Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Big News

It's been a wild month for me and today feels like a very big day.

Let me back up. About six months ago, I took a job managing the editorial department at an educational publisher focused. They were interested in my mix of experience in writing and history, as well as my multicultural sensibilities. I was excited about the opportunity to help children get a more complete and nuanced picture of social studies.

I got to really like the members of my department and others at the company as we worked toward that vision and got some cool things accomplished, though. As the current pandemic really hit the US, though, they decided to reorganize my department into another. I was out of a job.

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about what might come next. While I'm still looking for a regular job, Nicole and I also did some math about what we need and have felt like maybe it's time now to see if my long-term dream (which has always felt kind of impossible) could actually happen.

For 14 years, my driving passion has been to write challenging, sophisticated literature that speaks deeply to my religious community. I've gotten really good at it as a playwright, poet, essayist, blogger, novelist, history writer, screenwriter, literary translator, and creative midwife for others. As readers of this blog have noticed, though, it's gotten tough to squeeze in as much writing as I'd like between so many other obligations.

My books have sold quite well by the standards of niche-work-about-a-small-minority-community-rarely-covered-on-college-syllabi. The odds of selling enough books to literary-minded Latter-day Saints to survive off royalties, though, are extremely low.

Losing my job made me take a serious look at another model. On the website Patreon, people make monthly pledges to support artists they appreciate, subscribing to their work. I decided to create a Patreon page for my own work.

It feels like a good model for someone whose work means a lot to a relatively small audience. Support from as many patrons as they are people in a ward would be enough (with Nicole's income from teaching and a little side work from me), I could focus most of my time on creative writing.

That's a big deal. In two centuries, one of the main barriers to Latter-day Saints having "Shakespeares of our own" like Orson F. Whitney longed for way back in 1888 is that we're not organized well to economically support them.

It's outside my comfort zone to try and organize funding, but I feel like this is the right moment in my life to at least try. If you're appreciated my work (and are fortunate enough to have some stable income yourself), I hope you'll consider pledging.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Reading at Writ & Vision Thursday

I'm going to be doing a reading at Writ & Vision in downtown Provo at 7 pm this Thursday.

I'm excited: I love to read my work, but I don't actually do so very often. And I have never before attempted to do a retrospective covering all five of my books plus work from four more that are currently in various states of production.

It's going to be a wild ride.

I'm still messing around with different structures for linking the different pieces I'll read together. I've played with a chronological approach, reflecting on 14 years as a very Mormon writer. I've played with a thematic approach, going through different things I think literature can do and giving examples. I tried one system my brother called "group therapy for our colonized self-shame." I've thought about just lining up the books like a buffet and doing a taste of the recently published, the "classics," and then closing with the sneak peaks.

As I was driving him home tonight, my brother suggested maybe taking passages from "Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg" (my short story in the forms of fictional folktales which is also sort of a speculative, fantastical autobiography) and then reading other works that expand on the themes. That would be a trip. I think I might do it.

Anyway, I hope you can come and I promise I'll do my best to help somebody laugh (in case they need to laugh) and somebody cry (in case they need to cry) and leave everybody seeing the world just a little bit differently because that's one thing I'm quite sure we all could use some literature to do.

-James

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On the Church's Investment Accounts

The Washington Post recently broke a story that a Church holding company, Ensign Peak Advisors, is allegedly holding more than twice as many assets as Harvard University's endowment fund. The story broke because there may be tax implications: there is mixed historical precedent over whether an organization such as Ensign Peak can qualify for its tax exemption by virtue of its alignment with the Church, which has a religious purpose granted special status under US tax law. There may be a related arcane legal debate: can saving for a future theological vision constitute a religious purpose on its own?

These questions, however, are not the reason anyone outside of tax law is interested in the story. People are interested in the story because wealth is fascinating and fraught. It is doubly fascinating and fraught when mixed with religion, and triply so when a concentration of wealth comes in a group outside the cultural mainstream. The Church's finances, made all the more alluring by the shroud of secrecy around them, make juicy gossip. Mix that basic instinct with the respectability that comes with philosophizing or moralizing about what should or should not be and it will be very hard for many people--myself apparently included--to resist the temptation to say something.

And so say something I shall. Maybe three things. What I think as a tithe-payer, what I think as an armchair philosopher, and what I think as a person with a deeply Mormon imagination.

My View as a Tithe-Payer

One angle on this story is to ask what a person who contributes 10% of their income to the Church might think about the Church's financial practices. I've seen people ask: if you were a stockholder in a company with reserves of that size, how would you react? If you had sent money to a charity only to learn it already had such a large reserve, how would you react?

