#57—One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, with Ashley Mae Hoiland [MIPodcast]
Subscribe to the Maxwell Institute Podcast through iTunes, stream on YouTube, or use the RSS feed mi.byu.edu/feed/podcast. You can help the MIPodcast grow by rating and reviewing it in iTunes. Send questions or comments about this and other episodes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. In this episode, I’m talking to Ashley Mae Hoiland. She’s the author of the Maxwell Institute’s newest book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly. The book is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series but it’s unlike any other book in that series. Ashmae joins us in this episode to read a script from the book and then talk a little bit about how it came to be.
We’re joined today by Ashley Mae Hoiland. She’s the author of the new book from the Maxwell Institute called One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly. Ashley Mae Hoiland but I call you Ashmae, welcome to the program.
ASHLEY MAE HOILAND: Thank you. Happy to be here.
HODGES: It’s good to have you. I should let people know from the beginning that your book is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. I’m the co-editor of that series and so I’ve been involved in this book from beginning to end. So this is a little bit different than most of the interviews I do where I don’t know the authors, but I’m really glad to be doing this. And Ashmae, you just got back from a little whirlwind tour of book events.
HOILAND: I did.
HODGES: I guess the basic idea is you’d spend time reading from the book and talking a little bit about how you wrote it and that sort of thing.
HOILAND: Yeah, so originally, I was pretty anxious about the idea of standing up and reading my book in front of people in part because I don’t love being in the spotlight and also because I have never been able to read my own work aloud without my voice shaking really badly. And so I thought, there’s no way that I’m going to stand up twenty times [laughs] and have my voice shake and be emotional in front of all those people.
But it turns out it was not actually not that way. People are really, really gracious. And I knew that I wanted it to not just be about me. I wanted the book events to be conversational and I wanted them all to carry a different energy according to what the audience was offering. And so all the events ended up being totally different. I read different pieces. We talked about different things and it felt like a very generative spiritual experience to me each time.
HODGES: Yeah. We thought it would be cool in this interview to kind of do something similar—we’ll have you read some pieces and talk about them.
HODGES: Let’s start with the title here, One Hundred Birds Thought Me to Fly, talk about the title a little bit.
HOILAND: I’ve always loved birds. I don’t know—So I’m also a visual artist. I’m a painter. And for the longest time—actually still, always—all of my paintings would have kind of a lot of stuff going on at the bottom of the painting. There would be these long vertical paintings. And there would be a lot of stuff going on in the bottom and then this space in between the top of the painting—the things that would go on at the top and the things that would go on at the bottom. And a lot of times in between that space, I would put birds. And to me, as I kind of worked through why I did this, I’ve realized that I kept putting them in that space because they kind of symbolized a connection between myself and I guess sort of the heavens, or the things that are larger than myself that I maybe didn’t fully understand.
And so, when I wrote the book, I was thinking about all of those—both visually and metaphorically—all of those people in my life who have been those symbols for me. So all the different people and experiences that have been a connection for me, between all of this craziness kind of down on the earth in this world that we live in, and the more ephemeral heavenly space that we all seen drawn to but maybe can’t fully grasp.
HODGES: It’s really interesting to hear you talk sort of theoretically about it because there’s not a lot of theoretical discussion in the book at all. In fact, it’s mostly just stories. And that’s what this book stands out for in the Living Faith series. Each books sort of reflects the background of the author who wrote it, right? So your training was in art and writing and poetry.
HODGES: And so we have books by a biologist, so he talks about scientific issues. We have a book by a philosopher, more philosophical, and so on and so forth. So you don’t get theoretical in the book itself; you’re just telling stories. Talk about that kind of approach and how you kind of see how it fits in the series.
HOILAND: Sure. So, when I was asked to write the book, I was really, really excited at the prospect, but I also had no real concept or idea or sort of arc that I knew I wanted the book to fit under. And so I knew that I likely had a lot to say [laughs] in stories that I had to tell but I didn’t know what that would look like in a book form. And for me, again and again, that’s been the lesson that’s come up about this book—even in terms of the book of readings, is learning to trust that space where I don’t fully have a plan and don’t fully know what’s about to happen.
And I think that’s where my training as a creative writer and as a visual artist comes in is that the act of creation happens as you do the thing. And so for me, in writing this book, I knew that I had a lot of memories that connected to my spirituality that I hadn’t fully explored yet. Or I had in some ways but I wanted to—I kind of wanted to throw out the window all of my preconceived notions and expectations about my spirituality and just go to this creative space, to ask that space what my spirituality meant for me.
So yeah, it worked, in writing the book, the stories came out in sort of an associative process where I would think about—like for example, there’s this memory I have of my dad, there’s a piece about my dad in here, or several pieces I guess, but one in particular where since I was a tiny kid like four or five years old I’ve carried about this memory of my dad. I would sit with him on the back porch every day after work and he would smoke one or two cigarettes. And I’ve carried that kind of image and memory around with me for thirty years. And I wasn’t—like it was fine, it was just there, but I had never really asked myself, “what is that?” And so in writing this book I sat down with that memory and I worked through, what was the actual context of that story. And I realized—which I’d never fully put together before that—
HODGES: [laughs] Don’t give it away, let’s read that one.
