That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon's Perspective on Faith and Family by Tom Christofferson

Jun 20, 2019

Please note: this book (and consequently, this review) reflects some of my beliefs on a sensitive topic. I know not everyone will hold the same view, and that's okay. I believe that discussing different viewpoints in a mutually respectful way brings greater compassion and empathy. I was grateful for the way this book expanded my heart just a little bit more.

Tom Christofferson grew up as the youngest of five boys. His parents were devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and so was he. He had a strong testimony of the Gospel, served a faithful mission, and even got married in the temple. But he was also gay. And the more he tried to fit into this preconceived idea of a "good" member of the Church, the more it didn't work for him. He couldn't get the two sides of himself (his faith and his sexual identity) to line up, and eventually, he left the Church.

He stayed away from the Church for over twenty-five years. During that time, his mother and father and four older brothers remained a constant source of strength and support in his life. Even though the rest of the them stayed strong in their religious convictions and standards (his oldest brother, Todd, was even called as an Apostle), they didn't let that stop them from loving Tom unconditionally.

And eventually, he came back. This book describes that process, but it is also a reflection on how we can be inclusive of all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of their beliefs and actions, and it is also Tom's own opinions on how he now fits into the Church as someone who is still gay but also faithfully keeping his covenants.

I really loved Tom's warm and kind personality, which came through so beautifully in this book.  But I also loved the way he was so candid and honest with his experience. After he decided to make a full return to the Church, he broke off his relationship with his partner of more than twenty years. That was extremely difficult for him (understandably so!), and one friend asked him why he couldn't find a way to be with his partner again. Tom answered, "The way I feel now, the way I experience the influence of the Holy Ghost, is powerful and delicious to me, and I don't ever want to live without it again." I thought that was a really interesting perspective from someone who had always lived a good life with high standards but who saw a noticeable difference in his ability to feel the Spirit when he resumed keeping the commandments. I know that this idea will be hard for some outside of my faith to understand and that Tom's decision might even rub them the wrong way. It might seem unfair or even wrong for Tom to have to hold back one part of himself in order to gain something else.

But his example of moving forward with faith through the questions and the doubts inspired me. This quote is a long one, but I still want to include it here to help me remember it in the future:
"I draw a parallel between my situation and that of the people of King Benjamin, who lived 120 years before the Savior was born. As they listened to their prophet-king, and through the power of the Spirit, they were converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They likely understood that Jesus embodied the higher law of the gospel, which would subsume and replace the law of Moses. And yet, for the rest of their lives, while being converted to Christ they continued to live the Mosaic law. I feel similarly, that more fulsome and more expansive ways to understand all our relationships and connections may be forthcoming, but meanwhile it is my determination to live the law I have.
Even though my challenges and questions may be different from Tom's, I have them just the same, and this is the kind of attitude and perspective I want to have--one of faith and trust: that God loves me perfectly and that His plan is grander and more expansive than my limited vision. There are many things that don't make sense to me, and sometimes these things pull me back and impede my progress because I don't know how to move forward without answers. But this is the answer: trust that there is more; trust that my knowledge isn't complete; trust that God loves all of His children.

Tom's mom seems like she must have been quite an amazing lady. When Tom was still just a baby, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent many radiation treatments, and one day, she said to her mother, "I can't stand having 16 more of those treatments." Her mother said, "Can you go today?" She replied, "Yes," and then her mother said, "Well, honey, that's all you have to do today." Tom applied that advice to his own life, and I like to think I can use it in my life as well. I just have to do the best that I can today. I don't have all of the answers, but I do have some answers, and so I can take one day at a time, trusting that with each step, I will gain a little more ground.

Tom quoted Joseph Smith, who said, "When you climb up a ladder, you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave." I liked the idea that this progression will continue beyond this life and into the next. Little by little, the picture will gradually become more complete.

I was so glad to have read this book. I'm sure it took a certain amount of courage and bravery for Tom to be vulnerable and write about his experiences, but I'm so grateful he did. I know I have room to be more inclusive and kind, and I am working on it. In a world where it is so easy to say the wrong thing or have it be interpreted the wrong way, this book gave me hope that reaching out in love and compassion is always the right answer.

