Guest Post: Mormonism as a Muse
“A place that wasn’t quite Zion, but tried.” (Hunt Steenblik, Rachel. “Jane.” I Gave Her A Name.)
Mormonism lives in a tender place in my body. I carry it with me at all times. In the past, it has felt like a thirsty desert–crying out for rain. A special brand of anger. Other times, the anger radiates in my body and feels like it cannot be contained. Sometimes, I have no words. I remember “Jesus wept.”
What do you say when the most beautiful nurturing place in your life has been dangerous and cruel all along? What do you say when the revelation you need hasn’t come? What do you say when you wish you could completely remove it from yourself and you can’t?
There is no microchip to remove from my skull. There is no way to untangle myself from Mormonism. My parents met because of Mormonism. They wouldn’t have chosen each other if not for Mormonism. I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Mormonism. To be honest, I don’t want to know what my life would look like without it.
I was raised by Mormon people. Mormon people taught me how to make love palpable and tangible. Love was something you could touch and taste and smell. It was ding-dong ditches, chocolate chip cookies, linger-longers, helping people pack boxes, sending cards, preschool co-ops, receiving hot meals when my siblings were born, singing camp songs, and visits. It was a warm security that wrapped around my childhood and adolescence. Mormonism provided me with a study stream of caring adults in my life from a young age. When I was 6 years old, my primary teacher had twinkly eyes, wrinkled hands, and a soft voice. She always gave us neon yellow gum after class. I remember watching her pop the neon yellow gum tablets out of the plastic package, hearing it click and watching them fall into her small hands. As I grew older, she would often stop me when she saw me and take my hand and ask me how I was doing. Her complete attention was always on me in those moments. She cared in a way that couldn’t be pretended.
Nonetheless, in seminary, a thought sometimes came into my mind, “Don’t run back into the burning building.” It was a line that I had written in a poem. Perhaps, it was a revelation. The burning building was tall, spacious, and had many rooms. One of those rooms had halls with burlap walls. It was acutely painful. I spent one lesson on “the attack on the family” digging my fingernails into my palm and pulsing. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t even out to myself at the time.
Mormonism is a muse and scourge for me. I don’t know if my conviction to wrestle with it says more about Mormonism or me. There are no tidy boxes or clean lines. No “the church is perfect, the people aren’t.” No “the gospel is true, the church isn’t.” I have qualms about and tenderness for the institution, theology, and people. None of them are perfect. The institution is generous and malevolent in turns. The theology is simultaneously full and empty. The people are charitable and cruel. Learning how to hold beauty and loss at the same time, even in the same hand, is necessary.
Last Sunday, a small pink-faced baby girl was blessed in sacrament meeting. I felt the hush come over the room. I’ve seen people brush away tears and hold their children closer after a blessing many times. I mostly felt sadness this time. It made me ache to see the men go up and the women stay sitting. The men smiled at each other. I watched a woman fold her daughter’s little arms. I can’t shake the ache from hearing a father give his daughter a name “by which she will be known on the records of the church.” This church will hurt her in ways she may never understand. I’ve witnessed far too many Mormon women unknowingly hurt themselves, each other, and their daughters. When I was 14, I asked my mother why her shoulders always seemed slightly hunched over. She said, “I’ve never wanted to come off like I was flaunting my body or trying to tempt anyone.” Patriarchy takes a toll we can see, but not always calculate. Sometimes, we cannot even see it. Many women around me sat through that baby blessing soaking in the love and power of that moment. I used to only see that. I still see it, but I see much more too.
I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the people I used to be and who I am now. I used to hear only love and power in the prophet’s words, “We need women who can speak out.” It’s hard to trust now. I trust myself more than ever before. I don’t regret it. However, I also feel farther away from the people I share the pew with than ever before. In bridging this gap, I believe the place to start is extending compassion to who I was when I didn’t see what I see now. It’s not a matter of “acknowledging” or “making peace with it.” It’s a matter of connection. There’s a connection between who I was and who I am now. There’s a connection between who I was and who those around me are now. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a connection between who I am and who those around me are. Uncovering this connection is a matter of courage. It’s a matter of courage because our community has very few sanctioned ways of speaking about the majority of what is happening in our lives. When we feel abandoned by God, we wait 10 years until we can say, “10 years ago, I felt abandoned by God,” “Now I don’t.”
Lest I finish without being sufficiently Mormon, I would like to provide a definition of a word. In the words of Brené Brown, “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor–the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”
Elle Mae is a queer Mormon feminist who believes everyone has a spark of the Divine within themselves. She is a poet, singer, and student.