Friday, June 20, 2014

Mormons, we need more kindness.

If you're a Mormon, your Facebook feed has probably seen a flurry of activity regarding the news of disciplinary councils to take place in the near future for several high-profile members of the Church, including Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women.

Let me be up front about my biases. I am a liberal-leaning Mormon. I am a feminist. Many church members do not see things my way, and I accept that. Disagree with me? I'm cool with that. Disagree with Ordain Women? I'm okay with that too. In fact, though I share the broader goal of greater opportunities and authority for women, I'm not part of the Ordain Women movement, and I am uncomfortable with some of their tactics.

But I have been wringing my hands over some of the blog posts, Facebook posts and other comments that members of my church are writing. I'm generally in favor of clear, reasonable dialogue between people with different viewpoints — dialogue that includes disagreement. But so much of what I see is not dialogue. It's as if we've forgotten the ground rules for discussing a disagreement: Attempt to understand what the other person is saying. Lay out your arguments cleanly. Look for common ground. Respectfully state your convictions. Don't misrepresent the viewpoints of those you disagree with.

Some writers are mixing their well-thought-out positions and heartfelt expressions of faith with totally inappropriate misrepresentations and exaggerations of the viewpoints with which they disagree. The author of one popular blog post beautifully describes her faith in God, her testimony that He has a plan for her, and her belief that God's plan does not include priesthood for women at the present time. She is able to articulate her views on the complementary roles of women and men in a way that resonates with a lot of people. I respect that. I think that feminists need to listen more closely to people like her and try to empathize with feelings like hers, even when we don't agree on every point. But in the same post, she claims that those who seek female ordination are accusing God of oppressing women (they're not), and she uses the word "whining" to describe what I believe are sincere expressions of real feelings held by real people. By obscuring what Mormon feminists actually believe, she misses an opportunity for real conversation. Instead, she paints a caricature of those she disagrees with, using her words to further polarize the members of the Church.

Divisive words are not, of course, the exclusive domain of conservative Mormon bloggers: I see them coming from liberal feminists as much as from anyone else. But I also see members of the Church who come from various perspectives writing thoughtful pieces that attempt to move us toward healing and understanding. We need more of that. As a people, we are prolific bloggers, and we can use our talents to write for peace.

And peace is sorely needed. Many of the feminists who have been described as "whining" are, in fact, heartbroken over recent events. People close to me are wondering whether there is a place for them in the Church anymore. People who have been clinging to thin testimonies are losing their last little bit of will to hang on. People feel alienated and afraid. Some of these men and women are "less active," and some are very active. Most have donated tithing money and countless service hours to the Church, many have gone on missions, held demanding callings, and raised faithful families. They are hurting right now. And even if you think they're dead wrong, even if you think they're sinners, even if you don't want to empathize with them or try to understand their point of view, now is not the time to use language as a weapon or a wedge.

I don't know how we are going to bridge the divide between Mormons who are "conservative" and those who are "liberal," between orthodox and heterodox, or feminist and traditionalist. I am worried that the feeling of "us vs. them" is growing, when we so desperately need to be unified in love and faith. Perhaps church spokeswoman Ally Isom's words are appropriate here:
The church is a family made up of millions of individuals with diverse backgrounds and opinions. There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations.
If we are really going to have sincere conversations with each other, we have to do better. We must say, "Enough," to the sarcasm, smugness, and meanness that we see in all ideological corners of our community. We can be bold about stating our beliefs, but we can do so with respect. We can pray for inspiration and for charity. We can approach each topic with humility; we can be open to new insights. We can frankly disagree with each other, but in so doing we can attempt to see all sides of the issue more clearly. Rather than repeating the sentiment, "I just don't see how anyone can think that [fill in the blank]," we can try to understand the reasons why someone might hold that view.

We can be instruments of peace by seeking first to understand, then to be understood. At the very least, we have to try.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How my high school English teacher and I turned forty.

I owe a great deal to a handful of high school teachers who opened worlds for me. Mrs. Schmetz taught me the immensely satisfying pleasure of writing geometry proofs, of making an argument airtight, and fitting a theorem into an axiomatic structure founded on a spare set of postulates. Mr. Newport inspired me with a passion for choral music and gave me skills that I've used for more than twenty years. Ms. Bradley gave me the chance to be on stage, something that I had always dreamed of doing. Ms. Paslawsky introduced me to Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, and Mary Shelley. I loved her class, and I remember every novel we read together.

In twelfth grade, Ms. Snyder was my AP English teacher.

