Happiness

October 28, 2016

Apparently I come across to some people as being unhappy. As near as I can tell, the consensus in some circles is that I spend my days obsessed with blaming my misery on the religion I no longer practice, when I should just realize that I’m unhappy because I have problems.

Of course, all of this relies on the assumption that I’m unhappy.

I am not.

I’ve probably written about this before, but as I’ve grown older, my conception of happiness has changed, and I realize that being happy means being comfortable and at peace with who you are. For a variety of reasons (some related to Mormonism, but that was just a part of it), I was never satisfied with where I was in life, and I never felt like I was good enough; if anything, my obsession was with self-improvement, with proving to myself, God, and whomever else, that I was good enough, smart enough, and–doggone it–people liked me. On the inside, however, I was filled with self-loathing; I remember feeling that if people knew the “real me” inside, they would be horrified. So, I looked outside myself for validation, and as I noted recently, when I went through my crisis of faith, I was overly concerned with getting that validation from other people.

I don’t think life got any better until I finally realized that I didn’t need approval, understanding, or validation from other people. I just needed to be OK with myself. In the immortal words of the poet Edgar A. Guest:

But here in this struggle for fame and pelf,
I want to be able to like myself.

And I do like myself. The person I am–the natural man, if you will–is not a bad person or unworthy, let alone an enemy to God. It’s just me, and I’m happy with me.

It’s a good place to be. I’m a new grandparent, and life could not be better.

ETA: Now this song is stuck in my head.


Why This Election is Rigged

October 17, 2016

It’s been interesting watching the Trump campaign in the last couple of weeks. The Access Hollywood tape has caused the candidates and his surrogates to flail wildly to find something to distract attention from what probably was a mortal wound.

But really, this campaign has been over for weeks, and I’m certain the Trump campaign folks know it, but I really can’t tell if the reality of the situation has permeated Donald Trump thicket of carbon-fiber hair and into his brain. One hint that he does understand what’s going on is the resurrection of one word: rigged.

Trump began talking about a “rigged” system in April, calling it a “a rigged, disgusting, dirty system,” after Ted Cruz won some GOP delegates with superior organizing and planning.

We didn’t hear much about a rigged system until August, when Trump was again languishing in the polls after a poorly staged convention (and a much better-presented Democratic convention): “And I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said.  Another spike in his use of “rigged” came, unsurprisingly, after the first presidential debate, which pretty much everyone agrees did not go well for Mr. Trump. Publicly, Trump tried to put the best face on it, retweeting online polls showing an overwhelming victory, but that one word, “rigged,” once again showed he knew he had lost.

The pattern is pretty obvious: when Trump is doing well, it’s his own doing. No one should be surprised that in a disastrous couple of weeks of casting about for someone to blame–SNL? seriously?–Trump’s speeches have been peppered with that word again and with dark suggestions that there will be massive and widespread voter fraud, particularly in precincts with high African-American demographics.

Could there be some attempts at voter fraud? Sure, but it would require a massive conspiracy in both parties and across multiple states, making it highly unlikely. And even if there were such a massive conspiracy, it would matter only in a close election–and require millions of fake votes.

But this election isn’t close. Trump had one task only in this election: win the states that Romney won and pick up a number of swing states that had voted for Obama. The way to do this, of course, was to attempt to appeal to moderate and undecided voters. That shouldn’t have been a difficult task, as Hillary Clinton is perhaps the second-most disliked major-party candidate in memory–second only to Mr. Trump.

What he needed to do was try to attract college-educated whites, women, and persuadable minorities.And indeed, his campaign kept telling us that was what he was going to do. But what we got instead was classic Trump: an appeal to African-Americans that traded in racist stereotypes (they all live in poor, violent, inner cities, and they need help from the government (him, actually) because they can’t take care of themselves). His appeal to women consisted of trotting out women who accused Bill Clinton sexual assault and then denying he’d ever done what he had bragged about to Billy Bush. Of course, the denials just opened the floodgates, and women are rushing forward to tell the same story about Trump. At this point, no one gives a damn about Bill Clinton’s past because Trump’s behavior just makes him look hypocritical.

Is it any wonder that the operative word this week–in almost all of Trump’s tweets and speeches–is “rigged.” Others have written about how irresponsible and, frankly, unpatriotric and un-American it is for Trump to call into question the sanctity of our electoral process, and I won’t go into that other than to say that, if violence does result from unhappy Trumpistas after the election, we know whom to blame.

As for me, I’m content to know that, finally, inevitably, Trump knows he’s lost. Roland Barthes once wrote that expressing love to another is an “affirmation of extreme solitude.” We tell other people we love them because we understand we are alone, and we hope that they will love us in return and rid us of our loneliness. In the same way, Trump’s assertions that he would be winning, save for a “rigged” system, is a pathetic acknowledgement that he’s lost, and he knows it.

Expect to hear “rigged” even more often over the new few weeks, as the scope of Trump’s loss sinks in. I’ll smile every time I hear it.

 

 


Come on in, the water’s fine

October 4, 2016

A number of years ago, a Mormon guy told me I was “the worst kind of anti-Mormon there is.” Why? Because I pretended to be reasonable, fair, and well-intentioned (apparently, I’m none of those things) in an effort to tear the LDS church down, one member at a time. He continued, “You’re basically someone standing in a pool full of sharks saying, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine!'”

