First Place, 2003 Affirmation Writing Contest
By Sara Jordan
I walk in the foothills of the world's highest mountains, the Himalayas. I
come to experience the world and myself, beyond the confines of identity. Here,
in India, who knows, who cares, my name, national origin, religious background,
profession or sexual orientation. The tiny, brown baby monkeys dancing in front
of me, with their bushy eyebrows and long tails, certainly do not. They chase
each other across fallen timber and ground pipe. I watch. What kind of monkeys
are these? The tiny monkey seems lost. Where is his mother?
My "watching meditation," is interrupted by the Tibetan gong-like voice of
a former lover. "You little monkeys," I hear her say, and I see her face
repeating the phrase. She uses this term a lot, as an affectionate reference
to her precocious cats or rambunctious middle school-aged boys. Does she
have any idea how precocious and rambunctious little monkeys can be? I'm
delighted to witness this for myself and to make the connection between actual
monkeys and the phrase "you little monkeys."
I want her to be with me now, and I don't. Our half-year relationship languishes.
Unpleasant memories pop into my head. Irritated, I look around at randomly tossed
debris. Why do people litter? Do they not see how it blights the external
landscape? I note that my "drunken monkey mind," as Swami Vivekananda calls
it, is in full swing. Where is the peace that these mountains promise?
I come naturally by the habit of questioning and writing. My father, a social
scientist and his father, one-time editor of the Deseret News, both examined
and published about the worlds in which they found themselves. My father's mother
wrote a society column for and about Mormons in southern California and Utah.
My mother is a letter writer and loves history.
My questioning and writing are different from theirs, though. Whereas my parents
and grandparents established themselves as practical people who seemed to accept
the opportunities and difficulties of their lives, my questioning challenges
the assumptions they took for granted -- gender roles, marriage, career, the
sanctity of institutions and are more existential in nature. Like the Mormon
poetess Eliza R. Snow, I too have often felt like "a stranger here."
As a teenager, I began to notice a contradiction between Mormon rhetoric and my life. While I rebelled against some of the standards of church and family, I continued to seek illumination about the human experience through the lens of Mormonism. In September 1993, that changed.
I live in a shotgun style duplex in New Orleans. I sweep the hardwood floor
of the middle room. It has pocket doors of solid wood that slide shut for privacy.
Its walls are about 14 feet high and painted Pepto-Bismol pink. I've made it
my bedroom. I like the way the walls turned out. The comforter matches. The
dust ruffle and pillows add a soft touch. Will Pam like it? Should we even try
living together again? We've been together for almost four years, off and
on. I haven't decided yet if our problem is my religious baggage, which she
as a lapsed Catholic doesn't share, or the relationship itself.
In the background, "All Things Considered" blares from the radio. I am glad
that I made my donation to the station, not that the $5.00 makes that much of
a difference but it was fun, easy to pledge and I felt so grown up doing it.
I enjoy the moment until I hear, "Earlier today, the Mormon Church announced
that six of its members have been excommunicated." What? "From Salt Lake
City, comes this report…" I sweep absent-mindedly, slowing. "…Intellectuals,
feminists, homosexuals…" My stomach turns. I sit on the end of the freshly made
bed. If the church no longer allows people to research and publish on controversial
topics, if the church no longer allows women to investigate their personal and
collective experiences, if the church is rejecting its members as they try to
make sense of attraction to the same gender, then where do I fit in?
Pam and I move to Salt Lake City, Utah, the administrative and cultural center of the Mormon Church. We have decided to make another go of it and she is curious about this strange world I come from. Bolstered by her support, I embark on a journey to learn more about the contradictions of, and sub-cultures within, the dominant Mormon culture. Increasingly, I see sexuality and spirituality as integrally woven parts of the whole human tapestry, not two disparate threads as I had believed. Several years later, our time together ends.
I create a home of my own, reestablish ties with my extended family, continue in a career path and long to explore other geographical and spiritual worlds. As time passes with me still living in Salt Lake City, I start to wonder if I am becoming root bound. Perhaps establishing an identity in a place is a prerequisite to moving beyond its confines.
Finally, I feel ready to travel abroad.
For months, I plan. India, via Thailand, is the destination. A week before
I leave, I receive several letters of affection and best wishes from people
close to me. I place them carefully in my suitcase for those anticipated moments
of loneliness. My mother sends a card. She expresses her love for me and I am
touched. She also calls me to repentance. I want her to fully accept me however
I choose to be -- gay or straight, Mormon or not -- and leave the card at home.
I fly to Asia, alone. To those who question my path, I repeat words of Amelia
Earhart: "Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards. I do it because
I want to do it." Having left the Mormon Church, work, friends, and family,
I am ready for whatever is to come. I wear a t-shirt, a gift from a friend.
