Father’s Day

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Moab, July 2015

It was cold out and we talked so long that the windshield fogged, blocking our view of the city lights down in the valley. He had parked not far from the start of Y Trailhead, as good a spot as any for an emergency talk like this. I had cried about life and fiddled with my charcoal pinstripe skirt, he had listened and questioned and cried a bit for me too. After I confessed feeling irreverent for having nearly yelled at God in a recent prayer about the sudden influx of disappointments, he said, “No—no don’t ever apologize for that, not if it’s sincere,” and his voice choked. “He wants us to be honest with Him, even if that means that sometimes we can’t take it anymore and we have to just shout Why are You doing this to me?!” which he did shout right there in the car before sobs overtook him, and I had never really seen that side of him before, and I cried at how human and real he was.

I had thought I needed him to be unflinching so I could borrow his strength in my moment of shattering; I learned that I instead needed to see that he knew what it meant to be broken too.

One of my earliest and favorite memories of him also occurred on a cold winter night when croup had me coughing so hard I vomited, and he wrapped me in one of our biggest quilts, hefted me, and stood on the driveway pointing at constellations and telling me the myths behind them. And he just held me like that for who knows how long while I rested my head on his broad shoulders and coughed into the quilt until the cool air calmed my breathing.

I also remember summer nights in the backyard when he taught me to memorize the names of Ursa Major’s stars, including Mizar and its binary Alcor—you have to squint a little and look real close to see but it’s there, and he taught me that there are all sorts of things we can’t see but they’re there.

And then there were the nights when he brought out the telescope, or got giddy about the Milky Way, or showed us his iPhone app that charts stellar location from any point on earth.

So it seemed fitting that when he revved up the engine again at the end of our chat near Y Trailhead, after waiting a few moments for the windows to defrost, he started driving us back down the mountain when we both saw it shoot across the piece of sky we could see through the windshield. “Did you see that?” He clutched the steering wheel in excitement. “Did you see that?!”

“I saw it—beautiful!”

“Maybe we’ll see more, maybe there’s a whole shower!” I don’t think he really watched the road for the rest of the drive. I think his big blue eyes—the ones he passed down to me—fixed on the sky like they usually do, searching the stars, watching to see another one dart in a dash of light against darkness.

Maybe he loves the stars because they’re lights against darkness, and they’re constant, even when we can’t see them, which means they’re like the faith that he burns in his heart.

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The Finisher

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Along Washington DC’s New York Avenue,  February 2014

 

And the story has only begun. . . .

— “Glorious Unfolding,” Stephen Curtis Chapman (2013)

 

There’s a white Honda parked outside my apartment building, and it sports a back windshield decal that proclaims

And They Lived Happily . . . Ever After

Today I’ll ignore the egregious ellipsis error, ignore also questions about how such a large, flourishy sticker doesn’t obscure views of oncoming rear traffic, and I’ll move quickly through the assumption that all English-literate individuals can identify the source of that phrase and why it might appear on a car in the parking lot of newlywed student housing. I’m not sure which of my neighbors are Mr. and Mrs. White Honda. I don’t feel quite comfortable with spying through slats of window blinds just to see who gets into and out of that car each day. But whoever they are, I sure hope that they’re not at the point in their marriage that that sticker implies.

Happily ever after comes right before The End in traditional stories, and though I doubt that’s meant to indicate that Cinderella and Snow White and the other members of the Happy Ending Storybook Club filed for divorce just as soon as they finished their rides into the sunset, it does seem to signal that there’s nothing more worth telling. We’ve covered it all, folks. Nothing more to see here. They’ve reached the peak, and will hereafter plateau in perpetual pleasure. They’ve overcome all obstacles, beaten all odds, conquered and triumphed and now all that’s left is to bask in their love until the end of time, but we’ve seen enough of that to get the picture. The rest is old news, now. Just more of the same.

Now, I admit that weddings do celebrate a happy ending, of sorts. Dating stinks, in all candor, so when a guy finds a girl he can feel confident with, and when a girl finds a guy who helps her feel safe and strong, they grasp each other’s hands and hang on and bid an unsentimental farewell to the Friday night uncertainties and ambiguous texts and breakups and pits in the stomach. When the couple walks away from the altar, new rings glimmering on their left hands, they’ve gotten to the end of singlehood and move forward as a team, and if that’s not a joy worth celebrating with cake, then I’m pretty sure nothing is.

But I don’t like emphasizing the endness of marriage, which is why I have a beef with the Honda. And lest you think I’m assuming too much about the link between the happily ever after phrase and the story’s conclusion, consider this too: As I’ve pounded out ideas for this essay, a friend of mine was tagged in a Facebook wedding photo album by his new mother-in-law, and she captioned the pictures “And they lived happily ever after, the end.”

