Monday, July 20, 2009

Our Cleanest Dirty Shirt

I love old buildings—always have. I try to sense who lived in there, to breathe in their lives lived hundreds of years ago. I try to hear the echoes of conversations trapped beneath layers of paint and linoleum. When I was a child, dungeons held a particular fascination for me. I thought I could almost hear the scream and could quite certainly see the desperate scratches on the damp, stone walls. (Realize this is the child who turned into the woman who is afraid to list two unwanted-for-the-past-three-years-cockatiels on craigslist because she's afraid she'll hurt their feelings.) But now, its churches and homesteads.

Driving south out of Bear Lake, you see a farmhouse to your left. The land looks like it hasn't been farmed in years. But the house is still there flanked by its now towering cottonwoods. The house is your typical Rocky mountain wooden homestead—double story; center door; two windows on each side, top and bottom. The paint's gone and the wood shines almost silver. All around is just a field; not even a dust road marks the way to the home. I always wonder who lived there, what they dreamed about, what fields they planted, where their flower garden was, where they buried their household pets.

There's another house like that if you're going south on Highway 89, between Ephraim and Manti, on the right side of the road. Sturdy red brick with white around the windows and cracking gingerbread on the roof and porch. Another center door with matching windows. And again, towering trees that somebody planted even though they knew they'd be dead before the trees reached maturity. I wonder about the dreams that planted the trees and built the red brick house with a view of a distant temple. I wonder when the energy abated and somebody broke some of the window panes, filling the holes with cardboard and putting plastic over the rest—which was probably just before the parked the 1964 Ford pickup on the front lawn and never drove it again.

I tend to construct rosy pictures of people gone by. They were all loving, all kind, all faithful and honest. They would never have put plastic over their windows or parked their cars on their front lawns and forgotten to take them, and the tractors, and the lawnmower to the dump. They would never have moved out of the silver-hued beauty into into a double-wide on a lot in town opposite the 7-11 and picked up a job at the IFA. They would have stayed in their austerely beautiful wooden home planted securely between the cottonwoods, fronted by stalwart hollyhocks, and tried to make farmer's living in a valley that seems to grow nothing but raspberries for three short weeks of the year. For how could any other kinds of hands have given shape to such beauty except those hands that valued beauty? Surely the lives that gave form to that red-bricked beauty and the silvery sentinel were lives of superlative honor and duty befitting those who settled these high mountain valleys.

My mother read Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith when I was about fourteen. Then we couldn't say the name Joseph Smith in her presence for the next fourteen years without hearing her sharp intake of breath. Kent Crookston described his experience after reading a journal which depicted Joseph Smith in a negative light. A voice whispered to him, "So, . . . you feel to reprove the actions of the prophet, do you? You are upset, here in the darkness, because someone wrote something in their journal suggesting that Joseph Smith was not perfect . . . Imperfection disappoints you . . .What do you suppose you would have done, had you been in charge in Nauvoo in those grim days? How would you have dealt with the apostasy, with the enmity, with the slander, with unending threats on your life? You expected perfection. You know better than that. Only Jesus was perfect. What imperfection would you have chosen for Joseph? Go ahead. You choose. What imperfection would you accept? . . . Shame on you."

I'm not sure which sin my mother would have let Joseph have? Which one would have been good enough for the founder of a church. Maybe a little idleness, maybe a tad forgetfulness, maybe a timidity that didn't offend, or an overabundance of vision that caused him to forget to close the head gate or feed the chickens? Sometimes I think we allow no sin at all, not in our prophets, not in our neighbors, and definitely not in their household pets who leave yellow circles on our front lawns. I suppose one doesn't really want a goldseeker/failed banker/polygamist/visions in a top hat as the one who restarted your faith. We want some knight in shining armor who always consulted with his wife before he did anything, who could not only win at stick pulling but also at business, who was educated at the finest eastern schools and accepted in the highest circles. Well, we got Joseph.

Some people have issues with him. When they come face to face with the real Joseph, not the public relations version, they falter. His quirks don't really bother me. Perhaps quirks is too placid of a word. Flaws might be better. Does it bother me that years after I heard the story that poor Joseph was hauled out of his home on a cold winter's night and stripped to the waist by a mad and evil mob, it comes to light that perhaps the reason the mob was so angry was something to do with a young daughter? Not really. Actually, it makes the behavior of the mob more understandable. Helps me to know that most people are not suddenly filled with uncontrollable emotions for no good reason. Does it make his prophetic nature less certain, less convincing. Not at all. A little more heroic actually. Failed banks, salamanders, top hats included, I think you've got to be some kind of something to be able to go into a grove of trees and come out of it saying you saw God and Jesus Christ, two separate, physical beings, and stick to that for the rest of your glorious, trouble-filled days.

