Mutual Improvement Associations: Moving Day

This is the first of at least four pieces in a Sanctuary series – Mutual Improvement Associations – wherein I try to describe the bonds that exist between members of the church/a ward. Being a Mormon means lots of things, some positive, some negative, some easily mocked, some hard to explain. Former church president Gordon B. Hinckley once said that “Mormon should mean more good.” I like that. Despite the baggage and the at-times/hard to swallow provincialism, to me, “Mormon” can and should and often does mean “community.” That assurance that you belong in your ward, that sense that you have a ready set of friends when you move cross-country, and that handy resource when you miss the Greyhound in Butte, MT and cold call from a filthy pay phone a member of the bishopric who then finds the random street corner you are standing on and makes sure you get back on your trip … but I digress. That’s a later M.I.A. installment!

Picture a Chutes & Ladders gameboard for a moment. Up near the top row, somewhere around square #85 or so, is the dreaded all-the-way-back-to-the-bottom chute, the impossibly long one that spans the height of the board and means certain death, err, loss, for the unlucky kid who lands on that space while questing for victory.

I landed on that chute four and a half years ago, or so it felt at the time. In a matter of months, I went from a married semi-SAHM who drove preschool carpool to separated full-time instructor with the weight of the world on the back of my neck and in the bottom of my heart. I had failed, and colossally so. Eleven years earlier I had married in the St. Louis temple on a bright summer morning. Over the years, the two of us had assembled a son and a daughter and a backyard play-set with a green swing and a trampoline and a zipline that stretched between two oak trees in our half acre backyard. Things had not always been … great, but that general state of ennui/emotional despair didn’t mean we needed to break the contract, right?

Except it did.

The first order of business after this spin of the cosmic, yet weirdly still plastic, Chutes & Ladders arrow was selling our house, my home. I was teaching four college classes the semester we listed and sold the house, and I was teaching another two classes during the month we were to move. I was also serving as Young Women’s president in the ward, and thus attended Girls Camp, and managed to exist in a state of some serious denial about landing on that chute. Splitting up, being left, the dissolution of my marriage – all of it felt like an embarrassing mix-up, for I was sure that my prayers were in queue and simply hadn’t been answered just yet, which is to say, I still feel bad I hadn’t done more on the pre-moving day front. Gulp.

Into this season of chaotic work and emotional disarray, that actual moving day arrived. I had been hauling boxes of stuff to a storage unit, yes, hundreds and thousands of them, or so it seemed in the 100 degree afternoons, and so I genuinely felt that we were at least halfway done with the moving to do list. On moving day, a dear friend, Jen, and her future husband, Matt, and my two young women’s presidency counselors arrived after breakfast to help pack and load the truck. I had something like twenty-five cardboard boxes, still flat, piled in the living room. That, and a roll of packing tape, and I thought we’d have it all done before lunch time. The look in the eyes of one of the women was worrisome though. She surveyed the rooms, still filled with furniture, and opened the dryer, still filled with clothes, and looked at the sandbox, still filled with plastic tubs, and she pronounced in calm, clear and serious tones, “We are going to need a lot more help, Erin.”

But I hadn’t wanted to put anyone out to begin with. I could barely accept the help of these two women, and felt guilty for putting out my dear friends. (See “People pleaser, insane”). And I was embarrassed about the reasons for the move and the destinations of the stuff (his new apartment, this dear friend’s garage, my rented storage unit). I also didn’t want to ask people for help in case my ex was uncomfortable with the idea of church members assisting us. Having been a member of the ward a year earlier, he might have felt uncomfortable with the whole situation.

“This is impossible, Erin,” she said again, and in a flash, I saw with bladed clarity the Sisyphean task ahead of us. With a whoosh, my soul tumbled onto the giant metaphorical chute I had landed on, and slid down, down, down. I turned to her and conceded: she could do what needed to be done. And this woman, my bishop’s wife, the kind of solid Mormon woman who could have crossed the Rockies with a baby on her back and a smile on her face, God bless her, sent out an S.O.S.

I wish I could show you the time-lapse film that plays in my mind when I think of that hot June day. The mental footage begins with an empty yard, a few cars in the driveway, with Jen and Matt emptying the fridge and freezer, and with me standing stock still in a state of emotional paralysis in the middle of my house. Within fifteen minutes real time, the Relief Society president arrived, efficient and capable and brisk.

When I started weeping, a bit later, at the sight of ward members folding MY laundry, feeling as I did a failure in every way and every possible category of social convention, she put her arm around me and said firmly, “We haven’t learned anything about you today that we didn’t already know. You are the Erin we love.” And then she waved to the laundry folders to dump it all in a box and haul it outside.

The time-lapse footage would then show a growing swarm of cars, vans, men and women. You would see someone carrying a stack of pizza boxes – lunch – in the front door. You would also see some men arriving in work clothes, business casual!, since multiple ward members received the S.O.S. and took personal time to leave their jobs and come help me. You would see a second U-haul truck pull into the driveway, and armloads of cardboard boxes coming from the backs of those mini-vans. And you would see me, wordless for a change, watching the waves of Mormons coming to my rescue. In this mental time-lapse film, the trucks drive away and return, drive away and return. I see some of the men, my ex’s basketball buddies and guitar jam partners, smiling and talking to him, working double-time as if to say, ‘No hard feelings. We’re still here for you, dude.’ If I could project the images, you would see the spacious kitchen and mistake it for a beehive, at least for a moment, because there were so many women buzzing about to scrub shelves, pack appliances, and sort food, the room felt like a hive.

All told, something like 40 some people came that afternoon, maybe a few more. Some of them worked for ten hours. Some, like my dear friends, for fifteen. Other ward friends who didn’t stay to clean or move babysat the children of those who were working. Someone brought fruit, someone else Ozarka water bottles. And throughout the day and night, I walked from room to room apologizing to everyone for the heat, the task, the inconvenience, for my desk drawers filled with paper and my linen closet filled with sheets. I cried with hot shame when they pulled my fridge out from the wall (you would have too, I’m sure, if you had seen the spot where a melted grape popsicle had mated with an ancient go-gurt tube and given birth to a moldy monster).

I cried with grateful exhaustion when someone announced that the U-haul was making its final trip at 10:30 p.m. And I cried again at midnight, when my soon-to-be ex and I sat alone in the now empty living room, drinking the last of the bottled water. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” I said quietly, a statement so obvious it had to be said.

“You’re right,” he answered plainly.

And I was. As I would later share from the pulpit in fast and testimony meeting, I had been the recipient of something so great and tender and freely given that I was, as the hymn says, standing all amazed. I had been blessed by ward service before, of course. Meals after a baby’s birth, cookies from visiting teachers, warm smiles in the hallway of the meetinghouse, but I had never needed something of this magnitude before. I hadn’t known during all those many years of climbing the ladders that I could slip down a chute as readily as someone else. But throughout that heartrending, backbreaking day, I was buoyed by a kind of collective love that even I hadn’t known the depth of. One man, a ward member I didn’t know well, arrived to help, saying kindly, “You sang at my mother’s funeral, Erin, and when I heard that you were in a spot, I just knew I had to get over here and say thank you.”

Yeah, I cried then too. But I smiled as well to see what it looked like when a group of people, hot, sweaty, tired people, conjured from their love and service and Suburbans, the mythical Zion that often functions as an ideal, but can also materialize in front of us when people put aside judgment and extend their hearts and hands.