So soon? But they only just started. Is it already time to shut the book, flick off the light, tuck in bed, and call it a day?

If lovers were the only ones claiming these premature stopping points in their stories, we’d cut them some slack; love makes people loopy, so they get byes for all sorts of junk. But they’re not alone. They stand side by side with everyone who’s ever claimed that a baptism or a “coming to Jesus” or a prayer or a trip to the temple has changed who they are and they’ll never look back. In the group too are those who land their dream job and assert that they’ve “made it.” And the folks who forget that graduation commencement means start instead of conclusion. And the people who prepare for their first big race and then quit running the next day. And the newly-elected government officials who get too comfy in office and forget their campaign promises.

In short, we humans get real excited about certain milestones, we work and dream and sweat and sacrifice so we can reach them, and then we do and we think we’ve arrived. We consider it done.

But maybe the milestones aren’t ends in themselves—just checkpoints somewhere in the middle.

Nathan and I have been married for almost five months, which means we know nothing. But we’re gathering clues, and each day something hints that we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. Every day there are new plotlines in our story. The earliest (not even twelve hours after the wedding) was the rental car fiasco in the San Francisco airport; the latest was discovering that some punk helped himself to the contents of our own car the other day. The most serious was watching our grad school plans dissolve, leaving us with a painful decision to hash out; the most frivolous was losing ourselves not once but twice on a local school’s campus on the way to rehearsals.

And the stories we could tell you about each of those incidents! The growth we’ve seen! The funny quotes we’ve collected (on yellow sticky notes on the inside of a kitchen cupboard—most of them are from Nathan)! It feels like we’re even farther today from The End than we were on January 16th when we took our marriage license and glimmering rings and pounding hearts to the altar.

Same, too, for how life has gone since my baptism, or my mission, or graduating college. I’ve never “made it” anywhere—there’s still so far to go, and I keep going each day.

I think the Germans had the right idea about how to wrap up fairy tales. I’m not sure who crafted the phrase that we use in English, but it’s a pretty far cry from the traditional ending in our favorite stories’ native language. The German version mentions nothing about ongoing happiness—nothing, actually, about happiness at all. After marching through the plots we’re familiar with, German storytellers say:

Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.

Literally: “And if they haven’t died, then they’re living still today.”

They’re living still. They’re in the present tense.

Their stories are ongoing.

I love the way Tolstoy expressed these thoughts in Anna Karenina. Konstantin Levin spends the entire novel (all 817 pages of it) seeking “arrival points” that will change his life wholesale. He thinks it’ll come when he marries the “perfect woman” he’s loved for so long—then they marry and he not only discovers that nobody (not even Kitty Scherbatskaya) is perfect but that his life isn’t suddenly perfect either. He thinks it’ll come when his son is born—then little Mitya arrives and Levin is repulsed at first to see the squirming wrinkled red child, though he feels inexplicably proud to hear the baby’s first sneeze. He even thinks it’ll come when (spoiler alert) he lets God into his life in a beautiful conversion at the end of the book—and just moments afterwards, he snaps at a servant.

“I expected more,” Levin says, describing his feelings when Mitya was born, but also accounting for his experience in the whole of the novel. “I expected that a new, pleasant feeling would blossom in me like a surprise.” But he realizes that in each case, “. . . This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed. . . . I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”[1]

That’s the end of the novel, guys. The next words are The End, but it’s clear that for Levin, the road will keep going.

For all of us, the road will keep going, up and down and left and right and backwards sometimes but that’s OK, we can reorient and find forward again. There’s unquestionable meaning in each of our lives. We’re empowered to do oh so much good. For as long as we live—may it be ever so long—the Father Who cradled us onto this earth has given us all that we need to endure. He wove tenacity into our spirits, then set us on a path with a solid rod to clutch, no matter how dark things might get, and He whispers to us not to let go, not to stop moving, not even to quit once we’ve tasted a bite of the fruit at the bright Tree of Life, but to start up again and make the round one more time so we can take another bite, and then do it again (see 1 Nephi 8).

Somewhere, at some time, in some beautiful place, God will let us know when we’ve arrived at the only true happily ever after any of us can hope and work for. He’ll hug us tight to His chest, we’ll sob into His shoulder, and He’ll stroke our heads as He whispers, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy [L]ord” (Matthew 25:21).

