A Mormon Feminist on International Women’s Day

Courtney and Carina and me
My pals CJane and Azucar, speaking at BYU today! If you’re in Utah, you still have time. Go catch them talk about work/life balance and having it all!

I had a craft tutorial all lined up to share today, but once I logged on to read the news this morning and realized it was International Women’s Day, I knew I had to talk about something completely different.

I don’t make it the focus of this blog, but it’s important enough to me that I’m sure it’s bled through here and there: I am a feminist. And I am that special breed of feminist known as the Mormon Feminist. A wild and unruly group of women dedicated to their heritage, their community, their God, and each other, as we work and hope and pray for greater gender equity. This often means something different in each of our lives, which is wonderful. It means we’ve gotten big and strong enough as a movement to support diversity of thought. It’s a thrilling time to be engaged in this work.

From both inside and outside of the church, I often experience a great deal of resistance (read: people calling for my excommunication and/or telling me I’m a manhating harpy). People inside of the church often misinterpret my efforts as being critical or condemning of church leaders. I’ve been accused of being apostate, being dangerous for young minds, being selfish or prideful, that I think I know better than the men called to lead this church, that I’m on a swift path to hell. Those reactions say so much more about the people reacting than they do about me. I believe the scriptures when they say that “all are alike unto God,” and I know enough about church history and structure to know that even the best and most righteous of us get it wrong. Each of us are human beings fumbling our way along to progression, and it doesn’t need to change anything about how we view authority to acknowledge that there are times when we can’t help but be blinded by our experiences and prejudices.

The people who react so viscerally to me are reacting out of those experiences and prejudices. They are reacting out of fear. Fear of not having someone in charge who is always right. Fear of change. Often just fear of being wrong.

Religious people want to do right. And they want to be right. And often that desire can make them believe that there is only one right answer to this mortal condition. One way to be, one path to take, one choice to make. But that just doesn’t jive with reality, or, for that matter, scriptural precedent.

I have often described myself as a “red-letter Mormon.” Meaning that what moves me and calls to me and most informs my choices are the words of Jesus Christ. And Jesus was about love. Not the law. So I get frustrated at the people who think that I’m dangerous while they complain about people wearing leggings or sleeveless sundresses, they gossip and judge, and show such deep unkindness. And of course that’s just the most benign example. That doesn’t even touch on the behavior that really keeps me working. The times when women experience abuse and don’t have someone who can help or understand them. Those hopefully rare but still extant occasions when a leader grossly oversteps and commits spiritual abuse or even commits assault. All the women and girls in this church who don’t have a voice in the power structure. I know they have a voice with God, and I know he wants us all to do better.

The secular critics roll their eyes at me and say that if I just left the church I’d have no more of these problems. They blame religious institutions for every problem in humanity and shake their heads at efforts to change them as if I was Don Quixote tilting at windmills. To them I shake my head right back. Religion certainly has its problems, which I can probably enumerate better than most since I’m the one here in the trenches, but it is just naive to think that leaving a church will end the problems of sexism. There is no feminist utopia. Anywhere. Any institution from the government to corporations to the media will still repeat these same problems. It’s systemic. And since religion isn’t disappearing, at least in our lifetime, this is something I can contribute that has the potential to affect millions of lives.

Many more people wonder why we need feminism at all. They have the freedom to vote, get an education, work at a job they like, they feel like we’re all good now and people like me who want to keep up the fight are just whiners. Those people are the luckiest people on the planet. They’ve been surrounded by people who didn’t hurt or neglect or assault them, they’ve never been denied opportunity because of their gender, they’ve never faced the problems of poverty that disproportionately affect women or needed to take control of their fertility and been denied. Because of their great fortune, they just don’t see all the other people around the world and on their doorstep who still struggle with the same things we’ve been struggling with forever. If you think there’s no need for feminism today, it means that you’re not paying attention to the people who don’t have it as comfortably as you do.

