I wave. Wait! Their head turns are not the point. This question is how can I be a better neighbor. Here is what I can do. When I am included, I need to reach back. Even if I cannot attend, or even if I think their engagement method is weird such as an eVite from someone I have never met, I need to be kind and reach back.
I can also openly answer your questions. So I am trying that too. 😉
2) How could people be a better neighbor to you or your family?
Instead of my usual, “don’t shove flyers in my mailbox,” or “ding dong ditch” me a birthday gift from the relief society, I want to offer another perspective. I hope that is ok.
I just returned from dropping my oldest son off at NYU Abu Dhabi, which is so, so far away. I miss him terribly. Like everything makes me cry, even mangos at the grocery store. He loves mangos.
Even though the flights were long, I am grateful that I was part of a group of parents who were able to attend an on campus parent orientation that coincided with dropping off their son or daughter. The parents came from all over the world. As I was quickly reminded, they experience life differently than I do. They have different cultural norms, conflicts and ways of resolving these differences. In fact, my sons’ Sri Lankan roommate is an ethnic Sinhalese. This young man’s mother spoke about their conflict with the ethnic Tamils, who also reside in Sri Lanka. At one point this young man was telling us about all the atrocities the Tamils had committed to the Sinhalese people, which they have. From this young man’s vantage point, the Tamils are bad and the Sinhalese are the exalted. His mother wisely interjected and said, “Hey, you are now at a university where there are very few people are from Sri Lanka. Some of them are Tamil. You will have to figure out how to get along with them.” High fives to her!
Later on in the weekend the parents attended a TED-styled talk given by an UAE Arab cultural consultant. He was dressed in the traditional gown (dishdasha) and headdress (ghutra). He was very entertaining and is very committed to his Muslim faith. As entertaining as he was, in truth, I found myself getting offended. It took me a few days to realize why. See, at one point he offered a long analogy about how he and his wife saw a very inappropriately dressed woman at the grocery store. His wife was dressed in the traditional Abaya (dress), hijab (head scarf), Niqab (the ninja looking face mask). He said that even though the UAE is very permissive, that in truth when we are in their country that we should respect their cultural norms such as modesty in dress. And that when we don’t, the native UAE people are most definitely giving us the side eye, talking and judging us just like he and his wife did at the grocery store. I think it was his admission of judging which struck a nerve and felt really close to home. I was like, “Um, seriously. Judging us is so not cool.” Once I thought about it, however, I appreciated his honesty and understood why they felt offended. And because I was far away from my own neighborhood, I could safely make the correlation. See, I do not attend church. The cultural norm in this highly concentrated LDS area is to be an an active (seen as active) member (by attending church). In the UAE, for instance, the natives, feel like they can set the cultural norms. And just like the Arabs feel slighted because people do not dress modestly, I think part of our issue is that the LDS church culture dictates the rules of what is acceptable here in Utah (our predominantly LDS neighborhood).
My guess is that because I am not active, I do not hold the same level of cultural acceptance as someone who is. In fairness to the LDS church, in this community they are the ones perceived as doing the work, attending church, keeping their commitment to their faith… And because there is such a high concentration of LDS people, they are the ones setting the cultural rules. It is what it is. And I also understand that because I am not active or attending church, I am breaking those cultural norms. My guess is the question you are getting to is, “how do we bridge?” Just like I should not wear scantily clad clothing in the UAE (or anywhere, for that matter, wink wink), I think we can be honest with our feelings and judgements. (Thank you for providing a space to do just that.) Personally, I can be more respectful of the cultural rules and norms. I also think we can work on reciprocity. For instance, as you probably know, NYU is an American University. Even though they are guests of the UAE, the University is bound by FERPA and other US based guidelines, such as the requirement that classes are co-ed. For these two cultures to co-exisit, they have to work on respecting each culture — while remaining true to their own codes of conduct. For instance, NYU AD will not have gender separated classes and is required to have sex ed classes, including giving information on birth control and where the students can get free condoms. And as you may imagine, in the UAE, premarital sex is against the law. Alas, to co-exist, they have to compromise and they have. For example, there are same sex only dorms and co-ed dorms. Off campus, the students are expected to demonstrate acceptable behavior. (Of course they are not expected to wear the traditional Muslin attire).
Am I making any sense?
Now back to our neighborhood. How can we be better neighbors? Just like the UAE and NUY Abu Dhabi do, I think we need to find a way to accept and respect the places where we are each coming from and find a way to not only exist together, but to thrive as a community. Ultimately, I may not attend church, but I sure love people and would love for my neighbors to feel safe and comfortable around me. Here is a thought. Bridge the differences. Have a neighborhood committee that includes both LDS members, non members, inactive member, that together plan neighborhood events and then participate in those events.
PS way longer than I intended. Obviously I am downloading from my recent trip. 🙂
- NOW HER EMAIL QUESTIONNAIRE:
On Sep 5, 2018, at 9:28 AM, (Relief Society President) wrote:
This Sunday will be our September Relief Society Council Meeting.
Over the course of several months, I’ve had the chance to talk to many women in the neighborhood–some who are with us on Sunday for church and some who are not. And one thing has been clear: we are a people who long for and are committed to connection.
We would like to talk about this topic this Sunday in a council meeting we are referring to as “Love Thy Neighbor”. In preparation for this discussion, we would love for you to think about and respond to the following questions:
1) How do you feel like you could be a better neighbor?
2) How could people be a better neighbor to you or your family?
This is a great way for those of you serving in other areas in the ward or who will for any other reason not be with us on Sunday to have your voices heard and to participate in these important council meetings.
As always, your responses will be kept confidential.
Thank you for taking the time to think about this and respond. I will send a follow-up email next Sunday night so you know what came of the discussion. And I hope as many of you as possible will join us on Sunday in the Relief Society room at 2:40pm.
(Relief Society President)