Terry Tempest Williams is the guest. She is the author of several books, including the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Her latest book is called When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. It was published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 2012, and the paperback edition is due out from Picador on February 26, 2013.

The San Francisco Chronicle raves

Williams displays a Whitmanesque embrace of the world and its contradictions….As the pages accumulate, her voice grows in majesty and power until it become a full-fledged aria.

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Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

Dude, I’ve Seen Your Balls

I called an old high school buddy to give him my new phone number. It was a business call. In and out. I wasn’t in the talking mood.  

His wife answered the phone. Tammy’s a good woman. Thoughtful. Funny. Pretty good pool player. I met her for the first time last year and we got ripped on margaritas. 

“What are you doing?” I asked her. 

“Oh, drinking a beer. You?” 

“Nothing. Hey, this is my new number. Tell your man if he wants to talk to me then he’ll have to dial those numbers.” 

“Hah. You’re an ass. Do you want to talk to him?” 

“I guess.” 

Musso got on the phone with his usual what-do-you-want tone.

“What’s up?” I asked. 

“Drinking a beer.” 

“You guys getting drunk?” 

“How do I know, dude?” he snapped. Just opened the first one.” 

“Great. Well, this is my new number. Scratch that other one. All right, I’m out. If you get lucky tonight think about me.” 

“Why would I do that?” he said. “I’ve seen your balls. It’ll fuck up the moment.” 

I paused for a moment. It’s not often a man tells you he’s seen your nuts. In fact, no dude has ever said that to me until now. I gave a nervous laugh. What the fuck is he talking about?  Then it came to me. 

“That’s right,” I said, remembering that day.  

Spring Break. Somewhere in the late 80s. San Clemente. Two girls. Musso and I. Strangers holed up in a small RV with a large bag of good weed and bottles of booze.  

One of them was named Stephanie. Blue eyes. Real cute. I can’t remember the other girl’s name, but I remember she had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on her ankle. They were local girls, going to SDSU. We were sitting having beers at our campsite when they walked by. They sat down and the rest, as they say, is history.  

Stinky weed.  

Jim Beam. 

Vodka. 

Beach babies. 

Sex. 

A letter showed up in my mailbox around a week later.

“I can’t believe what we did,” Stephanie wrote. “I never did that before. I hope you don’t think bad of me.”

I didn’t think bad of her. I don’t think Musso did either.

“It’s funny,” I told him. “We lie all the time. About everything. But the truth is the truth. And the truth is that really happened. I can’t lie. Guilty.” 

He took a drink of his beer.

“Guilty,” he said.  

 

What the Hell?

I’m a pretty good neighbor. I keep up my yard. I don’t have broken appliances or cars sitting on blocks on the side of the house. I don’t wave guns around or light off fireworks just because I had too many Bud Lights.

I say hello. I smile. I keep my amp at a pleasant hum. I’m boring.

The day I moved in my neighbor was under the hood of his car. I looked at him and nodded. There was something about him I didn’t like. It was in his face, his shoes. And it was in my gut. And my gut said he was some emotional wreck, a drama king. 

A couple of days later he introduced himself to Cookie (my aunt), and asked how she was doing. 

“Fine,” she said. “And you?” 

He took a deep breath and dropped his head in tortured reflection. 

“Doing a lot better than I deserve to be,” he said.  

She told me what he said. 

“What?” I said, as his response tumbled around in my head. I started fuming. “Huh? What does that mean ‘better than I deserve to be’? Why would you tell a complete stranger something weird like that? Don’t say another word to that asshole.” 

Around a week later, I was writing yet another horrible poem when I heard yelling coming from outside. From my window it sounded like it was coming from my other neighbor. The one on my right. Not the crestfallen martyr on my left. 

“…better than I deserve to be.”

Oh, for chrissakes. 

What the hell? 

Then the yelling got louder. Then I heard glass breaking. I got up right as Cookie was coming down the hall. 

“The neighbors,” she said. “They’re arguing.” 

I looked out the screen door. He was standing in his yard wringing his hands. His hair was standing on end like a porcupine. He gathered himself and then started hurling insults at his girlfriend. Ugly names. He took a small break and then started up again and then stormed down the street. 