Until that day, though, we’re not at the end—no matter the baptism or mission or wedding or job. Until that day, we’ll take the scriptures’ advice, so fitting for an essay about stories and ends:

“Wherefore, . . . let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis added).

 

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[1] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 814, 817.

The God Who Hears Silence

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Provo Temple, October 2014

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. . . . [God has] made every thing beautiful in [its] time.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7, 11.

 

We Mormons are a publicly praying people. We sandwich our days and church services and youth activities and Christmas parties between opening and closing prayers—sentences projected into heaven by one individual on behalf of a family or congregation, punctuated with a final amen that the group recites in chorus before turning their attention to a speaker, before scurrying off to Sunday School, or before racing to reach the refreshments ahead of the hoard of pubescent deacons[1] who will surely scarf all the potatoes and Jell-O. These public prayers are a hallmark of LDS meetings, and I kid you not, I once tallied over thirty such litanies in one single day of a summer youth camp. Allotting an average thirty seconds per prayer (though believe me, some were much longer), that’s at least fifteen solid minutes I sat with head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded, listening to someone else parcel words up to the Father. Fifteen minutes is nice for a personal bedtime chat with God, but for public prayers? My goodness.

But despite this affinity for communal invocation, in the most sacred place a Mormon can set foot—the House of the Lord, the temple—there’s only one public prayer offered. It comes near the end of the service, when one white-clad volunteer speaks the words that come to his mind while others link the thoughts of their hearts to the sentences rising in an open channel that I swear you could see heaven through if you were brave enough to open your eyes and crane your neck to check out the ceiling during such a holy moment.

It’s one of my favorite parts of temple worship. I love to tie my heart to others’ sacred hopes, and I feel their faith in fiery prickles up and down my spine.

One evening, like hundreds before and dozens since, I sat in the temple quietly nursing a question that throbbed in my heart. I anticipated prayer time the way a struggling student waits outside a professor’s office, desperate for wisdom and counsel before an approaching deadline. I believe that the one public prayer in the temple ceremony moves on inspiration—the words the pray-er pronounces are merely dictation of the sentences the Spirit carries from heaven to the altar. Most times those words balm my worries. Often they convey special answers. Like so many similar times, that evening I begged God to hear me—to hear all of us in the temple that night—to listen to our words. Then I bowed my head and clenched my eyes and waited for the voice on which I’d hang my heart’s pleading.

Nothing.

Nothing stretched over several long seconds. Over too many seconds. The temple echoed silence.

Braving a peek, I tried to see why no one had started the prayer. Maybe someone had to go to the restroom? Perhaps the temple worker whose turn it was to pray had left the room for a moment? Had a patron become sick, or had someone passed out? Once my sister was in the temple when an older gentleman died—had that happened here too?

Through the slit of one eye I saw the temple volunteer in his white suit and tie bowed like an angel at the altar, flicking his fingers to show his fervent faith. I saw other patrons soaking in with their eyes words I’ve never learned because my ASL vocab exhausts at six phrases and the alphabet. It was the first Tuesday of the month, when the temple sets aside a couple of evening hours for deaf temple-goers. I had seen the interpreters throughout the session, but all the rites had been spoken like always while volunteers signed the translation. But now, at the pinnacle of the whole ceremony, the altar angel spoke with his hands and the other patrons heard with their eyes and the temple was still and my heart was on fire as warm quiet calmed my mind with the touch of the God Who hears silence.

I’d lie if I told you I’ve never heard whispers in answer to prayers, though that’s occurred only twice. More often I’ve felt Spirit-borne thoughts pressed into my soul, and I’ve dreamed things, and I’ve stumbled into scriptures that spell out timely revelation, and I’ve deciphered God’s words in the things friends and family and sometimes even strangers have told me.

But nine times out of ten when I turn to heaven, the response is as still as that chamber in the temple that night when I needed the Father to hear my words and send some in return. Nine times out of ten, God “keep[s] silence” (Eccl. 3:7). I keep praying, I wait, I search seek cry hope worry moan, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder more than just a little,

Heavenly Father, are You really there,

And do you hear and answer every child’s prayer?[2]

Silence seems a heavy disappointment to a sincere plea for direction.

But God “made every thing beautiful in [its] time” (Eccl. 3:11), even things that escape human comprehension—like silence. He can burn bushes with a fire that doesn’t destroy. He can make wine from water and water from rocks. He can take a broken bruised Body in a three-day-old tomb, breathe Life into it, and raise not only that One but all.

