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."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Old Habits Die Hard

"There's something wanting in me. I see you loving Henry, and understanding him better daily, and I know that death wouldn't part you in the least. But I—Is it some awful, appalling, criminal defect?"

Margaret silenced her. She said: "It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don't fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have: love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others—others go farther still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don't you see that all this leads to comfort in the end. It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences—eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey."

Howard's End. E.M. Forster, page 267.

I hide things under our couches. A few years ago, when the couches had skirts, I hid unassembled, wooden cut outs under the couch. When I first got married, we had a Christmas workshop every year in our neighborhood at the local church. Lured by the finished products of women who can turn ribbon, bottle caps, baling wire, and their grandmother's corset into a chandelier, other unsuspecting women would preorder unassembled, unnailed, unsanded, unpainted pieces of wood to make up into Rudolf, Santa, cherubic pilgrims, a covey of American flags, or possessed-looking rabbits. This we did together in the church hall, sharing Styrofoam dinner plates with dots of paint and birthing stories. I dutifully ordered projects every year. Sometimes I finished; mostly I didn't. The unfinished pieces went under the couch; the finished pieces into some cupboard where they sat, remembered weeks after the appropriate holiday when I caught glimpse of them while I was looking for weed killer. I should throw them out, but, if I do, it's like admitting some kind of failure . . . that I tried this way of life and lost.

Wooden porch figures, pistachio jello salad, marshmallow fluff, tuna noodle casserole. . . I've tried.

I do not believe in the Boys Scouts of America—at all. I don't think it should be part of the church program (unless and until there's an equal organization for young women), and I definitely don't think the church organization should be used as a fundraising organism for this private organization. I'm actually appalled that people visit my house, in their capacity as church workers, to ask for money for the Boys Scouts. I fail to see the connection between an Eagle Scout and the driver's license. I do not believe that not having food storage will prevent me from entering heaven. It will help us when and if Kevin and I both lose our jobs at the same time and the dainty supply of Italian parsley, tomatoes, cilantro and basil from the pot plants (bruschetta anyone?) has run out, and we need another source of food with no cash to pay for it. But I don't know about getting into heaven because of barrels of wheat and powdered milk. (I still might be horribly surprised when I find out that's one of the questions.)

I question why white has become the only color in which one may attend church and participate in the sacrament, and why it is that sister missionaries need to look like nuns. Twenty years later, I still miss sleeveless shirts and strapless dresses. I don't think bikinis are immodest, and think every women, of any shape should feel free to wear one. Most Saturday evenings I sigh, thinking of the next morning. I would like to be cremated and spread over my flower gardens, while the Dixie Chicks sing "I wanna touch the earth, I wanna break it in my hands, I wanna grow something wild and unruly," followed by Queen, "I was born to love you." I couldn't think of greater tombstone than a big old maple growing up through me. . . . All these things are under my couch.

Yet, my sleeves have sleeves, Christian wears white to bless the Sacrament, I buy at the Macey's case lot sale; the first son got his Arrow of Light, the others play soccer, baseball and basketball on Wednesday evenings. I wish I could sing in the choir, but can't read music and can't sing high enough to just sing soprano, and Kevin's gone every Sunday anyway. But I schlep these other things with me. I sense, as Helen did in Howard's End, when she spoke of her inability to form a lasting relationship with a man, "There's something wanting in me. . . . some awful, appalling, criminal defect?"

I've paid lip service in previous posts to the idea that we are all God's creatures; we're all part of the menagerie that makes up his animal kingdom. When I tell that story, in my mind, unarticulated but assumed, is the notion that I am the horse, or the zebra, or the sable antelope. I'm never the warthog, or the anteater or the chameleon. There are times though when I come face to face with the opposite "colour" and I retreat. Last Sunday, by the end of Sunday School, I was quivering, feeling "fight or flight" rising inside me, my little warthog tusks shaking. The initial impulse is to run. Wanted to howl with Bono, "I wanna run." Mostly just run to a space that feels comfortable, where I don't feel out of sorts, where I am enough, where there is space for my cripple-crabbed response to the divine question.

Mostly I want to flee when I come up against a person who knows, with certainty, just exactly what the answers are, and just exactly how life should be lived. The question in Sunday School last week was, "Well, wouldn't you want to avoid all the pain and suffering associated with sin?" Offered, rhetorically, as if the only appropriate answer was, "Yes, of course (idiot)." My response, unexpressed, felt like the wrong response. Like the offering a warthog would bring to the animal banquet—a decaying log loaded with woodworms, fitting to her but appalling to everyone else.