At the time that really bothered me because I have never intended to draw anyone out of the LDS church. Looking back on the heartache I went through when I went through my “crisis of faith,” I think my main concern was that I wanted someone–anyone, really–to understand what I was going through and why, and to tell me I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t just “looking for excuses to leave.” Really, I wanted validation, and of course, that kind of validation is impossible to obtain from believing church members. Predictably, I received quite a lot of negative responses, and the only validation I got was from people who had been through the experience before me.

I didn’t watch LDS general conference this last weekend, but I see that a lot of people are talking about a talk from M. Russell Ballard wherein he discussed the safety and spiritual benefit of staying in the church compared to the lack of these things “the world” offers. I don’t have the transcript of the talk, so I’ll just quote from the Deseret News summary:

To these members, Elder Ballard asked, like Peter, “To whom shall [you] go?” The decision to leave the Church can have a long-term impact that can’t be seen at the moment.

He said, “If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.”

Elder Ballard urged members, “Never abandon the great truths revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Never stop reading, pondering and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon.”

Before making the spiritually perilous choice to leave, Elder Ballard encouraged members “to stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the first place. Stop and think about what you have felt here and why you felt it. Think about the times when the Holy Ghost has born witness to you of eternal truth.”

The organization, doctrine and teachings found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found in no other place, Elder Ballard said.

Accepting and living the gospel of Christ can be challenging, as it has always been. Elder Ballard said, “Life can be like hikers ascending a steep and arduous trail. It is a natural and normal thing to occasionally pause on the path to catch our breath, to recalculate our bearings, and to reconsider our pace.” Not every hiker needs to stop, and there is nothing wrong with doing so if circumstances require a break. The danger comes when someone decides to leave the trail entirely.

If I had read that back when I was going through the turmoil of collapsing faith, I probably would have been hurt and angry. Indeed, back at that time I wrote a parable about those who were telling me I had to “get with the program” and go back to church, despite what I knew:

There once was a boy who lived all his life with a cardboard box over his head. His parents taught him that he should never take the box off, for doing so was dangerous and foolish. The box protected him from the scary world outside of it.

On the inside of the box, he could make out some letters, and he could see the outlines of the box around him. His world was brown cardboard. His parents taught him to study the inside of the box carefully, for in it it was all the wisdom he needed to navigate life. Inside the box was security and safety. Inside the box was reality.

Some of his friends told him that they had taken off the box and life was much better, but he didn’t believe them. His parents made sure he stayed away from these people, who clearly wanted only to hurt their boy.

But as he grew older, he found that he kept bumping into sharp and painful objects that he couldn’t see because of the box. His parents told him that those things weren’t real, that he was safest and happiest inside the box. But each day brought more injury as he seemed to constantly run into painful things.

“Just take the box off so you can see where you’re going,” said his friends.

“No! You can’t! You’ll hurt yourself, and you might even die!” warned his parents.

After too many painful days, he made up his mind to see what was out there on the other side of the box. The light hurt his eyes briefly, but after a moment, he could see colors and trees and sky. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined.

He looked around and saw his friends, who smiled at him and welcomed him to a better world. And then he saw them. His parents and friends came groping toward him, boxes on their heads.

He called out to them, “Take the boxes off! You’ll see that there’s so much more out here! Trust me!”

But his parents told him sadly, “We have failed as parents. All we ever wanted was for you to be happy, and now you’ve rejected us and everything we hold dear. Please, son. Put the box back on, for us. You’ll see that we know what’s best.”

“But Mom, Dad. It’s so beautiful out here, and the world is full of possibilities. Can’t you just lift the box, if only for a moment? You’ll see that I’m telling you the truth.”

His parents turned sadly and told their friends, “We have lost our son. Let this be a lesson to you. This is what happens when you take off the box.”

And they groped their way slowly away from the shining sun.

But these days, the pain has long passed, and I don’t worry about what people say about me. I don’t often think about the differences in my life after leaving the church, but it strikes me that, as I wrote in the parable, I have a much broader perspective about life and my place in it.

As a church member, I always viewed life as “us” (members of the church) and “them” (the world outside the safe environs of God’s kingdom). I was taught all my life that life outside the church was rudderless, morality-free, and scary. If I didn’t have the church, what would become of me? I still shake my head at those who have told me that, without the gospel in their lives, they are sure they would be drug addicts or sex addicts or in prison, or something. Maybe we were taught that who we are deep inside–the natural man–is evil, an enemy to God. I certainly internalized that.

I will say that leaving the church left me feeling pretty vulnerable, without what I call the superstructure of the church, its practices and worldview, through which to frame and experience life. But this ended up being a good thing. I was forced to dig deep inside and figure out who I am and what I believe (hint: what I found isn’t evil or an enemy to God). I was forced to deal with people as people, not as members and non-members. It never occurred to me until I left the church that I had put up walls between myself and non-members; it wasn’t that I was shutting them out, but I always saw my relationships with them in terms of their possible interest in the church. (How crazy is it that for about 2 years, I found myself thinking “that guy would really benefit from joining the church”?)

And I’ve discussed elsewhere my battle with depression (and a suicide attempt) in the wake of my faith crisis, but even that turned out to be a real “blessing,” if I’m allowed to use that word. As a church member, I had spent my whole life telling myself how happy I was because of the church. Happiness was keeping the commandments, and I was keeping the commandments. Therefore, I was happy, end of story. But I learned subsequently that I’d been clinically depressed for many years, but it was impossible to admit that because I was so focused on telling myself how happy I was.

