Narratives Beyond Conference Talks

Too often in my own life I have looked for the one right story to live by. The older I get, the more I am aware that there is not one ‘best’ narrative, or even a few ‘best’ narratives. I need a quantity, a gigantic sum of narratives to survive and thrive in Mormonism.bird for bcc

The other day while driving in a hot car with my two children as they handed out requests faster and more outlandish than I could possibly ever deliver on, I got to thinking about  conference talks about motherhood that I’ve heard my whole life.  The remembrance of them, however,  did not feel like an act of solidarity in the moment.

The few lines I could recall about motherhood being divine, sacred and  beautiful seemed to almost mock me as I drove along, overwhelmed by life and by my own wild children.  Later that night after the kids were in bed, I spent some time with my frustration, and I realized that I wasn’t actually upset with the talks, or the people who had given the talks, but I was sad that the narrative that came to me in a time of need was not my own at all, nor was it that of my neighbor’s, my mother’s, my sister’s, my aunt’s.

As I worked through my thoughts, I realized that while the talks I had heard about motherhood from leaders have value and are given with kindness, they are general, they are an ideal, they are something I can aspire to, but they should also not bear the weight of what our own spiritual lives should look like.

I know there are places and ways that we do share stories, over the pulpit, in lessons, home and visiting teaching, etc… but I know in my own experience, there have been times when I was so quick to refer my own experience to a quote in a conference talk or something from a lesson manual before I was willing to take ownership of what, in this case, motherhood actually looked like for me.

I just finished writing a book for the Maxwell Institute.   The book is comprised of my narrative, my story, my interpretation of a spiritual life within the context of Mormonism.  I remember at the beginning of the process a friend said to me, “There is a book glowing inside of you and you just have to figure out a way to let it out.”  The writing came easily, I began each essay not knowing where I would end up, often surprised completely by what was inside of me.

But it was after I’d written that I would second guess myself, re-read and come to near panic as I realized my book was just me, and could that ever be good enough? could that be of value to anyone?

It is not the one “right” story, or “best” way.  It is not an ideal, but it is mine.  It is both flawed and vulnerable and brimming with sacred moments that hold me to this place.  It is a drop in a bucket that is not yet full enough.  Conference talks are also a drop in that bucket.  Our stories about our own spiritual lives are multiplying, both in the telling and the hearing, but I would say not enough. There are still ideas and stories of  many friends, relatives, ward members that I want to fill my heart and mind with.

My hope is that as I grow older, I will be better attuned to hear the stories that have already been told (see previous post and series) and give them the credence they deserve, and also to encourage those stories that have not yet been written, the ones glowing inside of all of us waiting to be born, to come forth and join the holy writ of our spiritual vernacular.

After having spent nearly a year with my own story in writing, I have come to love it in ways I didn’t know I would.  I have come to trust my own spirituality, even when I have days or weeks that don’t resemble a conference talk version of life.  There is something profoundly God-like though in taking ownership of the ups and downs, the imperfections, failings, successes and triumphs.  I think in the telling of and listening to a thousand differing stories that come from trying to live like Christ, we find grace.  A whole lot of grace.

 

Comments

  1. Alpineglow says:

    Yes. Thank you. Had a similar experience last week–was trying to figure out why I am so angry at conference talks about who women are and should be. Stepping back and trying to pick out exactly what I was angry about, I realized I didn’t actually disagree with most of the things they said. Motherhood is important. Women are incredible. Etc.

    But the stories were just soooo incomplete. I didn’t see most of how I experience womanhood in them. And so I assumed that the Church doesn’t see my story as a Godly story. That was what was hurting me.

    I’m still working my way through this thought process, but I know that God sees my story as a Godly story. So that is something.

  2. Anne Chovies says:

    I have come to learn that within the framework of the gospel there are as many “right ways” as there are people. I totally agree that the talks and lessons we hear are the general ideal and we each seek to find our own “right way” within gospel net and the life’s circumstances the Lord has placed us.

  3. Alpineglow: Yes. I think there is a huge, huge void that needs to be filled by the stories of both women and men speaking about what it is to have that story and finding a way to say and really believe that it is a Godly one. It is vital, I think. I’m positive your story is Godly, and would benefit others.

  4. Anne: Yes. I am definitely not against the general ideal, but like you say, there are as many right ways as there are people, and I am excited at the prospect of hearing more and more of those. thanks for your insight.

  5. What a gift your writing is, ashmae. It makes me want to hear all your stories, and makes me want to tell my own.
    Looking forward to your book!

  6. After spending many years in a mid to death singles ward (age now restricted to mid-singles), I came to realize that many life narratives were never explored in church talks. We had several people who had battled severe mental illness, some who had been severely traumatized by a parent or former spouse with mental illness, people who were disabled, people whose physical or emotional or mental handicaps precluded marriage despite their desire for it, those who spouse had been unfaithful, those who had been the unfaithful spouse, those who bishop husbands had dumped them. The narrative of what it takes to be a good Latter Day Saint was being created as we went along.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Thank you, Ashmae, for another beautiful post, and thanks also to the commenters who have shared your experiences. Our narratives get better when we learn to listen to people like you.

