An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for the ‘Book Talk’ Category

Searching for Conversation

Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner’s reminiscence of his boyhood in Saskatchewan, describes the rough frontier society of 100 years ago. But, his comment on conversation could have been written about my childhood in the 1950s. Stegner reflects:  “I even at times find myself reacting against conversation, that highest test of the civilized man, because where I came from it was unfashionable to be ‘mouthy.’”

In my working class Provo, Utah neighborhood, it was also “unfashionable to be mouthy.” Conversation amongst my neighbors was generally limited to local people and events. Discussions about politics and religion were held only with those with whom one agreed. Children did not contradict adults, and women did not contradict men. Knowing the rules was important because discussions involving differing points of few were seen as arguments—and the point of an argument is to win.

No one broached a conversation topic with the idea of learning something from an acquaintance. The idea was to prove oneself smarter than the other. People reacted to a controversial statement with  scorn, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” or with defensiveness, “I’m not afraid to stand up for my beliefs.”

Not until college was I exposed to conversation as a search for understanding—and not often there. Meaningful conversation takes time, education, and probably example. My Provo neighbors had more opportunities to read and learn than people in frontier Saskatchewan, but few knew how to make use of this time. Men read the Daily Herald to keep up with events and people. Women read women’s magazines and paperback romances. They talked about that no-good Ron Bowyer who left his wife and kids to run off with a loose woman. They speculated about who might be the next bishop, but they never questioned McCarthy’s assertions that Communists were infiltrating our country.

Much as he loved the open spaces of the Western plains and the grandeur of mountains and canyons, Wallace Stegner, didn’t fit comfortably in Western society. He excelled in academics rather than sports and became a university professor and a writer rather than a businessman.  While he often sought Utah’s Zion Park and Utah wilderness areas for hiking and solitude, he chose to live and teach at Stanford and spent his summers in Vermont rather than in the Mountain West. I suspect it was because the conversation was better.

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Religion through Irreverence

Anne Lemott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, would be a great lesson manual for Priesthood/Relief Society if the curriculum committee realized that Lemott’s honest prayers, like “God help me not to be such an ass” are more spiritual than most of the “vain repetitions” Mormons are conditioned to offer.

Unfortunately, many Church members struggle with problems which current lesson manuals don’t address: poverty, financial insecurity, work that takes parents from home too many hours a week, mental illness, debilitating physical problems, abuse, and addiction.

Would it destroy our faith to admit that God gives light and knowledge to non-Mormons? To have lessons that step outside our own small circle and use thoughts from inspired, non-Mormon thinkers?

Mormons often have the idea that life will run smoothly so long as we obey gospel principles. Lemott is more realistic. She tells us:

. . . we learn that people are very disappointing, and that they break our hearts, and that very sweet people will be bullied, and that we will be called to survive unsurvivable losses, and that we will realize with enormous pain how much of our lives we’ve already wasted with obsessive work or pleasing people or dieting. We will see and read about deprivation and barbarity beyond our ability to understand, much less process.

For Lemott, the answer to the horrors of a world we can’t control, is to pray, “Help!” and “find God in our human lives”—in the people who do unasked for acts of kindness, and for moments of intuition that allow us to take a step in the right direction.

Mormons often measure our spiritual growth by how many meetings we attend, callings we fulfill, and scriptures we read. I prefer Lemott’s measurement:

Have you become more generous . . . ? Or more patient, which is a close second? Did your world become bigger and juicier and more tender? Have you become ever so slightly kinder to yourself? This is how you tell.

Lamott believes it’s more important to thank God with actions than with words:

. . . God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him.

I love Lemott’s definition of sin: “Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth.” I doubt it would undermine Mormon core values to open up our discussion of sin beyond sexual transgression.

Besides her quirky, irreverent sense of humor, Lamott has a gift for poetry. She describes a hike in the hills on a day when, “The scent of spring was as light as goodness.”  The prayer she offered was answered when, “the wind had blown away much of my unhappiness.”

I believe prayer is one of many topics which doesn’t need to be forced into a right-way/wrong-way point of view. Unfortunately, the curriculum committee is unlikely to take my advice and choose uplifting books by non-member authors as lesson manuals for Church classes. Fortunately, I can skip the 3-hour block of Sunday meetings and pursue inspiration that meets my needs from Lamott and other “worldly” sources.

Fatal Flaws–Real and Literary

I suppose I will never catch up on the books I missed reading during the years my job as mom and ward “I’ll do whatever you need me to do” person limited my reading to short newspaper and magazine articles. I have finally read Wallace Stegner’s wonderful, Angle of Repose now that I have time to repose myself into a horizontal angle on the sofa.

Angle is a book about marriage. Stegner had an ear for realistic dialogue—the words couples use to snipe at each other in the frustration of their unfulfilled dreams. Like the secondary characters in his later novel, Crossing to Safety, the husband and wife in Angle are often in a situation where the wife’s income is more important to the family than the husband’s—a tricky situation in the 21st century, but really difficult for a couple in this 19th century setting.