So, yes, it’s been an interesting journey, one filled equally with pain and joy, but I wouldn’t trade it for what Elder Ballard is offering. Not a chance. Mormonism works for some people, I get that. But, unfortunately, it’s a one-size-fits-all lifestyle, and nothing fits everyone properly. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the foundational claims of the church do not hold up to minimal scrutiny.)

You see, the life I had before was the life Elder Ballard and his fellows had prescribed for me. I was following their script, not mine. And it didn’t work. But rather than rebel against it, I had just denied who I was and tried to become the character in the play they had written for me. But who I was slowly faded into the background, and I sometimes wonder if there would have been anything left that was “me” had I stayed on that path.

While I was going through the turmoil of those days, I found an excellent therapist in Utah who understood what I was going through. She told me something that changed my life: “You have to get to the point where living a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.” This was completely opposite of what I had been taught all my life: put everyone else first, not least the church and God; subordinate your will to God and His prophets. Authenticity means being true to yourself, but the gospel is about denying yourself.

So, to whom shall we go when we leave the church? Does it matter? We go where our heart, our brain, our conscience takes us, and we find a happy and authentic life. Elder Ballard seems to be suggesting, as my mother would about people breaking the Sabbath, that people who leave only “look happy” but aren’t really happy.

But we are. I am, anyway.

So, yes, come on in, the water’s fine!


No Way Out?

September 1, 2016

I was thinking this morning about my long struggle with depression. For most of my life, I just lived with it, undiagnosed and untreated, and I’m convinced a lot of that had to do with my belief that being a member of the LDS church and keeping the commandments made one “happy.” I was doing what I was supposed to do and trying to nurture a relationship with God, so I told myself I was happy because happiness naturally follows the kind of life I was living. On the rare occasions I admitted how bad things were, I just blamed myself for not being faithful enough and not being content with my blessings.

I was miserable. Sometimes I hated myself so much I contemplated suicide. Ironically, what kept me from making the attempt was my belief that, even if I killed myself, it wouldn’t be the end. I’d just be sitting there in the spirit world, as unhappy and self-loathing as ever. So, what would have been the point?

Obviously, the reality of my life didn’t match what the church told me my life should be. I just accepted that my life was as good as it was going to get, and that meant I was happy. Perhaps, I thought, this was what happiness was, and people who weren’t living like that must be even worse off than I was. Essentially, I didn’t know what happiness was because I hadn’t experienced it.

I’ve said before that it wasn’t until after my loss of faith that I was able to acknowledge and treat my depression. Of course, it took a suicide attempt to get there. I stopped telling myself I was happy, and it was easy to recognize that the words had always been empty. I found a good therapist and got on the right mix of medications.

I finally decided that happiness is being comfortable in your own skin, enjoying your life without constantly feeling you need to do better. Self-improvement is a worthy goal, but I think we were caught in the trap of never stepping back to appreciate how far we’d come. There was always some other imperfection or failing we had to address. And I guess by “we” I mean “me.”

Life is good.

Sorry I’ve been so busy that I haven’t gotten back to the novel, but I will. I promise.


Oh, Inverted Y

June 6, 2016

I’ve been ill, so things have slowed down on the story, but it’s coming. In the meantime, as with many of you, recent events at Brigham Young University have left me wondering how to express my unhappiness at my alma mater. I decided on something simple: the Oval Y logo inverted. If you attended BYU and want to express your support for academic freedom, unlinking the honor code from criminal investigations, and ending the practice of expelling those who go through a faith change, the inverted Y is not a bad way to do it. I’m kind of hoping it catches on.

oval_y_blue

I have mixed emotions about BYU. Having spent 7 years there as an undergrad and grad student, I have wonderful memories of good friends, students and professors, and great experiences at “The Y.” I have close family members who are employed by BYU or who attend the university, and I love them and wish them the best.

Some might say that speaking out about these issues shows disloyalty, but I think a loyal alumnus helps the university become that much better by encouraging positive change and growth.

So, if you would like to spread this graphic around as a sign of solidarity, feel free.

Thanks.


The Incidental Prophet, Part 6

May 10, 2016

My second full day on the ranch was a Sunday. My family honored the Sabbath by doing only necessary work on Sundays, such as milking the cows, gathering eggs, and irrigating the fields if our water turn happened to come on Sunday. Grandma woke me early and informed me over breakfast that church started at 10:00, so I must be finished with my chores, washed, and dressed for church by 9:15.

“I’m going to have you feed the lambs, since you already know how to do it,” she said.

“How am I supposed to know how much water and milk powder to mix?” I said, a little concerned.

“It tells you right on the bag. I’ve already got some water heating on the stove for you.”

I slowly carried the hot pan of water into the washroom and mixed it with some cold water in a can someone had set out for me. Grandma had said you could tell it was the right temperature if you could stick your finger into it and feel it was pretty close to your body temperature.

It took a little trial and error, but eventually I got the temperature right. I spilled too much of the mix on the floor, but eventually I got it to where it looked (and smelled) about right.

It was another beautiful morning, and even though it was June, I see my breath as I carried the wooden crate of bottles out to the lamb enclosure, traces of frost still clinging to some of the grass that was growing outside the fence line.

