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Emergence

The arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems. ~ Jeffrey Goldstein

Elizabeth is swinging. From my desk I can see her suspended in one of the backyard swing set's blue vinyl seats, a pendulum moving in rhythm. At seventeen, she's almost too old to be swinging, her body almost too large. Last month her weight snapped the rusty hinges one by one and we had to buy new ones, but she didn't care. This summer, her last before high school graduation, she's clocked dozens of hours on the swings, sans ipod or cell phone or any other distraction. "I like swinging," she says. "It helps me think."

I like her swinging, too. I like hearing the dull groan of the swing set's old wooden beams and the shrill squeak of its new hinges, even at midnight. I like to watch my daughter through the sliding glass door in the kitchen, the sharp angles of her joints blurring with motion. She's built like her father, broad-shouldered and long-limbed, lithe and muscular, and I like seeing her body work the swing, making it lift her above the surface of the earth. With smooth kinetic energy she rides the cusp of womanhood, charged with the power of emergence.

Our neighbor, Amy, was about this age the day I stopped outside her house, with several small children in tow, to say hello to the family dog. Amy's mother was in the front yard, watering the columbines in her flowerbed. As I called a hello she looked up with a grim half-smile that took me aback. After a couple minutes of small talk I asked if there was anything wrong. She hesitated, as if she wanted to speak but wasn't sure if she should.

"It's Amy," she finally said, not quite looking me in the eye. "She's involved with this boy and I don't think it's good for her." When I asked her why, she sighed. "Her whole life revolves around him. They work at the same fast-food place, and I don't know if he'll even finish high school." She paused. "I'm worried that there might be . . . issues." She glanced at the ground, and I thought about how painful this must be for her, the Young Women's president in our ward and the mother of three older children who were unqualified success stories. She was a prime candidate for blaming herself for her daughter's trouble, which would itself be a serious problem.

"Did Amy seem happy before she met this guy?" I asked.

Her mother shook her head slowly. "I've been worried about her for a while. I wondered if maybe she just needed some extra love. That's why we got Rusty," she said, motioning to the manic retriever my preschoolers were trying to pet through the chain-link fence. "It's supposed to be Amy's dog. She hasn't shown much interest, though."

Now it was my turn to hesitate. A question welled in my throat, one that my neighbor might balk at. I asked it anyway. "Would you say Amy has power in her life?"

She looked uneasy, and I didn't blame her. Power is not a commodity we associate with Mormon girls and women. To our ears the very concept of power sounds worldly and corrupt, unless we're talking about priesthood power, which we qualify as exclusively masculine. But I wasn't talking about priesthood power, and I wasn't talking about the steel-fisted power of a political dictator or corporate mogul, either.

I tried to explain. "What I mean is, does Amy sense that she's in control of her own life? That she has the right and the ability and the opportunity to get what she wants and what she needs?"