HOILAND: Oh, should we read it? Okay.
HOILAND: Okay, yeah, because I feel like this is a good example in the book, of the generative process of a memory, and almost immediacy…
HODGES: Yeah, so you had this mental picture, this memory, and then you sat down with it and then you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to write about this. Where is this going to go?”
HOILAND: Yeah. So, and one thing I think it is important to note in the book is that there is truly not a single piece that I knew the ending line when I wrote the beginning line. And so they were all surprising to me in really good of ways. And even things that I thought I knew for sure, it was so nice to go back to those spaces and let them guide me rather than me being fully in charge.
Okay, It’s on page 25. It says:
I carry a pocketful of stories about my dad. As a child he stuck his mother’s straight pins in every banana of the backyard banana tree. He once pinched my grandpa in the bottom with a pair of pliers because he just could not resist something so funny. I’ve heard the story a dozen times about the time he was surfing, stayed out too late and too far, and got caught in a terrible riptide against the cliffs at dusk. I revel every time he gets to the part where he thought he was done for, too weak to keep swimming, but he reached is hand up against all odds, and someone pulled him onto the shore. At nineteen, his parents were still holding out hope that he might turn in his mission papers, but he made art, lived in a tent in the mountains, and worked on boats as a deckhand instead. He came home for Sunday dinners, and my grandparents loved him without reservation.
When I was five, Mormon missionaries came to our house, and again when I was six and then seven. One of the images I hold dear from my childhood is my dad, after work, smoking just one cigarette on the back patio while I sat on the stoop near him. Somehow I sensed even then during one of his last patio smokes that he was sacrificing part of his wild self for something he thought would be good for me. He baptized my mom a year later. In the photo he is clean-shaven and trim, his dark eyes illuminate thirty-six years and a hope for many good things. My proud little arms around his neck as he holds me in his white jumpsuit. My dad, a complicated, stubborn, gentle man with a knack for always coming around and doing the right thing—a surprising bouquet of flowers for my mom, kneeling tenderly next to grandkids teaching them how to fish, removing the pins from the banana tree one by one. And what a strange world, when I count my memories backward and land at one, it is his imperfect face I remember first in this world. Blurry, looking down, saying my name.
HODGES: It’s a really great piece. There’s another one that I really like too that kind of connects to this. So I think in this story your father is one of these birds, it’s this figure your life who—you sort of looked up to, and there are number of these figures. Your mother serves this role. There’s also some missionaries who do. I’m thinking of the story about how God loves everyone. I really like that one.
HOILAND: Oh, yeah.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s on page 74.
HOILAND: It’s kind of funny to read these. I’m used to looking up and seeing people watching me read [laughing], so it’s funny to read this right now in my living room by myself. Okay.
A few weeks after my siblings and I were sealed to my parents in the Provo Temple, we hitched up a trailer and taped a sign on the back of our VW bus that said “Tehachapi or Bust.” Mother Nature welcomed us in this unremarkable California town. My brother and I spent our days in her arms, climbing trees, collecting turkey feathers, building clay pots among the oak trees. It was in Tehachapi where the missionaries drove the canyon road and our long, steep driveway each week to teach me the lessons before I was baptized. Once they asked, “Does God love all people, or only good people?” Wanting so much to impress them, I spun around once in my chair and said, “Only the good people.” “No,” they said, “he loves all people just the same.”This last summer I visited Tehachapi again for the first time in twenty-five years. I was surprised to find that the dreamlike details that had so long visited me were precise memories that led me right back up the canyon and to the foot of my old house. The driveway gate was locked, so we drove the few acres around back on the chance that the old inhabited trailer that belonged to a neighbor was still there. A family came curious onto the rutted dirt drive. We asked if we could peek through their fence at my childhood home and property. “Of course,” they said from the trailer that was still standing and housing people two decades later; it was dilapidated, with various shanty-like add-ons, while a small girl holding a scruffy stuffed rabbit stood between her pregnant mother and her father, who wore a baseball cap over his sandy hair.
The little girl approached my children as we walked across the uneven front yard made of dirt and roots, and soon the three of them were talking as if all children in the world were at some time, not so long ago, already friends. They were so kind, and my husband and I cried as we drove away about the sacredness of life even in the unseen and unsightly pockets of this world. Ten minutes before as I peered through the fence, I swear I saw the ghost of my seven-year-old self playing next to my round-faced brother, contemplating what it meant that God really loves all people just the same.
HODGES: I still remember when you sent that piece in—and I think it was fairly early on. That was one of the first ones I remember seeing of your childhood. It was so interesting to see you bring in this experience that you had. It kind of collapses time. It’s talking about your childhood but the story is about when you went back to see that place. That was an interesting way I think to tell that story.
HOILAND: Yeah. I mean, it actually did feel like time had collapsed when I went back and everything was the same.
HODGES: I feel like this is kind of representative of the book in general because you’re telling a lot of stories about the past. Most, I think maybe all of them, are about some sort of memory. But it’s such a present book. All the stories you tell are filtered through the last twelve months when you wrote the book.
