Thursday, November 20, 2014

Asking Questions (Part 2: with Hagar)

This post is the fourth in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

Living Water by Elspeth Young

"But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give [her] shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give [her] shall be in [her] a well of water springing up into everlasting life."

John 4:14

If you read my last post, or have asked questions yourself, maybe, like me, you’ve concluded that growing in the language of personal revelation can be a challenge. But of course, it’s nothing to be disheartened over. Because we are the children of the Father of Lights, this language, the language of light, is innately within us. We were born to speak it.

Growing in revelation does require that we put our fears, our anger, our pride (and many other things) on the altar, if for no other reason than so that we can truly listen. But once those things are gone, what will fill the holes they’ve left behind?

Oh, I suppose their inverses. Faith, forgiveness, humility. But, if you’re like me, maybe it’s difficult to keep those virtues in their respective positions, especially when you’re again confronted with the problems that you responded to with fear or anger or pride in the first place.

A touchstone that continues to help me to maintain this balance is in 1 Nephi 11.  In this chapter, Nephi has one of the most amazing and hilarious (Something about all of the jumping around and the repeated, "Look!" "Look!" "Look!" always strikes my funny bone.) guided tours through the Plan of Salvation with the Holy Ghost. In verse 16, the Spirit of the Lord asks Nephi, "Knowest thou the condescension of God?"

And Nephi's response?

"I know that He loveth his children. Nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things."

God loves His (and Her) children. This is like the opening statement in the textbook for Foundations of the Gospel 101. Basic City, USA.

And although it is an easy thing for me to remember conceptually, somehow it is consistently one of the first things that I forget in my heart. Because sometimes it seems like all of the evidence has stacked up to the contrary—particularly when it comes to His (and Her) women children. How could God love His (and Her) children and allow so many injustices?

Let’s consider another of Nephi’s quotables. This one is in 1 Nephi 19:23.

“…For I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”

We’ve been taught repeatedly that likening the scriptures to ourselves is a surefire way to find answers; and it’s worked for me. But sometimes only after a lot of pain. Because occasionally, when I put myself in someone’s scriptural shoes, it hurts a lot. This seems to be especially the case when the character I am likening myself to is a woman.

Take Hagar for example.

Genesis 16 gives us an ever so slight glimpse into Hagar's life. She was Sariah's bondswoman, of Egyptian descent. She was given, by Sariah, to Abraham to wife. When Hagar conceived she despised her mistress. Sariah reacted to this by being hard on Hagar—so hard on her that Hagar fled the camp. She ended up at a well.

It is here that something interesting happens. According to the Joseph Smith translation, an angel of the Lord (It was God, Himself, in other versions) appeared to Hagar and told her to go back to Abraham and Sariah. This angel also prophesied to Hagar about the son she was carrying. And then Hagar named God, calling him, "Thou God [that] seest me."

We next pick up on Hagar's story 14 years later in Genesis 21.  Sariah felt that her son, Isaac's, birthright was threatened by Hagar's son, Ishmael, so she instructed Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. God confirmed to Abraham that it was, indeed, His (and Her) will for Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. So Abraham gave Hagar and her son a bottle of water, and sent them into the desert. After the water was spent, Hagar cast her son under a bush, and began to mourn his death. But, at the critical moment an angel's voice reached Hagar's ears and a miracle her eyes. The promises of her posterity were again reiterated, and her eyes were opened to a well of water in front of her.

Until recently, every time I read this story, all I saw was something to this effect:

Hagar knew oppression. She was a bondswoman, a slave, far away from her home country (Her name means “stranger” in Hebrew). That’s rough. But it gets worse.

Her mistress, Sariah, gives her in marriage to Abraham. And although this marriage might have advantageously altered Hagar’s social status, it’s likely that it was neither Hagar’s choice, or even that it would have been, had she been given the choice. So now she’s a plural wife.

In this union she conceives Ishmael, and 14 years later, Ishmaelthe baby who was simultaneously wanted and unwantedis the cause of her banishment.

People say that God doesn’t always intervene.  That sometimes He (and She) just lets nature run its course. But here God did intervene. God sent an angel, twice! When I realized this, I was comforted. I was comforted because God had comforted Hagar.

I was at peace briefly. But then the entire construction collapsed in on itself because I had a belief about God. I believed that He (and She) must show Their love in rational, acceptable ways. And as I continued to process what Hagar went through, I didn’t know how to accept God’s mode of intervention.

The two major decisions that alter Hagar's trajectory in these stories (her marriage to Abraham, and her forced exodus) seem to have both been made by Sariah.  But upon further investigation, one discovers that both of these decisions were ratified by God.

And if that isn't perplexing enough, when God had the opportunity to release Hagar, to free her from these extremely undesirable situations, He (and She) didn't. God told her to return to Sariah. To go back into oppression. She stayed there for 14 years before God released her. And, as previously mentioned, the release from oppression wasn’t initially very faith-building for a future reader named Amber either.

As I have begun to realize this I've conjectured that maybe God couldn't free Hagar. Maybe the time she lived in was just too hostile to women. Or maybe by virtue of her being pregnant, it was too late. But then I remember that God sent an angel to Hagar. Which seems to confirm that anything is possible. And isn't that true about God?

What trouble I had gotten myself into because I had “likened the scriptures" to myself.

I decided to believe that God loved Hagar.

And with some time, just like Hagar, my eyes were opened.

Of course God loves Hagar. Why else would He (and She) send an angel to her twice? I love the way Diana Webb, author of Forgotten Women of God, puts it:

"Since there are so few annunciation scenes in the scripture, and since each is so significant, we can see what a great honor God pays to Hagar in Genesis 16. He has been especially mindful of her afflictions, and he tells her so. Hagar is a different woman from the one who has fled into the wilderness. She now knows that a power higher than herself notices her and that knowledge transforms her. She is now free in a way that returning to slavery can never eradicate. She is important to God, and that gives her a new sense of self-worth... Hagar has learned that God has a plan for her... She will tell her story to Abraham and Sariah and teach them things about God that they need to know: That God does indeed hear the cries of the suffering, the downcast, and the abandoned; that every human soul has dignity and worth. Hagar's new knowledge is empowering. If God is with her, she can survive anything." (pp. 141-142)

But why would God send Hagar back into oppression? I assume it must be for many of the same reasons we all must pass through trials. To grow, to be perfected. But in Hagar's case there was also something about "to fulfill among other things, the promises."

Typically “the promises” are associated with the Abrahamic covenant. Namely, that from Abraham would spring many nations. Hagar, while not really understood well among Christians and Jews, is revered as being the spiritual ancestress of the Muslim people.

Hagar was a righteous, favored, and strong woman. Hagar, named God, ‘Thou God [that] seest me.’ Nowhere in recorded scripture has anyone, much less a woman, given God a title. Fittingly, the spot where her first annunciation occured was called Beer-lahai-roni, which means “the well of him that liveth and seeth me.”

This may be the first time a woman at a well has appeared in the scriptures. I think we’re more aware of another of these moments. Consider the Samaritan woman who lived during Jesus’ day. Consider his teachings to her about that well, and about the Living Water that she also sat beside.

In both of Hagar's most pronounced deserts of life—not just literal deserts, but figurative ones—a well of water figures importantly enough that it is mentioned in the ancient text.

The Living Water was there for Hagar.

In a beautiful and tender moment of parallelism, my eyes, just like Hagar’s, have been opened to the well in her story.

As I now read Hagar's story with this knowledge in hand, her story changes for me. Admittedly, it still doesn't completely make sense. But there is a strength I derive from it. It seems to me that Hagar did change after her first visit with the angel. She became someone who no longer victimized herself. She became someone strong, someone who could endure. Knowing that you are beloved of God, and that you are watched over by Jesus Christ, can do that for a person.

And I guess that's Hagar's secret. She put her knowledge of God's love before the rest of the mess.

If you'd like to learn more about Hagar, try this great article at Women in the Scriptures (where I found the quote from Diana Webb), or this really phenomenal essay, "Hagar in LDS Scripture and Thought."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Asking Questions (Part 1: with the Spirit)

This post is the third in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

Goddess Looking Up by J. Kirk Richards
The summer after my freshman year at BYU, I went back home to Idaho for a month. The month of June. I was sad at the time, but just barely sad, I see in retrospect. It was the beginning of a very long period of worsening sad in my life, a period which I am beginning to believe has been poignantly refining.

I remember sitting at the top of the stairs, with my triple combination opened against the tightly knitted, dingy gray carpet. I had been sitting there scanning the Topical Guide, looking for the entry for Asking. I had this very strong feeling about the word. An impelling feeling. The scripture that I recall finding that day was this one: D&C 46:30.

"He that asketh in the Spirit, asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh."

By August, I still couldn't wrap my head around this verse. I had returned to my library job in Provo, so one afternoon while sitting at the LRC desk I asked my co-worker what he thought about it. Scott was an RM with an angelic singing voice that ran in his family. He said something about how the Spirit can help you know what you should ask for in your prayers.

That struck me as being pretty circular. Since then though, I've had a sizable handful of experiences that have followed that script, so I've figured that circular is okay.

That phrase "He that asketh in the Spirit, asketh according to the will of God" has taken on several meanings since my introduction to it. But lately I've wondered, what if asking in the Spirit is a condition of the heart?

In October of 2009 Richard G. Scott gave an address entitled To Acquire Spiritual Guidance in General Conference. He said a lot of wonderful things. I thought they were particularly wonderful at the time because they ideally (and divinely I believe) coincided with what I had been studying. Here's a quote that stuck out to me so well, that today while writing this (four years later) I searched for "Richard G. Scott grape jalapeno."

"The inspiring influence of the Holy Spirit can be overcome or masked by strong emotions, such as anger, hate, passion, fear, or pride. When such influences are present, it is like trying to savor the delicate flavor of a grape while eating a jalapeño pepper. Both flavors are present, but one completely overpowers the other. In like manner, strong emotions overcome the delicate promptings of the Holy Spirit." 

This little metaphor about the grape and the jalapeño became a bit of a landmark for me because it required me to start paying more attention to my own emotional state. As I did that, I began to recognize moments of anger, fear, and pride that did in fact seem to counteract my ability to hear the voice of the Spirit.

