This week you hear from Mel Wells. I met Mel Wells through Literary Arts, the organization that administers the Oregon Book Awards. Mel is smiley and tall and has an easy laugh. And because she comes from a Mormon background and has had to educate herself, probably knows more about gay history than me and my friends combined. I think of Mel and her fiancée, Ashley Brittner, who you heard from earlier, as arts movers and shakers. Mel at Literary Arts and with her graphic memoir in progress, My Underwear Will Save Me, and Ashley with her own writing and her reading series, Get Nervous.
But really what makes Mel shine is her honesty and authenticity. Against all odds, she found a way to be her true self—in her 20s, and not in midlife like so many of us. I respect that so much. Mel inspires me to try to be my truest, best, and kindest self. I’ve seen her lying with her love next to a beach fire, exhausted working the city’s biggest arts festival, and also been lucky enough to read with her—and each time Mel has a smile and encouragement for whoever she talks to. And, to me, it appears that each time Mel is still a little surprised that people like her and her work. She shouldn’t be. I know you all won’t be.
So grab a cup, sit back, and read an abbreviated version of how Mel Wells found her way to the life she has now.
The Authenticity Experiment, the cocoon edition. I was always a terrible Mormon. During my teenage years in the late 1990s, I spent fifty-one weeks of the year as a sarcastic, bookish oddball who asked too many questions and struggled to fit the mold. But for one week each year, there was Girls’ Camp.
At camp, I convinced other girls to leap from our canoe in the middle of the lake and to tip over the others. I led prank wars: stealing bras and stringing them up the flagpole, twist-tying tent zippers closed at night, putting plastic wrap over latrine seats. I brought a backpack stuffed with vintage clothes and wigs that my tent-mates and I wore to the evening firesides, soliciting hoots and applause. There were no boys to impress, no male authority figures hovering, and we were feral and hysterical and bold. I was in love with everyone, including myself.
Testimony Meeting was on the last night of camp. We sat around the campfire and took turns standing and saying variations of the same words: I know the church is true. I know Heavenly Father loves me. Everyone cried. I stood and said the same, feeling like a fraud. No tingling feelings warmed my heart. I was an outsider again.
One year, a Native American woman visited and gave a presentation. Her words are gone from my memory, but I can still feel the small, blue velvet pouches she handed each of us. I loosened the top string and poured tokens into my palm: a smooth plastic bead, a tiny feather, and a glossy brown arrowhead.
“The contents of your medicine bags are all the same,” she said, “Except for one thing: on a piece of paper is written your spirit animal.”
I reached in with two fingers and fished out a folded yellow note. In neat handwriting: “Butterfly – symbolizing change.”
I had no idea what cocoon I was in, or how it would feel to crack it open and test new wings.
Despite my continual struggles to fit in as a Mormon, I kept trying. I went to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I went on a mission to Belgium. Finally, just a few months before graduating from BYU, I drove past a billboard with a simple design: a Post-it note with a smiley face drawn on it and the website Postmormon.org.
I went online at work and began reading. My heart felt like it was knocking my ribs loose; reading “anti-Mormon literature” was considered more sinful than viewing porn. I ended up leaving work early to stay up all night researching church history from sources that were not “divinely approved” and, in a reverse-conversion story, my faith collapsed like a house of cards. By morning, I no longer believed in God, let alone Mormonism.
At a recent Moth storytelling event, a woman said, “I escaped by cutting off my roots, and now they won’t grow back.”
Two days after graduating from BYU, I swung an axe under my feet and moved to Portland, Oregon.
I spent the first several years here in a Kimmy-Schmidt-esque haze of exuberance. Everything was fantastic: drinking coffee! Biking naked! Drinking craft beer and flirting with women! Finally those three parts of me I’d fought so hard to repress—feminist, intellectual, lesbian—were okay, even great. I was free.
But on some dark evenings it felt like everyone was in a bar with their tribe and I was alone on tree-lined streets glistening with rain. The heavens were empty. Instead of praying, I held myself together with a mantra, “This is how you build a life. This is how you build a life.” One trip to the grocery store. One bike ride to work. One conversation with a stranger. One bike ride home. One night alone in my bed.
And just as I’d done as a Mormon teenager, I continued swallowing my anxiety, now trying to prove to myself and everyone else how fucking happy I am as an ex-Mormon! I made the right choice! See? Everything is perfect now! Then hives began blooming across my body: on my scalp, the insides of my wrists, my armpits, my shins.
“Okay,” I told my body. “I get it. Real cute.”
Of course, mocking my emotions didn’t work any better than stuffing them down. So I began learning how to feel, noting that in the language of rebirth, with our metaphor of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, we never talk about how painful it is to go up in flames…or how this pain doesn’t stop, but much like grief, hits you with sneaker waves for years.
Nine years after Mormonism, my life would be unimaginable to my teenage self. My bookshelves are lined with lesbian memoirs, feminist anthologies, and queer comics. The kitchen is stocked with jars of nutritional yeast, chia seeds, and quinoa—a foreign language to my childhood fish sticks and pot pies. And sleeping next to me every night is my fiancée with two Es.
It all feels as fragile and beautiful as a butterfly’s wings.
The last of the edits on the manuscript of The Authenticity Experiment are being sent off this weekend. I hope you’ll be as amazed as I am at how it all came together. But for a few more weeks, you’re going to hear from more writers you should know, including Gradylee Shapiro, David Harlan, and Jenny Forrester. Trust me, you’ll love them.
If you miss my voice too much, you can always buy yourself a copy of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Check the my Facebook page for more info on my reading and teaching schedule (including a class at the Attic starting in January) and while you’re there, like the page, will you? Until then, be well.