Monday, March 30, 2015

Cinderella's Chrysalis

This post is the sixth 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.

"And every woman that hath this hope in her purifieth herself, even as he is pure."
1 John 3:3

A reunion occurs in the opening scenes of Disney's new Cinderella. It's a reunion between a merchant father, and his young daughter, Ella. He has just returned from France, and he's brought with him a gifta paper butterflyor as he teaches Ella to call it, a papillon. A young and thoroughly delighted Ella accepts the gift, and keeps it among her treasures after her parents have died.

It reminded me a bit of the merchant father in another Cinderella adaptation. Do you remember the father in Ever After? If you've seen Ever After I doubt you'd forget. He brought his daughter, his Danielle, a copy of Thomas More's Utopia after coming home from one of his trips. You'll probably recall that this gift served as a key point for character development in the film. Danielle's political perspectives, even her very ahead-of-its-time brand of feminism seemed to have been quite informed by More's ideas. Perhaps informed by More, but I think cemented by her father's devoted (and rather egalitarian) parenting. She even spouted More at the prince, when, disguised as a courtier, she prevented her servant-friend from being shipped to the America's.

But I digress.

Cinderella is a popular story. And while Disney might seem to have a bit of a monopoly on it these days, it came into being long before 2015, or even 1950. The origin of both filmic adaptations was Charles Perrault's fairytale, which was published in 1697. Charles Perrault is credited as being the inventor of the contemporary fairy tale genre (he was on the scene about 200 years before the Grimm Brothers), but in all reality, he was merely a vehicle through which pre-existing folk tales were preserved. It would appear that Cinderella has been told for centuries.

Which is a lovely notion. And hardly surprising. It's the classic triumphant underdog story. People have always been people, haven't they? Through the ages there's something about characters rising above hardships that we, as audiences, gravitate towards. We still fill our movie theaters to watch the old story play out. I wonder if it's because Cinderella is about more than overcoming oppression.

It's not that Cinderella simply came out of her situation, that she broke even. The end of her story, her quintessential 'happily ever after' shows us that the final state of things can be better, so much better, than any given beginning.

And I suppose that's something else I love about Cinderella. Her. A herione. Hers is the story of a timeless heroine, a story that mothers have been telling their daughters for hundreds of years. And what is she celebrated for? For courage and for kindness the 2015 film would tell you. For these and more, I'd like to posit. For courage and for kindness yes, but also for patience, for faith, and most of all, for hope.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Cinderella descends the stairs of the family manor dressed in a pink dress to go to the ball. She tells her step family that the dress was her mother's, and that she has been mending it so that she could wear it to the palace.

Just like in the 1950 version, the stepmother approaches and rips the gown. Her daughters follow suit until Cinderella's dress is unwearable. They leave Cinderella inside the house, but where they really leave her is at the very bottom. Because she's tried, you see. She's tried to have courage, to be kind, to keep the promise that she made her mother. And until this point, somehow, through all the hardship, she's managed to keep a bit of hope alive. Enough hope that she was able to secretly mend her mother's old dress. Enough hope that she was able to come down those stairs and ask her abusive step family to go to the ball with them. The loss of the dress seems to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Have you ever felt like that? I know I have. Although it's never been a gown, I've certainly had things that I loved so dearly, things that I'd worked so hard for, cherished so much, taken from me and treated more like garbage than the sacred things they are.

It's what happens next that redeems the moment. As you know, Cinderella's fairy godmother appears. After the coach, and the horses, and the footmen, and the driver have all been transformed from pumpkins, and mice, and lizards, and geese, the fairy godmother turns her attention to Cinderella's now very ragged pink dress.

Cinderella asks her fairy godmother not to do away with the dress entirely, because it was her mother's. And so the fairy godmother agrees. She'll simply modify the dress. Transform it. Beautify it. Beauty for ashes it, you could say.

And that's where the butterfly motif appears again. A whole kaleidoscope of butterflies surrounds Cinderella in the most whimsical flurry since "Colors of the Wind." Then, the lens directs the viewer to Cinderella's feet, where we see that two magical butterflies, one for each foot, adorn her iconic glass slippers.

And here there exists another similarity between this telling and the Ever After adaptation. Ever After features inanimate connections to each of the protagonist's parents; for Danielle it is her mother's dress and her father's book.

For Ella though, it is her mother's dress and her father's shoes.

Sometimes caterpillars struggle to emerge from their chrysalises. But did you know that if someone on the outside were to attempt to help, to maybe cut a small incision in the chrysalis, that it would actually do more harm than good? Such caterpillars can become butterflies, but they will never have the muscle necessary to fly.