HOILAND: Yeah, which is fascinating to me because—fascinating, but I think also very encouraging and exciting to me theologically, that if I was to write this book now these memories would probably carry different things again. And were I to write this book five years from now with the same memories, they would also—there would be different things that would come up.
And so that makes me really excited about my own possibility for an evolving spirituality. And that I’m not being ask to tell the same story or the “right” story. I’m being asked to be curious. And to figure out what things mean as I go, and that they will likely mean different things at different times, and that’s totally not just okay but exciting and…
HODGES: It’s this process of faith. I take it as one of the main themes of the book. And again, you never spell any of this out. It just happens in the course of the stories. It’s how immediate our testimonies are—to use the LDS parlance—this idea of our faith being so present to us in this moment. And that means that—by definition—it will be adaptable or it has to be adaptable if it’s going to survive because we continue to grow and learn and change. And the lessons you take from these stories now, like you said, could be different if you wrote this book again in a year.
HOILAND: Yeah, and actually Adam Miller says something that I really like about that in Letters to a Young Mormon. He says, “Jesus is not asking you to tell a better story or live your story more successfully. He is asking you to lose that story.”
And I think that really is one of the main points of the book. I listened to this great talk at a conference from a guy who was talking about spiritual writing. And he talked about the difference between spiritual autobiography and spiritual memoir. And he talked about spiritual autobiography being this story where we know exactly where the character will end up. And we watch them pass these checkpoints and—
HODGES: Yeah, they’re conversion or de-conversion narratives usually—yeah.
HOILAND: Yes. And so as readers, they can be satisfying to us because in some ways they prove us right. And I think we particularly do this in Mormonism. Like ” oh, they’re going to get baptized and we know what they’re going to feel.” And like we are very gratified by that.
And so there is a place and a time for those autobiographies, but he said spiritual memoir on the other hand is something that unfolds itself completely, and the actual act of writing is the spiritual experience. And he—the guy speaking talked about the act of writing opening you up to another dimension, which is pretty big language [laughs]. But in many ways, I feel like that is such a truth. That in writing this, I feel like I was uncovering and opening doors that were deep inside me. And sometimes I would even write the first draft of the story as the thing I thought I was supposed to tell, and probably as the thing that would be considered “spiritual autobiography.” And then, I would sit down and I would listen and just be really quiet and say, “and now, tell this a lot more honestly.”
And I feel like in doing that, that’s when pieces like the one that I just read came up, where when I could be quiet and be totally honest with my not knowing, and with maybe my uncertainty, and my being totally humble and saying “I actually don’t have an answer and I don’t know what this means and I’m alright with that.” I think that’s when good things happen for me.
HODGES: Yeah, so there are two big things there. On the one hand, you’re talking about the uncertainty that exists in the book and on the other, you’re talking about the value of writing for spirituality. And I would even say it sounds like you’re talking about a revelatory process, Mormons talk about personal revelation. A lot of times we think of it in terms of these propositional truths that we ask, “is this particular thing true?” and then we get an answer that it is or something like that. But other people—another way is like personal revelation that might prompt you to do something or to be somewhere.
With yours, it’s kind of a subset of those, where it’s just helping you understanding your past and your connection to other people in new ways. So it’s like this kind of personal revelation that come out to this writing that you did, is very individual but always connected to other people.
HOILAND: Yeah, yes. I like the word “revelatory” a lot. And I think that’s something that definitely has come about for me, is that honestly—and you can attest to this—Before writing this book, I was not confident. I was not confident in taking up space. I was not confident in using my voice, or a lot of the things that I thought. I carried a lot of anxiety about those things. And I think in part it was because I didn’t yet trust my own process and capability for self-revelation.
HODGES: Can I just say that’s fascinating for me to hear when you’ve talked to me about this more recently? Because at that time, when we started, I’d seen samples of your writings. It was outstanding. And I never would have guessed that there were any sort of confidence issues. And so, occasionally when you would sort of have a difficult time and you’d email me and sort of like, “ahhhh, you know, am I doing this?” or you know, it was a big surprise to me because it seemed to me that you had the skill. So that came as such a surprise when you had those moments.
HOILAND: Yeah. Well, and I think—I mean, I want to go back to the revelatory question, but I think this also ties in—is that it has so much to do with me being a young female in a patriarchal church. And it’s a culmination of so many things. And partly my own misinterpretations of, like, what humility means. And I think often, as women, we’re taught that one of our greatest assets and one of the things that we can—that we should cultivate is our humility and our selflessness and kind of our charity equaling giving everything away and kind of completely losing ourselves. And I think I had taken that to an extreme in believing that by taking up space, I was not being charitable and…
HODGES: Yeah, like there’s a way to serve that can actually devalue the self in a negative way rather than, you know, there’s that scripture that says you know, “whosoever loses their life for my sake shall find it.” That can be taken in a way that would say “completely erase yourself.” And I think that can be a problem like as you said, especially culturally for some members of the LDS Church where women might feel to erase themselves or to be—to go in the background, and believe that is itself a form of service rather than, you know…
HOILAND: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been to graduate school. I’m smart and capable. But I’m also a stay-at-home mom right now. And I feel like I carried the weight of that stipulation way too much at the forefront of what I was doing. And particularly because the people writing books before me in the Living Faith series where men with PhD’s who are older and very successful in whatever they’re doing in terms of academia—one’s a doctor. And so I thought what could I possibly have to offer as a stay-at-home mom?