Last night I got together with some of my favorite friends and we talked about the people who are mean to me or judge me or work to limit what I can do at church, and even in that discussion I realized how lucky I am. I sat with these wonderful women who genuinely care about me and support me, who understand that I do what I do out of love and loyalty to the church, out of love of God and my fellow woman, who reassure me and buoy me up as we eat frozen yogurt and laugh and laugh and laugh, and I am so grateful that I get to experience all the best parts of sisterhood. There are costs to doing this work, but so so so many more benefits. So I’m going to keep it up until women all around the world get to experience that same feeling.

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Coming Clean

Making me feel better

I’ve been having big time comment problems, but I think I might have them resolved now. I miss you commentors! There was never any permission needed!

Whenever something hard happens in my life, I normally make a few inappropriate jokes, and then come here to process it. I kind of pride myself on how open I am because I believe that none of us needs to feel like we’re alone, me as much as anyone, and the more I share the more I learn that. And show it to other people. But this year I haven’t been my usual transparent self. This year I’ve been struggling with something big and scary and I’ve kept it to myself because for once I didn’t know if I could bear the consequences of having it out in the open. My abusive childhood, fractured family relationships, infertility, chronic illness, sex life, I’ve written about all of those things without batting an eye. But this one upended everything about how I saw myself, and made me question how I wanted the world to see me.

I’ve long been open about having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It has greatly affected my life, but not in any way that I felt threatened my credibility. Even at my worst, when the compulsions were driving me so mad I’d stand in the aisle at Wal-Mart and break out into a sweat over the need to steal a lipstick – not buy it, I had to take it – and then hide in the sporting good department while I stashed it in my purse, I always viewed my compulsions as eccentric. The only one who really suffered was my husband, when he had to run all the errands because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. The costs of a few compulsions were rewarded with order and motivation, and except for the worst times, I called it my superpower.

But last year I started feeling things slipping away from me. I was plagued by fears of losing control, of inflicting harm, of ruining everything we had built. So I went to the psychiatrist for some help. My superpower had become too much for me.

I started taking Zoloft and plunged into the deepest, darkest, most terrifying depression I had ever seen. My actual thoughts were changed overnight. I couldn’t write, I had no energy, I laid on the couch and huddled under a blanket for days. That psychiatrist fine tuned my meds and brought me away from the brink, but I had a new awareness of just how close disaster was for me. When she left the practice I had to start over again with a new psychiatrist. The thought was exhausting, explaining everything from the beginning, starting over at square one, but with the specter of that darkness in my peripheral vision, I went.

We talked, and as we talked, she seemed interested in things my previous therapist hadn’t been. She was much more interested in hearing about the times I’d been depressed, and then when I started talking about my superpower – how it fed my productivity, how creative I felt, how I was pushed to work and create and do more, how happy and full of love I felt – she burst my bubble. None of those feelings were from OCD. She said, “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder wouldn’t make you productive. It would be the opposite. Your compulsions would keep you from doing what you needed to do.”

As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. That inner fire I felt to work and create was not the same thing as the vibrating need to wash my hands or arrange patterns or make even numbers or pick pick pick at something. That inner fire was something else, mirrored by the darkness that the medication amplified, but didn’t introduce. That darkness had been with me since childhood, grew during my teen years when my mother started giving me pills to cope with it, and pulsed throughout my adult years, growing and receding with the seasons.

I started crying in her office, with recognition. She was explaining my whole life to me.

I have Bipolar disorder.

Specifically I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, which is a different animal than Bipolar I, which is what you usually see depicted on TV. Which is why I never even imagined I would have it. I don’t have breaks from reality, I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I don’t act out or engage in self-destructive behavior, I don’t act crazy. What I have are periods of intense depression, and then I have periods the experts call Hypomania – a version of mania that doesn’t reach the destructive or fanciful heights of Bipolar I. Instead I am energetic, creative, full of love for the world, a cauldron of ideas and motivation and enthusiasm. I feel amazing. Until I don’t. Eventually I crest over the top of the climb and race downhill, irritated at the slowness of everyone else, compelled to keep going, faster and faster, despite what I want to be doing, despite my need for sleep or my desire to be still, until I crash back down into the darkness.

