Happy Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day, I thought it might be a bit  hackneyed to honor two women whose consistent and genuine goodness continues to amaze me. And since I’m always looking for an excuse to use the word “hackneyed,” honoring them is just what I’m going to do. My mom, Floralee, has taught me that service is nothing more than inviting another person to join your celebration. After my parents’ divorce, my dad married my stepmom, Mary, who has taught me the meaning of loyalty and friendship.

Floralee Shumway

HawaiiMy mom raised five children in a two bedroom condo. Even though we knew we weren’t exactly well off, we never felt like we had too little to share. My mom invited a different family to dinner every Sunday. She never baked just one loaf of bread or a solitary pie. Rather, she descended upon friends and neighbors with baked goods she mass produced the way Henry Ford did Model Ts. But my mom’s products came in a lot more shapes and colors. Every pie crust was painted with a picture of the fruit contained within. If it was a holiday pumpkin pie, it was topped with a chocolate poinsettia molded from red and green chocolate. When an occasion called for a savory dish, my mom brought a cheese ball shaped like an igloo flanked by scores of penguins crafted from carrots and olives. If it was summer, whatever she brought would look like an American flag.

Mash site 2Growing up with my mom, meals were more than just food. They were events. Dinner was an occasion for taste testing competing brands of sodas and tortilla chips and for dry runs before her new recipes went public. Every holiday was accompanied by festively food-colored dishes, which we had a perfect record of eating until the Halloween of the black milk.

Because of the way my mom celebrated the routine, we never noticed how much she sacrificed. For years, my mom cleaned our music teachers’ homes in exchange for our piano and vocal lessons. She brought in extra income by hiring out her clothes ironing services. In all this, she never asked for thanks, and she rarely received it.

Unasked, my mom recently delivered a different dessert every Sunday to the children of a family friend with terminal cancer. From the months before and after the funeral, my mom made it her yearlong goal to provide these children something to be happy about. 564362_10150810181571432_792562310_n (1)

My mom continues teach me that even when things don’t turn out the way you might have liked, you can still celebrate the people you love. For Floralee Shumway, service isn’t a sacrifice to fret over or try to fit into your schedule. Rather, it’s just a way of inviting one more person to join you as you celebrate life with music and rainbow-layered Jell-O.

Life didn’t turn out the way my mom expected, but her love and service never wavered. All my mom ever wanted was to provide an idyllic life for her children. When circumstances made that difficult, she worked as hard as she could and trusted that the rest would be provided. I will forever be grateful for my mom’s example of service: that she gave of what little she had, even when she didn’t know when she would have more.

Mary Shumway

JuliaMarySalinaHouseWhen my dad married Mary, she became an instant friend who joined us in movie marathons and midnight Slurpee runs. She listened and remembered every detail while we talked about school and friends, and she always took our side.

Mary stepped into our family at full-stride, and rather than trying to change us, she joined in the fun. Some of my favorite memories are of Mary giggling along with us as my dad tried to foster some sense of decorum at the dinner table. In fact, my little brother and I used to fight over who got to sit by her during dinner.

Mary was always coming up with fun crafts and outings. I remember her bringing home a box of art supplies and a book on how to make puppets. This led to hours of gluey fun. Mary provided the bread and transportation for countless afternoons of feeding ducks from the paddle boats at Liberty Park.

TylerJuliaMaryStevenThe longer I’ve known Mary, the more I’ve grown to appreciate her. She notices people’s needs and goes out of her way to serve people, even before they know they need help. Mary drove my high school best friend and me on a grueling hunt for the perfect homecoming dresses. She used her connections to have a job waiting for me when I finished my mission. She helped me pick my wardrobe for my first post-mission date. Every time I tell Mary about some new venture, she immediately provides a contact person, a recipe, a vehicle, an outfit, or hair products.

More than anything, Mary is a true friend. She’ll do anything she can to help the people she loves, and she never asks for anything in return. She looks out for what we need, more than just what we want. If we need advice, Mary’s full of wisdom. If we need to have fun, she’ll buy the ice cream or movie tickets. 2013-05-12

Because I’m apparently pretty self-absorbed, it only recently occurred to me how differently her 30s must have turned out for Mary than she’d expected. When she married my dad she also took on five kids who were a bit of a mess. My dad had been cooking layers of crusty Hamburger Helper—one on top of the other—in what I can only assume was his only pan, but Mary calmly swooped in and put our family back on its tracks. During the first year she and my dad were together, Mary calmly handled my allergy attacks, my little brother’s string of upholstery-destroying bloody noses, my throwing up all over her car and everyone else’s dressiest clothes after she took us to see The Nutcracker, and lots and lots of very vocal—and sometimes quite violent—sibling rivalry. On top of her creating order out of our family chaos, I’ll always be grateful Mary also made sure that my hair was combed every day and that I looked reasonably presentable. Including once when I fell out of a tree: Mary was the one who went out and bought me a new outfit so I could leave the hospital in style.

