19 September 2012

The Budding Activist

Joni = Elizabeth

(Thanks for the inspiration, CJane.)

It was really an accident that I ended up in England that summer.  I had wanted to go on a study abroad but was only working part time.  I was on the "Newman Family Scholarship" at that time - get good grades and you get your tuition and books covered.  As a result, I felt rather beholden to my parents and regretted asking for any financial boost.  So when Liz came up to me after class one day buzzing with excitement about this program and how it was perfect, I was a little surprised.

"This is a hiking trip, Liz.  We aren't really the outdoorsy type."

"But it's only day hikes.  And there aren't as many mountains there as here.  And it's England.  And we'd get to go everywhere.  It's all about reading and writing and England.  It's perfect."

How could I argue?

So with approval and a financial plan from home (I have the best parents ever), I went in to be interviewed for the program.

John Bennion didn't really strike me as the outdoorsy type either.  His organized chaos style office, mild mannered, bumbling presentation rather confused me.  I wasn't sure of what to do with him.  He explained to me that they were looking at roughly five different categories in determining whether or not I was a good fit for the program.  Things like how the courses would assist in my degree.  My writing experience.  My general interest.  My physical preparation.  I passed with flying colors in all areas but one.  Physical preparation, naturally.  Bennion didn't consider the mile or so walk from campus to my apartment each day quite adequate, even though it required a pretty steep uphill climb each morning.

Top of Ben Lomond
So I found myself suddenly accepted.  Along with approximately 25 other people - primarily single girls - I prepared myself to spend a summer overseas.  We were a decently diverse bunch.  Stemming from all over the country we were loud and imaginative and determined and theatrical and quirky and so, so obsessed with chocolate.  Not such a bad way to spend a summer.  We toured estates and hiked for miles (and miles and miles when we got lost) and joked about how many twelve year old boys we could take down before they took us down.  We saw plays and talked about whether or not we'd be naked in heaven.  We took pilgrimages to important literary locations and ate. everything.  It remains the time in my life that I would go back to without question if I could possibly revisit it again.  It was the most perfect summer I ever had.

Now, I had grown up in the theater and surrounded by those who believed differently than I did.  I considered myself decently aware of the world and not just tolerant but accepting of different ideas.  Until this summer, though, I had not ever really come into any amount of real, open contact with Mormons who asked questions.  In retrospect, I find this a little sad.  The very foundation of my faith is built on asking questions.  Joseph Smith founded the church at all because he had questions.  The entire Doctrine and Covenants is based on asking questions and expecting answers to them.  But now I was surrounded by people not satisfied with accepting everything that was given to them.  They wanted to know.

Food on the go. 
I was never one of those people.  If you had asked my eighteen year old self what I wanted from life, I would tell you that I expected to get my degree, marry my junior year of college, teach for approximately three years and have a baby in the mean time.  I would be pregnant again by the end of my third year of teaching and then quit to stay at home like a good Mormon woman should.

And let me clarify, I don't think there is anything particularly wrong with that option.  I still don't.  I have many friends, including those I met on this trip, that followed a path similar to the one described and they have been very happy with that choice.

It wasn't until I went on this trip that I realized that I had other options.  That I, as a woman, as a Mormon woman, had choices.

I learned from Liz Knight and her totally refined wanderlust.  She had been everywhere and seen everything and had done it with a backpack and a lack for apparent care on how it all looked.  After the trip was over she rented a car and went where the wind took her.  My obsessively organized mind was shocked at how free that sounded.  I wanted to see the world for myself.  All of it.

The beginning of Aed the Whelpe.  Epic penny flute band.
I learned from Mel and her intense love of learning and refinement and class.  I learned how to be kind from Mel too, who was struggling with many of the things I was.  We fought.  We misunderstood.  And after it all became fast and longstanding friends.

I learned from Laura with her quiet strength and quirky sense of humor.  She was engaged and trying to  plan a wedding while there.  I respected how comfortable she seemed to be with who she was.

I learned from Bennion.  Bennion who, like Grandpa Sycamore in You Can't Take it With You never ever criticized my way of life, only questioned it.  He helped me to see how many possibilities the world holds.  Helped me to both love and challenge myself.