Once again, the lambs came running as soon as I approached. For a moment I thought how good it felt to be wanted and needed, but then I realized it was more about the milk. They had it easy, I thought: just show up and be fed. Of course, they had no idea their destiny was to end up supplying wool for sweaters or, worse, a nice Easter dinner with Grandma’s mint jelly on the side. But then it was their duty to fill the role they were born for, and I knew it was mine, too.

I got back to the house just as Grandma came in with a basket of fresh eggs. “Go wash up and put on your Sunday clothes,” she said. “I’ll fix some breakfast.”

I was hungry, so I washed quickly, combed my hair and put on a white shirt, a tie my dad had given me when I was ordained a deacon a couple of years earlier, and my Sunday slacks. I gave my shoes a light rub with my dirty shirt, and headed into the kitchen, where Grandma was putting two “eggs in a basket” on my plate. She knew this was one of my favorites: a slice of white bread with a hole cut in the center, an egg dropped in, and the whole thing fried in butter.

“Let me get a look at you,” Grandma said, suspiciously. “No, that won’t do.”

She went to the sink and retrieved a dishcloth and some soap. By the time she finished scrubbing my face, neck, ears, arms, and hands, my skin felt raw and tingled.

“Didn’t your mother teach you how to wash up?” she said, knowing full well the answer.

“Sorry, Grandma,” I said as I dug into the eggs.

“Things will be different for you here,” she said. “This is my place, and you do what I say.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said sheepishly, taking a sip of milk.

After breakfast, I put the dishes in the sink to soak, and Grandma and I walked out to the truck.

“Any of you fellas coming?” she shouted towards the bunkhouse, where some of the hands were sitting on the stoop, looking like they were just barely awake.

I was surprised when Lyme walked out, dressed in a clean white shirt, tie, and slacks.

“Since it’s just the three of us, we can all sit in the cab,” Grandma said. “You drive, Lyme.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, taking the keys.

We drove for what seemed a long time until we reached a collection of houses bordered by a gas pump and store, and a small clapboard church. “Burr Ridge Ward” read the words over a stylized beehive carved in a sandstone frame over the church door. Dad had showed me when I was a boy the remnants of a square and compass that had once adorned either side of the beehive but had for some mysterious reason been sanded off. I never knew why, but Dad had just said, “I guess it’s considered too sacred now, but they used to be on every church building you’d see.” I wasn’t sure why those carvings were supposed to be sacred, but he said I’d understand someday.

We arrived too late for priesthood meeting, but Grandma said she’d let me drive the truck in once she was sure she could trust me. So, we started out with sacrament meeting, where we would partake of the emblems of the body and blood of Christ–bread and water, because wine was forbidden to Mormons.

Church was pretty much like it was at home. Because I was a visitor, I was asked to stand and introduce myself. I’ve always been uncomfortable in front of people, so I stammered a little and could feel my face going red.

Grandma stood. “This is my grandson, William, who is spending the summer here from Utah.” she said smiling and patting me on the shoulder. “Oh, but he likes to be called Will.” My face went even redder.

“Well, welcome!” said Bishop Carver, a large, red-faced man with unruly brown hair that he had unsuccessfully tried to comb into something presentable. “We’re glad you’re here.”

In those days, particularly in small congregations, meetings would have only one speaker. Today’s speaker was Lazarus Menlove, a spindly looking man with a long, sloping nose and ears that poked out perpendicular to his head.

“Brothers and sisters,” he began, louder than I had imagined someone so physically unimposing could be. “I want you to know that we live in a day of miracles! I reckon most of us think those days are gone by, that miracles happened in Jesus’ time or with the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I’m here to tell you we have the same privilege of receiving miraculous answers to our prayers in the present, even today.”

This sounded promising, as I’d never heard of anyone speaking of miracles in our midst, especially not in a tiny hamlet like Burr Ridge. Looking around the congregation, I got the distinct impression that no one else in the chapel was buying any of it. A couple of attractive girls who looked to be roughly my age were whispering and giggling, until they saw I was looking. The one turned away, embarrassed, her face as red as her hair. The other girl, who had hair as black as obsidian, stared right back at me with blue eyes that looked like she could see right through me. For a moment I thought she had smiled at me, but I couldn’t be sure. Then she looked down and pretended to find something interesting about the hymnbook.

“I thought I was going to lose both the ewe and the lamb!” Lazarus was nearly shouting. “But it weren’t no use. The lamb was coming feet first, and it was all I could do not to tear the mama apart getting it out.”

Well, that was something you didn’t hear often in church.

“I reached my arm inside the ewe, and there was blood ever’where,” Lazarus continued, as I stared, spellbound.

“The pore little lamb was all blue and still, and the mama was just wailin’ in that way you’ve all heard, as if she was going through the fires of hell.”

I for one hadn’t heard anything like that before.

“Then all on a sudden, I knew what I had to do,” he said, his face looking rapturous. “I laid my blood-soaked hands on that mama ewe and called down the blessings of heaven by the authority of the priesthood I hold.”

Grandma was shaking her head in disapproval, but I couldn’t look away. He had me, as if a light were shining in his countenance.

“I’d no sooner said ‘Amen’ when the spirit told me to reach my hands inside the mama ewe one more time. She’d lost a lot of blood, but like Nephi of old, I knew better than to question the workings of the spirit.”

