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

Exponent II Spring Issue: Women and Priesthood

Exponent II Board Meeting December 2003 L-R back row: Heather Sundahl, Evelyn Harvill, Kimberly Burnett, Emily Clyde Curtis, Aimee Hickman, Michelle Martin Front row: Nancy Dredge, Barbara Taylor, Judy Dushku, Cheryl Howard DiVito, Robin Zenger Baker, Karen Call Haglund)

Exponent II Board Meeting December 2003
L-R back row: Heather Sundahl, Evelyn Harvill, Kimberly Burnett, Emily Clyde Curtis, Aimee Hickman, Michelle Martin
Front row: Nancy Dredge, Barbara Taylor, Judy Dushku, Cheryl Howard DiVito, Robin Zenger Baker, Karen Call Haglund)

In the spring of 2000, when my second child was just a couple months old, I got a call from Nancy Dredge who was taking over as editor for the Exponent II, asking if I’d be an assistant editor. I was flattered and terrified. Exponent II mattered deeply to me—and to thousands of Mormon women. I felt like I was being called as the first counselor to a bishop of an all female ward that knew no boundaries. And I loved serving in that calling for almost a decade: choosing themes for issues, guiding first time essayists through the writing process, and the simple joy of reading women’s stories. Exponent was founded on the idea that women’s stories matter and there should be a forum for sharing their insights and experiences. One challenging aspect of the job is being accused by some of pushing a “feminist agenda” while simultaneously being criticized by others who think Exponent does not agitate enough. But I see that as Exponent’s great strength: we weave together voices and ideas that reflect the truth that there is not a singular path for a Mormon woman. We are not a venue for soloists. We are a choir. As long as you will harmonize with others, your voice is welcome.

And for forty years the women of Exponent have worked very hard to present a variety of voices, often when many were too afraid to speak up. Our current editors, Aimee Hickman and Emily Clyde Curtis, decided to focus an issue on women and priesthood last March, right after the launch of Ordain Women. Little did they realize that the issue would go to the printer the very weekend of Kate Kelly’s church court, when many saints fear the outcome is not just about Kate, but about the very right to ask hard questions. And this issue is Exponent at its best because it asks the hard question: should women be ordained? Obviously not everyone has the same answer. Notice that the cover reads: “Talking Ordination at the Dinner Table: Conversations Between Sisters.” In this issue opinions on women and the priesthood run the gamut from women who support a male only priesthood, to women who feel we already have the priesthood, to women, Kate Kelly and others, who feel ordination is the only path. As Aimee wrote in her editorial, “By sharing their stories and laying claim to their unique perspectives, these authors beautifully demonstrate how we can differ in our point of view without employing divisive rhetoric.”

Very selfishly I am deeply grateful to have the magazine’s publication be so timely. While I am not a part of Ordain Women, I firmly believe that women deserve a seat at the table and that all is not well in Zion. I have held back from conversations with certain parties, not knowing how my ideas would be received, not wanting to be judged and desperately trying NOT to judge what I perceive as the complacency of so many. (Now I am shifting into Exponent Missionary Mode) I know that I will use this issue of Exponent to start conversations and share the complexity of my own intellectual and spiritual wrestlings with some of my family, friends, and those with ecclesiastical authority over me.   I have done so in the past with other issues with surprising results. It is my sincere hope that the collection of voices in this issue will be a balm to those in pain, provide insight for those who want to understand, and keep this essential conversation going in the chapels and homes of the saints. Won’t you join us at the table?

To subscribe for online or print issues, visit http://www.exponentii.org/magazine

 

Read More