The Association for Mormon Letters awards are out, and Times and Season’s own Julie M. Smith won the award for Religious Non-fiction for the volume she edited and contributed to, As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture. I’m sad to admit that I haven’t read it yet. It’s on my list of books to buy and read once we return to the States. (This is true of most of the books on the AML award list. It’s ironic: now that I’m on sabbatical, I have more time to read, but I’m reluctant to buy books because I don’t want to have to abandon them here or ship them back to the States.)
One of the books that I have read is Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage, edited by Holly Welker, which received the AML Honorable Mention for Creative Non-fiction. I read this collection with great trepidation, several months after I received my contributor copy, worried about how my essay, which is now several years old, would look in print and what kind of company my words were keeping.
I like to write to sort ideas out in my own head, as an exercise to clarify my thought. That is part of the reason I’ve enjoyed blogging in the past: it’s a good forum for developing short ideas and for receiving immediate feedback that helps to develop those ideas in new directions and makes clear where I have been too sloppy in my presentation to make my point effectively. But generally speaking, once I’ve written through an idea, I’m done with it, and ready to move on to thinking about something else. I can hang on through several rounds of editing, but it doesn’t take long for my own words to feel foreign to me. Each essay I have written was written by a past version of my self, who is more or less not the self that I am now. She is, as Roland Barthes might say, dead. Would I be pleased to rediscover what this past incarnation of my self once wrote?
When Holly Welker asked me for a personal essay about my standard-looking Mormon marriage, I had, by coincidence, already started writing something along those lines. But it is a huge leap to go from writing about my marriage for myself and writing a piece that would be made public. There is a fear that too close an examination of something will destroy it, that even a good relationship withers under public scrutiny. Why add more stress into something that is working well?
My essay is titled “Lucky Despite Myself”:
A thirty-something woman marvels that, as a determined-to-marry nineteen-year-old, she managed to marry the right man–and considers the work it takes to make her marriage succeed, even with all that luck
I’m grateful that I accepted the invitation. Welker is a demanding and generous editor, and I trusted her with my story. Even so, by the time this book came out, enough time had passed from my part in the writing and editing process that if I were to write the essay again, it would be drastically different. I’ve gone back to school, earned a master’s degree, become a very engaged citizen in my city, and volunteered many hours in LDS-flavored environmental advocacy and service.
Some things that I’ve read have changed my thought as well. For example, I finally read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It described so much of what I struggled with as a young stay-at-home mother. I cried as I read it, angry that the exact conditions that had so isolated and demoralized me as a young mother in my 20s had been described more than 50 years before. But given my mindset at the time I got married (19 year old BYU student! I was a baby!), there is no way I would have read Friedan, or considered a different path. And hard though it was at time (postpartum depression, isolation, tight budgets, huge hit to my self-confidence in my ability to contribute anything meaningful to the public sphere outside of my home, huge loss of earning potential and career development), I am grateful for those years and for what I was able to do (spend time with my young children, learn to cook and bake from scratch, gardening and composting, developing proficiency in all kinds of textile arts, from knitting and weaving to sewing clothes and reupholstering furniture, becoming a yoga instructor, participating in a fantastic book discussion group and writers’ circle). And most importantly, I love my husband, and I am grateful everyday that we are together. As young as we were when we got married, we haven’t spent enough time together, and I am greedy for more time with him. (This summer, we’ll have been married for 19 years, half of my life. That’s not nearly long enough.)
I need not have worried. My little essay, although not what I would write now, is an honest enough that I’m proud to have my name on it. I am amazed at the work Welker did on this collection: she midwifed 36 different women through their stories with remarkable sensitivity for each woman’s voice. That I was anxious speaks to my own insecurities, not my trust in her skill and vision. And I’m so grateful to have my voice included with the other voices in this collection. As I read these other women’s stories, I was filled with love and sorrow and hope for all of these sisters. I want to sit with them over a long lunch, laughing and crying together. These are women who have shared their vulnerabilities, who have opened their lives to me: how can I not love them? And the great strength of this collection is that Welker has gathered together Mormon-y women who have a wide variety of experiences with marriage, including even standard Mormon marriages that work according to plan with those relationships that encounter all sorts of unexpected challenges.
The odds are, a collection of stories from your extended family members and ward Relief Society sisters would be just as diverse, for all that we assume a conformance to the standard model of Mormon families. I hope that book clubs, including Relief Society sponsored ones, read Baring Witness, and use this book as a starting point for compassionate and supportive conversations about their relationships, be they single, divorced, married for time, or sealed for all eternity.