Young and Mormon in New York
By Campbell George
Beads of dew congregate on the sides of the plastic cup, ice melting and just a few coconut jellies left. Previously filled to bursting with winter melon infusion, one of the few entries on the Gong Cha tea shop menu greenlit by the health code of my faith known commonly as the Word of Wisdom. Back at her place now, conversation with the girl sitting next to me has begun to dry up, as both of us realize that what started on Tinder a few days prior would probably run its course soon. Fishing out some common ground, she says, “Wanna watch some Seinfeld?” Not wanting to be poor company and always a sucker for my favorite show, I hear myself say, “Sure, why not?” However, as the Hulu logo glows on the screen, I find myself wishing I’d answered my own question. Plenty of reasons why not. Number one, I don’t see this going anywhere. It had been fun texting about the merits of the Raconteurs vs. the Black Keys, but once you meet in person, all that can go out the window. Dating in New York isn’t easy for anyone and Mormons prove no exception.
Settling back, I allow myself to relax a little as the quibbly bass line thumps while the scene sets on the antics of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. One episode passes. And then another. She turns it off and stares expectantly at me. After an uncertain moment, she says, “Wanna make out?” At this point, I don’t really think I do, but wisdom often cowers in the face of physicality and I accede. A few minutes later, she sits up, “So, we gonna have sex?” I freeze. Panic fills me. I know my answer. I can’t. I won’t. Not now. Not unmarried. That’s the deal and that’s always been the deal. I stammer out a soft, but definite, “Uhh, no, if that’s okay. I’m not really comfortable with that.” She shrugs, content to have at least suggested it and things resume as before until I see the time and realize I’m late for a movie with some friends. “Thanks, this was nice,” I exhale while putting on my shoes and picking up my things. She replies with something along those lines as I make my way to the door and we wave an uncomfortable first and final goodbye.
I can’t speak to how common experiences like this are. Dating outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known colloquially as the Mormon church) doesn’t vary that much. Whether it’s in Salt Lake City or New York City, whenever people of differing faith backgrounds attempt to establish connection, it can be rocky. Growing up in southern California, I’m accustomed to being a religious minority. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, there were always other Mormon kids at school and, of course, church. Though the majority of my friends growing up weren’t of my faith, it never felt difficult or awkward, even as differences arose in alcohol consumption, drug use, and even morning coffee. Ironically, the “it” hangout spot for many of my friends was a tea lounge above the Baskin Robbins downtown. Thankfully, there was always an herbal option on the menu, just like at the Gong Cha on the Upper West Side where I’m now living. Some things never change.
The pinch isn’t as keen as I’d expected since moving here. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Both of my roommates, friends made at Brigham Young University and over Twitter, are also Mormon. A lot of our friends are as well. I had heard before arriving that New York, ahead even Los Angeles and Washington D.C., was home to the largest population of young, single Mormons outside of Utah, but what I’d failed to consider is what that would mean to me. Arriving in the city, I didn’t just find a parish; I found a community that extended its arms far beyond a Sunday greeting at church. Afternoons playing wiffleball and croquet in park, evening mixers on the roof, and weekends upstate all wove a rich social fabric of people who, in a big, often merciless city, hold on to each other. Even after the first time meeting them, I felt we were twenty steps ahead of being strangers, bonded as we are by mutually deeply-held beliefs.
When we go out to clubs in Brooklyn on weekends, the absence of alcohol in our revelry is never that pronounced. When I’m at an 80’s night, draining my third cup of water, it’s hard to miss what I’ve never had. Looking at the euphoric faces of those on the dance floor who’ve just finished shots at the bar and are back for more, I wonder what it’s like. But that’s it. I just wonder. Not just what it’d be like to forget all my troubles and elevate my state but also what my friendships and relationships with my fellow interns would be like if I too partook. Going to bars after quitting time, I’m glad to single-handedly sustain the Shirley Temple economy. Someone’s gotta do it. The conversation naturally loosens and the laughter grows and I’m having a great time. I wonder, but I don’t envy. Nor do I think anyone would be necessarily better off if they did as I did. My choices are my own and I’m happy with them. Often, people will ask if I feel like I’m missing out. On the contrary, I feel that being a Mormon here has enriched my experience far more than impoverished it.
Circling back to dating, I also wonder how different my life would be if I didn’t adhere to my church’s teachings on abstinence and chastity. It’s quite a rabbit hole. What’s the end goal of pondering paths I could’ve taken? Even as I wonder how it would feel to walk in the shoes of those not of my faith, I also wonder what it would be like for them to walk in mine. How would my spiritual and social gait, developed over several years, feel? Would they find my dry, abstinent pace liberating or limiting? After all, there are highs and lows to both. The peace that comes from loving and being loved by God. The guilt that intrudes like a blister after a spiritual stumble. The comfort of having a community to turn to in times of trouble. I suppose none of these considerations is particularly endemic to New York. However, the city is a uniquely potent human crucible. The pressures of daily life smelt both one’s sterling and one’s dross. What qualities would be magnified were the shoes on the other feet? How differently would you and I live if our positions were reversed? At the very least, it’s a solid thought experiment on self-awareness. I’m reminded of the allegory of the fig tree in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From
the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
The thing about getting older (and the point at which Ms. Plath and I diverge), is that I gradually have realized that I do not want the things I have not chosen to pursue. If I had truly wanted them, I would have chased them, just like I’ve chased my dreams of living in New York.
When I sit on the pew on Sunday morning, singing hymns I’ve sung so many times, I’m happy.
When I walk out of the chapel, joining my friends for brunch, I’m happy.
When I’m sober, in the front row seeing The National play “Graceless” in Prospect Park, I’m happy.
When I’m reading scriptures in the morning on the patio before heading into my internship, I’m happy.
Because this isn’t just about being young and Mormon in New York.
It’s about living your choices as you want to.