Manchester Messed Me Up

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I’ve been trying for a while to figure out the best way to write this.

Lately I have been worrying about things I hadn’t worried about for months. Since I’ve been on my own I’ve had a couple nights that I refused to leave my bed to buy dinner, preferring hunger to another social interaction after a long day of interactions.

I’ve worried what people think of me—people whom I’ll never see again who probably don’t think anything of me: receptionists, cashiers, and restaurant employees. Strangers on trains. I wonder often if British people dislike me as much as I dislike most American tourists, whom I tend to judge mercilessly. I worry that I look crazy walking down residential streets with my enormous backpack and hiking boots, not quite fitting in and feeling slightly homeless even though I always have a place to sleep at night. I wonder if the loud French girls staying across from me are talking about me, and I realize how weird and paranoid that is. Unfortunately, rationality doesn’t stop the thoughts from flowing.

Lately I’ve convinced myself that my actual friends don’t even like me. My friends that I love and care about and miss like crazy, who I FINALLY realized must at least tolerate me to a certain degree because they kept showing up for things at my apartment.

The most frustrating part is that all this is normal for me. I spent most of my life fearing things that aren’t scary. I remember in high school I rode a Greyhound bus to visit my sister in Portland and worried so much about who might sit next to me. I was lucky on my way there and got the row to myself, but on the trip back an average-looking thirty-something woman sat next to me and I spent the remainder of the trip worried I was somehow being a nuisance.

I hated living like that. It wasn’t until I came across social anxiety posts on the internet that I realized there was a name for all this. I learned that I wasn’t the only person incapable of leaving my chair to throw something away in the middle of a meeting. I’m not the only one who gets mini anxiety attacks before making phone calls, coming up with ridiculous excuses about the time of day to avoid contacting someone I’ve never met (4 PM? They’re probably at work. 6PM? They might be eating dinner. 8PM? That’s too late to make a phone call!).

I’d avoid interacting with people I thought were cooler than me because I wanted friends who weren’t intimidating (honestly, not a bad method for surviving high school). But in college it kept me from reaching out to anyone who didn’t live with me—when conversation was necessary, as it is in roommate situations, I was fine. It was all the spontaneous things that worried me so much. I didn’t make friends in my ward or my classes, and I didn’t want to. I was too nervous about everything all the time.

Don’t even get me started with church, authority figures, or imposter syndrome. The first two were impossible on my best days, the third was terminal.

I suppose the reason I’m so frustrated now is that I thought I had made real improvement. I became great friends with people who were cooler than me! I went to social events! I connected with authority figures and participated in classes and went to office hours! I didn’t fear running into random acquaintances at the grocery store and I was even fine using the telephone. Church still felt a little impossible, but I found ways to make it slightly more possible.

I became so comfortable. Things were mostly going my way. I was feeling so good about myself. I’d found confidence, passion, and unexpected success, planning my future and looking forward to it. Loving myself in these new ways allowed me to let down my guard and love others. I was no longer concerned with comparisons or jealousy. I had friends who were better than me at almost everything and I didn’t hate them for it. I was happy and sharing that happiness. I felt empowered and developed some seriously unpopular opinions. I wrote things I wanted to write and found out that other people found value in them. I taught the kickass relief society lesson I’d always hoped someone would teach.

And then I left all those things to go to my favorite place in the world and walk for miles and miles. The UK welcomed me back with open arms. The first few days were euphoric—I felt like I could do anything. I was uncharacteristically bubbly and social. I loved everything and everyone. Of course I had ups and downs, but the ups were so high and the downs so comparatively shallow.

And then one night just under a month later I explained to the three girls I was rooming with that I was feeling malaise. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, since I was only having one of those periodic down days that happen . . . periodically. It was the first time on the trip I felt that oh-too-familiar self-loathing creeping in, but wrote it off as nothing to worry about. How could I be emotionally unstable in such a fantastic place, doing such fantastic things every single day? Anything less than feeling constantly delighted seemed inappropriate, like I wasn’t aware of how lucky I was.

“Do you feel a sense of impending doom?” one of my roommates asked. It was a common question in the medical field and she was in the nursing program. She did not want have to deal with psychosis that night.

“No,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

As I scrolled through Facebook, just as we were tucking ourselves in for the night, I came across a BBC article about something happening in Manchester. Since we happened to be IN Manchester I took immediate interest.

“They’re saying something happened at a concert here—they think there might have been an attack.”

My roommates asked questions I couldn’t answer with the small amount of information published at the time. After looking through the comments section I decided there was nothing to worry about. Other sources were claiming a busted amp or exploding balloons were to blame—that it was all due to mass hysteria and that if there were any deaths, they must have been caused by trampling.

I said it was probably nothing and we started falling asleep.

Just as we were drifting off the girl in the bunk across from me sat straight up in her bed and cried, “Get me out of here! I need to get out of here!” and promptly laid back down.

“Was she talking in her sleep?” someone asked.

We talked about sleep-talking for a bit until the sleep-talker herself awoke and asked what was going on. We told her what happened and she apologized. We said there was nothing to apologize for. We laughed it off started falling asleep again.

And then there was a knock on our door. We hoped it wasn’t a drunk hostel guest. It was past 1am and no one wanted to get up to figure out who was bothering us.

“Is anyone in there?”

Someone got up to answer the door; the voice on the other side belonged to our professor.

I stayed still and silent in my bed as he explained that there’d been a suspected terrorist attack a mile away from us, at a concert. One of my roommates’ mom’s called him in hysterics when she heard the news, wondering if her daughter was safe. He passed off his phone to her and told us to notify our families.

Seconds after he left I got a text from my Mom saying she knew I was probably safe but was just making sure. I told her I was fine, just a little shaken up. I told my roommates that yes, it was scary, but we couldn’t let at attack scare us. The likelihood of getting killed by a terrorist is practically zero. We would be fine. They thanked me for keeping a level head. We looked out the windows and saw helicopters flying above us. So many helicopters.

The next morning felt broken. That subtle feeling of emotional discomfort exploded into dread. Young girls were among the victims. ISIS claimed responsibility. I couldn’t stop reading news articles and op-eds trying to analyze what had happened. All just one mile away from us.

I wasn’t hungry but ate my breakfast anyway, in silence. I didn’t feel like pretending to be happy. When classmates carried on like normal, as if nothing had happened, I was angry at them. How were they not feeling this? Why didn’t they appear to be hurting for those poor souls who’d been hurt or killed? How could they dare to laugh on a morning like this? I remembered Christ’s message to mourn with those that mourn and wondered if He expected it to ever be a choice.

We left Manchester and visited a Victorian cotton mill where young children, mostly girls, spent their lives working 12-hour days in dangerous conditions. We toured their dorm room, tiny and unhygienic, a broken sanctuary for those unwanted, and I barely held myself together.

A friend asked if I was doing okay. I couldn’t answer her honestly without breaking down in tears so I told her maybe we could talk about it later. I bit down hard on my tongue.

Things didn’t get easier after the initial shock. The insecurities I was so delighted to cast away began creeping back until I found myself disliking myself—and everyone else—once again. I can’t explain how it happened, and I’m not certain it’s PTSD. It just sort of happened.

The world I had crafted, in which I believed every human soul was of worth, didn’t feel real any longer. I feared for my life and that insecurity trickled down to those familiar, frustrating social anxieties. The London Bridge attack weeks later hardly phased me, though now I fear white vans while crossing bridges.

I realize that what happened that night in Manchester isn’t about me. I wasn’t killed that night. No one I’d ever met was killed that night. Am I even allowed to be hurt? Am I allowed to feel the impact of that night six weeks later?

I feel guilty for not being as enraptured as I did my first stint in England. From my attic room in Kensington this country felt perfect. Two years ago I wasn’t jaded like I am now, well into the Trump era and steadfast in my passions for feminism and civil rights.

Everything was easier and far more exciting back then. I hadn’t been seriously challenged and everything about this beautiful world felt new and fresh, an escape from difficulties back home and a welcome break from working my first ever job. London started bringing me out of my shell for the first time and—to my horror—a single night in Manchester was building that shell back up, layer by layer.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the hikes on this trip. I loved feeling the peace of the mountains and coasts, that strange euphoria that comes with reaching a peak and the thud-thud rhythm of my feet in the dirt and rock and grass. Nature brought me comfort on days when nothing else could, and still does. My perceptions of England-as-paradise have been challenged, but my love of this country has only grown in deeper ways.

I’m also all right admitting that something in me remains a little bit broken. I’m learning to be kind to myself as I figure out what that means for me and whatever progress I thought I had made. I’m learning to just keep on going even during those moments I want to give it all up and return home to squeeze my cat. Staying here and being brave and leaving my bed to get food is my own small way of resisting; of telling evil men with bombs that I’m still here and they’ll never keep me from living my life, even if that life is marked with insecurity.

When I visited St. Julian’s church in Norwich today I felt peace I haven’t known for a long time. Julian’s time, too, was ravaged with uncertainty. She actually knew the people dying and nearly died herself. The plague, of course, isn’t terrorism, but helplessness is helplessness. She had every reason to trap herself in mourning, and maybe her decades confined in a cell as an anchoress were part of that healing process. Regardless of what her life choices meant, her answers were always rooted in love. Her connection with God as a mystic was bound by revelation after revelation of divine love as she communed with God on her deathbed:

In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a Hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”

No matter how fragile, how broken, or how scared, it is love that allows us to go on existing. Today I feel small, but I also feel brave. I have questions I don’t know how to answer and I worry for my future. But I won’t let my littleness sink into nothing. For the sake of allowing goodness to thrive in this ever-complicated place, I choose to take what comes and make the most of it. God help me.

We Will Sing: LDS Conference in the Trump Era

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I’m not one of those General Conference people. I don’t spend months getting excited to hear from our general authorities. I don’t record pages and pages of questions I want to see answered. I don’t take notes. I don’t even bake anything fancy for my weekend of coziness and introversion.

To be honest, I’m a bit of a passive conference watcher, and I always have been. I enjoy spending the weekend on the couch in my pajamas, coloring in my ~adult~ coloring books and working on embroidery projects. I’ll admit I occasionally cringe when our leaders say things like “divinely appointed gender roles” or “the world” or “ponderize.” I roll my eyes when we go an entire 2 sessions without hearing a talk from a woman. I feel a little dead inside whenever my secret Mormon wishlist of things-I-would-like-to-see-changed remains unaddressed.