This seemed especially true in the realm of womanhood. In fact, I think that anger, fear, and pride are the three emotions that most often gush out of me as I ask questions about my gender. I feel anger when I recount the history of oppression that seems to be synonymous with the word woman. I feel fear when I explore the polygamy tradition, when I consider rape, abuse, pornography, genital mutilation. And the combination of these two feelings often adds up to pride. When I feel anger and fear, and I direct it at God, I effectively create a wall of enmity between myself and deity. Sometimes this enmity is loud, blaring, and unmistakably present. But most often it presents itself as little kernels in my heart. Almost imperceptible knots.

And that experience is, I think understandable. Asking, why on earth have you allowed these things to happen to your daughters, God?is in my mind an expected outcome of becoming acquainted with women's history. I recognize that this is not everyone's experience. But it is certainly mine.

And that is where another element of "asketh in the Spirit" comes in. I have found that the best way for me to communicate with the Spirit is to do so after the manner of the Spirit.

"The Holy Ghost teaches by inviting, prompting, encouraging, and inspiring us to act. Christ assured us that we come to the truth when we live doctrine and act accordingly. The Spirit leads guides, and shows us what to do."

-Matthew O. Richardson, Teaching After the Manner of the Spirit

The Spirit never compels, it never demands, never forces, coerces, pouts, or shouts. Likewise, I have found that if my approach to getting answers seems to fall into one of those categories, or if I am using such methods to convince others of the validity of my experiences and questions, I am not in a position to actually receive the answers I seek.

Fittingly enough, it is remembering a question that helps me to keep it all in balance.

"The Son of Man descended below all things. Art thou greater than he?"

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Can We Be of One Heart and One Mind About Womanhood?

This post is the second in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

two women understanding the same mystery by Caitlin Connolly

In Moses 7:18 God revealed to His prophet Enoch that one of the reasons that He (and She) called His (and Her) people Zion was "because they were of one mind and one heart." I've revisited this passage several times over the last year with a little bit of incredulity because if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that we have not yet reached this place as a people.

The issue that's brought this into focus for me is of course, womanhood.

It's interesting to consider, isn't it? That while there is something to appreciate, and even to seek out about diversity, that there might be a place and a time where diversity (at least diversity of perspective) is no longer needful?

I think it might be an especially difficult idea to swallow in this realm because opposing tensions seem to run so high. There's a lot potentially at stakeindividual identities, familial constructs, cultural traditions, religious understandings, peace of mind, and more I'm surewhen gender gets thrown into question.

But nevertheless, there it is: "And the Lord called his people Zion because they were of one mind and one heart."

I think we can learn something about this by revisiting the story of the boy Joseph. The Restoration of the Gospel began with a familiar question: "Which of all the sects is right?" (JS History 1:10) But let's examine the presupposition that underlies this questionthat is, that one of them was right. That there was one truth, one answer. A universal truth.

The boy Joseph wanted to know God's truth of the matter. And, if you're a practicing Mormon, there's a good chance that you, like Joseph Smith, subscribe to his answer. Namely, that there is one true way back.

I believe in this meta-narrative. And it's informed my questions about womanhood from the beginning. I believe that there must be an answer to every single inquiry I've made. One universal truth at the end of every question. That God knows who and where Heavenly Mother is. God knows what She is doing. God knows why women don't have the priesthood. (Pause. I've got to acknowledge that this is one of the most loaded sentences and someday soon we'll come back to this topic.) God knows why women have been and are oppressed.

If this is true, then I think the secret to becoming truly Zion-like, to becoming of one mind and one heart, is to seek and embody God's mind and heart. And I believe that this is possible in the field of gender issues! Because if God knows the answer, and we all seek, accept, and become that answer, what is there left to do?

But maybe the more relevant question here concerns not the what but the how.

Since our focus today is on Zion, a community, I'm going to try to provide a perspective in that vein. In my last post, I wrote about some of (as I see them) my strengthsan ability to question, an active mind, a inner forward movement towards getting answers. I believe that these strengths come from God. I'd even go so far as to call them gifts or talents.

But, it would be completely unfair of me not to acknowledge opposing characteristics as gifts and talents as well. What about my sisters who are steadfast? Who do not question, but accept? Those who have the gifts of trust and happiness and peace?

It might appear paradoxical but I believe that all of these things are needful, and that if we all throw our respective gifts (however contradictory they may seem) into building the Kingdom that we can strengthen each other, push each other, and ultimately learn together.

I've come to this conclusion through a very dear friendship. One of my best friends, Anna, and I have been collaborating on a film about LDS women for three and a half years. A few years into the project, we were presented with an opportunity to take some of our ideas to the stage, and begin collaborating with more women. We excitedly dove into this opportunity, but for different reasons.

I, being the naturally more (justifiably) agitated human being, wanted to produce Women of Faith for what you might call feminist reasons. Give these women a voice! Create well rounded female characters! Show the diversity of womanhood! Promote social change! Although in the quietest part of my heart, I did hope that I could find answers through the creative process.

Anna's approach was softer, gentler. She hoped to edify her sisters who would sit in the audience, and ultimately view the film. She wanted to give them confidence, to bolster their faith. Anna (at least, as I remember it) didn't have half of the questions I did, and at first they seemed pretty foreign to her.

A lot of magic happened during that project. Magic of the theatrical variety, definitely, but the moments that still stand out to me the most were the moments where all nine of us performers came together. The nine of us had vastly different experiences and perspectives, but were able to unify anyways.