I've paid tithing faithfully all my life. I can't answer those last two questions, though, because neither applies to tithing as I have always understood it. I don't see myself as a stockholder in the corporation of the Church. I don't see myself as a donor to a charity. I mean, I get that the money goes somewhere, but for me, the existence of any Church-related corporate structures has essentially nothing to do with tithing.

I don't pay tithing for the Church. I pay tithing, like Jacob in Genesis 28, as a spiritual practice. I pay because I believe it's good for me to mark my relationship with God by giving away a tenth of all I'm given. A symbolic returning. A confession.

If the Church disappeared tomorrow, I would still believe in giving up a tenth. And I don't mean just as a target contribution to society. If it came to it, I believe it would have spiritual value--and yes, I've thought about this before--to pile one tenth of my income on a stone altar and burn it.

I would watch the smoke rise heavenward. And it would be worth every dollar to be reminded that money creates only an illusion of control. To enact my understanding of our fundamental vulnerability to the universe. To embody my trust in a God behind it all.

Look: I'm not saying I want Church leaders to act like Samuel's corrupt sons in the Bible or anything. But even if they did: that's on them. I wouldn't feel like they'd conned me by telling me the stories of the long-ago nomads who had visions and started this whole thing. My tithing is not about the conduct of bureaucrats in suits. It's an old secret between me and Jacob's God.

My View as An Armchair Philosopher

It's not just the mystic in me who is drawn to the hypothetical image of burning dollar bills. The armchair philosopher, who runs a bit revolutionary, is intrigued by the idea too. Money as we know it is, after all, some strange sociology. What makes these scraps of paper in the pocket, or a certain pattern of ones and zeros in a screen, so horrifically potent anyway? Maybe the occasional cash fire would do us some good. Put things in perspective.

No, the armchair philosopher in me is more interested in the grey area between sacrifice and barbecue. What made the ancient Israelites decide that some of their sacrifices should go up entirely in flames, while some sacrificial meat was set aside for priests and some shared among the people?

On a practical level, I totally get it. If you're going to sacrifice animals, you might as well cook them sometimes. It can feel nice to eat with the group. Hungry bellies can be filled. And even having priests fed by the sacrificial meat and not by raising all their own food frees them up to do priestly things. Surely the value of shared meals and a specialized civic class offset the risks of gluttony or corruption.

And yet....what if the barbecue ends up messing up the sacrifice? After all, once it's a barbecue you'll always have to wonder whether it's God who wants the fire or if a priest is just hungry. And once you're counting priests or parishioners, there will be the risk that you start to feel like it's the size of the sacrifice not the fact of the sacrifice that matters. That throwing a bigger barbecue is the real point.

It sure feels like a point. To see you're bringing people together. To fill grumbling bellies. Why shouldn't you count them? It sure feels like a point.

You are a provider. That's your job. And it's the job of the priests, or else of the community at large, to ensure that the barbecue is well-organized with no cutting in line and feeding people with maximum efficiency.

What's vulnerability got to do with it?

My View from a Mormon Imagination

What does vulnerability have to do with it?

If as a tithe-payer, I focus on my own fundamental vulnerability, my own absolute decision to place myself under the mercy and the majesty of the nomads' God, as a Mormon I can't help but wonder how that plays out at the level of the kingdom.

My tithing may not be my money anymore once it's left my hands, but I still kind wonder what the Church--not as corporation, but as kingdom of the Prince-in-exile, does with it. Some of those questions are evergreen: when does not expense fall under the same ritual category as Christ's funeral ointment and when should it be saved for the poor? Like: are the pews I sit on, or the weird carpet on the walls, a justified expense? Or are those things just the cultural reflex of a people without greater openness to light and knowledge?

Some of the question saved tithing funds raise for me, though, are quite historically and eschatologically specific. I'll be honest: when I hear about the Church's assets, I kinda wonder if that money means the fulness of the Gentiles has come. That is: I wonder if God wants money gathered from the more affluent northern nations of the world like the Egyptians' jewelry, transferred over to the remnant of Jacob as the global Church shifts its gradely steadily (perhaps prophetically!) south.

And that's just one sign of what will come before the end. We can measure the changing seasons but we don't see the signs of the times. Is this endowment intended for us to grapple with the growing consequences of climate change for vulnerable members in the years to come? Has anything in our historical experience prepared us to calculate what we'll need in a future where human excess has caused the elements to melt with fervent heat?

Look. Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe Ensign Peak Advisors is just a bunch of middle-class Americans in ties. Or, more charitably, a bunch of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who saw the Church pressed to its financial limits by events ranging from its postwar expansion to the pressures of the Raid and US government seizure of assets.

