International Series: Seeing Past the Coin
We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
Today’s post comes from Elissa. Elissa lives in Greenville, South Carolina for now. She is married, has three children, and works part time as an English language tutor so she can pretend she’s still all international.
I was born in Salt Lake City, a fourth-generation Mormon, ancestors having come variously by wagon train, on the ship Brooklyn, and with the Mormon Battalion. I was planted firmly in the LDS corner of the vineyard with the Mormon flower the only one in sight.
And then came the pullback. The intriguing beauty of all the other flowers. How could it be—with the grand diversity of this splendid field—that mine is the one true flower? Examining it carefully, decades ago in my thirties and forties, I found that to my eyes (and who else’s eyes could I possibly use, even though I see through a glass darkly?) there were some pretty evident flaws—historical and doctrinal positions that seemed indefensible and that felt wrong. Many today who come to feel that way find it highly distressing. I found it thrilling. I gained a new respect for God, a new delight in every one of the billions who inhabit this planet.
-Carol Lynn Pearson, “Why I Stay”
I have been married for 22 years, and nearly half of those have been spent outside of the United States. My husband and I are both American, but his job has taken us to Mexico, France, and the United Kingdom, and all this time out of our own country has affected our family in many ways. For one thing, taking your kids abroad when they are three, four months, and not born yet, then bringing them back eight years later has some good entertainment value. Living in post-9/11 France does not prepare them for American uber-patriotism, and they do not know what to do with being compelled to recite the pledge of allegiance each day. (Actually, they do know what to do: refuse.) They are amazed – AMAZED – at the miracle of Paas tablets. They say things like, “What’s Wal-Mart?” They are self-conscious about everyone understanding them, so they argue in French in public. They don’t get the most common of cultural references. (The down side of this one is they don’t share your grief when Mr. Rogers dies.) They spend a year asking you the names and values of coins (“Remember, ‘le dime’ is the word for tithing, so you can remember that a dime is ten cents.”). They rage against Imperial units, but rhapsodize about toast; discussing where they had the best toast and what is the perfect method of making it (apply butter BEFORE toasting). They just find the nearest tree when they have to pee at the school picnic. (I kid you not, I once saw an adult woman having a wee behind the map at a park in one of the above named countries. Little boys didn’t even have to make a pretense of hiding.) They get kicked out of class for correcting their teacher’s pronunciation of “Versailles.” If they have a speech impediment, everyone thinks it’s an adorable accent. It’s fun.
Since I am clearly given to deep thoughts regarding the effects of expatriation on our lives, you will be surprised to know that until now I had not given much thought to how it influenced my feelings about the my faith. However, it may not be a coincidence that it was in France that the thought, “It’s possible there’s not a God,” wormed its way into my consciousness and open consideration. Or that it was during our next stint abroad in England that I accepted that uncertainty instead of trying to fix it.
I remember a lesson I had in Young Women where our teacher asked us to think about holding a coin right in front of our eyes, and how if we did so it would be all we could see. I believe the idea was that if worldly things became too much of a focus in our lives, they would blind us to more important spiritual things. Even at that unquestioning time of my life, it occurred to me that the thing in my life most like the coin was the church. Between three hours of church on Sunday, seminary, activities, basketball, softball, social life (all of our family friends were Mormons), and discouragement from exploring things that might threaten my belief/activity, it did seem to be dominating my time and blocking my view of anything else. There were definitely things in my peripheral vision, but church and its views always loomed largest. I briefly wondered if it was the Church that was keeping me from seeing important things, but quickly dismissed the idea. The analogy applied only if was something other than the Church. Since the Church encompassed all truth, it was good to have it in front of my eye. That was called having an eye single to God.