Anti-depressants without an accompanying mood stabilizer aggravates this condition. Which is what happened when I started Zoloft. Unfortunately, the mood stabilizer that would be most appropriate for me is better not to take during pregnancy, which we’ve been actively trying to achieve for years now. Going on them and then immediately getting off after pregnancy could be worse than just not starting them. So I’m taking care of myself, paying attention to the rhythms of light and sleep and exercise that are so crucial to governing my moods, asking for help, riding the cycles, being aware.

Many people with Bipolar II disorder prefer to remain untreated. The risks are high – Bipolar II is just as high a risk factor for suicide as Bipolar I – but the rewards are great. When I’m hypomanic, it’s like I have access to a whole other part of my brain. I feel brilliant and expansive and I have so many ideas I can barely get them all down on paper. I’m happier, more loving, and in touch with a creativity that feels divine. And then I have to pay for that. But if I can take care of myself enough to avoid the highest highs and the lowest lows, then the benefits might just be worth it.

I cried when I discovered this, in part because I recognized my life, and in part because I didn’t know what this meant for me. Was I really crazy after all?

My family thinks I am. I’m the only one who identifies as an abused child. My siblings make excuses and justifications, saying ‘things shouldn’t have happened’ or ‘they were angry’ and never getting to the heart of the dynamic. I’ve been accused of being melodramatic, oversensitive, crazy, a liar, because I am seeking health and honesty in my relationships. And then there’s the whole question of God. I feel Him in my life. I’ve had my prayers answered, I’ve dreamed dreams and seen things that I couldn’t explain any other way. Was this God after all? Was it a delusion?

I couldn’t bear to be public about any of this until I’d figured it out for myself. After study and counseling and meditation and prayer, here’s what I’ve determined:
I am not crazy.
I am not delusional.
I have a mood disorder that makes me have highs and lows I have to pay attention to and be careful with.
I have days where I will be more productive than anyone except a member of the military, and other days when I need to waste time playing puzzle games on the internet.
And both are all right. Both feed the other and make the other possible. Both have to be honored and paid attention to and in return I will be rewarded with creativity and light and love and an inner fire that warms me and pushes me to do more. And the darkness will keep that fire safe.
The darkness gives me empathy, connection, stillness, depth. The fire gives me energy, boundless creativity, enthusiasm and love. My job is to keep them balanced.

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Mother’s Day without a mother

My Indian feast
My Mother’s Day presents: An Indian feast

Mother’s Day has never been a day I terribly enjoyed. That’s really underselling things. I flat out hated it. I stayed in bed as long as I could get away with, snapped at Bear, stayed in both my pajamas and a depressive funk, and went back to bed as early as I could. Part of that was of course because of our long struggles with infertility, but thanks to Atti that issue has gotten a lot easier. As I was looking back through my archives to find that link, I noticed that most of my Mother’s Day posts describe me staying home from church. That’s no accident. Having a child made one part of Mother’s Day better, but I didn’t think that anything could fix how I felt about not having my own mother to celebrate.

Cherries
25 lbs of cherries to do anything I want with

My childhood was rough, and yadda yadda yadda, I haven’t spoken to my parents in nearly 13 years. They haven’t changed their behavior, they think I’m ridiculous and melodramatic, and there is a big hole in my life where family is supposed to be. Since Atti was born, I spent Mother’s Days adoring him and being grateful for my little family, but there was always a dark echo reminding me of the relationship I’d severed.

I was never sad for the actual relationship, or missed my actual mother. Cutting off contact was the absolute right thing, and continues to be. What I mourn is the mother in my imagination. The one who was supportive, who cheered me on, who thought I was great and liked spending time with me. The mother I’m trying to be to Atticus. And when I would go to church, I’d hear stories of that mother, and the missing was too much to bear.

