An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for July, 2011

In Their Shoes

I was surprised when I asked non-member friends for an
honest opinion about a story I wrote with  Mormon characters. I thought I had a universal  theme that would appeal to readers of any faith.    When I pushed for honest  responses, I found that although these friends liked individual Mormons, they had strong antipathy toward Mormons in general.

It’s hard for Mormons to understand how anyone can dislike
us. We’re nice. We’re friendly. What’s not to like?

Recently, a couple of friends related experiences that shed
some light on this mystery. Becca, a friend who is no longer a member, has
three children who were blessed but not baptized in the Mormon Church.
Becca is annoyed that ward members call and invite her children to Church activities.She has asked them to discontinue the practice,
but every time auxiliary leadership changes, the calls renew. Recently, the YW president asked Becca’s 12-year-old daughter, Ellie,
for her cell phone number. Ellie did not want to give her phone number to the woman, but a 12-year-old has difficulty telling an adult no.

Another friend, Rod, told of moving to Utah from the
Midwest. A work colleague welcomed him to Utah, asked where he lived, and what ward he was in. When Rod said he
and his family had found a home in Bountiful and attended St. Olaf’s Church, his colleague said, “Well, you’ve picked the
right town, but the wrong church. We’ll have to work on that.”

I’m sure neither the YW president nor Rod’s colleague had
any idea their actions and words were offensive—but how would the YW leader feel if someone from another church called her child,
invited him to activities in that church, and asked for his cell phone number? And would Rod’s Mormon colleague like having
someone tell him he had picked the wrong church?

The old saying about the need to put oneself in another’s shoes applies to more than judging. Before proselytizing,
members of any church need to consider how they would feel at hearing the same words from a member ofanother faith.

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Pioneer Saints and Ain’ts

Robert Kirby’s SL Trib column this week,  “Crossing the Plains Was a Pain,” had George laughing so hard he nearly choked on his oatmeal as he read Kirby’s account of great-grandfathers who didn’t want to go and great-grandmothers who blamed the journey’s misery on Dear Husband’s lack of spirituality.

Despite the stories I was told in Primary and Seminary, I can’t visualize the pioneers as hallowed beings who relished hunger, heat, cold, and physical exertion as tests of their faith. Being human, many of the pioneers probably thought their leaders less than inspired when rations ran short, disease struck, and blizzards blew down from the North.

My own pioneer ancestors found living the gospel of love difficult when nature, circumstances, and fellow Saints conspired to make life miserable. One night Great-great-grandpa Thomas, the camp butcher, went on strike—refusing to slaughter the evening meal until some of the men helped Great-great grandma pitch the family tent.

Great-grandmother, Marie, was 10-years-old when she left Denmark for Utah with her 14-year-old sister, Anna, 6-year-old sister, Tina, and their widowed mother. Marie’s mother died onboard ship leaving the girls motherless and unable find the money their mother had brought to pay for their land travel to Zion. Possibly their mother had sewed the money into her dress and it slipped into the sea with her.

Fellow members brought the girls by cattle car to Nebraska where they joined a wagon train to trek across the plains. At the Platte River, Anna carried Tina across and told Marie to wait by the river for a wagon to carry her across. Marie, unable to speak English, waited until the last wagon before anyone offered her a ride. Not a stirring tale of saintly pioneers looking out for each other—but pretty realistic considering families in heavily loaded wagons wondering if they could even get their own children across.

Violet Kimball, researching for her book on handcart companies, learned how these companies, with large numbers of young children unable to keep up the necessary pace, maintained their schedule. A company member set out with children between the ages of four and six years two hours before the rest of the company broke camp each morning. A switch encouraged the children not to lag. After a couple of hours march, the children were given a rest and food before starting off again. I doubt these pioneer children sang as they walked. How could Great great-grandmother Sarah stand to awaken little Lottie and Lizzie and send them off tired and hungry to be herded like animals on the trail ahead?

I find the unpolished stories of pioneer hardships more inspiring than accounts of paragons of virtue enduring tests of endurance with cheerful countenances and songs of praise. I am glad my ancestors made it across the plains and that two of their descendents got together and produced me. But I’m pretty sure none of them would have signed up for the journey if they’d known of the hardships ahead. My great-great grandparents were not crazy.

Celestial Charade

George and I attended a funeral for Cousin Rod last week. Family members, the bishop, and stake president all spoke in praise of Rod’s life—speculating about the reunions he was enjoying with departed loved ones. Funeral speakers knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rod had merely crossed over into another, better world.

