In winter, the smoke from wood burning fireplaces tickled my throat as I ran my ten miles every morning. In the evening, with my vocabulary exercises, I tried to increase my word power. In the afternoon, the sky, generally clear, was a good time for running around the track, trying to break the school record for the mile: 4.26. Even though I had the heart and will power, I couldn’t crack it. There is only so far you can go with heart and will power.
I ran and I ran. I was a walk-on for the cross country team in college. Shiny red shorts and a white tank top with Southern Utah University. Up into the snowy mountains. Around the track with fartleks. Farleks are Swedish for speed play. The coach blows the whistle and you sprint for an unknown amount of time, followed by a slower run. You never know when the whistle will blow. Free flowing, untethered to structure or plan, it was my favourite workout. I was happy to be attending SUU, the only one of seven in my immigrant family. Gobbling up everything. The convocations from guest speakers. The world’s second best Shakespearean festival. Books upon books. More and more language. Away from Hurricane, Utah. Its cows and wood burning and throat tickling.
My first dream was Germany. Its Black Forest and fairy tales. I sat in my dormitory, late into the evening. Singing the songs of German children. Compounding my nouns and attaching the action to the end of my sentences. There was also French, but I do not remember it. Except for the professor. Her Doc Martens and long hippie dresses, and the question she asked once a week, one student at a time around the classroom, Est-ce que tu fumes? There were always one or two, even though the university was full of Mormons, there were also errant Mormons known as Jack Mormons, maybe a few from other religions, there were always one or two who said yes, Oui je fume. I wondered why it was repeated, every week, usually on a Friday, when she already knew who would say yes and who would say no, since it should have been the same students. The Jack Mormons or some other religion. It was only the next semester, when I met up with one of the smokers, that I found out the French professor was the town dealer. Soft drugs, not the hard drugs. She was a cultured hippie French teacher.
My first sighting of something hippie and less conservative than my Mormon upbringing was Chums. In Hurricane, Utah. It was off Main Street. HelloWear from Chums. A workshop that manufactured glass retainers. Neon straps that held your glasses in place. Originally designed for adventure sports in the Colorado canyon, such as white water rafting. Chums put the small town on the map. In the cafe, next door to the workshop, some left-leaning outdoor adventure hippies sipped milky coffee. They were different from the rest of the town. They were not future farmers of America. They did not sport Metallica or Garth Brooks t-shirts. They wore Chums.
I was an outdoor adventure seeker, but I preferred solitude. Walking the trails of Zion. At night. Alone. I did not sport Chums. I found chums, a few years later, at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, in the northern part of the state, where I transferred after returning home early from a Mormon mission. I was doubting everything. I wanted to break away from that American religion. Its corporate identity. The mission president with his charts and diagrams. Weekly baptisms at the monthly spirit meetings. Chanting up wins, with our thumbs up in the air. Chanting down loses, with our thumbs down. Trying to beat the competition in the other part of Idaho. More like a business than a spiritual endeavor. It was far from my idea of Jesus.
My first chum and closest chum sported a ponytail and was vegetarian. I had never met a vegetarian. It was my first time talking to a ponytail. In our undergraduate days, we rejoiced in Joyce, found our primal howls with the Beats, delved the depths with Freud & Jung & Woolf & Beckett & Beckett & Beckett, eventually partook of soft drugs in a brownie. My other chums were run away Mormons. Theatre majors. Dancing in a circle together.
It was The Great Purge of the 90s. “Religion faced the greatest threat from three groups: feminists, homosexuals and intellectuals,” said Boyd K. Packer, a General Authority, in a speech in 1993. In the fall of 1993, six Mormon writers were rebuked for their feminist intellectual leanings. They became the “September Six.” We felt the ripple. We were reading and thinking people. We read Sunstone, a Mormon intellectual magazine, and thought about our heavenly mother. You are not supposed to think about heavenly mother, only heavenly father. Heavenly mother is sacred. You cannot talk about her. You cannot interpret the book of Isaiah without the General Authorities. You have to be careful of apostasy and false teachings. If the prophet told me to dye my hair blue and jump off a cliff I would do it, said the Mormon bishop across the street from my parents in Hurricane, Utah. The General Authorities are the only authorities.
We became Jack Mormons, but wanted to be Non. A Jack Mormon is a baptized Mormon who does not follow the morals, such as refraining from profanity and pre-marital sex, and the Word of Wisdom: no drugs, tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” says Proverbs 22:6. A Jack Mormon is Mormon in name only. Like a lapsed Catholic or Baptist, once a Mormon, always a Mormon, they say, but we wanted to be Non, not Jack. To become Non, you had to write a threatening letter. We sent a threatening letter to have our names removed from the register. There is no telling if we are Jack or Non. At least officially. They might still count us on the list. When you die, someone in your family might find you. This is called genealogy. Even if we became Non, rather than Jack, after our death a descendant of our Mormon family might baptise themselves in our name. This is called a proxy. I chewed it: proxy. The x in there, uncertain, like a hoax, but also an equation. X= you. My name dunked and yours too. Sometime in the future, when the genealogy machine of the Mormons finds you. As a teengager, I was baptised for the dead, at one of the church’s 159 temples around the world. I wore my white gown. Waded into the baptismal font resting on the statues of 12 oxen. After each short prayer, I was dunked in the water. 75 times for 75 names in 5 minutes. Almost a record. I listened to each name and date before getting dunked. We were in the 19th century. My lungs were good. I was a winner. I ate two cheeseburgers.
