Relief, Society

I’m too poor to work out at the snooty athletic clubs near my house, and too old and pudgy to work out at Bally’s or Gold’s, so I go to the YMCA with all the other middle-aged mommies trying to sneak in 30 minutes on the stairmaster while their kids take swimming lessons. The particular YMCA I go to is also home of the legendary 9:00 am MWF Aquacise Class.

The median age of the women in this class is, I’d guess, around 75. All of the women are pretty spry, still fit enough to get themselves to the pool and into the water for 45 minutes of foam-floating-device-assisted water aerobics. I often end up showering and changing at the same time as they finish class–in fact, lately I’ve been working out longer than I usually would to make sure I’m in the locker room when they are. I love watching and listening to them.

As far as I can tell, they have few things in common, besides their commitment to exercise and each other. I’ve heard a few pointed political comments (though never outright arguments–New England ladies of a certain age do not argue) that suggest divergent views; there’s talk of the different churches and synagogues they attend; some have been to college, some not; some are widowed, some still married, one or two divorced. Their bodies are every size and shape imaginable–tall, short, round, lumpy, thin, saggy, wiry, scarred, varicose, stretchmarked, well-muscled, well-used, all with that softly loosening skin of the aged. All of them seem beautiful to me.

The core members of this group have been taking the same class for nearly a decade. On Wednesdays after class they have brunch together, either at someone’s home or at a local diner. They have seen each other through the loss of spouses, cancer diagnoses and treatments, sending grandsons to Iraq, births of grandchildren (and a few “greats”), moves to assisted living facilities. They keep track of class members who have moved away or gone to Florida for the winter, posting notes and cards on a bulletin board in the locker room. When one woman didn’t reappear in class after what the ladies considered a suitable period of mourning after her husband’s death, they organized a posse to visit her, get her to eat, and coax her back into the routine of exercise classes.

What is most interesting to me about this community is that, as far as I can observe, what binds them is not some lofty shared ideal, but simply a series of decisions to care for each other. Over time, those small choices–to have a conversation after class, to share a meal, to divulge a secret, to ask for or offer a ride to the doctor’s office–have built sturdy and lasting friendships on a foundation as flimsy as, well, a swimming pool.

I’ve often chafed at the apparent artifice of Relief Society, been annoyed by the assigned and enforced friendships of visiting teaching, longed for some more “authentic” community. I’ve wished for the seemingly spontaneous spiritual outpourings that seem so common in accounts of the early Relief Society, and fumed (and worse) about the correlated curriculum that seems to suck the life out of current meetings of sisters at church. I don’t imagine I’m finished with those frustrations, and I still cherish a vision of celestialized Relief Society meetings where we speak heart to heart and bless one another and sing and prophesy in free and full communion. But for now, I’m learning from the little old ladies in the locker room to love and appreciate a female relief society on a more human scale, to recognize and savor the gifts that come from simply choosing to tend each other, body and soul.


  1. Elisabeth says:

    I love this post, Kristine!! I’m so glad you wrote it. I yearn to feel closer to the women in the Relief Society, but after a few awkward attempts at feigning interest in scrapbooking and shopping, I hightail it back to Primary. I suppose it would be easier if I had children, but sometimes you just don’t feel that connection with people – Mormon or not. Do we all have to be friends? No, but I wish I could find a group to be a part of like the women in the Aquacise class.

    But all is right with the world today, because the sun is shining for the first time in weeks!! Yeay!

  2. S.P. Bailey says:

    Having just arrived at the office after my morning workout at the Y, I am resisting the urge to parody Kristine’s post by providing the view from the men’s locker room. Suffice it to say I do not intentionally time my showers to coincide with those of the numerous unsightly naked old dudes who populate that place.

    Elisabeth asks: “Do we all have to be friends?” I think the answer is yes. At least “all being friends” seems to have been a significant part of Joseph Smith’s vision (speaking of the larger community, not just the women/RS, of course). What that friendship entails however, may be something entirely different from the spontaneous community Kristine seems to want.

    Indeed, I think family may be a better model for thinking about our wards, RS groups, quorums, etc. We don’t choose the members of our families and we may have nothing in common with them. Yet our individual characters are revealed by how relate to them. Afterall, how hard is it to get along in common-interest societies of our own choosing? (cf. GK Chesterton’s essay along these lines).

    Generally speaking, I don’t think things like assigned friends (home and visiting teaching) and correlation render forming meaningful communities of friends impossible or even difficult.

