“I knew being baptised was the right thing to do, and I was prepared to do it. But the women in Relief Society? They terrified me.”
A laugh washed around the chapel, and I continued. I explained how the friendly women of my first ward loved to quilt, and craft, and had heaps of kids, and knew one hundred different things to do with potatoes but all told me they “didn’t have time to read”.
I looked out at the gathering of women, together to celebrate Relief Society, and told the truth. “I didn’t want that, didn’t understand that, and while I was certain the gospel was where I wanted to be, I was pretty sure there was no place in Relief Society for a freak like me.”
I saw a wave of heads nodding all over the room as I continued to specify my differences. That I would regularly choose to read a book instead of mop my floor – and still do. How, when I was called to be the “Enrichment” counsellor in Relief Society, I hot-glue-gunned two of my fingers together at the very first enrichment evening. That I don’t quilt, have never scrap-booked, and was a spectacular failure at being “a normal Latter-Day Saint woman.”
I laid it all out: my efforts to become a “proper” LDS woman, and the end result. “I… SUCKED… at being a Mormon women like the ones in my wards” I told the women sitting before me, only to wince realising the Stake President was sitting directly behind me on the stand. Eh, too late, and it’s true, right? “And the truth? I don’t want to be. And the bigger truth? The church, and God, and our wards don’t need us to be. They need us to be ourselves.”
Because one thing I’ve realised in the past fifteen years since being baptised is that this is not a vanilla gospel. This is a gospel with flavours and chunks nobody in their right mind would willingly choose – except that their personal favourite is right there as an option, even if it is sitting beside the tuna-enriched lime sorbet (which may very well be someone’s personal nirvana). There’s ice-cream, gelati, sorbet, ices, tofu-mousses and each in countless flavours and variations – exactly like us, our histories, preferences, fears, hopes and efforts. The gospel doesn’t demand everyone choose vanilla in and as their worship, though sometimes the people we know through church expect us to like their flavour, and to choose it as well.
Late last year, I watched my oldest son preparing the sacrament table while my youngest hummed under his breath beside me, reading a paperback. One of the older men in our ward came into our pew, reaching out – like every Sunday – to greet us. “Good morning!” he smiled, then released my hand and turned to shake Steven’s.
“Wow, nice bowtie!” he said.
“Thank you” Steven grinned.
“Do you have a normal tie or just a bow tie?”
Steven grinned wider. “Oh yep, I’ve got normal ties. But I like this one. Bow ties are cool.”
No harm no foul, right? Except the previous week Steven had the exact same conversation with a different greeter. Now, I have no doubt that if Steven had said that he didn’t have a “normal” tie both of these men would have brought him one of their own ties during the week, of their own free will and wanting to help. Sometimes, though, I get frustrated at the expectations people have of what taking part in the gospel should look like. These brethren weren’t noticing that my son was polite, instantly putting down his book in order to shake their hand (in the strong, firm grip he’s been taught), that he (and we) are at church early every week so my oldest (and now my youngest) can prepare the sacrament table. They were thinking of the congregational norm of wearing a long tie and my son was obviously wearing a non-conforming one. My son was eleven when it happened, still in Primary, and a huge Doctor Who fan (that last aspect hasn’t changed). What’s wrong with a bow tie?
Absolutely nothing. Because this is not a vanilla gospel.
My youngest doesn’t live by the beat of a different drummer – he’s dancing in his undies in the rain to music composed as he grooves. I’ve met people through and within the gospel who choose flavours I didn’t even know existed, and come with their own sets of preferences and tools for eating the ice-cream in their own way, so many aching at the constant evidence that they are never going to fit in/find a spoon/be able to share their favourite flavour with the women sitting both all around them and galaxies away.
My favourite ice-cream flavour is Maggie Beer’s “Burnt Fig, Honeycomb and Caramel”. I’ve been pretty sure I’m one of the few people on the planet who knew it existed. But earlier this year, the topic of ice-cream came up and when I said my favourite, the woman I was with grabbed my arm, eyes huge, and said with devout passion and understanding “Isn’t that just the most…. awwwoohh!” Words failed, and I nodded in absolute agreement. We each understood each other a little better, and a tiny thread of solidarity connected us, adding to the other interests, struggles and things that we shared.
This isn’t a vanilla gospel, and I’m so delighted it’s not. The women in Relief Society don’t terrify me anymore, though I am regularly intimidated, and inspired, and astonished at the eternally vast and varied selection of ice-cream flavours we choose, have grown up with, have overcome, invent, try and share. There is strength in commonality of purpose, in solidarity – with added endurance and power in being our own true selves within that community, together with everyone else.
A month after Steven was complimented on his bow tie, BOTH of the mentioned high priests came to church wearing bow-ties, one even wearing matching suspenders. Steven went up to both of them and told them their bow ties were great. “Because bow-ties are cool.”
Both of them smiled, laughed, shook his hand and agreed.
Have you ever been intimidated or terrified by women in the gospel? What made and makes your flavour different to you what you see presented as vanilla? What’s your favourite flavour/combination/style of ice-cold dessert?