An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for November, 2010

No Hope

No one wants to die—not even Mormon apostles who are supposed to have a sure knowledge of Christ—and therefore, I presume, of life beyond this world. Yet accounts of at least two apostles facing death describe them pleading with the Lord to preserve their lives—“so they can continue to do the Lord’s work”—an argument I don’t totally buy.

No one wants to die, but who wants to live imprisoned in a body whose only functioning organ is the heart? This week I visited 93-year-old aunt Dolly whose mind is working although her body is confined to bed or wheelchair. Always an independent woman, Aunt Dolly can now barely feed herself. After two years in a care center, her own resources are gone and she’s now on Medicaid, sharing a room with an agitated woman with advanced dementia. “I had considerable savings,” she mourned. “I never thought I’d outlive my money.”

Aunt Loosy is blind and in total dementia following a major stroke last summer. Nothing is left of her old self but her fight and her fears. She grasped my hand, begging me to take her home. “They’re trying to kill me,” she said. “They want my property. If you leave me here, I will die.” She calmed down before I left, but was still looking for her shotgun to use on the care center staff.

Both my aunts live without hope. Medical science can neither restore their health nor prevent their eventual death. Christianity is the religion of hope. Christians pray for miracles—and often expect them as a reward for good deeds. And I can’t help wondering if this hope—this expectation of miracles—makes it harder to accept the inevitability of one’s own death.

A Buddhist sensei  spoke about being attracted to Zen because it was the philosophy of no hope. He found peace in acceptance of things the way they are rather than in hoping for a miraculous change. The Buddhist prayers I’ve heard pray for peace and acceptance rather than miracles. Perhaps it is easier to accept the end of life if a person comes from a tradition of surrender rather than a tradition of miracles.

Certainly some Christians attain this total surrender to God’s will—but they have to be pretty saintly—on the order of Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, that’s not an option for me. Nor is enlightenment with my inconsistent mediation practice. Instead of serenely accepting my waning days, I will doubtless huddle on my death bed forcing a prayer through my withered lips—begging for more time. Time to take that cruise to Antarctica. Time to get the last word with my right-wing brother.

Skipping Black Friday

  I’ve already blogged about how much I hate Christmas shopping. This post is to brag that my shopping is completed—and most of the gifts wrapped. Instead of feeling elated, I have this nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten somebody—and twice I’ve remembered who. I really should have made a master list of gifts and giftees as I wrapped. Trusting to memory will likely prove embarrassing to me and disappointing to a near and dear one.

This year we’ll be spending the holidays with our sons in Seattle—and some of that time, I suspect, will be with their extended family. Will we be exchanging gifts with their in-laws? Should I bring something for them? What? Of course it would do no good to ask our sons. Men just don’t get things like reciprocal gift-giving. Testosterone must be a real blessing.

Not spending Christmas at home this year raises the question of tree or no tree. My first impulse was to just buy a couple of poinsettias and call it good. It’s not that I’m a Grinch or anything. I actually like Christmas. What I don’t like is decorating. I must have been distracted when some of the feminine genes were passed around. Although I received enough femininity to bear five children and nurture them adequately enough for all to attain adulthood, I really lost out on important feminine traits like sewing, enjoying handicrafts, and creating artistic holiday displays.

I think I can get around putting up the decorations this year by letting the grandkids trim the tree when they come to celebrate a birthday next week. Now, if I could just figure out a way to rope somebody else into untrimming, wrapping, boxing, and cleaning up the whole mess afterwards.

Hmm, maybe I am a Grinch, after all.

As Others See Us

Recently I asked several non-Mormon friends and acquaintances for honest feedback on a novel I’m writing with a Mormon setting. My intent is to paint an honest picture of a Mormon couple dealing with marital conflict. Because I’m not writing a “faith-promoting” story where everyone’s problems are solved by fasting, praying, and paying tithing—and the husband has a PG vocabulary—I know Deseret Book and its subsidiaries will neither publish nor stock it.  

Since the marital problems in my story are universal, I had hoped a non-Mormon audience would be interested. But the feedback from my friends stunned me. They don’t want to read a book with anything positive about Mormonism. “I quit reading when it mentioned visiting teaching,” was one comment. “I just wish the Mormon Church would go away,” was another.