It features Amelia Earhart smiling, leaning on the wing of her twin-engine plane
with the words, "Courage is the price life exacts for granting peace. Women
The train moves slowly as it leaves the station somewhere between Delhi and
Gaya. Waiting impatiently to cross the tracks is a long line of trucks with
ear-piercing horns, bicycles and their mostly male riders crammed across the
width of the road, a few cars, cows, goats, pigs, water buffaloes, dogs, chickens,
donkeys, three-wheeled auto and bicycle rickshaws, and people on foot. As I
settle into my space on the barely padded, vinyl covered bench, I notice the
peanut shells on the floor. Who is responsible for keeping the train clean?
A tiny, deeply wrinkled woman, dressed in a light-pink sari, walks through
the compartment. With an almost chanting voice she advertises popcorn wrapped
in a cone-like bag made of newspaper. She carries her supply in a worn metal
bucket. Popcorn is a universal food? That's an efficient use of paper. What
is the environmental situation like here?
I am one of only a few people seated in my second-class sleeper compartment,
the one the travel books recommend for budget-conscious backpackers on overnight
trips. I hope there is no double booking so that I don't have to share the
berth tonight. I think about how I'll spend the hours as we head east across
India. I could write; I am many days behind in my journal.
My attention turns to the window; it is half shut. I open it. We pass plot
after plot of green and fallow land. A woman in a hot pink sari squats over
a neatly tilled row of dirt. A dozen white birds fly over her head. I am mesmerized
and enchanted with the visual display I see as I sit in the moving train. The
writing can wait. "Take photos with your mind," I tell myself.
I observe single farmers walking on the rise of land between plots; cows, attached
to wooden ploughs, turning the hardened soil; villages of dirt houses with drying
dung patties on the exterior walls; women, children, and men balancing on their
heads huge, tightly wrapped bundles of sticks called faggots; women washing
clothes and people bathing near rivers and at standpipes; school girls dressed
in navy blue pinafores. At dusk, the smell of burning wood wafts into the train
through the open window. It's getting chilly. Before long, flickers of light
from random fires, built for heat and cooking, dot the vista. What would
the villagers think about our hobby of camping? What we do for entertainment,
they do for survival.
A man seated opposite me stares at my short, blonde-tipped hair. Our feet almost
touch in the tight floor space. He looks at my shoes. They are low-cut hiking
boots. I wish I'd brought sandals. Another man asks if I am married.
How many times a day do I have to answer this question? What would it be
like if I were? Would the presence of a ring make a difference? I could lie
and say that I have a family at home, but then what explanation would I give
for leaving them? Too messy. "No!" I reply. How would I even begin to
describe life as a lesbian? "Not even love marriage?" he continues. Interesting
how foreign the concept of romantic love is here. Though coldly utilitarian,
arranged marriage can make much more sense. I prepare for a discussion.
When it doesn't come, I prepare for bed and notice that there are only men
in the compartment. Thank goodness I am on the highest bunk. I have no chain
to secure my things. What is the bare minimum of sleeping gear that I need to
get through the night? I get out my sleeping bag and leave everything else
Lying there, I review my recent adventures: reading the walls of the sanctuary
where Mother Teresa is entombed in Calcutta and being smothered by hugs from
the toddlers who live at one of the Children's Homes she established; visiting
the Taj Mahal, the shrine to romantic love and to the cultural expectation of
women to bear children even at the cost of their lives; attending a traditionally-arranged
Hindu marriage and watching as the bride, sobbing in the arms of her mother,
is escorted from her parent's home to begin life as a wife in her husband's
home; spending Eid, the last day of Ramadan, at a large Moslem mosque as Christian
America threatens to attack Iraq; entering the Sikhs' Golden Temple in Amritsar,
and hearing the vocal ragas and instrumental music electronically piped out
from the inner sanctum; standing with Tibetan refugees, who have crossed the
Himalayas on foot to escape the brutal occupation of their land, as they wait
for the Dalai Lama to return to Dharamsala; joining pious Hindus on New Year's
Day in Hardiwar, where they bathe in the holy water of the Ganges river.
I am en route to Bodh Gaya, home of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha gained
enlightenment over 2500 years ago. The Dalai Lama is scheduled to lead an eight-day
teaching. The Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns with shaved heads and blood-red
robes; resettled Tibetans and a handful of Westerners on the train are also
making their way there.
Near my destination, an Indian man shifts to face me and asks in English, "So
what are your thoughts about God?" I am taken aback. What do I think?
I reflect on the spiritual teachings of Mormonism and other faith traditions
and what I have learned through meditation. The words of Thomas Moore come to
mind: "to live from a deep place is to go back or down to that origin of your
life that is not in the least explained by the autobiographical myths."
Whether God is an external Being, a force in the universe or some essence within
each of us, I don't know yet and tell the man so. I feel the soil around my
life's roots begin to shake loose and I know that I will continue to move beyond
the confines that restrict my soul.