At night in Utah Lake State Park just outside of Provo it was war with the mosquitos and we hid from the roving black swarms in our trailer. During the day however, the bugs were manageable and Simon and I spent a lot of time out and about. The parks there are very green and beautifully maintained. During the mornings when Simon and I would go to the playground. There were lots of kids, and lots of cheerful mommies with Capri jeans, modestly cut tee shirts and sensible shoes out there with them. I checked them out and practiced my Mormon-Radar (MorDar?)
The Mormon culture is very prominent all around Utah. Driving down the highway from Provo to Salt Lake City there are billboards with references to Mormon things that we did not get at all and some we did. I was not aware that you could register (like for gifts) before you left to go on a mission, but I learned that from a billboard. Lots of plastic surgery billboards too, oddly enough. Not so many lawyer billboards though. Nothing like Florida which apparently has more lawyers than civilians, or at least one would guess from the number of billboards on the highways advertising their services.
Anyway. Utah. Right.
We spent a day in Salt Lake City and Simon and I went on a tour of the Mormon Temple complex while Mat worked nearby. We got through the gate and there was a sign offering guided tours, so inquired at the ticket office about when the next tour was going to be starting. The young girl at the counter said, “Oh, you can have a private tour!” and almost immediately there were two young women wearing calf length skirts and flowers in their hair introducing themselves as “Sister D---“ and “Sister H---“ ready to squire Simon and I around. We rolled through the tabernacle choir building, a replica of the temple (which is not open to the public), and two of their visitor centers, all very quickly as every time the stroller slowed down Simon started agitating to get out. So we had to keep moving and not linger around the displays. As we walked, predictably I suppose, one of our guides started asking about my religious beliefs and talking about Mormonism and what had inspired her to convert.
As we walked and talked I could really see why the religion appeals to so many people, because they are offering a lot of good stuff to their followers including promises of eternal family, community, connection, meaning, structure, and material support. They offer a connection with the past as well. There is actually a huge library with computers set up just for you to research your ancestors. The idea is once you find them, then you can request that they be baptized post houmously in the church. Who wouldn’t want all that? I could especially see people with the kind of personality who relish structure and ritual and routine absolutely loving this belief system—life is all planned out for you. Your path is defined, and all you have to do is walk along the road you are meant to. Getting married young, having lots of babies, having a happy family and a warm home, and having your church be the center of your life where you meet your friends and have your social life, recreation, activities, and meaning. If you want all that, I bet it’s a beautiful life and that it works out really well for many people.
Personally, I was extremely impressed with the welfare system that the LDS church has in place. In one section of their visitor center there was a big display showcasing all the services and goods that the church provides. Apparently they have “Bishop Stores” which are essentially grocery stores will all kinds of food and personal items that are made in factories and on farms staffed by volunteer members of the church. The stores are just like conventional grocery stores, except that they don’t have cash registers. Anyone can just walk in and get what they need, if they are in need. Sister D-- told me that the people are simply asked to volunteer in exchange for what they’re given. There are thrift stores with clothing and housewares that also operate this way. Likewise, people have access to healthcare, job assistance, housing, and counseling services through the church. The church also maintains store-houses of food and clothing that they can quickly ship to disaster areas. The church was clearly so well organized and so darn functional on so many levels. If our government could do half as well as the Mormons at inspiring people and getting things done we could have a hell of a county.
At the same time, I know that light is always balanced by dark, and I could see some cobwebs in the corners; the way that Sister D-- passionately defended the rationale behind the fact that there are no women or minorities in church leadership, and how she neatly evaded questions about the mystical-tablets-from-God that the founder Joseph Smith found in a field in New York state. There was a lot swirling through my mind as we whisked through the beautiful visitor center with the video displays of families around dinner tables, and happy blond children picking apples. I thought of the clients I’ve seen in therapy who decided to leave the church, or who came out to their families, and the anguish they suffered due to the absolute ostracism that was their consequence for doing so. I thought about what probably happened here to people who did not fit the conventional Mormon mold—Gay and Lesbian people, minorities, single or divorced parents, or really anyone that had a less conventional personality or set of dreams for their life than having a house in the suburbs and a life in the church. The social pressure to conform must be immense.
But I left Sister D-- alone. I did not ask about polygamy or the misogyny that spawns it. I did not ask about why the rates of anti-depressant use are so high in Utah. I did not ask about what happens to people who don’t fit in with the clean white vision. She was a sweet nineteen year old and clearly so happy with her hair-flower and her bible. She seemed so in love with what she was doing, being on her mission in the heart of the temple. I did not ask about the darkness. I finally had to set Simon free from thrashing around in his stroller and he made a beeline for the escalator (he loves riding escalators) and sweet Sister D-- actually rode up and down the escalator with us about six times. The seventh time she asked if she might send someone over to our house to talk more about the religion and answer more of our questions. I told her that we lived in an RV and were leaving town tomorrow, and that’s about when Sister D--- decided to get off the escalator. I really liked her. I genuinely hope that she stays as happy as she seemed that day in the temple compound, as her life unfolds down the path she has chosen.
The other thing that we did in Utah was go to Antelope Island, a large island that is now a state park on the eastern side of Great Salt Lake. We drove through the infinite suburbs of salt lake, past strip malls, gas stations, neighborhoods, factories all the way out over the causeway to the island. And all of a sudden it was like being in Iceland or something. The city was gone, lost in the hollows of the snow capped peaks to the East. We were instantly swept away into craggy green buffalo dotted hillsides that swept up from the white-blue lifeless water. Mat’s photos that you see are of the hills and views from Antelope Island.