Which I think, again, goes back to the revelatory question where—after I finished the book, I realized: no I could not have written this book without doing the things that I’ve done for the past five years since I have been a stay-at-home mom. And that work is not less valuable and not even less intellectually stimulating than a lot of—like say had I been in an academic track position. And so, I think they both have value. But spiritually, I think as women and as Mormon women as many of us are stay-at-home moms, we don’t give credence to our own spiritual thoughts and spiritual intellectualism.
HODGES: Yeah, so two things. You felt—So, there is a certain spiritual constraining that can happen. Your revelation can actually be blocked—certain possibilities of revelation can be blocked—based on cultural assumptions. Your book is trying to break those open.
HODGES: And then also, within the context of the series itself, you have academic training. The idea of the series is to take a scholar or someone who has earned a degree and say, “What kind of book would happen as a combination of their degree and their Mormonism?” And yours was unique. As you said there are other men in the series with PhDs in history or medicine or whatever, philosophy and this sort of thing.
Your training, your academic training has impacted the type of stay-at-home mom that you’ve been. And you’ve also worked and done other jobs as well like you know, as a teacher and things like this. But the idea is that your training has also informed that too. So in giving this book to people and making this book available, where we—I sort of wanted to show the value of the training that you received. You didn’t go straight from high school to becoming a mom and not having any jobs or anything like that. And some people do that and that works really well for them. But this also shows the value of a different way of doing things. And I think that your motherhood has been informed by your training. Your stories definitely show that. And your stories are obviously informed by the craft as well.
So there’s like a—there are different ways that the book fits into the series that are true to the series as an academic exploration of Mormonism but it’s custom to you. This is your voice. This is your experience. This is the kind of book that happens when we take someone with an MFA and ask them to write for members of the LDS church. So it couldn’t have been any other way. Your experiences created this book.
But I like how you call attention to the limitations of your personal revelation that have happened culturally that you’ve—through the process of writing this have sort of had to come to reckon with. And I get the sense from conversations we had about some of your book events that there were people in the audience who were really tuned into this. They would say, “You seem so confident. But at the same time, your book has so many questions in it. How are you so confident and how do you do that when your book has a lot of uncertainty in it?” So, let’s talk a little bit about that, too. It’s sort of connected to what we’ve been talking about.
HOILAND: Sure, yeah. I guess, I would say that is actually the most common—I’m taking it as a compliment and I think people meant it that way—but so many people said you seem really, really comfortable in your own skin and you seem incredibly confident. And one person in one of the questions asked, she said, “You say so often that you don’t know exactly.” And she said that phrase of “not knowing exactly” and say not so confidently and not as an apology but saying it assertively and positively. And she asked how do you get to that place. Because I don’t know a lot of things exactly, and I’ve—whether it’s been learned or—I don’t know how we get to that place. But this particular women said “for me that’s—I’ve always thought of that as a negative, of not knowing things exactly.”
And there’s a quote, I don’t know who it’s by and it should but I’m going to say it anyway, but it’s, “The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.” And I feel that that is probably a large theme throughout this book.
HODGES: There’s a piece that actually speaks to this. It’s on page 73. I wrote it down here but I thought it would be cool to have you read that. My guess is that you may have even read this very piece at that event. This is one that I think would prompt just those sort of comments.
HOILAND: Yeah, definitely. So I’ll read it there on page 73.
What I want to tell you as you read these stories is that I’ve both found and lost God a hundred times over. In fact, maybe I’ve never actually found God at all, but imagining that I have indeed found something so much larger and more beautiful than I can explain is most often enough for me. I believe that somewhere in all this, we belong to parents who love us with that fierce and tender love reserved for the moments when you observe a child trying their best at something. I believe we have parents who are as proud of us as I felt of Remy and Thea when, despite the briskness of the afternoon, they tore off their clothes and went running across the sand and into the cold Northern California waves in pursuit of all the beauty and delight this world may have to offer. When I looked out over the ocean, the waves crashing against the faraway rocks, a pelican soaring wordlessly through the blue sky, I saw for a brief moment the incomprehensible largeness of the place with infinite beginnings and endings both behind me and in front of me.I’ve both found and lost God a hundred times over—I sense a powerful, parental, guiding love from heaven. I think it feels like the joy I felt when I set down all I had been carrying and ran out to my children, letting the cold waves crash over us, holding their hands when the waves tugged at our feet, the sand crabs leaving bubbling holes as they dove into wet sand. My daughter lifted her feet and let the water pull her out while I lifted her. For me, Mormonism does not provide the ease of certain answers; it provides a language and the impetus to write about an afternoon on a beach and truly believe that maybe for that moment I had found God, or else something perhaps as holy—godliness.