Does it matter to me that it might really have been Brigham Young who ordered the hit on the company of wagons passing through Mountain Meadows, and that events were organized so that John Lee took the fall? No. It makes more sense than believing that the Indians suddenly became voracious and fell upon the wagon train, preserving only the children whom they later took to the white settlements—in exchange for what? Home-baked bread and a jar of honey? I think you need to have the nerves of a champion and other body parts of steel to come into a bleak, apparently unsettled land, and colonize it with people from a dozen different countries, with no common language or culture, and keep it from fracturing apart at the seams. If you make a few (or a lot) of autocratic, hindsight-foolish and very costly decisions, that's the risk of leadership in any culture.

I don't need my leaders heroic. I don't even need them halfway perfect. I think I prefer them to have a flaw in plain sight, like the mythic "purposeful mistake" in the Amish quilt, lest the viewer think the creation is perfect. Why is it that only Old Testament prophets are allowed to have flaws? They're doing funky things, left, right and center, like sleeping with their daughters-in-law, and dancing in drunken nakedness, and spying on bathing women. Perhaps the purpose of the Old Testament is to prepare us for the prophets in our midst. We started with young prophets, filled with vision and strength and energy, and perhaps not as much experience or wisdom as those who now come to the helm after forty years of acclimating within a clearly established organization. Young prophets, who are still learning, aren't so easy to package. Their stories don't fit quite so neatly. Yet, we want easy stories to tell, ones you can recreate with a cup of hot water, like a cup of noodles—predictable, reliable and the same every time, if a little unsatisfying.

I understand about wanting things to be new and clean, wanting things to be pleasant, kind of like life scented with Salt City Candle passion fruit. (I don't even like to wear new clothes after they've been washed. They just feel different.) But, we do ourselves a disservice when the stories we tell are sanitized, official, one-dimensional, without a not-easy-to-fix-flaw, or an ambiguity that remains unexplained.

First, telling the naked truth is so much easier on the soul. Can you imagine the communal angst that went rippling through St. George, Santa Clara, Cedar City, and Paragonah as the communities took it upon themselves to stick to the official story of a massacre? Every time they looked at the face of their wagon-train child the upswell of memory must have choked them. To live having to keep a cover on part of your life, because the real story cannot be told, takes its toll.

Second (I've thought about this for a while, weighing on one hand the need to be able to extract a moral, or illustrate a principle, by using the lives of those who have gone before), we run the risk of creating caricatures out of real, thoughtful and thoughtless, episodic lives. For example, take Thomas Marsh. All one has to do is mention his name and you think about cream. His life can be reduced down to, either, his failure to control his wife or his failure to listen to his leaders, all over a cup of cream. The way I've always heard it, if he had only been able to do one of those two things, he would never have become one of stock figures from our church history whose life is reduced to one of its most unfortunate, public incidences. Yet, there are other parts of Thomas Marsh's life that we hardly hear about.

Dissatisfied with the story as told during a Sunday School lesson a few weeks ago, I went searching for more of the story. I cried actually as I read Thomas Marsh's own take on the story of the cup of cream (but then I also cry reading the Reader's Digest, so take that for what it's worth). Telling stories as we are prone to do, we never meet the man who came to Brigham Young asking whether Brigham could be reconciled to him, and whether there could be reconciliation between himself and his former Church. During that meeting, March reflected for a moment, and said, "I am reconciled the Church, but I want to know whether the Church can be reconciled to me." We don't see the size of the heart in Brigham, and thus the size of the heart that is required of us, when he stood at the pulpit of the Tabernacle and said to the congregation, "He is here, . . . and I want him to say what he may wish to . . . Brethren and sisters, I now introduce to you Brother Thomas B. Marsh. When the Quorum of the Twelve was first organized, he was appointed to be their President." We miss seeing the depth of Thomas's soul when we omit his own words, spoken twenty years later,

I do not know that I can make all this vast congregation hear and understand me. My voice was never very strong, but it has been very much weakened of late years by the afflicting rod of Jehovah. He loved me too much to let me go without whipping. I have seen the hand of the Lord in the chastisement which I have received. I have seen and known that it has proved he loved me; for if he had not cared anything about me, he would not have taken me by the arm and given me such a shaking.

