Sunday, November 16, 2008

A New Age? or "How Mitt Romney & Proposition 8 Changed the Mormon World"?

When you set a match to your heart
Fueling with bitterness and doubt.
That's the place that once it starts
No amount of tears can put it out.

I know you're scared,
but no one's spared when you play with matches.

You've got me walking through the fire...

(Walking Through the Fire, by Mary Chapin Carpenter)

I presented a paper in November, 2008-- in Chicago, just before election day, in the Mormon Studies section at the American Academy of Religion annual conference. A heuristic exercise in looking at agency in Mormonism, the title was "Vocal Mormons Meet Mitt Romney: The Impact of a Mormon Presidential Candidate on Mormon Self-Expression." My argument was that the combination of Romney and the LDS Church's strategic rhetoric in responding to criticism and fear of Mormonism opened up a space for dissenting Mormons to debate controversial issues on the Internet and in other public forums.

In a nutshell, Romney's candidacy resulted in a multitude of news articles and blog essays about the question of individual agency in the LDS Church. As a result, Romney repeatedly insisted that he would not be sanctioned by the LDS Church for publicly supporting social issues the Church is against. Similarly, the LDS Church reaffirmed its usual assertion of Church political neutrality and extended it by stating its awareness of political diversity among church members and its intention to respect that. Soon after, California Proposition 8 became the litmus test for this implied tolerance.

I have not personally heard that anyone has been excommunicated for public resistance and criticism of Prop 8, though I have heard of a few being threatened privately with church discipline. Even so, I still believe that, without the attention drawn to Romney and the questions he generated about individual agency inside of the LDS Church, Mormons would not have assumed their church's tolerance on this very public and divisive issue and many would not have been public with their critique.

Of course I'm always interested in the insights of others into this and other aspects of the Mormon world.

P.S. Many of these ideas appear in an article I wrote for Religion in the News, at

"Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues" . . . or Coming Back from the Grave (and Returning to the Living)

I’m in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico
Working on a fishing boat, how long I don’t know
Trouble behind me, yes I’m hoping so
Finger on my back, make me say
“Whoa, whoa, whoa”

(Bruce Hornsby)

It has been a very odd year. Living on the boat I had the most disconcerting and almost frightening experience of struggling to write and feeling isolated. I loved being on the boat, loved the music at the marina, loved the life I felt I'd been meant to live, thirty years later, or even just right now. What surprised me was that I thought I welcomed that isolation and believed it would enhance my ability to write. What I found was that, even though I continued conducting numerous interviews during those weeks, I was overcome with strange fears that affected my ability to write ("The boat might sink, and I'd lose my computer and all those library books!").

When I returned to AZ to help care for my father as he was dying, I was further decentered by extended periods of sitting and rumination over the meaning of life and the process of death. When he died on the 16th of August and was buried the 19th, I had four days to finish (more like start) preparing to teach my classes, and so right after his funeral I was distracted in a healthy way by 16 hour workdays and concentrated intellectual activity.

In addition, I was privileged to have my proposal accepted by the national American Academy of Religion Mormon Studies consultation. (I'll blog about that experience later.)

Unfortunately, not only have I not grieved my father, I still haven't written any more on my dissertation. And I haven't been writing here on my blog. John and Kaime's generous promptings have directed me back in this direction, however, and my trip to Chicago has reminded me that I have something to contribute to a community of scholars.

I'm back from the grave, though it's no way to know yet what what will look like.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Show Goes On"

Got my dad home today, his first day on hospice care. I thought it was hard in the hospital, but this is worse. Perhaps it will just take time to figure out what help we need beyond what hospice provides. Yes, it will just take time. To adjust. To catch up on sleep. The doctor ordered him Ativan for anxiety, and I laughed and said that my mother and I are the ones who need drugs!