That list, if you’re curious, still hasn’t been touched. Female representation is strikingly absent. But overall today has been good. I don’t know if it’s my own bias keeping me receptive to certain things, but I think the talks have been extra heavy-handed on issues of love, acceptance, caring for the poor, and happily embracing diversity. I don’t think this was an accident.

We’re living in a time increasingly marked by fear, hatred, gun-toting, and renewed enthusiasm for Making American Great Again. Great again for middle- and upper-class Christian white people, often at the expense of marginalized individuals of all races and beliefs. It’s unsettling, to say the least.

Especially since I live in Utah. I don’t see these attitudes every day, but I’m fully aware they exist and can influence LDS culture in some unflattering ways. I understand why the Mormon populace tends to lean conservative on social issues, but the Republican party of 2017 is far from conservative. Donald Trump’s radical ideology couldn’t distance itself much further from Christian values (unless, of course, your Christian values include manliness, wealth, Muslim-hatred, white supremacy, and defunding the EPA). I definitely have a hard time tolerating the increasing number of Mormons who subscribe to alt-right beliefs.

ALL OF THIS is why I’m glad today’s talks have focused heavily on maintaining and better understanding the true meaning of being a good Christian, making space for the diverse lives around us and, above all, remembering to love our fellow humans.

I took particular comfort in Elder Holland’s talk. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to explain everything I hate about sunshine songs without actually disparaging sunshine songs (pretty sure disparaging sunshine songs is something apostles aren’t allowed to do). The discomfort he feels while singing these songs meant to foster righteous enthusiasm among people deprived of freedom, safety, dignity, or community resonated deeply with me. Though I have no problem associating Jesus with the glorious, life-giving sun that greets us each spring, the saccharine sentimentality of certain hymns usually leaves me feeling empty and cynical.

It can also be surprisingly difficult living among people who live in a sunshine-hymn world, who’d rather discuss the latest Disney movie than current events happening in the real world. Unlike some saints, I find it nearly impossible to take the earnest, happy Mormon approach to life when I know for a fact most people are worse off than I am. As a straight, white, middle-class Christian woman I have the privilege of ignoring most pressing issues, even in my own community; but as someone who wants to see this world become a better place for everyone, ignoring what is easily ignored no longer feels like a responsible–or Christlike–choice.

After all, how can I sincerely sing about the sunshiney happiness in my life without remembering so many of my brothers’ and sisters’ lives marked with unimaginable darkness? Those killed or injured through war, gun violence, domestic abuse, or police brutality? Men, women, and children whose livelihoods are destroyed through the human trafficking industry? Refugees and immigrants who no longer have a place to call home at no fault of their own? Friends dealing with social rejection due to non-hetero sexual orientation? Impoverished folks of the midwestern and southern states who thought electing our current president would somehow relieve their burdens? People I love struggling with mental health issues, unable to grasp onto hope even in a community that insists doing so is always possible?

Elder Holland’s appeal urging members of the church to acknowledge and love those with different beliefs, traditions, and struggles is the answer to these pains that too-often mark mortality. His insistence that it is our job as disciples to ease the pain, offering love and kindness free from fear or bigotry, is needed now more than ever. This is an issue bigger than political affiliation, bigger than polarizing views regarding social issues, bigger than any one of us. It is at the center of the LDS belief in Zion, and pivotal in understanding our role as saints in these latter-days.

His words reminded me that my song has a place within this gospel. That my voice matters even when I’m encouraged to remain silent to give the dominant narrative space to shine. They reminded me that this church always has room to grow, that remaining involved, even if that means begrudgingly going through the motions, can help others feel empowered enough to share their struggles and make the meetinghouse a more welcoming place for everyone.

This talk also reminded me that even when church is hard–so, so, hard–singing always brings a small moment of respite. There have been times I’ve left church mid-meeting in tears, and not the happy kind. Sometimes I want to shout at people in the middle of sacrament meeting to remember that women are a thing that exist. I still haven’t found a way to make Sunday school feel enlightening and not the most boring part of my week.

Despite all that, congregational singing is something I can get behind, over and over, week after week. Sometimes we sing ridiculous hymns, but even then, when we join together in singing praise to the God I still very much believe in, I can forget about things that make being Mormon hard. Singing allows us to celebrate our differences, focusing intently on the hypnotically beautiful polyphony we are destined to embrace in the eternities.

Like Elder Holland, I hope there will be a day that we can join together and rejoice in music together; each of our parts providing vital, bonding harmony, perhaps in ways our mortal ears are unable to comprehend. I hope that the things that hurt and divide us will instead enlighten us with empathy, knowledge, and perfect understanding. I hope that we can rejoice in both the inevitable dissonance of our spiritual song and those rare moments of perfect resolution. Both are necessary in our plan of salvation. Both serve to connect us in this life and the next.

I still fear for the future of my country and the world. I still weep for those mocked, scorned, and wounded, and pray to know my part in comforting those in need of comfort. I won’t try to understand why most of Utah chose to elect Donald Trump to office, and I will continue to stand up for truth in an “alternative facts” political climate.

But today especially, I hold out hope that we can make a difference; that Mormons, at their core, or not a bunch of bigots. That someday, under the guidance of our beloved Heavenly Father, we will sing. That maybe–possibly!!–that day might come before we’re all dead.

The hope for such an event will keep me Mormon even when every other part of me is seriously questioning why I choose to stay. I’m still waiting for women to have their voices heard, for children of gay parents to be baptized just like anyone else, for people of color to be fairly represented on the stands each general conference. Waiting for what feel like obvious improvements is a challenge, but I can be patient.

If Holland’s correct–and I want to believe that he is–a perfect Christlike love will one day bond us together and we. will. sing.

The Gospel of Feminist Book Club: Why Community Matters

I’ve been thinking about communities lately. As a self-proclaimed introvert and until-very-recently shy person, I haven’t always valued the beauty found in communal spaces. I preferred to brood in private, and assumed the people around me could never understand my inner turmoil. I had a few choice friends to talk with, but avoided large groups whenever I could. Few things scared me more than socializing with strangers, I was judgmental, and often felt like an outsider within my own Utah-based, Mormon community.

I pretty much turned into a teenage boy as I entered my twenties, which is interesting but not especially helpful to my personal development or happiness. Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to mend my anxious, awkward social life over the past few months with surprisingly fantastic results.

One thing I have noticed since coming to BYU is that the LDS collegiate experience provides a unique opportunity to blend communities of school, work, home, and church, and that can be weird. It can also be perfect in the way Zion is meant to be perfect.

Because yesterday something marvelous happened: seventeen people I know from all over the place gathered to discuss a lovely, important book. There were a couple of new faces, and one friend I’ve known since she served as a missionary in my home ward when I was 17. There were several friends I met in a women’s literature class last September, which feels like years ago – I value them more than they know. A friend who studied abroad with me, a friend I’m going to study abroad with, and a friend I see every morning at work. Two phenomenal cats. A professor who has taught me amazing things, continues to do so, and was willing to invite us into her home to talk about our feelings for several hours.

It was a small taste of heaven.

Getting there was a journey that started on the first day of my senior year. I entered the windowless basement classroom that would end up being my favorite place for the next few months and chose a seat. When my professor referenced  Amy Schumer and Arrested Development AND trashed Twilight, vampires in general, and bro culture all in that first class period, I knew signing up for women’s lit was one of those accidentally-perfect choices. I’ve literally kept myself awake at night trying to imagine how last semester would have gone if I hadn’t been in that class. The answer, of course, is “bad.” It would have been bad. Thank God for that seemingly-unimportant decision.

My classmates were also crazy amazing. They offered sophisticated interpretations of the readings, freely shared personal experiences, hated Donald Trump, and knew way more about feminism than I did. I wanted to be friends with all of them.

Fast-forward to the last day of class, and I was deeply mourning the impending loss of that community. It gave me a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt for a long time. It gave us all a space to learn from each other and from lovely lady-centric books. Like any class, there were papers to write and tests to take, but even those were oddly wonderful. In a lot of ways, it was a godly space, and my soul hurt to give it up.

I had also been talking to a friend about starting a feminist book club. Neither of us had many feminist friends beyond each other. We wanted more than two people to join. So I announced to my class our plans and passed around a signup sheet. Maybe I could actually be friends with all these fabulous people, or at least a handful of them.

To my surprise, it worked. 20 of my classmates signed up because they, too, couldn’t let things end. Feminist Book Club was born. I put considerable effort into setting things up, sending emails, monitoring our Facebook page. There are days I prioritize our readings over those for my Milton class, which is a problem, but it’s Winter semester so I don’t even care.

Our first meeting was wholesome and delightful. We made plans to read Ashley Mae Hoiland’s “One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly” for the next month, and things worked out just right to meet together in our lovely professor’s home. We talked about so many good things: Mormonism, missions, families, trials, doubt, empathy, kindness, hope, love, God, and all that jazz. We resurrected that familiar, godly community and basked in the delicious light that comes when sharing our stories and discussing good books. We communed with each other through Mormonism; the earthly divisions of home, school, work, and church erased completely for one heavenly morning.

By now I see the value in nurturing communities we want to see thrive. There have certainly been times I’ve hated living in Provo, a place unfortunately known for narrow-mindedness, conformity, and strict religious orthodoxy. But I see now there’s so much more here. There’s love, encouragement, and solidarity. There are people who love the church without loving everything about the church, people who want to see positive change. There are people who shrug off the judgmental hate-the-sin tendencies taught to us in our youth, who refuse to demean LGBT individuals or those who’ve left to choose different faiths. There is good here I couldn’t see before I read this book, took this class, met these people.

I’ve learned that choosing to engage is always worth the effort. That being a friend to people who are probably way cooler than you is usually an excellent choice. Choosing to be vulnerable in telling our stories is the best way to grow, learn, and support one another. Reading and loving the same book is remarkably connective and healing. Taking risks to build a community of hope, love, and mutual frustration is absolutely a great way of living your life.

Because experiences like this are recycled – they’ve already helped enrich the greater community I so disliked in the first place. As I fulfilled my Mormon duty of visiting teaching today – a responsibility I usually approach apathetically – I incorporated things I learned in that women’s lit class, things that we happened to discuss during book club yesterday.

“Our Heavenly Parents really do love us, just like our earthly parents. I think that they love us so much that they’re willing to let us fail and suffer so we can learn how to be better people. They love to see us succeed, but they love us just the same when we don’t. That’s why they sent Christ to atone for us.”

