Guest post by Shannon Milliman. Shannon Milliman, CPTD, CLMS is a playwright, published poet, essayist, and performs an original, autobiographical, one woman play called Not So Supernova which is a raw, emotional story about the jagged edges of motherhood and marriage. Her play emphasizes finding humor and believing in the healing power of hope when life doesn’t go as you plan. She hopes to create a play dedicated to each of her children so hopefully she lives a long life.
On Sunday in my ward in Florence, Alabama, momentously, the Relief Society sisters gathered in the Relief Society room for an intimate lesson based on Gary E. Stevenson’s talk: Hearts Knit Together, wherein no woman was veiled. Women exchanged ideas mask-free, noticing and appreciating the grins, greetings, grimaces, grunts, gum-chewing, and goodness within the Relief Society Room. This room breathed lonely, isolated just as its Sunday inhabitants have been for the past year but all that shifts now. There were none among us ashamed but there was at least one of us, discontented. I gander it is likely I was not the only one discontented.
I am new to this ward. I moved across the country from Portland, Oregon during the pandemic. But naturally an air of familiarity exists here or in any other ward I have attended. The velcro-like bristly brown walls fashioned to cut back on the appearance of evil in the form of grubby, nursery made peanut butter playdough handprints on the walls, brick is a must, the couches are ordered straight from Deseret-R-Us and there is a certain stark lack of crosses and drum-sets as observed by our Baptist friends. “All is well in Zion,” so they say.
A new sister friend hugged me at the end of the lesson. I found myself unexpectedly surprised, delighted, and uplifted. Having become so accustomed to distance, it was unfamiliar and sweet. Another wanted to get to know me and said she had converted from the Baptist Church. I asked how she was coping with our contrasting humdrum tunes? I told her I plan to visit a black, southern Baptist church and am eager to raise my hands and tap my toes towards the name of the Almighty. Could we do that for a Relief Society activity? Unfortunately, it seems the first in-person activity since the plague occurs this Thursday and “organization” is the only topic mentioned. Perhaps I didn’t get the second clipboard mini-class “Make a Joyful Noise” memo? A woman can hope, charity, faith… The new normal sounds a lot like the old normal, unfortunately. We laughed and maybe there was even spittle exchanged in the air but you know what? Vaccinated, we threw caution to the wind. I chit-chatted to a newly-wed who is also a new mother of four who was just called as (gasp) Seminary Teacher, bless her heart, and yes, she also has a fulltime job. I expressed a healthy trepidation to her, confidentially, about my lack of deep scriptural expertise but come manna or high water, onward Christian sister, marching as to Sunday School, I will be teaching D&C 64-66 next Sunday.
A resonant truth reverberated, singing out like wild bells ringing in the new: the power of women gathering defies words, but I’ll try. Women, known or unknown, connect like the lace doily perfectly coiffed on the display table. Come on, it is Relief Society, would you expect anything less? Single strands waft in the wind. Artfully bound they form art, pattern, and inspire function and imagination, and women together do just what the lesson spoke to. The opening quote says, “As you extend yourself with kindness, care, and compassion, I promise that you will lift up arms that hang down and will heal hearts.”
So, the meeting developed, the facilitator invited thoughts and the conversation leaned towards the recurring theme that the women enclosed in these four walls have been fighting, lonely, adrift and wounded this past year and beyond that, in their life. Affirming dialogue ensued to a few sisters who shared deep wounds of trauma, of abuse, of harm and of darkness in their own families.
I found myself scarcely able to connect any of the anecdotes and stories to the intention of the lesson which naturally is welcome, but I observed a weight, a burden and an acknowledgement that all too often women of the church are wounded. Women who have capacity to be goddesses, gallant, gorgeous, genuine, gifted are not (yet). They are too often encumbered by a lifetime of submission, of accepting God’s will, believing everything happens for a reason, championing obedience over trusting intuition and making far too many useless doilies, singing funeral march melodies till the conflict is over and by golly, the conflict only continues following these monotonous patterns.
All people are burdened with wounds. Women of the Mormon Church may not be so unique in this. I am wounded, you are wounded, we are all wounded and we ought, should and do, mourn with those that mourn, but when in the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks can we rip up the doily, and rip off the girdle, wipe away the Mac foundation and forage new patterns where we do not passively accept that life can just happen to us and we are the wanton thread not yet made into a sound doily?
What is it that we must do as individual women to claim the crown, the jewels, and drape the feather around our Young Womanhood award pendant (am I dating myself?!) and allow our time, talents as we want them, as we create them, as we choose them, be the power and momentum that will propel us with progress, persuasion and passion? What will it take for us as a group of women to not have to spend all our precious time together reflecting, validating and suffering on repeat, the horrors of our pasts?
It does not sit well with me to have powerful, impressive, capable women giving their reserves to a past that did not position us for progress. I hunger for our brief time on Sunday to be about our next goal, our thoughtful possibility and our limitless potential. We are more than a tablecloth doily. I care nothing for handicrafts, making signs with quotes about family, learning how to organize my closet and I cry unabashedly that our go-to methods of healing and transformation take the shape of boring monotony.
I am discontented, disgruntled and angry that wounded sisters are not finding new ways to create, inspire and dance. What would it look like for our meetings to change? For us to ask more questions and to expect fewer answers? Could it be possible that when a sister shares the sharp pains of her past we love her deeply and we discuss tools of empowerment? Could we try a new healing that is not to read the third paragraph, line 2 of our gentleman leaders? Could our personal development instead be Sister Baptist-Church offering her wisdom, wonder and weariness quoting herself in her chapter three, line 1? Could we trust our strength and could our time together be used differently? Could we see the colors in one another’s sunrise and sunset and sing loud, off key and certain? Could you join me in your ward, in your first Relief Society meetings “back to normal” and think of disruptions to our old patterns? Could you speak up when you have not before? Could you touch the hand of that sister whose hands shake with palsy? Could you show her there are brighter days by shining bright yourself? I will, I will. We are daughters of the Motherly Goddess, we can and we will.