On a typical Sunday, I find myself in my local LDS (Mormon) church house attending a three-hour block of meetings. If I happen not to be beyond physical exhaustion, I like to look around at the people in attendance with me.
Most of them are like me, at least in outward appearance. In the ward (local congregation) I’ve been in for the past five years, I’ve come to know enough of them to make some small assessments of their personalities. I know them, well enough, and I like to see how they behave during the meetings.
Yes, I’m a people watcher. It’s a trait I think many writers obtain when they take themselves seriously as such. The results of my observations are pretty much what you might come to think a typical ward congregation is like in Utah. There are those among us who, like me on some Sundays, can’t seem to stay awake. We may have different reasons for our lack of alertness, but whatever the case may be, we are missing out.
There are those who are the opposite. Hyper-attentive and almost ready to spring out of their seats and take over the meeting. No, I’m not just talking about the kids for whom an hour and ten minutes is far too long to expect their attention to last. Adults, old and young who are thoroughly engaged in the lessons and presenters. Perhaps they are the dutiful spouses of those at the pulpit. Perhaps they are the newly converted to the faith who have yet to lose the “brand-new car” enthusiasm. Perhaps they just had too much caffeine that morning.
Among the rest of the fellowship you’ll find varying degrees of attention. Those addicted to their phones (for myriad reasons) or those who are having too much fun with the people next to them to pay heed to the presenters. There are those with grim faces and those with perpetual smiles. The latter would seem disturbingly like the Joker were it not for the obvious sincerity. Many look on with mixed attention as though they desire something profound to be revealed by the speaker, yet they know that’s not likely to happen.
Yes, there are even those like me, watching everyone else. We may even smile and nod at each other in acknowledgment of our mutual habit. We might both be aware of what the other is doing, but that won’t stop us from wondering if our assessments are identical. Perhaps they’re judging me while wondering if I’m judging them.
As much as I try to leave judgments aside, the storyteller in me begins to create scenarios based on my observations. Brother Harrison’s scowl seems deeper than usual as he gives his full attention to the speaker. Perhaps he disagrees with what is being said or perhaps he’s thinking of the rebuttal he would like to give his wife in response to their unfinished argument. Sister Jensen keeps wringing her hands even as she smiles sweetly at everyone. What is she fretting about? I can’t help but wonder if it has to do with the family drama she herself bore testimony to, but now wishes no one even suspected.
For my own part, I remain somewhat aloof. Even those in the congregation who I call friends, whose association with me extends beyond the Sunday, church-related meetings, are at those moments mere specimens for observation and speculation. They are subjects for my muse to ponder on in benign amusements.
Fast-forward a few days and I am no longer in the chapel near my house, but the assembly hall of a community center. No longer am I surrounded by pious devotees in varying degrees of penitence before God. Now, I am practicing another religion.
It is the monthly meeting of my writers group. Each of the people in this room are here to learn and share, but our testimonies are about fictional worlds and characters; successes and failures in the world of writing. I look around this group, watching them with the same speculation I apply on Sundays.
There are similarities for sure. Some of these wonderful people are fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Many are not, or at least, are not practicing members. All the same they share much in common with those from my neighborhood who congregate with me to show devotion to God.
Save here, the devotion is to the God of Speculation. We feed our muses with ideas written and spoken with proper punctuation. As much as my thoughts speculate on how Brother Smith of Sister Johnson are applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives, I speculate on how much John is writing on his novel or has he spent the last month feeding his writer’s block with social media. Is Elizabeth continuing to insist that she’ll never get her high fantasy novel published because she lives in the wrong state?
I observe here, and am observed by others. I wonder; do they think I’m too Mormon for them? Do they see me as a hypocrite? Can they tell that I enjoy these meetings as much as I do my three-hour church meetings each Sunday? Do they know I’d like to help and be helped as much here as there?
My muse is fed and my aspirations validated (or crushed), I turn down the standing invitation to eat pie until midnight. As a family man, I must return to my home in Ogden and be ready for work the next morning. Yet, I wonder if either group realizes how much I need them. How would either of them understand that I love both my religion and my writing? The one need not be applied at the expense of the other. In fact, they often compliment each other.
So, I continue to watch both groups and enjoy the contributions they make in my life.