The girl we taught pondered my words for a moment, and told me she’d never thought about it that way before. We left her with a cupcake and a prayer, and as soon as we stepped outside my companion asked a question I wasn’t expecting:

“Emma, did you serve a mission?”

I told her I didn’t, but I knew she had.

“Really? That’s surprising. You taught that lesson like a missionary. It was beautiful.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was only preaching the gospel of Feminist Book Club, a gospel that I hope will eventually spread across Utah County and bundle us all in its goodness and warmth.

Until that day comes, I’ll dutifully plan our once-a-month meetings, thanking God all the while for providing me with this blessing of community within community. As sisters in Zion we might not always work together or have the same opinions, but we can meet to talk, to love, and to encourage each other as we collectively embrace all the beautiful complexities of life.

I don’t know where this will take us or how long it will last, but it sure beats private, introverted brooding. Turns out, having friends and gathering in large numbers is not bad or scary. It makes us better, I think. I’m also extremely glad I finally found my people – they really are that great.

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My God Transcends the Meetinghouse: Building Faith in Philosophies of Men

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I remember the first time it happened.

We were all so young, partaking of literary glory as we sat, wide-eyed, in the London Centre classroom. Those thirteen weeks would teach us to live in the world and of the world: to taste, smell, touch, and read the history surrounding us with reverence and pleasure. It was too early to know the weight of the things we would learn – we’d only been abroad for two weeks – but we looked to the future with blind enthusiasm.

We sat that morning in plastic chairs, some of us wearing pajamas and disheveled hair. Sun beamed through tall Victorian windows as locals passed us on the streets below, reminding us of the living, breathing city we had the temporary privilege of calling home.

Our professor began class that day by asking us to find in our Norton Anthologies a name most of us had never heard.

“George Herbert is perhaps the best religious poet in the canon. His work is intensely devotional. One gets the sense he truly believed in, and loved, God.”

He spoke of George Herbert the man: a gifted orator who lost the monarchy’s preferment at court after Charles I ascended. Not wanting to waste his talents, he was ordained a minister and sent to a rural parish church near Salisbury – a far cry from his family friend, John Donne’s, famed position at St. Paul’s.

According to my professor, Herbert spent his last three years ministering to the poor and uneducated. Those he’d been called to serve could never appreciate his greatest talents, but that didn’t keep him from writing some of his best – and only surviving – works during that time. On his deathbed, he willed his collected poems to Nicholas Ferrar with instructions to publish them if they were any good, and destroy them if they weren’t.

Lucky for us, the man knew excellent poetry when he saw it. George Herbert’s The Temple is indeed marvelous. We carefully read from his greatest works one phrase at a time, tracing the lines with our fingers –

“Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.”

Our professor lectured on the metaphysical conceit: pure Christian love as host at a dinner party. The speaker in this poem, “Love (III),” considers himself entirely undeserving, but Love nevertheless insists he enter in all his unworthiness.

“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

He ultimately accepts Christian mercy and grace, eating from Love’s perfect bounty even with the understanding that he’s better suited to serve than to partake.

We read from “The Collar,” in which the speaker, a minister quite like Herbert himself, stubbornly claims, “No more! I will abroad!”

He lists reasons to give up his place in the church – he has freedom to do whatever he likes, after all. Any religious obligations keeping him from celebration, gluttony, and happiness merely bind him with “ropes of sand” he has constructed for himself. His frustration is tangible and familiar. Our professor choked up as he read the last lines:

“But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild

At every word,

Methought I heard one calling, Child!

And I replied My Lord.

Our Lord calls out for us, even in our greatest moments of weakness, reminding us of our own fierce loyalty through the sharp and unexpected weight of His fatherly words. Many of us sitting in the classroom wept when we realized the immense implications of this poem, connecting George Herbert’s 17th-Century struggles to our young Mormon lives only beginning to grasp the eternal importance of doubt and spiritual tension.

This is the first time it happened.

When I realized that the “philosophies of man” could be as valuable as the scriptures I believe come from prophets of God. Even as I recalled a handful of youth firesides urging me to look in the scriptures for truth since it couldn’t possibly be found anywhere else in its purest form, even as I remembered countless General Conference talks warning me to avoid things “of the world,” I fell in love with this metaphysical poet who lacks a single mention in my church’s teachings. I looked to George Herbert for depth of Christian understanding I hadn’t known before, and he delivered.

I’ve spent over three years studying English now, and the role of literature in my faith journey has only amplified. I question if I’m wrong for choosing to memorize entire pages of devotional poetry without ever having the slightest desire to revisit scripture mastery. I wonder if turning to Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Supernatural Love” to learn of Christ’s atonement is as religiously responsible as consulting Paul. Am I a bad Mormon for preferring Anne Lamott’s personal essays over anything Boyd K. Packer ever said? Maybe don’t answer that.

I do not know if basing much of my testimony on these “words of men” makes it less valuable in the eyes of God. I do know that it’s kept me firmly Christian in a world of postmodern thought that isn’t always conducive to sincere devotion. My professors have taught me to value wonder and awe; to read as far back as the medieval period and as recent as two years ago to embrace the inherent value of humanity – the wealth found in each of our stories, ripe for the picking.

And I wonder, is man not God’s greatest creation, as we are taught in Genesis? Are the talents bestowed upon our minds and lips not perfect examples of the power of His hands – scorching each of our tongues, like He did Isaiah’s, to preach His will and fortify the earth with our human words?

Reading godly, faith-affirming works written by men and women as woefully imperfect as I am gives me hope that our stories, words, and experiences mean something; that we live on this earth to learn from each other and share our stories just as the prophets of old shared their stories with us.

If I truly believe in a living gospel, it seems necessary that I also believe that the words of modern men, even non-prophets, (even non-Mormons!) carry meaning. If I want to believe in a Savior who loves women as much as He loves men – and God knows I do – I better believe that women’s stories matter just as much as Adam’s, King David’s, and Nephi’s; that those unwritten narratives so obviously missing from our scriptures can still be composed today and forever.

I find myself enraptured by words on a daily basis, and those words aren’t usually from sources endorsed by the LDS faith. It might be an especially poignant New York Times article or a poem I return to again and again. Sometimes it is the words of Christ from the New Testament, or one of my favorite bits of the Book of Mormon, but I have to admit I’m most likely to swoon when reading ordinary stories of ordinary people. Commonalities, in the end, show me grace in a way improbably large arks and vomiting whales probably never will.

Even now, as I reread poems from Louise Glück’s modern devotional text, Wild Iris, I feel God. I reach a fuller understanding of the nature of my Heavenly Parents, and love them more for it.The richness of thought I find outside the constraints of my religion breath life into my long-held beliefs, and I am made stronger in my faith.

You couldn’t pay any Mormon I know to claim the following words as doctrine, but nevertheless, they have changed me:

“You were always very young children,
always waiting for a story.
And I’d been through it all too many times;
I was tired of telling stories.
So I gave you the pencil and paper.
I gave you pens made of reeds
I had gathered myself, afternoons in the dense meadows.
I told you, write your own story.

. . .

You will never know how deeply

it pleases me to see you sitting there
like independent beings,
to see you dreaming by the open window,
holding the pencils I gave you
until the summer morning disappears into writing.Creation has brought you
great excitement, as I knew it would,
as it does in the beginning.
And I am free to do as I please now,
to attend to other things, in confidence
you have no need of me anymore.”

Maybe I’m beginning to believe in a God who’s left us on this Earth to learn from each other through the imperfect lens of human creativity. A God who loves us so much that He’s willing to watch us suffer as we attempt to reach glory independently through Christ. A God who speaks to us through signs we can never fully understand, whose compassion transcends all that we know. A God who has bestowed us with pencils made of reeds he gathered Himself.

I didn’t know this God before sitting in that London Centre classroom, realizing the intense spiritual thrust found in devotional poetry. I didn’t know Him before reading hundreds of poems, and sitting through hundreds of lectures and class discussions. I don’t hear about Him at church, and He’s rarely mentioned in the scriptures. He was missing at those youth firesides, and I’m not sure he’s ever come up during General Conference.

Even so, I believe.

I find him in stories; Mormon stories, Catholic stories, Jewish stories, Muslim stories. Books, poems, essays, articles, and blog posts. I find him as I write my own words, and feel Him when I tutor writers just learning to wield their God-given pencils with any confidence. I find Him in beautiful music and days spent among trees, those precious weeks when the daffodils bloom and I first note the sweet smell of honeysuckle as I pass by on the sidewalk.

My God does not limit His influence to visitations in sacred groves or dramatic burning bushes. He speaks to me through nature, through the kindnesses of others, and through the human lips he formed in the beginning. He knowingly blessed us with bodies that can speak and write; vessels inscribed with a burning desire to share, learn, and know. He’s given us the best of tools, and we are expected to use them fruitfully.

We must fervently quit bemoaning “the world” and the “philosophies of men.” I’d like to see a future when we teach Mormon youth to read widely and deeply, to seek God in unexpected places and learn to distinguish truth from deceit by consuming generous portions of each. I want to teach the youth of the church not to fear the views of outsiders, but to internalize them and empathize with them until the dichotomy no longer exists. I’d like to encourage scripture-reading, but also Shakespeare-reading, Beethoven-listening, and all sorts of poetry-memorizing. It will make us better people.

Maybe my ideal collection of Saints consists entirely of English majors. I understand why this could be problematic. But as I think back to that day in London, I remember that I was only one of two English students in the bunch, and an inexperienced one at that. I witnessed fashion design majors, communications majors, dance majors, and nursing majors feel the weight of Herbert’s devotion, and I truly believe that if properly exposed, we all can.

Now here’s the big question: when are they finally going to let English professors rewrite the Sunday school manuals? I’m waiting. Until that blessed day comes, I’ll gladly continue filling in the gaps by myself, and spilling my humanities-loving soul onto anyone who cares enough to listen. I may be insufferable, but at least I can recite some pretty decent poetry.

 

On Turning 22: MY YEAR OF TERROR (and melodramatic blog posts)

“What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one, when she must decide who she will be, is simply the terror of growing up – growing up, as women were not permitted to grow before? What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one is the terror of freedom to decide her own life, with no one to order which path she will take, the freedom and the necessity to take paths women before were not able to take?”

-Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique 

February birthdays are complicated. On one hand, it’s your birthday, and that’s great. On the other, it’s February, and that sucks.