I am deeply grateful that Mary had the faith to accept unforeseen circumstances and that her capacity to love was great enough to make five rowdy kids a part of her family.

The Incredible Hulk, or why I spend so much time alone

There’s something I’ve been wanting to share with you for a long time but couldn’t find the words. I feel so strongly, though, that I can hold it in no longer, for amidst life’s challenges, my guiding light, rock of strength, and unfailing paragon of purity, is the Incredible Hulk. There’s almost never a time I don’t wish I were talking about the Incredible Hulk, but, thanks to Ang Lee, most of my potential listeners won’t believe he can be more than a side-character in any remotely watchable film. This is totally false, and I would like to explain why.

Like all superheroes, the Incredible Hulk has an alter ego: genius physicist Dr. Bruce Banner. But unlike most superheroes, Dr. Banner’s psyche is almost entirely exiled  when the Hulk takes control. Not only does Dr. Banner disappear, but with each bout of rage the Hulk gains an even stronger grip on the will and body the two personalities share. This conflict for the possession of mind and flesh perpetuates a cycle of self-denial and sacrifice in Dr. Banner. He can’t get too close to the people he loves, especially Betty Ross, because any strong emotion could trigger a transformation into his nightmarish alter ego. But he daren’t leave entirely because when threats arise, Dr. Banner knows the Hulk is the only force strong enough to protect humanity. This means he is constantly near those he cares about without being able to enter any kind of satisfying relationships.

Betty Ross has an impressive amount of spunk and street smarts!

Betty Ross has an impressive amount of spunk and street smarts!

Where Dr. Banner differs most starkly from other superheroes is that he never gets to experience the perks of his superpower. Of course Stan Lee reminds us frequently that superpowers have their downsides, but Thor still gets to fly his women wherever he wants, and Dr. Xavier can occasionally read socially convenient information from others’ thoughts. But Dr. Banner’s mind is entirely gone when his superpower expresses itself. In fact, each time he gives into his alter ego, Dr. Banner’s not sure the Hulk won’t maintain hold forever. The beauty is that when the world needs him, Dr. Banner still risks everything and changes.

Many superheroes’ personal drama stems from temporary, self-created dilemmas. Spiderman either gets cocky or keeps secrets. Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl can’t keep their romantic drama to themselves. But even when everyone is entirely up front with each other, Dr. Banner’s relationships will always be tenuous because sometimes he turns into a violent Hulk. It’s just the nature of the beast. Literally.

In the 1962 original, Bruce Banner became the Hulk when he saved Rick Jones from a gamma bomb.

In the 1962 original, Bruce Banner became the Hulk when he saved Rick Jones from a gamma bomb.

The emotional aspect of the Incredible Hulk could easily carry a film if people could stop fixating on the Hulk’s penchant for smashing. Yes, he smashes things. And yes it is cool. But we all know that smashing, as a superpower, isn’t cool enough to sell when its competition is the alter-ego-transcending snarky genius of Tony Stark/Iron Man or the well-butlered fury of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While the Hulk’s personality is defined by raw might, Dr. Banner’s defining characteristic is raw goodness. Dr. Banner’s willingness to sacrifice until there’s nothing left is the real superpower, and the difference between the Incredible Hulk and other superheroes is that his most remarkable trait is expressed by his alter ego. I challenge you to find a more trenchant example of nobility or a more heart wrenching drama. You will find none.

I love the Incredible Hulk because I’m inspired by Dr. Banner’s consistent will to risk everything to protect the people he loves. The Hulk/Dr. Bruce Banner persona is, in my estimation, the noblest of the Marvel Universe, and a beacon for youth in our troubled times. The Incredible Hulk is a heartbreaking tale of agonizing self sacrifice. I’d encourage everyone to heed Dr. Banner’s example and then face all decisions by asking, “What would Bruce Banner do?

Thanks so much for reading my propaganda. If you’re still craving more, I wrote you a song. Also, click here to see some of the most beautiful Hulk story telling I’ve ever seen.

Wear Pants to Church Day

Formal dress pants: Showing your Downeast Outfitters floral skirt who's boss.

Formal dress pants: Showing your Downeast Outfitters floral skirt who’s boss.

I’d like to say a few words about Wear Pants to Church Day. I’d like to be clear that my goal is not to change anyone’s mind. My goal is to explain why I feel the way I do about this event.

