When you leave, crossing a state and a mountain range, you think you’ll put enough distance between you and the people who raised you that you’ll finally be done with their religion. You think you’ll be able to go back for a visit from time to time and still forget what they taught you, forget their dogma, forget that they made you who you are.
You will forget for a moment. You’ll move in with your boyfriend, the person who left with you, and pretend that it’s no big deal to live with a man you’re not married to. You’ll go to the bars and pretend like there’s no guilt. When you meet new people you won’t mention where you came from unless you have to and then you’ll make it into a joke. You’ll say, “They don’t dance, they don’t smoke and they don’t drink,” and people will laugh because you almost always say this with a drink in your hand.
The more you pretend the more you forget. You work, run errands, cook dinner, watch Netflix, just like a regular person. You’ll move across the country and across the country again. Eventually you’ll even get married to the boyfriend you’ve been living with. There’s love, but there’s also the convenience of a shared history that goes without saying.
Then one day, scrolling through Facebook, you’ll see your parent’s pastor has posted a link to an article about why their religion—why try to hide it? It’s Seventh-day Adventist—loses so many young people. You’re going to ignore it. You don’t even know why you accepted his friend request in the first place, out of politeness, you suppose. But then someone you don’t know comments: the people who leave are flawed, not the church.
Maybe it’s because you’re tired, maybe it’s because you’re pregnant, maybe it’s because you never really forgot, but you reply. All the apocalyptic wrath you swallowed as a child comes back in a 450 word point-by-point takedown of the article. The pastor’s response is polite, but another stranger’s comment pushes you. You post your pain in big blocks of text: they poured all their resources into your upbringing, your education, only to discard the person you have become. When a childhood friend’s mom likes your post you feel a little bad, but also a little vindicated.
You take your kids to church twice a year, to the kinder, softer Episcopalians. Still your kid asks you about good and evil and the final judgment. You had hoped the Catholic school she attends would answer all her theological questions, but here she is asking you. Even though you teach world religions, you fall back to your childhood theology. You’re pretty sure she can tell you don’t believe what you’re saying. The next time she asks you a difficult theological question, you tell her what the Buddhists teach, what the Christians teach, what the Zoroastrians teach, but you think the academic detachment might be as bad as the dogma.
You begin to notice the little things too. Like, when writing a sympathy card, you freeze, not knowing whether to write “I’m praying for you” or “I’m thinking of you.” And when people greet you at church with the Lord’s peace and when the priest blesses you at communion, you panic. At the end of the service, you want to leave unnoticed, but people still talk to you on your way out, smiling and thanking you for coming.
You want to write about driving across the American Southwest, about feeding livestock in a Wyoming blizzard, but you wind up writing about your childhood religion. So you write and you drink and you drink and you write and you think you have lanced the abscess and drained the infection. But then you have to write about it again. And you have to research it and write about it more. You wonder if you will ever be able to write about anything else. You think you will, but you pour another glass of wine because you still have more to say.
Michelle Nicolaysen lives on a sheep and cattle ranch in Central Wyoming with her husband and three kids. She has an MA in Religious Studies from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Hash journal.