“I told you he was an asshole,” I said to Cookie, feeling good because my first impression of him was right on. 

Soon after the fuzz showed up. It was a two-cruiser hassle. They whipped out their flashlights (it was night time) and scanned the property, looking behind the shed, in the bushes. They flashed up in the trees.

It reminded me of a news article I read years ago where some guy who just robbed a liquor store climbed a tree to hide from the cops.  

The cops thought they had the dude pinned down when he suddenly disappeared. Then one of the cops flashed his light in some trees and there was the dude, stiff as a branch, holding a handful of loot and a plastic gun.

As of this writing, there haven’t been any more hassles from Mr. I Say Weird Things. No screaming. No cops. No hauling down the street pissed off as a motherfucker. No nothing. And, it seems to me, he fixed his car. Haven’t seen him under the hood.

It’s all good.  

 

The Mormon in Me

The economy is in the crapper. Bailouts are stacked high. Jobs are few. People stopped going to the mall. But it seems to me that the Mormon Church is doing just fine despite the hard times. Their bike riders are everywhere. Their Word is hitting all corners and all spaces in between. 

God business is good business. 

I moved to the California desert in my junior high years. That’s when I was first introduced to the Mormon Church and its bike riders who I saw riding down my street one day.  

“Those are Mormons,” a friend told me later. “My dad hates them.” 

The bike riders are the messengers of the church. They go around peddling through neighborhoods talking God. Last week, I counted between ten and fifteen of them cruising my neighborhood. It was the usual scene: Nice bikes. White shirts with black ties. Helmets. Slacks. Backpacks. White faces.  

I’ve been watching these fuckers for the better part of my life. Hell, they’re a part of my life, my landscape. 

I lived in the South for a few years and didn’t see one rider. Not one Mormon. I found this a little sad. Not many Mormons in the South, I guess. Right after I moved back to Vegas I saw a few riders sweeping through the streets doing their business. Clean shoes. Sunglasses. Salvation. 

It was a welcomed sight. 

My experience with Mormon folk has been a good one. Went to school with them. I’ve sat at their dinner table. Worked along side by side with them. Befriended their sons. Got to know some of their daughters. 

I was amazed at all the fuss that was made about Mitt Romney being a Mormon. Where’s the story? I wondered. Mormonism? That’s the story? I’m no fan of the Mormon Church or any church for that matter. But they’re just people. Just as kind and messed up as any Protestant, Baptist, or—God forbid—atheist I’ve ever met. 

Anyhow. 

The riders. 

They’re out in full force in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a lot of sadness and despair where I live. There’s a need here. The Devil has us doing and thinking horrible things. He’s overrun the land and it stinks like shit. 

So God has sent in his troops, his dawgs, to clean up the mess. 

The other day I saw a couple of them at the house across the street. Their heads tilted and nodded in thought. Their hands flipped through the air in reassurance. They reached in their backpacks and handed out literature. 

I wondered if my neighbors were listening to the things they were saying. I wondered if they were in the market for God or were they just being polite?  

I wondered if they were curious how these young men were so knowledgeable, so well-versed in all things God. So much that they were put in the position to give God to others. 

That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

A miracle if you will. 

Hell, these guys are more than mere bike riders with nicely ironed shirts and heavy church agenda. These guys are angels. In the flesh. 

Right?

Who’s to say they’re not? 

Sam Harris?

Tom Cruise?

(Now, don’t be glib, Tom. Dickhead.)

George Foreman? 

I don’t know.

I don’t have the credentials.

SACRAMENTO, CA

It wasn’t until I was about 23 years old that I was able to face my family with the fact that I no longer believed in the Mormon religion. And even then I didn’t really face them. They found out in bits and pieces. The most obvious sign was the divorce, which I never told my parents about directly. They heard about it from my younger siblings. Through my siblings they also learned of my tattoo (oh my!) and my drinking (this hasn’t been verified, but I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it by now). And of course the whole living in sin with my boyfriend for the past two years probably tipped them off as well.

