Ashley Mae Hoiland received a BFA in studio arts and an MFA in poetry, both from Brigham Young University. She served a mission in Uruguay. She now lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband, Carl, and two children, Remy and Thea. She has written and illustrated several children’s books and once headed a project that printed poetry on billboards. More of her writing can be found at www.birdsofashmae.com. We are glad to welcome Ashmae as a guest of BCC.
There I am, a little sprite of a girl, lion-haired and scrape-kneed, taking bouncy skipping steps along the dirt path. Quiet morning sun peers through the leaves like the light through stained glass at the front of a cathedral. As a thirty-year-old, I stand at the top of my childhood hill and look down. I can see my 8-year-old self stopping to bend near the ground and hold some leaves between her fingers. I hear the scuffle and scrape of dust and rocks beneath worn tennis shoes. My tiny self is alone and canopied by the canyon oaks and crooked spruces.
I almost remember perfectly the visceral magic of endless possibility I felt in this space. My parents were both new to the church and the missionaries still drove up the long canyon road and the steep driveway to our house every Monday evening—we knew so little. Our naïveté left us unencumbered and free, because the few facts we really grasped on to were handed to us by the joy we felt as we were sealed in the temple just months before, or when the ward wrapped their arms around my parents and celebrated their goodness.
I stand and watch from the top of the hill, near the old sandbox and clothesline—the hill we sledded down with cousins the one Christmas it snowed in California and we went straight past the wire fence and down into the bushes. I put my hand on the oak that stood watch over us as we played, and I can almost see through to the chicken pens and the tree I first read Black Beauty in. I look down to see the young me kneeled down mixing water and dirt. She is intent. She is open and prepared to create whatever comes from the mud. There is no sense that it will be something. There is no reason for it to be something.
The possibilities are many for this little girl and what she will create. Her head is down in concentration and I think I see a faint glow of joy wafting off her muddy fingers, her palm patting the lump of earth she holds. I want to go down to her, march through the brush and weeds and kneel down next to her, but there are many years between us now, and those years have brought the burden of expectation and awareness.
Religion is, by nature, a creative pursuit, though over the years I’ve increasingly needed reminders of that, since I forget it entirely at times. Spirituality is grasping at ephemeral butterflies of supposition, trying to wrap our heads around their beauty and call it knowledge. Each of us manages to catch a few fluttering bits of understanding that open the way to belief, but what we each pull toward us is very different than what our neighbor has experienced. The spirituality of Mormonism is a singular endeavor that we can celebrate together.
Between all of these fragile butterflies of religious thought, we have the opportunity to employ the great gift of creativity and connect the dots in ways that fuel us. Religion is not best served by rigidity; instead, religion flourishes when we are creative. I recognize that my 8-year old self understood this so well. A rush of excitement and magic accompanied her growing spiritual curiosity. It was a curiosity only possible because she was okay with knowing nothing for sure. She was willing to employ all her creativity because the world was a hypothesis worth testing a thousand times.
As the eight year old me grew in the gospel and the missionaries no longer came to teach us every week, my family matured both in joy and knowledge, but in some ways, my need for absolutes also grew. I wanted to have answers to everything. I believed Mormons had answers to all things, and over time, the hypotheses I had once been eager to test faded to knowledge I assumed was nobler. The complexities of unanswerables no longer held place in my head and heart because “I knew without a doubt,” and, as I entered my mission, I held firmly to the unfortunate Mormon adage that “faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind,” and thus pressed forward with that determination. I morphed from that young girl in the forest who believed in a myriad of impossibilities (I honestly thought I would be born again as another creature in the next life and that idea brought me a lot of pleasure to ponder) to a young women in my twenties who knew precisely what was possible and was going to teach it to the world.
The gospel in my teens and twenties was still that ripe field of butterflies, rich with beauty, but slowly, my supposedly perfect knowledge stunted my spiritual curiosities and a year after returning from my mission I found myself deeply questioning my place in Mormonism. By the time I left Utah and settled in on Stanford’s campus with my husband and small son, I had to reconcile the clear facts that the world and spirituality were far more expansive and diverse than I had ever supposed them to be, and that Mormonism was a drop in a sea of thought, history, and experience.
Reconciliation, however, was no simple task, as I realized that Mormonism in my future would look different for me than it had in the past. I found myself, as so many do, chafing my heart as I tried desperately to fit everything back into a box that was no longer the same dimensions. I didn’t leave the church because it didn’t seem the right path for me: I love so much of what I still found within the doctrines, people and community. I loved the way in which my religion asks for me to be creative in finding my place, though I didn’t see it at the time because I was too busy sifting through the black and whites I felt were calling my attention.
For a couple of years I simply shut down the spiritual conduits and attended my meetings, did my callings, and called myself a Mormon without much of a bridge forming across the canyon between my the complexities I felt in my heart and the religion I was raised in. I loved both sides of the chasm, but could not find a compromise to bridge it. I imagined myself continuing in this way for as long as possible and did not know how long that was.
One day, as I spoke with a friend about my spirituality, she said, “It seems that a part of you has died.” Which seems a dramatic statement, but also accurate. What she said next, however, was far more important. She said, “You are a creative person. Use your creativity to reconcile your spirituality, to bring lifeblood back to it.”
As an artist and a writer, creativity is perhaps my most beloved quality, but I had somehow bypassed using it in my spiritual life. I had become so bogged down with the do’s and don’t’s, the political incongruities, and the culture of Mormonism that I had completely neglected this most glorious idea that I come from Heavenly ancestry steeped in creativity. Our prophets and leaders were creative and the very nature of prayer, scripture study, and personal revelation are based in creativity. I had forgotten this.
And so I came to the place where my young self resided. I came to watch her and ask her how to be curious again. How to shed suppositions and adopt possibility. I came to watch her create things in the mud without the weight of what they must be or look like when they are finished. I came to revert back to a time when definitions of truth, doubt and certainty were irrelevant. I came to understand what made this girl so happy, what she found outside in that outdoor wildness, all alone and glowing.
For a long time I did not move a muscle near the oak tree: I just leaned against it and watched, hoping to learn through the simple movements of my younger self. Then slowly, I moved down to her, a fat robin calling from the branches above, a crackle of dry sticks, puffy clouds as watchmen. I knelt down and without concern, she handed me some wet clay from her spot on the ground and we built without expectation for a while, as some traveling monarchs flapped silently overhead. Then that little girl tugged me to follow, and we moved under those trees, the wind lightly blowing, and we threw our hands up and danced just a little because no one was watching and it didn’t need to mean anything in particular.