I’ve lived in Utah most of my life and have enough non-Mormon friends to know nonmembers don’t see the church with the same rose-colored classes which members do. Still, I was unprepared for the hostility directed at the church when I pressed for totally honest opinions. I questioned my closest friend about her anti-Mormon bias. “It’s the hypocrisy,” she said. “Mormons are always telling themselves how wonderful they are because they don’t smoke and don’t drink alcohol or caffeine—unless it’s in soft drinks.”

Hypocrisy? I thought about a woman I know with a loser husband who refuses to work. She recently posted a note on Facebook saying how grateful she is they are a “forever family.” Maybe that’s not hypocrisy. Maybe she only thinks of her kids when she thinks of her forever family—or maybe she thinks Slug-O will get to work in the next life. But I have to admit that Mormons are encouraged to paint rosy pictures of Mormon life—maybe to give us something to live up to—like the admonition that we need to bear our testimonies to strengthen them. I wouldn’t necessarily call repeating things you want to believe hypocrisy, but I can see how it looks that way to outsiders.

Proselytizing is, of course, offensive to people who are satisfied with their own faiths. Many of my junior high students complained about that. One remarked, “The problem with Mormons is—they always want to change you.”

Clannishness is another complaint non-Mormons make. Mormons generally do limit their friends to members of their faith, but I don’t think the intent is to be exclusionary. We all prefer to spend time with people with whom we have much in common. And active Mormons really haven’t much time for friends outside their church circle.

From comments of non-Mormon friends, acquaintances, colleagues and students—not to mention the message of the failed Mitt Romney presidential-nomination campaign,–I’d say Mormons have a serious image problem. And I don’t think it can all be attributed to persecution by Satan.

Men’s Liberation

A survey reported in the November 18 Salt Lake Tribune finds that 62% of Americans believe the best marriage is one in which both husband and wife work and share in childcare and housework. That number astounds me—possibly because I live in Utah and that isn’t the signal the Mormon religion sends.

For many years, official Church rhetoric has urged fathers to take a significant role in child care as well as to help with household tasks, but an equivalent message for mothers to help out with the earning has been missing—even discouraged.

I think it’s great that Church leaders have recognized the burden that child care and household tasks place on women, but wonder why no one recognizes the burden that being sole provider places on men. Both my sons have responsible, demanding jobs. They work hard to support their families—and yes, both share in diaper-changing and kitchen clean-up. But, their financial responsibilities weigh heavily on them. Neither has a wife with the job skills to contribute income and benefits to the family should her husband become ill or unemployed.

My son-in-law also has a responsible, demanding job. My daughter plans to get her master’s degree in a field that pays reasonably well as soon as their youngest child starts school. This frees her husband to consider taking a less stressful job at a lower salary.

Supporting and raising a family is a partnership. Both partner need to help out in the way that best meets their family’s needs. Interesting that a majority of Americans now believes the best way to meet a family’s needs is for both partners to participate in child rearing, household tasks, and providing necessary income.

Heaven Can Wait

I love the Mormon idea of eternal progression. Everything we do in life is important if we believe our intact personalities and intellect—all the things we’ve learned, the characteristics we’ve achieved–will last beyond this life. Where it breaks down for me is that once a person becomes perfect, and like God, able to create worlds and people them, it sounds pretty depressing. If God is perfect, then this world must be the best He can do, and why would I want to replicate that and be responsible for the billions of people—most of them suffering—that inhabit it?

 Also, the idea of doing the same thing over and over again would eventually get old. Granted it would take many eons to reach perfection and then to get the hang of scrunching particles of matter into a sphere, setting it spinning, providing atmosphere, land and a water cycle. But once the essentials are mastered, monotony sets in—creating the same worlds and people over and over again without improving the methods doesn’t meet my definition of progression.

The traditional Christian view of Heaven as a place where we join the Heavenly choir and praise God forever would get boring even faster—unless it’s possible to return to earth and angelically assist  humans muddling their way through mortality.

I do relate to the Buddhist and Hindu notions of reincarnation. Retaining the virtues we gain in this life for the next go-around makes our actions in this life important. But I want to hang onto my memories of this life. In the B & H traditions, that kind of attachment would not rate me a better situation next time. No doubt I’d sink quite a few notches.

The Muslim idea of Paradise—an oasis of trees, grass, flowing water—and beautiful women to serve—appeals to men, but what motivates Muslim women to want a place there?

Atheists have no hope their good deeds will gain them admittance to a post-earth life nor do they have hope of retaining their virtues in another embodiment. Their only choice is to make the most of this life. Not the best bet for a procrastinator. I have a need to apologize to a number of people who have gone beyond.

