An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for April, 2010

How a Nice Girl Like Me Ended Up at Utah State Prison–A Memoir

Spring and fall each came around twice while I taught inmates in maximum security, but winter defined the prison compound. Icy blasts swept down from the Point of the Mountain with the fury of unleashed demons. Unhindered by chain-link fences and razor wire, the wind sharpened the chill of gray concrete buildings before dashing unrestrained across open fields to the Oquirrh Mountains. Concrete walls, locked doors and barred, reinforced plexiglass windows protected staff from inmates and inmates from each other, but were defenseless against the relentless cold—a cold not just  of weather, but the chill of abandoned hope—a chill which permeated the buildings and people in them.

Officers in blue/black uniforms perma- scowled from too many encounters with the refuse of humanity—the depraved, the manipulative, the abused, and the abusive. Arrogant captains and wardens, corrupted by total authority over powerless inmates, strutted like royalty . Medical personnel, who used their healing skills to force psychotic inmates to swallow enough Thorazine to render them harmless to themselves and others, exhibited the lifeless faces of their patients. Hardened eyes of caseworkers revealed their disillusionment from years of fruitless effort to rehabilitate inmates who enter the system, leave, and return, and return, and return. The corrupt atmosphere of a prison makes retaining common humanity, not impossible, but very difficult. Futility, not fear, is the prevailing emotion of prison staff.

I hadn’t wanted to teach first grade when I applied to Jordan District in 1985. I wanted to teach literature or history. To introduce young minds to the great world of ideas beyond the borders of Utah, but jobs were tight and I took the available opening. Three years later, I was burned out with elementary school, and teaching jobs were still tight. I applied for every secondary transfer opening in Jordan District and never even got an interview.

Finally in May, an English position was posted at South Park Academy. I’d never heard of that school, but the post said, “Must be willing to work in a lockdown facility.” That could only mean Utah State Prison. I submitted my application and the principal, called and made an appointment for an interview in a couple of weeks—after a background check clearing me to enter the prison. What was I getting myself into?

George was even more skeptical. “It’s the worst feeling in the world to hear the doors clang shut behind you,” he cautioned. Since he’d had some experience with jail as a young sailor, I didn’t disregard his warning. But I was desperate to get out of first grade. I know it’s unfeminine, especially in my culture, to express anything but love and tenderness for small children, but I had been teaching and loving little children, including my own five,  for over twenty years and my love and tenderness had scabbed over. I needed to work with students nobody expected me to love—convicted felons certainly met that criterion.

I drove out to my interview visualizing scenes from prison movies—trying to banish words like “hostage” and “gang rape” from my mind.  I heard myself singing the words from Tex Ritter’s song: “He made a vow while in state prison/ Vowed it would be my life or his’n.” As I drove into the parking lot at the Young Adult Correction Facility (YACF), a sign informed me that I was entering Utah State Prison property and had better not have any firearms or alcohol in my possession. Were armed guards going to search my car? My person?  “I don’t have to work here,” I told myself. “I’ll just take the tour.”

Obviously the tour convinced me, because I stayed and taught at USP for five memorable years.

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Is the Iron Rod Really a Balancing Beam?

Genpo Roshi of the Zen Center in Salt Lake City has developed a technique called Big Mind in which students explore facets of their own minds. Two facets that have intrigued me recently are the seeking mind and the grasping mind. The seeking mind seeks more—more light, more knowledge, more love, more of everything. The grasping mind tries to hold on to whatever it has— relationships, possessions, time, accomplishments, everything.

I think most people can be categorized as basically seekers or graspers. Seekers are future-oriented—always ready to move onto something new and better. Graspers tend to be past-oriented—wanting to hold on to what they have. Neither facet is necessarily good or bad, just different. The trick, as I see it, is balancing the two.

Mormon teachings emphasize both seeking and grasping. Joseph Smith admonished members to follow the advice of Paul and seek after anything “virtuous, lovely, or of good report.” Mormons are also instructed to study, to work, to prepare for their earthly future, and to prepare for the next life. Mormons are counseled to hold onto family relationships not only in this life, but for all eternity—and to adhere to not only their nuclear family, but their ancestors for as far back as they can find records. Mormons are expected to record their own personal histories as well as to research those of ancestors. Seeking for the future while grasping at the past leaves many Mormons feeling too overwhelmed to enjoy the present.

I think the Buddhists have it right. Life is suffering, and suffering is caused by attachment. Knowing when to let go is a tricky proposition. Children have to grow up. Parents must let go. And here is where I think Mormon culture makes the transition difficult. Mormon girls are admonished from the time they can push a doll carriage that their main objective in life, indeed, their “divine calling,” is to be a mother. How does a woman let her children go when the whole focus of her life is being a mother? A friend told me her sister actually e-mails each of her married children three times a day. I’ll bet her in-laws hate her.

“This American Life” on NPR recently featured a segment about a dying Mormon mother who wrote letters to be delivered on her 16-year-old daughter’s birthdays for 13 years. At first the daughter welcomed the letters, but as she reached adulthood and was making her own choices, her mother’s advice from the grave was troubling rather than comforting. The daughter had no way to reply, to share her adult feelings with a mother who was writing to a 16-year-old. I understand why a dying mother would dread relinquishing her parental role with her daughter, but the mother’s attachment became a burden to the daughter.

