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2/22/14

I been there before.

I just finished teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for what may be the last time. I might be transferred to the history department next year, and while I’m excited to teach a new subject and grow as an educator, I am going to miss teaching novels. The most wonderful part of being an English teacher is holding a book in your hand and knowing that it is your job to bring that novel to life. It feels good knowing your coworkers are people like Harper Lee and Mark Twain. I teach from the shoulders of giants.

I will particularly miss my favorite coworker, Huck Finn, a 13 year old boy with distaste for becoming “sivilized.” Huck and I have a lot in common: accidentally offensive, (Huck horrifies his foster parent when he tells her he’d rather go to hell if it means being with his friends, a sentiment  I also espouse, ) earnest, funny, and deeply conflicted on what it means to be good. Huck is raised in the violent and racist antebellum South, taught from infancy that being a “low-down abolitionist” is a crime against God, and consistently criticized for not measuring up to society’s expectations of manliness. (Huck climbs up a tree, like a “coward,” to avoid being killed in a multi-generational feud.)

Despite Huck’s antics, Huck desperately wants to be good. He is consumed with guilt when he decides to help runaway slave Jim escape to freedom, and constantly torn between the devotion he feels towards Jim as his only true friend, and his loyalty to the religious values of his upbringing. Near the novel’s conclusion, Huck decides he must finally learn to “be good.” He kneels down to pray and repent for helping Jim, but the words don’t come, “I was trying to make my mouth say I would do… the clean thing …but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie-I found that out.”  He isn’t able to pray until he resolves to confess and turn Jim in, but at the last moment he changes he mind. “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for-ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.” When forced to decide between being good and “clean” and abandoning his friend, he picks Jim. He chooses love. He knows it will change his life forever, and maybe even his salvation, but he doesn’t care. With all the gumption a 13 year old boy can muster, he declares “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”

I try to be as brave as Huck. Like Huck, I’ve stood at the brink of disaster, torn “betwixt two things” and forced to decide “for-ever” which one I would choose. I’ve tried to pray and I can’t.  Raised in a homophobic and benignly patriarchal religion, I’ve climbed a tree, (wearing pants,) to avoid being killed in the multi-generational feud between equality and sexism raging in my church.  I’ve been called much worse than a coward for refusing to accept my role as a second-class citizen in the LDS faith. And if the people who love the outcast and oppressed go to hell, I want to go too, because that’s where my friends are. I can’t imagine enjoying a heaven without my gay, feminist, social activist friends. I don't want to be sivilized. 

But like Huck, I struggle with my choice. Even after deciding he is willing to go to hell for Jim, Huck still doubts his decision. When his friend Tom Sawyer is willing to help free Jim, Huck is astonished. “ Here was a boy that was respectable and well brung up; and had a character to lose, and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and…I ought to just up and tell him so; and be his true friend, and let him quit the thing right where he was and save himself.”


 I’ve sometimes longed to be like the “well behaved Mormon women” who conform so perfectly to what our church expects of us. I listen to fiery sermons on “protecting the traditional family,” and like Huck, I’ve allowed myself to believe the messages that tell me I’m bad. Like Huck, I sometimes wonder why I have a conscience when if all it does is “takes up more room than all the rest of a person’s insides, and yet ain’t no good, nohow.” I’ve been raised my whole life to listen to my conscience, this enormous thing inside me that tells me if God is “no respecter of persons,” I shouldn’t be either, and yet this conscience gets me in more trouble than I ever imagined. If Huck is a “low-down abolitionist” I’m a “low-down feminist and LGBT ally” and sometimes I internalize the message that this dooms me to Huck’s fate as an orphan and outcast. All Huck wants is the thing Tom takes for granted, a family and a place in the community where he is accepted for who he is, not who he is supposed to be. I wish I didn’t have to choose betwixt being “respectable and well brung-up” and my devotion for Jim in his many modern incarnations.  

My students always think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a happy ending. As it turns out, Jim’s been free all along, set free in will of his master after she dies. I take comfort in the idea that the slavery we create in our own minds might be equally invalid. Maybe we’ve been free all along too, I hope.  Even better, Huck is offered the one thing he’s always wanted: a home with Tom’s relatives, where he will be raised will all the advantages he envies in Tom.