I would have given anything to feel the workings of the spirit, but I would have to rely on people like Lazarus for the time being.

“I shoved both my arms into the mama, up to my elbows, and tugged hard as I could. Suddenly, the lamb shifted and, verily, it came sliding on out.”

That was a heck of a story, I thought. But he wasn’t done yet.

“I knew I’d saved that ewe, but the lamb was dead. Beyond hope,” he said almost in a whisper, looking directly at me. “But the Lord wasn’t going to let me lose that lamb, too. I laid my hands on that lamb and commanded it to live.”

He paused for what seemed like an hour. I had to know. What had happened?

“Why, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’a been there, but that lamb started jerking, coughed out a bit of blood, and stood on its feet jus’ like it was a prize-winner at the fair. I think it might be the best-looking lamb of the spring.”

Grandma sighed, and as I turned, I saw her roll her eyes a bit.

After the meeting, she went directly to the bishop and said, “Well, I am quite sure the Lord isn’t pleased to hear such–well, indelicate–talk in his house on his day.”

“Now, Sister Murdock,” he said, patting her hand and chuckling. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Well, that man needs a good talking to,” she said.

Grandma looked annoyed, but she took my arm and said, “It’s time for lunch.”

Back in Utah, we would walk home after sacrament meeting and have lunch before returning in the afternoon for Sunday School. But there wasn’t time to drive all the way back to the ranch, so she had packed some sandwiches and lemonade in a basket, which she had me retrieve from the back of the truck.

She spread out a blanket, and she handed me a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper–liverwurst, Grandma’s favorite. Not mine, but it wasn’t bad. Grandma noticed Lyme sitting alone under a poplar tree, so she called out, “Get on over here! We can’t have you starving, now, can we?”

Lyme looked a little embarrassed but took a sandwich.

“Come on!” Grandma said, patting the blanket. “Sit down and eat with us! My goodness, you needn’t fear us, young man.”

Lyme looked quite flustered now, but he sat down obediently, and Grandma poured lemonade into two paper cups for us.

“What did you think of the meeting?” she asked me.

“Well,” I said hesitantly, trying to chew my sandwich. “Is it always like that? I mean, with all the gory details and blood and that?”

Lyme laughed, a little bit of sandwich escaping his lips.

“Oh, no,” Grandma said. “I’m afraid you got we here call the baptism by Menlove. I do not know what goes through that man’s head. Just wait until Fast Sunday! Hardly anyone gets a word in edgewise once old Brother Menlove gets a-going.”

Fast Sunday, of course, was the first Sunday of the month, when we would fast for two meals–usually supper the night before and then breakfast. There were no speakers scheduled on Fast Sunday, but the bishop would get the meeting started by “bearing testimony,” which is a Mormon tradition of sharing one’s faith, but no one ever said, “I believe.” It was always, “I know.”

“I know God lives.”

“I know Jesus is the Christ, who died for my sins.”

“I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”

“I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”

“I know David O. McKay is a prophet of God on earth today.”

I always wanted to know, but so far, I couldn’t say I knew any of that for certain. Fortunately, bearing testimony also involved giving thanks for the blessings in our lives.

“I’m thankful for my parents.”

“I’m thankful for my sister.”

“I’m thankful for the bishop.”

These things I could do. It was the knowing part that threw me off.

But every congregation had at least one person who would deviate from the script, and you never knew what was going to happen. Clearly, Lazarus Menlove was this ward’s wild card.

Sunday School was uneventful. Once again, I had to introduce myself, but no one seemed particularly interested in me. A couple of boys my age sat in the back while the teacher, a stout, middle-aged woman, struggled to maintain control while teaching us about Helaman leading his 2,000 “stripling warriors” into battle. I had always thought this was one of the most exciting parts of the Book of Mormon, but no one else appeared to be listening. The teacher seemed surprised and grateful that I was paying attention.

The dark-haired girl I had seen earlier sat in front of me, and I really wanted to see her eyes again. There was something about them. But she never even glanced in my direction.

After church, Grandma served us a supper of pot roast, which had been cooking in a dutch oven over the fire all day. After supper, we sat on wooden chairs on the porch, both of us holding either side of Grandma’s Book of Mormon. I started reading, while she sat quietly, eyes closed and smiling.

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

I’d never read the Book of Mormon all the way through, cover to cover, but I knew a lot of the stories. I knew with Grandma’s help, we’d get through it together.

At the end of the first chapter, Grandma closed the book, and we knelt again to pray.

“Your turn,” she said, smiling.

I don’t know what it was, but the words just poured out of me, and I pleaded with Heavenly Father to help me know like Grandma knew, like the people in church knew, like Joseph Smith had known.

As I helped Grandma to her feet, she hugged me and said, “Oh, my boy, you too are highly favored of the Lord. Like everyone else in this world, you’ll pass through afflictions, but you will know. You will.”


The Incidental Prophet, Part 5

April 24, 2016

I woke up the next morning to the smell of bacon and eggs and looked around.

The bedroom was small and the bed a little lumpy, but it had been a long trip, and I had slept well. The whole place had a different feeling to it, though I couldn’t describe it if I tried. Instead of the clean, whitewashed walls of our home, the “big house,” or so all the ranch hands called it, was plaster over chinked and squared logs, some of which you could see through places the plaster had worn thin. Mom had lithographs of botanical prints from England or somewhere hanging on the walls in our home, though in my room, a stern-visaged portrait of Brigham Young glowered down on me, as if echoing disappointment in me from the grave. Grandma’s house, though obviously well-kept and orderly, still had a more relaxed, casual sense to it.