A Little of This and That in May

Jun 10, 2019


As it so often is, May was a whirlwind, ending with the culmination of the school year and the sweet start of summer. This month found us . . .

Discovering . . . Neff's Canyon. We are so fortunate to live so close to the mountains, and I know we don't take the opportunity to explore them as much as we could. On a recent date night, Mike and I went on a little hike in Neff's Canyon. Mike took the boys sledding there this past winter, but this was the first time I had been in it, and I was completely charmed. It is nestled in the shadow of my beloved Mt. Olympus, and the trails are easy but interesting. I can't believe I didn't know about it until this year. It makes me wonder what other undiscovered things are right outside my front door.


Going . . . to two book clubs in one week. My neighborhood book club meets on the second Tuesday, and my serious book club meets on the third Thursday. This usually puts them more than a week apart. But the way the dates fell this month meant that they both occurred during the same week. Both books were excellent: Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys and The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. I highly recommend them both.

Attending . . . lots of end-of-the-year performances. We had Maxwell's and Bradley's dance informances, Aaron's band concert, Bradley's opera, Aaron's class play, and Maxwell's musical concert. I loved each one. I particularly want to mention Bradley's opera and Aaron's play. Every year, Bradley's teacher helps her class create their own opera. They come up with the plot and the characters, compose the melodies and rhythms, write the lyrics, and design the costumes and set. From start to finish, it takes them several months. Because this is the third time we've had this teacher, this is also the third time we've been to one of these operas. Each one has been completely unique and creative. This year, it was about a baby koala who was given a balloon by an emu and then floated away. It was entitled "The Balloon That Caused Chaos." His teacher forwarded the piano music to me, so we have continued to enjoy it in the weeks since. Aaron's class play was equally impressive. Although it was not their own creation, it was completely seamless and polished. It was about the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Aaron was Sir Francis Drake. The kids all sang with enthusiasm.. They knew their lines down pat and delivered them with expression. More importantly, you could hear every word they said. It was a pleasure to be there and see these kids do so well. After it was over, Aaron said, "I'm so sad we'll never get to perform our play again." I think all of the kids felt the same way. His teacher really has such a gift for encouraging each student to do his/her best and enjoy the process.



Wincing . . . at Maxwell's talk. Max was assigned to give the talk in Primary on Mother's Day, and he decided to write the whole thing himself. Although I was proud of him for taking the initiative, the end product was offensive. In short, it was an attempt at humor gone horribly wrong, and there was no way I was going to let him share it at church! Luckily, Mike helped him rewrite it so it was still authentically Max but thankfully no longer sexist.

Spending . . . a quiet Mother's Day as a family. Neither of our moms were around for Mother's Day, so we stayed close to home for most of the day, only venturing out for church in the morning and a little walk in the evening. It was very nice. Mike made the yummiest dinner, and my kids spoiled me with lots of obedience and quiet time (my two favorite things).


Enduring . . . nightly book summaries from Maxwell. Every night, he likes to come into my room and bring me up to speed with the happenings and plot twists from his latest reads. Lately, he has been fully immersed in Warriors, a series about four competing clans of cats. For the life of me, I can't seem to follow what is actually going on, but that doesn't deter Max from reliving every detail. Mike's mom has told me that Mike was exactly the same at nine years old, following her all around the house recapping the books he was reading, so I guess I know where Max gets it. There isn't any end in sight either since there are several parallel series. Max and his friends even created a whole complex recess game based on these books, which I love so much because it just felt so third grade to me.

Winning . . . the first grade fun run. The fun run is supposed to be a casual, entertaining event at school. This year the kids were even allowed to wear costumes. But Bradley would have none of that. The week before the event, he identified his biggest competitors. He even did a final cram session on the treadmill the night before. And when the whistle blew, he kept his eyes ahead of him and his feet racing along the ground. When he crossed the finish line first, he finally cracked a smile. Aaron and Maxwell both had respectable finishes in their grades also, but it definitely wasn't as big of a deal to them.