I still remember going to Young Women’s on my sixteenth birthday. My leaders prepared an elaborate birthday ritual where I would lie on the floor, mouth wide open, while my peers dropped cookie dough onto my face. (If you ever thought Mormons might be a little weird, you have no idea.)

I’m not saying this wasn’t a fabulous tradition. I love cookie dough and absurdity as much as anyone, but that day I wasn’t having fun. I knew I was supposed to be having fun – after all, what kind of lunatic isn’t happy on her own birthday? – but truthfully, I felt numb, and a little tired.

Once I grew up ever-so-slightly and developed emotional self-awareness, I realized that this is just what February is for me. Cold. Dark. Frustrating. Depressing. Overwhelming. Scary. Blah.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love my birthday! I love my birthday. I just happen to be in a dark, contemplative, melancholic mood every time I blow out the candles. Not even complaining.

One perk of being melancholic and reflective is that I get the chance to evaluate the past year and realize how much I’ve changed and grown. Betty Friedan was onto something when she wrote about the terror of being 21 – it’s a big and intense year of realizations and goal-making, but I think I made it out all right.

For the sake of remembrance, here’s my grand list of 21 Important Things I Did While 21:

  1. I grew approximately 600% more cynical, which I honestly had no idea was even possible. (Thank you, Trump election)
  2. I deleted all dating apps from my phone. I have more important things to be doing and no desire to meet my eternal companion via OkCupid.
  3. I purchased beer on four separate occasions and made some fabulous steak and ale pies. There are definite perks to being legal, even when you’re perpetually sober.
  4. I learned to love my body, at any time, at any size, no matter what. I find that this mindset is objectively better than any of the alternatives, and suggest you try it out.
  5. I decided to go to grad school. And got so ready for it! Then realized I have to wait over a year before I finish my BA, even though I’m so over it. (Senioritis is real)
  6. I decided I really needed a husband, then decided I never wanted a husband, then decided that actually I kind of want a husband. What can I say? Maybe some fishes just want a bicycle.
  7. I called myself a feminist for the first time and things are going GREAT. Grrrl power, women’s rights are human rights, smash the patriarchy, etc. etc.
  8. I voted. Not much more to say there.
  9. I made some new friends. I love them. They make this world a better place.
  10. I became comfortable having conversations with actual grown adults. I have no idea where this superpower came from, but it’s real and I’m just going to go with it.
  11. I rode a bike on the beach in the sun with my hair flapping in the wind.
  12. I grew that hair out and stopped using soap-based shampoos and turned into a dirty hippy with fabulous product-free hair.
  13. I got a new job helping people write stuff. Turns out, I greatly prefer this to helping people eat stuff.
  14. I got on Instagram.
  15. I stayed up all night writing a paper after finishing a 17-hour day on campus during which I completed a 4-hour shift at work, a research paper, and a three-hour test, then worked another morning shift and somehow spoke coherently at a final presentation that didn’t finish until 3pm. I think this counts as winning college.
  16.  I read lots of books.
  17. I established a book club in which to discuss said books, and to my great surprise, people are actually showing up.
  18. I decided I would unapologetically make Mormonism work for me. Still trying, will always still be trying, but I’m generally happy church-wise, even when church is hard.
  19. I wrote some essays and realized that I really like writing essays. If writing essays was a person, I’d choose him as my bicycle.
  20. I watched lots of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah, because for some reason the best American political commentary these days comes straight from the Commonwealth. I try not to think too hard about that.
  21. I planned my second trip to the Commonwealth, specifically the British part, and CANNOT WAIT to hike 200 miles and write some things in that green and pleasant land. It can be hard to be in America these days. God save the Queen.

My birthday this year was actually great. I was happy. No one dropped cookie dough on my face. I fled to St. George and spent a relaxing weekend with people I love. We ate cupcakes and I Skyped with my family, cat included. I felt very loved. The next day we drove to Vegas mostly for the food and change of scenery (we’re not big on strippers), and ended up seeing several topless showgirls on the streets anyway. I tried goat for the first time, ate a giant slice of pizza, got kicked out of a bar, and watched a massive praying mantis sculpture shoot flames. On Sunday we hiked in the red rocks and did sun salutations on a mountain BECAUSE THE SUN WAS ACTUALLY THERE. It was all wonderfully surprising and surprisingly wonderful.

So far, given that it’s definitely February and my brain still can’t quite decide how it wants to feel, 22 is looking pretty good.

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Goodbye, Social Anxiety: How I Finally Learned to Speak Up

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Pictured: not giving a crap anymore. Also, lipstick. 

Until recently, staying nervously silent as often as possible was one of the main goals of my day-to-day existence. You could say I come by the trait honestly.

In one of my first memories of social frustration, I was three years old and a store clerk at Albertson’s tried getting me to talk to him. The little girl in front of me in line giggled and told him all about her recent vacation, and I cringed at her foolish, cutesy behavior. When the clerk asked me how I was doing, I just stared, blankly, from my seat in front of the cart, mastering RBF before I even knew what that was. My emerging sass melded nicely with the well-established shyness, and a legacy was born.

By the time I started school, things got weirder. The first half of the year, I hardly talked to anyone, especially the teacher. She’d bring it up in parent-teacher conferences and my Mom would come home asking why I never talked. By the second half of the year no one could get me to shut up around my friends, but I still hesitated every time I had to say anything to a teacher. Authority, especially attached to people I admired, brought out a piercing fear of failure I’m STILL trying to combat.

Entering the Young Women’s program as a 12-year-old was a bit of a nightmare. I knew I was supposed to be having fun, but couldn’t believe I was expected to function around all the cool, angsty older girls I’d known my whole life. Nothing scared 12-year-old me more than 16-year-olds with boyfriends who went to seminary and stake dances. I showed up to just about every activity but hardly spoke for the first few years. Luckily, some excellent leaders, the entire premise of girls’ camp, and an extroverted best friend helped me through the later stretches of the church youth program, but my struggles with socializing were far from over.

In high school I met my closest friends during freshman year band camp, and didn’t stray much from that group. Honestly, I chose my friends based on how equally-unpopular they were, which is actually fabulous advice for high school students. My fellow uncool friends, to this day, are some of the loveliest people I know, AND I never even came close to confronting the sex-and-drugs variety of peer pressure. We, collectively, had no idea how to obtain either.

One friend I made later in high school, also a band child who’d moved in before the start of Junior year, told me that she thought I disliked her because I’d never have actual conversations with her in our first class together. She’d try and engage with me, I’d reply with the required number of pleasantries and perhaps a bit of nervous laughter, and promptly walk away. Because that’s just who I was. Once I realized how many mutual friends we had, things picked up and became decidedly less odd, but hearing her side of things forced me to wonder what was wrong with me for the first time.

I learned soon enough that staying quiet was a coping mechanism that prevented me from embarrassment, regret, and social rejection. If I didn’t say anything, the odds of saying something stupid or wrong were virtually zero. It seemed like a win-win to me.

Things didn’t get better in college. My professors, as much as I loved them, freaked me out even more than my high school teachers – they had doctorate degrees! And some of them had written real-life, actual books! Saxophone lessons were weekly one-on-one anxiety sessions. I dreaded introductory small talk with my peers. I could get into decent conversations with my roommates and coworkers, but the ever-present nature of those relationships hardly gave me a choice. In most public spaces – church, classrooms, the universe at large – I aimed for the path of least resistance. For me, that meant silence.

My first creative writing teacher – a young, tall, dark-haired, super smart, married-with-a-baby, glasses-wearing, vegan, feminist grad student – terrified me. I loved her, wanted to be her someday, and felt entirely unworthy in her presence. I could hardly get a word out when picking up assignments from her after class. To this day I’m sure she has no idea the kind of impact she had on me, because that’s not something I could ever tell her. She was far too cool – I couldn’t even imagine forming a meaningful student-instructor relationship with her.

Soon after I started realizing how frustrating some of my tendencies were. Why did I constantly fear raising my hand in class? Why did sending professors practical emails result in instant, foreboding regret? Why did my heart race every time I had to make a phone call to someone I didn’t know? Why did I label soooo many people as “cooler” and therefore not worth talking to? Why did I over-analyze every tiny moment of awkwardness for weeks – EVEN YEARS – after they occurred? Why did I assume most people disliked me?

The funny thing about social anxiety is that once you acknowledge its existence, it’s hard to give it much power. When I realized my lack of self-confidence – a bigger problem than occasional shyness – was keeping me from making meaningful connections, I knew change was in order. I had to learn to love myself, and acknowledge that even if other people didn’t love me, that was none of my business, and nothing I should take too seriously.

The diagnostic work began.

For a spell, I did actually try fitting into the dominant culture here in Provo. Freshman year I attended FHE, every single’s ward activity, game nights with our neighbors, gruelingly-awkward blind group dates. Though I tried convincing myself I was having ~tons of fun~, that fantasy didn’t last long. I hated the constant pressure to date, the fakeness of people trying to befriend the quiet girl out of Christian obligation, the awkward home teaching appointments. I realized pretty quickly that socializing, if done right, shouldn’t be deeply uncomfortable.

As it turns out, the single’s ward is not the greatest place for me. I tried to make it work and I still attend regularly, but I’m beginning to learn that any real sense of belonging will likely only exist outside the bounds of Sunday school, and that’s okay. For me, gaining control of my anxiety meant realizing that maybe I wasn’t always the problem, that maybe YSA church activities would never feel especially fun and that I simply hadn’t found my place yet.

I studied abroad sophomore year and learned that professors – even the amazing ones – are, in fact, people. They have families and friends, do laundry, eat Nutella by the spoonful at night time, wear pajamas, and have grouchy days. I was surprised to learn that they actually like conversing with their dedicated students, sharing their knowledge and showing them beautiful British places. It was the first time I could semi-comfortably talk with my superiors, it felt great, and I realized how much I could gain by leaving my silent comfort zone.

After coming back to the anxiety cesspool that is Provo, I took another creative writing class from a lovely man who had written an essay I studied in the previous course. To me, he was famous, and that didn’t even scare me. I engaged fully with the workshopping process, submitting mediocre essays and learning not to freak out when my classmates discussed my work. I eventually learned to love the undivided attention (crazy, I know), and enjoyed offering tips to fellow writers when their turns came. My professor helped me realize my potential, encouraged me to develop my skills, and still assists me in figuring out my journey to grad school and beyond. If I had let his success intimidate me, none of that could have happened. Learning from his expertise, far from of reminding me of my own inadequacy, helped me realize who I could potentially be someday, and that is AMAZING.