One of the earliest memories I have of Ms. Snyder happened on the day she turned forty. Mr. Newport led the Chamber Singers up the stairs, down the hall, and into her classroom to sing "Happy Birthday." He announced her age in a stage whisper and then kissed her on the cheek. I don't know what Ms. Snyder thought of so brash a performance, but she received us with her characteristic grace. People whispered that she had recently gotten engaged, and we ogled the ring on her hand. I was still a junior, but I knew who she was — everybody did — and I knew that she would be my teacher the next year. I had spoken with Ms. Snyder several times, and I was looking forward to taking her class, but I did not know then how far-reaching her influence on my life would be.

Ms. Snyder wasn't flashy: there were no Smart Boards back then, and she didn't prepare multimedia presentations. She wasn't particularly dramatic: there was enough drama unfolding in the literature that we were reading. She mostly stood at the front of the classroom and made us think. We learned how to be better writers and better readers, how to look for layers of meaning in a literary passage, and how to make thoughtful comments in a discussion. As we dove into the Western canon, I had the sense that we had tapped into a deep reservoir of human experience, full of tragedy, love, horror, and beauty.

We knew that Ms. Snyder cared about us. She came to our plays and concerts and to the high school prom. She congratulated us on our extracurricular accomplishments and empathized with us when we struggled. She listened carefully to our contributions to class discussions and treated us with genuine respect and affection. She reminded us of the polite, intelligent, decent people she knew we could be. On the last day of class, before we graduated and went our separate ways, she presented us with a poem that she had written, one verse for each student in the class.

Seven years later, just before I started teaching high school, I found Ms. Snyder's phone number. I took a deep breath and called her, hoping that she would remember me. (She did.) I wanted to ask her how she had been such a good teacher, and how I could be a good teacher. I had dozens of questions, and she had answers. By this time, she was no longer teaching high school, but pursuing an advanced degree and working with prospective teachers. She urged me to call her any time; she wanted me to have a successful first year. After I gave my first geometry test, I called her in tears because I was so disappointed with my students' grades. She spoke to me emphatically: "Genevieve, in the eternal scheme of things, this test doesn't matter. What matters is that they become good people!" She encouraged me throughout that year.

I continued to teach and learned to love it. Ms. Snyder and I spoke from time to time, sometimes letting years go by between conversations. We occasionally sent each other Christmas cards. I talked to her once or twice about my graduate work and possible ideas for my thesis. She congratulated me on my second son and my new house.

Years passed and, incredibly, I found myself approaching my fortieth birthday. How was this possible? I could not conceive of myself as a forty-year-old, and I certainly did not feel ready to be middle-aged. I wasn't mature or accomplished enough; I didn't have the appropriate gravitas or wisdom. I was scared. Usually, I talk through my difficulties with people close to me, but I found it hard to talk about this.

Though we had not spoken in several years, I thought of Ms. Snyder and the day that we had sung to her on her birthday. I wondered how she had made peace with turning forty. I fervently wished that somehow it would not be weird to call her up, as I had the summer before I started teaching, and ask her to mentor me again. I wanted her to answer all of my questions and show me how to be forty years old, as she had shown me how to begin my teaching career.

Of course, I was too shy to make such a dramatic and potentially embarrassing phone call. But I thought of all that she had taught me.

I thought of the poems that I knew. "My heart leaps up when I behold  a rainbow in the sky . . . " And "Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?" And "Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold . . . " Poems that captured loss and aging and being human. Poems that I loved, in part because she had taught me to love poetry.

I thought of her continuing education, how she went back to school and got her doctorate well into middle age. She knew that her work was important and never stopped expanding her skills and her mind.

I thought of her willingness to reach down and mentor and lift people higher. I thought of her love for her students. I thought of her confidence and grace as she taught a bunch of teenagers the power of words on a page.

And I realized that she already had shown me how to be a forty-year-old. Read, study, teach, share, love. She had modeled it for me in hundreds of tiny ways.

The General Conference talk I want to hear.


I don't often repeat clich├ęd Mormon expressions of unabashed, enthusiastic, faith, but here goes:

General Conference is a spiritual feast.

It is not an impeccable feast. There are always a few talks that don't interest me, and to be honest, there's usually at least one talk that offends me. Some of the talks are eloquent, some appeal to my intellect, and some of the speakers are able to stir my soul. Before I had kids, I dozed off during the Sunday afternoon session. Now, I'm too busy feeding people and monitoring the chaos that's happening in my house to fall asleep. Of course, that means that I also miss some of the content. So General Conference is not a perfect experience, but it leaves me feeling nourished and refreshed. By the end of the weekend, a very deep place in my heart has been filled.

There is one talk that I have not yet heard, but very much long to hear from that pulpit: an honest, thorough, nuanced description of what it means to be a Prophet in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I want to hear the themes of prophetic fallibility that President Uchtdorf touched on in 2013 more fully articulated by our leaders.