On the wall above the  bed was a cross-stitch reading “Love at Home” under a depiction of a cozy-looking cabin. On the opposite wall was a sepia photograph of a weathered-looking couple standing in front of an adobe farmhouse. The man had a slight smile showing through his white beard, and he wore threadbare boots, dirty trousers held up with suspenders, and a frayed linen shirt. The woman wore an apron of indeterminate pattern over a plain dark dress; her face looked stern and a little sad. Written in ink across the bottom was “Daniel and Mary McCurdie -Summer 1912.” To one side of the wood-framed bed stood a single dresser, made of pine and totally without ornamentation. On the top of the dresser was a small bowl filled with butter mints, which Grandma knew I loved. Popping a few mints into my mouth, I retrieved my folded clothes from my canvas bag and placed them in the empty drawers of the dresser. I think that’s when it started to feel like I was going to be here a while.

When I heard Grandma’s call to breakfast, I hurried to put on my trousers and shirt. My work boots had stayed on the front porch–Grandma’s iron-clad rule–and I shuffled into the kitchen in my old wool socks, where Grandma stood at the cast-iron stove in a faded dress and apron.

Noticing my toe sticking out of a hole in one of the socks, Grandma shook her head. “Someone needs to learn how to darn a sock, I’d wager.”

In the bright morning light, she looked even older and worn out than she had the night before, but her eyes still twinkled when she smiled at me.

“Get some milk out of the icebox, and sit down at the table,” she said firmly.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked, noticing the couch where he usually slept was empty.

“I expect he’s having a look around the place, like he always does when he comes. I’m surprised he let you sleep in so late. It’s already past seven.”

“It was a long trip,” I said, taking my seat and pouring a glass of milk.

“Yup, but don’t think you’ll get to lay around here every day,” Grandma smiled. “There’s work to be done, and I’m counting on you to do it.”

Most kitchens are toward the back of the house, but Grandma’s kitchen was at one end of the front of the house, looking out through the long covered porch and out over the trees and meadow down the slope from the house. Out the side window was a smaller window over the large sink with a view of the mountains of the Bridger Range, and a small door led to a long, screened-in laundry room with a large galvanized-zinc washtub and lines for hanging clothes when the weather was bad. When you came in the front door, the living room and rock fireplace were to the left, and the kitchen was on the right. Mom had always said she would be mortified to have guests come in and see the kitchen first thing, but Grandma said, if she had to work in the kitchen most of the time, she wanted a view. Seeing the meadow, the trees, and the mountain lifted her spirits and reminded her every day how blessed she was. Mom couldn’t argue with that.

She set a plate full of bacon and three eggs on the table in front of me. “I would have had some orange juice for you, but we don’t go into town that often. Maybe next time.”

The tea kettle whistled on the stove, so she poured the hot water into a porcelain teapot and then put the lid on it to steep. I’d always wanted to try the tea, but Mom and Dad said it was against the Word of Wisdom and was a sin. I never understood why Grandma was allowed to sin–even in our home–with impunity, but I accepted it. Dad said that when he was growing up, Grandma would give him a sip of the tea and then, when the cup was empty, she would read the tea leaves for him. It was always the same, he had said: he would be a leader among men, beloved by all. I wondered what the leaves would say about me.

Soon she sat at the table and prepared her tea (milk first, then the tea, and finally one cube of sugar).

“I hope you haven’t left a young lady back in Utah,” she said. “Of course, there’ll be no time for that here. The only women on the ranch are me and Mrs. Pettit, who cooks and does the laundry for the hands. Oh, now I’ve gone and embarrassed you,” she said, smiling and patting my hand. “Maybe you’re not quite old enough for that.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said, turning to look out the window at the sheets on the line in the yard so she wouldn’t see my face, which felt flushed and hot. “I know how to work, and I’m not going to get distracted.”

“See that you don’t. Oh, I know you won’t. I’m just teasing.” She chuckled as she bit into a piece of toast.

“What am I going to be doing here?” I asked. No one had told much of anything other than I was going to be put to work.

“Well, the lambs need caring for, so maybe they’ll start you with that. I don’t believe you’re ready to be roping calves at this point.” No, I wasn’t.

“Go and talk to Seth, the foreman. He’ll straighten you out.”

After breakfast and a kiss from Grandma, I pulled on my boots and headed out the back door to the barn, where I knew Seth would be checking on the new lambs. Barns always smelled the same: that dry mixture of dust and straw that you could feel invading your nostrils. Our barn was always neat and well-ordered, and though a little less so, this was too–most likely because Grandma was known to rule with a bit of an iron fist. I found Seth seated on a small stool, mixing up a foamy white liquid in a large tin milk can. It smelled terrible. Arranged on the straw were several Pepsi bottles, a funnel, and a large paper bag.

“Just mixing up the milk for the lambs,” he said. “Here, help me fill the bottles.” I held each bottle and the funnel as he poured the milk in. It was warm, which somehow made the smell even worse.

“You’ll get used to the smell,” Seth chuckled, obviously noting my crinkled nose. When each bottle was filled, I reached into the bag, which was filled with rubber nipples, probably from baby bottles. “Stretch those over the top of the bottle,” Seth said, showing me how it was done. It took a little effort, but I managed to get all the nipples on without dropping any or spilling any milk.