At first they would try to get me to come back around. They’d question me about my beliefs and ask when I had been to church last. When I avoided their questioning or outright changed the subject they’d get upset, angry even.

But then they just backed off. I don’t know what it was that made them stop asking – perhaps the realization that I wasn’t going to change my mind based on their prompting – but they did. And now they’ve taken on a new tack: Acceptance. Well, sort of.

When I see them now, which isn’t often, my parents will gingerly ask me about my boyfriend and whether we have plans to get married. We don’t. Conversation over. If my tattoo is showing, my mom will complement me on it, even though I know she doesn’t approve of it. I’m always tempted to remind her of what she used to tell me when I was a teenager and I’d ask to get a tattoo or a belly button ring, which was, “You can do whatever you want when you turn 18, but not until then.” I never do say this. Instead, I just reach back and pull down my t-shirt so it’s covered again, and try to act as though she hasn’t said anything at all.

I often wish I had a better relationship with my parents (and my siblings for that matter), but when the opportunity to forgive presents itself, I find myself acting like a bratty teenager. I’ve spent many of the past ten years trapped among guilt, self-loathing and regret as I worked my way out of a religion in which I’m not sure I ever believed. My parents seem to have forgiven me, or at least are willing to look past my breach of trust, for leaving the church. But somehow I still haven’t been able to forgive them for judging me so harshly in the first place.

I’ve begun trying to make amends, but years of bitterness and hateful words have made it a difficult path. I find myself constantly having to bite my tongue when I’m with my parents so there won’t be any flare ups. In the past I’ve been able to spend no more than a few hours among my family members without a huge fight breaking out. But my last visit with them was actually somewhat pleasant, aside from the constant praise from my dad, and one particular sibling, that I’ve really grown up. Apparently acting civil toward people you can barely stand is a sign of maturity.

I don’t know how long the civility will last though. Each perceived wrong brings back the bitterness. Things like when my sister Katijona calls me to ask if I’ll be visiting this weekend for Peter’s baptism. I told her I didn’t even know about it so, no, I wouldn’t be there. Four days really isn’t enough time to plan for a trip to Utah. I couldn’t stop myself wondering if my parents didn’t invite me for fear that I’d turn another child against the church. After all, Katijona, of whom I’ve written before, remains unbaptized (which, of course, is my fault) and shows no signs of accepting Mormonism. When we spoke yesterday, she told me that the bishop asked her if she’d like to get baptized along with Peter this weekend. Her response? “I barely even come to this church, why would I want to get baptized?” Ha!

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be proud that this 13-year-old girl has more gumption and resolve than I did at age 23. This is the thing that drives a wedge between my parents and I. But how can I not want to give her a big hug and tell her I’m OK with her decision?

I fear my parents (and some of my siblings) will be at odds with me for many years to come.


SACRAMENTO, CA-

There was a time when my little sister, Kati, and I were practically inseparable.

Kati loved coming to my house because she got all of the attention. There weren’t seven other kids battling for love and affection. Just her and me.

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Kati spent holidays at my house. I made here green eggs and green milk for St. Patrick’s Day. Donald and I would make Easter egg hunts just for her. She had her own Christmas stocking hanging up at our house.

It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want Kati around. Kati just didn’t want to be around them. My family’s house was always in turmoil. My parents were always fighting. The kids were constantly battling against each other. And Kati, being the smallest, was often lost in the fray.

There were more than a few times when Kati asked if Donald and I would adopt her, but I always declined. I told her she wouldn’t have as much fun with us if we were her real parents because I’d make her do her homework and go to bed early.

No, it was much better this way. I got to be the fun big sister who dressed up like a ballerina with her (sorry no pictures). I stayed up late making her ice cream sundaes and reading her Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I wouldn’t let her watch the movie until after we’d read the book).

One other thing I remember about my years hanging out with Kati was her birthdays.

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Our family has never been big on birthdays. My mom always said if she let one of us have a birthday party then all of us would want a birthday party. And in my house that amounted to a birthday party almost every month, sometimes twice in one month.

It just wasn’t happening.

But Kati always got a special birthday when I was around. For her third birthday I invited all of my friends out to dinner as though it was my own birthday. We just went to some little diner and I didn’t expect it to be too big of a deal.

