One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly is a powerful, deeply personal book. Written by Ashley Mae Hoiland (known to many as Ashmae), it is the most recent entry in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. There’s a creativity here that feels more personal than the other books in the series that I’ve read. Perhaps it’s the vulnerability evident in the pages, or the more clearly emotional aspects of a lived faith that are explored.
There’s a palpable yearning for the divine in these pages. A yearning that strongly resonates with my lived experience.
There are fourteen chapters, though they feel more like loose demarcations along thematic lines than hard lines. The sections are titled: “Lost,” “Heart,” “Together/Forever,” “Grace,” “Redemption,” “Strong,” “Tradition,” “Creativity,” “Zion,” “Speak,” “Laughter,” “Better/Hope/Faith,” “Finding,” and an “Epilogue.” Kristin Matthews, an Associate Professor of English at BYU, provides a glowing foreword to the book.
I’m not quite sure how to best classify the writing inside—they’re pieces of creative nonfiction, but personal essay feels a bit too stuffy for the emotional range and vulnerability present (though that may be more due to my lack of exposure to rawer, creative essays like these). There’s also a poetry to the prose (as well as actual poems) that gives the words a beauty worth noting. Frequent illustrations throughout the text add to the creative feel and enhance the reading experience.
I think the best way to continue with the review is to highlight three passages that feel exemplary of the power of the book and resonated with me in different ways.
I’ll start with a passage from near the beginning, in “Heart” describing Ashmae’s search for the divine feminine, Heavenly Mother:
“I listened, and listened, and listened through the words that were spoken, through the racing thoughts of my own mind, through my questions; I listened and the quietness spoke back, a quietness that got louder and louder, until as I walked down the stairs back to the dressing room, the words pressed themselves into the palms of my hands and soft places of my heart—‘Spread my name like wildfire’” (5).
There’s a power here. The divine feminine feels present throughout the book as Ashmae describes her lived experience as a woman, as a mother, as a daughter, yearning for God. I needed to read this. We need more of these voices, more of these stories. The listening in this passage through everything speaks to me. The power of this experience grows throughout the book as Ashmae explores how this was unusual for her, that typically her spirituality is found in small, quiet, day-to-day living, not palpable witnesses like this one.
In the “Together/Forever” section, Ashmae describes how a sister, now outside Mormonism, was writing her own story, just as she, Ashmae, was. She describes their reconciliation with some of the following:
“There were no rules dictating the way we could feel awe; there was no insistence that each had to be an active church member to feel the way that God loves us all—we felt that love in the space not where religion meets religion, but in the space where our stories unfold to each other” (43).
Ashmae’s love of story and insistence on narrative’s power to bind us together and to bring new perspectives and empathy to our lives comes through here. This power of narrative builds on the love we should have for one another, for the awe that we can feel. The charity and openness to the experiences of others found here (and throughout the book) is admirable and inspiring. The idea of finding love, God’s love, “in the space where our stories unfold to each other” suggests to me the power of vulnerability. This hearkens to our baptismal covenant to “mourn with those that mourn” and to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” As we open ourselves and our experiences to others, as we are vulnerable, God’s love is present and we can better love one another. This vulnerability of unfolding her story is present throughout the book. Ashmae models this throughout the book’s pages, giving us something to strive for ourselves.
The final passage that resonated with me (enough for me to write “THIS” with a fierce, emphatic scribble underneath next to it in my copy) is from the “Tradition” section:
“Mormonism is the house whose halls I know best. It is the story I am not abandoning because it is the story I choose—and in many ways has chosen me—again and again to grapple with” (113).
Wow. I LOVE this. I don’t know if a single quote better exemplifies why I (despite, or perhaps precisely because of, my unorthodoxies) continue to engage with Mormonism. This grappling is seen throughout the text. But it’s a loving grappling. One that seeks the mutual improvement of the individuals involved.
A lovely, touching, powerful, inspiring book. I have a renewed vigor to grapple with Mormonism again and again.