Among my favorite divine paradoxes is the truth of God’s fluency in the language of silence. I felt it that night. I felt Him absorb the tacit words flicked from the altar and flung from my heart. Where I had anticipated sounds on which I could hook a hope, the Father instead let me witness a quiet that reminded me to “be still and know that [He is] God” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:16, Psalms 46:10, emphasis added). He touched me without a sound. No words resonated in the temple or in my mind as the prayer drew on, but by the time the deaf patrons in the room signed what I can only assume was their chorused amen, I realized that “in quietness and in confidence [was my] strength” (Isaiah 30:15) for the evening, and by the time I stepped into the Celestial Room I no longer doubted the course God desired me to take.

Yes, it’s true that God speaks. I believe He whispered “Let there be” and then there was and it was good. I believe in the Word that was with God in the beginning, I believe in the Word that made everything, in the Word that is Life (John 1:1-4). I believe that God calls people by name, because names are sacred sounds and He knows them all and saves them to use on special occasions.

But there’s a time for God to speak and a time for Him to keep silence, for He knows that in the moments of silence we exercise the piece of our hearts that remembers heaven enough to touch it even when we can’t quite understand what’s going on around us. Faith is a paradox—“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Perhaps then faith is also the answers we can’t hear, the trust that God hears and speaks in silence, but even when He’s silent He still speaks, and so we must move forward like brave, trusting children, for “of such is the kingdom, the kingdom of heav’n.”

Special thanks to Nathan Cordner for writing (and letting me use!) such beautiful music. 

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[1] In LDS church order, “deacons” are twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys.

[2]  “A Child’s Prayer” by Janice Kapp Perry. A personal favorite from the LDS Children’s Songbook. Emphasis added.

This My Hymn

peak winter

For the beauty of the earth, especially for the way You built it, crafting elements around a core so liquid hot and dense that every so often over billions of years it’s burst and rocks have jutted up and layered and combined to form the peaks I love to watch the sun rise over. For rainfall. For trees and rocks and textures. For the River Cam and the Dnepr, for Lake Helena and the Black Sea. For the fields and forests where You and I have carried out some of our most private, most important conversations, like how in the world was I supposed to survive high school when ninth grade and depression left me and my GPA shattered, or like how incomprehensibly happy I felt and feel that You healed my emotions and got me into BYU in spite of a poor GPA and a late application submission. For columbine and yellow roses, and for the crocuses that wake me from winter into spring. For the miracle of aspen trees and their whisper. For breezes and for frost. For the lovely death of trees in autumn and the resurrection that follows it, which You only just recently taught me to see as a fiery symbol of the resilience of the human spirit, which is really, then, a fiery symbol of the link that keeps us tied to You, the Sire of Spirits, and to Your Son, Who made resurrection possible in a world swallowed up in death.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour, of the day—when it’s light out, and thus I can see, and thus I feel like things make sense and I can move forward with confidence—and of the night—when, in darkness, I cling to the stars You made to remind us that no darkness need ever be total, and thus I can still move forward, even if I have to work on the confidence part a bit. For the beauty of each hour You and I have spent in heart-to-heart contact, and oh those hours are many indeed. For the beauty of the hours that come just as the sun rises or sets, when the heavens are set on holy fire. For the beauty of the hours that come after a good, hearty cry, and everything is still, and You’re there.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love. For the fact that You’ve poured over me so much more of that joy and love than anyone could ever deserve, least of all me. For each of my five brothers, who tease me and whom I tease, and for each of my five sisters, who counsel me and whom I counsel. For parents who do everything for me. For all the times they forgave me after I brought them heartbreak or concern. For their insistence that I go to DC and to Cambridge, because they knew I needed to stretch in ways that couldn’t happen in comfort. For the utter lack of fitting things to say about my dear parents, as I sit here bemoaning the hollowness of every sentence I try to structure in their honor, because how could words repay twenty-five years of life? For the opportunity to live my love for them, even if writing it is impossible. For the sisterhood of Apartment 210. For a best friend who lets me spam her phone with cross-country texts, because Virginia is too plumb far away from Utah. For mission presidents and their wise wives, who kept me upright under the weight of Ukraine, and who keep me upright under the weight of post-mission decisions. For the musical mathematician you led into my life at exactly the right moment, which seemed like exactly the wrong moment at first, as You are well aware after all those nights when I worried about the timing of it all, and begged You for enlightenment or knowledge or something more concrete than just the beautiful mounting calm You used to still my worries and direct my heart. For the something terribly concrete that came just hours before he proposed. For his heart, which somehow hasn’t grown bitter in spite of all sorts of trials and disappointments, including the ones I’ve put him through. For his tenacity and patience. For his hands, which You taught him to use to craft beautiful things, like arrangements and algorithms. For the joy of this very human love, which is all the while a very heavenly matter as well. For the faith You gave us as we tiptoed and chose and guessed our way into romance, even though there were and are things we need to keep in mind and prepare for. For Your wisdom in all of these relationships, in making provisions for the fact that humans hurt each other sometimes, and nothing is ever as clear to us as it probably ought to be, from Your eternal perspective, and so no one really knows what on earth is going on in families and friendships and courtships, but we sure do feel closer to You as we stumble our way through them.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

 

 

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Based on text from “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by Folliott S. Pierpont (1835-1917). See LDS Hymns #92.