Cinnamon Bears
and cinnamon gummi bears. I ate til I was too full to sleep.

When I woke up yesterday morning, Bear asked me if I was going to go to church. I hemmed and hawed, started getting ready and then got back in bed. I couldn’t decide if I was ready to chance losing my composure at the mention of that mother I longed for and never got to have. But Atti just got a hair cut and Bear was getting him dressed, so I decided to take a chance.

I’m so glad I did. My little guy sang in the Primary choir, his face just peeking up over the wall of the stand. I spent time with my church family where I felt loved and accepted. And surrounded by my women friends in Relief Society, I felt fine. I felt better than fine. I felt that I was finally ready to let go of the last traces of the dream and recognize that the mother I never got to have was all around me, spread out throughout all the women I know. Women who teach me and nurture me, who help me raise my child, who offer me inspiration and someone to love. Family is what we make it, and I am so grateful for mine.

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Year of Pleasures: Generosity of Eggs

Eggs
There’s a woman I go to church with who is a recent convert and Vietnamese. I have been so touched to watch her bring her culture and history into ours and show us expressions of love and community in a way that she’s used to. She brings lunch of homemade summer rolls and passes it around Sunday school, a basket of hard boiled eggs and a shaker of salt she sends around the meetings of the women’s organization. You see all these WASPy Mormons, the older ladies in their smart little skirt suits, passing around a basket of eggs and not really knowing what in the heck to do with them but understanding the gesture and taking an egg. It’s a beautiful moment.

This friend also loves to get deals to share with us, so the other day she bought a gross of eggs and asked around for people to split the cost with her. I took two flats off her hands for $5. We made frittatas and custard and all kinds of baked goods and in every bite I felt a little more love from the generosity of this friend.

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Atti the Gleek

Tell me this kid isn’t a musical prodigy. Look at Atti showing his mashup skills. He started off with “I Am Like a Star Shining Brightly,” went into “Twinkle, Twinkle,” back to “Shining Brightly,” into “I Am a Child of God,” back to “Shining Brightly,” but this time with a key change, added a little soul to “I Am a Child of God” before breaking it down with “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and bringing it all back around to where he started with the last part of “Shining Brightly.”

Personally, I think it’s inspired.

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I’m now an award winning troublemaker

Nightlife
This past weekend I ran off to Utah (via Orange County for the longest possible way to go, but also for free childcare) to attend the Salt Lake City Weekly party for the recipients of the 2011 Best of Utah award. Mine was as a board member of WAVE, the advocacy group I helped found, and the staff of the newspaper liked us so much they invented a category for us. Best Mormon Feminist.

I didn’t know what to expect, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need an acceptance speech or anything, but it turned out to be a party at a club with free food and booze. I got no food, and was interested in no booze, so I missed out on that, but I brought my cousin friend Karen and we had a blast living it up like two single girls on the town. I even got hit on at the party, and since I’ve been developing a bit of a complex about my momma frump, that did the old girl some good.

We left the party and had a beautiful meal like you’d see on Top Chef, slept in late the next morning, went shopping, had another long lunch, and then Karen left and I got another day to sleep in, lay about the room, meet with some other friends, and get away from worrying about anybody else’s needs for a while. It was pretty dang luxurious.

Shut yer Pie Hole
I was so honored to represent the rest of us mouthy broads that make up the WAVE board, and I will now have a plaque on my wall declaring me the Best Mormon Feminist, if that ever comes up for debate. But I’m not really sure that my troublemaking needs to be encouraged.

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Tharce-Gulu

I’m so proud of the work I’ve been doing as a board member of THARCE-Gulu, a charity to help the war affected people of Gulu, Uganda. It has completely taken up my life this year, but the work is so important and the opportunities so great.

Uganda has suffered more than most places on the planet as they’ve lived with the effects of colonialism, psychotic despots, attacks from evil rebel leaders, kidnapped children used as soldiers, sexual slavery, and extreme poverty. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it especially pricks my heart to email with the leaders of the church there in Uganda. My brothers and sisters in this gospel have been through nightmares. Knowing that we share this background makes it personal to me. I feel like it is not just my Christian obligation to help, but a covenant I made to God when I was baptized.