    P.S. The book is awesome! I can’t wait for it to come out!

  8. BHodges says:

    Agreed, Jason, a great post and the comments are moving as well.

    Ashmae, it’s been such a gift to edit your book, a blessing to me personally. I can’t wait to officially announce it. Your observation in this post about ideals and general counsel reminded me of something Elder Holland described in an address of the church’s Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting in 2008:

    “Now, I hope this helps you understand why we talk about the pattern, the ideal, of marriage and family when we know full well that not everyone now lives in that ideal circumstance. It is precisely because many don’t have, or perhaps have never even seen, that ideal and because some cultural forces steadily move us away from that ideal, that we speak about what our Father in Heaven wishes for us in His eternal plan for His children….We who are General Authorities and general officers are called to teach His general rules. You and we then lead specific lives and must seek the Lord’s guidance regarding specific circumstances.”

    We’ll be releasing more specific info about the next Living Faith book soon. (Plug: people should follow the Maxwell Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, because we’ve been teasing it and that’s where you’ll see more specific info soon.)

  9. Alpineglow says:

    Kate: isn’t it interesting that so many of Christ’s stories in the NT were along the lines you describe?

    BHodges, I think the challenge is not just what Elder Holland identifies: that they just teach the ideal to give people an example. It’s that even “the ideal” in practice doesn’t look much like what they describe. It makes you look around and think, “Am I missing something? Did I do something wrong? I thought I did everything I could, but my life looks and feels nothing like any conference talk I’ve ever heard. I thought there would be love at home if we read the scriptures and had FHE. I must not be doing this gospel thing well enough. Either that, or this gospel thing doesn’t work as claimed.”

    At some point I hope they realize that it may actually be more inspiring and helpful for people to hear more about managing through “the real” than some impossibly tidy “ideal.” The current strategy sets up unrealistic expectations, in my opinion. You pray; things get fixed. And the prodigal always returns.

    I think there has been a little more vulnerability and realism lately. I appreciate that. I hope we see more “Like a Broken Vessel” talks. Ones that feel truly human. Ones that are okay with the messiness of holiness. It would help me feel less alone.

  10. Morthodox says:

    I wonder if many of us don’t relate to many of these narratives presented because, for women, they tend to focus on our relatedness to other people rather than our individuality. We see ourselves as individuals, much more than the roles we fill of wife, mother, sister, daughter, visiting teacher. The sparse and often generalized representation of us in scripture transfers to how we are represented culturally. To paraphrase Katha Pollitt, men are the norm in the scriptures, women the variation. Men are central to our narrative, women are peripheral. Men and boys are individuals, women and girls are types. Men define the group, its story and its code of values. Women exist only in relation to men. Culturally, our leaders have a hard time identifying and validating the huge variances of female experience. So stereotypes about us are presented and our social conditioning is reinforced, rather than much of anything that feels valid.

  11. Jenny and Jason, Thank you both for your support of this book! I really does mean so much to me.

  12. Kate, your perspective and points are so important. It is true that so many of us, in the quest to be Christlike have never actually encountered narratives that apply to so many life situations, like mental illness, etc… It seems like the general leaders are getting better at recognizing and addressing this, but I love the idea that it is up to us to tell these stories and like you say, recognize the value and beauty of figuring it all out as we go along rather than always reaching for a long term goal that may not be possible, or even ideal.

  13. AlpineGlow, you make such valid points, I think especially in the last line when you say that sometimes these narratives make you feel alone. I think that is the case for so many. I do think that the leadership is making positive steps forward in getting to a more ‘real’ place as they give counsel, and I still believe that we can be a part of the larger narrative of the church by simply speaking our own stories as much as we can.

  14. Morthodox, I’ve never thought through that idea of the focus being on our relatedness to others rather than individuality, but I think you are right. Remember that church video that came out a year or so ago about the mom who ends up missing her friend at the airport because she spent the whole day doing things for other people? I cried a good cry when I watched it, not because I was touched or because I wanted to be like that woman, but because somewhere down the line, someone thought it would be a good idea to want to want that. There is a void of women telling stories about their individuality and I do hope that more and more we can give each other the confidence and permission to share our holy, imperfect stories.

  15. I don’t know why as I read this the words, “fresh courage take” came to me, maybe it’s because I need to find the courage to look at or tell my own story. Or maybe I need to encourage others to do so. Or maybe, I realized as I read it/and the comments that I am so worn out trying to make the ideal happen. Either way you hit some note deep in my heart. I will begin to search from here. Good luck on your book. Thanks for risking and sharing your story with complete strangers. I am sure you will gain new friends as the book moves forward.

  16. Kristine says:

    BHodges–I think part of the reason Elder Holland (and others) maybe miss how painful these ideals are for women is that the ideal narrative still leaves sooooooo much more room for men to be people. Men are allowed to have careers, to hold a much wider range of callings in the church, to have lives outside of home and family. For women, the ideal is so flattened, so confined, so *contingent* that having it can be sometimes just as painful as not having it.