True to his conscience, Huck makes a different choice. “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Huck leaves for the west because he’s “ahead of the rest.” His refusal to succumb to the racism and religious dogma of his culture puts him beyond his time, but it’s a lonely road to wander, especially for someone so young.  I know this, because I know Huck’s pain. I’ve been sivilized too, and I’ve been there before.

  But I’m also more like Tom that I dare to admit, raised with every advantage and often homesick for the privilege I’ve left behind.  So every time I finish Huck Finn I hope the territory out west is beautiful. I hope Huck strikes it rich panning for gold and going on adventures better than anything “sivilization” can offer. I hope it for Huck, and I hope it for me too. In the end, I choose to believe kind and gentle Jim, the Christ-figure who sacrifices himself for underserving Tom: “Sometimes you’re going to get hurt, and sometimes you’re to get sick, but every time you’re going to get well again.”  Okay. All right then, I’ll go to hell.




Notes: I’d like to personally apologize to Mark Twain for deliberately ignoring his notice at the beginning of the novel. “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”



Also, for a great Rational Faiths  essay by Lori Burkman on how to be “sivilized” in the LDS church, and still advocate for the Jims in our community, go HERE.








27 comments:

Sage said...

I think it's been too long since I read Huck Finn. I might demand my own adult re-read.
Thank you for sharing this. Good post.

Kati said...

I want to be a student in your class. And now I must read Huck Finn as an adult.

Caitlin and Mike said...

I loved your analysis of Huck Finn and the way you aptly convey the complexity inherent in the choices we make regarding faith and morality. The history department will be lucky to get you!

Chelsa said...

Loved this!! Been missing your writing. :)

wendipooh13 said...

such a great post and I totally feel the same way about church things right now!! I couldn't agree more, maybe I need to go back and read this again

Shannon said...

This is beautiful. Thank you. I wish you would write more often.

Pr1nc3_Ch4rm said...

Great post. I love me some Huck Finn.

a hopeful cynic said...

Oh how I've missed you. (Read: your writing)
I've followed you since way back when and amaze at your ability to put words to my complex feelings. A lot has changed since then, but you still have the ability to speak my soul. Here, and at City Weekly.

Thanks for that. I wish you well.

Mary said...

Great post which was lovely and brutal (in a good way). Look forward to reading more posts :o)

Hillary said...

This is so beautiful. I'm so glad I found your blog. I really needed this today.

Unknown said...

I know that place: no one likes when you're half of one thing and half of another. But honestly, I think we all are. Though perhaps I'm not very good at doing this is "socially acceptable" ways, I've found that I need to claim my right to say "Hey! I'm going to believe what I want to believe and stand where I want to stand and if that means going to church (I am LDS) and telling off my young women for body shaming (much to the embarrassment of the other leaders) or walk out of Relief Society if I don't feel comfortable with what's being taught, I will.

I claim the right to not have to live by other people's rules of being a Mormon or not being one. But I agree, it's a hard place to be in. Every time I think I've figured it out, I realize I'm all backwards and confused again after all.

rain said...

Just saw this blog through a link on Facebook. I read the "About Me" section, where you mention you aren't sure if you're an apostate Mormon, or just saying what everyone else is thinking. It's the latter. I'm not saying that my thoughts reflect yours exactly, but I took great comfort in the fact that you've been brave enough to say the things you feel. I have a 13 year old daughter...and I'm involved in the Young Women program. I've had many instances where I contemplated getting up and walking out on a lesson that I just knew in my heart, was wrong. Maybe I shouldn't say lesson, maybe I should say someone's opinion or personal testimony--even now I question myself. Seeing the fanatical eyes that watch and record each word is bad enough, but then I feel like it's my job to protect my daughter, as well. I don't want her to think that it's okay to be a hateful bigot. To anyone. For any reason. So thank you. I go to church to be reminded of the Gospel. And the Gospel is love. Period. Seeing that this is how others think as well, is a huge comfort to me.

Alyosha said...

I love Huck Finn, and that is one of my top ten favorite quotes ever. If Valentine were a boy, she would have been named Huckleberry, because of his loyalty.

Sue // As It Seems said...

I read you Dear Mormonism post on City Weekly and I wanted to say THANK YOU for saying so eloquently the things I have been feeling for a very long time. It spoke to me in a way that most things do not and I appreciated that someone else out there might feel the same way I do.

Kelli Anderson said...

