An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Relief Society’

Guardians of the Hearth

My visiting teacher, Sis. Beyonda Shadda, asked if she could share the message this month. “I know you don’t like to hear the lesson,” she began.

“I don’t mind discussing the message. I just find it boring to hear it read aloud,” I assured her.

“The lesson this month is on ‘Guardians of the Hearth’ which is such a lovely thought,” Sister Beyonda said. “I just want to read you what Pres. Hinckley said at a Women’s Conference.” She unfolded her copy and read:

You are the guardians of the hearth. You are the bearers of the children. You are they who nurture them and establish within them the habits of their lives. No other work reaches so close to divinity as does the nurturing of the sons and daughters of God.

I was polite. I didn’t ask her why Pres. Hinckley thought it important to tell Mormon women that they are the ones who bear and primarily care for their children— or that nurturing children is important. Don’t women already know that? Probably he was just repeating the Mormon myth that we are the only good people—the only people who love and value our children—and that we must preach this message to “the world.”

I assured Sister Beyonda that raising my five children was the greatest joy and achievement of my life. She frowned in disbelief. How could I be a loving mother without hearing weekly sermons and Relief Society lessons telling me motherhood is a sacred obligation?

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Enriching Enrichment

This week I attended our ward enrichment meeting because the theme was “Be good to yourself” and Corena, our neighborhood yoga teacher, taught yoga and relaxation techniques. Corena led us through some gentle stretches and a guided meditation. At the conclusion, she asked how we felt. “Terrific!” was the unanimous answer. “Nothing in this room has changed,” she said. “The change in how you feel has come from within yourself.”

What a great message. I took my “changed within” self home to tackle a project without waiting for the second part of the meeting, “Lifelong Learning.” The sister presenting that part of the meeting had arranged a table display featuring an Ensign, a Book of Mormon Quest game, a copy of Mormon Doctrine (Yes, I know Deseret Book has stopped publishing it), a book about Jesus by an LDS author, and a cookbook of Mormon recipes. Looked more like Lifelong Limitation than Lifelong Learning.

When will Mormons rediscover what Joseph Smith taught 170 years ago? God loves and inspires all his children. We can learn much from sources outside our own faith.*

On the bright side—my ward did invite a yoga teacher to teach an enrichment class—and KBYU airs a yoga class weekday mornings. Maybe we’re on our way to seeking beyond our own borders—at least in caring for our physical bodies.

*“One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1976. p313.

Daddy, May I Please Have a Lollipop?

Do Mormon women like being treated as little girls? I attended the Relief Society birthday dinner in my ward last week. Three women wore their hair in the double pony tails usually worn by preschoolers with uneven hair lengths. Several women had bows in their hair—and no, it wasn’t a costume party. The sister in charge of the program announced the skit by telling the bishop, who was in attendance, that they hadn’t cleared it with him, but they thought it would be all right since it came from a church manual.

Her statement, implying that grown women need male guidance in choosing appropriate entertainment for a RS program, reminded me of a General RS Conference several years ago where both President Hinckley’s wife and daughter spoke. The daughter began by noting that since her father presided, he could shut the meeting down if the women in his family got too far out with their comments. I suppose her remark was meant to be humorous, but it is curiously Mormon. I couldn’t imagine that kind of message being delivered by a daughter of George W. Bush (who was President at the time) in a public meeting.

Even in trivial manners, Mormon women seem to feel a need for male guidance. At the General Women’s Conference about a year and a half ago, Julie Beck, the General RS President, sent a ripple of amusement through the Conference Center as she announced that after much prayerful consideration and in consultation with the First Presidency, the name of RS Enrichment Meetings would be changed to, I believe, RS Extra Meetings.

Come on! Do Mormon women really want to portray the image that we are brainless little dolls who can’t possibly think and make the slightest decision on our own?

Crisis of Faith

As a child, I enjoyed neither Primary nor Sunday School. My dad worked Sundays and my mother had to get dinner or care for my baby brother on Sunday mornings, so my brother Dooby and I were sent to church only half the time. But I knew I should go—something about blessings bestowed for seat time. I felt guilty when I didn’t attend—something about disappointing Heavenly Father. Church attendance for guilt appeasement continued until I left Utah. Our ward in Casper, Wyoming was so welcoming—the people so interesting—that one morning as I dressed for church, I was shocked to realize I looked forward to meeting my friends there and learning their take on the gospel.

Church attendance generally inspired me for almost 20 years. Sisters in Relief Society provided the wisdom I would have received had my mother lived longer. Scripture study in Gospel Doctrine class fed me intellectually and spiritually as we spent two years each delving into both Old and New Testaments. Repeated study of the Book of Mormon—my least favorite of the four standard works—helped me winnow spiritual gems such as King Benjamin’s admonition to share with the poor without judging whether they deserve their misfortune for, “are we not all beggars?” Alma’s teachings that the baptismal covenant includes being “willing to bear one another’s burdens” was another spiritual find.

Mormon meetings and activities met my social needs—especially when I became a Stay-at-Home-Mom and had no other access to adult company. Church provided spiritual comfort. I was taught, and in turn taught, that Heavenly Father is a kind, loving parent who would guide me in making wise decisions, help me deal with challenges, and raise my children righteously.

After sixteen years of marriage, George and I decided we needed a change in our lives. Instead of having separate flings, we decided to move. We fasted and prayed for guidance, received a confirmation, then plunged ahead into the worst financial decision of our lives. Church isn’t a lot of comfort when you do something stupid. In fact, it makes it worse to associate with people who relate their experiences of fasting, praying, and getting the right answers. I struggled with God’s unwillingness to bless us when we were trying so hard to obey the commandments.