The main problem with eternity, is—it lasts too long. No wonder nobody wants to die.

Hail to Kale

Kale is full of beta carotene, vitamins K and C, calcium and a host of antioxidants I can neither pronounce nor spell. Possibly because of the stronger flavor—it is related to the cabbage family—kale is less popular than other leafy greens such as spinach and Swiss Chard. It also takes a little longer to cook—about 20 minutes to steam.

I planted kale early last spring while the nights were still freezing. We started eating it in May and would have probably had a few more meals from it before winter if some nasty little aphids hadn’t invaded my beautiful leafy green plants.

While taking care of my newest granddaughter and her mama, Cookie, this fall, I discovered a wonderful new way to prepare kale—in a salad. Now, I admit I likely would not have tried this recipe on my own. I saw it in Cookie’s Bon Appetit magazine and thought, This is crazy! The kale will be too tough to chew!

Fortunately, Cookie was on her feet by then and had taken over cooking while I did diaper and clean up duties. Here’s the recipe—the way I make it at home. Cookie followed the original more closely, although she substituted garlic for the shallot.

                                                                Kale/Bacon Salad

Wash, stem, and tear the leaves from one bunch of kale. Boil kale 2 minutes. Cool in ice water 1 minute. Drain. Spin dry in salad spinner.

Cook 2 strips of bacon, drain, crumble.

Combine: 1 ½ Tb. wine vinegar, 2 Tb. Minced shallot, ¼ tsp. Dijon mustard. Whisk in 1 Tb. olive oil.

Toss kale with bacon and vinaigrette dressing.

 Believe it or not, the kale is tender, the taste is fantastic, and it’s even good the next day. And this method of boiling kale for 2 minutes, then cooling it works really well for adding kale to a stir fry. It is tender without overcooking the other vegetables.

 The original recipe calls for adding ½ Tb. of bacon drippings to the vinaigrette and for a lot more bacon. If you’re not afraid of clogging your arteries with cholesterol and poisoning yourself with nitrates, go for it.

Also, I have substituted green onions instead of shallots in the dressing, and Cookie substituted garlic—in a lesser amount. Purists who want the original, explicit directions can try the recipe archive at the Bon Appetit website.

Sunday Morning Spirituality

My favorite way to recharge my spiritual batteries is to watch the PBS program, Religion and Ethics on Sunday mornings.  Unfortunately, my Utah station, KUED, chooses to air it at 6:30 AM, so it requires early rising to catch the show. KBYU no longer carries the program—they forfeited my minuscule donation when they cancelled it a few years ago. Since I lack the technology and skill to access a podcast at a later hour, I pull myself from bed early on Sunday mornings to watch people of various denominations living the values of their religion—something I find more uplifting than theology.

Yesterday the program featured a segment on the Washington Jesuit Academy, a Catholic middle school for low-income, African-American or Hispanic boys. Students attend free of charge 12 hours a day, 11 months a year. Classes are small and academic standards are high. About 80% of the boys who graduate go on to high school and then college—an astonishing number considering the fact that three-fourths of them are from single-parent families and one in five has a parent in prison. Most of the boys are not Roman Catholic.

Religion is part of the curriculum with the emphasis on values rather than theology. “We do this not to create Catholics, but because we are Catholics. It’s the social-justice teachings of the church that drive us,” a counselor said. What a great motto for any religion.

The second segment of yesterday’s program featured Buddhist hospital chaplains. Most large hospitals have Christian and Jewish chaplains on their staff. Buddhist chaplains are less common, and their method of helping the sick differs from those of the more common American denominations. Rather than discussing theology and moral issues or administering religious sacraments or rites, Buddhist chaplains focus on alleviating suffering by helping the patient deal with the present moment. They don’t tell patients that things will be better soon. They focus on this moment—accepting pain instead of fighting it, breathing, slowing down the breathing, allowing the body to relax.

I’m never comfortable visiting with a seriously ill persons—I try to avoid the topic of their illness—pretend it doesn’t exist. Maybe I need to adopt the Buddhist philosophy when visiting—accepting the person’s pain and focusing on their present situation.

Thank you, R&E for these insights.