The purpose of this event is for women to reconnect themselves and those they love with the Book of Mormon assertion that “all are alike unto God.” Some comments on the event’s Facebook page have argued that church is an inappropriate forum for such a demonstration or that women already enjoy full equality within the LDS Church. To these views, I have two responses: First, church is a meant to be a place where individuals with all sorts of different views and experiences can come together to nurture one another as saints and to learn how they can use their unique and beautiful talents to glorify God. And second, it’s easy for the socially advantaged to see their view as normative and any differing stance as opposition.

The religious experience of a Latter-day Saint is inclusive. For as long as I can remember, I have seen my identity in terms of the LDS Church doctrine. From a young age we sing, “I am a child of God.” As young women we recite, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father who loves us, and we love Him.” As adults, our Relief Society Declaration reminds us that “We are beloved spirit daughters of God and our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction.”

In addition to defining our very being, religion is a source of emotional strength, spiritual nourishment, and social support. When stressors arise, religion is a source of direction, of peace, of counsel. Religious worship provides a venue for us to commune with the Divine, to experience a sense of awe at eternity, or even to assuage the occasional existential dilemma. Particularly as Latter-day Saints, we spend hours with our ward members during several days of the week. Truly, for Latter-day Saints, the Church is central to every part of life.

Within the Church, be it in doctrine or culture, there exist constructs of womanhood that many women find exclusive and hurtful. These constructs are widespread enough to have been felt by women from diverse wards, stakes, states, and nations. When a woman feels that she is not included in the definition of “femininity” accepted by her ward or stake, she experiences a social disconnect between herself and her fellow congregants. Even beyond that social alienation, she feels that her very being, her identity, her ability to commune with her God, her right to spiritual healing, the applicability of church counsel, and her place within the Kingdom – all these are undermined.

In several posts on the Facebook page, I read comments that questioned participating women’s understanding of the words of the prophets or scripture, their motivations for participating in Sunday worship, their desire to fulfill God’s purpose for them, the integrity of their intentions, their sexual desirability, their testimonies, and the value of their opinions. Every part of these women’s place within their religion – their ability to fulfill their identities, their driving emotions, their ability to interpret spiritual guidance, and their place within the organization of the Church – was called into question when they made a plan to express solidarity by wearing a Church-approved item of clothing.

It’s fairly clear that the majority of people who oppose this event are comfortable with the status quo.These people are comfortable expressing their views in Church and are comfortable hearing others’ views. That’s because they are fairly sure that, overall, they and the rest of the congregation basically agree. This is their normal.

It isn’t mine. I’ve sat in many Relief Society meetings, hearing a definition of how men and women differ or of how women should find fulfillment, and felt the vague discomfort that if I were to express my true opinions, it would be seen as “political” or “contrary.” Whether or not anyone would actually do anything isn’t necessarily the point. The point is that a vast number of Latter-day Saint women across the globe have experienced the same thing. Clearly some stigmatization is being felt, even if those on the opposite side aren’t aware of it (Here’s a great source to learn more about the nuances of stigmatization).

No one has ever told me that I was bad at being a woman. They’ve merely repeated a definition of what women should be that didn’t include me. I’ve sat in lessons where the teachers and commenters assumed we all dreamed the same, that we all found fulfillment in the same way. They could comfortably say what they felt because they’d experienced a precedent of everyone agreeing and certainly no one contradicting. I, on the other hand, could not comfortably say what I felt. I’ve seen disparate views viciously shot down very few times, but I have seen it. Mostly what I’ve seen is the absence of disparate views. A gentleman’s agreement not to broach certain topics, which is a little bit the same thing.

I’ve rarely been told that my interests or skills didn’t fit femininity, or that I needed to pick up new ones in order to fulfill what God had in mind for my sex. I have been told, but it hasn’t been often. Mostly, I’ve attended activities from the time I was a Merry Miss that promoted pastimes and priorities that I didn’t share. My brothers were out sleeping in snow caves while I was practicing setting a banquet table and learning the tricks of makeup. They were learning to light fires while I was tying yet another quilt for some very fertile Young Women leader’s next child. I was working toward my YW medallion by creating a collage of the temple where I wanted to be married, while they were working toward their Eagle Scout by going canoeing. My male friends’ priesthood activities usually involve some form of meat and football, and my Relief Society activities usually involve a craft and cupcakes. Whether or not anyone is shoving ideas down my throat verbally, an atmosphere of narrowly defined genders has been set.