These days, when I meet authoritative figures/potential role models, I don’t cower in unworthy fear. Instead, I wonder what I can learn from them. How can their awesomeness turn me into a better person? How can I get to know them and learn from their ample experience? It’s a pretty exciting prospect, and I think it has turned me into a better, kinder, more thoughtful person.

I found happy spaces. I have English major friends now. I took a seriously life-altering women’s literature course (which yes, I think I mention in just about every recent blog post, and I’m not even socially anxious enough to care about sounding too enthusiastic). I met new friends who love books and women, two of my favorite things as of late, and hate Donald Trump, which is great and deserves no comment beyond that.

I’m registered for the Women’s Studies colloquium, and love surrounding myself with women’s studies minors who care about the things I care about, learning about amazing, admirable women doing good work in this world. I’m interning at the writing center, and learning how to connect with students who can benefit from my help has been a great experience. Making money doing something that isn’t horribly stressful has also turned out wonderfully.

I’m also learning that my peers – even the scary-competent ones – are actually great people going through the same things as I am. They don’t, as far as I know, think I’m a huge loser. After attending a previous classmate’s book club, I told her how much I enjoyed it. I explained how bad I am at attending gatherings alone, especially when I don’t know anyone well, and that I was glad I ended up going.

To that, she responded, “No worries! You’re one of us,” and I kind of melted. Was I REALLY one of them? I’m still not sure. As far as the anxious bit of my brain knows, they’re all more successful, normal-er, cooler people than me. Fortunately, the critical-thinking part of my brain has gained traction lately, and tells me that as long as I’m here and they’re willing, I might as well join them.

I find myself now with a post-anxiety high. I want to make up for lost time and befriend everyone. It’s kind of freaking me out. Now that I’ve started talking, I literally have no idea when to shut up. I find it both horrifying and hilarious, and overall empowering.

I’ve learned that maybe, possibly, I’m allowed to sincerely believe people when they compliment me. That maybe they aren’t only saying nice things to hide the fact that they dislike me. At the very least, they care enough to make something up, and want me to feel good about myself, and maybe I should; I’m certainly not hurting anyone by dropping the self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still as introverted as ever. I delight every time I come home to an empty apartment, and I love an occasional home-bound weekend. I love books and the internet and by-myself writing time. Everything about this social journey exhausts me, but it doesn’t scare me anymore. I’ve learned that interacting with other people is far less worrisome than I’d always assumed, and that choosing to love them unapologetically instead of fearing everything about them is a much healthier way of approaching this world.

I’m still not perfect. Who’s to say this will last? Maybe I’m only experiencing a small moment of grace, and those old insecurities threaten to return at any time. The future is obviously a giant black hole of not knowing, but for now I’m choosing to go with it. Maybe, if I can commit to this beautiful goal of never shutting up again, I can convince even the quietest of girls that her voice is, in fact, worth something – that we, as people, are born with the right to speak.

To The Thin Person I’m (not) Supposed to Be

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Built like a brick (and ultra stylish) since 2006. 

A few months ago I listened to one of those episodes of This American Life.

If you’re familiar with the podcast, you might know what I’m talking about. It was the kind of episode that makes you simultaneously want to laugh, cry, punch someone in the face, and hug your friends. The kind with a message that sticks in your brain and will likely change the way you view just about everything (thank you, NPR).

In it, Lindy West – whose new book I’m dying to read – describes her life as a fat girl and the steps she’s taken to own her identity in a world uncomfortable accepting her body as it is. She courageously says what many fat people wish we could have said all along: she’s here, she’s fat, and she’s done trying to change it.

“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state,” she says with a tone of playful disbelief. “You’re just a thin person who’s been failing consistently for your whole life.”

When I heard that, I laughed. And something clicked: she was absolutely right. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be thinner – not necessarily because I wanted to improve my health, but because I wanted my body to reflect normalcy; to be “correct,” and not a sign of ineptitude. I felt that the way my body looks – and honestly, has always looked – was a mistake I’m responsible for fixing. Neglecting to put forth extensive effort means I’m doing something wrong, that I’ll never be as valuable as those people in the weight-loss ads on TV.

And you know what? That’s garbage! It’s as garbage as saying my blue eyes are inferior and I need to do everything possible to turn them brown, or that my toes are too short so I better make a New Year’s resolution to lengthen them. It’s laughably ridiculous.

Because even if I lose fifty pounds, fatness and my body will always go hand in hand. I could train to run a marathon, go vegan, do any number of miserable things I’d probably hate, but I don’t think anything could change my wide-set shoulders, brawny biceps, chunky calves, or childbearing hips.

I’m finally learning that I’m a large person, I am female, and it’s totally okay to be both of those things. Taking up space is not something to be self-conscious about. My tummy is my business. I shouldn’t have to defend myself for weighing more than a BMI chart says I should.

I was born five weeks premature and still weighed nearly seven pounds, bigger than many full-term babies. Growing up, I was always the tallest, and usually the chunkiest kid in class. Sure, it was weird and alienating at times (every fat kid has their own set of baggage), but it’s who I am. It’s what my body is. There’s literally no sense in moralizing it one way or another.

And let me be clear: this isn’t about healthy eating and exercise. Those things are great, important, even necessary habits. They benefit mental health and physical well-being, both of which are things I strive for. There have been times in my life where those goals are somewhat attainable. There have been other times that they just weren’t going to happen. THAT IS OKAY, AND NOT A REFLECTION OF MY VALUE AS A PERSON.

Sure, we’d all be healthier if we ate more plants and less sugar, but it’s not my job to decide if someone is eating incorrect foods or not. I know enough thin people who live off of cheese and pop-tarts and enough fat people who do run marathons to understand the nuance of the so-called “obesity epidemic” in this country.

Why don’t we just start approaching weight pragmatically? If you eat fewer calories and spend more time on your feet, you’ll likely be thinner, because that’s how human physiology works. If your life is in a place where those things aren’t possible or you have more pressing matters to worry about, you’ll weigh more. That’s it. No need to moralize things. No need to assume every fat person you meet is lazy, stupid, or dirty. Unless you’re a diamond or a literal piece of meat, size does not reflect value.

I’ve had to tell myself that a lot lately. Since Thanksgiving weekend I’ve gained ten pounds. With the stress of finals and the following three weeks of lazing around at home eating Christmas treats, my body has responded by gaining back 10 of the 25 pounds I lost last semester due to my busy, on-my-feet, occasional meal-skipping lifestyle.

To that I say, so what? Soon I’ll be back to the real world and dropping weight again, but I shouldn’t feel anxiously inadequate until I reach my previous low. I don’t have time to worry about those things.

Starting in May I’ll be hiking 200 miles over the course of seven weeks, and likely a hundred more after that. It’s likely I’ll lose lots of weight. It will be marvelously fun, and I’m sure I’ll feel great. But guess what? I’m not expecting to keep up that kind of activity level once I’m back to the daily grind, writing papers and reading books and working a desk job. I might try and incorporate more healthy habits, and I hope I do, but the fact is, I’ll likely never stay as thin as I’m sure to be immediately post study-abroad. THAT IS OKAY.

How about we love our bodies for being our bodies? They change sometimes – for some of us, quite often. This is not something to freak out about. In fact, it’s something we should cherish. Our bodies, in so many ways, reflect the lives they live. That can be a truly beautiful thing if we let it be a beautiful thing and not a dark force rooted in horror and discomfort.

I would like to insist, if not shout from the rooftops, that we need to love our bodies even when they weigh more than we want them to. When they’re sick and keeping us from living the lives we wish we had. When they trip and fall, literally and figuratively. When they’re trapped in addiction, self-destruction, unimaginable anguish. Without body love, there’s no hope of getting past any of those mortal struggles. Believe me: it’s ridiculously hard, if not impossible, to value and care for something you despise.

After all, if you’ve been taught your whole life that your body marks your own failure, why on earth would you be motivated to change it? Why would you put in the effort to keep it healthy with wholesome meals and daily physical activity if you’re convinced that no matter what you do, it can never be enough?

When we eat salad, we should do it because we like eating salad, and it makes us feel good. When we forego donut number two, it shouldn’t be because we want to fit into a dress five sizes too small; it should be because we don’t want the sugar crash two hours later. When we go for a run, it should be because we love our bodies and the things that they can do, regardless of how much faster or stronger our neighbors might be.

If you’re exercising everyday because you hate your body, the habit won’t last. In that state, even losing a tremendous amount of weight can only result in temporary happiness – it will only be a matter of time until those lingering feelings of inadequacy return, either in response to nearly-inevitable weight regain or that always-inevitable plateau.

We need to stop this way of thinking! It’s time we cut ourselves a break. Not when we lose the weight. Not when we feel like we’ve met every one of our lifestyle goals. Now!

It’s time to stop whining about things we probably can’t change, and start treating ourselves the way we would treat our make-believe, skinny alter-egos. In making healthy lifestyle choices without setting an explicit goal of trimming down, we might accidentally lose weight. We might not. I’m telling you now, it really shouldn’t matter.

I know that there are times it feels like it matters. That employers are judgmental and most men find fat unattractive. That straight-size stores rarely carry anything larger than a 12. But next time you’re at a store without a single piece of clothing that fits, don’t get mad at yourself for failing to fit into the arbitrary mold the business has made for you; get mad at the fashion industry for being so narrow-minded, and spend your money elsewhere! Date where you can, and know that it’s their loss if they can’t accept the way you look. Exude the confidence of that imaginary, thin self, and never look back. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.

And I get it. Learning to love something you’ve been taught to hate can be hard. Brussels sprouts come to mind. Personally, I love me some sprouts no matter how unpopular of a vegetable they are. I could hear a hundred “Brussels sprouts are gross” jokes on television or in magazines, and still love them with as much enthusiasm as I do now, because I decided years ago that they’re good, nutritious, tasty little cabbages that make my life objectively better.

The same goes for my body. I can watch TV shows that make fun of fat people (which, to be clear, I avoid like the plague), I can spend all day hearing about the hangups society has regarding female bodies. I could obsess over every offhand remark about large women I happen to hear in public spaces. I could give into that discomfort I’m supposedly meant to feel on several levels as part of my birthright. But I won’t.