  3. A few clarifications are needed I think:

    How many people are we talking here?
    You speak of the ‘core members’. How do the non-core relate to the core? Are they involved in this society? More importantly, how do *you* relate?

    Your conclusion however is pertinent. The church cannot truly progress until the members have true fellowship with each other. Otherwise it’s like going to work each Sunday for business meetings.

    My opinion on how that is done is more informal activities, i.e. activities not done under the church umbrella. Why? because it brings the organisation and decision-making between the people who are actually going to be participating, which is what friends do. It’s also a less exacting environment (strictly speaking, there are no standards to live up to except your own).

    Under these conditions I believe it’s easier to build proper friendships that actually mean something to you, and it’s when the people that you worship with mean something to you that you are able to exercise faith on their behalf. And faith leads to miracles.

  4. Kristine says:

    “Generally speaking, I don’t think things like assigned friends (home and visiting teaching) and correlation render forming meaningful communities of friends impossible”

    That was kind of my point–here are these women with not much in common who have nonetheless formed a community by choosing to. The useful lesson to me is that an authentic emotional or spiritual bond may follow, rather than precede, the performance of the duties of friendship.

  5. Ed Snow says:

    Nice post. Cute title–what one little comma can do.

    Re friends–we’re supposed to love each other, but that doesn’t mean we have to or can be friends with everyone. That’s what makes this commandment (on which all the law and the prophets hang) so damn frustrating much of the time and wonderfully rewarding the rest of the time.

  6. Rosalynde says:

    I love it, Kris; as always, you bless us with your wisdom and goodness. (And your point was perfectly clear!)

    Like you, I think it quite possible that these women formed this community simply by willing it—by choosing kindness—and, furthermore, that, under normal circumstances, most of us can choose to participate in RS communities despite disparate interests and outlooks. But I also bet that the Aquacise community has persisted by cultivating shared practices and, even more crucially, shared memory; I’d even guess that they have an origin myth, of sorts, that they occasionally rehearse—and that it is probably subject to the particular occlusions and elisions that mark most origin myths.

  7. Katie P. says:

    I think visiting teaching can work to form that community (which I long for), because while we don’t choose whom we visit, we can choose to care about them.

    It’s like siblings. We do not choose our siblings, but if we choose to care for and about them, they can become indispensible.

  8. Thanks, Kristine. This is a wonderful post.

  9. Elouise says:


    Brava, from one of the women in the locker room! Not your locker room, to be sure, but a locker room that is apparently much like yours, albeit halfway across the continent. I found this essay to be right on the money.

    One step that can lead to authentic community is speaking with authentic voices. I was in a Relief Society planning meeting once at the ward level. RS Birthday Time was coming up; six or eight of us were planning a party. What would we do for entertainment? Well, we could pin historic or fictional names on each others’ backs, and try to guess “who we were.” Or we could play the paper-and-pencil game that is like “Scategories.”

    “Wait a minute!” said a voice. “We don’t need to play silly games! Some women in this ward are very lonely. Some are really struggling with hard-core issues. If we’re going to get together, can’t we TALK to each other about our lives, our concerns?”

    Suddenly, the sweet voices that had been there melted away. “I’ve been here six months and I don’t know anyone I can really talk to,” said one woman. “Do you think we could wear. . . pants?” said someone else.

    Those authentic voices decided to have a women’s retreat once a year. (They called it The Great Escape.”) It came to be so beloved that one year, Sister P- attended even though she was nine months and twenty minutes pregnant. Actually. And yes, her waters broke while she was there. But, having had nine children previously, she calmly got in the car, waved the others back to the retreat, and drove herself to the hospital. (I am NOT making this up, you know!)

    Thanks again for bringing up an important consideration, and doing it so beautifully.


  10. My fav part of your post: old ladies deciding when is too long to mourn and then going to take said mourner out of her mourning.

    I’m not at all opposed to assigning friends to each other. I think we mostly don’t look at each other (visiting teachers/ees)as potential friends, assigned or no, rather someone who needs to be read the visiting teaching message. Which is very weird since I believe the Mormon literacy rate to be very high.

    I also don’t feel obligated to like everyone I meet at church. I sorta hope not everyone likes me either. I also like being required to do things I don’t like to do: be nice to people I don’t like, find things I can enjoy about them, listen to Mother’s day talks, abstain from coffee, sex. The biggies. I think it makes us better people.