But it was. Everybody brought her gifts and balloons and cards. And the waitress brought here a huge sundae with sparklers. And everybody sang Happy Birthday to her.

I don’t know if she even remembers that now. It was quite a long time ago.

The last birthday I got to spend with her was her ninth birthday (the one pictured above).

I had returned from France just three days prior. But I had promised Kati I’d make her birthday special. I got my other sister, Jess, in on the plan. We decorated my apartment. Set up a karaoke machine and invited both Kati’s and my friends over to celebrate. It wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but I think Kati still had fun.

About a year later my family moved to Idaho, taking Kati with them. Every year after I’ve told Kati I’ll come visit her for her birthday, but I’ve never been able to make it. I’ve missed three of her birthdays now.

Kati and I had grown apart a bit anyway. I’d been gone in France for eight months and I think she felt a bit abandoned. Also, I stopped having her over as often because my parents blamed me for Kati’s not being baptized.

In the Mormon religion children don’t get baptized until they’re eight years old, ostensibly because they want people to make their own decision as to whether they believe and want to be a member of the church.

As you’ll soon see, this isn’t actually the case.

Kati had put hers off for the first year, saying she wanted to wait until I got home from France. It was a good strategy for her. She got to deflect the attention to me. My dad called me up in Paris and said, “Kati isn’t getting baptized because of you.”

That’s what he said.

He asked me to talk to her, to plead with her to get baptized before she turned nine. I told him it wasn’t that big of a deal and he could schedule it for the month I returned.

I thought Kati really did want to get baptized. I thought she just wanted to wait until I was there for it.

But several months later Kati still wasn’t baptized.


I thought it was just my parents being irresponsible as usual. After all, I wasn’t baptized until I was almost nine too. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my parents just never bothered to schedule it and send out the invitations.

So why were my parents so concerned this time?

Well, it turns out that Kati flat out told them no. She said she wasn’t getting baptized.

Now the pressure was on.

One Sunday evening I went to raid my parents pantry for groceries. When I arrived I was surprised to find my dad and Kati in the living room with two missionaries while the rest of the family seemed to be hiding out in the kitchen.

“What’s Kati doing in there with the missionaries?” I asked.

“They’re trying to make her get baptized.” my brother told me.

“What do you mean? Of course she’s going to get baptized,” I said.

“No, she won’t,” my brother said. “They come here nearly every week and every week she tells them no.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.”

At this point I went searching for my mom, who was hiding out like everyone else.

She told me the missionaries came twice a month, but Kati wasn’t budging.

People, this is a nine-year-old kid. Children do not tell adults no. They do what everyone else does. And in our family and our circle of friends, everyone else gets baptized.

After this I was intrigued by my sister and her strength to stand up for what she, in this case, doesn’t believe.

Of course, although my heart was swelling with pride, I didn’t tell her that. It would for sure be my fault if I encouraged her on this path.

Moving on…

Today Kati is 12 years old. She’s made it more than four years without getting baptized, even after my parents moved her to Utah last summer.

The missionaries continued to come while they lived in Idaho.

And Kati continued to tell them no.

Every so often, when I called my mother, and trying to not sound eager, I would inquire about Kati and the missionaries.

Exasperated, my mom would say, “The missionaries still come on Sundays. Your dad won’t tell them to leave her alone.”

This week though two of my sisters came to visit and I found out that my mom finally put her foot down.

The story as relayed to me by my sister:

The bishop of their new ward came to my parents with Kati’s church records.

“There seems to be a problem with your daughter’s records,” he said.

“No, there’s no problem,” my mom said.

“Well, it says here that she’s not baptized yet,” he persists.

“Yes. That’s not a mistake,” my mom says.

“Oh, well…”

“No. That’s the way she wants it and that’s the way it’s going to stay. If you send even one missionary to our house I’m going to leave the church for good. I will not allow any of my children to step foot in this church again. Got it?”

And the missionaries have stopped coming.


UPDATE, November 2009: I just learned, via Facebook, that Kati is getting baptized. Apparently all the church had to do was give her some space.