One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly  >  Strong


An excerpt from One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, by Ashley Mae Hoiland. Available here.


A few summers ago, Carl, Remy, Thea, and I drove through the Norway mountains for three days, winding our way to a final camp in a town called Selje that felt so far away from anything I have ever known it may as well have been a dream. Carl was there on a geologic pilgrimage to see a rare set of rocks called eclogites—rocks that were once carried one hundred miles down into the earth and then brought back to the surface over hundreds of thousands of years through tectonic shifts, molten channels of earth, and a lot of luck. As for me, I was unsure about what type of pilgrimage I was on.

At dawn we drove on high planes beyond the fjords. The lighting was hazy and pink as if the sun knew it lacked proper rest, and I felt much the same way. I looked up and out the window just in time to see two moose with heads bent to the ground, the morning fog tucked softly around them. Their largeness, otherworldliness, and serenity shocked me. The image passed too quickly to even form words to tell my husband. I saw in them something I wanted for myself—graceful confidence at their place in the world, beloved creatures not at odds with God, but cared for deeply. I envied their simplicity. I wanted to stand in my own place with that peaceful assurance, but in the midst of so much beauty I was experiencing extreme spiritual unrest. I tried to put the lid back on my heart to keep it from overflowing.

In Selje, we were alone on the beach. My children played in the pearl-colored sand, the warm turquoise water lying still and clear as glass. A solitary fish brushed past my calf as I stood a distance out and looked back at a white wooden church perched eloquently and unused at the edge of the beach.

At noon I got into the car to head back to our campsite to grab lunch. I stepped on the gas pedal, and with grand and jarring interruption, I backed directly into a boulder jutting up out of the middle of the road. With the bumper of our rental dented and my hungry children waiting, I put my head in my hands and cried a hard and bitter cry. It was a culminating cry, drawn out of me by our drive through this foreign land of Norway. I was ripe with every doubt and difficulty I’d ever had with religion. In the place where absolute surety and comfort once lived, now confusion, bitterness, and sadness surfaced from the depths of my spirit.

I was there in the middle of a dreamlike world that felt serene and placid, the colors more vibrant than anything I had ever experienced, yet my heart and mind were not at peace. The deeper we drove, the more constrained I felt by the faith of my upbringing, as though the majesty of the place was bursting through the seams of the world as I had known it. Surreal bodies of water, the moose, majestic fjord cliffs, a dozen teenage boys jumping off a dock into deep, clear water at the bottom of a steep flourishing valley as the sun lolled low in the sky. It was all too much and too beautiful, all that grandeur looming in juxtaposition with what I thought I had to say I knew for sure. I could not bear the idea that I possessed a fullness of truth that none of these people would likely ever have access to, or even care to. The weight of having to believe every thread of my Mormonism felt too heavy to bear.

I felt rough and lazy in my knowledge of the sublime and presumptuous in believing I comprehensively understood much of anything in this world, let alone about the ones before and after this life. Backing into the rock with the rental car, the crunch of metal on stone, outwardly manifested the panic and claustrophobia I felt on the inside. This was the pinnacle of my crisis of faith.

I finished crying in the car and drove back to the campsite. I knew I could not remain in such a place of pain as I sorted out my place in Mormonism. I sensed that while God intends for us to be fully ensconced in life’s challenges, such a perpetual state of perceived crisis could not be a method of progression sustained by the God I had come to know. At the campsite, in the tent by myself, I knelt on a sleeping bag and said a prayer with no words. My heart was broken, and my spirit was contrite. When I stood again minutes later, I understood one thing—I could no longer give my spiritual questions and wanderings the name of “crisis.” I could not continue pelting my own sincere heart with stones of shame and guilt because I did not believe perfectly, or understand perfectly, or even sustain a constant desire to do either of those things.

I drove back to the beach, and my children were still there, so content and simple, with Carl. Such grand little creatures—it was as if they were held in the palm of God, right there on that beach in a place so far from home. We hiked along the shore together until we came to the place where the eclogites were. I do not know what I was expecting, but I would never have known by looking at them that these rocks had been one hundred miles under the surface of the earth and were then driven by extreme pressure—reformed and metamorphosed, their elements changed completely over millions of years by both heat and cold—until they showed up like they always belonged on this peaceful shoreline. They were the color of Christmas trees and rubies. Small patches on the rocks, some in the form of small garnets, glittered in the sunshine. Carl ran his fingers over them, and I knew for him they were holy reminders of both how brief and how sacred our lives are.

The next day we arose early and drove away from that campsite, past the beach and eclogites we will probably never return to. I did not leave with answers to all my questions, but I did leave the word crisis behind, buried in white sand in front of that quiet church.

Since then, my eclogite-like crisis has moved deeper and deeper into the molten, mysterious mantle of my heart. It has been heated to extraordinary temperatures, changing its properties and molding into something entirely different. I am not sure exactly when or how it will resurface, but I eagerly wait for that moment, perhaps far off, when I will see it in some other dreamlike landscape. I will run my fingers over it in amazement because it will sparkle in a way I could not have predicted, in a way it did not before. It will no longer be my crisis, but rather my story molded by a thousand broken hearts and contrite spirits, metamorphosed by a thousand more moments of sublime and inexplicable hope and joy. Not a crisis now—just my story, the surprising story that was one of faith all along.