Go Aggies!

KERSHISNIK_SHEWILLFIND

This is a story about my son. And my dad. And me. And how sometimes death is not the end of a relationship.

Last year, when my oldest was in 11th grade, I started to have panic attacks about college. I never thought I’d have to deal with this. My husband and I both attended BYU, and while we didn’t love it, it was affordable and academically I’ve always maintained you can get wherever you want from BYU. So I just assumed my kids would do the same. But I hadn’t factored in a kid who a) did not want to attend a Church school; and b) didn’t attend seminary regularly. And let’s be clear; our budget could not stretch to cover all these lovely little liberal arts colleges around here. Plus I did not want him taking on great debt. Which left me thinking Jonah would end up at a UMass. The schools are fine, but are no bargain. I did the math and realized once we covered tuition, he’d need to live at home.  I love Massachusetts but it is cruelly expensive. None of these things are the end of the world and I know worrying about college is a privilege. But I also know these decisions can alter our lives. I felt depressed and desperate and greedy for options.  Lots of praying ensued.

I called my sister Angela to talk about all this stuff and she joked, “Too bad Dad’s not around to write a letter for you.” I’d forgotten about my very thrifty father’s proclivity for writing letters to save money. When Lee, my oldest brother, applied and got into grad school at UCLA, he was denied instate tuition because he’d gone off to BYU and served a mission so they said he had lost his California residency. The difference between in and out of state tuition was huge and my dad was having none of it. So Dad typed up a forceful missive about why his son was still a CA resident and got Lee his cheap tuition. Next up: Danny, kid number 2, applies to med schools all over the US. He gets into several but is not even granted an interview at UCLA. My dad is outraged. Out of state tuition is a killer and who is UCLA to say no to his Danny? So once again, Dad breaks out the Smith Corona and outlines for UCLA their mistake. UCLA begrudgingly granted Danny an interview…and loved him. A week later he was accepted with a scholarship. Next came Angela who got a medium award to BYU. My dad was convinced that if BYU took SAT scores instead of just the ACT, her scholarship would have been more. So he said as much to President Holland in a forceful letter. Elder Holland politely denied his request. But by golly Dad tried! And then there’s me. I was never up for anything that required a letter. My dad was so happy I just got in to BYU that he didn’t even care that we had to pay full price. If anything, it was my fault, and not BYU’s, that nothing was special enough about me to merit a discount.

The last weekend in January 2014 I was at my friend’s house in the Berkshires with a group of really smart, interesting women. During a conversation about college with my new friend Julia, she mentioned something about one of her kids considering Utah State University.  “But out of state tuition is a bummer,” I said. She replied that USU has a special deal where kids of their alumni can get instate tuition. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “I wish it extended to grandkids since my dad was an Aggie.” She told me that come to think of it, due to the lowering of the missionary age, she’d heard that USU might have extended the tuition break to grandkids of graduates to keep their numbers up. As she spoke these words a door opened in my mind. My dad went to USU. Tuition would be affordable. It’s strong in science and engineering, which Jonah wants to study. Logan is a great college town. We have lots of family in Utah to be a safety net.  Jonah could leave home but not take on massive debt. And religiously it’s neutral. If he wanted to attend church, awesome; but nobody would stalk him if he didn’t.

The following Monday I called USU and asked if it was true, that grandkids of graduates could get instate tuition. Yes, the woman said. It’s called the Legacy Scholarship. That night I told Jonah about it all and he also seemed relieved—and excited. He immediately started googling and tells me about “genetically-modified goats that produce milk containing the spider silk proteins that can be used in their research on synthetic material for artificial ligaments.” So nerdy and so cool.

I called Angela that night and told her that dad had come through for me on the college front. She laughed and said, “Hon, you finally got your letter—from the grave.”   I teared up a bit as I thought about that, and how I just assumed that relationships have a hard stop in death. My relationship with my father was always strained. We were incapable of giving the other what the other needed: I yearned for acceptance and engagement; he expected excellence and conformity. Since his passing seven years ago, I have felt his love in ways I never did when he was alive. And since my grandmother passed last summer, I often dream of her and awake feeling like I’ve just spent the afternoon with my best friend. For Christmas I bought myself a copy of Brian Kershisnik’s “She Will Find What is Lost.” When I first saw it, I was speechless. It captures what I know has happened to me. I have been buoyed up by loving people I cannot see. I just never realized my dad was among them. I now accept that those on the other side are indeed present with us, rooting for us, and occasionally, writing letters for us.  We can find what was lost.

