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.

Remember, Remember: Reflections on November 5th and Empathy

 

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The Gold at the end of this rainbow is the Jesse Knight Building. And equality.

Last year, my creative writing professor handed out note cards to our class and asked us to each write one adjective to describe how we felt about the controversy surrounding the new changes to the LDS handbook. After we passed them forward, he wrote the words on the whiteboard: Angry, tired, apathetic, disturbed, sad, confused, offended, overwhelmed, fine, upset, nothing. He used these words to teach a lesson on essaying.

“What does the apathetic person owe to the offended person?” He asked, circling the words into counterbalanced groups. “What does the upset person owe to the confused person? Or the angry person, what does she owe to the person who feels nothing?”

Each time, we came to the same conclusion; we, as writers, owed them – these others – empathy. We needed to consider what it must be like on the other side of the issue. The angriest of us needed to look at the tired, the confused, the apathetic, and realize their voices mattered. That their feelings arose from different places, different past experiences, different lives. Those who would support the first presidency under literally any circumstances needed to consider that same compassion when addressing those with wildly unorthodox perspectives, and acknowledge that their pain, rather than proving their faithlessness and lack of regular prayer and scripture study, indeed came from places of faith and love of the gospel.

I found comfort in that exercise. I can’t say any of it translated to my Facebook newsfeed where friends consistently trashed those doubting, but I could at least busy myself with trying to understand.Though my sadness never diminished as the months wore on and people started forgetting, I hoped that I could find small moments of grace in the painful aftermath. I didn’t see God’s hand in this policy; I’ll say now that I don’t think I ever will. But I did see His hand this past year, reminding me to develop empathy and love others in ways I had never considered.

Empathy for my LGBT brothers and sisters, some of them now labeled “apostates,” who felt the church’s systematic hatred, now officially written on paper. Empathy for their children, who are denied God-given rights because of their parents’ actions. Empathy for those who told me I might as well leave, because there’s no room for opinions like mine in this church. Empathy for those who took that advice, and left after realizing they could no longer support a Christian institution that had clearly strayed far from central tenets of Christianity.

I learned this year that leaving the church is never a choice people take lightly. That I can find love for those who choose to leave, even while holding on all the tighter myself. That I still need to care for them, since it’s likely they have plenty of friends and family members who might not.

I learned that I cannot just passively say I support the gays and think that’s enough. That I need to prove myself an ally, to outwardly express my love for friends who do not fit into the church’s heteronormative mold. That I need to stand up for the LGBT community when a conversation among friends takes a turn for the homophobic, or when a Sunday school teacher forgets that Jesus said, “Love everyone.”

I learned what it feels like to be a member of a church that bans an entire segment of the population from receiving sacred ordinances for arbitrary reasons. As puzzling as the priesthood ban – a tradition so wildly at odds with Christian teachings – had always been to me, things became clearer as I witnessed several LDS peers treat the general authorities as infallible mouthpieces connected at all times to heaven itself. I witnessed those same peers tell me to pray until I believed that, too. Needless to say, my prayers at the time weren’t exactly what they were hoping for.

I learned that, despite those “why don’t you leave,” comments, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment in a church that I will nevertheless continue to attend. That I have family members, friends, professors, role models, brothers and sisters around the world, who are just as upset, if not more so. This pain can be shared. As awful as all of this is, we can use our aching hearts to connect and provide comfort to one another amidst our doubts and fears.

I still remember my British Lit professor somehow incorporating a 2nd Article of Faith jab into his lecture on Victorian novels: “We used to believe men should be punished for their own sins, but obviously that doesn’t matter to us anymore.”

I laughed, even though I’d spent the past several days crying.

I remember when the previously-mentioned creative writing professor, as he helped me revise an essay during office hours, told me that he was able to find comfort on the communal level; that by focusing on serving his ward he could counteract the pain caused by the larger institution. It took me almost a year to understand what he meant, but I get it now. Charity heals both the giver and the receiver.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that my church will never keep me from being someone’s friend.That this pain might never go away, but I can draw strength from it even now. That I won’t always fit nicely into Provo YSA wards, but I will always belong in the church. That I ache for the families this policy has broken apart, but have every hope for change and improvement as our imperfect leaders find better ways to accommodate members of diverse, unorthodox backgrounds. That my testimony may have been tested, but it has grown stronger and developed in surprising ways throughout this complicated process.