I won’t let the fact that my body weighs more than most of my friends’ bodies get me down. I’ll stay away from influences that tell me my body is gross or unworthy of pleasure or love or acceptance. I’ll embrace my womanhood – my fat womanhood – like I embrace Brussels sprouts. I’ll choose to savor it, to doctor it up with bacon and balsamic vinegar, to roast it until its caramelized and delicious, to do everything I need to do to make it palatable, until I don’t even question my undying self-love; it will simply be another beautiful, amazing, worthwhile part of my being.

Because guess what, skinny alter-ego? You’re not real. It’s time I stop pretending that you are. This January, I choose both healthful living and body acceptance.

In the wise words of fat superhero Lindy West, “Why not try to figure out how to be happy now?”

Guess Who’s Going to Grad School

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This is a plate of fish and chips; just one of many passions I’ve accidentally developed in the past few years.

When I first declared an English major, my future prospects were a bit dicey.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I had no actual goals. I liked reading, and I liked writing. I had even started embracing literary criticism by that point. Therefore, English major! The logic was sound, if not entirely well thought out.

The humanities adviser I met with asked what I planned on doing with my proposed degree. Before I could answer (as if I could answer), she told me I better not be considering professorship. There simply weren’t any jobs, and grad school, unless attached to some lucrative field, would only be an expensive waste of time.

Huh.

Well, I believed her. I believed her, and answered her question with a big “I-dunno-maybe-teaching” and a tentative, “Also, I want kids?”

Turns out, I’ve been plagued with a disease known in Provo as “Terminal Lack of Husband.” I’m learning to live with it, surround myself with fellow sufferers, and quite often view it as a convenience, but needless to say, some plans are more immediately accessible than others.

As luck would have it, I’ve also come down with a case of “It’s 2016 and Women Can Work,” so figuring out a real career path has become a major theme in my life this past year.

First, I decided to actually become a teacher, instead of just telling people it was something I might do. As early as elementary school, my teachers were some of my favorite people. They taught me to love books, that writing was cool, that opinions are important. My middle school English teachers taught me to view literature as an art form, and my high school English teachers helped me learn to think critically and understand ~fun~ things like nuance and ambiguity. They helped me realize all I could be, and I found myself wanting to pay it forward and become a middle school English teacher with the best of them.

Then lots of . . . things . . . happened.

First, I realized some flaws in my plan. Namely, I don’t even know if I like children, especially middle-school aged ones. Maybe I do! But I’m nowhere near sure enough of my undying passion for educating 12-year-olds to devote the next several years of my life to it. I also chose middle school because I thought it would be easier to teach than high school. No idea where that thought came from, especially when I remember my own behavior as a seventh grader (in case you need to know, it was monstrous).

But the biggest problem came from another part of my reasoning. I wanted to become a teacher because I knew I could do it. There was no doubt there. I’d graduate, get a masters in teaching, and slide into a job at some underprivileged school, probably for the rest of my life. Not that it would be easy – far from it – but I knew I wouldn’t be facing much resistance. We have a teacher shortage in this nation, after all.

To clarify, there is no shame in choosing a reasonable career path. That’s what my teachers did, and I love them! They’re some of the best people I know! But I don’t think choosing a job simply because it’s an attainable option is enough. I’m sure my especially-influential past teachers know that. It took me a while to know that, but I eventually realized that I can’t tie myself to a job on the basis of convenience, because I don’t think anything about being a middle school teacher is, in fact, convenient.

Other strange things happened, too.

I received my patriarchal blessing over the summer and, among the “normal” bits, I heard a lot about my future career. And I’m a girl! No one ever told me that God wanted me to get a job. I know He wants me to have babies – that’s something I seem to hear every. single. week. – but working? By divine design, not sad spinster necessity? This was news to me. Good, admittedly jarring, news.

Then I took the loveliest Women’s Literature class that ever was (it’s been verified), and drank from the opulent fountain of second-wave feminism. Betty Friedan sometimes had me scratching my head (her views on homosexuality are especially fun), but she encouraged me – in all her posthumous glory – to develop ambition. So I did. Babies or no babies, I would work outside my home! For my own sanity! Because Betty said so.

Literally days later, By Common Consent published a case study on BYU’s woman professor problem. The problem being, of course, that there aren’t any.

I mean, there are some. The English department has better representation than BYU as a whole, and I’ve had the pleasure of taking classes from five women. I’ll also admit that I’m way biased when registering for classes because learning about literature from highly intelligent, strong female role models happens to be a favorite pastime of mine, which is one of the reasons I care so much about this issue of female representation. Based on what I’ve heard from my professors, it’s not simply a matter of gender discrimination in hiring practices; it’s that qualified women rarely enter BYU’s applicant pool. Very few LDS women pursue advanced degrees, and that translates to very few LDS women on faculty at ~the Lord’s university~.

In response to this problem, the English department put together a Q&A panel on women in academia featuring professors with a wide array of specialties and personal lives. We heard from single women, one with young kids, some with older kids. They were honest about their struggles, the impossible quest of finding whatever “balance” is,  and told of their usually-unexpected journeys into doctorate programs. They talked about how much they loved their jobs, how every ridiculous moment of grad school was somehow worth it to them now.

I left that panel excited, inspired, and terrified. Was this really happening? Was professorship starting to sound like a real option? TO ME?

I’ve never been that perfectionist, straight-A English student destined for academia. I don’t think I had ever heard of literary criticism before my intro to literary theory class freshman year, which hardly interested me at the time. My research papers are usually in the A- range, far from perfect. My analytical papers are sometimes embarrassingly incorrect in their assumptions. Until recently, I hardly participated in class discussions. My passion for Britain, though real, did little to interest me in early American literature or psychoanalytical theory, and I’ve still never gotten through an Austen novel (I know, shame on me, don’t worry, I’m working on it). I didn’t engage myself with events put on by the English department. I worked in a labor-intensive on-campus job that kept me satisfied and my bank account suitably padded while doing little for my intellect. And I was happy! I was okay with my status as a slightly disinterested English major. Nothing pushed me to be any better, and I couldn’t be bothered to motivate myself, so things stayed comfortably mediocre.

It makes me think of Caedmon, one of my favorite medieval figures. He was a farmhand who hated singing, too occupied with his own clumsiness with words to ever participate in the passing of the harp during community gatherings. He preferred to hang out with the cows, and had little interest in doing much else. But then – of course – an angel of God happened to show up one night and forced him to become a poetic genius. He composed a hymn of the first creation, kind of under duress if we’re being honest, and St. Hild declared it a miracle and decided that Caedmon should join her order of Monks. So he did. And he composed other songs, and inspired everyone around him with words that, just years before, he couldn’t even fathom producing.

I don’t claim to be a poetic genius. I’m far from it. But I have been thinking a lot about Caedmon this semester, and I can begin to understand how he might have felt on his seemingly inevitable journey.

I’ve always craved control and power over my own destiny, but some of these ~weird happenings~ have reminded me that even the deepest of my passions are completely out of my hands.

So here I am. I found my voice in creative writing classes, especially in nonfiction. I added that class on a whim, not knowing it would have life-altering implications (isn’t that how things like that always go?). After a series of unforeseeable online events I reviewed a great book and was sort of accidentally exposed to a world of Thoughtfully Provocative Mormons Who Get Me.

I’ve started participating in class, and it sometimes terrifies me, but I love connecting with my classmates and professors in ways I never could before. Of course I say stupid things sometimes, but I suppose that’s all part of the process. As it turns out, playing the modern-day communal harp is not as bad as I thought it would be.

I’m reading books, writing about them, and loving them more than ever. Though I have never, ever, ever been the “take the initiative to establish social organizations” type, I’ve spent the past several days developing a feminist book club with over twenty members, who I will be inviting into my home on a monthly basis. If you told me even six weeks ago that I would tolerate something like that, let alone be ecstatic about it, I wouldn’t have believed you. THIS IS ALL NEW TO ME.

I started losing patience with my job. While just months ago I considered culinary school, spending years of my life cooking for strangers has recently begun feeling off, if not completely unappealing. I applied to work in the Writing Center and will start my internship there next month. By April, I’ll be saying my final goodbyes to life in a kitchen, and that prospect doesn’t terrify me.

I’m entering essay contests, sometimes with exciting results. I’m attending another study abroad this spring, this time armed with new, cultivated passions for England, literature, and writing.

I’ve also decided what I’ll be doing with my English degree.

I’d made my unofficial decision several weeks before, but it started feeling real when I met with my creative writing mentor, Joey, just before Thanksgiving. He was conducting my exit interview for the creative writing minor capstone, and I knew my writing future would come up.

“What are you planning on doing after graduation, and how will your creative writing experience help you?” he read from a form, casual-serious, because that’s who he is and I love it. None of this, “Don’t even think about grad school,” drivel I’d heard almost two years earlier.

“I’ll be applying to the MFA program in creative nonfiction. I’ll also check out other schools, but I would like to stay at BYU if I can.”

Yep. Staying at BYU. For AT LEAST another two years. Madness. But also, not really. By some miracle – and I do not use that term lightly – BYU no longer feels like an oppressive cage too occupied with hemlines and beards. I mean, it totally still is those things, but somehow fate has carved me a happy, safe, empowering place within its walls, and I guess I’m going to go with it. It doesn’t even feel like a difficult choice at this point.

Joey and I talked about my future. I even uttered the dreaded P-word (not the Donald Trump one, but the one that humanities advisers hate, that thing that sometimes comes after an MFA: PhD), and he was completely encouraging. I told him I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get a doctorate degree, but that I thought a masters would be a good in-between step to help me gauge my interest in academia and improve my writing. He agreed, and gave me resources to research other schools, told me about writers conferences I should consider, and offered me a spot in his graduate nonfiction workshop next semester, which I regretfully had to decline due to scheduling conflicts (even though the prospect was a dream come true – just another reminder that this really is what I should be doing).

I guess sometimes, you need to be told that crazy-unreasonable options reviled by the establishment are still options. It’s particularly surprising when instead of arriving clearly through words or concrete experiences, that telling creeps in from a glowing muddle of slowly progressing self-realization . . . but I’ll take it.

I can’t be certain ANY of this will work out like I hope, and if past experience tells me anything it’s to expect the unexpected, but finally having goals feels amazing. This newfound ability to ignore things that used to be major hurdles – Mormon gender expectations, introversion, crippling dispassion – is empowering, and I choose to see God in it. Amidst all this inspirational life-affirming madness, I’ve learned that during this phase of my spiritual development, faith is all about acknowledging God’s hand where others might see fate, chance, karma, good luck, neurosis, whatever.