HODGES: That piece is so striking and I remember when you first sent it in, I remember the line that stuck out to me the most was right at the beginning where you say, “In fact, maybe I’ve never actually found God at all.” And that’s such stunning thing to read. Talk a little bit on that line and how it fits into the overall piece.
HOILAND: For me, one of the huge paradigm shifts that’s happened over the course of the past year in writing and reading and talking about this book is, before I had the sense of God—and particularly a male God—as this parent who had something really specific that he wanted me to do. And I thought of my job as deciphering what that specific thing was and then caring it out precisely in the way that God wanted me to carry it out.
And it turns out that’s a really hard thing to do. Like I will never expect my children to somehow figure out the thing that I wanted them to do and then carry it out in the way that I wanted them to carry it out. I just—I wouldn’t do that. But for some reason, I pictured God as that way for a long time. And so, I think in the writing of this book, and particularly with lines like that, my paradigm changed in that all of the sudden, I realized that I was not being expected to do something specific but rather that I was really supported—supported and encouraged to be creative. And to do things in the way that I best knew how.
HODGES: Like use your gifts, like you have this—it’s not so directed?
HOILAND: Yeah so in that line, “maybe I’ve found God and maybe I haven’t” It did not feel like closure on God or rejection of God. In a lot of ways it felt like a collaboration with God, like “hey I have these really large questions and I’m working them out and here’s how I’m doing it.” And instead of feeling like “how dare you I wonder if I’m there or not,” it felt like “yeah, it’s a great question to ask. I’m glad you’re working through it.”
And so for me I felt really—I guess supported would be the right word, both by very earthly people but also by the spiritual sense. I felt trusted to do the things that I was doing.
HODGES: It’s rather an openness to learn more about God. And, you know, instead of having a finished story about God, to be open to learning more about the whole situation. And I love the imagery that you use of your children in this story where it seems like they’re doing something crazy, like kids do these funny things. It’s cold and they’re running out into the water and they’re being spontaneous. And I see you as a God figure in this story, looking on at these beautiful kids with such pride and wanting to get involved and you join them out there. So when you’re talking about how you’re not sure you’ve found God elsewhere, you’re seeing this as a God figure yourself. Does that make sense?
HOILAND: Yeah, yes. I think that’s a nice way to put it. And to put it specifically in context, that God is not a dictator. And I think it goes back to the revelatory question in terms of working through the idea of Heavenly Mother. I think for so long we’ve been told we can’t know more about her, we will likely never know more about her. But this book taught me, no you actually can. If you would like to know more about her go for it. And I think again, feeling trusted to do that. And that’s not unique to me at all.
HODGES: It was comforting to me, as an editor, to see the LDS church publishing these great Gospel Topics essays—one of them in particular about Heavenly Mother, and to see an uptick in references to Heavenly Mother in General Conferences, for example. And that opened the door in a sense for places like the Maxwell Institute—and BYU Studies has published on this—to acknowledge that and to explore it a little bit. So there are some profound pieces in the book that do that and I think a lot of people will be able to appreciate that. It seems like the church is coming to a place where that’s on the table and we can look at that now.
HOILAND: Mmhmm. I really am so grateful that things like the Heavenly Mother Gospel Topics essay is out, and all the things you just mentioned. But I do remember one line in that Gospel Topics essay that said something along the lines that we don’t know a lot about her but what we have is sufficient. And I remember thinking that it doesn’t feel very sufficient to me. I actually am not satisfied [laughs] with my relationship with her at this point because I did not even speak her name until I was in college.
And so I think, in part, taking accountability and responsibility for that in writing this book and saying… Just recognizing that she is definitely a figure that is available for knowing and it’s likely not going to come through our typical avenues. But I think it is a very personal endeavor and quite open to interpretation. And I think that’s okay. Until we personally feel like it’s sufficient we don’t need anybody else to tell us what we have is sufficient. So for me… Well, maybe I can read a piece. The opening piece in the book I feel like is a good example of…Or you can read another one.
HODGES: The one with your mom, if you could read that one.
HOILAND: Oh man [laughs], I might have to have you read that one!
HODGES: That would actually be really funny. Isn’t that the maturation one?
HOILAND: Yup. I honestly don’t know if I can read that. I might just cry through it. It’s one of the few pieces that I just kind of have a hard time getting through.
HODGES: It’s one of the most powerful in the book.
HOILAND: Yeah. Can I ask you to read it?
HODGES: You want me to? Okay.
HOILAND: So that people won’t have to suffer through my tears [laughs].
HODGES: Okay so yeah I’ll read this… this’ll really be interesting, okay [laughs].
At my fifth-grade maturation program, my sweaty kid knees against the metal folding chair, my mom reached over and took my hand. I felt stricken with embarrassment as a delighted volunteer mother held two ripe and reddened grapefruit to her chest and joked about the breasts we would have one day. I wanted to shrink into the orange carpet of the library floor at the talk of blood and bodies, the old VHS tape whirring in the VCR, my mom holding my limp hand in her lap. I did not want to become a woman. No one had ever explained to me much about womanhood, and I equated the call with things that scared me and things I did not want. No one told me that my body was a brilliant temple, that although it might be capable of creating life, it was certainly capable of creating important thoughts and ideas and change. I can only guess no one had ever told my own mother those things either, even after she had accomplished them all.
