Saturday, December 6, 2014

Is It Cliche to Say that Emma Lou Thayne Was A Brilliant Light?

I was in awe of her. Always. When I was really little, I only knew her laugh and her smile. Later I would seek her out at every family event. I wanted to bask in her charm, her intellect, and her optimistic spirit. I think the first time she wrote me a personal letter was around 1985 or 6 when my first published story came out in the New Era. It was shortly after the car accident that easily could have taken her life. The accident made it so she could hardly write at all and her jaw was wired shut if I recall. It was the accident that would eventually lead her to write her spiritual autobiography "A Place of Knowing," and yet she managed to scrawl a letter of congratulations and kind encouragement for my published story, apologizing for her "sloppy handwriting." It would be years before anything I wrote would get published again, but when my books came out--she read them and wrote to me and called me on the phone. I always felt so awkward around her, her poise and talent loomed large, and yet she always managed to make me feel as if she thought I too had talent and more. She praised me for my writing, my thinking, and my heart.

Those who were lucky enough to know her, understand the need and want to be around her. For women of my generation, we looked at her with admiration. She led the way, a "Mormon Matriarch" who championed women's rights, activism for peace and AIDS awareness. I'm writing about her on my faith journey blog because we talked about faith. In the last ten years whenever I visited with her, faith and the LDS church were the things we talked about and yes politics. She knew of my discouragement. Her faith exuded from her, but it wasn't a forced faith from dogma and guilt. It wasn't an all or nothing faith, it's easy. Easy for her. Easy to love the good that she cherished and discard what she thought was "nonsense." Her confidence in her own mind and voice allowed her to have the ear of many of the top LDS leaders. She worked with several on the Deseret News Board, the lone female voice for much of the time. She did even call church headquarters a number of times to speak to her friends there about her concerns. President Thomas "Tom" Monson said this about her passing: "I am saddened at the passing of my friend, Emma Lou Warner Thayne, a multi-talented and caring individual whose outstanding contributions in literature, in education and in other endeavors have done much to enlighten and to inspire," Monson said Saturday in a statement. "She will be greatly missed. I join with countless others in extending my deepest condolences to her dear husband Mel and to her entire family."

When "A Place of Knowing" became available on audio format, "Tom" called her on the phone because he'd listened to it. She'd said, "you know how he likes to swap stories. We must've talked for an hour or more." 

The year she spoke to our book club in 2012 was a hard year for me, as years go. My faith was rock bottom. I had always seen Emma Lou as a beacon for how, who, and what I could be as a Mormon woman of faith. I knew from personal conversations that we thought very much the same way on a lot of issues regarding the church, politics, and eventually about lgbt rights, and yet she wasn't teetering on the brink. She was fully engaged. Church groups regularly invited her to speak, often using her beautiful hymn "Where Can I Turn for Peace" as a theme. She lived and practiced grace. But that year, I felt like I could not be like her. The realization broke my heart. Who did I think I was anyway? No one could be Emma Lou--only Emma Lou. So after that year, I fell off the horse of trying so hard and decided I'd have to be satisfied to be myself. And as a writer and a voice, even though my voice is only a whisper compared to her command, I will continue to find myself and be true to my own voice because after all that's pretty much what any of us can do. Dear Emma Lou, thanks for your kindness, your good heart, your big smile, your humor and your enthusiastic full participation in the game of life. Never willing to sit on the sidelines, you soared. You will always be my hero and my inspiration. Bigger than life, your light will continue to guide us with your powerful voice. All my love. Until we meet again.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Tree

Not the actual tree, but a lovely tree none-the-less.
There’s a very large deciduous tree on a corner in Paradise. I notice the tree every time I drive past and it’s one of my favorites. The couple who planted the tree are long gone and a young family lives in the house now.  The branches are asymmetrical. The somewhat gnarled branches twist and drop down then reach to the sky. Every season of the year it changes, but is always beautiful.

Trees are often used for metaphors and I chose this particular tree to represent my spiritual life. Trees are always changing, growing imperceptibly, growing just enough that when you look back you see how much the tree has changed. The roots of my spiritual life run deep. They began even before memory. Images of sitting on my mother’s lap in Sacrament meeting. Thumbing through the hymn book and trying to follow the words as we sang. Attending Sunday school and making Bethlehem houses out of salt dough. Hiking with my family to the top of Mount Timpanogas when I was only four. Spending a week of every summer at the family cabin near Yellowstone. Climbing into the back of Grandpa’s jeep and watching the bears emerge from the dark forest. Sitting by the fire. Me and my mom throwing rocks into the Soda Butte river. Playing house with the kindergartners in my class. Riding my tricycle and collecting rocks on the "bumper."