Volunteering . . . in Aaron's classroom. At the beginning of the school year, my sister-in-law made me an amazing offer. She said she would watch Ian and Clark one afternoon each week so I could help out in Aaron's classroom. Being able to volunteer on a regular basis has been something I've wanted to do since Aaron was in kindergarten, and although I've had many opportunities to be involved over the years, I've never been able to do it with quite this regularity, so this really was a dream come true for me. It was so fun to go in every Tuesday afternoon and grade homework or glue artwork, all while listening in on science lessons, laughing at Aaron's teacher's quick wit, and getting to know the kids' personalities. I loved it so much.

Watching . . . our local high school's production of Newsies. We took Aaron and Maxwell because they love the music and the story. It was shockingly good. I honestly can't believe that teenagers have that much talent. Because we've also seen the movie and another stage production, both boys found lots of things to compare. Surprisingly, the high school production had the highest number of swear words (according to Max, who kept diligent track of every single one). I love doing things with just one or two of my kids at a time, so this was a fun night.


Participating . . . in a knitalong. A few months ago, one of the knitwear designers that I follow announced that she was releasing a pattern that was going to be similar to an online class. The pattern would be divided into four parts with a new part being released every two weeks. The pattern would include video and written tutorials that would help with some of the trickier parts of the pattern. And there would be an online forum where people could show their progress and ask questions. I decided to buy the pattern and join the knitalong, and I learned so much! I'm still not quite done with it (it's a short sleeve lace sweater), but the end is in sight, and I'm pretty pleased with all of the new skills I've picked up along the way.

Learning . . . new tricks. For the last couple of years, Bradley has been asking to sign up for a session of gymnastics, and I finally caught registration before the deadline had passed. He learned so much and can now go into a back bend from a standing position, kick over from a back bend, stand on his head, and do ten perfect cartwheels in a row.


Saying . . . goodbye to the dream team. For the first time in our entire school career, I was genuinely heartbroken to see this school year come to the end. Over the last six years, we've had some ups and downs with teachers, but this year was a perfect match for each one of my boys. Every day I sent them to school knowing they were going to be encouraged and challenged and supported and, most of all, loved. Yes, loved. I haven't a single doubt that each teacher not only loved teaching but loved all of their students. It was evident in the way they spoke to them and interacted with them. Not only that, they were all so fun and made learning an exciting adventure. It is always so hard for me to see my kids' teachers with a new class at the beginning of the next school year. I always feel like they're somehow being disloyal to their old students by loving a new group of kids. It's irrational, I know, but I can't help it, and I must not be alone in this because I found this paragraph in a recent read, and it summed up my thoughts perfectly: "It seems to me that teachers are a little bit heartless. They greet each new wave of pupils and choose which ones they'll like best, and then, when the students grow up and leave school, they forget all about them and turn to the next wave." But then Aaron's teacher expressed a similar sentiment, explaining how difficult it is to see "her" kids with a new teacher. She says she used to walk past the sixth grade classroom and hear the kids laughing and think, "How dare you laugh at her jokes?" That made me feel better. And the good news is, we will have the dream team again in two years, so I'm looking forward to that.


Moving . . . on from elementary school. The end of the school year brought 5th grade promotion for Aaron. His elementary school career is officially over. I've been feeling rather miserable about it for the whole school year, so it didn't help when a friend told me, "Things will never be the same again." Thanks for rubbing it in! He spent the last two weeks of school in basically one long party which culminated on the last day with promotion. It was a very long and drawn out event, but it wasn't quite as boring as we thought it was going to be because Aaron ended up receiving a ton of awards, including a gold pin from Math Olympiads, which placed him in the top two percent of competing students around the world. He really excelled this year, in large part because of the high expectations of his teacher, and it was exciting to watch him come out of his shell and be so successful.


Making . . . summer goals. The boys finished school, and the very next day we had our summer goals posted on the kitchen wall. That's the way we like to do it around here. Bradley was especially excited and hung his up before anyone else. Is he my child or what???


