Friday, September 28, 2012

Mormon Diaries

It's my pleasure today to promote Sophia Stone's autobiographical essay collection, Mormon Diaries. It is a personal and honest story of one woman's faith crisis, and the journey she took to find answers to her burning, questions on spirituality.

"Brought up in a religious home, Sophia believes the only way to have a forever family is by following church leaders and obediently choosing the right. She goes to the right school, marries the right man in the right place, and does the right thing by staying home to raise her children. But when she starts asking questions about grace, love, and the nature of God, she realizes her spiritual struggles could rip her family apart." -- Sophia Stone

I wanted to ask Sophia some questions about the journey that inspired this book. Her answers were insightful and encouraged me to read more, in Mormon Diaries.

Thanks for joining me today Sophia. I've never been a religious person, even though I was raised in the Catholic Church. People of faith don't easily accept when you question their tenets or beliefs. I always dealt with that by keeping my questions and my disbeliefs quiet, private. Why did you hide your faith struggles from those closest to you?

I was afraid my faithful Mormon family and friends would think me either prideful or influenced by Satan if I admitted to doubting The Church. There’s a common phrase faithful Latter-day Saints use to explain away uncomfortable issues: “The Church is true. The people are not.” Those who leave the church are often labeled as angry, easily offended, prideful, lazy, or deceived. There’s no good reason to doubt, no good reason to question, no good reason to stop believing. Faith yields loyalty and obedience.

How is your family coping with this? Do they support you?

Well, it depends on what part of my family you’re talking about. My kids have been great, but they’re pretty young. I’m continually amazed by the open mindedness and trust of small children. I really think Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that unless we become as little children we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

My husband, on the other hand, is having a really hard time. We’ve had to do some negotiating about the kid’s religious education. He wants them to believe in Mormonism and is very much attached to the outcome. The thought of his kids choosing to leave the LDS church is absolutely devastating to him. 

There are certain things that (for him) are non-negotiable. The kids WILL get baptized at age eight whether I want that for them or not. The kids will continue to go to the Mormon church each Sunday until they turn twelve. (He’d said eighteen originally, but has since softened). 10% of his income will continue to go to The Church whether or not I agree with that particular donation. We’re a single income family so that’s a pretty big deal, but he’s frightened, truly frightened that if he stops paying a full tithe, he’ll lose his job.

Although, in fairness, he say it has nothing to do with fear. Rather, he has faith in the principle of tithing. God will bless him for his financial sacrifice.

As for the rest of the family, my mother is struggling, the brother just younger than me acts as if he doesn’t know, my older brother has been accepting, and my sister is unpredictable. I’m not even sure how to characterize that relationship at this point. So overall it’s been a mixed bag where tolerance is concerned. As for support—no, I do not have family support. Nor is it something I can reasonably expect.

My husband is also a non-religious person, so I never had to wrestle these tough, faith-based issues with him. It's testament to the strength of your relationship that you're able to work through it with him. My extended family, however, is very Catholic. So, I can relate to the last part of your answer. So basically, I wonder how do you get someone who thinks you’ve been influenced by Satan to consider your point of view? 

Short answer: you don’t. 

Long answer: It’s odd to be on the other end of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” rhetoric. I always considered myself a fairly good, honest person. And I have to admit that I don’t feel like a different person just because I don’t believe in Mormonism like I used to. Certain things just don’t change, you know? I still like chocolate milk shakes. I still like people. I feel, in many ways, closer to God than I did a year ago. So it’s been kind of shocking to have people who always trusted me assume the worst.
Yes, that is the hardest part, for me too. So, how do you build relationships with people who think you are broken?

Oh, man, I wish I knew. Honestly, it depends on how important their Mormonism is to their identity. Those who are capable of accepting my brokenness without trying to fix it are much easier to have relationships with than those who work extra hard to fix me.

Yes! I live in the South, and people here (in general, so not everyone) feels the need to "fix" me so I'm normal again and want to go to their church. But what people on the outside think isn't important. It's what's going on inside your inner circle that counts. So, how has your change in beliefs affected your marriage and children?

I think it has benefited my children in a number of ways. First, by showing them that goodness isn’t based on legalistic rules, they are more accepting of themselves and others. Second, by helping them see that there isn’t one right way to be a decent human being, they are able to think the best of people. Third, by opening up to other ideas and spiritual philosophies, they are more open as well. 

As for my marriage, my change in beliefs has brought to light problems I’d been ignoring for years. Things having to do with power dynamics, issues with inflexibility, and some fundamental disagreements in parenting styles between my husband and I. My marriage has suffered and I worry about it often. But I also know that without the insights I have now, the relationship would continue to grow more unbalanced and necessary change would never occur.

I’m crossing my fingers and holding out hope in the marriage department.

I'm rooting for you guys! I have room for one more question. Tell me, who should read your book?

Anyone who wants to better understand how religions indoctrinate children, how they can unite and separate families, how they can bring peace and turmoil at the same time. Anyone who wants a more personal understanding of how it feels to grow up in a legalistic religion that values trust and obedience more highly than free thought, or anyone who wants to understand Mormonism. 

