Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mona Lisa Smile

Hello my 8 followers.

Yes, it's been a year.

Today I watched Mona Lisa Smile. It wasn't my first time. I think I saw it a couple times before this. However, this is the first time I have seen it since leaving Boston. Mona Lisa Smile takes place at Wellesley, which although not in Boston, is nearby, and is a place that I have many memories of.

Seeing that familiar scenery, I just missed it, you know? The lake that I walked around every fall with the Wellesley girls. The picturesque little shops lining the roads near the school. The way everything just looks like  . . . . New England. I even miss the bad parts. There is a point in the movie where Julia Robert's character is running to meet someone, and has had an upsetting day, and just slips and falls right in the snow.

I had that moment. I had that moment so many times. The way she just looks up at the sky, lying in the snow.

In some ways, this will be how I remember Boston. I will remember being stressed beyond belief, and upset, and then falling in the snow. I also remember the good parts, which are what earlier parts of this blog comment on, to some extent.

But that was Boston. It was good, it was bad, it was full. I was always working, always running through the rain, and hanging out with friends in every spare moment.

Now I am in Hawaii. Cue mandatory beach picture.


Yes, I am wearing a black tshirt and jeans at a beach. I still can't bring myself to wear flip flops/slippers for more than a couple hours (thanks Dad for instilling the fear that my feet will basically fall off or get eaten by bugs if I do), and there are still days when I simply can't put my black clothes away, no matter how oppressively hot they make me.

When you compare these two pictures, it looks like Hawaii is the better place to be. There is sun! I am smiling! I don't fall in the snow anymore! There is water and relaxation and peace abounding.

Back in April when I was trying to decide whether to attend school in Boston, Utah, or Hawaii, the decision was rather difficult. There were pros and cons to everything. I reached out to everyone I knew and even people I didn't for advice on my three options. I cried and I prayed and I cried some more. There wasn't anything that specifically pointed me to Hawaii. But when I think back on it, two things prompted my decision.

The first was the advice of a close and trusted friend who was religious, but not of my religion. She knew that I was a religious person, and when my acceptance letter came for Hawaii at the eleventh hour, she said "Doesn't it feel like a sign from God?" (My friends of my religion wouldn't dare every say anything like that. All of their advice was "Did you pray about it?" Of course I did you dolt, now I am coming to you for your advice so I can gather as much information as I can before making an informed decision and taking it to the Lord. Sorry, rant over.) This phrase stuck with me as I pored through my options again and again.

But at the end of the day, I didn't decide because a friend pointed out that the timing was miraculous. I decided because I wanted a challenge. I had grown comfortable, happy, in Boston. I had grown comfortable with the day to day struggle. I remember laughing the day I got stuck walking home for an hour in sleet whilst wearing ballet flats. I loved it, even when it seemed that everything was working against me. And we know that we cannot grow when we are comfortable. Hawaii seemed to be the antithesis of everything I knew in Boston. I figured that by adapting to the culture here I would grow more than I could anywhere else.

I also came for the telescopes. After spending a wonderful month at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, I developed an appreciation for these modern marvels that I can't describe. If you ever get a chance, please enter a telescope dome and just watch the telescope move from star to star. It's an experience you won't soon forget. Hawaii has some of the best telescopes in the world, located on Mauna Kea.

Back to the culture thing though. Watching Mona Lisa Smile reminded me about that part of my decision. The culture here in Hawaii has been the pinnacle of challenging for me. The culture of the astronomy department, of course, isn't very different at all from what I saw at other colleges on the mainland. Sure, the men wear Hawaiian shirts, and people get leis when they defend their thesis, but they still pump out papers and science just like everyone else.

But outside of that? It's so different I can't even begin to describe it. I didn't believe it would be this bad at first. During my first opportunity to speak in church, I was given the topic of Faith. The obvious source to draw my material from was of course the Lectures on Faith. I also included references to the Book of Mormon, Bible, and Children's Songbook to boot, but the core of my talk was centered around the principles and ideals one finds there in those lectures. After church I was kindly pulled aside by some leadership and was warned that I would find Hawaii much different than Boston, and that I would have a hard time finding anyone to talk with about those sorts of things. He offered to be there if I ever needed to talk about it. I brushed him off. Me? Need help adapting? Pshaw. This is what I came here to do.

Back in Boston I attended 2-3 Institute classes a week. It seemed the natural thing to do, as I loved all the things I learned there, and it really invigorated me. The classes were like those art history classes in Mona Lisa Smile. The students had insights, and the teachers encouraged us to share, and the discussions were useful and intriguing. Maybe not always, but often enough that I always went when time allowed. So of course when I moved to Hawaii, I signed up for 3 Institute classes, one with each of the instructors. I quickly discovered that these Institute classes were nothing like those in Boston. And in some ways it wears me down. Of course, I have adapted my techniques in how I approach these classes, and often come with the intent to share and help rather than looking for a new piece of knowledge I haven't seen before. And I still receive personal promptings as I attend that make it worthwhile as a place to grow. But there is something missing.