  11. greenfrog says:

    Kristine, clear perception beautifully expressed.

  12. Heather O. says:

    Wow. I’m definitely getting to a YMCA.

    I’m always amazed at how different women bond, and over what. I am a fan of bookgroups, and can’t live without them, not only because of the intellectual aspect, but for the bonding aspect, too. Somehow between talking about the book and moving on to the treats, there is a subtle change where the friendships are built. The regularity of the schedule (once a month) and the closeness of proximity (we face each other in a circle, rather than in rows focused on a teacher) also adds to the happiness of the experience that I have never found in a Relief Society.

    Sounds like I need to start exercising, too!

  13. Great post Kristine.

  14. Mark IV says:

    I go swimming at my YMCA, and a similar group of older women meets there for water aerobics. Even when I am dogpaddling face down in the lap pool, I can always tell when the class is starting because they play peppy music LOUDLY. It is great to see women of a certain age wearing shower caps with their bathing suits and getting jiggy with the Pointer Sisters’ Jump! For my Love. I look forward to the day when I can also be so un-self-conscious.

    I have also observed the same dynamic you describe in a smaller group of older men. They are probably all cardiac patients, judging from the scars on their chests, and they expend a lot less energy than the women. I would describe their workout as very, very low impact, it consists mostly of standing around in chest high water and talking and laughing. But it is probably good for their souls, if not their bodies, and the shared experience of cardiac trauma has made friends out of a diverse group of cool old guys.

  15. Good post. I think we all crave the ‘authentic’ community, and I’ve seen a clutch of golden girls who have done it for over 50 years- different religions, different SocioEconStatus, etc. Yet, in my RS, I haven’t been VT for over 3 yrs and no one has done much more than chatter with me. Why? B/c the RS has divided up into cliques, and I’m literally not in the ‘Mother’s Club’ (an official club that also meets 2-3X a week outside of RS).

    What is lovely about your post is that we can LEARN and form a strong circle of friendship with others who aren’t carbon copies of ourselves. Old & young, black & white, mother & nonmother, single & married can all be friends.

  16. I agree, the mother’s club errodes RS, as it creates divisions within the sisters. Mothers in our ward have been replaceing enrichment activities with mother’s club activities. Now with the new enrichment ‘activities vs meetings’, they meet with the non-club members 4X a year, and have seperate enrichment activities- just for moms who are 1)rich 2)have working husbands 3)work less thank 15 hours a week. (Anything less will get you LITERALLY BLACKBALLED).

    Didn’t the Savior say, ‘if ye are not one ye are not mine.’

    Don’t the scriptures also say that the happiest and most peaceful people in the BOM existed b/c ‘there were no divisions among them’.

    Why do RS sisters struggle so much with this???

  17. I agree. Something ought to be done about the mom’s club.- Go Get ’em!!!

  18. Did anyone catch the Church News article this fall about some groundbreaking research the Y had done in sociology– an female bullying? (It was in the NY Times as well).

    Evidently, they discovered that women bully verbally and emotionally instead of with their fists. Furthermore, it was reported to exist in LDS wards, primaries, YW, and RS. The ‘Queen Bee’ is usually a ring leader- intimidating, demanding conformity, bullying, putting down, etc. It exists among the women not only in the church, but at work and in other denominations as well.

  19. When we give ourselves permission to form ‘authentic communities’ without regard to the ‘new person’ and divide ourselves up, aren’t we perpetuating the alpha wolf pack mentality? What is soo horrible about being assigned to VT a new person who might be eons different than yourself? Can’t we be nice and practice making friends with everybody???

  20. Why don’t the men have this problem???

  21. Sue – because, at least in my ward, the men don’t have a connection.

    IN my student ward – it was all about the xbox/halo connection. There was the hardcore group and the occasional group. BUt everybody did it.

    In my current ward there are the firefighters, and then everybody else. The firefighters do ocassionaly include the mountain bikers and the firearms afficiandos.

    Mostly tho – men have their own social relationships at work.

  22. Seth R. says:

    The most connection the Elders Quorum guys have is sleeping through Sunday meetings in the same room.

    Occasionally we move new families into the ward.

  23. So then why are women so heck-bent on changing things, and the men content to let sleeping dogs lie. (Bad metaphor, but you get the point ; )

  24. Liz, do you have any more specific information about that BYU study? Especially a place to see it online?

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