Please don’t misread that to mean my book is factually perfect. It’s not. It is based on my experience, and everyone’s reality is different. But I stand by my claim that people who leave Mormonism are often in an isolating place. It’s hard for an orthodox believer to understand why anyone would leave. It’s hard for those who’ve never been in a fundamentalist religion to understand why leaving one is such a big deal. To both these groups, I’d say, “please read this!” Understanding is vital.

Thank you so much for spending time with us today! I wish you the best of luck with Mormon Diaries continued success.

Mormon Diaries is available through these links:

Also, follow Sophia's tweets at --> @ask_a_mormon. Sophia will take any questions about Mormonism and answer them minus the usual spin, under the hashtag #mormonquestions.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

It's In The Mail

                                                                September 6, 2012

Dear Blogger Friends,

         I used to write letters. I guess we all did, right? As a society, I mean. Back before the computer age brought us lightning fast email and instant messaging, we wrote letters to each other. Remember the excitement of dropping that envelope in the mailbox down on the corner, knowing that in just five to seven days the recipient would slip his or her finger under the glued-down flap and read your words? How about watching for the postman each to day to see if, nestled among the bills and shiny sales circulars, a hand-addressed envelope from a friend waited for you? (Okay, a bunch of you have no idea what I'm talking about. Bear with me and read on, K?)

         You're probably wondering where I'm going with all this. Let me start by saying I recently received a special gift that brought my attention back to the art of letter-writing.

         I was sipping coffee with my cousin, Melanie, at her dining room table, listening to her talk about her visit with our extended family in upstate New York. She described the morning she spent with our ninety-year-old grandmother, beloved family matriarch and lifelong pack rat, who is on the decline and succumbing to ever-longer bouts of dementia. Nona was having a good day, though, and seemed to know who Melanie was as they chatted in her sunlight-flooded nursing home room.

         When Nona had tired, my cousin kissed her good-bye. In the hallway, an aunt offered to drive Melanie down to Nona's house where, she explained, she had found a box of old letters which my cousin may be interested in saving.

         Melanie held up two stacks of yellowed envelopes for me to see. Turned out, some of the letters had been written by her father in the seventies, when he and his young bride were stationed at the Army base in Germany where Melanie was born. My hand went to my heart. These, I knew, were a true treasure. We were all devastated when my uncle passed away, but none more than my cousin. Melanie had barely been a teenager.

         Melanie held the second stack up. Her eyes sparkled as she smiled, pushing it across the table to me. These letters, she explained, all have "Skeldon" written in the return addresses. Skeldon is my maiden name. 

         Two of the letters were written by my father to Nona when he was away at college. One of them even tells his mother about a girl he met named Diane, who he planned to make fall madly in love with him. It worked. Diane is my mother.

         The other letters, all postmarked in 1943, were penned by my paternal grandfather, James Adam Skeldon. 

         This is what I already knew: Nona, a blushing bride, had learned she was pregnant with my father just a month after my grandfather had shipped out with the Navy during World War II. He had come home on leave for three weeks in 1944, when he met his one-year-old son for the first time. James Adam Skeldon, Quartermaster, Third Class, died at sea on January 12, 1945 when his submarine, the USS Swordfish sunk off the coast of Japan.

My grandfather, James A. Skeldon

         With my cousin's gift, I realized I was poised to learn much more about my grandfather, and in his own words, too! I tucked those fragile, yellowed envelopes safely in my bag and left Melanie's house a much richer woman than when I'd arrived that day.

         I become emotional every time I read my grandfather's letters. In each one he addresses Nona as "My Dearest Mary," and he signs off with "As Ever, Jim." He talks about the ups and downs of life at sea, the day-to-day activities with his shipmates, his loneliness, and his frustrations. There is also hope in his words. It's the hope that gets me. A knot forms in my throat every time he writes, "When I get home..."

         When the gamut of emotions have run their course in my heart, I'm able to turn my attention to the art of letter writing, to the beautiful ceremony imbued in each: The date in the upper right hand corner, surely written before anything else; the greeting, a prerequisite formality that's softened by my grandfather's delicate terms of endearment; and the body of the letter, rich with voice, so that I can almost -- almost -- hear him speaking.

This reminded me of something I read in Bird By Bird.

         In that book, author Anne Lamott shares her knowledge on the creative writing craft and how to deal with the blockages writers often face. She devotes a chapter to the concept of using the letter form as a writing tool. She says, "When you don't know what else to do, when you're really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can't just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history -- part of your character's history -- in the form of a letter. The letter's informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism."

         I say, why not take this exercise one step further, and allow your character to write the letter? Maybe even to you! Because just like my grandfather's voice floats off the paper when I read the letters he wrote, so too will your character's voice come through.

         And listen, I can't be the only person with a pack rat grandmother who's kept every scrap of paper ever written to her. The next time you need some inspiration, seek out those old letters I'll bet are tucked away in a family member's attic. Trust me, they are filled with amazing stories to tell!

   As Ever,