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.