Maybe it’s crazy to say that I see God in my sudden aversion to peeling potatoes, or my compulsive urge to gather feminists into small spaces for my own pleasure, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. I assume God wants me to figure out what I’m meant to be, and I have a feeling that grad school, perhaps to that humanities adviser’s horror, will help me get there.

So watch out, world. Some unspecified time in 2018, I’ll be applying to do the very thing I was warned against: going into even more debt to go to even more school. (I was never very good at listening to oppressive authority figures, anyway).

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Know what those binoculars are for? Seeking out future opportunities. #bam

 

How BYU Turned Me Kinda Leftist (and kept me very Mormon)

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Proof that I actually go here and I’m not making any of this up.

Oh, BYU.

I catch myself saying that often. It’s not usually meant in a positive way, but the slight ambiguity is fitting.

Oh, BYU, with your beard ban and lack of caffeinated soda. Your insistence that there isn’t a demand is laughable – here I am, demanding Diet Dr. Pepper and beards, yet the vending machines still won’t deliver that sweet, sweet nectar of energy and wayyy too many men sport terrifying mustaches because for some reason those are still allowed and all that hyper-masculine hair growing energy has to go somewhere. What gives? Am I not demanding loudly enough?

Oh, BYU, and your requirement of 14 religion credits. The first three classes I took were an absolute joy, and I mean that. But they’re not all so fabulous, and fourteen credits is a lot to ask for when you’re not, you know, actually minoring in theology. There’s a pretty clear reason it takes most of us longer than four years to graduate. Just putting that out there, in case you’re listening and ever want me out of here.

Oh, BYU, and your football obsession. I’ve tried to understand, but I just don’t get it. We’re a school. It’d be cool if our funding – ahem, tithing money? – were to go to academically relevant areas. Like maybe not a fancy new basketball court, and more subsidized study abroad programs? Maybe not several free meals per day for athletes, and maybe more need-based scholarships? Heh? Maybe? Am I wrong here?

Oh, BYU, and whatever on earth was happening with the Title IX office before a few months ago. Really? How was this a thing? I think I speak for most people when I say, “Good heavens, I’m glad you fixed that.”

But I’ve learned since coming here that BYU is more than the sum of its wacky policies, frustrating honor code wordings, weird academic requirements, and sports obsession.

On several occasions, it’s acted as a sanctuary that helps me through particularly vulnerable moments. It’s been a gentle – and sometimes not so gentle – reminder that my crazy Mormon church is made up of all sorts of wackos, some of whom I happen to love and agree with, and some of whom I’m still trying to love and will never agree with. It’s a constant struggle, really, but I’m grateful for it.

It’s also important to discern between BYU administration and BYU faculty. I have almost nothing to do with administration, thank God, and I spend a whole lot of time with faculty, which is how college is supposed to work. A fun secret is that many faculty members don’t really care too much about the honor code and other administrationy things beyond the plagiarism clause. They spend most of their time teaching important things more related to our learning and less related to our hemlines.

For example, the time my freshman year religion professor taught us a lesson in responsible politics. He told us that the previous year’s election had brought many students to his office asking for advice. They mainly expressed a lack of concern, saying they didn’t care about who won because regardless of the results their lives wouldn’t change. They realized their privilege, but did not know how to motivate themselves to look past it. My professor, in all his Jesus wisdom, told them to consider the poor and the disadvantaged. He encouraged them, and us, to learn about policies that would indeed effect people, millions of people, and weigh our decision in the way Christ would – which candidate would help those who need it the most? Of course, there are arguments to be made regarding both 2012 candidates, and he acknowledged that.

It was also abundantly clear to me that he must have voted for Obama, and that surprised me, and scared me a little. I didn’t know any Mormons who’d voted Democrat other than my brother, and even that made me feel weird. How could this man, who largely taught me the basis of my own spirituality, who spoke so much of light and truth, vote for someone as ~evil~ as Barack HUSSEIN Obama? (Yeah. I was one of those.)

That same semester, in the first English class I ever took, my professor – a divorced mother of five who returned to school for her PhD after her kids were mostly grown – taught me the basics of feminist and Marxist theory. Those words also scared me. She told us that soon after starting grad school, a man in her ward expressed concern for her choice of subject matter: “You’re not going to become one of those liberal feminists, are you?” he asked, because apparently that’s an appropriate thing to ask someone at church.

“Well,” she replied, “Let’s explore both of those terms. ‘Liberal’ essentially means freedom of thought. I definitely believe in that. So does God, otherwise He wouldn’t have given us our amazing brains. ‘Feminist’ means I believe women are people, equal to men and worthy of respect. No doubt I believe in that, too. I guess it’s too late – as it turns out, I’m already a liberal feminist. Whoops.”

I laughed, because it was true. Already, my oft-scandalized mind had started shifting in unexpected ways. I studied and loved Marxist theory – the idea that humans are fundamentally equal, and of value. I stuck my toes into feminism, and no longer felt ashamed for supporting ideas that once felt so radical and out of place in my church obsessed with gender roles. I acknowledged that my teenage obsession with Sarah Haskins’ Target Women YouTube videos and enthusiasm for demanding equality in gender-divided church youth programs did not come from a vacuum. I, too, was a feminist. It just took me a while to figure it out.

Learning about Judaism and Islam in another helpful religion class taught me to love people, even the people a lot of icky politicians are accusing of terrorism. I learned to understand and embrace some of their most beautiful teachings, to find holy envy for the Hajj tradition and the stories of Mohammed. I already loved the crap out of Jews, but learning about the intricacies of their faith and attending a synagogue for a shabbat service opened my mind and taught me to love my brothers and sisters of the Book more fully, and with greater sincerity.

I took many more English classes from a whole lot of democrats, Mormon intellectuals clearly intent on brainwashing me by making me read good books and talk about them. The devils! One of them got me super interested in medieval literature and England. She brought us vellum pages of notated chant, straight from a medieval monastery – I touched history in that class, and that’s when I began wholeheartedly loving the English major. She also openly criticized LDS culture in ways I had never heard – again, scary, uncomfortable, but ultimately fortuitous.

In addition to all that, she talked a lot about phallic symbols, and I started *gasp* really, really appreciating sexual jokes. Honestly, how could I not? If there’s anything funnier than a good double entendre, it’s a diehard Mormon sharing a double entendre with a class full of diehard Mormons, many of whom will never understand the second meaning. This, as it turns out, is one of my favorite parts of BYU. Sue me.

I happen to be taking a women’s literature class this semester, and we watched in collective horror and disbelief our country nominate Donald PUSSY-GRABBING Trump as president (Yeah. I’m one of those now). I’m no longer uncomfortable acknowledging that my favorite professors usually vote Democrat, because I kinda sorta count myself among them, ESPECIALLY this particular election cycle. In women’s lit we talk about feminism on the daily, read books with bad words and distressing too-realistic scenes of violence. We take on burdens not our own in an effort to foster radical, sometimes-uncomfortable empathy. We discuss the damage inherent in prescribing strict gender roles, institutional sexism, the race issue in relation to women’s issues, gender fluidity, body politics, beauty myths, and bodily insecurities. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but mostly it feels like a hug I never knew I needed until now. It’s given me newfound confidence and ambition, and has truly inspired me to know the power of my own voice, my own advocacy. I’m a woman, and it’s freaking fantastic. Without a doubt, the class has been an answer to many prayers.

And no, not every English professor at BYU is a bleeding-heart liberal feminist pro-LGBT unicorn. I have had some, well, at least one, who is very much none of those things, and I love him. He’s great. He has taught me true, important, mind-bending poetry things that no one else could teach me. Really. He’s a real gem – precious, valuable, and yes, rare.

What I’ve learned here is obviously not all about politics. The lesson I have gleaned – and it’s sometimes a refiner’s fire type of lesson – is that there is indeed room for all kinds of thinking in my largely conservative faith. I know now that it’s okay to ask questions. That engaging with doubt and intellectualism, rather than inciting godlessness and weakening testimonies, can shape us into stronger, happier members of the church. That understanding anti-Mormon thought is pivotal in embracing pro-Mormon thought with any confidence. That the “philosophies of man” so often disparaged over the pulpit can teach us far more about God than we might have ever realized as young, less-educated beings.

Because in high school, I didn’t get that. I left Seattle more right-leaning than I’ve ever been, and probably ever will be, largely because I didn’t know any out-and-proud Mormon liberals – it can be hard being an out-and-proud Mormon liberal. I learned most of what I knew from my loving and supportive Mormon parents, my church leaders, and agnostic, radical-to-me Democrats who taught my AP classes. There were also some Lutheran, Catholic, and nondenominational Democrats thrown in there who couldn’t teach using their religions as backdrops because, duh, public school.

Never did I have a Mormon teacher filling me with secular knowledge. Never did I have a secular knowledge teacher fill me with spiritually-pertinent religious knowledge. BYU melds all that crap into a big, enriching, sometimes-confusing soup, and it turns out that I really, really needed that.

I probably would have ended up an English major regardless of where I went to college. I would have learned feminism and Marxism and loads of history that puts contemporary thought into relatively-leftist perspective. I’d learn that same secular half of knowledge that I have now, and I assume I would have embraced it in very much the same way.

What I wouldn’t have is a network of professors willing to hear me ask questions about our church’s harsh public stances that sometimes directly counteract the beautiful things I’ve learned in English class – the warm, nuanced, lovely versions of Christianity I’ve embraced after studying Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Marilynne Robinson – all people with real, tangible relationships with the same God I worship, with history to back them up.

At virtually any other school, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit in office hours and and learn that most of my professors have the same concerns that I do – the same deep pits of hurt and confusion – but remain active, faithful members, hoping for change all the while. They offer me titles of good books to read to find comfort, remind me that I, like them, belong in this faith. They teach gospel doctrine classes in their wards, raise their families, pray each day, attend the temple worthily, vocally support gay rights, vote democrat, and write scholarly articles. BYU has drilled into my head over and over again in a way that cannot be coincidental that no two of these behaviors should ever contradict one another. If someone decides that they do, that’s their problem to deal with – not ours.