Because there is one polarizing argument that crops up every time a controversy breaks over a church-related issue. I've probably heard it — or read it — expressed by church members hundreds of times, over the pulpit, on blogs, on Facebook. Here's my paraphrase:

Either the Church is led by God, or it's led by man. Either our leaders are Prophets of God teaching correct doctrines, or they are false Prophets.

In this dichotomy, the question of whether the Church is "true" is an all or nothing proposition, and there are only two possibilities for the President of the Church: Either he's a false Prophet, or he's a completely-correct-in-every-doctrine-Prophet.

But with even a little bit of research into the history of the Church, we find that Prophets of the past have, on occasion, taught doctrines that turned out to be incorrect. Not true for their time, not true for any time. Completely, totally false.

The most obvious example is probably the Church's past teachings on race. We may rejoice that those teachings have now been disavowed. But though the article on uses the word "theories" to describe the teachings, suggesting that they were perhaps not doctrinal, it is clear from primary source documents that these ideas were taught as doctrine by the First Presidency. Here is a link to a First Presidency letter written in 1949, found at the pro-Mormon website, FAIR. Here is a link to a correspondence between Lowry Nelson, a member troubled by the Church's racial policies, and the First Presidency. 

In their letters to Nelson, the First Presidency reiterates the doctrines of racial inferiority that we find so repugnant today. And they include these statements:

We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the church. They are either true or not true. It is our testimony that they are true.  Nov. 12, 1947
As a Latter-day Saint living in 2014, as a member of a Church that has disavowed the very doctrines of which the First Presidency bore testimony, the irony of those words is almost too much to bear.

What do we, as members of the Church, do with painful revelations like these about the mistakes in our past? In my view, holding on to the dichotomy of infallible Prophet vs. false Prophet forces us to conclude that past Presidents of the Church were indeed false prophets. This dichotomy weakens faith and leads some of us out of the Church. Some stay, but are left with troubling doubts that they are afraid to talk about. Others seem to hold onto the all-or-nothing mentality by ignoring or rejecting any evidence that Prophets made doctrinal mistakes. 

But it does not need to be this way. I believe that as a Church, we are mature enough for a more nuanced understanding of Prophets and revelation. We're ready. And we need to talk about this. Not just on the bloggernacle, not just on Facebook, not just in private conversations. We need the General Authorities whom we sustain as our leaders to help us navigate the complexities of hearing from God through a living Prophet — an imperfect, fallible, inspired, living Prophet of God. 

I appreciate the sensitive nature of this topic, and I can only imagine the difficulty in writing a General Conference talk addressing the issue. Such a talk would no doubt fail to satisfy every member of the Church. It would not answer every question nor clear up all confusion. It would probably leave some members disappointed or troubled. But we're used to that. We can handle it. For some members, the recent talk by Elder Oaks in the April Priesthood session of conference was a powerful clarification of women's roles in the priesthood. For others, it raised more questions than it answered. That's okay. We don't need all of the answers yet. But we need to at least grapple with the questions.
What does it mean to be led by God? What does it mean to sustain Prophets? What does it mean to trust them? How are we to reconcile ourselves to the fact that some of the "revealed doctrines" of the past are now recognized as incorrect and, in some cases, morally objectionable? And what are the implications for the revealed doctrines that we receive today? 

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part."  It is my prayer that our leaders will be increasingly open about the issue of prophetic fallibility. I hope that this will be a great blessing to the Church, as we wait for that which is perfect to come.

A primitive balloon rocket.

My husband found internet instructions for how to make a simple balloon rocket, and our kids went wild with excitement.

There are numerous websites describing balloon rockets. Here's the Science Bob site. You can do a quick Google search to find others.

We started with balloons, straws, tape, and fishing line. Fishing line is preferable to regular string, because it is smoother, and the balloon rocket will be less hampered by friction. Reportedly, long skinny balloons are best, but we only had the big roundish kind.

Thread the fishing line through the straw, and attach the line to two points.

The project started in the living room, with the fishing line stretched between two pieces of furniture.

Later, it was moved outdoors and used stakes in the ground, so that the rocket could travel farther.

Blow up the balloon. Don't tie it, but pinch it closed with your fingers. Tape it to the straw, with the opening of the balloon at the back of the balloon, pointed in the opposite direction of the balloon's expected path.

Then release it!

We did this over and over again.

Occasionally, the end of the balloon stayed closed, and the air didn't release.

For fun, we tried taping the balloon to the straw so that the balloon was perpendicular to the fishing line.

 As you might predict, the balloon spun around the fishing line instead of traveling along it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Late spring at Buddy Attick Park.

In an earlier post, I attempted to identify the blooming plants I found in late April at Buddy Attick Park in Greenbelt, Maryland. This time, I have posted photographs taken one month later, on the last day of May.