I think Anna's example helped us all. Because something that puts Anna on the road towards Zion is her profound capacity to love and to listen. She listened to me, to all of my questions and concerns. She often put herself in my shoes, and as she did that, I watched her discover that she had questions too. That was incredibly validating.

And she did even more for me. I wish I could help you understand how her example, her strengths fortified me. I drew peace from her peace, and trust from her trust. And so, you could say that I listened too. Or at least, that I tried.

And after a very long time, Anna and I, who started out nearly polarized in our perspectives and aims as artists and daughters, have become unified.

If it can happen between two sisters, why couldn't it happen between us all?

If you'd like to hear some of Anna's perspective on how we learned together, check out this podcast at about 30:00, or read this article published by Meridian Magazine.  Anna shares her thoughts way eloquently, and in an obviously more complete fashion that I can do here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When Feminism Means God Loves Me and His Daughters

This post is the first in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

a woman who reads by Caitlin Connolly

Over the last year I've read a lot of different perspectives on feminism. Some Mormon writers (see here and here) are resoundingly in favor of identifying themselves using the term. Others (try here and here), for very well-thought out reasons, feel differently.

We as members of the Church recently rode quite a wave of confusion over this topic and other, connected ones, and I at least have found it interesting to see how such a wide variety of people have responded to the commotion. There are voices who have advocated questioning, and reminded us that only through inquiry does needed light and knowledge come. And then there are the voices who have affirmed what we already know and that have reminded us of the commitments we've made, of the loyalty we should feel, of the support we owe our Church and our leaders.

And you know, it seems that everyone has made a good point. That everyone is right.

But how is that possible? How can everyone be right? I don't really know. As is so frequently the case, I have only my personal lensmade up of my own experiencesavailable to me to access the perspectives of others. So, today, I'd like to offer mine.

To me, the word feminism has taken on many meanings over the years I've spent with it. But the meaning that has stuck is this:

Feminism: (n.) Evidence that God loves His (and Her) daughters and that They want, in the end, for Their daughters to be fulfilled in every righteous way.

You won't find this definition in any dictionary. I suppose it's my own connotation. Something I've come to after what feels to me like a long time.

In the Fall of 2010 I took a class about literary theory wherein we spent a few weeks covering the feminist critical tradition. We talked about the history of the feminist movements, and the academia and art that sprang from these movements. We had several long and impassioned conversations about how feminism interacted with the Gospel, about the questions that feminism raised.

I was completely spellbound with the unit. Previous units generally left me feeling groggy. Reading even one page of Jacques Derrida has that effect on me I've found. But this one, it enlivened me. Awakened me (to use a word that may be overused in feminist circles). I discovered that there were many things about being a woman that I had always felt, but never accepted.

Namely, I was hurt and I was angry. I didn't understand how God could allow such atrocities to be consistently enacted on His daughters. I couldn't see why, even today, women are subjected to oppression. Not only was I dissatisfied about these large scale abuses, but I found myself at unrest with the smaller things. The little messages that our culture (and even the culture of the Church at times) sends to its women. Messages that they are less than their male counterparts.

In nearly an instant I saw where so many of my own insecurities had come from. I saw that much of my lack of confidence had to do with a silent, a subtle buying into these and other falsehoods. And I was upset.

But I had another, perhaps more interesting response to all of this. As I could see myself so clearly resonating with feminism I looked inside and wondered, "Am I a bad person? Am I about to lose myself and my faith?"

So I decided to ask God what I should do. I went to Him in prayer, fully expecting him to tell me that I needed to run from feminism at high speeds. You can imagine my surprise when my answer was that I should proceed. That I should continue studying feminism. That God had a plan.

I decided to take His (and Her) advice.  I wish that I could tell you about all of the wonderful blessings that have come into my life because I did. But, as this is a blog post, and a not a novel, I'll limit it to just two.

Firstly, my confidence in myself and in my God have both grown alarmingly. I know now that He (and She) love every part of me. The part of me that is passionate. The part of me that wants her voice to be heard. They love the part of me that questions, the part of me that wants to make a change, to use my God-given capacities for intellect and leadership. They created all of these bits of me, and each of them have a purpose.

Secondly, feminism has been a great gift to me because by nature I am a creature of questions. I have so many. And I feel that God has given me, through feminism, a structure for asking the questions that my soul has needed answers to. It has taught me how to seek.

As time has gone on I've realized a few important things about all of this. Much of my experience with feminism could be strictly personal. I believe that God would not give everyone the same answer he gave me. In fact I know he wouldn't. God speaks our language, and often that means that he speaks the individual language of an individual daughter or son. (See 2 Nephi 31:3)

I've also realized that feminism is not an end-all. So if you asked me, "Amber, are you a feminist?" I would probably laugh before saying in most truthful tones, "Of course!" But then if you asked me, "How much does this matter to you?" I would pause and tell you in equally truthful tones, "Not as much as you might think." Because the identity that matters to me the most, the identity that were you to ask, "How much does this matter to you?" and hear the response: "More than anything" is, as before, two-fold:

Firstly, I am a daughter of God.

This is an identity that will never go away; an identity that has been integrally tied to me since my spiritual inception.

Secondly, I am a disciple of Christ.

This one, however, is an identity of constant choice. If called to, I would put (and sometimes already do) my identity as a feminist on the altar of discipleship.