Jonah was accepted to USU and starts this fall.

Read More

Tattoos and Ghost Stories

ghost

A few months ago a dear friend asked me if I had anything I’d want to contribute for a collection of essays on Primary that would be both real and uplifting. I recalled a funny and sweet memory of one daughter as a Sunbeam and submitted it. Another friend of ours, Bret Wunderli, also submitted a piece. Both were gladly accepted by the compiler. However, the publisher, whose distributor is Desert Book, found our submission troubling and chose to omit them stating: “With Deseret Book distributing this book, we can’t include anything that hints at questioning Church doctrines. Even if it’s subtle.” This disturbed me. Not because my story wouldn’t be included, but because of the climate of fear that is trickling down from above. There is just so much fear. And it is escalating.  Nobody’s mad about the editorial decision, just really sad when something you intended to be bright and insightful is seen as insidious. So brace yourselves for our expurgated stories:

“Tattoos”

My husband’s family is very loving, very supportive, and very colorful. Literally. Seven of the ten kids have at least one tattoo.  And not just initials, or some Chinese symbol that is supposed to say “serenity” but actually says “brussels sprout.” They wear tattoos of bulldogs and Spanish skylines, Maori symbolism, and even the Little Mermaid. My kids adore these aunts and uncles and get fairly defensive when Primary lessons lump body art into the list of “no no’s” or signs of apostasy.

When Georgia was a Sunbeam, her sweet teacher taught a lesson on bodies being temples. When she got to the part about tattoos being Bad, Georgia jumped up from her chair and let loose that her family had lots of tattoos and they were good and pretty and in fact God LOVED tattoos and temples had art so why not bodies—so there! Her kind teacher quietly directed these 3 and 4 year olds to draw pictures for the rest of the lesson.

After church, this teacher found my husband and me and told us the story. She handed me the picture Georgia had drawn. It was a very simple sketch of a man in robes, beard, long hair. Clearly it was Jesus…with a large red tattoo on his forehead of a heart. I looked up to see how this teacher was responding. She had a huge smile on her face and told me she loved Georgia because she was so passionate and truly understood that the Lord loves us all.  I hugged her and was so thankful for a teacher who can teach the party line but did not need to shut down the opposition. 

“Why aren’t there any women in the Godhead?”

By Bret Wunderli

Several years ago, my wife and I taught the oldest teenagers in Sunday School. We had prepared a lesson on something else, but when it became clear that the students were unclear about the Godhead, we scrapped our lesson and taught them about the Godhead. (It should be noted that these young men and women were smart; the fault, we’ve always assumed, was in the teaching they’d received. That is, their teachers had always assumed that they understood the Church’s teachings regarding the Godhead. That was our hypothesis, anyway.)

Some years later, I found myself teaching the oldest Primary children. To say these boys and girls were bright doesn’t do them justice. Remembering our experience in Sunday School, I decided to teach them the clearest, best lesson about the Godhead that I could manage when the topic came up in the manual.

At some point in the lesson, Victoria raised her hand. Her question was priceless. She said, “Why aren’t there any women in the Godhead?” Slight pause. Then, with a puzzled face and a tilted head, she added, “I mean, there’s a ghost in there after all.” That class was not only full of smart kids; they were also kind. They respected each other. So when I tell you that everyone (including the teacher) laughed, it’s important to understand that we were laughing at Victoria’s wit and not at her. Victoria was glowing.

Here’s my answer to her that day: “Victoria, there are many people in the Church who will give you many different answers to that question. Here’s the real deal. We just don’t know why there aren’t any women in the Godhead.”

And there you have it.

 

Read More

A Few of My Favorite Things: Christmas Picture Books

DSC_0022ADJ

One of my favorite holiday traditions growing up was reading stories on Christmas Eve. I’ve continued this with my own family and because I’m such a sucker for beautiful picture books and there are so many lovely holiday ones, we can’t do it all in just one night. Now we read them throughout the month of December to get in the spirit. Tonight I poured through my holiday book boxes and will highlight my top ten favorites.

Read More

True, Kind, Necessary? Rules for Speaking

true

Growing up, my sister and I drove my mom crazy for lots of reasons. One of her peeves is that while she taught countless YW and RS lessons, the only thing Angela and I seem to remember is her formula for deciding whether to hold one’s tongue. We came home from church and sat in the kitchen arguing for ages about whether the adage, “Before you speak ask yourself, is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?” was a good rule. Mom was adamant that unless words could pass this triple test, they were best kept to oneself. Angela and I made a case for a two out of three and 30 some years later, it stills feels right. Here is our argument.