I apologize to those whose interviews I postponed because I had to rush back to AZ from San Diego. The show goes on, as Bruce says, and in a few days I will be contacting you to reschedule. While facing the reality of mortality my spirits have been lifted by the emails, Facebook comments, and instant messages from those of you who have reaffirmed the importance of the work I'm doing. Your commitment to the vitality of the comparisons I am making and your appreciation of my insights into the diversity of lived Mormonism have kept my spirits up as I walk with my father between the worlds. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will be moving some of my books and other materials to my parents' home so that I can help my mom during the day while getting back to the project.
The Show goes on, and the sad-eyed sisters go walking on
Everyone watching all along
The show goes on, as the autumns coming
And the summers all gone
Still without you, the show goes on

Time is passing,slowly passing you by
You better try to find it before it passes you by
As I watch you walking to another cold dawn
And you keep on walking
And they keep on talking
Talking all along

Bruce Hornsby, "The Show Goes On" from Scenes From The Southside 1988

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"When It Don't Come Easy"

I had such high hopes for this summer

Just as I was getting started writing in earnest, I got the call that my dad was dying. In a rush I set the boat in order, packed my books up and put them in the car and took off for home.

("Don't stop anywhere," my weeping husband said.)

Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the waters getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home tonight

But if you break down
I'll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I'll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don't come easy
This was the day of my youngest son's nineteenth birthday and a day after the new California hands-free cell phone driving law went into effect. (Trying to make it from CA to AZ to see his granddad that same day, our oldest son was actually stopped and ticketed. I guess the law doesn't have a clause excusing conversations around impending death.)

At the border patrol stop the officers asked if I'd been crying and I burst into tears. "I don't want to be a fatherless only child." This is the man who taught me the value of higher education and teaching; from whom I had to take a college course in my undergraduate degree program; who three weeks before said, "How is the dissertation coming? Is it finished? I can't watch you graduate if I'm dead!" I was too ashamed to tell him I was having trouble getting it going.

His kidneys gave out 18 months ago; then his liver failed;
they say they see spots indicative of cancer but won't do a biopsy because he's in such bad shape in general; and now he's drowning in fluid and aspirating everything from food to saliva.
I don't know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home

You're out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you're walking in the wrong direction

But if you break down
I'll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I'll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don't come easy
I'm so grateful for a husband and five children who are my best friends. We come out in the rain to get each other when we've broken down.

I still have a father, and I admit I have temporarily lost my taste for writing. But I've been working hundreds of Sudoku puzzles in his hospital room so my mind is at least sharp.

I'll be 53 years old on Sunday. I'm going to have my hair cut by one of my best friends who is a brilliant hairdresser with her own shop in town, have my mouthful of caps looked at for some tweaks in my bite, and sit by my father's bed as he tries to get well enough to go home to hospice care.

I'll write next week. I'm old enough to know that being in a hurry isn't always the best thing.

[Lyrics from
"When It Don't Come Easy" by Patty Griffin from the album "Impossible Dream"]

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Mercy Street"

I'm sitting on the boat having not written a blessed word all day (except for emails and now this blog post) listening to Idina Menzel sing at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay, to which the marina is attached. She performed in the productions Rent and Wicked and her voice is soaring and pristine. However, I'm longing for Peter Gabriel, the artist's voice I find most comforting when I'm in pain or in trouble. Like today.

Fibromyalgia flares don't lay me low very often (I most often work through them) but I think it's the combination of the "pretend" bed I'm sleeping on in the boat with the extended sitting I'm doing in an equally uncomfortable seat in the extremely small galley. It's not like I'm not being active at all. The boat is on the dock that is farthest from the marina entrance (and hence the restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities) and each round trip is 1/3 mile.

I've done some writing and numerous interviews, but my mind is numbed by the pain in my body and all I want to do is surf the net, imagine myself paddling around the marina in a sea kayak or sailing in San Diego Bay. Imagine. Not happening right now.

So I'm listening to Elphaba but I'm thinking of Mercy Street.
There in the midst of it, so alive and alone,
words support like bone
. . . . Anne, with her father is out in the boat
riding the water
riding the waves on the sea

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Shaking the Tree"

This has been an interesting week. Looking back it would be easy to say that I didn't get much of anything done. And yet I did several interviews for my dissertation and worked on Sunstone Salt Lake City. I spent extended time with a friend who is suffering, and with my grandchildren who are finally getting used to the idea that I'm actually their grandma (and not just a specter of some sort). And though I usually eat most of my meals out (Haji Baba's and Pita Jungle are my local favorites), I bought three months of food storage because CNN and MSNBC have been keeping me informed on the international food situation. I've also done a lot of research, continuing to find participants who fit into the categories in which I'm interested--whether they're blogging or on email lists or "meetup" ( groups. And I spent an entire day with one of my daughters, who is chronically ill and needs help with her diet. I've been cooking more too, doing dishes, cleaning closets, and basically being a real human being. So I can't say that I've been unproductive--though I also watched a lot of TV (vampire movies rock!) and had to recover from a nasty migraine earlier in the week.