End of Life

It breaks my heart to call my aunt each evening. She suffered a massive stroke last summer which left her blind and with rapidly increasing dementia. I call because I don’t live close enough to visit often. Bringing up memories from 50 years ago usually calms her. Her only son lives in another state, and her doctors recommended against moving her. But the calls are painful. As her dementia increases, she often hallucinates, doesn’t know where she is, fights caregivers, insists she’s being kept a prisoner.

And she is in prison—trapped inside an aged body with a damaged brain—a brain that cannot process signals from her eyes—a brain that creates a dream fantasy world for her.

I mourn for my aunt—she never wanted to be a burden. I mourn for my cousin who has lost his mother—although her heart still beats. And I mourn for myself—seeing my own future.

Taking Back Our Country–from Ourselves

The 2010 election results have political analysts offering all kinds of possibilities—the best case scenario is that perhaps the shift in the balance of power will cause Republicans and Democrats to work together in a less partisan fashion. The worst case scenario is gridlock that will shut down the government as we experienced in ’94.

Mike Lee, the newly-elected Tea Party senator from Utah showed an embarrassing lack of basic math skills and naiveté about how Congress operates when interviewed on PBS News Hour this week.  Lee plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to force the federal government to have a balanced budget each year—as most states are required to do. Lee plans to vote against raising the debt limit ceiling this spring which would cause a government shutdown. He also plans to vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts which will cost the government as much as $4 trillion in the next decade. He believes government spending can be cut enough to balance the budget without touching Defense, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare—which is 60% of the budget.

It’s nice to believe that Congress has the fortitude to root out enough Waste, Fraud and Greed to balance the budget. The problem is—members of Congress are only willing to root out WFG in states and districts other than their own. An example is Utah’s conservative delegation which talks the fiscal- responsibility talk, but bellows like castrated calves if cuts of obsolete aircraft or NASA components made in Utah are proposed. Multiply that kind of self-interest by 50 states and tell me Congress has the will to reduce spending.

The French and the Greeks took to the streets to protest their governments’ attempts to cut spending and balance their budgets. Closer to home, we’ve seen what’s happened in California over the past decade. Arnold Schwarznegger was swept into office when Gray Davis was blamed for California’s fiscal problems. Arnold was given two terms, but had no magic wand to restore the Golden State’s prosperity and is now widely reviled. Jerry Brown will not be able to improve the situation and will take his turn as scapegoat and be replaced in four years.

California’s problem is not the head of their government so much as it is voters who think they can keep or expand all state programs which benefit them personally while cutting taxes—a mathematical impossibility. The only people who really benefit from voter myopia are the ad producers for political campaigns. I hope some of the profits from these enormously expensive campaigns will trickle down enough to boost our economy. I don’t see much hope that changing leaders or parties will help until we change ourselves.

Gingerbread–Scent of Autumn

I love to cook, but quit baking several years ago when my cholesterol level peaked. If I were the kind of person who can bake and freeze or bake and just eat one, I wouldn’t have to limit baking to times when I’m expecting company. On a lovely fall afternoon, I had a craving for gingerbread, so I invited my daughter and son-in-law for dessert. I have a wonderful recipe for gingerbread that is a relatively easy and tastes like fall—rich and spicy.

This is Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipe from her NPR show, “The Splendid Table.”   Lynne’s directions are more precise than mine, so try her website  if you want perfection. But my slapdash method produces a beautiful tall, fluffy cake which satisfies our taste buds.

Lynne’s Dark and Moist Gingerbread

In a small bowl, mix together: 2 cups, less 2 TB white flour,  1 heaping tsp. baking soda, 1 TB ground ginger, ½ tsp. salt,  ¾ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp. ground cloves,  1/8 tsp. black pepper

In a larger bowl combine:  6 TB melted butter, ¾ C very hot water, ¾ C dark molasses, 1/3 C dark brown sugar, 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger

Beat thoroughly, add 1 egg, beat well.

Add liquid to dry ingredients. Mix only until blended. Pour into greased, floured 9 inch pan. Bake at 350 for 35 – 40 minutes.

I’m truly grateful that  modern recipes no longer ask us to sift flour, then add other dry ingredients and sift together. Lynne’s recipe calls for unsalted butter. Not being a purist, I use regular butter and add a scant half tsp. of salt. The truly health conscious could probably use canola oil instead of butter and serve without the whipped cream. Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties which help keep the arteries open; maybe the large amount of ginger in this recipe cancels out some of the butter–and the whipped cream on top. At leasts I hope so.

Bon appétit!

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