Oliver, the husband, is a self-taught mining engineer who must move from job to job in rough mining camps. Any man in that occupation should probably stay a bachelor—but Oliver falls in love. His fatal flaws, which are partly responsible for his lack of prosperity, are his trusting nature, aversion to confrontation, and inability to forgive serious wrongs.

Susan, the wife, comes from a genteel, Eastern background. Her fatal flaw is wanting to be like her best friend, Augusta, who comes from a well-connected, prosperous family. Susan almost worships Augusta. She believes Augusta is the more talented artist even though it is Susan who gets paying commissions for her work. Susan dreams of marrying the magazine editor who befriends her—but proposes to Augusta.

Probably few women could be happy moving from one rough camp to another as Susan must do with Oliver. Still, her envy of the perfect happiness she imagines Augusta’s life makes her own situation more difficult.

Susan and Oliver’s story is told through the eyes of a grandson who reconstructs their lives from a collection of old letters and newspaper clippings. In the process he gains insight into his own fatal flaw and begins to deal with it.

It’s easy to identify fatal flaws in friends and family members. Possibly we should ask ourselves, “What is my fatal flaw?” Admitting a flaw helps us deal with it even if we can’t entirely overcome it.  Probably most flaws, like Oliver’s trusting nature and aversion to confrontation, are really virtues overdone. Usually, we just need to reign them in a bit.

Open the Canon

Even the most devout Mormons complain about the dullness of the Sunday lessons. The official response is, “Milk before meat.” Unfortunately, no meat seems to be on the horizon, even for Saints who have attended the three-hour block faithfully for three decades or more.

Those of us who remember the beauty of David O. McKay’s sermons where he quoted passages from Shakespeare and other great authors mourn the sterile stuff we have been served for at least a generation. Church lessons are now pretty much restricted to stories and quotations from past and present prophets, supplemented with supporting scriptures. Even General Conference addresses have become rehashes of statements from past general authorities.

Mormon scriptures and the Bible are only four books among a plethora of wisdom that has been recorded and handed down throughout written history. Mormon prophets and apostles represent only a handful of many thousands of brilliant, spiritual men and women who have, no doubt, been enlightened by the same loving Creator.

Why must Church lessons be restricted to such limited sources of light and knowledge? Granted, some favorite topics such as priesthood, missionary work, temple work, and the restoration don’t lend themselves to outside sources. Still, topics like love, family, faith, self-improvement (becoming perfect), charity, service, and following Jesus are all topics where many non-Mormons have wisdom from which we could profit.

Mother Teresa’s record of her struggle to feel loved and approved by God could surely benefit Mormons as well as Catholics. Trappist monk, Thomas Merton’s description of the spiritual oil in our lamps that will keep burning after the body dies is a beautifully, comforting analogy. In his 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman, the African-American pastor and university dean, teaches a truth which pertain to ethically-challenged Americans today. He writes, “If a man continues to call a good thing bad, he will eventually lose his sense of moral distinctions.”

Not only Christians have been inspired to speak beautiful truths. In his book, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has a wonderful treatise on faith and works. He writes, “A concern with one’s own salvation and righteousness that outweighs the regard for the welfare of one other human being cannot be qualified as a good intention.”

I gained a deeper understanding of the teachings of Jesus from reading Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus. Wouldn’t a Gospel Doctrine class discussion on sin and redemption be deepened by the questions Chopra raises:

Is sin the same as a crime, mental illness, defective ego development, Karma, nature, or poor genetic programming? Is redemption a subjective state that makes you feel better, free of neurosis, and capable of fulfilling your potential?

Mormons often excuse repetitious lessons by saying, “We need to hear it until we learn it.” While oft-repeated statements (whether true or not—think advertising jingles) can burn into the memory, real learning requires thoughtful engagement. Not much thoughtful engagement takes place when bored members access the Internet or text friends during Church lessons and talks they’ve heard scores of times.

The Doctrine & Covenants tell us to teach diligently. It does not say we must restrict our teaching and learning to Mormon scriptures. Enlarging the Mormon curriculum to include uplifting statements from those outside our fold would not only make lessons more interesting—stimulating thoughts and discussions might create the kind of thinking which increases spirituality and improves behavior.

What Stereotype Are You?

We are the kind of family that pushes books onto each other. When I stayed with Techie’s family to help me with the new baby, Techie handed me Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up and urged me to read his brilliant satire, Ambush at Fort Bragg,  during my leisure hours—midnight to 4 a.m.

Ambush is a fun spoof of television journalism. In this story, network personnel manipulate events to create an audience-grabbing documentary. The stock characters are all there: the intellectual Jew who never gets the girl, the aggressive female news anchor, red-neck soldiers, a stripper dreaming of stardom, the rich, decadent TV producer, and a selfless doctor.

“The beauty of this story is that none of these characters realizes they’re a stereotype,” Techie said. “Just like none of us realizes we’re a stereotype.”