I think that we are all called to do that in some way or another. While the sacrifice being made might be different, these two identities are common among all of us as Latter-day saints. We are all the offspring of divinity, and hopefully we are all striving to be disciples of the best of that offspring. So maybe we can unify ourselves around that. Perhaps if we do, we can find the light we need.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

For My Dear Aunt Wendy

Today I remembered this old song that used to play occasionally on 104.3 Cool Oldies. My parents didn't like to listen to anything else on drives in the 90's for fear of Britney Spears and 'N Sync I suppose. But this song, I haven't thought of it in years. It's the 1967 "Windy" by a group called The Association.

Whose tripping down the streets of the city
smiling at everybody she sees?
Whose reaching out to capture a moment?
Everyone knows it's Windy.

I have this vague memory of driving down Midland, I think, and looking out over the dash from an angle that leads me to believe that I must have been very young. The air outside danced to the happy-making tune that played inside the car. It was as though the wind knew which song was on the radio.

And Windy has stormy eyes
that flash at the sound of lies
And Windy has wings to fly
above the clouds (above the clouds)
above the clouds (above the clouds)

I remember thinking to myself, sitting in what was probably the beat up old family van I privately called Eleanor Roosevelt, that it was confirmed. Windy was a real name and my grandparents had, in fact, named their daughtermy auntafter the wind. But of course, her name was in actuality Wendy. Wendy Joy Winston. Aunt Wendy.

Wendy's engagement photo.
Wendy didn't have stormy eyes. I wish I still remembered the color. I believe that they were blue. A very clear blue. But I haven't seen her since April, and I don't think that in April I was paying particular attention to the color of her eyes. Photographs, however, confirm that they were shaped like almonds, and set close togetherone of the genetic signatures of the Richardson (her maiden name) family. This may have been her only Richardson-ian feature though. I've often heard stories of Wendy's growing up years. She was born in Western New York, where neighbors commonly informed my grandmother that her third daughter looked nothing like the first two, and that instead she looked like a little Indian child. Wendy's hair was very dark, and very thick, and looking back through the years it seems that most often, she wore it at her shoulders.

I don't recall Wendy's eyes ever flashing. According to my collection of memories, most often, they lifted. There was something behind her eyes that had a lifting quality. Not lifting in any upward direction, necessarily, just the feeling of being lifted. Softly, modestly, but happily lifted.

And you know, if anybody had wings to fly it would have been my Aunt Wendy.

Wendy was a kind of aunt-mom. She had six kids, the oldest was her only son. Her five daughters followed, each one about two years older than the next. I was the same age as her youngest, which made the rest of the Winston brood a special variety of cousins: cousin-siblings. We shared all kinds of things. Clothing, interests, camping trips, the occasional attitude problem, dance lessons, and every single birthday cake.

Oh, and movies! We had most of the Disney movies at our house, but for many years, we didn't own Peter Pan. Fortunately, Aunt Wendy did, and she was always willing to loan it out. My brother, who was five years younger than I, loved Peter Pan. Either him or I would semi-regularly trek up the stairs from the family room to the 60's linoleum covered kitchen to ask Aunt Wendy for permission to borrow it. When I asked, it was under the pretense that it was for my brother, but the truth was that I loved it too. And not so much for the swashbuckling, and the flying, and the lost boys, as for the mermaids (shocker), the never-growing-up, and the Wendy Moira Angela Darling.

Perhaps I should acknowledge that the base of my understanding of Peter Pan is admittedly the Disney film. I've read the story, or most of it, but it won't do me any good here. Because when I think of J.M. Barrie's Wendy Moira Angela Darling, to the shame of my literary sensibilities I think first of the little Disney character.

I liked her blue nightgown, her strangely stationary curls, and her kindness. She reminded me of my Aunt Wendy, the same one who loaned me the film in the first place. Wendy Darling darned socks. Or perhaps she suggested darning socks? I didn't know what that was at the time, but I thought of my Aunt Wendy when I heard the word, because my Aunt Wendy stitched brightly colored thread into the toes of each one of her daughters' socks, to differentiate each girls' pair from the next.

I wish I still remembered the colors. Perhaps Katy was green, Tami may have been blue. Jennie could have been pink. Just a few stitches. The pink in the shape of an x. The green a little square. I knew that for Wendy, those stitches were purposeful. Her five daughters, her five squabbly, delightful daughters, didn't like to share socks. I asked my own mother to stitch colorful threads into my socks. I only have two sisters. And just one whose socks could be confused with mine. But I still, in many ways, wanted to be a Winston.

Aunt Wendy made her daughters after-school snacks. I think that there were always apple slices, Saltines, and cheddar pieces waiting on plates on the picnics tables in her backyard. And she made ramen noodles for lunch. She gave her daughters what appeared to be an option of culinary magnitude to childhood me: they could either put a chunk of cheese (but only one) in their Ramen noodles, or if their water-and-seasoning-packet-broth was too hot, an ice-cube.

Aunt Wendy loved photos. She lined the walls of her living room, the living room with the most beautiful cove ceilings I'd ever seen, with photos. You wouldn't call it a gallery wall, exactly. All of them framed and hung together, very tightly, and all of them at eye level, all the way around the room. I think it was so that she could see as many of her loved ones as possible. She was literally surrounded by their faces.