And Again, I Say

Wasatch Mountains September 2015

Wasatch Mountains
September 2015

God never said “be happy all the time.”

What He said was “rejoice evermore” (1 Thessalonians 5:16, Doctrine and Covenants 98:1).

And there’s a difference that, yes, perhaps I only noticed because Dad drilled a love of language into me, or because Mom launches Latin roots discussions around the dinner table, or because I’m rather a pessimist at heart and thus have devoted long hours to hashing about through the seeming paradox presented by commandments to take up a cross and follow the Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief, while personally never allowing bereavement and trials to nick at a positive outlook on life.

Until recently I had always taken the twice-repeated quintosyllabic commandment to mean that I should be unflinchingly happy regardless of whatever trials I might endure. “Rejoice evermore,” to me, seemed to equal: “don’t let anything get you down,” or “stay happy always,” or “if you have even an inkling of understanding of God’s plan, then this death or that rejection or this injustice or that major breakdown of everything that felt solid won’t bug you in the least.”

And that seemed a crummy way to plough through life in a world bent on smashing things into shards that are too small and devastated to piece back together. I hurt. It’s a fact of my life. And I happen to know that all human beings hurt when the black blood of disappointment courses into their hearts, which it does on a regular basis. And what kind of a friend or sister or roommate would I be if I didn’t allow others the privilege to recognize the real human trueness of pain?

So “rejoice evermore” never really made sense—not the way I was trying to fathom it.

But one afternoon as I reviewed one of the two spots in Canon where the directive occurs, my internal linguist whispered, Well goodness, I’ve never thought of that prefix before.

Re.

As in, repeat, or renew, or resume, or recur.

Or rejoice.

Re is shorthand for do again.

And at that thought, the dust of paradox settled to show a truth that my mind, heart, and soul could embrace.

Perhaps the purpose of the Gospel is the promise in the prefix—namely, the notion that when hurt and hate and despair crack our dreams and extinguish our hope, if we work toward and trust in and hold hands with God, then the joy that is not quite perpetual will at least be regainable. That is, we can joy again. Rejoice.

I’m biased. I’m writing this from a highpoint on the joy-disappointment-grief-healing-joy cycle, and things that I cursed in weeks and months and years past now seem to fit a pattern that resonates with reason and leaves room for me to sit back and thank the Father for leading life to happinesses I’d never have found if He’d let me do the steering all along like I asked Him on a number of fitful nights. Frankly, I don’t know how I got here. I certainly don’t know how I made it here heart intact. What about all those times I swore I’d numb myself, shun all feelings, turn off sensors to keep from withering under the weight of it all? I honestly thought I had done that, sometimes, because how else could I have lived through the pain?

Yet somehow I still feel. What’s more shocking still, I even feel good, though not always, and happy, though not irrationally, and joyful, though still bearing in mind that some wounds haven’t healed yet and are out of my power to fix because other people can make their own choices no matter how ardently I may oppose what they choose.

So all right, it’s delicate. But it’s real. This happiness I sense now is real. I’ve experienced it before in life, differently, thenly. And now it’s come back, an unexpected guest visiting on errand to remind me that God knows that life shouldn’t always be good, or else we’d never learn, but it shouldn’t be endless sorrowing either. It’s a slow dance rounding corners of trial, passing moments of joy, led sometimes by hurt and then sometimes by bliss, all while ebbing and flowing to the kind of songs souls can hear if they listen real close.

Point is, God never asked us to be happy always, but to hang onto His words and be happy again. Endure, He said. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Don’t quit walking just because the patch that you’re stuck in right now is exactly what it oughtn’t to be and you hurt.

Always go on in spite of doubts, fears, and discouragement.

Always trust that some things might get better sometime.

Always clutch for the punctured palm of that Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief.

And He’ll always help us to be happy again.

To rejoice, and rejoice, and rejoice as often as it takes, evermore, cycling on through eternal agains that God grounded in the promise that His plan makes againing possible to those who believe in His Son and endure to the end.