And yet: I can't help but wonder if there's more going on with the corporate entities associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because I have more than a corporate imagination. More on my mind than the relative sizes of Harvard and the Church's reserves and outlays, the tax traditions of how one might measure a year's balance sheet against a broad scope of mission.

Maybe the Church is holding onto too much money out of corruption or out of past conditioning. Or maybe the Church is holding onto a thoroughly reasonable amount of money relative to the tasks it will undertake in the next generation and only the shortness of American accounting gives us pause.

I don't know. It's not money, even though a bit of it was once my tithing.

Left to my own devices, I might've burned through it years ago.















Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter reflections

Three people in my tiny sphere of experience died unexpectedly this last week. 

The first was my grandfather-in-law, McCoy Christensen. He died Sunday, a day after having a stroke while walking laps in the Orem Rec Center pool, where he was a regular. At age 94, his passing maybe shouldn't have surprised us. But it did. Partly because he was in such great physical and mental condition. Partly because he was still making so plans for future: trips to go on, books to read, stories to record. But mostly, I think because he'd been such a steady and steadying presence in so many of our lives. A few days after he died, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who said it's still hard to imagine birthdays and holidays and other family gatherings without him.

Grandpa Christensen was a WWII veteran, so when we buried him yesterday, a group of veterans and soldiers came to give him a final farewell with military honors. They fired off a salute, played a mournful rendition of "Taps," folded the flag on his casket and presented it to Grandma Christensen with a solemn thanks for his service.

The second was my "uncle" (actually my mom's cousin's husband,) Will Smith. He was 53 when he died of a heart attack on Monday. On Facebook for the past while, I've been watching Uncle Will, a former coach, cheer his son through his college baseball career. My mind, though, has never caught up to the Will Smith with adult kids, since the cool young uncle he was when I was a kid still looms so large in my mind.

I remember, on one trip to Bakersfield to visit family, we went to this big maze. The details are hazy: I remember towers you could climb to get a sense of where to go, which was hard to track once you got down into the tall wooden walls that blocked your view of everything--except, in a genius design element, just enough of a gap at that bottom to let you see the feet of people walking by you on the other side. 

My brother and I begged to be on a team with Will when we split into teams. He let us lead the way enough, though, that we rushed ourselves lost again and again. I remember once, when we'd gotten ourselves stuck in yet another dead end, he just laughed and had us all slip under the bottom of the wall to get through to the other side. Maybe that was cheating, or maybe it was just another way of solving the problem. To my childhood self, it felt a little like magic.

The third was a co-worker, Pradeep Beryl. We didn't work closely together, but would pass each other in the halls, chat quickly in the break room. He had an easy smile. People who worked with him more closely likely his combination of approachability and efficiency.

He was the only other Indian in the Department: from Bangalore, a member of the Solomon family my grandpa knew well. I'd met different members of the family when they passed through town and stopped in to visit. He was 35--same age as me.

Early last week, he went down to visit Zion's National Park. He'd gone on the hike up Angel's Landing. I've been up before myself--it's a beautiful, breathtaking hike with no shortage of scary parts with steep drop-offs. Pradeep must've slipped and fallen. We got word a few days later they'd found his body.

I know people have been living and dying for millions of years, but it still feels so strange to have people there, and there, and then gone. Sometimes after a long life, sometimes in what feels like it should be life's middle, and sometimes still so early, with so much assumption of a future here on earth before them.

It's Easter today. I can't see it now, can't prove it now, but I'm trying to hold on to the promise of this day. That the strangeness of death isn't the end of our stories together. That death is a wall the spirit finds a way to slip under--and that maybe just beyond, there are angels to catch us, a familiar face to thank us for our service, and so many people to see once again. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Mormon Lit Recommendations

Just completed a marathon Twitter thread listing ten Mormon Lit reading recommendations. This list is neither ranked nor comprehensive: just ten books I like that I wanted to share.

As those who know me are well aware, I feel strongly that Mormons deserve to have literature that draws on the images of our own culture as much as any other group. At the same time, I'm a total perfectionist in my own work and have abnormally high aesthetic standards, so I'm not willing to celebrate books just for engaging with Mormonism. For me, a book has got to be a good experience while reading and serve some valuable purpose when I reflect back on it before I'm willing to make a recommendation.