I. True & Kind: This is an easy category. Someone does something well. Tell them. There’s a man in my ward that I adore. He does what I call the “insta-thank you.” If a sacrament talk moves him, he whips a note card out of his briefcase and immediately expresses in lovely specifics how your words affected him. Before you make it to the foyer he hands it to you. Sometimes he waits a day and mails it. Let’s be clear. This is NOT necessary but true and kind. It was so meaningful to my husband that he has taken up the practice and has sent kind notes to hotel staff and new deacons and members of the activities committee. I am often amazed at how hungry people are for genuine compliments.

II. Kind & Necessary: This one’s tricky. While I value honesty, there are times when I think other things trump the truth. As a parent you learn this lesson early and often. When a budding chef ventures into the kitchen and makes something they are so proud of, honesty is not your friend. My littlest discovered a few years ago that dandelions were edible so she filled a bowl with them and covered it in ranch dressing and served them to us for dinner. It was Hidden Valley lawn clippings soup. I gagged it down. But seeing the potential over the truth is kind and necessary for growth. And not just for novice chefs or violin players. I have been the recipient of words crafted to validate me when I have been fragile and finding my way. I’m not saying we should blow sunshine up each other’s wahoos 24/7. Ultimately that is NOT kind.  The art is in knowing when it is necessary to bless someone with the most positive version of a situation. The truth can be a sword and should be wielded with caution.

III. Necessary & True: This category can be hardest for me. In Meyers-Briggs speak I am an ENFP. The letter in the third position represents your decision making function. Feelers (F) like me are prone to privileging people’s feeling when faced with decisions while Thinkers (T) put more weight on impersonal facts and principles. When I have to tell someone something that is hard to hear, I need to be sure it’s important they hear it or essential I say it (unless I’m mad at them then all bets are off). As a Mormon woman, this is extra tricky because we are by very definition meant to be kind and nurturing and I find I am not well received when I enter into waters that are neither warm nor fuzzy. I’ve ticked off some of my leaders over the years when I’ve decided to share things I find true and necessary. And I’m not going to deny that the repercussions haven’t stung and made me more cautious. Recently I attended a meeting where the counsel given to the women in attendance felt not only out of touch but potentially harmful. And I said nothing. I justified that I stayed silent not out of fear but futility. I felt like it wouldn’t do any good. Any words of dissent would have been ignored by the speaker. I also rationalized that maybe her words were true for some. Yet I’m a little ashamed of that now. Because the other women in that room who were frustrated might have benefited from knowing they were not alone. I have been so relieved to have others speak up and share alternate viewpoints that either validated mine or allowed me to consider new perspectives. I see now that ultimately my silence was neither true, nor necessary, nor kind.

Despite what my mother thinks, I weigh my words carefully, trying to balance the needs of the individual with what is expedient and what is essential. Because I recognize that words are powerful and can harm as well as heal. But I also know that we can just as easily wound others with our silence.

How do you decide when to speak up and when to stay silent? Is honesty always the best policy? Have you sacrificed honesty for politeness? Do feminists have an added obligation to speak their truth?

 

Read More

General Conference: Feeling Tossed on the Old Ship Zion

life-preserver

For the most part I’m a fan of General Conference. I like to spend Saturdays working on a project, headphones on and hearing counsel and stories about the gospel. Sundays I turn it on in the kitchen and try to listen as I simultaneously instruct the kids on the proper way to make frijoles or corn chowder or whatever yumminess we’ll eat during the break between session. Sunday afternoon is spent in a food coma in the basement, drifting in and out of sleep as I recline on the futon. Some talks I like. Some bug me. But I usually walk away a little more committed and renewed. But this past weekend, I felt pulled in two different directions and I’m a little queasy as a result.

My favorite speaker is always Jeffrey Holland. I love his intelligence. I love his relationship with his wife Pat (she is his equal, not his “sweet companion”) and that comes out in how he talks about and to women. I love that he always has a thesis and sticks with it (English major here). His Saturday afternoon talk focused on how the Savior’s first “messianic call” was to care for the poor. “The great Redeemer has issued no more persistent call than for us to join him in lifting this heavy burden from the people.” He really hit home our duty to “seek opportunities to care for the poor.” Aside from fast offerings, he promised that God “will guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again.”