The Anglophile in me knows that Guy Fawkes day will never be the same as long as this  policy persists, but that’s okay. I’m not even British. This November 5th, as I quietly, solemnly, remember this day last year when I felt the whole world was falling apart, I feel sad. Upset. Hurt. Even angry. But I save some room for hope. For Empathy. For love of all my fellow church members, even if it’s not immediately reciprocated or understood. It’s the Christian thing to do.

White Mormon, Black Mormon: Beauty and Struggle in Our LDS Diversity

 

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Grateful for my racially-diverse home ward. Also shown: the only time my whiteness has been a major disadvantage. #embarassing #thanksmarchingband

For years I rolled my eyes each time I saw Mormon media employing obviously-intentional ethnic diversity; there was the inevitable zoom-in on the one black member of MoTab during general conference, and the Mormon Message featuring a family from Peru. I remember flipping through the church’s cardstock photo collections to find a young brown child’s confirmation, and a sketch of Jesus surrounded with kids of all races.

I couldn’t take any of it seriously. Not then. Each time I saw this non-white representation I thought, “Wow! Trying to present ourselves as diverse, huh? This ultra-white church with far fewer brown people than our PR tricksters would have anyone believe.”

And you know what? That wasn’t fair of me. Not in the slightest.

At that time I had become so preoccupied with remaining coolly cynical that I forgot a blindingly obvious fact: There are indeed other races in this church, and in this world, and they need that representation. We all do.

I don’t know how this escaped me, especially back then. My half-Pakistani best friend had two black siblings. A girl in my primary class had come straight from Venezuela, and I befriended Polynesians in the youth program. My classes at school were heavily populated with Koreans and Latinos. It’s not like I existed in a sea of conformity – my life at church, in school, in my neighborhood, functioned within a beautiful plethora of cultural and physical difference. I suppose that, even though I befriended people of varying backgrounds, I never truly took the time to value what that representation must have meant to them. I never stopped to think that this white-centered culture might look even the slightest bit different to those without white bodies.

That changed one Sunday, when I nervously stood in front of four beautiful young women in a working-class London suburb, called to teach them about the gospel in the only way I knew how; following the lesson manual, and frantically praying I didn’t mess up.

I saw in these girls – two the children of Ghanaian immigrants, the others of Indian and Middle Eastern decent – spirits brimming with love, courage, and passion. Life as a thirteen-year-old is hard, but they chose to come to church and learn of Christ, following in the footsteps of their brave mothers, modern pioneers in their own British version of Zion. Loving these girls wasn’t a choice – it simply happened as I taught, served, and learned to so greatly admire them.

And when we watched our Mormon Messages and a black girl made an appearance, I sighed in relief knowing that these girls might know they belong, that this church promotes and uplifts people with bodies like theirs. And when the stock photo of a baptism showed a father and daughter from Asia, I silently thanked whoever chose to make that cultural statement. These were no longer things to mock, but to praise, if only for these girls.

And when white general authority after white general authority spoke up and offered their love-driven leadership, I discovered within myself a newfound discomfort.

“Not one apostle or general auxiliary leader of color?” I thought, “Not even one?”

A white, American minority among a predominantly black and British ward, I felt loved and welcomed in that place. Kind African women greeted us, complete strangers, with warm hugs and smiles amidst thick Ghanaian accents. I found myself hoping that the church as a whole offered them that same type of earnest, communal warmth. I wanted to know that, despite our past, Mormonism offered them fellowship and sanctuary in all available forms.

We haven’t always been good to these people. It’s taken us a long time to be comfortable acknowledging that, and some members aren’t yet ready to admit our faults for reasons I have a hard time understanding. I want to speak here as a white, privileged, “average” Mormon, to say that I seek to share that pain; that I know I can never truly understand, but that I hope to empathize and do my part to improve things.

When I attended that London ward, each time I shook the bishop’s soft, dark hand – white on black, skin on skin – gratitude overcame me. Gratitude that I wasn’t born sixty years earlier, that I never had to align myself with a church that would not grant this man the gifts of his birthright. I felt grateful to see him as a role model, a leader blessed with the spirit of ministering, a black man who could lead me as well as any white bishop ever had. I was grateful to commune with diversity, in the same way Christ did – among Samaritans, women, gentiles. Loving others, true others, makes us more like Him. Communing with those different from us brings us closer to God. Finding common ground and sharing in the gospel, despite our outward differences, makes us whole. Learning from those outward differences throughout the journey shapes us into better, kinder humans.

