What’s on Your Relief Society Birthday Playlist? (Alex Boye??)

This month female members of the Church will be gathering in countless cultural halls with casseroles, crockpots of soup, and rolls in hand–all to celebrate a very special birthday: the anniversary of the founding of the LDS Relief Society. A required Church activity (it’s described in the Handbook of Instructions) this evening which seeks to epitomize the roots of sisterhood is a staple in every RS yearly calender. Along with the soups and ubiquitous chicken salads (the recipe with whole garlic cloves is always a no; the one with avocados and raisins is a surprising yes), there will be a program of some sort celebrating the history of Relief Society and the women who have shepherded the organization from its inception in Nauvoo to its current state as world wide humanitarian powerhouse. There might be women in costume. There might be reader’s theaters. There will definitely be a music.

One year (the only year!) I was put in charge of our ward’s Relief Society Birthday celebration I opted to go with a regular birthday theme. There were balloons on the tables and we all ate Texas sheet cake that one of the sisters had piped with the Relief Society seal and logo. Super creative, I know–but you have to understand this was well before the Pinterest or even sugardoodle.net was around. (Egads, that makes me sound old! So does my use of the word “egads” . . .)The one part where I took a risk was the music. Instead of hymns or the clanging echo of female chatter on the cultural hall walls, I opted for Glenn Miller. I brought a small CD player and set it on the stage (which wasn’t being used that evening) and we all grooved to “Little Brown Jug” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” It was fun. It was nice. But it didn’t really hit on the spirit of the Relief Society.

Surprisingly a lot of singers, from your ward and from the big LDS music marketers, are seeking to fill that gap. Just like some Deseret Book musicians release theme music for the youth programs every year, a clutch of DB female LDS musicians release albums aimed at capturing the special sense of sisterhood. Usually it’s ladies like Hilary Weeks (your Facebook feed probably got inundated with this one last fall) or Mercy River. For awhile it was Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices album (who knew “I Am a Child of God” could be so deeply soulful!). And always there are the humble renditions of the hymns “As Sisters in Zion”, “Love at Home”, and “Each Life That Touches Ours For Good” sung by tender-hearted ward members.

A few other songs stick out in my mind. Like the Janice Kapp Perry numbers that graduated with me from Young Women’s into the RS (The presence of “I Walk By Faith” at some of these events is baffling to me). Or Sally DeFord’s “My Sister’s Hands”. The most notable is Mindy Gledhill’s “Emma (Never Had an Ordinary Day)”, which is almost rebellious in its questioning of those who would question Emma. Standing behind Emma, choosing not to judge another woman’s spirituality based on the outcome of her marriage and her children but instead choosing to simply be with her and help her–to my mind that’s the heart of the Relief Society sisterhood.

And just recently I discovered another unforgettable one. Alex Boye’s “Relief Society Tribute” song. Seriously, this one is unforgettable. I can’t not share it with you.

While I unequivocally love Mindy Gledhill’s “Emma” I am a bit divided on Mr. Boye’s offering. On the one hand, I appreciate his compliments and there a couple spots that I actually tear up because he articulates my feelings fairly well. There is a part of me that seems to crave this kind of validation. But then, well, there’s the part where he raps “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel”. And all the “hey-O!” that makes it so my brain automatically starts singing Taio Cruz. And there’s the surprising (flippant?) mention of Heavenly Mother. I would never compare myself to her, but now that he’s done it I find myself realizing that there’s a reason I don’t compare myself to her–I WILL NEVER MEASURE UP! The perfect women he lauds in this song are, for the most part, not like me. I know this is not the intent of this song, but, well, isn’t there some way to talk about Mormon ladies without idealizing them? Sometimes it seems to me like the old angel-of-the-hearth thing all over again. (Although Hestia is always classified as one of the “Big 12” Greek gods and she is the original Guardian of Home and Hearth, so maybe that isn’t so bad? But I digress.)

I don’t know. Is my discomfort just because Alex Boye’s song is so very, very far from the style that I expect to hear? Or does it epitomize the Mormon woman/Mother-in-Zion syndrome dilemma?

How about you all? What do you make of Boye’s song? What kind of music is central to your Relief Society experience? (And, yes, men please weigh in!)

Emboldening Women (Through Story): an interview with Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project

“Deliberate disorientation” is a phrase Neylan McBaine uses to describe her work with The Mormon Women Project. She achieves this state, as mentioned in Part I of her interview, by choosing stories that focus on “women who prioritize the gospel and yet still make unique and intriguing choices about how to maximize their potential.”