It took so so many hours, but we’ve been able to take all our good intentions, all the suggestions from our friends in Uganda, and build an organization around it. As I type this our president is landing in Uganda to buy the land that the future center will be built on. A center for the people of the community to use as a place to recover from the trauma of war, get access to mental health services, benefit from visiting experts in music, dance, sports, art, and filmmaking therapy, and recover some of the opportunities that were lost to them during this decades long war.

Thanks to having a talented and passionate friend, we’re already getting a lot of attention for our efforts. I spent this whole year working on the website and I launched it just a few weeks ago.

Please check out the site, read up on what we’re doing, and donate.

www.tharcegulu.org

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Living Room Art Wall, Part 2

First half of artwork wall
Ready for more of the tour? This is the side I’ve had for the longest. I thought I’d just weight the pictures towards one side of the wall, but I didn’t love it. And the nesting impulse was just begging for more to do, so I kept right on going all the way across. But these images are really what started it all.

The lovers
The Lovers by seller Delany LaFae. This photographer is the same one who did the Sunday Afternoon picture from last time. She was having a 2 for 1 sale, so after finding the picture of the books and tea I looked through her shop to find my free one and came upon this picture I loved even more. Talk about mushy love art. She visits these trees several times throughout the year and takes pictures of them in different seasons. This one was my favorite – in the rain.

home
Home Sweet Home by seller benben. More amazing illustration. This picture has a place of honor right in the middle because it’s such a beautiful symbol of our foremost goal for our home. That it’s a place of sanctuary. I’m nuts about the modern graphic treatment of such an old fashioned ideal.

Hope letterpress
Hope letterpress by seller Sweet Harvey. You all know how I feel about letterpress. This artist is a great one and I fell totally in love with the sentiment behind this work.

owl on dictionary page
Owl from seller Little Rice There are a whole lot of etsy shops printing images on vintage dictionary pages. I love owls as a symbol of wisdom, so this one seemed like a perfect fit.

Atti with wonder
This is one of my favorite pictures of Atti I’ve ever taken and the only family photo to make the wall. I just love his little face looking so full of wonder, gazing out into his future. Plus he looks so handsome with his olive colored eyes.

And lastly,

Gethsemane
Gethsemane by artist J. Kirk Richards. This piece is really special to me. I could probably write an entire post just about this one. It’s my lone non-etsy purchase, mainly because most non-etsy artists are out of my price range. Richards offers some of his artwork as open stock prints so I was able to get this one really affordably. Despite being a religious person, I don’t have any religious artwork in my home. Everything I’ve seen just didn’t really move me. So much of it is so ubiquitous that they’re almost like family photos, I couldn’t find anything that felt, well, transcendent.

Then I found this piece and was moved by it. But even better, I saw that angel and it looked markedly feminine to me. I’ve been in love ever since. It made me remember this pivotal experience I had as a kid that may have been the moment I embraced feminism. I was reading about Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and of the angel that attended him in his hour of greatest need. As a young, earnest, emotional, teenager I read that and wished that I could have been that angel. I told someone about that wish and they said, “It couldn’t have been you. It would have had to have been someone who had the Priesthood.” That reaction broke my little teenage heart and led me to challenge those views ever since. And I had forgotten all about that experience until I saw that painting.

I’m so pleased with how this project has turned out. I think you can get a good sense of what is important to our family. Education, home, faith, wonder, knowledge, humor, courage, a lot of love, and some cats.

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Seen elsewhere…

While I’m nursing my lack of crafting mojo, I thought I’d better do a roundup of some of the other things I’ve done around the web that popped up while I was busy playing with peppermint and gumdrops.

Patheos is a great website discussing religion, and I joined in with a bunch of friends and colleagues to wrestle with the question of Mormon feminism. If you’re not a Mormon it’s going to be a whole lot of inside baseball, but I think these intersections of progression and tradition are fascinating, so maybe you will to.