George’s 76-year-old cousin, Jim, was in a wheelchair, a towel covering his catheter bag. Recovery from his recent bladder cancer surgery is complicated by his congestive heart disease and diabetes. His will likely be the next family funeral. Jim, a lifelong Mormon, has served missions and fulfilled callings up to and including stake president. While his children were discussing plans for serving couple missions upon retirement, Jim told George privately: “I hope there is something beyond this life.”

Jim, who is facing death, no longer knows beyond a shadow of a doubt. I have heard enough elderly Mormons express doubts about a next life to suspect that for most, hope replaces faith as their rendezvous with death approaches. The elderly are generally hesitant about expressing doubts—they surely don’t care to undermine the testimonies of their children and grandchildren. Doubts slip out in one-on-one conversations—never in public discourse.
Even General Authorities who are credited with having a “sure witness” do everything possible to preserve their lives during terminal illness. Calling this life “only a small part of eternity” seems less convincing when it’s about to end.

End-of-life doubts may be less worrisome in faiths that don’t emphasize certitude as much as Mormons do. I wonder what the effect would be if those nearing the end of their mortal lives expressed their doubts openly. Would younger members doubt the validity of Church teachings or would they simply question the valiancy of the doubter?

Mormon Modesty

Modesty was not a big issue for little girls in my Utah childhood. I wore sundresses to Primary in the summer time and ran around our neighborhood without a shirt until I was 8 or 9. Sleeveless dresses were not an issue when I attended BYU in the ‘60s. But once I married outside the temple, I stopped buying sleeveless dresses to avoid advertising my un-endowed status to ward members.
Our daughters wore sundresses and sleeveless blouses as children, but by the time the eldest got to BYU a new policy was in place in Mormon society—young adults, even children should not wear any clothing that wouldn’t cover LDS garments. I’m not sure what motivated this policy—surely not conventional modesty since properly worn garments, while covering shoulders and mid-drifts, often reveal cleavage in bosomy females.
New Church emphasis on modesty doesn’t affect me personally since the ravages of age make me willing to cover every part of my anatomy that sags and wrinkles. I do know our Molly daughter, Lolly, refuses to let her daughters wear sleeveless dresses, but I was taken by surprise when 4-year-old Missy looked at photos of our son Wort’s wedding. Missy appraised Aunt Cookie’s beautiful bridal gown, frowned, and said, “She’s not modest!” True, Cookie’s shoulders were not covered, but her dress was not immodest by normal standards.
I didn’t know how to respond. All my grandchildren are being raised with religious views different from my own. And I support their parents in that right—so long as they don’t embrace a cult that does weird things like extending earlobes for greater spirituality.
Generally, it’s not a problem that we have differing religions practiced by members of our family. But now I’m concerned. We’re planning a family get-together in a few weeks. My non-Mormon daughters-in-law may very well wear tank tops or sundresses. I need to tactfully let Lolly know that her kids may say something offensive.
Teaching family standards that are quite different from mainstream views is fine. The trick is to teach children to respect those of differing views.

Lifeless Life Stories

Sister Prim, my visiting teacher, told me her husband is writing his life story and she needs to get started on hers. The Prims have unusual experiences to write about—having served as LDS missionaries in Africa—and I hope they write them up in an engaging way. Unfortunately, most Mormons following Church admonition to write their life stories create autobiographies about as interesting as Gospel Doctrine lessons.

Two of my aunts who are sisters-in-law shared their life stories with me. Except for the names of towns and nuclear family members, the stories are nearly identical—and formulaic. Each story tells place of birth, genealogical information of parents, grandparents, and siblings. A few childhood memories are included then a jump to their marriage, births of children, their marriages, and birth of grandchildren. Church callings are listed and a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel.

Aunt Charity and Aunt  Mercy were rugged individuals with very different personalities and ways of seeing and dealing with the world, but they—the main characters—are missing from their life stories. Descendents who may read these stories will not learn of Aunt Charity’s zest for learning or Aunt Mercy’s earthy sense of humor—and I doubt the obligatory testimony bearing will strengthen anybody’s faith.

The oral histories I did of my uncles are filled with hilarious stories. Recording and transcribing their stories was great fun as their personalities and our weird family sense of humor exploded onto the written page. I wish my aunts had just told stories that were meaningful to them instead of trying to follow a pattern that would be “faith-promoting” for their children and grandchildren to read.

Of course, it’s easier to tell a good story than to write one. And some people even censor themselves orally. When I recorded Uncle Duke’s stories, Aunt Charity tried to stop him from telling about the time my dad had worms as a child. Worms were pretty common in those days, but Aunt Charity didn’t want that information in our family history.

I started writing pieces about my life after taking a class from Mormon poet, Emma Lou Thayne. She encouraged us to write stories about meaningful events rather than autobiography. I created several good pieces during her class then set it aside for other projects. I recently started writing about my teaching experiences at Utah State Prison and found that unconnected stories didn’t work well because I’m writing about a place I need to describe for most readers. I started a chronological narrative, read through it, and was bored. How could that be? I was writing about an interesting place full of unusual characters.

