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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