Brooke loves Stonehenge. 
I learned from Brooke.  Brooke, who was the most radical Mormon I had ever known.  Who had a nose ring and swore and had a fascination for the pagan heritage England holds.  Who saw everything as spiritual.  Who fought hard - so hard - for her faith.  Who wanted to believe even in the face of doubt.  Who faced her doubts head on instead of running from them.  Who asked and studied and thought more deeply than anyone I'd ever known.

While I was in England, I don't think I realized how badly I needed those other women (and Bennion) in my life.  Because my life, as it happens, never even had the chance to follow the traditional path I had outlined for myself.  A profound strain of introvert in my blood has made me a horrible dater.  Supreme independence hasn't helped either.  And I realized that if I only ever had a few children instead of a large family it would probably be better for my mental health.  I realized that I love teaching.  I realized that sometimes the Lord has a path for you that others will never understand.

Strapping the man himself into a corset.  Good sport.
I realized that if I were ever to be truly happy as a traditional Mormon woman with my food storage and diapers - it was going to have to be a choice I made willingly.  I realized that it wasn't enough to just accept everything that was given to me.  I realized that the apostles of the church meant it when they told us to pray and ask for answers to prayers.  I realized that I wasn't crazy to feel the spirit when I read novels or saw movies or picked sheep poo off my boots.

I learned how very important it was for me to have a personal relationship with the Lord.  And I learned how sweet, how very sweet, it is to discover that relationship.

13 September 2012


I had a discussion with someone recently in which I was told that I am rare.  Not like. . . undercooked meat or precious ruby rare.  Rare in the thinly veiled euphemistic and slightly nicer than saying weird kind of rare.

It kind of ticked me off.

Under context of this conversation, it was being suggested to me that teenagers want nothing more from life than to have fun and be loved.  And while I don't doubt that these things are part of a true teenager (or human) experience, I tried to explain that as a teenager, and particularly as a student, teachers who spend their time wanting me to feel good about myself just pissed me off and teachers who only wanted to have fun were even worse because I wanted to not waste my time.

"Well, that's rare."

Is it?

Maybe I'm just delusional.  I would never claim to be exactly normal.  I have particular tastes and strange quirks that don't really make sense to some people.  Sometimes I'm super social and sometimes I want to book a trip to the middle of no where for a week just to escape everything (which I nearly did last week, by the way).  Sometimes I'm hard to read.  I'm super confident and open about some things, but private about weird things that people wouldn't expect me to be private about.  I get that.

And I'm also not saying that I liked teachers who didn't have fun with me.  But the kind of fun we had wasn't stupid games or trite things that didn't matter - fun came from a really great debate or talking about a book that had changed my life.  It came from a teacher I knew I could trust enough to share opinions with and have them be respected.  A teacher who respected me and trusted me to excel. Fun and learning were interdependent, not the antithesis of each other.

I don't think that I was unique as a student.  I think I was unique, perhaps, in how aware I was as a student of wanting to learn and not wanting my time to be wasted.  But in the time I've spent with teenagers over the last three plus school years, I've not had too much experience with teenagers who appreciate adults treating them like incapable, lecherous liars that just want to have fun all the time.  To be honest, I find that kind of insulting.  And I think they do too.  It's why I do my best to tell my students how capable they are.  It's why I dare them to come up with a better assignment than I do.  And you know what?  Every time I've had a student come up with a different assessment tool than the one I give them - theirs is better.  Every. Time. 

Hugh Nibley tells a story of a man who inherits a mansion and spends his time holed up in broom cupboards.  Sometimes I think modern education gives guided tours of the broom cupboard.  As soon as a student gets interested in any other room in the educated mansion, we drug them or punish them or force them into classes they don't want to take and force them into assignments that waste their life.  (Let's be serious.  Did you ever fill out a worksheet that changed your life?)

Oh, and in case you think I'm crazy, I had to stop writing this for a moment because a student came in to vent to me about a silly assignment they were given that will legitimately waste their time.  She's a cultured, brilliant, capable individual that will one day give me someone to brag about knowing, I'm sure of it.  And I can remember a conversation I had with another student lately that was frustrated with a teacher using a classroom management tool that would be decently successful in an elementary school but is somewhat juvenile and insulting for a junior in high school.  And I'll remember the friends I had in high school and college who would pride ourselves on taking stupid assignments from our teachers and doing them twice: once the way we wanted to, and once the way they wanted us to.  And then gloat over the way the teacher would praise our ability to grasp a concept that everyone else had failed to master, when we knew that in reality it had only taken us about five minutes.