I prayed I would never start my period, and when I did I felt so betrayed that I cried so hard and so long that my mom did not send me to school, but instead sat with me a long time at the edge of her bed—she in just a towel, still wet from the shower.
My mom’s own mother died when she was just fifteen, and because I am the oldest, my mom and I spent our first thirty years together, setting out like stalwart pioneers as we attempted to navigate the landscape of a mother-daughter relationship. We had no examples to model ourselves after, no lessons or manuals to teach us how to be mother and daughter.
My mom and I got on well for thirty years, with overflowing amounts of love and kindness exchanged, but it was not until a recent snapping cold winter day when I saw her unloading the car on the driveway after a day of work at the hospital as a nurse that something changed. I’d been keeping a notebook of times I felt Heavenly Mother, of things she might want to tell me, of ways I might better know her. I did not expect her, however, to illuminate my own mother in such a way that as I watched her load the groceries, a few bags in each arm, and as I ran down the steps to help her, she was strong and glorious in a way I had not noticed before.
I wanted to go back and help that fifth-grade girl hold her mother’s hand firmly in an unspoken pact that promised we would work harder to learn from a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father so we could know better how to love each other.
HOILAND: Thank you. Nobody should probably have to read in public pieces about their mom [laughs].
HODGES: Well what was it like writing it, then? I mean you know, I get it, it is harder to read something. But in terms of writing it, how was that?
HOILAND: I mean I just cried. I guess in part because, like I said, none of these pieces I wrote exactly knowing where they would go. So again, that memory of my maturation program which was slightly still stressful to me now because I just hated it. It was not a good experience for me. But I knew that was there and I wanted to write about it. But I had no idea where it would take me. So I started writing about this maturation program and I didn’t… I hadn’t connected before that image with the image of my mom unloading groceries.
HODGES: Which seems like such a mundane thing.
HOILAND: Yeah, which it really is. And so then all of a sudden I think it’s another one of those moments where time sort of collapses. And this idea, I think the most important line to me in that—or one of the most important—is recognizing that nobody had ever taught us how to be. I’d never seen an example of how you act with a mom.
There are countless examples of, like, this is how you talk to your Heavenly Father, this is how you love him, this is how you obey him. But I’d never seen of that with a mom. So I guess in… in writing it yeah, I… I think I was down in the laundry room basement by myself [laughs] and just crying as I worked through and started recognizing there’s a lot of things that I have been missing for my whole life.
So again I think that is the value of not just me writing but all of us actually writing through these stories. Because I could not have articulated that in conversation to anyone else. I couldn’t have wrapped my head around—like I would not have made the connections between those images if I just thought them through.
HODGES: Yeah I mean reading it made me want to write. I started writing a little… just a little journal thing about my kids, like they did this today, they did that. Your book made me want to write.
HOILAND: Good. Yeah and that’s I guess… because I don’t often have a platform to give advice I’ve been taking advantage of having that platform… well actually I do every day to my kids, but they don’t listen [laughs]. So to people who are actually attentive to that.
I would say I really, really—and I want to be transparent in this—I hope that the thing that happens when people read this book is that they not just say like “oh she has a really nice story,” but “oh I likely have a really important story and I don’t know what that is and I don’t know how that will come about.” But even my brother-in-law who just went through a really, really rough divorce after eleven years of marriage told me that after reading—and he came to one of the book readings—he sat down and he wanted his kids to know the story of their parents’ marriage. And not just that it ended in divorce but that both spiritually and temporally and figuratively they came from a place of a lot of love. And so he said it was so helpful to him to sit down and write and not feel like he had to talk chronological story. And he said it was interesting to him to all of a sudden take moments or events that had lasted over the course of a couple of months and write them in a single paragraph, that he was no longer beholden even specifically to the exact, accurate, historical details, but that he was beholden now to the story he was telling.
HODGES: It’s very freeing form, yeah.
HOILAND: Yeah. Yeah, so I do hope that’s what happens.
HODGES: I think it will. I mean, I’ve heard other people say it, they read the book and they just feel sort of impressed to start writing.
HOILAND: I think it’s so important for everyone to write. But I would say for women to write, because we historically have been the most quiet in the church.
HODGES: I think that’s one reason we want…Like, this is not a book for women. This…
HODGES: Definitely women can read this book, but all along the project has been conceived of as something that we would both want men and women to read.
HOILAND: Yes, definitely.
HODGES: In order for more men to hear women’s voices we want more women writing, we want more women in the conversation, but it’s for everybody’s benefit. It’s not for either men or women’s benefit alone.
HOILAND: Yeah. Yeah, I had an interesting experience—I don’t know, maybe I can say this maybe I can’t…
HODGES: [laughs] Well now people have turned up the volume so….
HOILAND: [laughs] There was some guy on Facebook who… somebody had written a piece about why men should read this book. And this guy—I don’t know who he was, commented and said “This article is not enough to convince me. I want to be convinced why I should… why I, as a man, should read this book by a woman.”