When I was 8, a Sunday school teacher gave me a paper back Book of Mormon for Christmas. I read all of 1st Nephi and after each chapter would run into the living room to tell my dad. We had Family Home Evening nearly every week in that room. Mom read Where the Red Fern Grows to us and I remember sitting on the floor trying hard not to cry. When I think of my roots, I think of all these things. Church and all the people in the ward who taught me. Singing primary songs. I especially loved “I Wonder When He Comes Again” because my aunt wrote it. And every time we sang it I felt love for Jesus. I think of climbing mountains and trees. I think about  my grandmas and grandpa, my mom and my dad, and Silver Gate, Montana. I think of all the moms and houses in my neighborhood where I felt loved. Gratitude.

The trunk of my tree emerged strong because of all of these things that formed my childhood. I think of the trunk as me and the branches as all the parts of me that make my life meaningful. Young Women’s leaders helped me to love God and I remember reciting 2 Nephi 2:17 and wanting to serve others to show my love for God. In high school I had the same friends that I had in grade school. I remember the first time we hiked to Stewart Falls, hiked Mount Timpanogas together, attended firesides, camped out, jumped off  train trestles in Provo river and celebrated birthdays and eventually weddings. I used to come home from school and put on a Neil Young or James Taylor or Cat Stevens album and feel spiritually moved, just like at church or seminary. I learned to feel love for friends, teachers, and church leaders, but practicing that love at home with brothers was hard. I often sat in my room to sort out my thoughts. I loved to read with a cat on my lap, just like now. 
By the time I’d graduated from high school, I knew I loved to write and express my thoughts on paper. I knew I loved to create things with clay and remember the first time I threw a pot on the wheel. I practiced pottery so much, I saw the spinning clay when I closed my eyes at night. In a way, pottery became part of my religion even then. I remember thinking that quitting pottery would be like cutting off my arm, and I used the same analogy about Mormonism years later. One arm my art, the other the church. I remember thinking that the worse thing that could happen to me would be to lose my hands.

One of the largest branches on my tree is the relationship with my husband. Falling in love with my husband was one of the most spiritual gifts I’ve been given.  I have an idea whether true or not that God protected me by helping me to fall for such a good man. And he for me. Before him, I had crushes on guys who would not have not been good for me, or to me, or lasted. He and I have a rich life together. Other large branches are the relationships with my children, grandchildren and the rest of my family. Then my friends. Deep talks with friends is where I feel love and practice loving others. Love is spiritual. Kindness is spiritual. I have lunch friends, walking friends, bookclub and writing friends, church friends, non-church friends, political friends, and even facebook friends who lift and sometimes even carry me. People are part of my spiritual tree. They are the branches that have sprung from the roots of my tree. I have found that I can learn from everyone I meet. 

Now I've purposely let some of the Mormonism roots and branches wither, but nurturing others to grow to keep in balance seems possible. I can no longer see the church the way I did growing up. But Mormonism is my tap root. It is tangled with all the other roots that make me, me. In the last few years as I've tried to untangle the church from who I've become, I've found it impossible. It surges through and gives nourishment to everything else that I believe. I've seen friends and family members be able to successfully untangle their roots and they are often better because of it. For me the tugging and pulling at some of the the roots unravels too much of my core. But instead of the one and only true church, I believe it has truth mixed with lots of man-made beliefs and some of those beliefs and practices are even damaging and best discarded. Pruning a tree can often make it better and even allow it to bear fruit. Part of being a mature spiritual adult is being able to tell the difference between the essential and what is best pruned. And not to let others decide what is important in my life. Part of being a spiritual adult is honoring the journey of others as well as my own. 

In a church community I can learn to worship the God I believe in. I can practice the pure love of Christ and I can try to make a difference in others lives. I can honor the people who make a difference in my life--both in and out of my church. I can work at relationships and learn basic principles of love, charity, gratitude, prayer, and forgiveness. And often I can continue to add the philosophies and practices that resonate with my core, mindfulness, meditation, literature, writing, walking, art, LGBT support groups and activism, book clubs, writing groups, therapy, friends, skiing, bike riding, art, and guitar. Like the 13th article of faith ... If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. Nearly all enriching things can be spiritual. I have a gift of awareness. As I drive or walk or hike, I notice the beauty of the sky, a mountain blue bird, a cottontail rabbit. I notice the trees, colors, flowers, animals. I pay attention. Awareness is spiritual. Mostly I’m grateful. Though some of the branches of my tree have been pruned and some have broken, others have grown in their place. I feel lucky. I feel blessed. I feel loved. I feel alive.