There is no place that this is more apparent than in my class "Women in the Scriptures." The three institute instructors are taking turns on this one, and I can tell they are putting all they can into it. However, they aren't teaching to Bostonites - they are teaching Hawaiians. And so we don't discuss the usage of the word 'prophetess' for Anna in a church culture that immediately ducks their heads when women and priesthood are mentioned in the same sentence. Instead, we focus on women's accomplishments as they relate to child rearing. Because these are the basis. And I agree. Because in Hawaii, they need that. Students come unprepared to class, often not even knowing basic stories from the scriptures. And so they have to teach there. Whereas in Boston, we would have accepted these base facts, moved forward, and discussed what we can learn from these women in the scriptures, and how it applies to our modern lives. We would have discussed exactly what the word prophetess meant, and while still dodging the touchy subject of women and the priesthood, we might have explained it.

And that's what I need. Ever since I was 13 I have felt somewhat trapped within myself. Because I belong to a church that promotes motherhood and the importance of women staying in the home when possible. And yet I feel as if I was born to reach for the stars. In my teenage years my consolation and horror was that I would never be married, so the point was moot, and I could reach for the stars on my own and spoil my sisters' children in my spare time. In Boston, as I began to have discussions with other women who had strong faith and strong ambition like me, I began to see the middle path form. Where I could be a faithful woman who also did science. True, I would have to sacrifice some things. I probably wouldn't be the next Stephen Hawking (although to be honest, even if I dedicated all my time to astronomy, I probably wouldn't even have a shot at being the next Stephen Hawking.) I probably also wouldn't have 12 children (although, once again, to be honest I don't thing I could handle 12 pregnancies even if I was a 100% stay at home mom.) I could a be a wonderful woman who puts her children before her work, but still does excellent work. I saw women who were doing that, and other women who were planning on doing that. And that strengthened me.

Now I am alone in Hawaii. My church girlfriends here have jobs in construction, and childcare, and social work. They are not career driven, and in some ways not even passionate about their work. The intellectual differences and values of my friends at church are so different that some of my friends in my astronomy department can't even stand them. I still love them. I love them both - my friends at school who like me reach for the stars and code till their eyes bleed, and my friends at church who live for $6 movies on Tuesdays. But I miss that support of having women of faith and ambition standing right beside me.

That's not to say that ALL Hawaiians are like this and EVERYONE at church is without ambition and drive. I have been very fortunate to make a couple friends who share similar values and who have supported me in different ways.

But I still sometimes come home from my Institute classes with a heavy heart, feeling as if the questions I have as I ponder women's roles and purposes are still unanswered.

And I always come home feeling alone.

Being in Hawaii for the past 11 months has really stretched me in ways I didn't expect. I love it here, and hate it here, all at the same time. I love the way it's always raining. I learned to love inclement weather in Boston, and I certainly love it here. Walking 30 minutes in the rain to work is actually one of my favorite things about living here. But I hate the way it smells. Really, it smells awful here. Everywhere. I love the way I just bump into butterflies and rainbows, and hate how I always seem to bump into cockroaches and slippery patches of mud. I love all the different ways you can add pineapple to a dish, but hate that even pasta dishes are served with rice. I love the laid back attitude that leads to friends playing ukelele together and everyone singing along at the most random times, but I hate the laid back attitude that leads to visiting teaching lists that are never updated and are dysfunctional at best when they are updated.

You may have noticed that all of my talk about "Hawaiian Culture" is actually "Hawaiian LDS Culture in a particular branch." But that's what I am exposed to on a daily basis. The other culture I am exposed to frequently is one foreign to me, and one where I am the enemy. And that is that of those Hawaiians who believe that Mauna Kea is sacred, and/or that the Hawaiian Kingdom was taken over wrongfully by white America. I have often thought about posting about my reactions to their actions in protesting the TMT, but ultimately have decided against it each time. Because no matter where I stand, I will be viewed as an enemy or an apologist with no power. My words will be considered offensive. To them, I have no voice, at least not one worth listening to. In listening to these Hawaiians present their case at different public hearings I have felt hate in a way I never have before. Not all the protestors are like that. Most of them are nice people who are just trying to defend something they hold sacred (which I 100% sympathize with). But there are enough people that state that it's a denigration to even be in the same room with white people or scientists that I feel as if they are in some way protesting and rejecting me, not just a building.

My feelings, of course, are not the subject of their protests, nor should they be taken into account as to whether the protests should continue or not. But the fact remains that I feel adrift and unwanted in Hawaii, in a way I never could have expected that fateful day in Boston.

In Mona Lisa Smile, many of the woman protagonists face the same questions I am facing. What should they do with their lives? Should they focus on their families, or on their education? What does a healthy relationship with a man look like? How important is fitting in? How do I stay true to myself? 

I feel in some ways like Katherine (Julia Roberts), filled with new and radical ideas in a world that still stuck in the old. That the person I am somehow just doesn't belong in that world.

I feel in some ways like Joan (Julia Stiles), choosing between two wonderful things, with incredible pressure from both sides.

But when Joan's time comes to decide, she chooses what SHE wants. And when Katherine is told she has to conform, she decides to leave rather than give up what she wants.

In the end, that is what matters. I don't have to please my advisor, my best friend, the protestors, my branch, or even my family. I need to do what makes me happy. And then learn how to do that in my environment.

So I will become the woman I dreamed of in Boston. The one who has both. And I will learn how to do that here. Or maybe I won't. Maybe like Katherine, the person I am just isn't adaptable to a certain culture. I'd like to think that isn't true though. I'd like to think that the girl who reaches for the stars and feels passionately about her religion at the same time can live happily amongst the people of Hawaii.

But at the end of the day, I am going to do what I want.

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