Walking Into the Forest

By Rev. Patty Willis



Rev. Patty Willis

During my early years, our family lived where there were few to no members of the Mormon Church. So my siblings and I attended services conducted by my father in our living room, my mother playing the piano and teaching us Primary songs. When I was eight years old, my geologist father, who believed deeply in evolution, drove our family to the nearest beach where he and I walked out until the water was deep enough. There, he baptized me, and then afterwards—in our garden—he confirmed me.

The God who occupied my world into my twenties had two faces. The first gently listened to my prayers at night after my father had told us bedtime fairy tales. The second was an exacting God who found lots of faults with me. During our tiny church services, I sat and thought about all the things I had done wrong. Especially after baptism, every little sin I had committed stuck to me until I went through the repentance process, groveling before God and promising—hoping—that I wouldn’t do it again. But I usually did. And those repeat sins were a very heavy burden for my small body to bear.

I didn’t question this image of God. The God my parents taught me was a fact. A known being. Male. He had been seen by someone who knew my ancestors. God knew not only what I did but also what I thought. It is only in looking back that I realize how hounded and policed I felt. When the sacrament came around I would wonder miserably if I was really worthy of taking it. What did worthy mean? After all, I had done this and that wrong, but I had also prayed during my long runs through the Wisconsin countryside that week.

I read voraciously from the minute I learned how to, and this led to my core belief that there is wisdom in books. (When I don’t know what to do, I breathe and meditate and read.) But my reading began to lead me to opinions that were often quite different from those of my parents. I protested wars and became an activist for various social causes. My parents accepted these differences, but gave me one requirement: that I remain a faithful member of the LDS Church.

I couldn’t imagine any other life until one day, at age 21, I went to a church service and sat next to Mary Lou Prince. After two or three weeks, we were deeply in love with no turning back. I was presented with a terrible choice: break the one solid requirement for being a member of my birth family or be with someone whose love I couldn’t imagine living without. Finally, I chose my belief and God over a life with Mary Lou.

I felt that I had made the righteous choice, but it was at that point that I began to experience another side of the Church. I had become a woman with a past. My faults were no longer only the small ones; I now had a large one that the president of the Church at the time, Spencer W. Kimball, said was a heinous sin of the ages. In order to be forgiven, I had to lower myself and keep a constant watch so that I would never sin in such a way again.

I married a man in the Salt Lake Temple and spent some extremely unhappy months and years with him, filled with excruciating seconds and minutes. This relationship, driven by my desire to be faithful to the Church, was deeply unfair to him as well.

Living in Los Angeles, I ran across a place called Sisterhood Bookstore—feminist to its core. There, I devoured stories of women: the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Alice James, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Silences by Tillie Olsen, the essays of Alice Walker. I read and read and read. The stories of these women—fictional and factual—made me feel that I was not alone. I began to question the presence of God in my head. I realized that I had created a kind of KGB agent who followed me around but did not make me feel safe or accompanied—only watched.

Then, one day, I wore a many-colored sweater I had knitted to a folk art shop owned by two women who had been together for ten years; they asked me to knit some sweaters to sell at the store. Through a combination of seeing their life together, questioning God, and reading about other women’s experiences, a picture of a life different from anything I had dreamed of before began to form in my mind. I began to long for freedom.

Only weeks later, it was a usual day and I had returned from work, sitting in my car in the parking lot of UCLA married student housing where I was living with my husband. Though I intended to get out of the car, my hand would not move towards the door handle until I absolutely forced it. It happened again the next night. And the next. Each night I sat longer and longer in my car. On the last night, I turned the key in the ignition and drove away.

Mary Lou and I re-united and have been together ever since. But by doing so, I broke the one rule my parents had given me: I left the church of my ancestors. I also left the God I had believed in for so long—the Inquisitor God whom I had encouraged to occupy every corner of my life. I shut him out and locked the door.

Mary Lou and I left the life we had been brought up in and walked into a completely new landscape—theologically and literally—moving to the coast of western Japan. Our closest neighbor was North Korea and we shared a weather system with Siberia that sometimes dropped three feet of snow on us in a night. For me, a child of Wisconsin, it was one thing—for Mary Lou, who had spent most of her life in southern California, it was another.

During our first months there, I had a recurring dream of walking through a forest so deep and dark I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. I could only put one foot in front of the other. And, yes, step by step, Lou and I had to learn a new language, culture, and history. I was sometimes plagued with the fear that we had made a big mistake—that there was a different life out there that we were missing, but I did my best to ignore it and keep walking through the forest. This image transformed and expanded during the two and a half decades we spent away from the United States.

In the middle of a months-long house hunting process, Lou and I met a couple who lived in an old house in the Japanese countryside. They invited us to come see one for sale nearby. It was an early summer morning 24 years ago when we walked into that house’s entryway, the light filtering through its windows, the smell of mold and rodents permeating the air. It felt as if the place had been waiting for us. We fell in love with the house almost as we had fallen in love with each other—as well as with the surrounding bamboo groves, cedar, and broad-leafed forests.

It was a new beginning for us. And for me, it was the day that the last vestiges of the Inquisitor God disappeared. In his place was the wind, the movement of the trees, and this big old shelter—this lighthouse on a hill, this holy place. I felt accompanied by a Presence.

When I hold still and breathe deeply, I often feel this Presence—not the Inquisitor (though I can still tell when I haven’t made a good choice). This new voice comes from within me as if, like the medieval mystics and Quakers have said, God is a part of all of us: the light in our eyes, the light that holds us together, the light that shines out of the forest and mountains. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of how she experienced it:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, 

And every common bush afire with God, 

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries. 

Though the poem seems to be saying that those who “sit round and pluck blackberries” are missing the presence of Mystery, I’ve had diverse enough experiences that I’ve no doubt that someone could experience this God while saying, “Mmm . . . what a blackberry!”

And now, I hope this Presence will accompany me, because, once again—as I did when I drove away from UCLA, when I forsook the religion of my ancestors, when I moved to Japan—I am walking into the forest. Cancer has been found in my body. I am walking one foot in front of the other. I am writing, painting, smelling flowers, eating blackberries, feeling grateful for the people in white clothing who poke and prod me, who will cut into my body to hopefully excise the cancer, grateful for the strangers with dogs who allow our dog, Louie, to meet them, grateful for the forest path, dark though it is, that has brought me right here to this place in this moment.1