There was a controversy with Jewish names, some from the Holocaust, baptized by proxy. Hundreds of thousands in the 90s. This brought to mind Jews being forced in the past to convert to Christianity or face death or deportation, said Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff. In 1995, after the controversy, and discussion with Mokotoff, the church authorities banned baptisms of Jews from the Holocaust, except when they are ancestors of Mormons. There have been more controversies, over the years, with celebrities and public figures. Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and the Queen Mother. The grandparents of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton, Steven Spielberg. The ancestors of Kim Kardashian, Carrie Fisher, Joe Biden and John McCain. All baptised. In 2012, the researcher Helen Radkey, a former Mormon who left the church in the 1970s, discovered the baptism of Anne Frank by proxy. The church authorities implemented a firewall and three full time staffers to watch the database for the unauthorised baptism of the dead by proxy. The church authorities are sent a list of Holocaust victims each month by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Those names are off-limits.
There was a controversy of Non-Mormons becoming Mormon in the next life without their consent, but the church leaders said it was a service. They could choose to accept or reject their baptism by proxy, in the next existence, in the waiting room. It was not a forced conversion. They could choose the truth and the light, or reject it. We wanted our names purged from the records, even if someday, when we were dead, someone in the line of our Mormon families put it back there. Is there any way to escape the registry?
After Weber State University, my ponytail chum followed me to Bellingham, Washington, strumming Bob Dylan on his guitar. I was in graduate school, studying language theories, the signifier and signified, writing avant garde poetry. He had a flatmate: a cat named Simon who always spilled the bong water. We listened to Death Cab for Cutie while reading A Picture of Dorian Gray at a bohemian cafe. In Bellingham, we were remaking ourselves into something different. Dancing to live Blues. Drinking craft beers. Walking the great arboretum. Becoming cultured. One weekend we drove his car to White Rock, in British Columbia, and snapped back the schnapps at a German bar. On the promenade we heard the world’s languages, especially French and German, since we were both learning them. The world is on the promenade, we said. We had moved away from Utah. Hurtled ourselves into heathenism.
I’ve found a couch, said my chum. We’ll have more room to sit. And behold we took the couch up the stairs. It will not fit through the door, said my chum. We could saw it in half, I said. And so we procured a saw, from the neighbour. Proceeded to saw. Halfway through, with a small mountain of saw dust and ripped cloth below us, we realised we were destroying the couch. If we managed to saw the couch in half, and it fit through the door, it would be a ruined couch. It might not hold any weight upon it. So we stopped sawing, before it was too late. Acquired a pulley. Pulled it through the window.
After Bellingham, my chum moved to Cambridge, for a degree in art history, and then Prague to teach English at a university. I followed the ponytail next door to Poland, a few years later. We were pilgrims looking for new holies made from old holies in the Slavic lands far from our birth countries. My throat was tickled by fur hats in Poland. There were very few fur hats in Poland. The fur hats were probably Russian. My throat was tickled by German and Polish. The holy Slavic shrines with harsh hills and mountain stew. I was full of cabbage, stewing.
I was in Katowice and the ponytail was in Prague. We decided to meet in the middle. The wonders of nature in the Slovak Republic. On New Year’s Eve, walking the high Tatras in an oversized puffy jacket, and then into Levoca, or maybe Kezmarok, a small historic village. Charming modern tried and true. My chum had a romantic partner and I had a romantic partner. We all counted to one hundred in various languages. My partner counted in Polish. I counted in German. My chum counted in French. My chum’s partner counted in Czech. When our ears were sufficiently tickled, we turned on the clock radio. For every song from the Rolling Stones, we downed a shot and acted out a knife fight. There were six songs and six knife fights. After the sixth time, we looked at the clock. It was close to midnight. We better go out there to the square, said my chum’s partner, before we miss the fireworks. We should paint our faces, I said. And so we painted our faces, and gelled our hairs. In the square, the people gathered, trailing their children, dancing in circles with sparklers. I remember sparklers. The smell and feel of them. How my father lit them in Milton Keynes England. We danced with them. Wrote our names in the air before immigrating to America. The magic of sparklers. The countdown ended. A small display of fireworks. Popping colours into the night sky. It was 2007.
My chum has moved on and I have moved on, but now, in middle age, I am looking back. For so long I tried to hide it: my spirituality. Religion is the wound that wounded me. It was everything and I divorced myself from it. My intellect and curiosity collided with dogma. Half way through my Mormon mission, at age 20, I returned home early to Hurricane, Utah. I didn’t want to be American. I wanted to refind my lost origins, from Ireland, my birth country. I wore a Celtic Cross. I attended Catholic mass, wanted to change my name to Marcus McGuthrie, and then eventually, at university, minoring in Philosophy, rejected religion & turned to Secular Humanism. It was all temporary.
It is 2020. I sit in the faculty room, with my plague mask, above the tennis courts at the high school in Barcelona where I teach. I listen to the grunts of the high school tennis players. The ball thwacked from one side of the court to another. Heart and will power. It has taken me 25 years and many countries to say it: an ex-Mormon, not a Non. My Mormonism has mutated. I no longer genuflect in the mornings and evenings beside my bed with fingers interlaced tightly together feeling the warmth and tingles in my body, waiting for the holy spirit to enter me. In general, I am non-genuflecting. I might genuflect with other gestures. I don’t wear the sacred garments, shake the secret handshakes, whisper my secret name. I carry a slew of identities. I do not believe any of it. The still small voice. The tingles and bosom burning, but I still search for it, through the altered states of art and language. A spirituality. I leave one country for another and another and another and another and another and another. Where do you come from is a question I receive in every new country. My chum has moved on and I have moved on, but you have to look back to move forward. I come from this and that and I am still becoming. That is the glory.