Each time I think to myself, “Can I really believe that a young boy talked to God, found golden plates in the woods, and translated them to establish an entire religious movement? Can I believe that ON TOP OF professing faith to a church that considers gay people apostates? Arghhh” I can counteract those doubting thoughts with the realization that pretty much all my awesome, super-smart professors find a way to believe that narrative while also disagreeing with whatever they want, and I can too. Of course, that’s nothing I can base my faith around entirely, but the support and examples of passionate, opinionated role models kept me cleaving unto the gospel during times that little else could.

Without BYU, I wouldn’t have Mormon biology professors teaching evolution, reminding me that God is crazy-miraculous and wicked smart in the way he created this stunning earth and the living creatures on it. I wouldn’t have a chance to learn of the feminine divine, the gender-bending nature of Jesus Christ Himself, my value as a faithful Christian with a passion for learning and questioning. I wouldn’t enter the classroom knowing that my professors, classmates, and I likely come from similar, peculiar backgrounds. I am a huge proponent of diversity, but I cannot overstate the value of maintaining Mormonism as a constant.

So, yes. Oh, BYU. Oh, BYU and your weird, behind-the-times policies, and the frustrations I’m sure I will keep finding all over the place. But also, oh, BYU, and your kind of miraculous ability to keep me in touch with God, regardless of how much fringy, liberal feminist theory I read. ‘Tis a wonderful, wonderful thing.

feministme

Pictured: a happy, hippie, left-of-center young Mormon lady. Single and occasionally ready to mingle. 

Obligatory Trump Election Post: We’re All Screwed, But at Least God Loves Us

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HILARIOUS. You missed a couple commas.

     Contrary to things I’ve read lately – mostly on social media and right-wing “news” sites – my liberal-arts education does not make me weak, feeble-minded, a slave to “triggers,” or ignorant of fact. I am not a thin-skinned child. I’m not particularly gullible. I like to think I’m not what you’d call elitist. I am simply a person privileged and motivated enough to attend college, and I happen to be thriving here.
     In my admittedly limited experience (I’m not quite through with my bachelor’s degree), my studies have allowed me to engage with empathy; to undergo moments of ideological discomfort and mold my worldview accordingly to fit within a greater moralistic perspective. Not everyone ends up on the same “side” as I have, or has reached the same conclusions, but I’ve come to believe that critical thinking skills acquired through education tend to enrich any perspective – spiritual, political, ideological, or otherwise.
     I have been taught my whole life that furthering my education in any way I can is good, even necessary, and I think I have seen evidence of that. It’s a shame to see so many deny and villainize education like they have – college is not for everyone, but we should all be seeking new opportunities to learn.
     As an English major, I am challenged with confronting the history of humanity from fifth-century England all the way to modern, race-torn America. I’ve read stories of peasants, aristocrats, slaves, rulers, urbanites, country folk, radicals. Stories that make me hurt, feel whole, learn both of God and godlessness. I am young and perhaps lacking wisdom, but my college experience has provided me with knowledge of the beauty, struggle, even sacredness found in all of human experience throughout the history of the English written word.
     Studying literature is about drawing meaning from the art form – the story, the poem, the manifesto – and learning to understand others of different times, different classes, different backgrounds, to apply those understandings to the way one approaches society. It has made me a better person. Recent studies even show that reading fiction has been proven to increase empathy. I couldn’t have known that when I decided on my major three years ago, but I have noted the benefits; all good things.
     But lately, I’ve been challenged to show empathy for fellow Americans who belittle college education, who do not understand why anyone would devote time and money to learning about words written hundreds of years ago when there is useful work to be done in this world. People who voted for someone who doesn’t read books, a man who refuses to foster empathy of his own. A man so self-obsessed that he cannot will himself toward honesty or acceptance of fault when faced with a reality that doesn’t necessarily appeal to his ego. I’m asked to show empathy for people who meet objectively factual statements with accusations that I’ve been brainwashed by the malignant mainstream media – these powerful contemporary voices of journalists whom I value, who foster charity and empathy, who certainly matter as individuals with worthwhile opinions, all disregarded as evil, manipulative leftists.
     As a Christian, it’s easy for me to acknowledge that no human is perfect. We’re all sinners, liable to mess up in unique ways, to make choices that do not best reflect who we should be as disciples. In acknowledging these human shortcomings, we believe in a Redeemer who atoned for them.
     But I haven’t had to face human imperfection like this before in my relatively comfortable, privileged life. I watch in horror as people validate a man who does not know the definition of meekness, who finds power in belittling those different from him. He does not mourn with those that mourn, and is regularly proven incapable of honoring his imperfections like a proper Christian should. He is driven by his own toxic version of masculinity, treating women and children as objects to fulfill desire and nourish narcissistic tendencies.
     Further, I have been asked to turn the other cheek. To respond to this puzzling turn of events not with righteous indignation, but with compassion. To understand why these people who chose to look evil in the face and encourage it – perhaps without ever reaching awareness of the ramifications – might have done so. I have been asked, as a Christian, to not only find empathy for the man left bleeding on the side of the road, but also for those who beat him and left him to die, along with those who willfully chose to ignore him as they passed him by. I see in this struggle my own flaws as a Christian, weaknesses that show the limits of my empathy. My inability to accept the unaccepting; to offer charity to those so unwilling to show charity through a vote – any vote – against hatred.
     How many times, after all, have I pointed out that Jesus spent his ministry communing with murderers, prostitutes, the mentally ill, tax collectors, the poorest of the poor, when trying to convince fellow Christians to show real love for LGBT brothers and sisters, people of color, or the homeless – a comparatively easy task? How often have I sought to evoke Christ’s inclusivity to further my own social and political goals? As it turns out, I need to take my own advice. Jesus said, “Love everyone,” and that does not exclude people unable to do so themselves.
     I have learned through all this that it is my responsibility to find Christian compassion not only for the downtrodden and the easily-pitiable, but for those who make a mockery of Christian behavior, those who are able to disregard evils, and even align individuals practicing such behaviors with our Savior. This baffles me, but I must accept the challenge.
     I have also learned how hard it is to stand as a witness for virtue, charity, and morality when doing so is met with scolding for “creating contention” and being “of the devil.” It’s a difficult position to be in. I believe in the Book of Mormon and the things it says about contention; I also believe in Jesus Christ, who probably, sometimes, hurt people’s feelings when he asked them to forsake evil. I’m not Jesus, but it’s also not my fault when people hear me slamming our president-elect for racism, misogyny, and prejudice and assume my choice of adjectives applies to every one of his supporters. Perhaps that’s a connection people need to make. Perhaps I need to learn when to shut up. As it stands, I don’t regret vocally opposing disgusting behaviors of our president-elect.
     Friday night, I found myself in a dark place. After spending the day awkwardly holding back tears in public, receiving pointed criticism from family members unable to understand my turmoil, and finally reaching sadness after working through disbelief and anger, I felt broken. Coming to terms with the fact that I cannot rely on my country to support the values I hold most dearly has been deeply painful. This is not a matter of “my side” not winning; I’ve never seen a presidential candidate I support win. This is my realization that integrity has failed us – that evil has succeeded in disguising itself as good through manipulation and lies. Such twisting of reality terrifies me, and has forced me to accept a new level of vulnerability as a citizen of the United States. As a white Christian, I cannot begin to imagine what religious and racial minorities must be feeling right now, but I reserve empathy for them, and will strive to help their voices be heard.
     After I spent most of the day alternating between crying and sleeping, my brother came to my apartment to offer me a priesthood blessing of comfort. His words touched my spirit, tired and broken, and reminded me that it is indeed my duty to stand up for truth and righteousness, just as I had always been taught.That Christ himself suffered persecution and rejection after speaking truths and ideas that caused widely-felt discomfort. That I am fulfilling my duty as a Christian, and should never feel guilty in doing so. That I should remember the beatitudes; to turn the other cheek, and give unto those who have taken from me – not in order to abandon the fight, but to fortify my soul to fight all the better. To find strength in charity and love for my fellow man, without backing down from my worthy convictions. I heard words I needed to hear in my time of great need, without any hint of chastisement. I found hope and love even when both appeared so very lost. I allowed myself to be served, and felt my brother’s love for me as he lay his hands on my head. This is the very heart of grace – the reason I can believe in a God who finds grace even for people like Donald J. Trump.
     This morning, as I pondered the hymn, Be Still, My Soul, it occurred to me that “The Lord is on thy side,” is not, in the end, a conditional statement. God truly, emphatically loves us all. He might not love all of our choices, and He might weep when we cannot treat each other using the doctrine and examples He has given us. I have no doubt that it pains Him to see us hurt one another, to promote evil, to make light of our fellow man’s very real feelings of fear and sorrow – all behaviors I have observed, in excess, during this past week.
     But, unlike most Americans today, God does not view us as people on different “sides” of the culture wars. I think He sees most of us as vulnerable, hurting spirits, each doing our best to stand up for what we know to be right, while remaining humanly liable to judge, taunt, and sin. We approach the world in such wildly varying ways, ways that I might never understand, but that He can understand, for He knows the desires of our hearts. If our desires be good, we have nothing to fear. If our desires be reprehensible and we intentionally seek to hurt and profit off of those around us, He feels anguish and has the ultimate responsibility of holding us accountable, but I know that He loves us anyway.
     This isn’t easy doctrine. It’s difficult to know that God loves Hitler, Genghis Khan, Osama Bin Laden. But the truth remains – He loves us all.
     And so in the coming months, when our country inaugurates a president who is so marked, in my mind, by hatred – someone who disgusts me to the same degree that homosexuality disgusts Mike Pence – I will feel pain. I might cry some more. I might disparage whatever series of events that kept “the real Trump” so blindingly out of the conservative public’s view. I will continue standing up for my fellow women, doing all that I can to educate myself and abolish rape culture, which includes men like Trump who feel entitled to our bodies. I will speak out for Muslims, Jews, Latinos, and other people of color, and acknowledge that racism is a real problem that I need to vocally oppose as a privileged individual. I will pray that more Americans learn to partake of evil and biased mainstream leftist media, that more of us will get the education this country needs its citizens to get in order to make any progress at all.
     It seems impossible now, but we will move forward. No one can say where the next four years might take us. It’s okay to be freaking out, but we’re not alone in this. The Lord is on our side, not necessarily because He’s a Democrat (though your guess is as good as mine), but because He’s always on our side – He must be. This is ridiculously hard, but we can do this, together.
     Damn my liberal arts education.