“Your first job is to feed the lambs,” Seth said. Between the two of us, we carried the bottles to a small, fenced-off part of the sheep pasture, where several lambs were playing in the sun. When they saw us approach with the bottles, they came running toward us in that awkward way new lambs do, pushing their heads between the wires of the fence, bleating as if to say, “Me first!”

Seth left me with the bottles, and, one by one, I fed the lambs, who made quick work of the milk. When the milk was gone, they still bleated loudly for more, though I knew it was important not to over-feed them. I gathered up the empty bottles and took them to the laundry room. Grandma had heated some water on the stove, so I poured it into the washtub and washed each bottle and nipple with a worn bottle brush, dried them, and placed them and the bag in a wooden milk carton on a low shelf.

“Fence needs mending,” Seth said when I got back to the barn, where he was discussing ranch business with one of the hands. “Go on up to the north corner by the ridge. The other fellas are already there. You’ll have to walk it ’cause they already took the truck.”

It was about a twenty-minute hike along a rutted trail winding up to the top of the ridge, the left side of the trail what you might call pristine forest, and to the right fenced pasture where cattle grazed lazily in the early summer sunshine. It really was beautiful here, with the tall trees and the pine needles and cones covering the rugged ground. Much of the ranch had been cleared of trees, but they had left these as a windbreak against the cold Arctic wind and snow. The air felt crisp and somehow purer than any I had breathed, and I began to understand what Grandma meant when she said we were blessed.

“What do we have here?” I heard a voice say sarcastically as I approached the group of ranch hands, who were lifting into place a section of the rail fence that had been knocked or blown over. “Looks like we got us a little prince here,” the voice said, laughing.

I hoped they didn’t see how embarrassed I was, so I looked down at the ground and stammered, “I–I’m here … to work.”

“Oh, I’ll bet you are,” said the voice again. I could see the voice came from a lanky blond man with red, sun-burned skin and chipped front tooth, who wore patched overalls over longjohns. “Well, you’re working for us, now, so don’t expect your granny to protect you. You may be a rich kid, but here you ain’t nothing but one of us–and you’re the new kid, so you take orders from us, not the other way ’round. See?”

Rich kid? What was he talking about?

“Aw, leave’m alone, Parley,” said a decidedly kinder looking man. “He’s just a kid.”

“Yeah, he is, and he’s just going to get in our way. But we can’t say anything because he’s the chosen one. A pest is more like it. I’ll bet he ain’t worked a day in his life,” Parley said, spitting out some tobacco juice on the ground in front of me. “Well, you can coddle the prince, Lyme, but not me.”

“You know how to make a rail fence?” Lyme asked.

“I’ve watched men do it,” I said, “but I’ve never done it myself.”

“It’s not too hard,” Lyme said, smiling. “You’ll learn quick.”

“Well, if someone has to pick up the slack for this kid, better you than me,” Parley said, once again spitting on the ground.

“You’re Will, right?” said Lyme, stretching out his hand to mine. It felt sort of like sandpaper, but he seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. He was built a little more solidly than Parley, with broad shoulders and muscled arms. A thick neck held up a tanned face and dark, curly hair.

“And I guess you’re Lyme,” I replied. “I never heard a name like that before.”

“It’s short for Lyman,” he said. “Ma named all us boys after church leaders, hoping we’d become righteous men like them. Between you and me,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “I don’t think it worked with my brother here.”

“Now, don’t you be telling that boy anything bad about me,” Parley said. “I can still whup you.” It didn’t look like he could, given the difference in size between him and Lyme.

Split-rail fences are very simple: they run in a zig-zag pattern with roughly squared posts or rails (the split-rails spoken of), the ends of each rail stacked alternately on the ends of the next section. Here in Montana, support rails are leaned up on either side of each section’s end to brace the fence against the wind or cattle who don’t understand the concept of a fence.

The day before, heavy winds had blown through the area, forcing Grandma to hang the laundry in the washroom. The fence had fallen in several places stretching about half a mile, so Lyme and I worked all day standing up the upright sections and lifting the long rails into place. It seemed to me that a good-sized steer could easily knock the fence over, but Lyme told me that the steers didn’t know that, so they didn’t even try. He told me that once a cow had escaped from the pasture when a careless had left the gate unhitched. They found her hours later, her head pushed between the rails and bellowing loudly as she frantically tried to get back to the safety of the pasture.

“I guess when you put up a fence around them,” Lyme said, “it’s in their nature to stay inside, where everything is safe and there aren’t any surprises. People are kind of like that, too.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

At lunchtime Mrs. Pettit rode up in a small two-wheeled cart pulled by an old horse. It was just cheese sandwiches and lemonade, but it sure tasted good after all that work. “These troublemakers treating you all right?” Mrs. Pettit asked me as she handed me a second sandwich.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.

After she left, Parley put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Wasn’t I right? The old lady is keeping tabs on us, making sure we’re being extra nice to her baby. All I can say is you better work hard and keep your mouth shut or you’re gonna have trouble from me. Understand?”

I nodded.

“Dammit, Parley, I said knock it off!” said Lyme, pushing Parley away from me. “He’s just a kid, and he’s not doing any harm.”