Some of the people you'd find featured on Wendy's living room walls.
The collection grew over the years. There was always the old sepia toned photo of her grandmother Jennie. Wendy and John's wedding photo, taken outside of the Provo Temple. In it, I think John's father was wearing a brown suit. And the early family photo—Uncle John with his oversized glasses, and Wendy with her feathered hair. Little Scott and Lori, suntanned and mischievous, sitting on their parents' laps.

Then, a portrait of Scott and Jennie, looking ever so much like siblings, despite the 12 year age gap between them. I can remember the senior photo of Julie, the one Wendy took with her camera that used film, taking its place above the organ. And the tiny picture of Katy in her red graduation gown that sat in the corner of a frame. Eventually, there was a photo of Tami, standing next to her very tall, reed-like husband Tanner on their July wedding day. And then, photos of grandbabies. And photos of nieces and nephews and trips and holidays.

Wendy Moira Angela Darling was a mother to everyone. At least to all of the lost boys. My Aunt Wendy was the same. She took care of the next door neighbor girls, Meghan and her little red-headed sister. She took care of my dear cousin Kayla, who has no siblings, but still gets to experience the joys of being picked on by her numerous cousins. I know that Wendy took care of me.

She encouraged me to play the piano, despite my open rebellion of practicing. She put together little family talent shows, opportunities to perform "Part of Your World" ultimately, as that was the only song I ever learned. She asked me about Harry Potter, and after I finished reading her entire Nancy Drew collection, she introduced me to an interesting knock-off series called Trixie Belden. I didn't read very many of those though, because she kept them in her basement. I always thought that Aunt Wendy was very brave, because she did laundry in that basement, a dank, dark, spidery place, every day.

My Aunt Wendy brought me into her home for a few weeks during the summer of 2010, after I had my back surgery. Aunt Wendy sat for hours one evening and listened as I told her about my college heartbreaks, my experiences in coming to know myself.

A photo of Wendy, John, and me taken during her April visit to Provo.

I saw Wendy in April, when she came to Provo for Jennie's graduation from BYU. I sat with her in seats that were very high up in the Marriott Center. We picked them for their proximity to the entrance. She was very tired in April. Before Jennie's convocation began, John stepped out to use the restroom. I stayed with Wendy.

We talked about my Dad, her brother. "He is so sure about what goes on after death, on the other side," she said, "and I believe him and what he's experienced, it's justI'm not as sure as he is sometimes." She folded her hands across her lap.

I too, feel very sure. But then again, I wasn't daily staring death in the face. So I said, "I think I know what you mean."

"I've always believed in life after death, but up until this point I've never realized how little we know."

"It is kinda scary."

She looked at me through her glasses, the ever-present sincerity in her eyes a little more visible through the pain than it had been that day. "I mean, if I could choose, I would be a guardian angel," Wendy said, "I don't know if you get to choose, or what else you get to do once you're there, but if I could choose that's what I'd want. To watch over my children and family and help them."

But this was April, and in April Wendy wasn't sure if she would by dying soon. In fact, she was still feeling pretty optimistic about things. But that's Wendy for you.

Her kidneys failed in July. After battling cancer for almost three years, Wendy was finally ready for a new beginning. She left us on a Thursday.

I'm not sure exactly where she went. And that might be what is trickiest about losing her. I feel confident that she went somewhere. That my Aunt Wendy couldn't possibly have ceased to be. No, I have to laugh when my thoughts stumble in that direction. This, right here, sums up what I believe under my skin about death:

"While many thousands of others truly mourn for the loss of their kindred, yet they [the believers] rejoice and exult in the hope, and even know, according to the promises of the Lord, that they [the lost kindred] are raised to dwell at the right hand of God, in a state of never-ending happiness."
(Alma 28:12)

But where exactly is the right hand of God? Is that a geographic location? Metaphor, maybe? Can I get there too? When can I see Wendy again? Can Wendy see us? Will she watch her children grow and live, will she be present in moments when her husband, or her siblings, or her nieces or nephews, or any of her loved ones need her?

Then, I remember that Windy song.

And Windy has wings to fly
above the clouds (above the clouds)

Is Wendy above me somewhere? It probably doesn't hurt to believe such things. And I think that she might approve of me searching the skies for her. She lived a very look up kind of life.

Wendy Darling seemed to live the same life, didn't she? The look up kind of life.

"Well, a mother, a real mother is the most wonderful person in the world. She's the angel voice that bids you good night, kisses your cheek, whispers 'sleep tight'..."

That's something Wendy Darling said in Disney's Peter Pan about mothers. She might as well have been saying it about my Aunt Wendy, the description fits her so well. Wendy was an angel voice. And why couldn't she be now? Would she change so much in death? Would she be, truly, any different in her desires now than when she breathed?

And then I remember Wendy. The person, herself.

"If I could choose, that's what I'd want. To watch over my children and family and help them."

So perhaps that is where she is. Here. Here and there. Low and high. But what could be both low and high, both here and there?

Why, the wind. Of course.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Mothers and the Fall

Another version of this post was originally written for Normons, and published there on Mother's Day, May 11th, 2014.

In Which Amber Expresses Some Insecurities

I've avoided the Internet for a long time. I don't feel qualified to share my thoughts or feelings to such a wide audience. And, guess what? I'm not! I've been graduated with a degree in theatre for about a year. And while I admit that I probably spend more time thinking than most people (so much that's it's socially unhealthy), I have not spent a lifetime studying literature theory, or a lifetime studying Eve, or a lifetime studying the Gospel.