Take the story of Meredith, for example. When her husband of fifteen years decides he is gay and leaves her, it is almost unbelievable that she could ever find that “eternal perspective.” But in reading the details of her story you find out that, well, it actually possible for a woman to move forward with faith. Jana Reiss (of Flunking Sainthood fame) is startling–both in her bifurcated path to baptism and her tendency to pray with people at the drop of the hat–but also delightfully familiar in her struggles for devotional perfection. And then there’s the story of Bindu that makes you stop and say, “Wait. There are Mormons in India? I never even though to ask that question.” What is most astounding is how many, many Mormon women are changing the world at large through creative humanitarian forays. Continue reading “Emboldening Women (Through Story): an interview with Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project”

Emboldening Women (Through Identity): an interview with Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project

These days Mormons can’t seem to get off the op-ed page. As folks who share the faith of Mitt Romney, are subjects of a Tony Award winning musical, and an assertive ad campaign us Mormon are everywhere–and so are stereotypes about us. In a recent interview on Fresh Air with Terri Gross talked with a Romney biographer about Romney’s interactions with a group of Mormon women when he was a stake president. While the story about Romney is interesting, what is more interesting is the way the biographer describes the group of women: they wanted “a more liberalized set of standards”; they “were tired of not being able to speak in church and they wanted changing tables in the men’s restrooms”; “there were a series of things they asked for that they thought would bring women up to maybe not an equal level in the Mormon church but for them to have a greater voice in the life of the Church.”

Now, besides the gross error that Mormon women aren’t allowed to speak in Church, it’s pretty distressing to me that what characterized this group of women as liberals was that they wanted change tables in the men’s room. Really? Getting the men to help care for the babies? Isn’t that a little quaint? The picture this anecdote paints is one done in broad strokes with inexact coloring where the women come out in an ill-educated, unsatisfied, barefoot-in-the-kitchen kind of way. There is little nuance or subtlety and it is ultimately dissatisfying to me in a very personal way.*

However, what makes this piece stand out from so many other misrepresentations is the fact that there was a group of Mormon women who saw a need and found a way to get it met. They were polite, they were strong, and they got the job done. That’s the kind of Mormon woman I identify with–and the kind of women Neylan McBaine is seeking out and presenting to the world with through her Mormon Women Project. The stories she chronicles are the kind so many, many Mormon women identify with as their own. Subjects covered include women of many nationalities, races, and backgrounds. There are stories about surviving sexual abuse and difficult marriages. There are women who come from long legacies of Mormon membership and new converts. The portraits drawn by MWP are detailed, with many tones and hues, and offer a great richness to the picture of Mormon women. Continue reading “Emboldening Women (Through Identity): an interview with Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project”

Laura’s Year End Mini Reviews

When I first started blogging for AMV I had a traditional post every December where I talked about what books I’d read that year by Mormon authors and ranked/recommended them. 2010 was a turbulent year so I missed doing it last year but there was no way I was going to 2011 end without making my list. Thanks to Goodreads, I have a comprehensive list of what I read in 2010 and 2011, so here’s my recommendations for both years. Enjoy and don’t forget to tell me what Mormon books you’ve read lately and would recommend!

In 2010 I read 39 books (yikes! that was not very many!), 12 of which were by Mormon authors. In 2011 I read only 47 books– still short of my “book a week” goal–13 of which were books by Mormon authors. Many of the titles were YA titles because those are the most readily available, but I did manage to buy a few and get my local library to buy a few. Also, I have to say I am a big fan of my ereader and I am excited by the number of LDS/Mormon books available in e-formats. I was not pleased with Deseret Book and difficulty I’ve had with ebooks from their site (why, oh why!, couldn’t they just sell some that are kindle compatible??), but Zarahemla Books has done an awesome job offering a great array of ebooks (see here for Kindle compatible books and here for other eformats). Getting those books for those prices is a steal. Peculiar Pages also does a great job making their anthologies available in eformats. Parables Publishing is even starting to offer some of their titles. Forgive the infomercial tone to this next comment but, seriously, being an avid Mormon reader has never been easier (or cheaper)!

Anyway, on to the rankings: Continue reading “Laura’s Year End Mini Reviews”

How do you push through it? (Mr. Ira Glass, I have a question!)

Whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 100,000 hours or or the proverbial million bad words, Ira Glass wants you to know something:

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

This will probably come as a (not) startling confession, but I am one of those writers. The one who has a million ideas that most likely have merit but is eternally frustrated by her inability to do those ideas justice. Ira Glass, you have offered me some true comfort. I’m glad to know that every writer is one of those writers. And I know that the solution to that problem is work, but I strongly feel that I have taken myself as far as I can go on my own, so what now?