“Rejoice in the Lord alway,” quoth the scriptures—then to emphasize what that means, the writer penned next: “and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

And then do it again and again.

Fall Beautifully

Fall 2014

Fall 2014

“I’m trying to live by heart, because it’s the one human organ in which I’ve never lost faith. When brains break they usually seem to stay broken. When hearts break, though, a surprisingly frequent result is a torrent of newfound compassion.” – quoted in Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine, 123.

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For me the world began in autumn. I was born while foliage launched its dramatic maturation, and I blinked brand new blue eyes as temperatures fell and hues heightened around my parents’ place in the foothills of the Rockies.

Whether because of the timing of my birth or independent of it, I feel a deep bond with the season of crisp-clean-cool-calm-colorfulness. Maybe too much of a bond, because driving becomes a hazard for me when the mountains and their expanding patches of orange and red and yellow command my attention and eyes more than the road does. Although I miss school something fierce, I suppose it’s a blessing that this year—the first in many—I won’t need to hole myself away to avoid losing focus by gazing through windows at Squaw Peak instead of gazing at books or computer monitors. Homework is decidedly duller than fall. And the season passes so quickly. I don’t want to blink and miss beauty.

So I love September walks and impromptu nature photo shoots. I love shivering in a cardigan, or lying on the grass to watch low-hanging clouds spill out of the mouth of Rock Canyon and roll across the valley. Once I chanced to catch a leaf in my hand as it spiraled toward the ground. The fortune excited me so much that I skipped—an uncommon occurrence for such a stiff stoic.

The season tingles me. Were it possible, I’d capture it and keep it on hand all year long.

But when I break down autumn into its basic processes, sometimes I shudder and wonder what kind of a morbid nut would get giddy over a season that symbolizes death. What’s my problem? I mean, my goodness, I like watching things die! That’s what goes on, after all, on the mountains I love to watch while shades shift. Trees sense cool weather and short days, so they trigger their leaves to quit photosynthesis, to build up a cell wall that plugs the connection between leafstem and branch and that essentially says, “Thanks for your service, but you’re done, and you shouldn’t expect to receive any more minerals from the ground through the trunk.” So the leaves lose their green. They dry up. They starve. And a soft September breeze knocks them clean to the ground where some student will veer slightly out of her way to smash them in hopes that they’ll crunch. And when they do, and they crumble to dust beneath the sole of her sneaker, let’s be honest—the student rejoices. Rejoices in the destruction.

Which is, frankly, a little macabre. Sometimes I feel a slight twinge of remorse when I glory in dead, dried-up leaves.

Until I remember that fall isn’t actually terminal. The dust of crumbled leaves will seep through the soil under the weight and water of winter snow, and will become the nutrients that fuel buds in the spring. The buds of spring will become the verdures of summer, and the process will start over again. And again. And again and again. And a hundred agains as the earth makes its orbit, and new babies are born, and humans and trees feel their way through the miracle of slow, stretching growth.

The scripture is familiar: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4), and all this, it says, “is the gift of God” (13).

If you count the one that greeted me to the planet, then this is my twenty-sixth autumn. Across the years that are marked by those falls, I’ve fallen and watched others fall more times than I’d like to count or remember—but somehow we’ve all gotten back up again. Between the time to be born and the time to die there are plenty of breakdowns, and I’ve done my share of weeping and mourning. But in spite of it all, there have been times to dance too. And to laugh—sometimes, irrationally, at the peak of tough times when emotions run high, and a sudden stumble on the stairs, or pun from a professor, or YouTube clip shared by a roommate is enough to spark all the tears and side-aches and suffocation that lead from laughter to healing.

Human beings have the astounding capacity, if they will, to identify God’s gifts even when things appear to be drying up, withering, and falling apart. So I guess what I love about autumn is what I love about people as well.

I know humans whose breaking hearts have brought to them the fiery orange glow of a compassion that carries warmth to others even when the temperature drops. I have friends who’ve been crushed and who’ve turned into dust and who’ve relied on that dust to fuel vibrant growth in the future. I’ve watched loved ones regenerate again and again and a hundred agains. And they’re doing it still. And they will, I believe, ad infinitum, because people are strong as trees. Stronger, I guess, because although I don’t know what it’s like to lose leaves, I’d wager that losing jobs or homes or limbs or sight or brothers or daughters or husbands or hope is an awful lot harder than anything oaks have endured in the chill of September.

God bore hardy children made of spirits that remember Heaven closely enough to appreciate joy, filled with hearts that pound fiercely enough to survive discouragement.

And He gave them autumn to remind them of a plan that brings healing, wholing and reviving.