I think that what living abroad did was gradually move the coin away from my eye. While we lived in Mexico, my life was still dominated by the Church. There was a small but highly functional English ward that served my social needs. Because we were in a unique and often challenging situation, we clung to each other. Aside from regular church activities, I spent a lot of time with my Mormon friends – way more than I had in the States. We had barbecues and lunches and day trips and book club. We might have known each other way too well. So I was able to keep the coin right up against my eye. Was there frustration over aspects of our culture? Sure. Did I acknowledge to myself that my lifetime in the church and full-time mission had so far not blessed me with a spiritual witness that the church was “true”? Yup. Can I think of a couple of occasions when I caused a class to fall silent with a comment or question about women? You bet. The Church was such a big part of my life though, that choosing to believe and trying to reconcile my doubts within that paradigm was so much easier than the disruption that disbelief was sure to cause.
France and England were another story. While Mexico City has a huge expatriate population, Clermont-Ferrand, France does not. At least not enough of one to have an English ward. In fact, it doesn’t even have a French ward. We attended a small branch where our two children doubled the size of the Primary and our youngest created the only need for a nursery. I served simultaneously in the Primary and Young Women presidencies and gave frequent talks. This did not keep me as busy as you might think. Most people lived far away from the chapel and had little money, so activities, home and visiting teaching, presidency meetings, and get togethers were infrequent. Money for the gas to do these things was an issue for people. Church was a Sunday thing. Although the people in our ward were lovely and we formed some relationships that I value, they were not our closest friends. I spent much more time with the other American and British families there with my husband’s company. The gospel had not diminished in importance to me, but the institutional church was not present in the majority of my interactions.
In England we did have a ward, but again, my closest friend was outside of the Church. She was a friend I had known in France, her daughter was my daughter’s closest friend, and we were both new to the much maligned and unloved Stoke-on-Trent. (Comment once heard as I boarded a train: “Where are we? Stoke-on-Trent? Nice place to stop, not a nice place to get off.”) We leaned on each other, had weekly outings to National Trust sights, and worried about our children together; so after four-and-a-half years of intense church activity and renewed commitment back in the States, much of my activity and conversation returned to a completely un-church related context.
Without the church and other church members at the forefront of all my days, I began to see Carol Lynn Pearson’s “intriguing beauty of all the other flowers.” The coin was moving away from my eye, and the distance allowed other things to become larger – the beautiful things and the doubts. The day to day benefits of the church were no longer enough to keep the doubts at bay, and my inclination to understand things primarily through the church’s stance on them was weakened. I could see people living their lives untrammeled by beliefs against which their hearts rebelled, and I envied them. I began to lose my taste for “one true,” and like Carol Lynn Pearson, I was thrilled at the prospect of exploring and even embracing things that had seemed taboo or on the edge. How often had I wished that I’d been able to work out my own beliefs instead of having them handed to me whole? I was giving myself permission to do that now, and thank goodness for that.
I was thankful for the immense relief I felt when my daughter (whose best friend was gay and who was increasingly spending time with other gay friends) asked me what I thought about homosexuality, and I was able to tell her that I didn’t think it was wrong. I’m thankful that I didn’t pass on a party line that felt so wrong to me. I was even more grateful a couple of years later when she finally admitted that she was bisexual, and it didn’t shatter my world. When I knew she had had sex I was concerned for her and not thrilled, but I didn’t think she had committed a sin next to murder or was ruined. When she needed to distance herself from the church, I didn’t think I’d failed or that our eternal family was broken.
The coin will always be within my eyesight. Sometimes I resent the choices I made because it was once all I could see, but I know that I also benefited from having that coin up to my eye. I had a community of people growing up who could have easily dismissed me as an insufferable brat, except that they were assigned to love me. (And I am not being self-deprecating. A lot of them still called me a brat.) I once phoned a Young Women leader when my world seemed to be falling apart. A Young Women leader who worked and had four little girls. When she heard my sobs she said without hesitation, “I’ll come get you.” She was far from the only adult I felt close to, and I took relationships like this for granted. I think that our peculiarity and forced proximity to each other facilitates intimate friendships that are difficult to find elsewhere. When I think of bearing my testimony, I think of listing the names of people I know are true.
I’m glad I’ve moved the coin a little further away though, so that I can see so many more of the important and worthwhile things along with it. Like I learned to do in Young Women.