You can go to Twitter for the thoughts on what I liked about each of these, but here are the books:

Third Wheel by Melissa Leilani Larson

Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom

Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

The Garden of Enid by Scott Hales

Wandering Realities by Steven Peck

Estampas del Libro de Mormón by Gabriel González Núñez

My Loving Vigil Keeping by Carla Kelly

Messages on the Water by Merrijane Rice

My Parents Married on a Dare by Carlfred Broderick

Slumming by Kristen D. Randle

I hope that somewhere in that list there's a title you haven't read and end up liking.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Phoenix Song: An Introduction and Some Thanks

I published my second collection of poetry last week. It's called Phoenix Song. 

I really like the cover. The designer, Emir Orucevic, did a great job coming up with imagery that lets you feel the ash even as you watch the phoenix rise.

I haven't figured out yet quite how to talk about the book, except to say in general terms that it matches the cover. I started writing the poems that later found their way into the collection in the fall of 2015, when I'd just gotten the diagnosis of a cancer relapse, and in the years since I've done some burning and rising and thought a lot about the process.

The poems that came out of that vary a lot, though. Two of the book's ten sections are overtly about chemotherapy. There's also a section made up entirely of true stories from my own recent experience at Church as part of a ward. And there are some direct responses to recent events in terms of treatment of migrants, etc. But sometimes, to wrap my head around our reality, I had to bend it or transcend it: there's also a section of alternate histories, a section with a poem exploring each of the virtues listed in D&C 4, and several pieces right along the line between poem and prayer. 

I didn't draft an introduction or end notes to this book, which was a mistake. I owe thanks to a lot of people for this work. Of course, I owe a lot to my immediate and extended family, who helped me through the last few years, and to my wife, Nicole Wilkes Goldberg and brother, Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood, who helped review drafts and kept me company through the really boring publication prep part of the process.

I also owe some specific thanks to members of the Mormon Lit community for giving me occasions to produce.
Eric (aka Theric) Jepson once invited me to do a simple devotional poem exchange, where we each came up with one piece to send to the other person. Mine was "Reach for Me."  Theric also shared a call for submissions for a Jewish alternative history anthology. That project never came to fruition, but two really strong poems in this collection come from his willingness to think of me and pass on that challenge.
This May, Darlene Young organized an event called "MoPoWriMo" (Mormon Poetry Writing Month) where a group of us committed to write a Mormon poem every day for a month. I think I made it to 27 out of 31...some of those were not great, but many others are included here. I doubt the collection would have come together without Darlene's challenge and organizational work.
And the closing poem comes from my review of William Morris's short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. I don't normally resort to poetic imagery in book reviews , but William's work has helped call my generation of Mormon literary writers to a higher standard, so I'm kinda not surprised that happened.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ashamnu

It's Yom Kippur. I've written here before about the ashamnu prayer, a traditional prayer of confession for the day. Just went over it again and was struck by how much it means to me right now.

One of the challenges of life in an era where we have so much access to information, so much capacity to weigh the consequences of sin, is to be able to do so without recoiling. To protect ourselves, we so often try to separate ourselves out and put them blame for the existence of injustice on some other group we do not belong to, in a self-deceiving attempt to avoid accountability.

The ashamnu prayer calls us back: invites us to stand, instead, to account. We, as humans, sin. The religious and the irreligious. The liberal and conservative. The privileged and the marginalized. And perhaps we can only truly reckon with sin by facing it in humility together.

And so, in troubling times, I say along with generations:

Ashamnu, Bagadnu...
We have sinned. We have dealt treacherously.

Gazalnu, Dibarnu dofi, He'evinu...
We have robbed. We have spoken slander. We have acted perversely. 

V'hirshanu, Zadnu...
We have done wrong. We have acted presumptuously.

Hamasnu, Tafalnu sheker...
We have done violence. We have practiced deceit.

Yaatsnu ra, Kizavnu, Latsnu...
We have counseled evil. We have spoken falsehood. We have scoffed.

Maradnu, Niatsnu, Sararnu...
We have revolted. We have blasphemed. We have rebelled.

Avinu, Pashanu...
We have committed iniquity. We have transgressed.

Tsararnu, Kishinu oref...
We have oppressed. We have been stiff-necked.

Rashanu, Shichatnu, Tiavnu...
We have acted wickedly. We have dealt corruptly. We have committed abomination. 

Tainu...
We have gone astray.

Titanu
We have led others astray. 

And today I pray:
O God of Israel, who led our ancestors out of Egypt and showed them their own shortcomings in a promised land, have mercy on us. 

O God, teach us to acknowledge ourselves among the transgressors. Give us strength to face the persistent of our guilt.

And God of Israel, guide us: as we learn to bind up what we've broken, to gather what we've divided, to rise (step by tiny step) above the sins we've lived with for so long.   

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