22 January 2013

A Part of All That I Have Met

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
"Ulysses", Tennyson

There is a quote by L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, that always made a huge amount of sense to me.  When asked if Anne were based upon a real person, she said that although she had invented Anne, it felt like a lie to say so because as soon as she did, she was sure that she would be standing behind her because she felt so real.

It's the only way I can possibly explain to you the very real relationship I feel with Anne, Jo, Mary and Elizabeth.

Forgive me for a moment while I swoon over books.  This is not my normal philosophical fare - this is pure and total indulgence in what I love.  You see, I didn't have a sister until I was twelve.  Aside from my own mother, there aren't many female influences in my life that mattered more to me than these four, and, later on, their creators as well.

It all started with Anne.

And really, it didn't start with the book.  It started with the movie.  I was obsessed with it.  And when I found out there was a book, I would go to bed every night with my mother's copy of it clutched in my hands.  You see. . . I was only about four at the time.  I couldn't actually read it on my own yet.  But I wanted to.  I still think that Anne was what drove me into reading as soon as I did.  I wanted to read because I wanted to read her.  And it was so, so rewarding.  From Anne I learned that every problem has an imaginative and entertaining solution.  I learned that I could conquer any situation if I had enough nerve.  I learned that it was good to dream and to hope for wonderful things for myself, but that it was also important to be involved in my own life enough to make things happen.  Good things don't come to those who wait - good things come to those who care enough about their life to work for it.  From Anne I learned that the world is a beautiful place if you allow it to be.  I learned that the world is my oyster.

After Anne came Jo.  Little Women was the first beautiful book I ever owned.  For my birthday, or was it Christmas?, the year I turned nine I saw the most beautiful cloth-bound copy of Little Women at the bookstore.  It had a ribbon in it and color pictures.  I read that book to pieces.  It was like reading my own existence.  I found myself sitting somewhere in the middle of Jo and Amy - I was never the tom boy that Jo was.  I loved dressing up and enjoyed pretty things, for example - but most of the time I lived with Jo.  She had a temper she wanted to contain but couldn't.  She had a massive love of life and was placed in a time that really wasn't ready for her.  She wanted a life that was more than most everyone around her would have been satisfied with.  The older I got, the more I felt like Jo was written exactly for me.  Our desires and ambitions were so similar.  We are passionate people who live enthusiastically and don't ever intend to stop, even when it makes the world a little uncomfortable.  From Jo I learned to be happy with myself.

Next came Mary.  She's a little different than the others.  She's a nasty little thing - stubborn to a fault and unkind to others, but the way I saw it she was just misunderstood.  She had been thrown into rotten circumstances and came from a place where she wasn't really cared for.  Who could blame her?  From Mary (and later from Emma) I learned that I could overcome my flaws.  I knew that I was kind of hard to be around sometimes.  I had worked out how I wanted things to be with my life, and sometimes manipulated my friends into fitting that vision - which (rightfully) put them off me.  The word "bossy" was often attached to my name.  Only I didn't like that.  What kid does?  Mary was my guide.  I figured with the right amount of symbolic gardening (my attempts at literal gardening were utter disasters) then I, too, could be someone people would actually want to be around.  I could temper my passionate side and be a good person.

I wasn't raised on Elizabeth.  I didn't really discover her until high school.  And while I enjoyed her, it felt so very cliche to love her since everyone else in the world worshiped her, or seemed to.  (Not that my other literary sister friends aren't cliche. . . ignore that.)  But she was impossible to resist.  It was the banter.  The complete candor about the world and the general sense of snark about everything.  Nothing was safe.  The world seemed built for Lizzie's enjoyment alone, and everyone in it was on a stage where Lizzie sat in the top box like Statler.  I wanted to be the Waldorf to her Statler.  I wanted to be that funny.  To find someone that could handle it and play back.  (Heck, I still want that.)  And although I still find myself relating more to Emma in the long haul (because she is so openly and recognizably flawed but has good intentions), I want to be Lizzie.  I want to be that comfortable with myself.  (And, let's be real, I want to wear the dress.  And go to the ball.  And say "make haste!"  Oh, and own Pemberly.  'Cause it's pretty.

I don't know that I have some kind of overall point to this beyond my feeble attempts to say "I LOVE BOOKS!" in a way that isn't so "kid in a candy store".  If I were to move toward internal philosophy, I would say that these four women/girls are very much so a part of the "nurturing" that enhanced my "nature" as I've grown up.  Their creators as well.  L.M. Montgomery in particular, but all of the women who penned these marvelous characters were independent, strong, forward thinking individuals who fought for their happiness and their place in the world.  Most of them suffered from one form of depression or another.  All of them were religious in some way.  I can't wait to meet them.  I can't wait to thank them for giving me friends that made me not feel so alone, both real and imagined.  It makes this whole "independent woman" thing so much easier to forge through.

17 January 2013

Let There Be

Several years ago I had the chance to go see the musical Children of Eden.  The musical is an old one from Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame, and follows the story of Adam in the first act and Noah in the second.  At it's heart it's a story of the relationship of parents and their children, but it's not often performed in this neck of the woods.  To a conservative audience, any adjustment to the Bible is a little iffy, and in this case there are several story liberties taken that can make people squirm.  For one, the "Father" character, who represents God, is not a perfect individual.  He questions and makes mistakes and can come off as a bit harsh.  (He doesn't agree with Noah's son marrying a faithful girl who just happens to be of the race of Cain?  But she's so nice!  And they love each other!  And she prays and everything.  Where's the forgiveness?!  Jerk!!)  There are also some historical question marks.  (Cain discovers Stonehenge?)  For people who would prefer their Bible stories to be presented with exact accuracy, it can be a little blood curdling.

