Friday, January 16, 2009

The Very Best Sunbeam

One Sunday afternoon when I was nineteen, my LDS bishop told me that I was being “called” to coach girls’ softball. In other words, the ward needed a girls’ softball coach, the bishop prayed for guidance in filling the position, and God named me. That was the system, as I understood it.

I sat there in the bishop’s office. (In real life, he was a lineman-for-the-county; I went to school with his kids. When I was twelve, he conducted my Bishop’s Interview—an annual review of all things moral. He asked, among other things, if I masturbated. I could tell—based on his tone and expression—that I should say no, so I said no. I hurried home after the interview and looked it up in the dictionary. Yes, sir, I’d been doing that for years. Even at age twelve, I couldn’t see that it was any of his business. I hope that things have changed since the late sixties, and that—if such interviews are still conducted—a woman is present. And not the bishop’s wife. That’d be creepy. But I digress.)

At nineteen, church was keeping me busy (I think that was the plan, given the idle-hands/devil’s-workshop connection). I was the Junior Primary chorister, a Sunday School teacher for preteens, the choir secretary, and a supervisor of teens in some new version of Mutual. In addition, I was frequently giving talks, performing humorous or dramatic “readings,” making posters, and writing and directing skits and plays. I even learned to square dance, so that I could represent the ward through dance. I was always at church. When I wasn’t at church, I was walking to or from church, or sewing a cute and modest dress to wear to church.

But…softball. I wasn’t even sure what it was. Was it the same as baseball? I’d taken one semester of high-school gym, and then weaseled out of the other required semester. I knew that Chuck Connors of “Rifleman” fame had been a professional baseball player before becoming an actor; I knew that I let Gary Ferguson get to second base when we were juniors. That was the extent of my knowledge of baseball. But, for some reason, God wanted me to coach. Well, who was I to say no?

I showed up at our first practice. I knew these girls; they were only a few years younger than me. We practiced at the elementary school across the street from the church (it was the mid-seventies, and no one was minding the line that ostensibly separates church and state). I pulled the canvas bag of balls and bats out of the back of my Pinto. I told the girls to practice tossing the balls back and forth. “Underhand or overhand?” someone asked. “Either,” I said.

I was able to fake it for about ten minutes, before a confident, sturdy girl piped up. “Have you ever played softball?” she asked. I smiled wistfully. “I have not,” I said. They seemed embarrassed for me. I dismissed them early, and drove home.

But I didn’t feel embarrassed. I felt oddly strong and self-contained. I felt like something important was about to happen, and I needed to pay attention. I went for a long walk.

A couple of years earlier, my only church job had been teaching the Sunbeams on Tuesday after school. They were four years old: a half-dozen girls and one sweet little boy. The maxi-dress was all the rage, and often all six girls would wear floor-length pink or white dresses; they looked like little parade floats as they walked. It was an easy-going, affectionate group of kids, and I remember a lot of construction-paper cutouts, a lot of hugs. I remember how it felt to sit next to them (during Opening Exercises) on an oak bench that rose about eight inches from the floor, and what a privilege it was to be alone with them
(during class) in a windowless room, our chairs in a circle, talking about life. It was a blissful time, which ended suddenly and without explanation.

The one job for which I was well suited was replaced by a half dozen jobs that I disliked. The new jobs brought me no peace or pleasure. There was an unpleasant dreamlike quality about them, in that I always felt clumsy and unprepared, and more than a little hostile.

When I got home from my walk, I called the bishop.

“I don’t want to coach softball,” I said.

“But, Polly…”

“In fact, I don’t want to do any of it, anymore,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I want to quit everything,” I said. “Starting right now.”

And it was over.

***

The other day, I was sorting through some memorabilia (instead of earning a living, or training for a triathlon), and I came across a large envelope on which I’d written “Church Stuff.” I found:

  • My annual Primary Report from 1961 (a type of report card for my spiritual development, at age four). It was prepared by my mom, who just happened to be my Primary teacher (and would continue to be my Primary teacher until age eight, because I was painfully, tearfully, pathologically shy). In the comments section, she wrote: “Even though you’re my own gal, I think you’re the very best Sunbeam. You’re always quiet and listen carefully and obey. I love you very much!”
  • An assortment of Sunday School attendance awards from the early sixties. On one, someone has carefully written “98%” over the original “96%.” I remember informing my teacher that I’d only missed one Sunday that year (probably because of measles or mumps), and that the other “absence” had been while I was vacationing in Utah, where I attended church with relatives (we got credit for that). I was only seven, but I wanted God and everyone to know that I hadn’t been derelict.
  • A mimeographed program from a 1964 Christmas pageant, in which my older sister and I were angels, wearing white smock-like dresses that my mom made for us the night before.
  • A certificate for “A Talk” from May 1965, with a shiny red star affixed. I probably kept it to represent the hundreds of talks I gave between ages 3 and 19 (despite a rather marked speech impediment in the early years).
  • A Top Pilot Flightbook from 1965, the last year that my mom was my teacher. Jesus (as opposed to Joseph Smith) was the centerpiece of that year’s study, and each page of the Flightbook is about him. In February, we read about Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple, and that neatly translated into nine rules for us, all of which related to being quiet and clean.
  • A drawing (house, trees, sun…I didn’t really break any artistic ground), which was published in the Children’s Friend in July 1965.
  • The Articles of Faith, laminated, and the edges decorated with red velvet ribbon.
  • A cloth bag with my name on it, to hold my New Testament.
  • A green-felt bandlo (pronounced BAND-uh-low), perfectly complete, reflecting my desire and ability to show up every week for three years, memorize a few dozen scriptures, and learn to cross-stitch, knit, and crochet. (Recently, my older sister asked if the Mormon church approves of tattoos. I didn’t know, but doubted it. We agreed that—if they did—the perfect tattoo would be the Gaynote project: I Will Bring the Light of the Gospel into My Home. “And if you were really devoted,” she said, “you’d have it tattooed in all the little cross-stitches.” We found that hilarious.)
  • A program from a Lihoma Holiday in 1969. (As a child I thought that Lihoma was a Hawaiian word, but a recent Google search revealed it to be code for Little Homemakers.) This particular Lihoma Holiday must have been my last, because I’m listed on the program as a Merrihand. I gave the opening prayer, and then I immediately gave a talk. (An aside: The Gaynote teacher is listed as Sister Deaton. She was very attractive, and an accomplished homemaker. My older sister and I were at her house once, when one of her toddlers bit another of her toddlers. Without missing a beat, she pulled up the shirt of the offending toddler and bit into the soft, smooth flesh of his shoulder. He screamed. My sister and I stared. It was chilling. We could see the deep marks that her teeth had made. We were only nine and ten, but should we have done something? Should we have tackled her to the ground? She’d handed me a plate of homemade strawberry shortcake, just seconds before she attacked the little boy.)

***

I don’t think I ever really believed in the LDS church. It’s possible (for both children and adults) to overlook doctrine and get caught up in activities, and this particular religion has a lot of activities. I busied myself with Daddy-Daughter Dates, service projects, public-speaking competitions, homemaking training, ward and stake plays, four years of seminary, scripture-chase competitions, devotionals, firesides, girls’ camp, road shows, Gold-and-Green Balls, Education Week, Youth Conference, General Conference, baptisms for the dead, fieldtrips to Temple Square, hiking, tubing, caroling, visiting teaching, and Family Home Evening at BYU. My crushes were seminary teachers, home teachers, and any moderately attractive member of the Young Marrieds. I lived for face time with my true loves: Don Black and Marvin Payne.

Perhaps I should have sensed earlier that I was only “playing church.” I liked so many things about it: the music, the opportunities to excel, the approval of adults (especially my grandparents), the camaraderie, and the structure it gave my life. In the sixties and seventies (and maybe in any decade), there were many reasons to feel at loose ends. Church was everything that the world was not: safe, quiet, clean, predictable, unchanging. And I could see that an adolescence without alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or sex wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. You dodge some bullets that way. And, happily, all those things were patiently waiting for me, at nineteen.

I spoke in Sacrament Meeting twice as an adult, and the other day I found the carefully typed, carefully memorized talks.

When I was eighteen, a member of the bishopric gave me a pamphlet called “We Should Be a Reverent People” by Spencer Kimball. I assume that I was told to summarize it for the congregation. “It was very good,” I offered generously. I quoted from it: “True reverence involves happiness, respect, and gratitude.” Here, I addressed a pet peeve of mine: “When children are taught to be reverent, a whole lot of emphasis—perhaps all emphasis—is put on folding one’s arms.” And a second pet peeve: “Seems that when a child is born into this ward, he or she is made to feel extremely ‘special.’ It’s a shame that some of these children get confused and start thinking that they are ‘more special’ than someone born in Lehi or New Hampshire or Pakistan."