And other talks made reference to serving in our communities and as communities. I delighted in hearing Elder Wong talk (in Cantonese!!) about the absolute need to “Rescue in Unity.” “We can all help one another,” he said. “We should always be anxiously engaged in seeking to rescue those in need. … When we assist (Jesus Christ) in his mission of saving souls, we too will be rescued in the process.” I felt the truth of their admonitions. As I say to my teenage son who no longer identifies as Mormon, “I don’t care as much if you believe in Christ as I do that you act like Christ.”

But there was another theme: the need to put family gospel study first. This was referenced many times, most particularly by Elder Scott who focused on the necessity of making one’s family the center of all our efforts. On Sunday afternoon he spoke of four tools. And here is where I started to feel guilty. And stressed. And confused. But don’t mistake my anxiety as disapproval or dislike because I actually believe in the benefits of his four tools:

1)   Family Prayer morning and night is “nonnegotiable priority in daily life, more important than sleep, school, media…”

2)   Scripture Study as a family, same as above

3)   FHE needs to be every Monday night and nothing, not “employment, sports, homework” should stand in the way.

4)   Attend the Temple.

I kinda wanted to cry, because as a SAHM who is actively trying to raise her family in the gospel, I WANT these things in my life. I TRY to do these things but fail. Majorly. Especially if the standard for success is Every. Single. Day. Twice. Whatever happened to the lovely vagueness of the word “regular?”  Regular prayer and scripture study are goals I can live with. But nonnegotiable rocks my boat, because I cannot prioritize my family as Scott urges and also serve those around me in the way Holland envisions.

As I listened to Elder Scott, I started to picture two versions of Elder Ballard’s “Old Ship Zion.” One ship is large, filled with many souls. Sometimes I have to leave my kids on the poop deck to go into the galley and wash dishes or play shuffleboard with a widow who desperately needs the company. Scriptures are not always studied because my time and attention are spent elsewhere, mending sails and swabbing decks. But my kids are learning to work and serve as well. Yet when I think of Scott’s focus on shoring up my family, I see me and my kids on a small boat, a dinghy of sorts. The only way I can make those four tools a regular part of our lives is to isolate ourselves. Become the Swiss Family Robinson. If I am going to make it happen, I cannot pull other people onto my boat.

I freely admit that my life is better when I have managed to make prayer and scriptures a regular part of our lives. There is a peace. But there is also a price. Because FHE is not simply 4o minutes on Monday night. It means meals and homework and lessons and projects all have to be dealt with ahead of time, often at great cost. It means preparing a spiritual message that a 17 year old and an 8 year old will listen to. And nobody’s mad, but all those tasks usually fall on the woman’s shoulders. So as Elder Scott talks about the peace brought by these tasks, I feel a little resentful because if any of it is going to happen, the tasks will be mine and mine alone. It ain’t right, but that’s how it is for me and most of the women I know. So we hear this counsel, and we want the benefits but just don’t know if we are capable of paying the price. What (or who) will we have to toss overboard to keep our family afloat?

I am torn because I know I cannot heed both orders. I cannot serve in my ward and community, as I love to, as Holland and Wong urge us to, if my days are filled with nonnegotiable obligations. If I go out in the evening for a lecture, exercise, visiting teachings, service, then family prayers and scriptures will not happen.

And here is where I miss Chieko Okazaki. If she were around she would be tossing me a life vest, and a Diet Coke, telling me that of course I cannot do it all. She might say this: “[Heather], I think that many Mormon women do not have clear boundaries for themselves. They feel a sense of confusion about who they are, because many competing voices lay claim to them and they try to accommodate them all…. Remember, a boundary has ‘yes’ on one side and ‘no’ on the other. A woman who never feels that she can say ‘no’ is lacking an important element of personal identity and, hence, personal safety. A woman who also feels that she can never say ‘yes’ has an equally serious problem in her inability to move beyond her own boundaries.” (https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/…/article/download/391/369)

So I come away from General Conference with lots to think about: my role as a mother, a sister, a friend, a disciple, a part of a community. I know I will have to find my own answers, my own balance. Choices will be made and I will live with the consequences. Ultimately it is Elder Uchtodorf words that provide a lifeline: “We are all pilgrims, seeking God’s light as we journey on the path of discipleship.” And in my quiet moments, I can almost see the sun on the horizon.

 

How do you reconcile what feel like conflicting admonitions from Church leaders?  What talks felt like life preservers? What make you feel like walking the plank? 

Read More