So the other night I had this dream that I was somehow entangled with religious fundamentalists and I was told to gather a few things that were really important to me before we all climbed onto a big tour bus. So there I was, crying and clutching my wedding ring, a manila folder full of papers… and a coffee maker… That sounds about right, I *do* love coffee (and manila folders).
Reading this essay at Testify’s “Coming Clean” Show – the first time I’ve ever spoken publicly about my Mormon background and leaving the church.
But I feel bad talking about my love of coffee; I’m not supposed to like it. While it might be a normal part of your day and there’s a Starbucks on every corner, I was raised Mormon and coffee was strictly off limits. It’s a part of the Word of Wisdom, a dietary code for Mormons that forbids coffee, tea, alcohol, and drugs. You know, all the fun stuff. Heck, I only tried coffee for the first time a couple of years ago, and maaaaaan is it awesome. But again, I feel bad. It’s the Mormon thing. I wasn’t just raised Mormon, I have profoundly Mormon roots. My ancestors were pioneers who left Scotland to travel across the country and build the temple in Salt Lake. I’m even related to a Mormon prophet. I tried being Mormon as an adult, I really did, and it just didn’t work for me. Our ideas on things are just too different. So, sometimes I feel okay that I tried to be Mormon and it didn’t work out, and then there’s other times that I know I’m disappointing people and that makes me feel pretty bad…until I have another cup of coffee.
To be honest, I never really fit in as a Mormon. I often felt like I was putting on an act. I’m a performer, so I fell into that role. I wasn’t Ava I was Mormon-Ava… and it was exhausting. I was unhappy all the time and felt restricted. I like to wear jeans, not skirts, and I like to cuss. I felt like I was always trying not to say fuck. One time I’m pretty sure I said bitch in front of the bishop and he pretended not to hear me. It takes a lot of energy to image manage all the time… mistakes will be made.
I discovered the joys of coffee in grad school. I was the mother of a small child and was working on my Master’s thesis – in poetry, because I apparently hate the idea of having a career that makes money- and I was as anxious and depressed as…. A poet. I started therapy and talked about my ocd, my exhaustion, my inability to concentrate. We discussed the possibility that I had untreated ADD and my therapist recommended I try a small cup of coffee. Huh? Ok. I went home and announced to my husband that I was going to Starbucks. I ordered a salted caramel mocha Frappuccino… I know, right? It’s just a caffeinated milkshake, but it was coffee, real coffee. I drank it nervously and waited. Aaaaaand, it was awesome. I wrote 10 pages that night and felt calmer than I had in years.
I don’t know the exact science of it, but for some reason, coffee calms me down and reduces my anxiety. It got me through my master’s degree, it makes me a better parent, a better person, and it helps my high strung type A personality find peace. It has enriched my life without needing more therapy or having to resort to psychiatric drugs. It also has made me feel like a grown up for the first time in my life. Allowing myself to drink it was like a rite of passage.
Coffee had become a symbol for me of all that is mature and grown up. But, I’m still new to it, and I’m paranoid that other people will see that. When I’m at the coffee bar at Whole Foods, I feel like I’m being watched. I try to act nonchalant as I add half and half or casually stir in sugar, but inside I’m thinking Is this right? I feel like maybe there are these unspoken commandments of coffee that were delivered to everyone else by Juan Valdez and his enchanted donkey when he magically appeared in a field of coffee… vines? trees? bushes? Look, I don’t even know how that stuff grows.
The first time I tried to order coffee through a drive-thru and the server asked me how many sugars and creams I wanted, I almost started crying. It was a Chick-fil-a (don’t judge me; I was in the middle of nowhere and I was willing to momentarily ignore their views on gay marriage in order to get coffee.) I told the kid I wanted 6 cream and 7 sugar, because that sounded like a reasonable number… but then I hear him frantically whispering to a coworker, she wants 6 cream and 7 sugar!! Can we even do that?? Seriously? I felt like an idiot, and I still don’t know what the deal was with that number. If anyone can tell me the magic answer to that question, I would appreciate it because I DON’T KNOW and pretty much avoid drive-thru coffee.
Drinking coffee was a point of no return for me. I remember sitting and sipping a cup at home before anyone else had woken up. It was quiet and I was feeling happy and proud of everything I had done that year, of who I was becoming… when I suddenly had a pang of sadness. I looked at the cup in my hand and realized that it meant that there was no going back, not this time. Coffee is non-negotiable in the Mormon Church. It was becoming normal to me, a welcome part of my morning, and yet I couldn’t talk about it, which felt odd. Something so ordinary was illicit. I couldn’t share this part of my life with people who had previously been important to me, people who had been at my wedding or had been there for the birth of my son. Willingly disobeying the Word of Wisdom meant that I was no longer temple worthy and that I risked alienating family and friends because of this one thing. Yet, I wasn’t willing to give it up… and I wondered what that said about me as a person? I had various Jack Mormon friends over the years who would attempt to excuse an occasional glass of wine by joking that hey even Jesus had turned water into wine (in one of his coolest party tricks ever), but sadly, I couldn’t justify this choice the same way. Jesus never turned anything into coffee, or at least no one wrote about it.
In the Mormon culture there are a couple of different subsets of members. I come from both kinds. My mom is a convert. Being a convert in the Mormon Church is a bit like coming from Muggle parents. Often time converts are pretty cool because they bring with them memories of what it was like outside of the bubble. My mom drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and had a whole other life before she met my dad and joined the church. On the other end is my dad’s side: pioneer stock, born in the covenant, always been Mormon types, whom I affectionately refer to as AlwaysMorms and who have never in their entire lives strayed from the Word of Wisdom. Imagine dealing with a staunch AlwaysMorm Bishop who has never tried coffee. Try explaining to him how it helps you with OCD, depression, and was even recommended to you by both your doctor and therapist. He either won’t or can’t understand and sees it simply as disobedience. And while I applaud his ability to strictly abide by his chosen code, I knew there was a danger in allowing myself to be led by someone who had no possibility of ever relating to me.
I try to avoid conflict, especially when it involves big life altering things and existential issues, so I did nothing. I just stopped going to church. I don’t say that I’m Mormon, but I’m not Not-Mormon. I never un-became Mormon, there’s a process and involves writing letters and talking to people, and I’m just not up to it, so I basically just stopped going to church and started drinking coffee… and this is the first time I’ve ever really spoken publicly about that, aside from a few accidental facebook posts. And I think maybe that’s the most passive aggressive way that you can leave a faith is to start doing something that’s against what that faith believes and then just make a mention of it on facebook. And that’s where I am. I don’t know what I am. I certainly don’t make Mormons happy, but I’m not Anti-Mormon enough to make people who have left the church happy. I feel hopelessly caught in the middle all because of a cup of coffee…
Wait, no, not because of coffee, not really, right? Coffee is just a symptom of a bigger issue.
I got tired… tired of never feeling good enough, of being told what to eat and drink and wear, of being warned that my failures or my disobedience would lead me to be separated from my family in the afterlife. I stopped pretending to be perfect and I stopped believing in God, or at least that version of God. I just stopped.
So that’s where I’m at, and I’m either a really really bad Mormon, or just a normal person who drinks coffee… it depends on your perspective really. And so that’s why I’m talking about this. I’m tired of hiding who I am. I’m tired of feeling like a disobedient child. I want to claim my life and my adulthood. I’m coming out so that hopefully I can leave behind the people who will judge me or shun me based on their preconceived ideas and standards of acceptable behavior. Instead, I want to welcome in people who will get to know me, the real me, based on the choices that make me healthy and happy and I can welcome those people into my life and let them accept me fully… coffee breath and all.