Geometry, community, godliness

806320d87fb3e06ca59078e593c74038It’s 9pm and one of my favorite 14-year-olds just walked out the door. I’m her (unpaid) math tutor and she has a geometry test tomorrow. We spent about 45 minutes on triangles: altitudes, medians, perpendicular bisectors, how long the third side of a triangle can be given the length of the other two sides, a proof. Just in case you haven’t figured it out already, I’ll out myself now: I am a geek. I get a huge kick out of math. I realize most people don’t have this reaction to numbers and shapes and algorithms, and that’s the reason I tutor some of the neighborhood kids for free: it’s something their parents can’t do, either because they’ve mentally painted over what they learned in high school or because they’re too busy/tired/at odds with their teenagers for such a relationship to work. I can, and it’s delightful.

A year ago my friend Jaimee taught my kids to jump rope. It was something that had never crossed my mind to teach them — odd because I spent a whole lot of time jumping rope as a kid. I went over one day to pick up the girls and they were in the middle of the driveway with a long rope and Sarah was jumping. With this enormous grin on her face. She’d accomplished something pretty big for a four-year-old, and she’d learned it from someone outside of her family. I was amazed. And proud. And grateful.

On another note, my oldest daughter was sick last week with a stomach bug, which started the night before school started up again after the winter break. The thought of loading her into the car so I could drive her sister to school and dealing with the upchuck aftermath was more than I could handle. So I called my next-door neighbor and explained. Could Sarah go to school with her kids?

Oh, absolutely, she said. Send her over.

I have this intense need (and intense gratitude) for community. It’s one of the very best things about being Mormon, this knowing that you’ll have peeps wherever you land. But I’m especially grateful for what I have in my neighborhood, where a handful of families who live near each other look out for one another. Some of them happen to be LDS, which always feels safe, but the best part is that many of them aren’t. I’m really digging the community right now. I have teenagers around the corner and across the street who are responsible, caring, low-priced babysitters. I have the swing set that we built with two other families a few years back in the only yard that was big enough for it, specifically because the family who lives there wants the neighborhood kids to have someplace they can all play together. My girls went through a cooperative preschool where they learned that if you’re goofing around too much, and your friend’s dad tells you to knock it off, your own parents will tell you exactly the same thing.

I’ve also been really struggling with some of the more dogmatic Mormon practices: boys having to wear white shirts to pass the sacrament, women having no formal influence in Church affairs, the simpering tone of the only female voices we hear in general conference, requiring Primary classes to have two teachers just in case.

And I’m reminded of something a Buddhist friend told me about a year ago. Her prayer bracelet has three strands, each representing one of the Three Refuges: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — which can be translated as the Prophet, the Message, and the People. It’s important, she said, because each of the three refuges connects the other two: the Message connects the Prophet to the People (and vice versa), the Prophet connects the People and the Message, et cetera. They’re called refuges because you can spiritually take refuge in each. If the people drive you crazy, you can take refuge in the message; if you can’t believe in the message you can see the people living the prophet’s words and find your solace in the prophet.

So right now, because I’m having a hard time with some parts of the message, I’m taking refuge in the community: the people around me who, whatever their beliefs or troubles or tolerance for crazy, consider me and my family to be part of their lives. I know I’m lucky to have this — blessed, even — and there’s something that seems to whisper into one corner of my mind, “This is the message. The fact that these people love you and treat you as one of their own is proof of God. How else could such a community exist?” Somehow there is something inherently godlike about caring for other people, claiming them as your own, making sure they don’t fail. And things that make me hope (Wear Pants to Church Day! The bishop in my friend’s ward talking about using the young women as ushers during the sacrament! Women speaking up at ward council!) also make me think that there is more wisdom in the Three Refuges: sometimes the community is itself the message. And sometimes, when we are of one heart and one mind, the people speak prophetically, and the message changes.


On prolonged sabbatical from her career in arts administration, Libby is a seamstress, editor, entrepreneur, and community volunteer. She has a husband and three children.

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15 Responses

  1. Deborah says:

    Oh, this is beautiful. My favorite LDS community ministers to me through blog posts and e-mails.

  2. Rachel says:

    Beautiful post, Libby, and I definitely agree that community and caring are, or can be, the message. I’ve also sat in rooms while two of the finest Mormon scholars I know (Richard Bushman and Patrick Mason) have taught that for Joseph Smith, that was very much the case. When Joseph said that friendship is one of the grand principles of Mormonism, he wasn’t kidding. It is those priceless relationships and relatings that are divine. It’s one of the reasons Joseph Smith wanted to seal everybody to everybody: community, plain and simple.

    • Libby says:

      Rachel, this is one of my favorite things about early Mormonism: the whole-hearted commitment to creating a new kind of society. We never did it particularly well, and we’ve given up on it (for the most part) in contemporary Mormonism, but there are shards that remain, and they’re beautiful.

      • Rachel says:

        I wrote one of my most recent (35 page) term papers on the way that Zion is used linguistically and theologically in the Journal of Discourses and the way it is used now (by way of looking at 100 General Conference talks on Zion over the last 40 years). It was interesting to see the changes that I suspected were there, and some that I didn’t. Some changes in emphasis were even positive.

  3. Kristine says:

    Hey! I know that 14-year-old. Her mama loves you!!

  4. Kristine says:

    Also, she got 100% on a pop quiz in math today 🙂

  5. Deja says:

    I love this, Libby. It seems wise to differentiate community and message. As I try to find my place in my new ward, I’m pouting a bit that I don’t connect much (or at all) with the lessons I’m hearing. But I probably could connect with the people. That’s more difficult for me, unfortunately. Still, it doesn’t do me any good to dismiss the community because I’m not feeling the message. Thanks for helping me think my way to that.

  6. Karen says:

    So well-put. Thank you for sharing this with us. It reminds me of Joanna Brooks comment:

    “Belong, Believe, Behave” we already belong, so we want to believe which entices us to behave in a certain way.


  7. Caroline says:

    Libby, this is just beautiful. I love that image of the bracelet with the three strands. I too have a hard time embracing certain aspects of the message, but despite that, I can often see God in the people around me.

    I like your description of your neighborhood community. I wish I had that in my life, but not being particularly outgoing, I have not connected with my neighbors. Reading your post makes me want to do better.

  8. Emily U says:

    This was fantastic. I wish I knew how to involve myself in my community the way you do, but I haven’t figured that out yet.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    This is beautiful, Libby! I love the Buddhist idea of refuges, and it makes sense. I find some people have such strong testimonies of Christ or of the temple and its covenants (I see those as our Prophet and Message). I’m like you, I think, in that my testimony is strongest in my conviction of my community being what helps me and makes me a better person.

  10. Heather says:

    Love the imagery: triangles, jump rope, upchuck! Love how you wove them all into the idea of community. I found refuge in your words.

  11. Naismith says:

    Two teachers in Primary? I am not sure we have enough people in our ward for that. I’d be frustrated, too. It isn’t church-wide.

  12. dani says:

    This was beautiful Libby. I especially love the three refuges. I’m also extremely jealous of your community. 🙂

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