Counting . . . down to Clark's birthday. Last year, less than a week after his birthday, Clark came into my room and asked, "Mom? How many more days until my birthday?" And I had to break it to him that his birthday was 351 days away. I thought that might discourage him, and he would forget about his birthday for awhile, but he didn't. Night after night for weeks and then months, Clark asked me for the current status of his birthday countdown. We passed into the 200's, and then the 100's, and finally, we were down to less than 20. It was actually kind of magical to watch the final days melt away until his birthday was literally the very next day. As you can imagine, the level of anticipation was out of this world.

Celebrating . . . Clark's 5th birthday! And then, the day was finally here! And Clark was giddy and ecstatic and bouncing off the walls. He woke up, looked at his birthday bucket by his bed, and shrieked, "An electric toothbrush?!?!?! Dad! Dad! I got an electric toothbrush!!!!!" It was that kind of excitement level for the whole day. He was thrilled with doughnuts for breakfast. He thought ramen noodles for lunch was such a treat. And an outing to the park was perfect. He had his cousin Rosie over to spend the night, and Mike made him a Star Wars cake. It was a good day in all respects . . . except that he had a little bit of "birthday entitlement," and some of his siblings couldn't handle him getting so much attention, and he couldn't handle any of them wanting to share in his bounty. To be honest, I was kind of relieved when the day was over and we could go back to just our regular Clarky Jo (who, I'm not kidding, asked me on the following day how many more days there were until his birthday . . . ).


Casting . . . a broken arm. Up until this month, no one in our family had ever broken a bone. But that is no longer the case. One Friday, Ian was bouncing on the trampoline (by himself, I might add) when he started crying uncontrollably. We didn't notice anything obviously wrong, but for the rest of the weekend, he seemed a little off. Then on Monday, he wouldn't let me even touch the side of his left arm without freaking out. I tested it a few times, waiting for him to be happily distracted with something else, and then I would gently rub my finger against it. Each time, he immediately got agitated and started to cry. So Mike took him to the doctor, and sure enough, he had a buckle fracture on his radius. When Mike brought him home with a bright green cast, the older boys acted like he was a celebrity: "What! Ian broke his arm?! Wow! This is the first broken bone in our family!" And then they proceeded to show him off to all of the neighbors. He started out with a short cast that covered his forearm, but the next morning he woke up and called out from his crib, "I took off my bandaid, Daddy!" So I had to take him back in and have the doctor recast it above the elbow. Luckily, he only has to have it for three weeks, so it isn't slowing him down too much (but I'm devastated because it was his left arm, which basically means we forced him to be right-handed, and he was the only chance I still had of having a left-handed child!).



Braving . . . the pool for the first time. We had a cold, rainy start to the summer, but that didn't stop the pool from opening or my kids from jumping into the water. (But it did me! I can't stand being cold!) They have since been to the pool almost every day, and the temperature finally got the hint and decided to join the party.


And that's a wrap on another month! What fun things have been going on in your part of the world?


The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Jun 7, 2019

Sometimes I put off reviewing books I loved because it feels to daunting to try to condense all of my overflowing gushing into one little post.

And that is precisely why it has taken me over three weeks to write about this book.

It cannot be denied that even though 2019 has not been a huge reading year for me so far in terms of quantity, it definitely has been in quality. I have loved almost everything I've read.

But at this point, this book probably tops the list for me. It just checked every single one of my boxes: it was historical (just after the turn of the century--one of my very favorite time periods); it was written as a journal (my favorite way to read a first-person narrative); the story was sweet and innocent (a true young adult novel--although I'd probably still hold off giving it to a young teenager (I'll explain why in a minute)); the ending did not disappoint me (and I was so scared that it would!).

But most of all, it made me want to keep reading. I found myself sneaking in a few pages here and another few pages there. Any chance I could get, I was back with Joan, unfolding another bit of her story. And even though I've read so many good books this year, none of them have compelled me to keep reading the way this one did.

I loved it so much.

Joan Skraggs is a bright, intelligent young woman, but her potential is literally being snuffed out by her belligerent, hard-hearted father. He pulls her out of school and relegates her to the life of a chore woman on the farm. In a panic, Jane envisions her life stretching before her and realizes that she is trapped. Nothing will ever change. This will be her life forever.