Apparently I'm not one of those people.

I really love this show.  It isn't perfect, but I trace some pretty big changes in my life back to some perspectives I gained from watching it that first time - especially in the presentation of Eve.

In traditional Christianity, Eve is something like Guinevere of Arthurian legend.  She's a kind, beautiful, mother of all living who totally ruins everyone's lives.  She eats the fruit, tricks Adam into eating it too, and ruins our chances of living in a perpetual paradise.  If Eve hadn't been such an awful sinner, our lives would be so much better.  In Mormonism, we see Eve slightly differently. We see Eve as an intelligent human who consciously makes a decision and understands the consequences.  She sees that in a state of ignorance, they can't have children.  That it is good for herself, and good for Adam, to leave Eden and to gain experience.

Only, beyond those discussions, we don't really talk about it much.  (I suppose I probably shouldn't say "we" in the sense that it includes the entire church.  I'm sure that there are corners of the church were the topic is discussed more.)  And, as many of you will have noticed from a huge increase in publicity and discussion about feminism in the church recently, it's a topic that probably ought to be discussed more openly.

It is not enough any more to assume that women of the church will only have futures that involve (or should involve) a traditional family.  For many women that hasn't happened, or it has and has been disastrous, or it can't happen for other reasons.  For those women who are told that the highest calling they can have is to be a wife and mother when it hasn't/can't/didn't happen for them, it can be hard to figure out how to harness or define what womanhood means for them and how they can contribute in a real way now, not just at some distant point in the eternities.  What makes us divinely different from men and how can we be valuable?  (In other words: am I only valuable because of my uterus and home maintenance abilities?  Or are there other ways that I am valuable that I should be earnestly pursuing?)

To me, the answer has been stated most clearly in Eve's song from Children of Eden.  The song, "The Spark of Creation", is centered around her belief that when God created the world he left a spark of the creative fire within her being.  She calls herself an "echo of the eternal cry of 'Let there be!'" and a "keeper of the flame" (of creation).  I have never, ever had a song speak to me as a woman more than that one did.  Suddenly the calling of womanhood felt so much more broad.  I did not need the power of the Priesthood - I had a calling, a divine calling, to continue with the work started when the world began.  To make something exist that had not existed before I was there.  Creating life is a part of that.  So, too, is creating a beautiful home.  But creation. . . creation covers so many things.  It involves writing, for me.  Photography.  Discovering new ideas and spreading them.  It involves helping to mold my students into confident, capable, intelligent human beings.  It covers so many aspects of life and is a much more forgiving image of the value of womanhood in the world.  It is not limited to one sphere.  It is all encompassing.

And this, friends, is why I align myself in the feminist side of Mormonism.  Not because I want to rob men of the Priesthood.  Not because I hate my bra.  Not even because I intend to campaign for exactly equal numbers of male to female speakers/prayer givers in church meetings (though I think more female representation there would be stupendous.)  I consider myself feminist because I see myself as a woman responsible for preserving and protecting the art of creation in its many forms (even those that I don't entirely understand, re: vinyl lettering).  It is my responsibility to promote and encourage it in the world.  And in case you think that I am overreaching, check out this awesome nugget of wisdom from someone much smarter (and more righteous) than me.

08 January 2013

In Pursuit of Excellence

I went on a date once several years ago where we got to talking about the afterlife.

"I can't wait to get to heaven and spend a few hundred years just reading everything that's ever been written," I said.

". . . Everything?  There are probably some books that won't be there," says my date.

"Well, yes.  Twilight isn't good enough even if the author IS Mormon.  But Jane Austen.  She's got to be.  Heaven wouldn't be heaven if I couldn't read Sense and Sensibility when I wanted to.  Or Anne of Green Gables.  Or Harry Potter."

That was the end of that relationship.

I think he thought I was a little extreme.  Or sacrilegious.

Next time I'm asked about my favorite color, I'll show them this.

But I'm completely serious about the books in heaven thing.  I'm also serious about wanting to learn to play a bunch of instruments/play them better (flute, piano, violin, cello, harp, bagpipes, didgeridoo) and I want to dance (ballet, contemporary, swing, ballroom) and I want to hone my acting skills and write, and finally learn how to draw, and I want to sculpt and take pictures and learn more about growing plants and become an amazing singer.  I want to do all of those things in addition to, you know, being with my family and making worlds and sleeping and such.

(Hey.  It's eternity.  A girl can dream, right?)

My problem, as pointed out to me by a friend, is that I want to do all of these things now.

Looking at my teaching schedule for the year, I started to bemoan the fact that I am mediocre to good at many things, but not truly excellent or masterful at really anything.  I'm a good writer, but not a great one.  I'm a good actress, but not West End caliber.  I'm a passable photographer, but I'd never get a job at National Geographic.  And I want to be excellent.  Really excellent.  Except - as you can see above - I'm interested in too many things to hone in on one skill to perfect.

And I'm not nearly egotistical enough to imagine that I'll ever approach DaVinci in terms of genius.  That's mental.

And this, my friends, is why I need eternity.  And why we all do, I think.  There's still so much to learn.  And I want to learn it all!

I suppose my first step may be learning to clone myself to make it happen. . . what do you think?  It might be more efficient.

In the mean time, I don't really see any solution but to keep being interested in everything.  It might mean that I never really become brilliant.  But the thought of giving up any of those interests is about as bad as the prospect of never reading Jane Austen again.