It’s natural for those who enjoy the way things are to see another view as opposition. They’ve been expressing their views among like minded individuals for years, and it has felt safe and comfortable. But to them I say, I don’t see your view as opposition. I see your view as valid, and I grant you the right to express it. To quote the Isley Brothers, “It’s your thing. Do what you gotta do.” Whatever brings you fulfillment and peace before God and man, you pursue that. You rock your identity. You live it up with your hopes and dreams. Be extraordinary and magnify the pants off your divine potential. I, and the women in this group, merely ask that you grant us the same privilege. When a woman raises her hand in Relief Society to express a sentiment you don’t share, don’t shoot her down. Don’t whisper to your roommate that views like that are why she’s still single. Instead, wish that sister all kinds of success. While you might not have the slightest idea how she could possibly be happy, be glad for her when she expresses the ways she finds fulfillment.

And when that sister shows up this Sunday wearing pants, I would ask you not to tell her church isn’t an appropriate forum for this kind of demonstration. Instead, recognize that this woman has been feeling very alone at church for a very long time. And be happy for her that today she can look around the congregation and identify other women who have been feeling the same way. Finally, within the Church she calls home, she has some proof that she’s not alone, after all.

Michal, ma belle

I once made a study of every mention of women in the Bible. By far, my least favorite bit was the life and times of Michal, Saul’s youngest daughter (She’s strewn throughout 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles).

Here’s her background: Once upon a time, David brought Saul the foreskins of 100 Philistines, and as a reward, Saul let David marry his daughter. This bit is actually pretty romantic. The elder daughter (Merab) was supposed to marry David, but she married Adriel instead, and David and Michal let Saul know they were madly in love, and he was cool with it. Saul, treacherous as he tended toward David, wanted Michal to be a snare  to get David out of the way, but Michal went double agent and kept David a step ahead of Saul’s fiendish plots.

When Saul realized Michal was selling him out, he took her back from David and married her to a guy named Phaltiel. David was true to her, though, and when Saul finally wanted to make peace, David refused to even show his face for reconciliation unless he got Michal back. It’s hard to say how Michal felt about all this, except that Phaltiel followed her along the road weeping the whole way. Heart breaking, right? Get ready for my least favorite part, though.

I get the idea things were never quite the same between Michal and David, and it wasn’t long before they had an irreparable tiff. After David was anointed king, he managed to win the war against the Philistines. To celebrate, he put on a linen ephod (which was a ritual item but apparently sort of scanty) and led a parade with the Ark of the Covenant through the City of David. Michal looked out the window at his dancing and despised him in her heart. David cluelessly went about blessing and celebrating with the people, but when he came home to bless his household Michal met him and told him off.

MICHAL: “How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!”

JEALOUSY, right? And David did not take it well.

DAVID: “It was before the Lord, which chose me before thy father, and before all his house to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel” (TRANSLATION: The Lord picked me over your screwed up family, so shut up! You don’t know anything about it!) “Therefore will I play before the Lord. And I will be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight: and of the maidservants which thou hast spoken of, of them shall I be had in honour.” (TRANSLATION: If you don’t like a dancing husband, you don’t deserve a husband at all!!!! Say goodbye to this body because those maidservants are the only ones who are getting any of it from here on out.)

Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death. She did adopt five sons who David later gave to the Gibeonites to be slain as part of a peace treaty (But that repulsive story is for another day.), so… yeah, bum deal, right?

So, in addition to providing evidence of a long tradition of marital discord in the human family, I’ve seen a lot of morals assigned to Michal’s life. My very least favorite in the world was the interpretation that Michal was right – David should’ve been more modest in dress and action – but she needed to learn to give her husband some time to unwind after work, and she deserved barrenness as punishment for speaking out of turn. Ugh. Never tell me this is what those verses mean, or I will imagine-slap you and out loud simply stop respecting you. UGH. Oppressive patriarchy perpetuated through misinterpretation of scripture.

I talked to a rabbi about the story a few days ago, and his interpretation was almost exactly opposite of mine and also consistent with my understanding of Jewish philosophy in general. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that God has commanded us to celebrate life. Holidays and festivals are all requisite, and you’re accountable for anything awesome in life that you’re not enjoying. So, basically, David was out celebrating as commanded and having a jolly old time, and Michal–that spoiled, bratty princess–got jealous and wanted him to only have fun with her. She was a controlling trollop who wanted David to do her bidding rather than what the Lord had commanded. I told him I still didn’t think it was fair that David wouldn’t give her any kids just for that one oversight, and he told me it was God who wouldn’t give her any kids and David had nothing to do with it. I presume some of this information was Talmudic, but I’m sure he’s also studied those chapters far more carefully (and in Hebrew) than I have, so, I’d say his ideas have some credence.

In finale, Michal had a shockingly bad home life, and I feel sorry for her, no matter how you put it. But if I have to draw a lesson from her story, I prefer the one in which life is a celebration not to be inhibited. And if you mention the other interpretation to me, ever, just be glad I don’t have mind powers or your cheek would be smarting for days.