I am also hesitant to share things online for fear of the vitriol that seems to follow any post on any subjectbut especially those which are deemed controversial. It is a shame to me that especially within the Church, we tend to throw so much mud at each other at the slightest mention of the word gender.

And... the cat is out of the bag! That's what this post is about today.

But here is, I suppose, what might prompt you to keep reading.

I have struggled deeply with personal questions about my place in the Plan of Salvation as a female. It has taken me several years to come to a place where I can talk about my experiences without immediately feeling as though my top might explode and molten lava might come shooting out of my head all over my Sunday School class.

The answers I've received (what I'd like to share today) have given me the peace I couldn't find anywhere else. They are very close to my heart. So please, be kind.

So that's me. Amber. And now, hopefully sans lava, I’ll try to share some of those lessons. I hope that if anything, this post will inspire you to seek more light on this sacred topic. I believe that if I can get answers, so can you. But before we can get to those, I need to lay a little groundwork, because to understand what I believe about women and men, you're gonna first have to understand what I, as a Mormon, believe about the Fall.

What Mormons Believe About The Fall

Theologically speaking, we the people of Mormonism have a lot in common with many of our Christian sisters and brothers. Like other Christians, we believe that Eve was a real person, and while it is sometimes unclear if all of the events that took place in the Genesis account are strictly allegorical, we do believe that Eve and Adam were the progenitors of the human family. However, there are many places where we diverge in our beliefs. One of those places is in our understanding of the Fall. That episode where Eve partook of the fruit, and Adam followed suit (I rhymed. Is that tacky?) and everybody got boot-ed (IT’S ANOTHER RHYME.) out of the Garden.

Our slightly different understanding comes from the books of scripture we study in addition to the Bible—the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Mormon teaches us that: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:26)

So, on a most fundamental level, we believe that the Fall was a necessary part of the Plan. Extend that idea a bit further, and yes, we even believe that the Fall was as integral to the Plan as the Atonement itself. Check out this excerpt from a Bruce R. McConkie address to see what I mean:

“If there had been no fall of man, there would not be a mortal probation. Mortal man would not be, nor would there be animals or fowls or fishes or life of any sort upon the earth. And, we repeat, none of us would be on the way to immortality and eternal life… The fall of Adam brought temporal and spiritual death into the world, and the atonement of Christ ransomed men from these two deaths by bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. This makes the fall as essential a part of the plan of salvation as the very atonement itself.” (“The Three Pillars of Eternity,” 1981)

I suppose that we believe these things are true because we believe that there is purpose in suffering. Likewise, we believe that by being separated from God, by entering a world of trouble and pain and heartache, we have an opportunity to becoming more like Him. But it’s more than that because without sorrow, there really would be no such thing as joy. In Mormon lingo, we call this the law of opposition. Because we believe that the Fall is so purposeful, we believe that Eve was very wise to choose it.

What Mormons Believe About Eve

Oh man. We love Eve. We admire her in much same way that we admire our own moms. We believe that she was Adam’s equal and participating partner. We believe that she was righteous and awesome. In the Church’s Women’s Meeting a month ago one of the members of our First Presidency spoke about Eve. He said:

"You have her example to follow. By revelation, Eve recognized the way home to God. She knew
that the Atonement of Jesus Christ made eternal life possible in families.” (Henry B. Eyring,Daughters in the Covenant,” 2014)

"The Creation of Eve" by Rose Datoc Dall
We also believe that the choice she made, with the fruit? We believe that is was her decision to make. Adam couldn’t have made it.  Eve’s calling was given to her by God in the name He chose for her —Eve—which means the mother of all living (see Moses 4:26). This calling made her both the conduit through which life for the entire human family would begin and the representative for that entire human family in the making of this rather monumental decision.

Joseph Fielding Smith, one of our prophets taught that “she partook of that fruit for one good reason, and that was to open the door to bring you and me and everyone else into this world, for Adam and Eve could have remained in the Garden of Eden; they could have been there to this day, if Eve hadn’t done something.” (In Conference Report, October 1967, italics added.)

That’s just a sum-up. I’m barely scratching the surface here. If you’d like to learn more about who Eve is to Mormons, I’d suggest this article by Beverly Campbell, the former Director of International Affairs for the Church. She published a much longer version of her research in a book (which is also hugely worth your time) called Eve, and the Choice Made in Eden.


Okay, so we’ve talked a lot about the Fall. But let’s take it back for a moment to the law of opposition. Here’s what The Book of Mormon has to say about the law of opposites:

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness or misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” (2 Ne. 2:11)

For the purposes of our exploration, we’re going to rely on a concept developed by linguistic theorist, Ferdinand Saussure, called the binary. Monsieur Saussure believed that as humans, we create meaning in differences. He looked at the world through opposite pairings, which he called binaries. That scripture above is full of binaries. Righteousness versus wickedness; good versus bad; life versus death; and so on.

Here is a list of binaries that apply to the topic at hand:


So that was Monsieur Saussure’s first point—that meaning is derived in differences. That you can’t have one without the other. But his second point might be even more significant. He believed that it is our human tendency to wrongly value, or privilege, one half of any binary over the other. I want you to look at the list again, and ask yourself, which one do I privilege?


