Emily Grover teaches English literature and is finishing a doctoral dissertation about women novelists in the 18th century. She served a mission in Tokyo and married a man who served in Seoul. They have three kids and live in eastern Idaho, where they birdwatch, hike, and play a lot of Dr. Mario.
In the wake of the many maritime metaphors used during the recent General Conference—being “shipshape and Bristol fashion,” scuba-diving into scriptures, avoiding the gaping maws of sin-sharks, and so on—I find myself considering anew my own journey aboard “Old Ship Zion,” Brigham Young’s metaphor for the LDS church referenced by Elder Ballard last weekend.
These last few years have been both exciting and frustrating for me as the church has gone through (dare I say it?) sea changes in doctrine, policy, presentation, ideology, and culture and as I have become more aware of what I consider to be honest, urgent questions about the church’s past, present, and future. While some of these shifts have brought comfort and light, others have struck me like storms and have threatened, if not to throw me overboard, then at least to occasionally send me green-faced and stomach-achey to the sides of the ship. I feel like I’ve lost my sea legs.
I am not alone. In the past few years I have seen many friends from my youth, my mission, and my years at BYU–Idaho and Utah State leave the church as a result of shifts in their own lives or, in some cases, the failure of the church to shift quickly enough. Some leave quietly and some with great angst. I’ve had more than a few late night conversations with friends who want to stay, who want to believe, but who aren’t sure if there is a place in the church for them anymore.
We did not ask to feel seasick; it came in spite of (or maybe as a result of) our activity, our study, our prayers, our church and temple attendance, and the magnifying of our callings. We don’t want to leave. We just want our sea legs back.
Mine seem to come and go. For example, last week my newborn daughter was given a name and a blessing in my ward’s sacrament meeting. I knew that I would not be a part of the blessing or the circle of brothers surrounding my baby. Baby blessing circles have been a frequent topic of discussion among the MoFem blogs, and a recent post over at Feminist Mormon Women of Color includes a particularly heartbreaking anecdote about a newly converted sister who excitedly entered the blessing circle only to have her baby son pulled from her arms while someone escorted her back to her pew. Stories like this pain me. I don’t understand why women can’t bless and heal like they could in the early days of the church. I don’t know why I can’t stand next to my husband in a blessing circle, or why I can’t lay my hands with his upon the heads of our children when they are sick or entering a new year of school. My heart aches over this. I crave further knowledge regarding the spiritual gifts of women. I long to know more about my Heavenly Mother’s role in the Great Plan of Salvation. However, on the day of the blessing, I did not want this awareness of my limitations to keep me from appreciating the spirit of the moment. I did not want to feel seasick at my daughter’s blessing.
That day, my husband, my father-in-law, our bishop, and a select group of male friends from the ward encircled my baby daughter, left hands grasping shoulders, right hands holding her. The white of the long, lacy blessing gown and her elfin face peeping up at the lights were swallowed up by the wall of broad shoulders in dark suit coats. I knew that these men were not actively trying to leave me out. I knew that they had nothing against me. In fact, I knew that their intentions were solely this: to bless my child. In that moment, I saw these men stitched together like elegant hand embroidery, a chain of linking arms and cradling hands, with my child perched in the collective center. It was something beautiful. I felt calm and compassionate as my husband blessed our daughter to find her place in the world with the companionship of family, friends, and ward members. I bowed my head and joined my prayer with theirs.
My calmness in that moment did not, however, change my mind about wanting women to be involved in blessing circles. My craving for a better understanding of a woman’s eternal journey was not diminished. And yet, I still found myself capable of appreciating the love and goodwill already present in that circle of bowed heads and broad shoulders. And in that moment, I did not feel sick. I felt like part of my faith community.