A Mormon Feminist Symposium

Of more direct interest to this crowd is a massive five hour podcast I did with my friend John Delin from Mormon Stories. Mormon Stories is a wonderful podcast that directly addresses some of the challenging aspects of religious practice, particularly our unique stripe of it. There is some very frank discussion of some things, like polygamy or the priesthood ban for black men, that many devout members prefer to not deal with. If that’s you, then some of these discussions may be challenging to listen to. I find incredible value in facing them, but my way is not the only way, so be advised.

During my interview we talk about my childhood, my testimony of crafting, feminism, working with the teenagers, why I stay a Mormon, and a whole host of other things. It’s a long conversation and if you listen to it you will know more about me than you ever wanted to.

Mormon Stories

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Healing the World

Lina and Elisabeth

I’m sad this picture came out blurry, but if winter light is hard, Boston winter light is the hardest, and I’m just grateful I have a record of meeting my new Sister, Lina.

Lina is Ugandan and a tireless, heroic, advocate for peace and security and opportunities for women. Her country has been tortured by dictators for longer than I’ve been alive, first with the notorious Idi Amin, and then by Joseph Kony, a rebel leader who calls his army the Lord’s Liberation Army and has led a civil war against the Ugandan government, first motivated by ethnic conflicts and now by just his madness and lust for power, for the last 20 years.

You have probably been hearing in the media about the atrocities happening in Darfur. Ethnic cleansing, child soldiers, women kidnapped and used as sex slaves. Darfur is in Sudan, a bordering country to Uganda, and Joseph Kony has had training and support by forces in Sudan. What is happening in Darfur is happening in Northern Uganda, but without as much attention.

Currently a tentative peace has been made, Kony is hiding in Congo, the country neighboring Uganda on the other side, and now aid groups can come to Uganda to support the victims he has left behind.

Judy
This is my other new sister, Judy. Judy is a well-known human rights advocate and professor working in the field of international development. She has traveled the world and seen that women are so often left behind in peace building.

She traveled to Uganda with her college students in an effort to rebuild homes destroyed in war, and what she found galvanized her to action.

Sexual assault is so common here in the US, that chances are good that if you haven’t been assaulted, someone close to you has, so think about what that person has been through. Think about the emotional toll assault has taken on them, the shame, the loss of self-worth, the physical healing, maybe eating disorders, suicide attempts or other evidence of psychological trauma.

Now imagine feeling all that in an area where you are lucky if you have a home. Where you suffer from the effects of poverty, your family has been killed, and you have been cast out by your community for fear that the man who assaulted you will punish them. You are alone, raising several children who were conceived by rape, and you are no more than 25 years old.

I watched the video interview of one woman who had been kidnapped at 10 years old and made one of Joseph Kony’s “wives,” her childhood literally stolen. During the years she should have been in school learning to read and write, she was in the African bush being tortured by a madman. She is now raising the children she bore as a child in the wilderness, and struggling to find peace and security. I saw other people, survivors and former child soldiers, overcoming the worst atrocities human beings can inflict on one another, their faces bearing witness to the horrors of what they had lived through.

I was so moved by what I saw, I couldn’t sit still. I could not look at that woman and explain to her that I was too busy to help because I hadn’t vacuumed that week. We don’t all have the opportunity to get deeply involved in this cause, but when the opportunity came to me, I could not walk away from it.

I’ve since come to believe that this is part of the work the Lord has for me to do. With less than a week’s notice I managed to arrange a nearly week-long cross country trip with just two phone calls. Everything fell into place miraculously. After my week in Boston meeting with the board, it became plain that the skills I have are what they needed. Not just my OCD organizing skills and web experience, but even my crafting as we come up with items these women can make that would sell here in the states.

I have a lot more work ahead of me, but I think this will also give me the perspective I need. I think I’ll be able to stop beating myself up for something like the state of my yard when I’m working towards something so very important.

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