During a tangent that no doubt thrilled the bishopric seated behind me, I talked about hunger in Africa, apathy and complacency in Utah County, and a worrisome and pervasive “tinkling-brass existence.” I quoted extensively from the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians, referring to it as “my favorite.” The talk is, essentially, a dressing down. “It profiteth you nothing!” I imagine myself shouting from the pulpit. I quoted Jerry Lewis, John Denver, and the Broadway hit song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

At age nineteen, I was asked to do a public debriefing of a Youth Conference I’d attended (as a chaperon) at BYU. Everything about the conference had been unpleasant, and I should have declined the invitation to speak, but I did not. I should have opened with “A funny thing happened on the way to the celestial kingdom,” but I did not.

Inexplicably, I talked about becoming very upset while watching the documentary “Nanook of the North” at a BYU film class a year earlier. A starving family kills and eats a baby otter, and “that upset me something fierce.” (In fact, the scene had me considering the very existence of God, but I didn’t mention that.) “God created both Nanook and the baby otter, and then made it impossible for them to live in harmony,” I pointed out, helpfully. I added: “That really bugs me.”

I tried to make some sense of the Nanook debacle by sharing this: “When I had my tonsils removed recently, I developed some very strong feelings for my doctor.” (I suppose a more general but still accurate statement might have been: “Every time a man shows me kindness—even when it’s vague and fleeting, and even when he’s being paid to do so—I develop a crush on him, and I seek him out so that I can say the words aloud: I have a crush on you.” I did, in fact, send the doctor an affectionate note, post-surgically.) To the rapt congregation, I described the doctor as “good and smart and strong and capable.” Then I (finally) made my point: “And he was just a man! Imagine God!” Predictably, I mentioned Luke 12:6-7, and the sparrows.

I made three more points: It was shameful (in 1976) that blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood (I guess I wasn’t bothered by women not being able to hold the priesthood). It was shameful that Mormon men and boys were such enthusiastic hunters (what with the sparrows, and all). And it was shameful that the Book of Revelations was such a downer, and so violent. “So, he creates us in his image, but later (the timing is a secret) intends to send ‘tongues of flame’ to destroy us?” I’m sure they appreciated my eye-rolling tone. Maybe I sensed that this was my last stand, and I chose to air some grievances.

Again, I quoted John Denver. I also quoted Dan Fogelberg, and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard in “A Star is Born.” (How did I manage to leave out Neil Diamond and Richard Bach?) Then, I implored them to “...find happiness in puppies and balloons and polka-dots, in the smell of rain, in getting mail.” WTF? the grown-ups must have been thinking.

I wound up with a charming story about an Indian girl at a carnival, who approaches a man selling brightly colored balloons, and asks him why there are no brown balloons. He releases a handful of balloons, smiles, and says, “Child, it is not what the balloon looks like on the outside that makes it float higher and higher, but what is on the inside.” Nice, huh. I have no idea where I found that story.

Perhaps I didn’t know it at the time, but I was saying good-bye. I thanked the conference-attending teens, my mom, my “far-out family,” and Robert (“for being my friend”). Most poignantly, I thanked “everyone who says hi to me when I walk around the block.” I ended by saying, “Thank you for letting me speak this afternoon. I hope I said something meaningful. I wanted so badly to say something meaningful.” It’s not easy being nineteen.

***

A year ago, at a spiritual retreat on the Oregon Coast, I was chatting with a young man at the dinner table. When he found out that I was from Utah, he asked if I was a Mormon, and I said no, but that I had been until age nineteen. “Did you leave because of the church’s poor treatment of women and minorities?” he asked. I looked at him, confused. Finally, I responded. “Yes,” I said. “That’s why I left.” I was tired, and I didn’t want to explain the real reason: I was called to coach girls’ softball.

2 comments:

Dan Moser said...

Could you be any more adorable? You are the most specialest sunbeam in the history of the universe!

Peggy said...

I LOVED this blog! Dan is right, you were quite a sunbeam and still are!