And I think that's what Cinderella is really about. It's about a girl who reaches the tipping point in her journey of personal metamorphoses. She loses her mother, then she loses her father. This latter loss catapults her into a dark, oppressive situation. A step mother who neither understands nor loves her. She's taken advantage of and cornered into servitude, where slowly, gradually she's led to what appears to be the bottom.

And it's interesting that her liberation doesn't actually come the night of the ball. And it doesn't come through the prince either. Because after everything, after being locked in the attic, with no chance of being reunited with the prince, Cinderella still chooses to hope. And she sings. It is this action, her voice, that ultimately liberates her.

Her arc isn't simply a tale of an ugly, under-appreciated duckling becoming a swan. And it's not exclusively a story about social ascension either. It's a transformation. She finds herself.

But how does she do it?

Writing about Cinderella has really touched me today. Because I've been in dark places. I've even been led to dark places. Containers of pressure, of grief. But it wasn't until today that I reframed the experience. What if that dark place were actually a chrysalis? And I am a caterpillar; a caterpillar who must stay inside of her container until she is ready to emerge. Which might explain why I so often find myself believing that God has abandoned me. He (and She) wouldn't want me to break free until I have been pressurized long enough to fly.

And doesn't that make Cinderella's journey the journey of all women? I like to think so. First she loses a mother. It seems that our Mother might have been the first person we lost when we left the presence of God. For some reason she is missing, forgotten, veiled.

But we retained our Father. We are taught about our Father. We pray to our Father. Inevitably though, there comes a time in all of our lives when we lose him too. Perhaps we sin. Perhaps we get hurt. Perhaps we lose faith. Whatever the reason, the pattern seems sure. We grow through distance. We find ourselves.

So how do we do it?

The armor of God comes to mind. Particularly this phrase: "and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace." I've been tossing that phrase around in my mind for months. Ever since my sister Emily gave me a pair of flats that came in a shade of turquoise that I particularly like.

I guess there is some debate in Christian circles about what the word 'preparation' means. John Locke said that the word preparation would be better translated to readiness. So the entire phrase would mean "with a readiness to walk in the Gospel of Peace." I like that. Especially the connection to walking. As we walk the path back to God, we can do it with our feet, the instruments of our walking, clothed and covered in peace.

But what is peace? I think it is an acceptance of God's plan. It is fully accepting that when our paths get dark, and when the way is hedged up, that we are merely entering a chrysalis, and that eventually we will emerge as butterflies.

Which paints an entirely new picture of Miss Cinderella and her glass slippers doesn't it? The magical glass slippers that were just for her. She entered the ball in the shoes of her fatherthe peace that he'd given her long ago. A promise almost. That she too was a butterfly, and that once she had been under pressure long enough she would grow wings and fly.

She was robed in the dress of her mother. She walked the path of change, in the garments of kindness and courage. And I think that it was her unconquerable sense of hope that eventually procured the strength necessary for her to emerge from her chrysalis.

So perhaps as we continue to walk our own paths of change, we can walk behind Cinderella. That is what good stories are for after all. To show us the way. Every morning we can exercise good faith and good hope and put on our shoes of peace.

As for me, I think I will imagine them as glass slippers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy Birthday, dear Relief Society!

Currently, I'm a relief society teacher in my ward. I absolutely, completely love it. The girls that I serve are bright, eager, and good through and through. It really is a kind of privilege to be in a position where I can facilitate growth and discussion with them.

Recently, they all indulged my love for Mormon women's history and supported an unusual lesson that I had been imagining. To celebrate the birth of the Relief Society, we decided to learn about the past presidents of our organization.

With the exception of Emma Smith, and in some cases, Eliza R. Snow, my girls hadn't heard of any of the 16 general Relief Society presidents. Excluding Linda K. Burton and Julie B. Beck of course. This made for an exciting series of discoveries.

We had our lesson on President's Day weekend (oddly appropriate I'm just now realizing), and almost each girl who was present that day was assigned a president to study. After reading up on her president (we primarily used the biographies printed in Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt's Faith, Hope, and Charity: Inspiration from the Lives of General Relief Society Presidents) she taught the group about the woman she had studied.

Each girl looked for Gospel principles in her president's history, and shared a scripture that reminded her of the woman she was presenting about.

It all made for a deeply enriching experience. The Spirit was incredibly thick in our classroom that day. It was so strong that it seemed entirely possible that these Relief Society presidents were present too. That's the power of stories. Good stories. True stories.

A few weeks after our lesson (which was actually followed by a second lesson because we ran out of time during the first one) we had a small birthday party, where we made the video embedded above. The video almost entirely features the girls from my Relief Society.

I love hearing from these girls, these little women, about what they learned. And also who doesn't love our Bishop? He too, is literally, the crème de la crème.