I have tried to identify the plants correctly, but I'm not a botanist or a horticulturist. If you have other ideas about identification, please share them with me. The Plant Identification facebook group has been helpful in identifying several of these. 

The water lilies are in bloom near the peninsula. This one is Nuphar lutea, commonly called Yellow Pond Lily, Yellow Water Lily, Spatterdock, or Brandy Bottle. Every year, I wait for the blossoms to open wide, but they always seem to be partly closed.

Nuphar lutea (Yellow Pond Lily)
I particularly like the White Water Lily or Fragrant Water Lily,  Nymphaea odorata.

Nymphaea odorata (White Water Lily or Fragrant Water Lily)

 Here you can see both the Yellow Pond Lily and the White Water Lily plants covering much of the water between the peninsula and the southern bank.

I often hear frogs at the lake, but rarely see them, so this was a fun surprise. My guess is that it is an American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus. It looked about 6 inches long.

The Sweet Bay Magnolias, Magnolia virginiana, are blooming on the peninsula.

Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay Magnolia)

So are the blackberry brambles. Later, they will produce edible, sour berries. There are many blackberry species, all of the Rubus genus. I don't know the species of this one.

Rubus sp. (Blackberry)

Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are also in the park. You can see the distinctive hairy looking buds and stems. These berries will be similar to raspberries, but shinier and slightly sticky with a mild, tart flavor.

Rubus phoenicolasius (Wineberry)

Tulip Trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as Yellow Poplars or Tulip Poplars, are abundant in the park. They are tall trees with fantastic orange and chartreuse-colored blossoms. You've probably seen the petals scattered along the path. Later in the year, the dried seeds will twirl in the wind. Here is a picture of a blossom. (Naturally, it is one that fell to the ground. Tulip Poplars have weak branches, and pieces of them are always falling off.)

Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip Tree, Tulip Poplar, Yellow Poplar) blossom and leaves.

This wonderful shrub is Euonymus americanus. It has several common names, including American Strawberry Bush, Bursting Heart, and Hearts-A-Burstin', and . . . Hearts-Bustin-With-Love. I am not making this up. Go to the wikipedia article, look at the picture of the seeds, and you'll see why several of its common names have a bursting heart theme. The bright red seed pod comes later though. Now, we have these delicate, rather odd looking blossoms.

Euonymus americanus (American Strawberry Bush or Hearts-A-Bustin')

I am in love with Blue-eyed Grass, Sisrynchium angustifoluium. The blossoms are small, not much more than 1 cm in diameter, and the leaves blend in with the surrounding grass. This wildflower is not a true grass, but a member of the iris family.

Sisyrinchium angustifolium (Blue-eyed Grass)
 It's easy to walk by without noticing that they're there.

Sisyrinchium angustifolium (Blue-eyed Grass)

Speaking of the iris family, these Yellow Flags (Iris pseudacorus) growing at the edge of the water are in full bloom. They are not native, but an old-world import. Some sources say that they can be invasive, but these do not appear to be taking over.

Iris pseudacorus (Yellow Flag)
A close-up of Iris pseudacorus.

I hadn't planned on taking pictures of clover, but I was drawn in by this healthy Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) growing at the western edge of the lake at the dam. Of course, it's more of a dark pink than a true red.
Trifolium pratense (Red Clover)

And if you look closely, you can find this tiny yellow member of the same genus. It looks to me like Hop Trefoil or Low Hop Clover (Trifolium campestre). 

Trifolium campestre (Hop Trefoil or Low Hop Clover)

Vetches are in the same family as clovers; both are in the legume and pea family Fabaceae. This one is Narrow-leaved Vetch, Vicia angustifolia. The photo is a close-up and blossoms are quite small.

Vicia angustifolia (Narrow-leaved Vetch)

In the summer, these Marsh Mallows (Althea officinalis) growing at the edge of the water will produce large pink or white blossoms. The old stems and seed pods from last year give you an idea of how tall the plants will grow. According to the wikipedia article, the root has been used for medicinal purposes since antiquity. And here is what I almost can't believe: The flavor extract from the root of the plant was traditionally used in a confection which eventually evolved into today's marshmallows.

Althaea officinalis (Marsh Mallow), not yet in bloom.

Althaea officinalis, old stems from last season with new growth.

The Mountain Laurels, Kalmia latifolia, are in full bloom. The photos do not do them justice, and I recommend that you visit them in person.

Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel)

Near the spot at the end of the dam where the water from the lake trickles into a small creek, I was delighted to find this Catalpa tree in bloom. Later, it will develop ridiculously long seed pods.

Catalpa sp.

Catalpa sp., buds