Before I’d resolved that crisis, the church decided to save money by recycling Relief Society lesson manuals. Lessons that were already fairly similar were repeated until I could not only recite the lines with the teacher, I could predict when Sister Wilson would share the time she had gone back to the grocery store to return the 86 cents extra change the checker had given her—or when Sister Barnes would describe walking out of a movie with inappropriate language. I replaced Relief Society with my own home schooling.

Sunday School held my attention for several years longer because lessons were based on passages of scripture. But even scriptures get tedious if only one interpretation is allowed. General Conference, which used to inspire me, lulled me to sleep. I’m not sure if the speakers changed or if I had just heard it all before. But not attending church left a hole in my life. I investigated several possibilities and found spiritual compatibility with Buddhist study.

A.K.A.

When I went to renew my driver’s license this week, I took the requisite birth certificate and SS card. The clerk accepted my SS card, but warned me that I would have to have my name changed on it before the next renewal. My SS card has my middle name, maiden name and married name. My birth certificate has the name my parents gave me. I think my mother picked Carol Ann with visions of an adorable daughter with Shirley Temple curls, dressed in starched pinafores. And she did curl my hair and sew ruffled pinafores for me. But she couldn’t give me a cuddly Shirley Temple personality. And I never learned to tap dance. I was a nerd by temperament, and by age seven, I resented looking like a little doll. While I couldn’t change my appearance, I could change my name. I insisted on being called Ann. “Carol Ann is babyish,” I informed my parents.

I quit using my first name and nearly forgot about it although it remained on church records. A few years ago we moved into a new ward. In September that year, a card came in the mail addressed to Carol Johnson. Why was my sister-in-law’s mail coming to our address? The postmark was local and it dawned on me that the card might be for me. I opened it to find a birthday greeting from the Relief Society presidency of our new ward. Since I didn’t attend RS frequently, I wasn’t surprised that the RS secretary didn’t know the name I used. However, I did find her handwritten expressions of love for me somewhat disingenuous.

But back to my driver’s license dilemma. “Do you want your name to appear as Carol Johnson, Carol Ann Johnson, or Carol Moulton Johnson?” the clerk asked. No option for the name I’m called. Odd that the two names that are my true identity, Ann Moulton, are the least important legally. I ended up with all four of my names taking up two lines on my new license. And a warning: Before this license expires I need to either get my named changed on my SS card or get my name legally changed. Cheaper to get the SS card changed, but probably faster to get my name legally changed than to wait around in the SS office for an appointment.

No wonder many young women today use their husband’s names socially, but do not add his name legally. Three names are enough for anybody.

Thumbs Down on My Relief Society Book Group

The first counselor of my ward RS presidency is an avid reader and demonstrates a missionary zeal in trying to convert the uninitiated. I show up at her Book Group occasionally to offer support, but seldom read the choice of the month. The criteria for their book selections are: short, no sex, no violence, and no non-LDS ideas. Deseret Book is the preferred source.  It’s the taking-a-dose-of-medicine method—choose a book that is good for you and force yourself to take a certain number of pages a day until finished.

I’m not sure if it is actually possible to transform reluctant readers, but I’m pretty sure the offerings at Des Book won’t do it. Not that I have anything against DB. Occasionally they or a subsidiary offer a splendid title like Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations by James Kimball and Kent Miles. But most of their offerings reflect the sameness of my suburban Utah neighborhood.

I don’t read to meet someone just like me, only devout enough to get her prayers answered in 250 pages. I read to expand my horizons, to meet someone I think is not like me until I realize with a start that given the same set of circumstances I might behave in the same way. In fiction and memoir, I want to meet real or imaginary people in places I’ll probably never visit.  I relish living vicariously in other worlds—Frank McCourt’s wretched Irish childhood in Angela’s Ashes, Rae Vang’s nightmarish adolescence during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution (Spider Eaters), Fatima Mernissi’s Muslim childhood (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood), and the Jewish neighborhoods of Chaim Potok’s novels. Nonfiction works for me too. I race through Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Tipping Point, Blink, The Outliers) lapping up each insight he reveals about how contemporary society works.

When I do read about Mormons, I want to meet complex people—the kind who might even exist in my ward beneath the surface of conformity—fictional women like Aspen Marooney, the respectable matron in Levi Peterson’s novel of the same name, who lives a lie born of a youthful transgression. And living women like Catherine Stokes, an African-American convert, who managed a demanding career in nursing while raising a daughter alone, and Cecile Pelous, a French, single woman who has founded an orphanage in Nepal (both in Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations).

Via the ward grapevine, I know the Twilight series is a popular clandestine read in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a discrepancy between what LDS women think is appropriate reading material and what they actually enjoy reading. Sexual tension piques the interest of most women and many great novels have used that theme. Maybe I can interest my RS sisters in a Jane Austen though I fear Mr. Darcy, even when portrayed by a younger, thinner Colin Firth, emits less sex appeal than a reformed vampire ogling a juicy neck.

Periodically, I try our ward book group. Someday I’ll find the book that will cause the good sisters of our ward to play sick on Sunday morning so they can stay home alone and finish the next chapter. The Bloggernacle   gives me hope. Maybe their example will convince my ward that true believers can venture beyond LDS authors and publishers and still maintain their testimonies.

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