I have learned now that seeing a photo of a black man taking the sacrament does not hurt me in any way, but it could make a world of difference to a black member on the cusp of inactivity, unsure if he ever belonged. Mormon messages about girls in Ecuador now teach me the beauty of this Christian gospel, spreading itself around the world and blessing those in its path with hope and goodness; there is nothing there to mock.

Knowing I belong in this church, at least based on trivial matters of physical appearance, has always been easy for me. I look very much like most people in my Provo YSA ward. My life and its struggles do not vary greatly from those of other white members. No one has ever told me that my people couldn’t receive the priesthood or temple ordinances for an actual reason, or tried to justify horrifically racist past policies to my face.

Now as I look upon my differently-colored brothers and sisters, I respect them more than ever, especially for sticking around despite what must be, at times, a tremendous challenge. I’m grateful for what they can teach me, and we should all be immensely grateful that our church has lifted bans that kept them from teaching me and people like me such valuable lessons. I’m grateful that we can share with each other the gospel, and unite under Christ, who died for us all; black, brown, beige, white.

Because non-white Mormons are here, they are beautiful, they are strong, and they matter – to all of us.

And maybe, when the cameramen zoom in on the one black member of MoTab, or when the Mormon Message producers feature members from other countries, they’re not doing it to convince the world that our church is more diverse than it is. Maybe they’re doing it to teach us sometimes-jaded members that our fold is growing and diversifying more each day, more than we might realize. Perhaps they seek to remind us to broaden our sense of community, to think of those not immediately visible in our Provo YSA wards – to pray for the day that we will stand, all together, to proudly sustain our very first (and second, and third, God willing) apostles of color.

I’ll be praying for that day. Will you?

Read This Book: Ashley Mae Hoiland’s “One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly”

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Since starting this blog almost a year and a half ago, at the very least I hope I’ve made two facts resoundingly clear: I am a Mormon, and I am a woman. They’re both lovely aspects of my life, things I have often sought to better understand, and am learning to appreciate more each day. There are times I feel these two parts of my identity are at odds, and still others when I am reminded that my place as a woman in the LDS faith is sanctified, valued, and above all, worth mentioning.

As I read One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, I was struck by the way the author, Ashley Mae Hoiland, so intricately weaves together complex facets of Mormonhood and womanhood, as if the two have fit together all along. This maybe shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does, but I’m convinced this step in the right direction will help open a dialogue that allows even more voices to be heard and validated against a backdrop of love and empathetic support.

Reading through the first few sections – internally shouting “YES!” all along the way, because it really is that good – I remembered a Terry Tempest Williams reading I attended last year. In the Q&A that followed, Williams (who gets a few mentions in One Hundred Birds) emphasized the importance of speaking out despite fear, finding your voice even when that means assuming a degree of terrifying vulnerability; sharing innermost ideas that will uplift those around you and tell those seeking solace that they are not alone.

One Hundred Birds fulfills that challenge with astonishing grace. The more I read, the more I felt a deep sense of gratitude for Hoiland’s courage, humility, and honesty in tackling subjects I know many Mormons have worried about, perhaps without a space to acknowledge their questions. She addresses issues of LDS culture, family relationships, mission experiences, poverty and inequity, the infamous “crisis of faith,” judgments even the best of us might make, and the ultimate (often difficult) quest for Christian kindness. She does all of this without relying on anger to fuel her narrative, a feat I find extraordinary considering the emotional toil surrounding much of the earnestly-questioning Mormon experience.

An approachable combination of autobiographical vignettes, poetry, and original artwork – small, fractured pieces of a life story that fit together exceptionally well – One Hundred Birds reminds the reader that God (He, She, and They) can be found in the smallest of moments and a variety of places – forests, beaches, cars, rainstorms, temples, and interactions with other people included. Referencing scripture only sparingly and without citing a single source, the book, as Kristin L. Matthews points out in the foreword, inserts itself into the ancient tradition of devotional writing, reminiscent of medieval mysticism and metaphysical poetry.

As someone who aches to connect with the beauties of ancient religiosity within this comparatively-newborn faith, it’s hard to describe my delight at witnessing such a valuable, intimate form making its way into the LDS tradition. This book is a thing of raw, sometimes refreshingly wild, beauty. As much as I value the Book of Mormon, general conference talks, and scholarly texts aimed at unearthing the intricacies of LDS theology, One Hundred Birds offers something that those texts do not, that I never fully realized we were missing: an artful, contemporary voice that does not have all the answers, and maybe doesn’t want them.