I thought about the most fluent writer in my writing group. Ron is the only one with no college degree and his narratives flow. He often starts writing just a couple of hours before we meet. Why were his narratives so full of life and mine as dry as a vacant lot in St. George? Fortunately, a friend urged me to read Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir. There it was in black and white: Put yourself in the memoir.

Ron is not hampered by academic detachment. He responds and reacts to the events he relates. My narrative was essentially a list of events—many of them strange—but with little indication of my responses. Now I’m revising my experiences to include what I was thinking and feeling while navigating the perils of prison employment.

I suggested Emma Lou’s class to Sister Prim. Maybe I’ll lend her my Birkerts when I’m through. Or if she prefers an LDS author, Signature Books has published Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read by Dawn and Morris Thurston. I haven’t read it yet, but have heard good things about it.

Family Values 101

My neighbor, a single mom with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old,
has no health insurance for herself. She needs minor surgery costing $1,300. I
asked if her dad, a recently retired physician, could help her. She shook her
head and answered, “I won’t ask him. He thinks grown children should take care
of themselves.”

Other things my neighbor has revealed in the two years she’s
lived across the street include:

  • Her father is abusive.
  • Her mother was clinically depressed and
    incapacitated for months following the birth of their seventh child.
  • Her father refused to allow the mother to come
    to Provo (an 8-hour drive from their home) to see their kids off at the MTC.

My neighbor has suffered serious health problems in the last
two years. Her mother has made one visit and both parents together have visited
only once. They did send tickets for her and the kids to visit them at
Christmas last year. Fortunately, her ex-in-laws make a greater effort to spend
time with her and the grandchildren.

This week my neighbor told me her parents have received
their mission call. They will be teaching Institute classes for the coming
year. I know the policy of having couple missionaries serve as Institute
teachers is a big money saver for the Church. Still, I can’t help wondering
about the effect an abusive man and his depressed, possibly co-dependent wife will
have on the effort to retain Young Adults in the church.

Reverence–More Than Folded Arms and Bowed Heads

I learned about Paul Woodruff’s wonderful book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,
a few years ago when Bill Moyers interviewed Woodruff, a professor of
humanities at the University of Texas. Reverence
is the wisest book I’ve read—way ahead of scriptures from any religion.

Woodruff quotes poets more frequently than prophets and defines
reverence as, “the capacity to feel respect in the right way toward the right
people, and to feel awe towards an object that transcends particular human
interests.” His models for reverent and non-reverent behavior are from ancient
Chinese and Greek as well as contemporary American culture.

Being considered irreverent by some of my devoutly Mormon
friends and family, I am gratified that Woodruff considers mockery—at the right
target—a form of reverence. The trick, I suspect, is aiming at the right
target. And that’s a fine line. George believes I should wear a skirt on the
occasions I attend church out of respect for the other members. I, on the other
hand, think the dress rule is a senseless tradition that should be changed—and will
only be changed by women showing up in contemporary attire. Obviously, we must avoid
sacrament meeting in order to reduce family conflict.

Woodruff says it’s easiest to show respect to equals, but
true reverence requires us to feel respect for those of lesser power. He urges
teachers, parents, and other leaders to listen to children, students, and
others who know less than ourselves. Now, I don’t mind listening to children.
Their earnestness and innocence charms me. But I do have a problem extending
the same courtesy to relatives who get their historical “facts” and political
insights from Glen Beck and his ilk.

I suspect our home and visiting teachers feel that way about
George and me. Because our active Mormon lives were lived in a different ward,
our current ward members assume we do not understand the gospel and expend great
effort to instruct us. They read messages from Church leaders and bear
testimony of their truthfulness but have no interest in our philosophical
views. I understand that. Bible bashing is not a game worth playing. Still, I
occasionally succumb.

I thought I was being reverent when I listened to my
visiting teacher, Sister Prim, relate the spiritual experience of her sister which
resulted in the baptism of her non-member husband. I followed with the
spiritual experience that my sister, who is fighting cancer, received at the
Zen Center.   Sister Prim listened politely, but I could
tell she was uncomfortable.

In retrospect neither of us was treating the other with
reverence. Sister P considers me a project rather than a person. That’s her
problem. My problem was insisting on sharing a spiritual experience knowing it
wouldn’t fit her paradigm.  That’s the
kind of payback our oldest son gives me—force-feeding me passages from Romans
to prove Calvinism is the true path—the way I inflicted my Mormon beliefs on
him.

Learning to feel respect the right way to the right
people is tough—even humbling.

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