This week is different. My Facebook feed is glutted with polarized responses to the recent General Conference: on the one hand, conference memes are ubiquitous to the point of becoming trite and status updates affect unparalleled enthusiasm for every conference talk; on the other, status updates bicker and criticize, nit-picking at all perceived weaknesses in the talks and the selected speakers. Despite how my feed implies that there are but two poles—unquestioning acceptance or critical outrage—I find myself agreeing with and being repulsed by both corners. I feel like I can’t publicly express gratitude for Elder Nelson’s or Elder Holland’s talks on women, because by doing so I might be seen as ignoring the fact that only 5 of the 39 speakers in this last conference were female (and 3 of those 5 spoke in the Women’s General Broadcast). I want to celebrate Elder Nelson’s call for women to “speak up and speak out,” but in the same breath I also want to argue that this message would have been more convincing had more women actually been invited to speak up and out during this conference.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I use this quotation to teach critical thinking to college freshmen, but it seems suitable to my testimony these days, too. Why shouldn’t I let myself see through multiple perspectives at once? Why shouldn’t I be bothered by the lack of a woman’s presence in baby blessing circles while still being able to appreciate the love and beauty already inherent in the current practice? Why shouldn’t I be disappointed that the three new apostles called are all white men born in Utah while still being able to love and sustain these good men in their overwhelmingly selfless and life-changing callings? Why shouldn’t I be inspired, uplifted, and elevated by the same conference talks that also bother me?
I find that, as I embrace all of my honest reactions regardless of how they contradict themselves, I do feel the ability to function—the same ability that I thought I had lost in the stormy seas of my changing testimony. Seeing the good, I realize, does not necessitate ignoring the bad.
The whole point of sea legs is that they let you stand on something unsure and moving. If we are to think of the church as a ship, we must also picture it tossing and moving with the water. And if we are going to stay aboard, we need to learn to keep our balance even when our two feet aren’t on the level.
Captain Ahab had holes bored into the deck of his ship so he could steady his whalebone pegleg in them. Maybe my sea legs are similar: one foot sure, one unsure. Ignoring the fact that Moby Dick’s nemesis is not an ideal role model (spoiler alert: he’s insane), I am enticed by the idea of manipulating the deck to assist the leg that has been wounded and repaired. At the risk of overworking this metaphor, I’d like to think of the way I manipulate the deck of Old Ship Zion as marking the places I know I can get a sure footing when I would otherwise toss about. I can anchor myself on what I know to be good, on what I believe could or should be true. I may not have a sure footing in the way gender equity looks in the church right now, but I do have a testimony of the power of community and the loving gestures of a father blessing his daughter. I may feel unsure about Joseph’s practice of plural marriages, but I can feel certain of my admiration for his honest questioning and the humility of an earnest prayer in a sacred grove. By anchoring one foot into the deck of Ship Zion, I can stay upright while the other continues to find the ever-shifting balance of the seas.
I’m starting to believe that the sure footing I thought I’d lost was an illusion. I’ve always had questions about how the gospel I intuit doesn’t quite match up with the church I experience, but in the past I saw the S.S. Zion as a cruise ship on which I wasn’t supposed to feel—or at least acknowledge—the movement of the waves. I’m done now pretending to have as much fun as everyone else, and cruise ships only deposit you back where you started anyway. I’d rather see the church as a Santa Maria or a Beagle: much smaller, the journey much more dangerous, but the discoveries ahead that much more important.
That more and more Saints are finding themselves feeling seasick on such a voyage is not, I think, a bad thing or a sign that the ship is in trouble. It’s instead a sign that we are becoming sailors instead of passengers, and I believe that we can get our sea legs back when we stop feeling that we have to drop the questions or the calls for change in order to continue to celebrate and reverence the gospel that we love and honor.
What will help many members desirous of staying in the boat in spite of their seasickness is if there is more room for discourse within the mainstream conversations of the church that would allow for questions, concerns, discomfort, pain, and frustrations. I think many members trying to hold on will find their legs miraculously strengthened beneath them just by being listened to and understood, by having their questions and concerns validated. In return, it would be good for those of us yearning for changes in the church to remove those filters that keep us from perceiving what is still already light and good and true before us. Our collective efforts could carve a larger space more conducive for minds that, like Fitzgerald’s, can work amid dissonance: a space that would encompass the fruitful, compromising middle grounds between the poles of dogmatic orthodoxy and full-on dissent. I would love to take my journey on a boat like that.