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.


Emily said...

This is the most brilliant blog post you have ever written. If ever their was a treatise on the innerworkings of you, this is it.

Some of my most profound moments on shaping who I am have also been on my travels to England. There must be something in the air, the soil and the imprint of the ancient on every shrub and building.

Bryan Cardoza said...

I believe that questioning is essential not only to the processes of developing faith, but also in distinguishing between doctrine and culture. Much of what is "expected" of Mormons--particularly here on Planet Deseret--is cultural.

That said, remember that the rules of safe question handling are strikingly similar to some of the rules for safe gun handling:

1. Always assume your question is loaded.

2. Never point your question at something you are not willing to destroy.

3. Be sure of your target and what is beyond.

Joni said...


I so, SO love that. Because it's true, isn't it? I've seen way too many people not ask questions at all, but I've also seen people mishandle questions and end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater when they find something that doesn't seem to fit or make sense, and that's not much better.

Anonymous said...

This was absolutely beautiful, Joni. I teared up a little bit. You inspire me. You are so comfortable with yourself and where you're at in life. Truly you are to me as the women on your trip were to you. Thanks for that. :)

Joni said...

Thanks, Liz :). I'm not *always* comfortable with it, but I try to be. I'm learning to be! You inspire me as well. Love you!

Lisa said...

I am in awe that this profound thinker, genius writer, and amazing woman is fruit of my loins. You delight and inspire me. Even though the path the Lord has for you is not what you planned, I, and many others, envy it. Rejoice in it! Your voice and experience is so needed not only in the world, but mostly in the Mormon Woman World. Love you!