Title: Habits of Being: Mormon Women’s Material Culture
Editor: Elizabeth Pinborough
Publisher: Exponent II
Genre: Personal Essays
Price: 18.00 plus shipping (Available in a second run here!)
Reading underneath my great-grandmother Florence Shepherd Warburton’s pastel paintings in the old rock Warburton home in the tiny town of Grouse Creek, Utah, I connected with Habits of Being—this book of personal essays from women looking longingly at ancestral artifacts for links to those women, some known, some unknown, who came before.
It was a glorious experience, made even more poignant by the fact that it was Memorial Day, one that made me want to write my own essays about my own ancestors, about the women and men who furnished, occupied, and beautified the very surroundings in which I sat. And if there is anything I wish to impart in this review, it’s the need for women and men to search out connections to their past and write them up, then archive them safely. In fact I’ll bold that part, just in case that’s the only sentence you read.
Habits of Being is a lovely example of how to write personal essays based on material objects. Most essays told stories about the people and the objects, peaking at a testimony of sorts when the object became an almost living reminder of the now-dead ancestor. A few went off this script, however, notably Margerat Toscano’s story poem, Karen Rosenbum’s letters from her grandparents, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s meticulous descriptions like “The yellow cover, which measures 9 x 10 3/8 inches, feels a bit like construction paper.” (I had to laugh because I started reading Ulrich’s essay before knowing who wrote it but stopped a paragraph in and said aloud, “This is a historian, isn’t it?”)
A few other things I realized in reading Habits of Being. Liz Pinborough pulled together a fascinating list of Mormon women authors, from a wide faith spectrum. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it was a beautiful, faith-promoting thing to see them all pretty much testify about the power of family history touching their lives. I realize that this is not just a Mormon thing, but it’s pretty influential in Mormon thought, and to be pithy, the Mormon threads weave through Habits of Being, resulting in a colorful tapestry of testimony.
Also, I am not going to name my favorite essays, because really, each one is magnificent in its own way, but I did love Michelle Glauser’s thoughts on “women’s autobiographical acts—anything from historical spirituality-seeking journal writing to the Tweeting, blogging, and Facebook status updates of today. Though some characteristics of women’s autobiographical acts haven’t changed, these modern forms seem more exciting; they have bright colors and pictures and videos, and links.” This touches on some interesting record-keeping comparisons that are being (but continue to need to be) explored.
Thirdly, I started to wonder about the powerful pull of material culture for women. I do believe that many men feel this same magnetism toward certain objects and places, but acknowledge the problem of women’s voices lacking in the historical record. It does seem logical to search out objects as documents of our female progenitors’ existence if actual documents are sparse. But is this pull getting stronger as women’s voices seem to be getting louder? I don’t know. As Liz Pinborough says in her introduction: “We hope this book will teach us to see Mormon women in new ways and help us to impart new ways of interacting with our personal and institutional histories.”
Note that I haven’t told you anything about the objects portrayed within Habits of Being, which is mean, because since the book is sold out, it may be a bit difficult to get your hands on a copy. But I’d challenge you to uncover these treasures. They come to life in the pages of Habits of Being through the stories, descriptions, and then delightfully, the photos (many in color) of both the objects and the ancestral women to whom they belonged.
Since the book isn’t online and is sold out, I will kindly point you in a few directions of essays that are similar in theme to those found in Habits of Being: