It sounds so zen: losing my pants helped me find myself.
I felt guilty, zipped snug inside my tent wearing a short thin nightgown, with the lack of covering for my bottom half bringing such a reprieve. You see, due to a forgotten suitcase and an incident with the lake and a zip-line, the one pair of jeans I’d brought to girls’ camp lay outside, drying in the cool twilight. And I was left unable to attend the evening’s testimony meeting further up the mountain.
I was glad, and ashamed for being glad. Remembering how earlier in the week, the leaders had handed us all letters from our parents and told us to go off into the woods and have a spiritual experience. I settled by the lake’s edge, feeling sick and withered because when I read that letter, nothing sparked inside. I tried. I tried to be touched to the point of weeping, like I knew the other girls must be doing. I tried to have an overwhelming realization of my many sins with a dramatic remission afterwards, like the men in the scriptures. As usual, I came up empty. I had come up empty ever since I could remember; ever since my Primary teacher put a pen and paper in my little hands, telling me to write my testimony so that she could tape it to a balloon and release it for some lucky non-member to find. Then, like now, I looked into my heart and found only that I felt uncomfortable. Why was I wrong? Why couldn’t I make it work?
So I wasn’t exactly pleased when a girl poked her head into my tent and offered to keep me company. Was she here to “fellowship” me, the puzzle piece no one could find a place for?
“You shouldn’t have to be by yourself,” she said, “just because you don’t have pants.”
She settled across from me with a sheepish look. “Besides, I don’t really like the testimony meetings.”
Testimony meetings where you couldn’t just listen. You could sit, and sit, but nobody left until everyone took a turn. “Who hasn’t gone yet? Come on, Heidi! Just tell us what you’re feeling.”
I often went last. I always cried.
I was sure that the crying and the shaking meant that I was feeling the Spirit. And I knew it was wrong that I dreaded going up there.
But here was someone who shared in my wrongness. I felt a twinge of guilt as I smiled. “Me neither.”
We talked about writing. At that age, nothing could part me from my notebook and pen, especially on a camping trip full of cool crackling woods, slimy ponds, and a foggy lake. Jo, we’ll call her, loved to write too. And we both loved Lord of the Rings.
“Knock knock,” a voice sounded outside my tent door. “I’m here to keep the pantsless lady company.”
It was Rebecca, one of my favorites; blunt and overly familiar in a dependable way.
“I’m all right. You don’t need to miss out for me.”
“Oh, you’re doing me a favor.” She plunked down next to Jo. “What are we talking about?”
Phantom of the Opera. And two minutes later the tent door parted again.
“Can we stay with you? Testimony meeting is lame.”
“I brought you some pants.”
Once I had the pants on–big black sweats that were refreshingly dry and warm–no one suggested we leave our tent to hike up the mountain and join the others.
I felt guilty for providing an excuse for the others not participate dutifully. And guilty for talking about it with them, for smiling, for saying yeah, bearing my testimony makes me really nervous and I don’t like crying in front of people. No, I didn’t feel the Spirit in the woods the other day either.
I still felt broken. But I knew I wasn’t broken alone. And that did make it better.
Years later, I have the words and experience to express what was really happening, as we all piled in together with rumpled sleeping bags and muddy backpacks. Crammed inside my tent, we carved out a spiritual space where we could express ourselves honestly. It would take me a decade to realize I wasn’t broken or wrong; I just couldn’t speak to God in the language my teachers wanted me to use. A language written by committee, written to be tidy and efficient and safe. Put scriptures and prayer in, properly definitive testimony comes out. It works for a lot of people. But how many others don’t speak the language, and how many don’t know it’s all right to speak their own? Do they sit like I sat beside that lake, all curled up on themselves, grasping for a way to feel what everyone else says they feel?
We need more tents; more places where people feel safe enough to be honest. Maybe we need more people to lose their pants. There’s probably a metaphor in that somewhere. Maybe someday we’ll have one big tent where everyone can speak their own language and feel welcome and whole. But for that to happen, first we need more people to poke in their heads and say, “Can I keep you company? Because to tell you the truth, the way they’re talking out there makes no sense to me.”