Essayist Brian Doyle captured in words the beauty of burdened people who commit to carry on. Pondering the weight of disappointments or heartbreaks or duties, he wrote:

“I think about this all the time. I find myself staring at the shoulders of counselors and priests and doctors and mothers, to see what the weight looks like. I find myself thinking that most people sure are extraordinary. I find myself thinking, as I get older and less cocky and less sure and more merciful and more hip to the fact that everyone has scars on their hearts or will, and everyone carries loads or will, and everyone carries their load alone or will, that maybe all people are extraordinary, whether or not I see that clear, and that my seeing it or not seeing it has nothing to do with the reality of grace under duress, which is pretty much the story of the human race. Love carries a lot of pain in its chest” (The Wet Engine, 131-132).

A friend’s mother once told me that she wants a deciduous tree to stand over her grave. “Most people I talk to want evergreens, since they defy death,” she explained, “but I want a tree that shows resurrection.”

The more I think about it, deciduous trees really do make a more fitting legacy not just at death, but throughout life as well. Jesus didn’t only make possible the resurrection that will take us from our tombs to His arms, but also the ones that occur day to day, year to year, fall to fall. That’s why He could promise that “whosoever liveth and believeth in [Him] shall never die” (John 11:26). He is the promise that there will always be new seasons ahead. There will always be purpose, hope, healing, and life. If we clutch Christ’s pierced palms and hang on to His truths, then “all things wherewith [we] have been afflicted shall work together for [our] good, and to [His] name’s glory” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:3).

The trees that color and bare during autumn are not only lovely for their shades and their warmth, but because of their pledge to bring beauty again. They’re resilient. They’re tough. And I love them for it, and I believe that God counts every leaf as it falls, just as He’s aware of each sparrow, each hair, each skipped heartbeat, each pit in the stomach, each cry. And what’s more, God calculated a plan that based life and the world on the doctrine of resurrection. There’s a season for everything, and seasons repeat, and we laugh and we sob and we fall and we grow, and the plan carries on, and we rise and we pray, and we lean on Christ’s breast,[1] from which vantage point we can see that this plan of renewal is indeed a great gift from the God of things that fall beautifully.

So perhaps for us all the world begins in autumn. And each autumn it will begin yet again. And again. And again and again. And a hundred agains still to come.

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[1] “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” LDS Hymns #104. Text by Edward Hooper.

By Grace


Lake Helena Helena Montana, July 2015 (photo taken en route to Canada)

Lake Helena
Helena Montana, July 2015
(photo taken en route to Canada)

“God’s plan from the start for this world and your heart has been to show His glory and His grace.” — from ‘Glorious Unfolding,’ Steven Curtis Chapman

Because neither of us is that great with goodbyes, my best friend and I spent close to forty hours together in a Hyundai Sonata on a trek to-and-from Canada before grad school and work forced us to part paths. We had planned the trip for over a year, and when the departure date finally arrived we loaded snacks into the back seat, buckled ourselves into the front ones, and took the nearest exit onto I-15 North.

It was what any good road trip ought to be. We managed to misplace a freeway, to get lost on the prairies of Alberta, to “encounter” a tornado and exaggerate our experience with it, to inadvertently massacre insects at 70 MPH, to discover a lake, to keep quotes, to crack up and cry and discuss politics and eat pizza and sing along with the radio and learn what produce may and may not cross the border.

And we managed, for the most part, to avoid discussing my friend’s impending move across the country. We couldn’t talk about it. We didn’t want to sour the mood of pretended stability and carefreeness.

But the thought still gnawed at the backs of our minds, burned in the pits of our stomachs, tore at the flesh of our hearts. Separation. – And not just separation, either. Uncertainty. Adulthood. Moving on.

Maybe it would be easier to face if all this graduation-and-going-forward stuff were all that bears down on us right about now. Maybe if every other aspect of life were well-planned-out and controllable—maybe if everything else felt solid and safe—maybe then we could tackle the foreboding unsureness with a little more perky pluck. Instead we skirted the topic, or made vague allusions to it, feeling nauseous while doing so, giggling nervously, and then shifting subjects.

I’ve tasted enough heartache to realize that things like this aren’t fatal. When disappointments or separations or uncertainties pop up, they leave scars but not corpses. We can talk about “moving on” because somehow we’re all capable of doing just that. Something in the human spirit, some miracle of resilience, keeps us stumbling along even after—even during—the wounds and wars we face daily.

