By Grace Pool
Grace Pool is a hand embroidery and digital media artist living in Salt Lake City. She is the events manager for Sunstone.
Growing up, I did everything you’re supposed to do as a good Mormon. Sort of.
I remember canning our own grape juice concentrate so we’d have fresh juice all summer. I’d spend a long day with my dad cooking down and concentrating the juice, and then ladling it into giant jars to seal up and store on a shelf in the garage. It was always a wholesome weekend of good Mormon family bonding, made all the more fun by the trip to the neighbor’s vineyard the day before to steal grapes.
I remember eating the vegetables we grew in our backyard—returning to our pioneer roots by tilling the earth and making food grow from nothing. Like alchemy. I also remember sneaking through local orchards to steal the asparagus, pears, and squash we couldn’t grow ourselves—and listening carefully for the steps of a gun-toting farmer so we could make a mad dash for the truck, clutching plastic ice-cream buckets filled with our ill-gotten gain.
I remember spending Sundays bonding with my siblings, not by doing puzzles or visiting extended family, but by returning cans for the five-cent deposit at the Thunderbird grocery store. We wore cutoff jean shorts and shoved can after empty can into the giant vending machine, collecting its paper vouchers, which we added up in our heads to compare with previous hauls. If I could turn those Sunday memories into a scented candle, it would smell like old beer.
I grew up veneered in Mormonism. I knew all the best swears, but never said them aloud. I ordered lemonade at restaurants but drank hot tea at home. I dutifully stood at the pulpit to give talks and recite what sounded to me like an authentic testimony, but as I sat back down, I wondered if everybody else was lying, too. How much Mormon does it take to make it real?
When the pandemic hit, I was terrified. Of everything. I tried to pretend I wasn’t, but my planner went from to-do lists and inspirational quotes to page after page of deep, dark fears; the horrible dreams I’d had; and the pain in my chest I was sure meant I was dying. As the year wore on, I started sleeping stranger and stranger hours, as recorded in the sleep schedule I had started as part of a New Year’s resolution, until I was hardly sleeping at all. I was getting maybe three hours per night when I stopped tracking altogether. The cover image I made for the month of April (usually a bright, cheery painting) said, “April: Just do your best. I love you.”
I was very not okay, but my camera roll insisted on a different story. A perfectly organized desk, a spotless kitchen, fancy home-brewed coffee drinks sipped at a picnic table while my dog chased a frisbee. It was curated. Mormon-mommy-blogged.
I taught myself to sew my own clothing, then threw out half of what I made. I don’t remember if I hated what I made or if I just hated myself, but it felt really good to ruin my own hard work. I finished hand embroidery projects and posted pictures online with light, breezy captions like “Just decorating quarantine.” Then I hid each one in the bottom drawer of my dresser, covered with a sheet.
I’d had a lifetime to practice performing perfection, and I had entered myself into the perfection Olympics during a global pandemic. I recorded a video of myself grinning ear to ear as I drove my dog to the park with the windows down, my hair whipping around. Then I went home, turned off all the lights, and stared out the window for a few hours. I cooked elaborate meals that I photographed but didn’t eat. I was spending every ounce of my energy making my life look right, and none of it on making sure it actually was.
In July 2020, I organized the virtual Sunstone Symposium, and the planning nearly killed me. After the symposium was over, I spent an entire day scrolling through all the chat boards that had popped up on the conference platform, reading stories from people who had connected with their Mormon roots in a true and healing way. And I got really angry. All I had pulled from the wreckage of my Mormonism was knowing how to pretend I was something else, as attested to by my Instagram account. Was that really all I could salvage? A way to make myself miserable? There had to be more.
So I made a list of the best things I associated with growing up Mormon: making a house into a home, growing my own food, genuine acts of service, family. It had been years since I’d considered myself Mormon in any real way, but I wrapped these things around myself just to see how they felt.
That night, I dusted off a pile of neglected art and hung it on my bedroom wall. I spent a day baking fresh bread and delivering it to neighbors and friends. I sewed masks for friends, embroidering swear words on the inside. I felt lighter as I dropped them off at the post office. I cried on the phone to a friend and didn’t stop out of embarrassment when they comforted me. I sold my condo and bought a house with a yard big enough for a small garden. I grew cucumbers and canned pickles. I started to sleep again.
I don’t know if I’m Mormon, or if I ever really was. But the bits and pieces I salvaged from it have given me some warmth. I don’t steal produce anymore, but I do dance through my kitchen with my partner while we wait for the latest adventure in canning to finish processing. I don’t spend every weekend recycling with my siblings, but I do go on long walks around the park, holding the little family I’ve built in my heart while I walk beside them, glad to have them for eternity.