And I just responded to him and I said “I absolutely will not convince you to read my book because never in my life has a man had to convince me as a woman about why I should read his book.” And I think he was a very rare case, but it kind of struck me, there’s still work to do. There is a definitely still work to do. And truly I have not experienced that almost at all, in particular with the Maxwell Institute. There’s been nothing but support and kindness and even support when I maybe wanted to quit—
HOILAND: —and everybody said “No. You’re not going to.” [laughs]
HODGES: Well it’s funny, because as you know, it’s been ten years that the Institute’s been around and you’re the first book that was written by a woman that we’ve published. We were so excited to see this project come about. It’s something that we both celebrate and mourn at the same time, [laughs] like, it shouldn’t have taken until 2016, but we’re so glad that this book has done that. And we want to see more of that.
HOILAND: Yeah. And actually somebody asked me one of the readings how the Maxwell Institute has responded. And I said truly, there has been nothing but kindness and support, even down to like when I told you at my first book release event I would like a dance party, and lots of homemade bread, and lots of decorations…
HOILAND: …and there was no sense of like “What? You’re gonna have a dance party?” Everyone just said “yeah, that’s probably a good idea” [laughs]. And so I think—I don’t know if “assertive” is the right word, but just a willingness to take up space in a more feminine way and recognizing that that is happily received. And I think sometimes as woman we want to feel like “oh there’s gonna be push back, there’s gonna be like…” And sometimes there definitely is. But there’s also so many places where the church as an institution is ready and willing for that.
HODGES: Speaking of working with the Maxwell Institute, another question that I’ve seen come up is that people wonder about the purpose of the book. Some people have asked why it doesn’t dig more into the sort of “faith crisis” narrative. You actually reframe that as more of an opportunity for creativity than as crisis in particular. And there’ve been questions about that so what have you tried to explain to people when that comes up?
HOILAND: And that definitely is a valid criticism, question of—in many ways I sidestep a lot of the typical challenges that come along with a faith crisis. And I am very aware of those challenges—and not just aware of them, but I’ve spent a decade grappling pretty intensely with them.
I feel like more and more I’m interested in writing about my Mormon experience in ways that can travel beyond a Mormon experience. In part, as I thought about my audience for this book, so many—a vast majority of my closest friends and family members are no longer Mormon. And for whatever reason they’ve left or are no longer a part, and many of my relatives are not Mormon and never were. And so… and those were the people—many of the people that I’m writing about are those particular characters. And so in writing it, it felt so myopic to quickly delve into the real specifics of something like a faith crisis, in part because the language is quite exclusive.
HODGES: And t’s already tied to a pretty well laid out narrative as well. That story has spent and will be told, it will continue to be told.
HOILAND: Yeah and in part like I have lived a good part of the last decade since coming to home from my mission in at times in serious faith crisis mode. And it was during a lot of those times when I did not find answers to the questions that I had. And in part it left me pretty unhappy spiritually and feeling pretty frustrated.
I feel like I’ve kind of I’ve come to this place where, no I have not solved the things that are difficult. I’m okay with that. Because I feel like there’s something more beautiful on the other side of that. And something that feels far more intellectually interesting to me, theologically interesting, and something that I’m much more able to engage with.
And so I feel like… I guess I’m not interested in my Mormonism because my human experience gives me a lens to understand my Mormonism better, but rather I’m interested in Mormonism because it gives me a better lens to understand a more diverse and vast human experience better, if that make sense.
HODGES: Yeah. One of the themes that runs throughout is claiming your own voice. And we’re always selective about how we think, how we speak, and what we talk about. And when we do it and how we do it. I’m thinking about the piece on page 177, the letter to your daughter Thea.
HOILAND: Oh yeah. Yeah. And I think part of this book—and this goes along with the piece—is I feel like having to… I don’t know if bravery is the right word, because I didn’t necessarily feel brave. But maybe just being comfortable and being completely honest both about the difficulty, but I think one thing that we sometimes discount in the church is that it’s a pretty like… maybe a “revered” place to be completely honest about the difficulty, but on the flip side of that there’s something really important and maybe needed about being totally honest about the beauty in things. And despite the church as an institution being imperfect, there’s a lot of really beautiful things that come from that. And so I think both voices deserve to come to the surface and should be allowed equal playing time.
So this piece is “Letter for my Daughter Thea.”
For my birthday we went to the beach. Not a sandy beach, but a secret rocky beach down a path rife with poison oak that we jumped over. The day was a little bit foggy, a little bit colorless, a little bit cold. I walked along behind Carl, Remy, and you, stopping to pick up a fossil of a shell, a piece of abalone, a memory of my son looking out into the vast ocean. We had been collecting quietly, sliding over wet rocks, filling our pockets with treasure for almost an hour when you, all of three years, came and sat next to me. I noticed your little palm was tightly shut, and when I asked what you had, you opened your hand to reveal a dozen carefully selected round pebbles. You have a propensity for treasuring small spherical objects, and I welled up with intense pride and love as I pictured you, my devout little girl, searching, examining, holding on to the very best things without even the intention to show me unless I asked.