The Three Pillars of Eternity

One of our best remembered apostles, Bruce R. McConkie, taught that the Plan of Salvation stands on three pillars: The Creation, The Fall, and The Atonement. If we examine these three themes of eternity through a gender lens (which is exactly what we’re gonna do) the equality that is imbedded in the Gospel becomes more clear.

We’ve been taught that God created the world. Because of modern-day revelation, we believe that God is a title referring to both of our Heavenly Parents, the union of a perfected man and woman. In fact, referring to the text in Genesis about the creation of Adam and Eve—

“and God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness…so God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Gen. 1:26-27)

 —prophet Brigham Young taught that “we were created . . . in the image of our
father and our mother, the image of our God.” (See Discourses of Brigham Young, pg. 51)

So we can see how the genders were equally represented in the Creation. And we’ve already discussed whose choice it was to enact the Fall. And I’m gonna go out on a limb here—but I’d guess that you know who enacted the Atonement. Eve, a female, and Christ, a male, have created a pattern for us in their roles. The Fall was an inherently Feminine act, and that the Atonement was an inherently Masculine one. And I don’t mean that in any trite or trivial form. I’m not talking about breadwinning versus knitting here. I’m also not talking about a stereotypical interest in nail polish as opposed to automobiles. I’m talking about the glorious, grand, and perfectly equal plan of our Heavenly Parents. Equal, but not the same. Equal and complementary.

Their respective roles speak volumes about what it means to be a man and a woman in an eternal sense. And this is the pattern. It is the pattern of beginning and returning.

Women, with our bodies, bring people into the Fall. And men, with their Priesthood, bring people out of the Fall, back to God. Through the processes of gestation, childbirth, and lactation, women are giving life to the mission of Eve. Through the ordinances of baptism, confirmation, and the ordinances of the temple, men are embodying the Atonement.

Interestingly, the Latin root of the word transgress means “a downward but forward movement.” Imagine in your mind the kind of line that creates. The Atonement is its inverse, an upward, forward movement. Together, they create the crucible of life.

"two women understanding the same mystery" by Caitlin Connolly

A Digression About Priesthood

As a principle of the Gospel, the priesthood is often separated into two subdivisions—the Power of God, and the Authority to Act in his name (keys).

In our Mormon vernacular however, we use the term priesthood to describe a lot of different things. Church leadership, quorums that range from 12-year-old boys to seasoned-with-life elderly men. Sometimes priesthood just means men. It can be the lesser priesthood, or the greater priesthood. Somehow the term encapsulates saving ordinances, and those that don’t save, but those that exalt. It refers to blessings of counsel and blessings of healing. It means a mastery over the elements, and an ability to perform miracles.

I could probably continue.

Dense term? I think so. And when you look at that list, can you see places where there is room for womanhood? I can.

Women can heal people. We can give counsel that is directed by the Spirit. We can perform miracles. We have access to the ministry of angels (which the D&C describes as being attached to the Aaronic Priesthood.) We also can cast out devils and evil spirits. And we certainly lead, do we not? We are leaders in our families, leaders among our friends, leaders in our female-based auxiliary organizations.
So then, what don’t we do?

We do not provide saving ordinances.

It seems to me that the Church’s primary function is to provide saving ordinances to people who desire them. The Church does a lot of good in addition to fulfilling that mission, but ultimately, the ordinances are what are most important. In my mind this may be much of the reason why men are at the helm of the Church.

A Note on Gendered Linguistics

If I were reading this for the first time, I’d probably feel a bit hesitant about some of the information being presented. One of my major qualms would be: “Okay, so I like everything you’re saying about Eve, but she isn’t really talked about that explicitly in the scriptures. In fact, whenever we talk about the Fall, we call it the Fall of Adam, or Adam’s transgression.”

In case you’re like me, I have two answers for you.

In Moses 6:9 we read: "In the image of his own body, male and female, created he them and blessed them, and called their name Adam" (emphasis added). “Adam” then is referring to the union of Adam and Eve, in much the same way that many couples choose to take the last name of the husband in a marriage.

While this linguistic tradition says lovely things about the unity that can and should exist in a marriage, it doesn’t really provide for Eve to have an identity that is separate from her husband. This is a flaw, I think, of the English language more generally. We don’t have any gender-neutral pronouns, and often times, particularly in the scriptures, we use masculine words such as “man” “he” or “his” are used when what’s actually trying to be conveyed is more inclusive.

You can see how using these words allows for two readings. The human race more collectively (men and women), or just the men. We don’t have a linguistic mechanism to do that for women.

While I believe that Eve and Adam had an exemplary marriage, I also believe that because her mission and contract were with God, and not with Adam, it is important to see Eve as an individual first, and then in connection to her husband. In the same way it is important for women to see themselves as individuals, outside of their relationships with spouse or children.

In Conclusion

Men and women are both so important, so necessary in the Plan of our Heavenly Parents. Each sex is loved, and each gender has been given a divinely mandated mission. But as this post focuses on Eve, our first mother, let’s take a moment to think about our own mothers, women who have walked Eve's path. Let's realize that not only was it mom who gave you a heartbeat, who taught you right from wrong, left from right, baking soda from baking powder, but it was your mom who brought you into the Fall. It was your mother who gave you the opportunity to know the Atonement, and the reason to need it. That is her divine role.