    (I also think he’s just wrong–no one is more acutely conscious of the ideal than those who don’t have it. There were no kids in Primary more continually aware of the importance of eternal families than my kids whose parents were divorced. Preaching the ideal just makes the people who have it feel smug and the people who don’t feel even less like they belong.)

  17. Jason K. says:

    Just so, Kristine. I think of your family while working out how to talk with the kids in my Primary class whose parents are divorcing.

  18. I need more narratives. I read the OP and comments (in particular Kristine’s just above, which resonates perhaps because of prior knowledge and experience) and first think “I get it, and this is and should be about women’s experience . . . so what does this have to do with me?” (egocentric as I am). And then I’m struck by an awareness that I’m a straight white multi-generation Mormon man in my 60s living in a nice house in Utah–the most privileged 1% of 1% kind of person who really shouldn’t be talking at all–and yet because I am not a “president”-anything, not going on a mission, not headed in to the COB tomorrow morning or any other day (and it’s going to take a next life for any of that to happen except that my karma is probably taking me in the opposite direction as the Church and I seem to be diverging rather than reconciling), within Mormonism there is no narrative for me. Most days I’m ok with making my own, but the most I get from the institutional Church is “endure to the end” and so I look elsewhere for inspiration.
    I know — “first world problems” to the nth degree — but since likes congregate a lot of my friends are in the same boat whether they think about it or not, except for the ones serving as stake presidents and mission presidents and various “Authorities” right now.
    More stories, please.

  19. Kristine, My husband grew up being the only one for a long time who continued to go to church. His parent’s were divorced and the family was going in all directions. He says he remembers coming home and crying as he thought about the words to “families can be together forever” Now, his family is by all definitions not the family that would be described ever in a conference talk, they are not the ideal, and yet, there is so much beauty and kindness passed between them as they’ve sorted out their lives. I wish we heard more stories like theirs to give hope and peace to the sweet children who don’t understand why already their lives don’t fit the “ideal.”

  20. Christian, Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think that a big part of it is hearing and valuing the stories within and from the population that seems the most “normal”. I used motherhood here as my base because that is what I am in the middle of, but I definitely don’t think this is only a woman’s issue (though I would say we are right in owning a good portion of it). I think the point, rightly, and like you say, is more stories please. An honest plea for more stories. More stories from people like you, or men like my dad who never went on a mission as a 19 year old, didn’t go to BYU or even college for that matter, and still he has a deep well of spiritual understanding that I think he’s kept quiet for so long because he’s been embarrassed by not being the majority. His voice is vital, and part of my salvation. Yours is. Mine is. More stories please is an actual call for more stories.

  21. Loved this. My book was published last fall, and one newspaper reviewer included a line in her review that basically said “I’m not sure why she felt she needed to write this.” I was tired of not seeing myself reflected in narratives about single, active LDS women. That’s why I wrote it. I was lucky to find a publisher (a non-LDS publisher at that) who felt it was a valuable narrative for others. I was tired of the conference narratives about single LDS women–either embittered or sainted–and I wanted people to know dichotomies rarely tell the whole story. We need so many more stories. I look forward to reading yours.

  22. When I first began attending our mid-singles ward, I, like many ward members, felt I could not possibly belong to such a group. Why, our Relief Society president had been married and divorced five times! What could I have in common with her?
    Fortunately, increased life experience and a chance to actually get to know these people taught me how wrong I had been. I can truly say that that ward was where I learned to love people and to appreciate the breadth of life experiences members of the Church had.
    I still remember a conversation with the wife of a bishop newly called to our ward. I referred to a woman in the ward whose husband had died of AIDS. She looked shocked and her voice whispered back. All I could think was that she would not survive long in our ward if she continued to be shocked by such things. We were far beyond that in the discussions we had. We were grappling openly with real problems, not trying to keep the other ward members from discovering them.
    No one had time to whisper about Sister Smith’s bipolar. We were too busy helping her move into a new apartment and escape her last bad marriage to the con artist she had met and married the year before. And no one who saw her struggle back time and again ever felt her reward in Heaven would not be great indeed.
    Perhaps the real problem with our usual narratives is that we are uncomfortable with messiness. We want them sterile and lifeless. We want pages that have not been written on so have no mistakes, but also no story. We want every chapter in the scriptures to have a thus we see moral lesson. And because we want the sanitized versions we lose Christ, who gives life and hope to all.

  23. Kate, I want to be like you when I grow up.

    I will admit, I have thought about MSA wards in exactly the way you describe. “Are THESE my people?!” Somehow, the same problems don’t feel as intense to me in my family ward. I am able to give people more space to navigate hard things, more able to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    As I think about it, it’s probably because I’m not so concerned about how their problems reflect on me as a single adult. I think it feels too close to home in MSA wards. Sheesh, I have so much to learn.