If there is any among this people who should ever apostatize and do as I have done, prepare your backs for a good whipping, if you are such as the Lord loves. But if you will take my advice, you will stand by the authorities; but if you go away and the Lord loves you as much as he did me, he will whip you back again. I can say, in reference to the Quorum of the Twelve, to which I belonged, that I did not consider myself a whit behind any of them, and I suppose that others had the same opinion; but, let no one feel too secure; for, before you think of it, your steps will slide. You will not think nor feel for a moment as you did before you lost the Spirit of Christ, for when they apostatize, they are left to grovel in the dark.

There, in his own words, is the story of Thomas Marsh. His comments raise more questions than easy answers. Questions about a God who whips back into the fold, about when does one begin to slip, about the gradual diminution of light that one doesn't sense when going the wrong way, about thinking you're standing tall when really you're upside down on your head with your dress around your shoulders and your knickers on display for the whole world (but, of course, you can't see them because your skirt's over your eyes), about the pull a wife has on her husband and the gentleness with which that should be used, about the magnanimity we extend to the returning, about the fact that Brigham had no other choice than what he did because it was not his church, the ark did not need to be steadied, and all are welcome unto God.

In the reduction of his life to a convenient illustration of a principle, we not only do Thomas Marsh wrong, we also do ourselves wrong. We create an expectation that life is neatly packaged, that there are never any dissonant actions, that the moral is always clear, and that the person is either good or bad. We fail to recognize there are moments of weakness, sometimes years of weakness and fluctuation, in all of us. We are all, even God's anointed, at certain points in our lives, both versions of the King David: the cherubic youth filled with earnest desire and the married king filled with other kinds.

I play early morning tennis three mornings a week in what I call "the fancy skirt club." Four friends, the public tennis courts of the neighborhood park, a little bit of tennis, lots of therapy and a great excuse to buy cute tennis skirts. We keep two scores, one for actual shots, and one for idea points, as in, "Oh, that was a great idea . . . Too bad the frame got in the way." This morning the topic of conversation was an unfortunate religious education teacher at a local high school who found his picture on the front page of the paper after allegations of engaging in a sexual relationship with one of his 16-year old students. In terms of creativity, their exploits ran like an impressive high school prom night: mines in Eureka, hot springs near Delta, box cars up Provo Canyon! "Box cars," Cheryl shudders, "what on earth? Just think of the spiders." (Middle-aged, long married sex apparently has higher standards.) The ladies wondered at what point his entire life became a lie. Whether his marriage, his children, the lessons he taught, the experiences he shared with people were all a lie? Because, if he could do this, he obviously didn't believe a word of what he professed. And what about the effect of this on the teenagers he taught? What if they left the fold because of their disappointment in this man?

I wasn't so sure about the idea that nobody who truly believed could act as he did. After all, a lot of doctors smoke. I could see a man who, used to being found in the right way, ignored signposts because he was sure of the goodness of his own heart. I could see a man who fervently believed; who was mostly, if not all, good and who repeatedly made ridiculously stupid and dangerous decisions to ignore those repeated, soft warnings that must have preceded such foolishness. I shouted over the net, "Personally, I think this is an important thing to happen to the community. It requires us to sort through complicated issues of leaders, fallibility, falling from grace, separating the message from the flawed messenger, the power that teenage girls possess in their young bodies, the pride of righteousness that blinds us to our ability to fall. I'm just sorry for those involved that they offered themselves up a sacrifice, that it had to play out on the front pages." They just looked at me, sort of like the sun was in their eyes, but it could also have been interpreted to mean, "You're a crock."

"And," I would have continued, if I hadn't been intent on running down a crosscourt return and earning idea points for the shot that sailed into the tramlines of the neighboring court, "as for those sixteen year olds, you're never too young to come to terms with the fact that God uses whom he has, the willing, in whatever form we come. Look around, we're all he's got to work with."

Which leads me to my very own, personal third reason for wanting the whole truth and nothing less: When I learn that some members of the handcart companies who valiantly crossed the plains barefoot, in snow and freezing winds, on four ounces of flour and the wing of a prayer, later turned to accuse the men who volunteered to guard their possessions left at Devil's Gate of theft, I breathe a sort of sigh of relief. You see, in the space between the valiant crossing of the plains and the desperate, petty accusations; in the space between the colonies and the massacre; in between the brim of a hat and a pulpit in Kirtland, Ohio, I can find room on the pew of believers for me and my flawed discipleship.