02 September 2012

Life as a Sycamore

Growing up, I related very much to the transcendentalists.  Men like Emerson and Thoreau and Alcott - men who were constantly searching for meaning in their life and never quite satisfied with where they were.  They felt, and were for all intents and purposes, out of place in their world.

I love this world.  I love the purpose my life gains from making meaning out of what comes my way, even when I don't understand it completely.  I love the ability I have to step outside of myself and try and gain the larger picture.  I love the way my brain and soul are challenged together so that I am not satisfied with learning for the sake of learning, but long to connect the eternities with the now.

This world also stresses the hell out of me.

It's a world of constant dissatisfaction with who you are.  A world of impatience as you try to get better but just can't do it fast enough.  It means that when you are given critique on how to improve you cannot let an ounce of needed improvement go even in a gallon of praise.  It's a world of pressure and stress when taken out of balance.

So when I was cast as Alice Sycamore in You Can't Take it With You, I laughed a little.  I relate to Alice more than any other character I have played before.

For those of you uninitiated to the You Can't Take it With You world, it is the story of a family at the tail end of the depression.  Headed by patriarch Martin Vanderhoff (known simply as Grandpa), the house is full of people who do what they love.  They're able to do this because Grandpa, a former businessman, encourages the house to do what makes them the most happy and helps fund their efforts.  His daughter, Penny Sycamore, writes plays and paints (though you get the feeling that she'd do just about anything if the tools were cool enough and the costume fun enough.  She is married to Paul Sycamore, who spends his life designing fireworks (often sans pants) in the cellar of the house.  (He sets them off in the cellar too.  No worries.)  Paul and Penny have two daughters.  Essie is an aspiring ballet dancer (who isn't all that great, but don't tell her that) married to Ed who is a man with many "talents" (including printing, xylophone playing and mask making).  Their other daughter is Alice - we'll get back to her.

The house has several other acquirements - Rheba the maid and her boyfriend Donald.  Kohlenkov is Essie's very outspoken Russian ballet teacher, and his friend Olga Katrina comes around for a visit.  There's also Mr. DePinna, Paul's fireworks making friend.

The house itself is full of life.  None of the Sycamores (other than Alice) have a job outside of the home, so everything is constantly moving and full of excitement.  It's a joy to watch - a family that loves each other and enjoys each other's company, and has the luxury of pursuing what they want to do with no judgment placed on them.  In the Sycamore house, your quirks are encouraged and wanted and in some ways expected.  They want you to be you.

Then there's Alice.  Alice is, for all intents and purposes, the most "normal" of the Sycamore club.  She has a "real" job.  She interacts with people outside of the home and is decently self conscious of the way her family looks to those who don't get them.  She loves them - but she's nervous about other people loving them, especially when she gets engaged to the son of a Wall Street business mogul.

Near the end of the play after a rather unfortunate scene where the families of Alice and her fiance, Tony, meet - Alice breaks off the engagement and sends the whole family into a depressive funk.  In a debate with Tony's father over the best way to live your life, Grandpa states rather boldly that Tony is too nice a boy to end up in a life obsessed with stocks and bonds - that he deserves better than to be "mixed up and unhappy".

It was that last phrase that struck me.  As I think about the last few years in my life, I realize exactly how like Alice I am.  I am driven and determined to succeed.  I am comfortable pursuing what makes me happy.  But I am conscious of wanting to please those around me.  I don't like feeling judged - it stresses me out.  So I sometimes spend far too much time worrying about what other people think.  It left me feeling mixed up and terribly unhappy.

I started to realize that I was spending far too much time worrying about what other people thought and not nearly enough time worrying about what He thought.

I'm not letting go of my transcendentalist routes.  I think it's good to have a healthy desire to push forward and to become better.  I don't ever want to feel so settled in my opinions that I can't change and adapt.  But I also don't want to put so much pressure on myself to be perfect rightthisverysecond.  I want to learn to accept myself a bit more.  I want to accept the Sycamore parts of my personality and not be ashamed of them, but enjoy them.  Grandpa is right - life is kind of beautiful if you take the time to notice when spring comes around.  And it's hard to notice that when you spend your life constantly stressed about pleasing others, or making a deadline, or on trying to accomplish a world of tasks all at once.