I think in my more naive writing years I believed that editors would see my potential and guide me into that nebulous sweet spot of writerly Shangri-la. But the truth is editors don’t want to do that. Editors are busy people. They are strapped for time and money. Especially in the Mormon market where most of them work and publish not to make a profit (although, I’m sure they dream about it) but out of the goodness of their hearts and their commitment to our cultural heritage.

I think a lot of folks solve this problem with grad school. But since we are all MFAs (remember when Wm blogged about that? Man, that was a rocking discussion.), I wonder if grad school would actually fill that need or if an MFA program would just be more professors ardently trying to make me agree with, accept, and parrot back their worldviews. Because, well, professors are strapped for time and money too–publish or perish, natch.

Another option that occurs to me is a writer’s group, but, while the Boulder area has many writer’s groups fall into one of two categories:”audition only” groups or a bunch of retirees writing their memoirs for their future grandchildren. I’m not knocking either group–obviously they have found what works for them–but I don’t think I have the chops to make it in an audition group at this point (they come across as rather snarky on their website) and I’m not a retiree writing memoirs for grandchildren. For me the writer’s group has proved depressingly elusive.

I imagine that many of my co-bloggers (Wm, Patricia, Th. and Tyler especially), and many of the AMV readers!, are very tolerant of this phase in my writing. You all hold no illusions about my abilities–which I actually find quite freeing–and have been kind in helping me out in small ways. I’ve also had some great eye-opening experiences with editors at Irreantum, Segullah, and Dialogue. But, again, I know how busy you all are and I hate to impose. (And I hate to embarrass myself, but the relationship between fear and my writing process is really the subject for another post entirely! *cue self-loathing*)

So that leads me to what I want to know: How do you push through it? What do you draw on to increase your abilities and finesse your writing? How do you become the writer you dream of being?

Mormon Kitsch: What’s your secret fave?

5025224_Child_of_God_Pink_productWell, wouldn’t you know Wm has already thought of this one? It’s even in two parts! (You can read about the grand unified theory of Mormon kitsch here and Wm’s actual favorite items of Mormon kitsch here) But that was six years ago, so it’s probably worth revisiting.

My husband and I recently celebrated our tenth anniversary by going on a Big Date. We drove the hour and a half to the Denver temple and then went out to dinner. It was nice (and disorienting to be away from our kids for five whole hours!). And do you know what made it even nicer? Surprisingly, a trip into Deseret Book for a little Mormon kitsch. What we ended up buying was like, well, a godsend. See, we’ve been working on teaching our kids about tithing, saving, and spending and other money matters. I can vividly remember a black, white, and gold three part cardboard bank to hold the three different kinds of money. I used that thing until I was 16 and old enough for a bank account. When we started teaching our kids I tried making them a bank out of cardboard. Then I tried to make one out of plastic containers. Then I tried plastic, cardboard, and duct tape. At one point there were even very small mason jars involved. That was when I realized I was trying to reinvent the wheel.

I feel the need to stop here and mention that I have mixed feelings toward Deseret Book. There have been times I have walked in and found exactly what I looked for and been extremely grateful for the products they provide. (“I am a Child of God” stickers = awesome. As do the cheap scripture marking kits for kids.) Then there are other times where all I can do is cringe because of the mixed messages. (True story: one particularly difficult day I made the decision to take my children to the temple grounds in an effort to feel the Spirit and try to renew my connection with the Lord. It was a little chilly so the kiddos and I stopped at Deseret Book for a Lion House cinnamon roll. The kids spent the whole time in DB in front of a TV that was playing Disney’s Aladdin–you know the part where Jasmine is in the extra skanky red outfit and Jafar is a giant snake trying to kill her? It was that part. Um, Disney, Freud called, he wants to thank you. . . Suffice it to say, DB did a fair amount that day to distract from the spiritual experience I was aiming for.) But lately, as a Primary and Cub Scout leader, I’ve found myself checking out their website to find out what kind of fun stuff is available for the kiddos. I’m often surprised by how many things I like.

Anyway, on our anniversary, I found the tithing banks. Not the exact ones from my childhood but 3 or 4 different kinds that suited each of my different kids. My husband and I were both surprised and grateful. That product would make things so much easier! The banks even came with little lock and keys, which my kids played with endlessly–until they lost them.

The other thing we found? An “Our Family Rules” wall hanging. When I picked it up my husband asked if it had been personalized for our family. The answer was no; someone just knows what it’s like to have more than one or two kids and put those feelings into words.

The piece de resistance? A parenting book! I’m a sucker for parenting books and read quite a lot of them, but my main complaint is that the techniques are almost always aimed at families with one or two children. The techniques worked great until I had more kids than hands. Since then I’ve been looking for some more practical advice. Enter Marilee Boyack’s The Parenting Breakthrough. Not all the ideas have worked for my family, but some of them have made a real difference and I recommend this book to a lot of people.

