Friday, November 6, 2009

How I Finally Left Mormonism

To: Donna Banta
From: Annie Christiansen
Subject: The Big Picture

For years I stayed in because of The Big Picture. Every time my vision wandered, my friend, Margaret Spencer, was there to help me refocus. Margaret was a Liberal Mormon. An "in the church but not of it" type. The sort of Mormon that the LDS authorities bar from positions of influence, but love to have around because she makes them look cool. According to Margaret, if I delved beneath the church's stodgy outward appearance (for example its scripture, doctrine and leadership) I would somehow find in its underpinnings an inner hipness. I would see The Big Picture, an image so huge it escaped my notice. Strange. I was an art professor, but I couldn't appreciate The Big Picture.

I had not planned to participate in the Abbottsville Second Ward Talent Night. Two hours of ward talent, starring Brother Bixby in his grass skirt and coconut bra, hardly seemed an appropriate venue for my art work. Then Margaret sang her Big Picture refrain and I agreed, in hopes of finally seeing for myself. I brought three of my paintings to the church that evening. One was promised to a collector, another slated for a gallery, and the last I intended to give to Margaret Spencer's daughter, Barbara.

The church lady in charge ushered me to some easels in the foyer, a space otherwise dedicated to the Relief Society Mystique. Quilts, embroidery, hand made clothing and the like spilled off tables that lined the walls. In the room's center stood the shrine to home canning. Not art in the classical sense, but exquisite nonetheless. Countless kitchen sessions with my mother taught me to respect those obedient slices. Not a single peach or apricot strayed to the surface, a wonder that would command the attention of every sister who passed. It was, in fact, already drawing approval from the few who milled about.

Margaret arrived on cue. No surprise. Even though she was in the Fourth Ward, she never missed a Second Ward activity that featured me. I waved her over, and Barbara as well, who followed after her mother with her knitting bag. I confess I have always been curious about Barbara. Her good looks and intelligence attracted a host of male admirers, including my son Sean whom she considered her "best pal." Yet she again chose to spend Friday night with her mother, and her knitting. Of course, I wasn't allowed to ask, nor was she to tell. So I shrugged off my suspicions and gave her the painting.

At once Barbara threw her knitting on the foyer sofa and hugged me. Her pink sweater was baby soft against her cheek, and her hair smelled of lavender. I gazed at the work that was now hers. The little Tuscan cafe had one customer that afternoon, an elegant woman with her book. For some reason I saw Barbara, and painted her instead. Margaret approached with eyes brimming, and joined our embrace. A rush of emotion overwhelmed me. Perhaps this was The Big Picture. Sisterhood. Community. A family of like-minds.

When we parted I saw the room had filled. Margaret and Barbara stepped back to allow others to view my work. Somebody said, "oh my what pretty pictures." I said "thank you." Another person asked, "where'd you paint that?" I answered, "Venice." He said, "down in Southern California?" I said, "Italy actually." "Italy? Oh my heck." The warmth of the past few minutes drained from my being, and dread crept into its place. The members of my ward family were doing their best to include me, I knew that. But I also knew that I did not belong. I searched for Margaret. She had fallen into a conversation with some ladies by the canning table. Barbara perched on the sofa, wrapping yarn around needles with acute gravity, as though dismantling a bomb. I turned toward the door, and considered sneaking out.

Instead I was confronted by my bishop, Russ Meeker, a spare man unburdened by nuance who, at twenty-seven, lacked both experience and confidence. So blessed, his management style boiled down to abrupt interrogation, barking orders, and simian thrusts of his chin. Our conversation still screams in my brain.

BM: "Who gave you permission to do this?" Me: "What? Paint?" BM: "A picture of a Catholic church?" Me: "I was in Rome." BM: "Your husband tells me you go places like that. Is he here? I'd rather talk to him." Me: "These are my paintings, that makes me the person to talk to." BM: "This girl in the restaurant, what's she drinking?" Me: "A beverage." BM: "Well it is totally unrepresentative of our young women."

At this point the bishop paused and issued a smug grin that reminded me of a certain squirrelly freshman in my Art Appreciation class. "Don't get me wrong, Sister Christiansen. I happen to love art. In fact, we just had dinner at the Warners. Now that her kids are grown, Sister Warner has taken up painting. She's done some marvelous pictures of the Provo temple . . ."

While Bishop Meeker raved over Sister Warner's oeuvre, I returned to my painting of the cafe. This time it seemed larger, and I saw myself there, basking in the Italian sun with my book, drinking my whatever. Maybe Barbara would join me, Margaret too if she liked. But there was no room for an adolescent bishop whose creative expertise was rolling earth tones on walls. He no longer belonged in my picture.

I told the little twit to piss off.

Then I gathered the painting promised to the collector, and the one going to the gallery, and I left. For good. As I pulled away from the church, Margaret appeared in my rear view mirror, waving me back. I watched as her image grew smaller and smaller, then disappeared.

More later,

P.S.  Ha! At least the Abbottsville Second Ward doesn't have an e-mail list!


  1. Mormons NEVER acknowledge art unless its created by a faithful member of their own tribe. I remember the so-called Rodin exhibit at BYU . . . Keep up the posts, Donna, I enjoy them very much!

  2. This is poignant because there's so much truth in it. I experienced so many times well-meaning members trying to include me, but knowing acutely that I did not belong. The Big Picture I wanted was not to be found in the Church.

  3. Plus you're a writer, which makes it tough. This is actually a part of my novel that I cut. Thanks so much for reading.

  4. Is this a novel in progress? Is it available? :-)

  5. I've finished a novel and have been trying to find an agent. I got close this year with an agent I met at a conference. She asked to read the entire book. But I got a rejection from her a couple of weeks ago. However, I just joined a really good writing group that I think will help me make it more marketable. Barbara, the teenager in the above piece, is one of the central characters. She's a lesbian still in the closet. How about you? Have you written one yet? You should! If you have one, I'd love to read it.

  6. I have not written a novel as of yet. I'm egocentric, so most of my writing is personal essays and memoir. ;-)

    I did write a short story last fall with a young Mormon girl as the main character. It's mostly finished, except for one scene that I can't quite figure out how to write.

    Good luck finding an agent! If this cut segment is any indication of the rest, I'm sure it's excellent. (Though as we both know, "excellent" and "marketable" aren't necessarily the same thing. Just look at Eat, Pray, Love!)