Sunday, March 11, 2012
The big gibbous moon just past its prime winked in and out from behind the mountains as I drove home in the dark. My thoughts were gibbous as well.
Brooks writes about growing up Mormon, fiercely and tenderly Mormon. There's a chapter about her awakening as a feminist while at BYU, years I was there as well, exciting but ultimately disappointing years during which a good university lost its nerve.
Proposition 8 invades California at the precise moment when Brooks is trying to introduce her daughters to the religion of her grandmothers. She recreates the pioneer day celebration she knew as the girl in the book's cover photo and volunteers for the No-on-8 campaign.
Mormon, so Mormon that it hurts to be Mormon. That's her dilemma.
But it's not that easy. The photo of me with four siblings and a cousin takes me back to a childhood like the one Brooks describes, a couple of decades earlier, to be sure, but likewise marked by racism and fear of the communist civil rights movement and a generous determination to build the Kingdom of God and the wonder of BYU with its concentration of other Mormons and the erotically spiritual uplift of youth conferences and a two-year mission in Germany and on and on and on. Beliefs and practices and ideas (the glory of God is intelligence, there should be no poor among you, the natural man is an enemy to god, shall the youth of Zion falter?, keep the Sabbath day holy, come unto Christ and be perfected in him, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them, and by the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things) work in me still, leavened (that too!) by Nietzsche and Thomas Merton and Goethe and Adrienne Rich and all the rest, but still fermenting, for better and worse, in my subterranean self.
And then the evening, dozens of people gathered in the canyon to hear Steve Peck read from his fine satire of Mormons. Old friends from BYU, lively younger BYU people, just the kind of gathering of earnest and smart and curious and talented Mormon human beings I left Vanderbilt for. (Why are you leaving? the Dean of Arts and Sciences asked me, we just awarded you tenure. I miss the scent of sage, I told him, and I'm going back to the university that educates my fellow Mormons.)
Here they were again, my fellow Mormons, in a cabin next door to Gene and Charlotte England's cabin where I spent many such thoughtful evenings in similar groups. But even given the liveliness of the good book and the good food and the good company, I was conflicted—oddly and gratefully conflicted.
Conversations felt constricted. And there were conversations I could have nowhere else.
Friends talked of the church retirement system that kept them from leaving. They lamented that their schools and departments could not hire non-Mormons. They mentioned restrictions on inviting speakers. They spoke of battles they chose not to fight so they could fight others. They lamented conservative politics. They feared a growing fundamentalism among Mormon leaders. They mentioned Gene England and Sam Rushforth and Steven Epperson and Dan Fairbanks and Joanna Brooks.
I couldn't help thinking that a few bottles of good wine would have loosened things up. And they needed loosening up.
Leaving the constraints of BYU, leaving a church that demanded unhealthy sacrifices and imposed immoral beliefs, was, in retrospect, lifesaving for me.
And yesterday, in Brooks' book and in Stirling's and Kiff's cabin, I understood again the pleasures of being inside while outside.