By Carol Lynn Pearson
YEARS AGO WHEN my husband Gerald and I made the outrageous decision to self-publish my poems, I wrote this simple piece that became the title poem of one of the books:
A WIDENING VIEW
When my eye first opened
Behind the viewfinder,
There, in closeup,
Was a flower—
The only possible flower.
Who turned the lens
For the pullback?
Life, I guess.
A field alive with flowers?
(The only possible field?)
Borders are forever gone.
Life is at the lens.
The view goes on
George Bernard Shaw said it better. “You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.”
I was born in Salt Lake City, a fourth-generation Mormon, ancestors having come variously by wagon train, on the ship Brooklyn, and with the Mormon Battalion. I was planted firmly in the LDS corner of the vineyard with the Mormon flower the only one in sight.
And then came the pullback. The intriguing beauty of all the other flowers. How could it be—with the grand diversity of this splendid field—that mine is the one true flower? Examining it carefully, decades ago in my thirties and forties, I found that to my eyes (and who else’s eyes could I possibly use, even though I see through a glass darkly?) there were some pretty evident flaws—historical and doctrinal positions that seemed indefensible and that felt wrong. Many today who come to feel that way find it highly distressing. I found it thrilling. I gained a new respect for God, a new delight in every one of the billions who inhabit this planet.
And, having given up impossible expectations, I gained a new affection and appreciation for this particular flower—mine—and yours.
“Grow Where You Are Planted.” I expect that is what the Dalai Lama meant when he said that whenever possible we should stay in the religion we were born to.
Many of my friends from my BYU days—especially women friends—have left Mormondom, have transplanted themselves to different ground. In general I see them thriving. And so the question arises, why do I stay?
There are two very large reasons. One—I find a great deal of love in this church. Two—where I do not find love, I have an opportunity to help create love.
Reason Number One. I have confessed to my ward and stake leadership that my theology comes down to “God is love,” as illustrated in the little song that we sing, “Where love is, there God is also.” To me this means wherever in a straight or a gay relationship there is genuine caring and devotion—there God is. And where in Islam, in Catholicism, in Buddhism, in Mormonism there is genuine caring and devotion—there God is. The fact of the matter is that in Mormonism I find a great deal of love—and therefore a great deal of God.
Too many people are alone in our world today. What a blessing to have a large ward family and even a worldwide family. Out to see the world after saving my money teaching at Snow College for a year, I arrived in Athens on my twenty-fourth birthday to realize that my luggage had been stolen from the train and I had only my passport, my purse and what I was wearing. I made one phone call—to the nearby Air Force base to ask for the Mormons. I was not entirely naked, but they clothed me. I was hungry and they fed me. I was a stranger and they took me in. We give and we take. We call each other brother and sister. We have a system. It is quite remarkable.
Sunday before last as I arrived at our chapel, I saw an ambulance pulling in. It was there for Susan, who has had seizures since she was six years old. This time she hit her head on the concrete in the parking lot. I had been Susan’s visiting teacher for many years and I knew her needs well. I was the obvious choice to volunteer to drive with her in the ambulance and to stay with her through the tests in the hospital, rubbing her feet and talking and even laughing. It was easy. We have a system. I was her sister.
I wrote in my book Goodbye, I Love You the moving story of when Sister Spencer, my visiting teacher at the time, called me, having been given the information that I was caring for my former husband as he was dying. She said, “I’m not calling to ask if I can do anything for you. I’m calling to tell you to put a pen and a notebook by your phone, and whenever anything occurs to you that needs to be done, write it down. I will call at nine each morning and you will read me the list and the things will be done.” A wonderful gift. We had a system. She was my sister. Sort of sounds like—maybe like Zion.
A few years ago I happened to be sitting beside my friend Chuck Young in sacrament meeting, listening to our high council speaker, who is now our stake president. I leaned over and whispered, “Chuck, you know what really pisses me off about the Mormon patriarchy?”
“What?” he whispered back.
“That it continues to create such really fine men. Like you and Brother Criddle up there.”
My Mormon life is populated with good men. And certainly with good women. Much love there. Much of God there.