But I guess you'll have to watch the video to understand that reference.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Asking Questions (Part 3: with Secenump)

This post is the fifth 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

"... and [she] shall mount up in the imagination of [her] thoughts as on eagles' wings."
D&C 124:99

There are two versions of this story. The first, a history passed down through the whites. The second, a tradition of the natives.

The story goes like this: My fourth-great grandfather had four wives, but his first wife, Eunice, was barren. The whole clan was living in Central Utah, trying to make peace with their new desert home and its hostile inhabitants. The local natives were warring amongst themselves. One particular skirmish had just ceased, and, as was often the case in those days, the victorious tribe had kidnapped the children of the losing clan, with plans to sell them into slavery to the Spaniards. But at the mouth of Provo canyon, Porter Rockwell apprehended these natives before they could sell their victims, and he purchased the children with a plan to save them.  He presented them to my fourth-great granddaddy, Joseph Stacy Murdock, who gave them to his first wife, Eunice, to raise. There were two. A boy and a girl. Supickett and Secenump.

The story goes like this: While the first hunters and trappers to arrive in Utah were remembered for treading lightly on the local natives and their traditions, the Mormon pioneers who arrived in 1847 built fences and began scattering the first people. These Mormon settlers would use violence and force when they deemed it necessary, and their leader, Brigham Young, instructed his people to take the daughters of Chiefs into their homes to protect them from attack. Secenump was a Chief's daughter. She was the daughter of Chief Arapene, one of a royal line of brothers that led the Utahn native peoples.

The story continues: Secenump was a Ute. She was raised by Eunice, and given a new name: Prenetta, named for Eunice's grandmother. She grew up to be well-educated, well-mannered, and well-loved by her family.

The story continues: Secenump was a Shoshone. Every month, her father, Chief Arapene, came down out of the mountains to visit her at the Murdock homestead. She grew up to be culturally white, culturally Mormon, and completely disconnected from her roots and from her people.

Where the story ends: Somewhere near her sixteenth birthday, a Gentile man living in the area took an interest in Secenump. This raised alarm in her large, polygamous, family. And so, feeling concerned, Joseph Stacy Murdock went to visit his personal friend, and prophet, Brigham Young. At their meeting, President Young counseled my fourth great-granddaddy to marry Secenump himself. Now, Joseph Stacy Murdock was not one to take prophetic counsel lightly. In fact, Joseph is the same guy who penned the words to "Come Listen to a Prophet's Voice."

Even though he had never disobeyed a prophet before, he couldn't go through with what Brigham had asked of him. So he went home and could not find peace over the issue. After two weeks, he went back to see Brigham Young. And when President Young again instructed Joseph to marry his daughter, this time Joseph returned home, and he did.

Where the story ends:


I'm not actually a direct descendant of Secenump's, although she did have five children with her father. I come through Joseph's second wife, a pioneer woman named Elizabeth Hunter Murdock. This genetic distinction didn't spare me any confusion though.

I remember when I first encountered Secenump's story. I was young—really young. Maybe nine, maybe ten. I was interested in family history at the time. After reading her story I didn't take up an interest in family history for another fifteen years.

I'm not entirely sure what it was that made this event so traumatic for me. Perhaps it was that I grew up on Shoshone Avenue, and being a very imaginative child it was easy for me to feel a sort of sisterhood with the historic Native American women of Idaho.

There was, and still is, something about Native American women. Their courage, their connection to sacred things, the freedom they had to roam, to act. I know that I run the risk of romanticizing Native culture here, but to me it is true that at the heart of Native life was a different kind of woman than you found among the European immigrants and pioneers.

And that was one kind of loss I sensed in Secenump's story. At nine, or ten, I was the same emotional little creature that I am now, and I felt that I instinctively understood the kind of pain that Secenump would have faced. Not just the pain of being displaced, of losing one's way of living. But the pain of longing for acceptance in a new home, but never finding it because the color of your skin always stood as a reminder to yourself and everyone else of what made you different. Perhaps, being a girl, she would have dreamed of love, of starting her own family. And the kind of aching, crushing—disappointment isn't the word—because it wouldn't have been a solitary moment of let down, and disappointment seems to imply something momentary; the kind of aching, crushing, blow that she was dealt in a marriage. This must have been what made her story hurt for me.

I reasoned in my young mind that the only way a sixteen-year-old girl would agree to such a union would be if she were forced into it.

And because we have no words of Secenump's, no history from her, or her adoptive mother, Eunice, there's really no way to know what she thought or felt. We do have these the words of her niece, Amelia Brittingham Murdock Witt, who wrote:

"Many times the girl's heart was made to ache, but Joseph S. Murdock was a just man and he tried so hard to see that she wasn't hurt too badly, knowing too well what she was up against."