Now, I do have quibbles with each of these pieces. The stereotypes on the tithing banks bother me a bit. (What? Girls can only earn money by babysitting and they all want to be ballerinas? And why are they all blond? And boys can only mow lawns??) The style of the wall hanging is a little more Stampin’ Up!/country chic than I usually go for. And Merilee Boyack’s tone is the epitome of that strange Relief Society rhetoric that is both self-defeating and self-aggrandizing. But overall each of these items filled a need in my family. (When my kids are laying into each other I point to the rules and remind them, “A little forgiveness goes a long way!” ‘Nough said. And, even if I don’t like her tone, when it comes to figuring out who sits where at the dinner table without arguing Boyack’s method is seamless.) And it’s a good thing.

So, the long and the short of it is this: I own Mormon kitsch. And I’m not sorry.

How about you? What cheesy Mormon products work for your family? Which ones do you own and proudly display? Which ones are cringeworthy?

The Year of the Boar by Anneke Majors (a review)

51CdUcbb1eL._SL500_AA266_PIkin3,BottomRight,-16,34_AA300_SH20_OU01_ “My lifetime is shorter than my literary ambitions” writes Anneke Majors in the forward* to her new book, The Year of the Boar. She continues, “Many of the stories came to me in a much more barebones form than you see here. . . But I stand by these stories as true stories because the characters are true. Everything that actually matter is real.”

And so begins The Year of the Boar, a lovely and comforting offering in the genre-blending “autobiographical novel” style of Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven.

Primarily a missionary tale that follows the author’s own mission in Japan, this novel-in-stories swirls in and out of time–even jumping to the future in a final section– but finds its anchor in the Chinese Zodiac and the soulful Sister Majors, who seems to be the very embodiment of the traits of the zodiac Boar. She is diligent (when it comes to persevering through bad weather she beats the US Postal service) and compassionate (when stuck with a negative companion she tries to love that companion by always finding positives and doing the emotional lifting). She is extremely likable and everything a sister missionary should be.

However, the story seems to shine most in the small moments of transitory characters. My personal favorite was Tetsuo, a man who survived World War II in Japan, helped translate the democratic constitution and later serves a public servant. Tetsuo’s defining moment comes when he finds a crucifix (“the European god nailed to the character for ten like they always depicted him”) in a bombed out Christian church. Majors writes,

“[Tetsuo] thought for a moment about taking it home, showing it to his mother, keeping it as a curio. But as he went to slip it into his sack, he felt a pang of guilt. It wasn’t his to keep, and it should be with someone who would know how to take better care of their god than he. The statue’s face was pitiful, contorted with pain. For so long he had resented this big European church up on the hill, staring down at them all like it deserved to be above them. He had had no regard for the Europeans or their little god, but now, holding it in his hands that way, it looked so frail. He hesitated, wanting to make the right choice. But was leaving it on the ground in the rubble the right choice either? He decided to hold onto it, but only for safekeeping. He would come back when there was someone back to rebuild or take care of the church in some way, and he would return their god to his house, hopefully a house that would be strong and beautiful again.”

Moments like this one, small moments where the characters must negotiate between the ever-shifting political and spiritual forces around them, are what give this book its heart.

Occasionally, the book stumbles. Some characters appear and are lost too quickly in the revolutions of the zodiac calendar, making their backstories hard to hold on to (although a family tree would have been helpful in alleviating some of that). Other times bits of Mormon phraseology creep in where they shouldn’t (at one point a Baptist minister offers to pray over a man’s dying wife and asks, “would you like me to be the voice” in a way that seems a bit too home-teachery). Sisters Majors tends to think in run-on sentences that often take up paragraphs at a time and give the book a rushed feeling. There are even odd moments of over-explaining, like when a fictional Chinese stake is being formed in 2013 and the author stops to explain what a stake means to Mormons.

But overall the book is ambitious and heartfelt. Sister Majors’ love for Asian cultures and peoples, her love for the gospel, and her own personal optimism make The Year of the Boar an enjoyable read. Full of interesting historical tidbits about Japan and China, and small period vignettes in Texas and France and even Algeria, this is an ideal book for book clubs and summer reading. It is, as the author insists, very real. And very good.

*This is the first book review I have written after reading the work on my Kindle. Since there are no page numbers and the “high-light location” numbers are not reliable I have zero idea how to cite quotations. The best source I could find for how to cite a Kindle ebook was this website which said to reference sections. I’m still figuring out how to figure out what section things are in. So for more details about the quotations and references above you’ll just have to read the book yourself!