Hoiland basks in the unknown, the possibility that God and the godly expand far beyond the reaches of our mortal understanding, and finds within that massive space opportunities for self-improvement, charity, and learning from our Heavenly Parents. The devotional context reminds us that Hoiland’s story – and in turn each of our stories – is enough. She doesn’t need to cite outside works to show that her thoughts and experiences are of sincere spiritual worth, and I find that approach encouraging as an aspiring LDS writer and wonderfully entertaining as a reader.

One Hundred Birds also engages with emotion, to great affect; a section focused exclusively on laughter is delightful, and I lost count of how many times crying is mentioned. I found myself actively participating in the tear-fest as I read, and not for reasons I might have expected. I cried because I was once forced to squeeze my awkward adolescent body into a wedding dress too small to zip up, and reading about Hoiland’s virtually identical experience reminded me that we all have weird Mormon baggage, and all we can really do at this point is nervously laugh and vow to improve things for the next generation. I cried because reading this book helped me to know that my own voice matters, despite the constant silencing from insecurities and people who think differently. I cried because this book forced me – gently – to realize that as frustrating as some of my fellow Mormons can be, “we can look each other in the eyes and say sincerely, ‘I could not do this without you'” (p. 153).

I see in this book the potential to heal many souls like mine, occasionally lost and in need of something whole and beautiful to grasp onto. It speaks clearly and warmly of motherhood, the body as home, our human relationship with nature, and the feminine divine. Reminding me of my worth as a nature-loving woman, a daughter of a Heavenly Mother who is there and active in all of our lives, it helped solidify areas of my testimony previously neglected.

Though rooted in the female experience, this book belongs to every member of the church, not in spite of its feminine voice but because of it. I have never read a book that so flawlessly incorporates the scary discomfort of fifth-grade-girl health class and the empowerment one might find in pregnancy into a conversation of divinity and godly connections, and I started wondering why. Female experiences are human experiences, and can connect us to God in important ways. One Hundred Birds reaffirmed to me that women’s stories matter, that by engaging with them and working through them we can all become better, kinder, more compassionate people.

At times, the book reads like a primer on love. Hoiland foregoes cynicism in favor of a belief in “the possibility of unselfishness we all possess” (p. 53); she subtextually presents a call to action to be a little more patient, a little more kind, without ever coming across as preachy or holier-than-thou. Her earnest offering of questions centered on Mormonism and an individual’s place within it does not conclude with directionless upset, but rather broader ways of thinking about godliness and the graces we might find even among our own mistakes and doubts. She assumes an ultimate good in the church and its members, and does not shy away from that assumption while tackling difficult subjects. Even as a sometimes-cynic myself, I admire One Hundred Birds‘ focus on the beauty of the human experience and the ultimate good found within each of our souls.

In short, buy this book! Support this fabulous, thoughtful writer.

I wish I could fully describe the blessing that One Hundred Birds has been to me as a young woman with many of my own questions. I see this book as a voice coming from within Mormonism that I can wholeheartedly accept, at a time in my spiritual journey when such voices are rare and valuable. When Hoiland writes of her desire to “help others around [her] speak” (p. 163), I find myself wanting to tell her personally that in writing this book she succeeds in that endeavor, brilliantly. Her words have helped me realize that I am not alone in my feelings of resentment, hurt, and anger, and inspired me to better myself, become more Christlike, and cling more steadfastly to the gospel. One Hundred Birds has truly been an answer to some of my most earnest prayers.

I’m grateful to have the pleasure of reviewing this book, and I know this review strays from the norm of objective, formal critique. I found it nearly impossible to remain objective and formal after reading something that touched me so deeply. I hope that in discussing the text in a personal and intimate way I can convince those who need it the most to read it and learn from its beautiful, nuanced, delightfully-accessible approach to seeking God.

One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly is the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s most recent installment in their Living Faith series. It goes on sale starting November 1st, and you can pre-order it here.

Healed Since Last November: My Blessed Journey from Grouchy to Gratified

This blog is not a place for sermons, and I don’t want it to be. Even as I acknowledge and embrace that standard of mine, I have been reminded this week of the reasons I take my faith seriously and cleave unto a church I view, as I think we all should, as far from perfect. I want to share that. I hope this is an appropriate way to do so.

Due to a strange and somewhat miraculous series of events – and I don’t use the term “miraculous” lightly – I have found great comfort and inspiration through the principle of charity this past week. Life has reminded me of the healing power of Christ’s core teachings, even in times of lingering anxiety and pain, and for that I am deeply grateful.