How do we strike a balance between valuing important things like relationships and being attached to them in an unhealthy way? Between letting go when necessary versus giving up too easily? Buddhists meditate to find the place of no seeking, no grasping—Nirvana. For many Mormons, temple worship provides the space to relinquish the worldly concerns of seeking and grasping, restore the spirit, and experience a brief Nirvana.

I’m a Militant, Political Agnostic

Dedicated to My Rabid Political Junky Friends and Family

I don’t know what “derivatives” are and why they’re a problem.

I don’t know if stricter banking regulations will prevent another financial crisis.

I don’t know if our military presence helps or hurts the average Afghan or Iraqi.

I don’t know if the Tea Party movement will save the nation or devastate the Republican Party.

I don’t know how much government stimulus spending has helped or hurt the country’s economy.

I don’t know if the health-care bill passed will help enough people to justify the cost.

I don’t know how we can reduce government spending so long as Congress gets elected by spending federal money to benefit their constituents.

I don’t know how we can reduce the federal deficit without increasing taxes.

I DON’T KNOW AND YOU DON’T EITHER!

Visiting Teacher Quandary

I wish I didn’t find my visiting teacher annoying. She’s a lovely lady with a sure knowledge that the answer to any of life’s questions and problems is found in the LDS gospel. That probably wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t accompanied by her equally sure knowledge that anyone not actively engaged in the Mormon cause needs patient, loving instruction.

Were I able to transcend my ego, I wouldn’t have the urge to prove her firm belief wrong. While her religious conviction only mildly irritates me, her desire to bring me into the fold requires all my self-control to choke back an adolescent urge to shock her from her certitude. Like a militant agnostic, I want to shout, “I don’t know and you don’t either!”

My better self generally muffles my response to a weak smile, a nod, or “That doesn’t work for me.” It is not possible to have a philosophical discussion of religion with a devout Mormon. There is no middle ground. And I really don’t want to undermine a faith that gives this woman strength and purpose in her life.

If I were more secure, it probably wouldn’t bother me to be considered a project. Until I reach that point, maybe I should just ask her to skip the lesson and make it a social visit.

The Red, the Blue, and the Toad

I live in Utah, a Red, Red state, with isolated patches of blue—if you know where to look. I’m sort of a dusty green myself. I mesh with Reds and Blues about as well as a toad trying to look appealing on a pastry cart. From my observation, Reds and Blues inhabit parallel universes—and not just on politics. Now some similarities exist between the groups, although both would deny it. Reds and Blues are equally certain their beliefs are right and equally vitriolic to those who disagree. Both groups excel at denouncing moral weakness in political leaders of the opposing party while excusing “little mistakes” from their own. About the same number of Red and Blue women work outside the home. Both sides are equally likely to be divorced. From my point of view, the key lifestyle choices separating the groups are:

  • Transportation: Reds love SUVs and large pick-up trucks—even military surplus tanks if they can get them. Blues favor Subarus—less fuel efficient than my Taurus, but a whole lot trendier. Both are lousy drivers. Reds believe they have a Constitutional right to speed, tailgate, and run red lights. Blues are too busy meditating for peace or griping about big cars carrying big families to pay attention to traffic. In Utah, neither group is particularly crazy about my mode of choice—public transportation.
  • Food: I’ve learned not to plan lunch dates for Red friends at cozy Tea Shoppes that don’t serve soda. Reds also tend to favor chain restaurants so they know what they’re getting. Reds descend on case-lot sales like magpies on road kill—carting home cases of canned good to nourish their families during the upcoming Apocalypse. Blues daintily select organic food and $3.00 “natural ingredient” cookies at Farmers’ Markets to feed their families for the day. I prefer tanking up on forbidden foods at Costco where I can snack the sample tables without the guilt of actually purchasing fat/sodium laden goodies.
  • Reds abhor movies with graphic sex, but don’t mind graphic violence—so long as the good guys win. Blues abhor violent movies but don’t object to sex—so long as it’s between consenting adults. Personally, I like Desperate Housewives–sex, violence and humor with one flick of the remote.
  •  Reds and Blues both prefer “unbiased news.” Reds get theirs from Fox while Blues view MSNBC. Reds shiver at Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s warnings that America is going to hell in a hand basket. Blues chortle at Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s warnings that Beck and Limbaugh are carrying the hand basket in which we’re all riding to hell.
  • Reds are significantly more likely to attribute natural disasters to the “last days” or see them as punishment for the wicked. Blues blame global warming. And Ma Nature does her best to accommodate the fears of both.
  • Reds are more likely to spend Sundays at church wishing they were home watching TV, walking the dog or washing the car. Blues are more likely to actually be at home watching TV, walking the dog, or washing the car.

Hope for reconciliation, even friendship between Reds and Blues is about as wistful as looking for ripe tomatoes the day after setting out plants in May.  It’s not just politics—it’s deep core values. Really, a tea drinker and a cola drinker have nothing in common—except in our family. George is pretty adept at quaffing a diet Coke from his right hand while nursing a cup of tea in his left.

