Friday afternoon we put the kids in the car, popped UP into the portable dvd player and embarked on the two hour journey to Snow Mountain Ranch, the location for the annual Denver Area Mormon Women’s Retreat.
I had attended the DAM retreat two years prior with several other Exponent bloggers and had a wonderful time. This year, however, I was by myself and felt kind of like an awkward pre-teen at her first day of summer camp. I am, by nature, exceptionally shy and so I often rely on my more outgoing husband and friends in social situations. But I needn’t have worried, the DAM women are warm, down-to-earth and accepting. Many remembered me from my previous visit despite a different haircut and no longer being six months pregnant.
The night started off with great food and lively chatter. A getting-to-know-you session followed with all of us sharing the books that have made us cry and the ways we got out of trouble as children.
We then had the opportunity to hear Phyllis Barber speak to us about the pros and cons of writing a confessional memoir. Phyllis recently published her own confessional memoir, Raw Edges, a moving and very honest telling of her 33 year temple marriage. When I was reading this memoir, I was struck by how raw Phyllis Barber was willing to go with her writing. I really appreciated her bravery because on a personal level, I feel very raw. I’m just coming out of a months-long depression and I saw myself in so many of her stories. I believe that Mormon women need stories like Phyllis’ because it provides validation that we don’t have to be the perfect woman stereotype that our culture imposes upon us.
Phyllis Barber talked about the contradictions of being a good, Mormon woman and a writer. On the one hand, Mormon women are socialized to put on a happy face and be loyal to our families above all else. In telling our stories we often have to push those expectations to the side and be willing to go to the dark places of our lives. Mormonism does encourage us, however, to keep a record of our lives and we’re also told to be honest. And more than anything, we believe in redemption; we believe that you can break into a thousand pieces and yet, through the grace of God, become whole again. Phyllis Barber believes and I absolutely agree with her that these are the stories that have to be told, these are the stories that Mormon women crave. But first, we have to be brave enough to remove the mask and destroy the illusion of perfection.
Saturday morning started with the keynote address given by Jana Riess. She broke her address into two parts, covering two of her most recent projects. The first project Jana talked about was the Twible, her delightful exploration of the Bible and God in 140 characters or less. She shared that this project had really opened her eyes to what is actually in the Bible, some of which is incredibly disturbing. For example:
#Twible Genesis 12: Hello, Abram. G promises land & descendants. Father Ab responds by lying to Pharaoh & pimping out wife Sarai.
#Twible Deut 14: From “Don’t boil kid in Mom’s milk” we get diff pots 4 meat/dairy. I can’t haz cheeseburger. Why do we make religion hard?
#Twible Judges 19: Levite wife’s gang raped & put in Cuisinart, 1 bit 4 each tribe of Israel. Fun 4 whole family! Why no Sun School lesson?
But the Bible also shows us that the characters in the Bible are supremely human and that God is complex. The whole presentation was highly entertaining. If you are interested, a version of it can be seen here.
Jana Riess then spoke about her upcoming book called, Flunking Sainthood. It is a story of spiritually screwing up. Originally, Jana had been asked to read one spiritual classic each month and then respond to it. Jana is a self-proclaimed over-achiever so she decided to add an accompanying spiritual practice to the assignment she was originally given. For example, one month she decided to fast as the Muslims fast during Ramadan. Unfortunately, Jana was unable to see most of her chosen spiritual practices to fruition for a variety of reasons, hence the genesis of her title. But Jana Riess learned some important lessons from being a “latter-day screw-up”. First and foremost, it is okay to fail in our spirituality because we believe in a god of grace and love. And secondly, Jana realized that she failed because she was attempting to do these things alone. It is folly for us to believe that spirituality is solitary endeavor. Yes, our relationship with God is deeply personal but we need our sisters and brothers beside us to help shoulder our burdens and at times to be the hands of God.
The Saturday evening session was a panel discussion of the state of Mormon writing. The panel included Jana Riess and Phyllis Barber as well as Miriam Bleyl, who wrote the book Finding Wisdom, and Danielle Dubrasky who participated in the Mormon Women Writers tour that took place earlier this year. The panel discussed many different aspects of Mormon writing, all of which deserve a post of their own. I’ll just leave you with the same question that the session ended with: Wallace Stegner thought that the “Great Mormon Novel” would be written by somebody who grew up in the church, left, then made it part-way back to the fold. Do you agree?
As with all Mormon feminist retreats, perhaps the most meaningful moments are those where open dialog are had. These are the moments where connections are made and feelings can be shared. The Rocky Mountain Retreat had no shortage of these moments. We were also treated throughout the weekend to rousing sessions of singing led by two members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. These moments left me feeling spiritually fed in a way I haven’t felt since my last Mormon feminist retreat.
In the Quaker meeting held on Sunday Morning, Jana Riess referred to these retreats as ministries and I can think of no better word for what these experiences are. One of the most beautiful things about Mormon feminist retreats is that they provide a safe place for Mormon women to raise their voices together, in joy and pain, in song and word and always in complete honesty. They are a place of healing waters for those who have been wounded. They are a place to be spiritually and emotionally nurtured by sisters. As Latter-day Saints we are encouraged to build up zion, we unfortunately fail at this more than we succeed. But in these gatherings of women, I have found one place where Zion exists.