Thea, as a girl it was hard for me to speak out of fear for saying the wrong thing, or fear of being too bold or even too soft. As a grown woman it is sometimes even more difficult. But please, let your wandering spiritual impressions take shape and then give them a voice, even if they happen between the odd hours of making casseroles and bathing children, or on the days of feeling alone and without direction, in a workspace, or through sleepless nights. Speak, even when you are sure there is someone smarter and more informed than you in the room. Give credence to your spiritual ideas. Allow a bit of chaos to reign within your thoughts, and then let that unexpected happiness spill into the spaces around you. Your story carries power. Your experience is valid. Your voice is vital. I think back on that moment on the beach, and I want so much for your first impulse not to be simply to siphon away the palm full of precious and strong pebbles that miraculously tumbled to you from a vast and completely wild earth. I want your first impulse to be to open your hand and talk about how you found them, to let them shine out like rising firelight on a dark hillside.
HODGES: That is a great piece. That’s really good.
HOILAND: Thank you very much.
HODGES: I should say too this is Ashley May Hoiland—I haven’t been doing my typical bumpers here because I’ve just been wrapped up in the conversation—But Ashley May Hoiland, she’s the author of the book One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly that came out in November of 2016 from the Maxwell Institute.
Before we go to, there’s another piece that I wanted you to read. There’s a ton of other stuff— we talked before the interview about what we wanted to cover and of course we only ended up getting to some of it, but let’s do that rainbow piece.
HOILAND: Sure… at the very end?
HOILAND: That’s on page 199.
In 1989 a rainbow fell across the sky in our little neighborhood on the hill. I stood on the ledge of the bathtub and curled my fingers on the windowsill to pull my scrawny body up to see. I could hear voices, cadenced and sturdy, through the open window. The rainbow was brighter than any rainbow I have seen since, the sky more orange and close. The fresh puddles on asphalt reflected two shimmering missionaries, pressed shirts and black pants, my mom, my dad, my little white-haired brother between them, and somewhere in the background me watching it all, documenting the magic, cataloging it for some future time.
Surely they all came inside to eat dinner then, and I reached up on tiptoes and pulled on my best dress because I always did when the missionaries came, and we must have all celebrated my mom—after years of attending church on and off, of listening to missionaries, of wondering, she decided to be baptized, and my dad had decided to come back to be the one to baptize her. I do not know what changed for my mom, except that she has spoken many times about the way the people at church loved her, even before she was a documented part of them.
In recent years the memory of a conversation I am not sure I was supposed to hear at my Catholic aunt’s house when she found out the news had resurfaced. My aunt was crying and asking my mom to reconsider, and my mom said, “I am happy—I am happy. You don’t need to worry.” I must have stitched those words into the part of me that wants so much to stay with the gospel of my upbringing. We were in this together from the beginning—my parents, my brother, sisters yet to come, the missionaries, and I—that ancient brand new rainbow emerging bright and triumphant after what must have been a rainstorm.
HODGES: Well I appreciate you reading through those pieces and taking the time today to do the interview. It’s a hard interview to do just because I’ve been so close to the projects so…
HOILAND: Yeah I should definitely acknowledge, I feel like in terms of talking about the title this has felt—even though I wrote the words to the book it has felt like such a collaborative process. I hope you take ownership—if you want. I won’t make you…
HOILAND: But I hope you feel ownership for this book and to these stories because it definitely doesn’t feel like a singular project in any way.
HODGES: No, I love this book. I think what you’ve done is magnificent. I’m so happy and thankful that I had the opportunity to work with you. To see this come into shape has been amazing. I hope people will take the time to check it out. I think it will be more than worth their time. I think this book is a powerful way of helping prompt a really fruitful exploration of our spirituality. It speaks a lot, to me, of the value of the creative arts in doing that. That’s why when I see this in the Living Faith series, that’s the main angle I see, the value of that type of approach to life and education results in something amazing that so many people can benefit from. So thank you for bringing the gift to the series.
HOILAND: Yeah, thank you. And we should say also, if people do ever use this in book groups or just on your own, you created that really nice PDF.
HODGES: Yeah we came up with questions and put them in a book club discussion document the people can download from the Maxwell Institute website on your books webpage. It’s in PDF, it’s also in a mobile format so you can look it on your phone really easily. Yeah, it’s got some really great questions we came up with to sort of spark discussion.
HODGES: And people should also know about your We Brave Women cards that are available on your website. They’re your own art with stories about amazing women from history and amazing women from all sorts of different countries and professions. My daughter, my four-year-old daughter loves them. So people will definitely want to check that stuff out—
HOILAND: Yeah, thank you.
HODGES: I think your website is ashmae.com.
HOILAND: Yes ashmae.com.
HODGES: Yes and so people can check that out. The book is One Hundred Birds Taught Me To Fly from the Maxwell Institute. It’s available at Amazon and at Deseret Book and other places like that. Ashmae, thank you so much for coming on the Maxwell Institute podcast,.
HOILAND: Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)