Reason number two. Our church provides a perfect opportunity for me to create love in places where it appears to be lacking. I think creating more love in the world is the only reason to try to change anything. I was born a feminist, asking questions by the time I was ten, amazed that every voice of authority—from the voices on the radio to the voices at church to the voice of God—was a male voice. I was outraged that by every measure in church and society femaleness was second prize. There’s no love in that.
Last Sunday I sang with the congregation the beautiful hymn, “We’ll Sing All Hail to Jesus’ Name,” and in the midst of eight pronouns honoring masculine divinity, there was only one feminine pronoun: “The grave yield up her dead.” There is no love in that, and the insult is not lost on the psyches of women and men, boys and girls who sing it. Of course I sang. “ . . . the grave yield up its dead.”
Not long ago I asked a dear cousin who is in her nineties how she felt about going to the next world. “Fine,” she said, “Except . . .” and her face clouded, “ . . . except sometimes I worry that my husband has taken a second wife over there.” There is no love in that. We should be ashamed. And I have only started the long list of things we need to look at for us to achieve equal valuing—meaning equal love—for women as well as men.
I came home from church last Sunday to find six emails, most from people who felt they needed to connect with me on gay issues. A man speaking of his dearly loved teenage son wrote: “He has told us several times that there have been times he wanted to take his life, because he was ‘going to hell’ anyway.” The father continues, “I understand this feeling. I am somewhat going through this as well. The more I read my scriptures and say my prayers, the more I think about him and get depressed.” There is no love in what we are putting that family through. Our church is utterly failing them and thousands of families like them, and we ought to be ashamed. I looked for the love in our church’s work for Proposition 8 and I found none. I have found love in the groundswell of support for our gay brothers and sisters—such as the remarkable photos of four hundred Mormons in their Sunday best marching at the front of Salt Lake City’s gay pride parade. Some of the spectators who wept while they watched knew there was love there. I am moved at the increasing number of stories gay people are sharing of warm, encouraging conversations with their ward and stake leaders. We all know love when we see it and feel it. We can’t be tricked.
We have the privilege in our day of doing something of historical importance for our gay loved ones just as our ancestors did when they gave up the slave trade, when they banned segregation, when they decided women had souls and even gave them the vote. They knew there was no love in what they had been doing and also knew that for there to be love things had to change. You and I have the privilege of seeing the sad places and creating more love—more goodness—more godness.
Circumstance has given me a platform and a voice at a time and in a place where significant impact can be made. We are preparing in society, in religion, and, yes, in our own church to invite our gay brothers and sisters, as individuals and as couples and families, to take an honored place at the table. Amazing. And eventually we will get around to creating a Galileo moment when we cease to see maleness as the center of the universe with femaleness orbiting around it, but instead see male and female—mortal and divine—doing a dance of true partnership. I would not for anything give up being part of the action. Right now. Right here. In this particular, peculiar—unique in its own way, and wonderful in many ways—Mormon corner of the Lord’s vast vineyard.
I stay because not only am I allowed to stay, but because I feel very appreciated. Now and then I speak to my bishop or my stake presidency and say, “Brethren, again I want to thank you for being so gracious to someone like me who does not fit the mold.” Always, I receive some form of this reply, “Sister Pearson, we are so grateful for the wonderful contributions you make to our ward and stake.” In Relief Society I stand up when I make my comments, and if I’m absent for more than two Sundays, I might receive an email from one of the sisters saying, “Are you okay? We miss your comments in Relief Society.”
I also believe an important reason that I am able to stay is that in some ways I do not stay. I do not stay in concepts that I do not accept. I do not stay in traditions that I do not believe in. I move, in my own very imperfect way, toward the horizon that truly calls to me. I believe the best thing I received from my pioneer ancestors was not a destination, but an invitation. They gave me the model of being a pioneer and encouraged me to follow in their footsteps.
Perhaps, finally, the following poem of mine dramatizes why and how I stay and pull up stakes at the same time:
My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West. Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.
I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.
I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all
I will finally say,
“This is the place.”
I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right.
My people were Mormon pioneers.