"I’ve been raised my whole life to listen to my conscience, this enormous thing inside me that tells me if God is “no respecter of persons,” I shouldn’t be either, and yet this conscience gets me in more trouble than I ever imagined. If Huck is a “low-down abolitionist” I’m a “low-down feminist and LGBT ally” and sometimes I internalize the message that this dooms me to Huck’s fate as an orphan and outcast."

THIS. this articulates my feelings exactly. please keep writing!

Jana said...

I will be honest and say that I am not familiar with your exact beliefs or views on the matter of woman and the priesthood. I had someone direct me to you with a question that I have, and they said you have been a face of this matter. And in no way am I directing my comments or what I have perceived towards you directly. I read the church's statement regarding women being able to want to attend the men's Priesthood session, and the question I have is this, if the Priesthood was given to the women, would all of a sudden the church become true to you again?
I have perceived that a lot of people out there that like to criticize the LDS church and be negative towards it do not believe it to be true, and it confuses me why they fight against it. In my life, if I don't agree with something or it brings me pain, I try to move on from it and not dwell on it. I of course know that this is a very complicated matter and there are a lot of mixed feelings with women who feel torn in the LDS church and I am not down playing that at all. I understand that if you live in a highly populated community of Mormons, or your family are active members it can be much more difficult to just move on. I guess I am just curious as to why fight against it if you don't want to be a part of it, or is it if they gave women the Priesthood, you would come back to the LDS church and believe what is taught. If that is the case, then why isn't it true to you now? And if that is not the case, then why do you fight for something that you wouldn't want to be a part of anyway even if the Priesthood was given to women. Again, I use the word "you", but I am not singling you out, it's just easier to word it that way.
I believe in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I have had so many experiences where I have received confirmation of that and I am thankful that I don't need to question it and that is one area of my life where I can feel at peace. I know there are people that struggle with their own truth and spirituality and I am compassionate towards that, and what is a strength in my life can be a hurtful thing in someone else's life and experiences. My reason for taking the time to ask is that I can't relate to this issue because I have never felt less than or not equal to men or the men in my life. I am very confident with where I stand in my church and more importantly with the Lord. I know I am lucky to feel that way in my life because there are many who don't. I want to understand this topic more because there are women in the church that feel this way and I want to be able to understand the other side of things. I am sorry if I have generalized this topic, I am sure it is personal and different for everyone and everyone would have a different answer to my questions. I just feel like if we can take the time to understand and respect each other as intelligent, unique women and show that we can all get along regardless of what we believe it can make these kinds of things a lot less hurtful and we are able to overcome these barriers between relationships.

Stephanie said...

Hi Jana,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don't have all the answers to your questions, and I can only speak to my experience.

If the church were to issue the Priesthood to women tomorrow, no, I don't think I would resume full activity for that reason alone. There were numerous issues that led to my inactivity. That said, I might resume activity based on the idea that the church is willing to act on the promise that we "believe all things and hope all things" as well as the belief that God will reveal many more things. Right now the church seems unwilling to fulfill it's promises to members. Personal revelation, eternal progression/growth/change, and general Christ-like love for everyone are aspects of the church I believe in. I don't see those aspects of the church practiced institutionally. (I know many wonderful individuals who do practice these elements of Mormonism.)


While there are many aspects of Mormonism that I no longer believe, the things mentioned previously are values I cherish and would love to be able to experience as a Mormon.They are also the things about Mormonism I am unwilling to compromise on. I am unwilling to pay tithes and support a church that prevents other people from living the dictates of their own conscience. (Either in LGBT or feminist issues.) I am unwilling to forfeit my personal revelation with God in order to obey temple covenants which I find threatening to my personal growth.

I think that is why many people continue to "fight" not AGAINST Mormonism, as you suggest, but rather for it. For the things we do value and cherish as part of our spiritual and cultural heritage.

Religion is rarely an "all or nothing" endeavor. And honestly, no one is a full believer in every doctrine, since many contradict themselves. Mormonism is especially adept at creating cafeteria Mormons who only practice elements of the religion they find personally fulfilling. I don't see a problem with this. I do see a problem with an institution that only makes some types of cafeteria Mormons acceptable within the church. There should be room for people like me.

Jana said...

Thank you for taking the time to answer back! We have very different views but I appreciate what you have to say and can respect where you are coming from.

Clean Cut said...

I absolutely loved this post. Profoundly beautiful. And as one who feels like I'm living between two worlds, together, but world's apart, it deeply resonates.

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