As I've recently been revisiting this branch of my family tree I've been (a bit resistantly at times) trying to get to know my fourth great-granddaddy. And you know, I've amended one of my former conclusions. I don't believe that he would have coerced his daughter into a marriage. Although a bit of pride leaks out from behind clenched teeth as I write this, I have to admit that nothing I've read contributes to such a picture of this man. The Joseph Stacy emerging from the pages I've been turning really seems to be a kind, a thoughtful, and even a sensitive being.

I do wish I knew the specifics though.

In lieu of specifics, lately God has been providing me with a little of bit comfort. It started with Hagar actually. Secenump is a kind of Hagar, don't you think? Both are the exotic, the adopted, the stranger. Both were removed, disadvantaged, married, inseminated.

And it's funny, because my initial reaction to Secenump's story was exactly like my reaction to Hagar's. But there is one crucial difference. There's a safe distance created by 4,000 years. Yes, the biblical account of Hagar exists, and I'm sure Hagar, herself, existed in some capacity in the very distant past. It's not like her life really affects me though. It doesn't even have to effect me.

But when a story, such as Secenump's, is only four generations removed, and you know that without the people involved, you wouldn't be here, the tragedy, the confusion; it all takes on an entirely different kind of weight.

You're not given breathing room. You cannot ask, "But what if this is more story than history?" or, "What if this didn't happen the way everybody's interpreting it?" And it's not like you can just tune out the one Sunday School lesson that mentions her every four years. Every time you're reminded to "do" your family history, every time you think about the Natives who lived on the plains (which is quite a lot if you're me), you're brought back to face this strange, toxic, pulsating knot in your family tree.

But why does this matter?

For two reasons, I think.

The first is because I've realized that there are more than my experiences, or the stories of women that surround me that have created a climate, and a need for answers. It feels a bit Mulan to write this out, but I've realized that the stories that have more immediately, even physically created me have left bits of themselves in me. Hurts and pains and dispositions and inclinations, and yes, questions.

But the second reason is the one I've been spending the most time with recently. Remember the well from Hagar's story? The Living Water? I've been trying to find it in Secenump's life. Because if it's there for one woman, it must be there for another. God is no respecter of person's after all. And I haven't been able to find that water. At least, not immediately.

After her marriage, Secenump lost a baby, and then brought four more into the world. She died in her early forties, not long before one of her sons, Alma, was framed for a murder, scapegoated because of communal biases against Native Americans. Not too long after his release from prison, Alma was murdered himself, by a man motivated by upsettingly similar biases.

There's just not much going on here that's very redemptive. Or I suppose, there's not much going on here that is visibly redemptive.

As I've tried to apply my rule for asking questions, that touchstone in 1 Nephi 11, that "I know that He loveth his children. Nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things" idea, very slowly I've watched the veil of redemption being pulled back.

For one thing, is there not a kind of redemption that occurs when you are remembered?  When, even a hundred and fifty years after the fact, a little girl prays and struggles and cries and freezes over the life you lived? Isn't there something redemptive about someone, her perhaps, telling her truth about you? About her telling everyone that you must have been a woman who lived her faith day-to-day, who lived her faith simultaneously in spite of and because of opposition? And is there something redemptive in watching this same girl discover that she wants to be a woman who lives her faith like you?

I like to imagine, that if I were her, there would be something redemptive in that.

But I believe that there must be a bigger picture than that. Surely God would not call one of His (and Her) daughters to face so much and offer to her only the consolation of a girl 150 years her junior feeling some things.

No, no, no. Pains and sufferings are meant to be turned into things of light, of truth. Beauty for ashes.

And that's when a little idea begins to blossom. Because if Secenump really is a type of Hagar, then perhaps some of their redemption is similar. Hagar is the spiritual ancestress of the Muslim people. Some of the reason she was called to sacrifice what she did, was so that we could be a sacred link between her progeny and the ordinances of the Priesthood. What if Secenump could be the same?
She was one of the first Native Americans to enter the temple. Just behind Chief Sagwitch and his wife. But maybe it's not so much about the people who come after her as it is about the people who came before her. The Ne'we, the people from which sprang both the Utes and the Shoshones. And so I've wondered if perhaps her mission is largely playing out on the other side, if perhaps, she has an opportunity to be a bridge, a savior on Mount Zion for her people. An Ambassador.

That was my answer anyways.

And it's the kind of answer that reaches backwards. Back towards that little girl on Shoshone Avenue. But it reaches forward too. Because God has a lot of work ahead of Him (and Her), and I think that Secenump is on their team.

And so am I.