Church History–the Unvarnished Truth

When I started seminary at Provo High back in dinosaur days, my friends and I were shocked at the things Brother Righteous taught. Jesus the Creator? Where did he get that? We all knew it was Heavenly Father who created the earth. “Seminary just teaches us the opposite of everything we’ve ever learned in church,” one friend lamented. And maybe this little story illustrates the need for the Correlation Committee which I love to hate. Before gospel principles were reduced to a handful of key topics and lesson manuals simplified to prevent individual interpretation of Church doctrine, teaching of key principles varied widely within the church. And I understand the rationale. Not knowing basic Mormon theology is a stumbling block for the “Every member a missionary” program.

But another stumbling block exists for Mormons who engage with non-Mormons. Ignorance of aspects of Church history. As a teacher moving into Washington State, I took a required class in Western American history and disagreed with my instructor when he told the story of Joseph Smith looking at a peep stone in a hat to translate the Golden Plates. Years later, I learned that story is authentic. On her mission, our daughter Jaycee argued needlessly with investigators who told her that Joseph Smith was a Mason and incorporated Masonic symbols and ceremonies in the Nauvoo temple. Teaching members facts about Church istory that are readily obtainable to any researcher would prevent Mormons from looking uninformed, even brain-washed, to knowledgeable people outside the faith.

And it’s not like the Church hasn’t revised aspects of its history in the past. All the time I was growing up, Church lessons and speakers presented Emma Smith as an apostate, a woman who lacked the faith to remain in the Church after Joseph’s death. The revision of Church history in the ‘80s, possibly precipitated by the publication of Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smithwas a positive. Although the official revision falls short of presenting all of Emma’s problems with Joseph’s polygamy and Brigham Young’s authoritativeness, it allows members to honor this key woman in Church history who faithfully supported her husband throughout a difficult marriage.

Of course, some facets of Church History are tricky to portray without the risk of damaging faith. Are Mormons ready to read Heber Kimball and Jedediah Grant’s sermons advocating blood atonement? To learn that General Authorities were less than forthright in testifying of their involvement in the Salamander forgeries? Or to learn that many modern prophets have suffered mental decline for several years before their deaths? Still, varnished history, like varnished wood, weathers poorly. Bits flake off, exposing rough patches and giving a neglected, in-need-of-improvement appearance. I suspect the teaching of honest Church History would disarm critics and prevent members from feeling betrayed when they learn they haven’t been told the truth, or at least not the whole truth, in church.

Lies or La La Land?

Recite your vows in the temple for a happy marriage. Serve a mission and succeed in life. Keep yourself pure and be rewarded with a devoted spouse. Fast and pray and receive the guidance of the Holy Ghost in your decisions. Pay tithing and prosper financially. Read the scriptures and receive inspiration. Obey the Word of Wisdom and receive good health. The list of commandments to obey and blessings attached to them—not to mention negative consequences for not obeying—is nearly endless for Mormons. Living gospel principles assures direct access to God for help throughout life. Primary children learn in the song, “Follow the Prophet,” that “When we really try the Lord won’t fail us.”

Most Mormons wax philosophical when promised blessings refuse to materialize. We create escape clauses: “The time is not right.” “I’m being tested.” “The Lord has an even bigger blessing in store for me—just around the corner,” or even, “Since our prayers to sell our house haven’t been answered, Heavenly Father must want us to stay here.”  All of these are relatively healthy, although not necessarily useful, responses to disappointment.

I perceive that the Church hierarchy has backed away from guaranteeing specific blessings for obedience in recent years, but that hasn’t filtered down to the rank and file yet. My visiting teacher read me a lesson on receiving personal revelation this month and bore fervent testimony that preparing ourselves with fasting and prayer, then visiting the temple will bring a sure answer from the Holy Ghost to any question or problem. I’m glad that works for her, but I know people who have made really bad decisions following a prayerful visit to the temple.

Again, most Mormons don’t take lessons and talks quite that literally, but some do. If a person is promised specific blessings for obeying commandments and doesn’t receive them, even after doing everything possible to make herself worthy, she has two choices: Blame herself or blame the church. Blaming ones’ self can result in a hair-shirt mentality as a person strives ever harder to merit God’s help.

It’s probably personally healthier and more realistic to blame the church—or at least the mis-interpretation of principles. I think we all know former members who left the church because of disillusionment: The person who married a returned missionary in the temple only to have a miserable marriage. Persons struggling with chronic disease for which priesthood blessings have been ineffective. Converts who suffer severe depression over loss of family relationships after their baptisms. Loss of jobs, the list goes on.

The real world is a complex place. While I wouldn’t term exaggerated claims for blessings and miracles lying, the practice is not harm free.  A more realistic approach is to offer gospel principles as a guide to a good life style, but not a panacea for every problem. The leader of my Zen meditation class was asked, “What has meditation done for you?” His answer: “Not a thing!” Obviously, he was kidding, but I respect him for not trying to proselytize us with promises of achieving Nirvana from our practice. I like the Buddhist admonition to try for one’s self any principle taught. True principles don’t need hype.

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