Title: Crooked Fingers, "Sunday Morning Coming Down."


  1. Such a good post! Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  2. Tessa:

    Here is a great book to read:

    Frontiersman: Abner Blackburn’s Narrative by Will Bagley

    The Blackburn family were among the early converts of the church. Many of the men in the family held important positions in the church, but Abner was definitely a “black sheep” and he doesn’t “sugar-coat” his memoirs. They were at the Haun’s Mill Massacre (his father was one of the Mormon Leaders trying to negotiate a peace agreement with other Missourians), lived in Nauvoo, and were among the first settlers of Utah.

    If I remember correctly, the introduction states that his wife (a devout Mormon) made him burn the “first edition” because she was afraid of the backlash from Church leaders. He wrote them again and his daughter kept them locked in a trunk for forty or fifty years because they were so “controversial.”

    One of my favorite stories is when the Mormons were hurrying to finish the Nauvoo Temple and get as many people through it. I can’t remember how he said it exactly, but it was something to the effect that all of the “important people” had gone through the temple and they were going around telling the last few “less important people” to go through the temple. He says that he had seen those that had already gone through the temple and that it hadn’t done them much good, so he wasn’t going to bother! I can’t tell it the way he does, he is hilarious (and honest) – you have to read it for yourself.

    Another of his good quotes (that I actually have a copy of, I wish I had the above):
    “. . . My brother and I were nearly grown. They would call on us nearly every day to work on the Temple or other church buildings. To work for nothing and board ones self is verry trying on [the] cons[ti]tution. Mine was not equal to the occasion, so I joined the Nauvo[o] Legion . . . “ (p.18)

    Here is a blurb about it:

    “In 1889 . . . Abner Blackburn (1827-1904) began an account of his youthful wanderings across the North American continent. Referring to his memoir as "an account of my past misdeeds," Blackburn describes his experiences with Mormon pioneers, an astounding assortment of western tribes, and the last fur traders. After working on steamboats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, Blackburn was a teamster for Brigham Young, marched with the Mormon Battalion to Santa Fe, crossed the Great Basin seven times in four years, and prospected for gold in California. Blackburn knew Joseph Smith, Jim Bridger, John Sutter, Sam Brannan, and a host of lesser-known but equally colorful characters.”

  3. Sounds great. Another book I enjoyed was A Mormon Mother, by Annie Clark Tanner.

  4. As usual, making me think here. The subject of perfection is so intriguing to me. I think the notion of perfection is such an ailment to women of today, probably more likely in the church than out. Why do we expect perfection from ourselves, others, etc? I could go on and on about it. I have more issues expecting it from myself than from others. I do think that there is a real problem among people expecting it from others.

    I must also say that I adore your mother! She and your dad were our first friends in this ward. It was your mom who turned me onto Willa Cather's My Antonia. I read it obediently at her insistence that I must do so if I'm an American. Of course, reading Willa Cather has made her become one of my most favorite authors ever (don't ask why I this wasn't required reading for me as a highschool student but whatever). When I ran back to your mother for a declaration of her favorite Willa Cather book basically looking for another title I would enjoy as much as the first, she was exasperated that I would try to squeeze out of her a favorite when she just "couldn't do that" because whatever book she was reading at the time was her favorite! I learned my lesson. :) Okay, I digress but I had to smile at the "sharp intake of breath" regarding Joseph Smith.

    [I won't even mention how I misunderstood your dad by thinking I had heard he was your OLDER BROTHER not your dad! Imagine my confusion for weeks until I finally figured that out. Hysterical!]

    Back to the real subject matter, I remember when I had to reconcile my thinking to realizing that people do things based on what they know at the time. Especially in the early days of the church, of course they were bound to make mistakes in interpretation of big revelation as well as when their own human nature entered into the picture. I just want the same mercy applied to me when the time is right.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment....:)

  5. Favorite Willa Cather book, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

  6. Would we expect more from each other than Christ does? He knew we would falter from perfection, so he provided an Atonement. Expecting perfection of anyone, the Prophet included, is to discount Christ's sacrifice.

  7. Favorite Willa Cather quote, from Death Comes for the Archbishop: "I shall die of having lived." (Or something like that--it's been 20+ years since I read that book.)

  8. I love your blog--recommend to me by my daughter. You are right on with the perfection comments and I thank you for putting my feelings into words so beautifully.

  9. Amazing post, Tessa. Thank you.

    I sent you an email a couple of weeks ago, but I may have used an outdated address. Would you mind emailing me at Thanks!