The thing is I just don't know so definitely. Sometimes the only way to know is through, through whatever it is that haunts you, follows you, dogs you. And in the getting through, there is bound to be sorrow, pain, and then knowledge. My favorite article of faith, the one I hang on to, is the ninth: That God has revealed, that He does now reveal, and that He will yet reveal. Things will change. One of my favorite prayers is "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief." It is a frequent plea. Ideas of which I was so certain, confident, sort of like the shocked "my child will never bite anybody" you utter when the childless you watches a nephew bite down for the first time, are waning. The things I do know I gather, in a smallish basket—stones that shine with a brighter, distilled light: that God knows me, and sends people, ideas, books, music, animals, young children, skies, mountains, water and wind to help me. That I can be sent to help others. That life is most meaningful when I help, when I am part of a community. That God still speaks. That I may try again, if and when I feel so inclined, hopefully sooner than later, but never too late. That at the center there is light and truth which is accessible to us all, and which will embrace and heal.

Some tell stories of their spiritual experiences with a beginning and an end. It's neater that way. Makes things more certain—definite beginning, definite ending, definite meaning. Somehow, I always find myself in the middle, always reshaping, always having to give up and to rethink, constantly paring away at the story I thought I found myself in. If I wrote a journal, the narrative would not actually be narratives at all; rather, personal essays, short, lyrical pieces of experience/emotion/fact/observation surrounded by attempts to make sense of the moment. Less absolute, less certain of universalities. More filled with moments of light that apply only to me, my personal brush with grace and revelation. Instead of the novel I supposed I would be able to draft of the things of which I were certain at the end of my life, I think I might be reduced to a haiku—just seventeen syllables but worth every sound.

So, knowing as little for sure as I do, I am shaken sometimes, when, armed with my little collection of pebbles, one cherry blossom, and a winter leaf, I come face to face with an apparent arsenal of absolute certainty, the entire greenhouse of a spiritual Home Depot as it were. I find myself lacking that attribute, and wondering if my soul, engineered as it is, is sufficient for the exacting devotion that seems to be required by those around me. The very same day I posted "Ready, Ready, Ready to Run," in which I said that I know now why Christian organizations build wells before they teach doctrine, I read a woman's account of paying her tithing in which she stated that she would rather have the living water of Christ than water in her pipes, rather have the bread of the Saviour's body than food on her shelves. On reading that, I remembered what I had written, and gave the deep sigh that normally precedes some serious soul searching. I spent the day wondering where was I that I wanted real water first; that I am wary of either/ors, and that my initial reaction was to wonder why she hadn't approached her family for help, or at least the local congregation. (The bishop's storehouse is always full). At the end of such wondering, I always feel less than enough.

Last year, I came to a spiritual resting place of sorts—a place where I needed a decision about the kind of faith and religious experience I would have, and whether I could have this faith within the collective arms of my church, or on my own. Plainly put, I did not want to feel "not good enough" anymore. I needed to identify the source of that feeling and try to move away from whatever black hole it lived in. But, I knew my reaction could not be to throw the baby out with the bath water, reject the good because of the unpleasant. I took out all kinds of doctrines and beliefs and turned them over, one by one, just like looking through the heap for a good fish at the market. Some I realized I didn't know about. Others I knew with as much certainty as experience had given me. Others were, if truth be told, not yet important to me. I looked at practices, and communal tendencies, trying to separate doctrine and culture. I "sat" for a long while, sitting, thinking, listening. I imagined life with, life without (a hard prospect when I have never known without). I came to certain personal conclusions about the kind of person I would be, about the voices I would listen to and the places I needed to be to be found about my Father's business.

I suppose I came to the same place Margaret did, when she advised her sister, "Develop what you have." Like Margaret's lack of love for children, there are certain things I do not love, that I will never get used to, that rub me the wrong way in this faith in which I worship. (Like I said, I love the ninth article of faith). But this faith has given me things I cannot imagine living without: like knowing we have heavenly parents who watch for us, that my soul is eternal, that this body is for pleasure and pain, that we are allowed to ask questions and answers will be given, that progression and existence is never ending, that joy is the ultimate design of this existence, that the souls of my children and my husband predate me and my involvement in their lives so I must be courteous and kind, that learning to choose well is perhaps the greatest skill I could acquire.

So (I'm not resisting well the literary urge to wrap this up in a conclusion and pull out an obvious moral), I'm learning to live in my space with my leaves, pebbles and blossoms, and allowing the others who file in with me at 9.00 a.m. to bring whomever and whatever they need into their own. It's not easy; not easy to come face to face with those "eternal differences" and not find myself either morally deficient or superior. I'm thinking I need to let the ideas/words/assertions come to me and let them flow over me, like water or good memories, feeling the need, the necessity, the desire, just as fervent as mine, to believe.

Title: Mick Jagger, "Old Habits Die Hard"