I have learned that while my opinions of the LDS church – and life, and politics, and the people around me – might be important and worthwhile, they are not especially helpful to my soul.

As much as I love thinking and analyzing and judging and considering myself “different,” it didn’t take me long to realize I was missing out on some of the most important aspects of Christ worship in my state of introspection.

Enter charity, reintroduced to me through a Book of Mormon lecture on YouTube, because this is 2016 and the Lord works in mysterious ways. It focuses on serving the poor and needy, which is absolutely a worthy goal we should all improve upon. But witnessing such a thoughtful interpretation of the book of Mormon, and the emphasis on treating every person in the way they deserve, as children of God, especially struck me. This lesson of charity as discipleship was exactly what I needed to hear, and I didn’t even know that until I found myself crying at my laptop at 10PM on a Saturday.

It arrived like an old memory, drowned beneath insecurity and spite for far too long, finally bobbing to the surface in an unexpected, though welcome, return. I suddenly knew with certainty that it is my duty, and every Christian’s duty, to acknowledge the worth of the human soul. It is my responsibility to see those around me as Christ might see them, even if that feels impossible at times – and believe me, it does feel impossible at times. With the light of Christ within me, I must ensure that my fellow men are treated with dignity, respect, and service.

I was missing that for nearly a year. I became deeply absorbed in the very real, lasting pain brought on by some of the church’s recent decisions, and the effects of that lingered even as I worked past the initial struggle. I disengaged. I went to church, but never wanted to. I performed my calling, but didn’t find joy in doing so. I distracted myself through Sunday school and Relief Society if I went at all, and felt bored or angry more often than I felt the spirit. I convinced myself I did not belong among those people who largely think differently than I do. I separated myself, in every way I could as an active member, and no longer felt joy in my place of worship.

And I don’t completely regret that. Contrary to popular belief, I could not have simply willed myself into feeling whole again. These things take patience, and help from divine sources who don’t always work as fast as we might like. Something within me needed to feel that emptiness, and work with myself to reveal more about who I am and what I value. As much as I prayed and read the scriptures, which admittedly was never quite enough, I never received enough comfort to restore all that had been lost. It had been so long that I almost forgot that I lacked anything. I merely existed, trying my best to remain faithful while slipping deeper into spiritual apathy.

But this week at church, not unlike any other Sunday, I felt different. Sacrament meeting sat well with me that day. The spirit touched me in one of those rare tangible-epiphany moments, and I truly felt like I was in the right place for the first time since last November. Of course every talk that day was on charity. It’s rare I feel smacked in the face by a gospel message, but what can I say; Heavenly Father is not always subtle.

As soon as I realized what I was missing in my disengaged state, I found within myself a renewed capacity for charity, both in my perception of others and my participation in the world as a follower of Christ. “Love them anyway,” has been my go-to mantra for the past several days, and while I can’t say how much it has impacted any one person, it has certainly helped me realize the places where I need to broaden my capacity for compassion.

Some examples:

Someone gives a talk in church and describes [insert literally any gospel topic here] in a doctrinally incorrect, potentially damaging way. Love him anyway.

Far more than a reasonable number of women in relief society nod in agreement when someone openly disparages feminism as a blanket anti-family concept. Love them anyway (and buy each of them a copy of The Feminine Mystique for their birthdays).

The Sunday school teacher has the nerve to be less engaging than a professional educator and/or inspirational speaker. Love her anyway, and pray for new Sunday school manuals with better lessons.

It works outside of church, too.

Your Geology professor asks a girl from Portland if she is a liberal, in jest. She says no. He says, “good,” diminishing increasingly-touchy campus political tensions not at all. He proceeds to make one too many cleavage jokes during his lecture. You feel weird. Love him anyway.

Your kitchen coworker repeatedly tries weighing liquids. This is frustrating. Love her anyway.

There is someone bicycling on the sidewalk beside you. There is a biker’s lane less than two feet away. Love him anyway.

I do not think that love itself is the same as charity, but the act of choosing to love is indeed one of the most charitable things we can offer. Christ chose to love us all, and we owe it to Him, and ourselves, to attempt the same. I have chosen to love in ways I would have thought impossible a few months ago. Instead of resorting to anger or frustration, I try – key word, try – to remember who I am, and who all of these equally-human people are: imperfect, good-at-heart, diligent, trying-their-best children of the same unconditionally-loving God.