But I've been avoiding actually writing, beyond continuing to work on the introduction to my dissertation. I am surely an undiagnosed obsessive compulsive, because I work and rework....and rework again so that sometimes one or two paragraphs monopolizes several hours. Words have power. One of my main concerns, then, is "getting it right." Not that there's a "right" way to write a dissertation, but analyzing what these women are doing and how they are doing it is a great responsibility.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


This is the title of one of my favorite Paul McCartney songs, in which he waxes poetic about a (presumably) large ship. Then there's Winedark Open Sea, another McCartney love song about how easy it can be to relax and just love someone...."sailing on a winedark, open sea." It's hard to imagine having any kind of wanderlust stuck in front of a computer with Bubba under my feet and Luna trying to sit on my lap while I type and do interviews. The whole day is gone....and the one before it and then the next one coming . . .

But next week I am taking my family (all but one of them, grandkids and all) to California for a week on the beach, and then I will take over my daughter's sailboat while she migrates to San Jose for her legal internship. My husband said "You just need to go somewhere and hole up and write--and don't stop until you finish."

Sailing on a wine-dark open sea sounds like a good place to write a book about the richness and depth of spiritual practice. Every person I interview for this project helps me better understand the data contained in the latest Pew Forum study about religion and public life in America: our religious identities are incredibly fluid and we feel more and more entitled to explore and innovate meaningful spiritual lives.

Perhaps that innovation and exploration is . . . Wanderlust.

See you on the beach!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Dissertation Proposal Defense: The Beginning of the Beginning Between the Mormon Worlds

Something ended today. My grades were due at the community college. I clicked "save" and it was done. I still have grades to post for almost 200 students at ASU, but they're done and ready to go. Right now all I want to do is breathe deeply and appreciate how it feels to be done with another semester.

In another ending that was really a beginning, I successfully defended my dissertation proposal yesterday. Though it certainly didn't require the same type of time or effort as my comprehensive exams last year, when it was done I realized that I was exhausted. At times like these I question the virtue of the academic life, even though it's the thing I've been the most successful at. It's difficult to explain the exhaustion of mental and emotional work when to others I appear to simply be sitting around with a lot of books and green tea.

This is further complicated by the type of work I do: Religious Studies. Though I recognize that all academic fields can hold anxiety, conversations about religion are unique in their capacity to trigger deeply held assumptions and produce misunderstandings and conflict. Teaching about religion in a public university is exhilarating and at times frightening. I can promise that eventually someone will encounter something offensive in the material presented in class--such as when I show the video from the 1990s on Christian Fundamentalism. It always upsets students, but is important because it enriches their understanding of the role fundamentalism has played in 20th-century American culture.

Teaching about Mormonism can be just as upsetting to different students for different reasons. Still, I'm grateful for the opportunity to do it and I acknowledge my students, many of whom are bewildered when they discover the course they've registered for isn't like the last Institute class they took. Whether they are LDS or not, they are challenged to reflect on and push through their resistance to seeing things anew, to step outside personal commitments, to explore what it means to move around in this religious world. It takes courage to do that work.

I'm writing this dissertation about 21st-century Mormon women's spiritual practices. I'm not writing about all LDS women, of course, but a particular subset. I call them New Age Mormon Pagans, knowing that most of them wouldn't consider themselves New Age or Pagan--and some of them either no longer consider themselves Mormon or are not yet Mormon but want to convert! In addition, they're incredibly diverse in other ways. But I like the term and I hope it doesn't offend anyone.

So as I pursue the personal narratives of LDS women who do past-life regressions, practice herbalism, read tarot cards, do Reiki, and/or use crystals (etc.), I have discovered that most of them are faithful Latter-day Saints who are passionate about their spiritual practices. As a critical ethnographer, one of my mandates is to protect their anonymity while advocating for the legitimacy of their claims to authentic Mormon identity.