He asked his wife a dangerous question, “What kind of stereotype are you?” Techie II thought for a minute. “I guess I’m a Texan.”

Yes! I thought. Being a Texan explains Techie II’s right-wing politics, religious conservatism, and appetite for over-sized beef steaks.

Fortunately, Techie did not ask me. I wasn’t ready to answer a question that might lift the mask of the person I want to be and expose the person I really am. Probably the mask doesn’t fool anyone. Certainly not Techie. “You’re talking like a teacher again,” he told me repeatedly during my stay.

I guess I am the stereotypical schoolteacher—the one who wants to share her knowledge with those around her and improve their lives. I think I’m also the stereotypical disaffected Mormon. After years of devoted church membership—attending meetings, serving in callings, promoting an eternal family—I realized the message I heard at church didn’t square with my real-life experiences.

I migrated from blaming my own inadequacies, to faulting the organized church, to finding peace in my own way. Sometimes my teacher stereotype urges me to share my new found wisdom and disabuse faithful members of their erroneous beliefs. Then a new voice—maybe not a stereotype—urges peace. Let everyone find her own way. Maybe by owning our stereotypes, we can use them constructively.

Works in Progress

Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book, The Snow Leopard, helped me survive an arduous month of playing granny-nanny in two households with newborns, mothers recovering from C-sections, and toddlers. In the early mornings or late evenings, I escaped crying children and traveled to Nepal with  Matthiessen’s powerful descriptions of the Himalayas:

Toward four, the sun sets fires on the Crystal Mountain. I turn my collar up and put on gloves and go down to Somdo, where my tent has stored the last sun of the day. In the tent entrance, out of the wind, I drink hot tea and watch the darkness rise out of the earth. The sunset fills the deepening blues with holy rays and turns a twilight raven into the silver bird of night as it passes into the shadow of the mountain. Then the great hush falls, and cold descends. The temperature has already dropped well below freezing, and will drop twenty degrees more before the dawn.

I had little time to sit and meditate for long periods as the author did while his companion, a naturalist doing field research, studied the blue sheep of the high mountains. I did, however, use time pushing a stroller with a napping toddler to free my mind to delight in the peace of a country road—to gaze in awe as clouds swirled and finally released their load of water droplets from the North Pacific onto the hills and vales of western Washington.

Connection with nature fortified me for the three Cs of my life—child care, cooking, and cleaning. While performing my seemingly endless tasks, I thought of the loyal Sherpa porters serving the crazy Americans who insisted on traveling into the mountains in late autumn. In the words of Matthiessen:

The Sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible? “Here, sir! I will wash the mud! “I carry that, sir!” . . . Their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake—it is the task, not the employer, that is served. . . .They know . . .that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.

Those words buoyed me as I caught up housework left undone by a high-risk expectant mother, did diaper duty, and told endless tales of the three bears to send toddlers to sleep. Another thought from Matthiessen’s book which helped was the advice given by his Buddhist roshi before he left on the trip: “Expect nothing.”  

Expect nothing! Such a liberating thought. How often we set ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating rewards and blessings so great that only our imagination could fulfill them. Expect nothing leaves us open to simple joys that come our way.

Despite glimpses of enlightenment while meditating in the lofty mountains, Matthiessen retained his human failings—as we all do. Reading his book helped, but no way could I keep a positive attitude for an entire month. Let’s face it—human beings are not perfectible. We can search, study, pray, and meditate, but we always remain fallible mortals—works in progress. I suspect that the most we can hope for is to catch glimpses of something greater than ourselves and try to detach ourselves from things of lesser importance.

Aged to Perfection

My younger brother introduced me to a collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories back in the ‘60s and I became an instant fan. When I taught junior high English classes, of course I found Bradbury’s short stories in most anthologies. “There Will Come Soft Rains” about nature restoring cities where the people have been destroyed, presumably by nuclear warfare, was a special favorite.

I loved teaching ninth graders Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. It made its way onto the district’s approved list before the current fundamentalist trend sent the morality police checking books for blasphemous terms like, “Oh God!” Unlike the tacky YA novels currently approved by parent committees, Fahrenheit  encouraged my students to think.

Ray Bradbury died June 5 at age 91. The PBS NewsHour  showed clips of interviews with Bradbury. I enjoyed the interview from the ‘70s when Bradbury was a robust, middle-aged man. The recent interview, with Bradbury’s face and neck bloated from the effects of an age-impaired body, troubled me. His altered appearance reminded me that my own once firm body is losing the battle with gravity. Why would he let himself be filmed when he looked so bad?

Listening to Bradbury’s interview, I realized that although his body was impaired, his brain was not. He answered each question thoughtfully, giving insight into how and why he wrote. My more mushy brain had been focused on Bradbury’s puffy body rather than on the beauty of his spirit weathered by years of experience and wisdom.

I realized that what Bradbury had left—a brilliant mind and wisdom from a long lifetime of experiences—far outweighed a body surrendering to time’s ravages.

The human body does not age to perfection, but the human spirit can.

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