In turn I have found many blessings, and the kindness of others has been revealed to me in new and beautiful ways.

I’m not particularly good at being served, and never have been. Visiting teachers often make me uncomfortable, I apologetically cringe if the compassionate service committee brings me soup when I’m sick, and I’ll hardly take a cookie from a friend’s kitchen table when it’s been offered to me.

But this week I have been witness to lovely, small acts of kindness that have remained with me since, to remind me that goodness truly is all around if you have the eyes to see it.

When I stopped by my professor’s office to discuss some Difficult Church Things, I was uncomfortable at first. I’m bad at reaching out to people, especially authority-type people I respect and kind of idolize (as if I’m the only person to have ever fangirled over a professor – there are DOZENS of us. DOZENS).

“This is weird, and I don’t normally do this kind of thing,” I began, unsure of what to say.

Without a moment’s hesitation she reached for a box of tissues and said, “Well I do this kind of thing all the time, and I love it!”

After we talked for a bit, she asked me if it would be weird if she gave me a hug. I laughed and said of course not. She gave me an excellent hug, one that I needed that day, and we proceeded to have a wonderful discussion that made me feel warm and fuzzy and validated.

Earlier this week I made a Big Social Decision at work. I’m going to remain frustratingly cryptic to avoid embarrassing myself, but as a socially anxious person I was already feeling weird about it immediately following said decision.

My boss, who knew exactly what was going on because that’s how things work there, responded completely appropriately when she said, “I know you’re not happy for you yet, but I’m happy for you.”

It was such a small, silly thing to say, but I needed to hear it, and I needed to be able to laugh about it because I take many trivial things WAY too seriously. Another tiny kindness, filed away for an unspecified time in the near future when it will be helpful.

When I donated blood a couple of days ago – for charity! – my phlebotomist was really friendly, and extraordinarily good at drawing blood. That’s a double-kindness for anyone who has ever been hematoma’d.

Yesterday my brother texted me and asked if I wanted some pulled pork. Of course I wanted pulled pork, so I drove to his house and spent a lovely evening eating smoked meat, relaxing with him and my niece, and even took home some beets from the garden. Family kindness is some of the best kindness there is.

Two of my professors brought food to class one day. I’m still not sure if this is a normal thing in college or if kind Mormon women are just especially good at providing refreshments, but I cannot begin to emphasize how exciting it is to get sugar from a teacher as a full-grown adult. I bestow major kudos upon professors with treats.

This morning my coworker saw my face and told me I was looking good. I wore no makeup, did not get enough sleep, and – as is typical when I work the morning shift – had spent the first two hours with a perpetually furrowed brow. But it was a nice comment, and I realized she was right. I was looking good. Something had been lifted, some gnarled, stubborn tension that existed within me for so long that I forgot it was there to begin with.

I know I still have a long way to go. So far I’ve made baby steps by reducing my judgmental tendencies and building more appreciation for small kindnesses directed toward me. I have been blessed with a sense of belonging in the church, and have done my best to act on that blessing. When presented with chances to serve more conventionally, I have tried my best to do so. I still need to join the ward choir and should attend more of the activities that my fellow LDS singles have so carefully planned.  I should figure out ways to serve in my community and help those who need it most. With diligence, this will become a lifelong endeavor.

I hope and pray that this upward trajectory leads me to bigger, brighter, happier things, because this year has been a challenge. I am not sure I will ever be comfortable with the LDS-Church baggage that led me to that dark place, but I have found ways to renew my faith in the good of Christ and the importance of His gospel despite that darkness. It is those deep-rooted testimony seeds that will keep me attending church and striving to remain tolerant in even the most trying of circumstances, and I believe that Heavenly Father has guided me here with His own hand, because he truly is a loving, merciful God watching out for every one of His children.

He created us with intentional differences, and He knows how to teach us as individuals, within the workings of our own minds and spirits. This narrative might not fit within the bounds of “things taught in Sunday school,” but I have felt it, and I know it to be true. It may have taken time, but I do not feel I have been punished, judged, or chastened for my upset; instead, I stand up today as a lamb of God who spent some time alone near the gate, welcomed back into the fold after a spell of seemingly-unshakable, necessary darkness. He brought me light, and has since illuminated a path ready to show me through the shadowed patches that undoubtedly await me in the future, and I am gratified.

He has been so charitable to me. I can only hope, within the bounds of my own imperfect humanness, to return that celestial favor.

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