I thought about that on the trip—about the staying, fighting, get-up-and-keep-going power that’s healed me through horrors before, that’s healing me now, and that I hope will heal me in the future. As a child I learned to call this power grace, and to point as its source to the Savior, Who volunteered to endure every brokenness known to man so He could support, lift, heal, encourage us when we break. Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, and Calvary all tell the story of the source of hope and healing. They tell the story of grace—a story recounted billions of times every day when our vias are a touch more dolorosa than we can handle, but somehow we pull through and look back and marvel, “My goodness, how did I survive that dark patch?”

We survive by grace.

Jesus’s grace, poured out through Atonement to soak us in warm cleansing curing gentle succoring power when our hearts bleed and our souls break.

God’s grace, proved by sacrificing one perfect Son to save billions of sinful children.

I guess I’ve always looked at grace primarily as something that heals or makes up for or soothes. It’s the stuff that God uses to forgive the sins of repenters. He takes it to make salves for the scrapes and gashes we incur through offense, disappointment, or failure. Jesus came to earth to “[suffer] pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” to take on Himself “. . . the pains and the sicknesses of His people,” to suffer our transgressions, to be infirm, and to die, all for hope’s sake, all to know how it feels to be fallen, all to make it so bad things can be righted through grace (Alma 7:11-13).

“If men come unto me,” God told one prophet, “I will show unto them their weakness . . . that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all [humble] men . . . [to] make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). Grace strengthens the weak stuff. It heals the hurt stuff. It cleans the filthy stuff.

It comforts the sad girls who weep when their best friends up and move across the country for graduate school.

That’s how I typically look at grace—for its make-this-stop-hurting side.

Which is to say that for the bulk of this quarter-century life I’ve examined only half of that piece of Godly goodness—or perhaps much less than half.

I learned a gracious thing or two on the road trip to Canada, and one important lesson occurred when my former mission president (who, along with his wife, played Albertan host to me and my friend) put his hands on my head and prayed out a Priesthood promise that pierced through my practiced pessimism. Although I hadn’t said anything about the questions that nagged me, the uncertainties I faced, or the sorrow that grumbled in my heart, President van Bruggen’s soft voice became firm as he said:

“God wants you to know that life will be good.”

And my soul recognized that that promise was true.

Because grace isn’t just a post-facto power that swoops in to sweep up the mess of shattered lives. It’s not just meant to make up for bad things, or to salve cuts and bruises, or to smudge away tears. To be certain, grace does all those things, and thank heavens, because I’m sure I couldn’t have made it this far without grasping for grace in tough times, and I’m sure I won’t ever reach Heaven without scouring my sins with the Lord’s Atonement.

But God wants us all to know that life will be good, so Jesus’s mission on earth wasn’t simply to learn how to feel for us during our pains, but also to pave the path to rich blessings. Not just yet-to-come, someday, celestial blessings. The here-and-now ones. Mundane ones. Tangible, earthy ones that we can wrap our fingers around and hold onto and hope for.

The scriptures say that “in Christ there should come every good thing,” which means that grace isn’t only a reaction to bad but a promise of good (Moroni 7:22). In Christ there comes every vibrant sunset that bounces orange-yellow-pink beams off cumulus canvases set against a blue sky. In Christ there are friendships, romances, and “chance” encounters that are anything but. Without Christ we could never be giddy. We could never be satisfied. We couldn’t be comfortable, warm, or secure. Hope couldn’t crawl chills up our spines—joy couldn’t squeeze wrinkles from our eyes—glee couldn’t shake laughs in our bellies without grace. And grace comes in and from and through and with and by the One Whose life means Life itself, the One Whose name is Love.

I’ve seen the strengthening, healing, and cleansing part of grace when weakness, hurt, and sin have stung me and made me wonder how I’d ever make it. I’ve seen grace smooth over the aches of separations in the past. I trust the current throbs will ebb with time and prayer and sighing.

But I’ve also witnessed good things come of grace, and something tells me grace has yet to exhaust the blessings God still keeps in store to give His children every day through light and love and laughter and excitement and fresh air and nieces, friends, forever families, music, plants, beaches, sleep, summers, snow, dirt, galaxies, wind water petals sunrays roommates muscles conversation textures shadows mountains education eyes reflections pebbles prairies. . . .

I believe in a Savior Who felt and feels both pain and joy. I believe in a Christ Who lived and lives through hurt and love. I believe in a Messiah Who gave and gives the strength to endure trial and glory. He’s the “high priest of good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11) and He blesses us in ways built with a beauty we can’t fathom, either by gracing our path out of sorrow or by gracing our path into bliss. Separations, anxieties, and burdens will come. But God crafted a plan to bring salvation to His frightened children, and that plan is called grace.

And it’s glorious.