But then by chance, she sees an advertisement in the newspaper for a hired girl. It promises six dollars a week, and that sounds like a fortune to Joan. She knows she has to at least try. It is what her mother would have wanted for her. Donning a (hideous) new dress, adding a few years to her age (from 14 to 18), and giving herself a new name (Janet Lovelace), she takes the train to Baltimore, burning her tracks behind her.

Baltimore is big and noisy and crowded, and Joan is completely overwhelmed when she arrives late at night without a single reference. She has all but resigned herself to sleeping on a bench in what appears to be a well-to-do, safe neighborhood when Solomon Rosenbach happens upon her and insists that she follow him home to meet his mother.

And that is how she ends up as a hired girl for the Rosenbachs--a Jewish family made up of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenbach, married daughter Anna, sons Solomon and David, young daughter Mimi, and long-time housekeeper Malka.

Joan's voice is vibrant and authentic, and she is impossible not to love. She has a little bit of Anne Shirley in her but is still very much her own self. She is dramatic and emotional. Her entries sway wildly between ecstatic and despairing, and, for the most part, it is completely endearing.

One of the really brilliant aspects of the writing is the conflict between Joan's pretended age of eighteen and her real age of fourteen. Sometimes I forgot she wasn't really eighteen. After all, she had left home, was earning her own wages, and was very responsible. But then I'd think, "Why is she acting like a lovesick teenager?? Oh yeah, because she is only fourteen, and this is literally the first crush she has ever had on a boy!" It really would have been so easy to just make her grow up really fast or not at all, but both ages were very much a part of who Joan was as she came into her own self.

On that subject, I'll just add one word of caution. The story is very mild and innocent (refreshingly so!), but there was one scene towards the end where Joan's emotions overcome her better judgment and she makes a rash offer. Nothing comes of it, and for an older teenager, I think it would actually be somewhat enlightening because you can see how quickly you can lose all sense of reality when you think you're in love. But personally, I don't know if I would be totally comfortable with a younger teenager (say, under fourteen) being confronted with this mature situation. But then, you know I usually fall on the very conservative side of things.

One of the things I loved about this story was the juxtaposition of two very different religions. The Rosenbachs are orthodox Jews while Joan tries to be a devout Catholic. Being a part of the Rosenbach household, Joan learns very quickly about kashrut (which foods are acceptable and the appropriate ways to prepare and clean up after them), the rituals surrounding Shabbos, and the inexcusable condition of anti-Semitism. As Joan studies Catholism with Father Horst and prepares to be confirmed, she has deep conversations with Mr. Rosenbach about the differences in their religions, and I loved these discussions. At one point, Joan says, "Mr. Rosenbach, have you ever gone off by yourself and tried to feel that Jesus Christ is your Savior? Maybe if you were to go somewhere quiet, and sit still and open your heart to Him, you might be saved from damnation. Don't you think it might be a good idea to try?" And Mr. Rosenbach (kindly but with laughter behind his eyes) counters with, ""Miss Lovelace, have you ever gone off to a quiet place, and sat very still, and tried to imagine that Jesus Christ is not your Savior?" Joan is at once horrified at the very idea, and I thought it was the perfect way to demonstrate that we all try to follow the feelings in our hearts as best we can, and that is going to look different for everyone.

I began recommending this book before I'd even finished it, but I did it with a caveat: "It's so good, I'm loving it so far, but the ending might ruin it." And indeed, as I got closer and closer to the end, I was convinced it really was going to all come crashing down, and I was going to hate it. But I'm happy to say that the ending was perfect, and I have no need to retract any of my premature recommendations. In fact, now I would give it my wholehearted stamp of approval.

I leave you with a little taste of Joan: "[Mrs. Rosenbach] said, 'I'm sure you don't mean to be rude, Janet, but I'm afraid you're rather impetuous.' I nodded agreement and tried to look penitent--though I like the idea of being impetuous. It sounds like a heroine. I'd rather be impetuous than placid any day."
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