Last night I read again in 3 Nephi 28 about the three Nephite disciples who didn’t dare tell Christ what they most desired, leaving him to read the thoughts and the sorrows of their hearts. I won’t pretend that my desires are anything like theirs, but their fear to speak their own deepest yearnings lays bare something in me.
Growing up in Utah County, I didn’t realize it was possible for an LDS woman to go to graduate school. I don’t remember meeting any women who had, and the women I heard about who pursued advanced degrees or careers were usually spoken of with disapproval. Like my sisters here at Zelophehad’s Daughters, I’ve always had a passion for books and ideas, but I’ve also long felt that my desires for learning were not just daring, but beyond the bounds of religious acceptability, even evil. From the time I was eight or nine and throughout Young Women’s my future was usually laid out for me in terms of marriage and children. Among the hard lessons I absorbed during those years was the message that marriage and children would obliterate the intellectual desires that, consequently, came to feel so presumptuous to me that I hardly dared articulate them. That lesson, among other influences, taught me to view marriage and children with resentment and dread, as an unavoidable but divinely ordained fate. I recoiled from what I saw as a contracted future of feminine simpering (the women I identified as “real” Mormon women simpered) and struggling with too many children (I was the sort of Mormon girl who hated to babysit my own brother and sisters, let alone anyone else’s.). To borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich, I was split at the root, my public religious life set in contradiction to the desires it rendered illegitimate and drove underground. As an adolescent I read all of Chaim Potok’s novels of religious conflict over and over, frantic for answers to questions that I couldn’t ask in the seminary classes I rarely attended. I remember the mute desperation I felt in junior-high and high-school careers classes, in senior meetings with my guidance counselor, whom I told I wanted to be a music teacher because that seemed an acceptable answer for a Mormon girl. In college I had long conversations with God about the harsh dichotomy between the limits imposed by my gender and my internal wildness. I accused God of cruelty, wondering why, if He had made me a woman, He had also afflicted me with this relentless fervor to know, to know, to know. Wallace Stevens said, “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never…” but the longings of the mind can also be the longings of the heart.
When my husband began graduate school in the fall of 1998, we moved from Provo, Utah, where we had both been attending Brigham Young University, to a remote rural area of South Dakota. The transition was a difficult one for me. I felt abruptly cut off from intellectual pursuits. Once every month or two, without having planned to, I would find myself reading until 4 a.m., restless, giddy with lack of sleep and the wild contemplations of darkness, and ravenous for something I had long tried to convince myself was my religious and moral duty to sacrifice. But I often felt frustrated with that sacrifice and resentful of my husband’s intellectual adventures, partly because few besides my long-suffering husband seemed to see it as a sacrifice. In the LDS community, moving for a husband’s schooling or job is what women do, what many of the other women in my ward had also done, and it seemed routine, scarcely worth comment. However, the branch there–along with the immense and almost inhuman beauty of the Great Plains, the sea of prairie and sky I fell hopelessly in love with, as I had earlier fallen in love with the mountains and the desert–saved me. Although we left the plains seventeen months ago, I still physically ache for that dizzying view that exceeds the eye’s circumscription, for vast skies streaked with clouds or traced with the circles of enormous flocks of migrating birds or littered deep with stars. It is the geography of eternity into which I still escape time’s contingencies. And although I was raised in the church, living in that branch was the first time in my life I ever made friends in an LDS congregation. I had been so accustomed to looking for friends elsewhere that it took me a year or two even to imagine that a branch might become a home.
Last summer, my husband completed the final requirements for his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. That process, along with his acquisition of an M.B.A., took seven years. Honoring a long-standing agreement that we made partly in recognition of the fact that he is far more likely to find gainful employment in his fields than I am in mine, he finished his education first. Now we have reversed roles, and as he’s begun his first full-time job, I’ve returned to graduate school. Partly because we’ve moved twice recently, we have had different four bishops and branch presidents over the past two years. In casual conversation, two have explicitly discouraged me from pursuing a Ph.D., both by posing the question in terms of whether I don’t have enough education already. I don’t mean to condemn these bishops, nor to make them offenders for a word (Isaiah 29:21, 2 Nephi 27:32). I don’t envy them their callings, and I can only imagine the excruciating situation of living at the center of the ward fishbowl and of having to monitor every word that falls from their lips. The words that too routinely fall from my lips would not bear such scrutiny. I realize too that neither they nor any of us can entirely escape our cultural constraints. Yet their casual discouragement evokes an old sense of loneliness, of being split at the root.
I struggle to have faith that my faith, most truly understood, pervades and orients my life and is not merely a fragment of it, that even a woman’s mind can be consecrated to the purposes of God.
- 7 January 2006