“Now don’t you be trying to get in good with the old lady,” Parley said with a trace of bitterness in his voice. “We’re paid to work, not to babysit.”

“Will’s been working hard all morning,” Lyme said. “You give him any trouble, and you’ll be answering to me.”

“Well, hell’s bells, can’t even count on my own brother,” Parley said. “Come on, boys, there’s work to be done.” With that he turned and went back to the fence.

“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but he sure doesn’t like me.”

“Oh, don’t you mind my brother. He can be a real pain in the neck, but he’s harmless … most of the time.”

I thought I knew how to work hard, but it seemed like nothing I’d ever done was as strenuous as that first day’s work. By the time we heard Mrs. Pettit ring the dinner bell in the distance, my shoulders were aching from driving in fence posts, and my back and arms throbbed from lifting the heavy rails into place.

I rode in the back of the truck with Lyme and some of the other hands.

“You did all right today, kid,” Lyme said. “Looks like your dad taught you to work hard.”

“Yeah, and my mom, too,” I said.

“Oh, his momma taught to work,” Parley snickered. “Just what we needed, a ranch hand who works like a girl.”

“Hush up,” Lyme said, giving Parley a dirty look. “His mother probably works harder than you do. Will did a lot more work today than you did, anyway.”

“He just better stay out of my way,” Parley said, glaring directly at me.

I really didn’t know what to think. I’d never met anyone who had taken an instant dislike to me before. I’d always assumed most people were kind and decent by nature, but this didn’t add up.

“No, you better stay out of my way,” Lyme said. “You bother Will, and you’ll regret it.”

“Oh, should I be afraid?” Parley let out a guffaw.

“Maybe so,” Lyme said, looking deadly serious. I was beginning to wonder what the rest of the summer would be like, but at least I had Lyme on my side.

When we reached the scattered buildings adjacent to the big house, we all got out of the truck and headed toward the small dining hall attached to the bunkhouse.

“Where you goin’?” Parley said. “You don’t eat with us. You’re in with her highness.”

“You better hope Mrs. Murdock don’t hear you calling her that,” Lyme said. “You got nothing against her. She’s been good to both of us. You know that.”

“I was just funnin’,” Parley said.

“Can I eat here?” I asked Mrs. Pettit.

“You can eat wherever you like, but I think your grandmother is expecting you up to the big house with her tonight.”

I trudged up the path to the big house, where Grandma was pulling a tray of biscuits out of the oven. “Hmmm. These might be a little overdone, but they’ll be all right.”

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“Oh, he had to get home,” Grandma said, stirring something in a skillet. “He said he was sorry he didn’t have time to come up where you were to say goodbye.”

Dad had never been good at goodbyes.

For dinner we had sausage gravy over biscuits and some pickled beets and onions from the cellar. I always loved the fresh milk we got on the ranch, and I dived into the meal enthusiastically.

“Whoa, slow down there, partner,” Grandma said. “Food is to be savored, not inhaled.”

“Sorry, Grandma,” I said, slowing down. “Do you think it’d be all right if I ate my meals with the other hands? I want to learn to do what they do, and I don’t think I should be treated special.”

“If that’s how you want it,” Grandma said, looking a little crestfallen. “I’ll make you a deal. You eat with the hands every day except Sunday. Then, after church, you come up and eat with me. Deal?”

“Deal,” I said, happily.

“One more thing,” Grandma said. “My eyes are not what they used to be, and it’s hard for me to read my scriptures at night. I’d appreciate it very much if you came in after supper and read to me.”

“Sure,” I said. We had always read a chapter of the scriptures every evening before family prayer and bedtime, so it was pretty much a habit anyway.

“Well, then, that’s settled,” Grandma said. “You’re a fine young man, and you do my heart good. I’ll tell you what: when I am rich, I shall boil me an egg, and you shall have the broth.”

I didn’t know what to make of that, but she burst out laughing, so I did, too. She said that was what her mother always said to her, and she was happy to have someone to say it to.

That evening we sat by the fire and began reading the Book of Mormon–Grandma’s favorite, she said. Curiously, we started with the title page, which we had always skipped when our family read.

“We have to read it,” she said. “Those words come directly from the gold plates–all except ‘translated by Joseph Smith, Jr.’ You can’t say you’ve read the whole thing if you haven’t read the title page.”

It turned out to be a synopsis of the book’s contents, though I’d read the book before with my family. The Book of Mormon told the story of Lehi, a Jew who had lived in Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Christ. Warned in a dream that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians, Lehi gathered his family and went off into the wilderness in search of a promised land that God would show him. Lehi’s four sons went with him. Two, Nephi and Sam, were righteous and obedient. The other two, Laman and Lemuel, were rebellious and complained a lot (whenever I read about them, I imagined them sounding like Lou Costello from the Abbott and Costello radio program). They returned to Jerusalem twice, once to convince someone named Ishmael and his daughters to come with them, and the second time to retrieve the holy scriptures, which had been written on brass plates. Nephi had gotten himself into quite a scrape trying to get the plates, but an angel commanded him to chop off the head of the man who kept the plates–I had to admit it was pretty exciting.

They traveled through unfamiliar lands, guided by a sort of compass made of brass, which God had given them to show them the way. After traveling for quite some time–maybe even years–in the wilderness, they arrived at the seashore, where Nephi build a ship in which they sailed to America, which was the promised land spoken of. Once here in America, they had split into two groups: the righteous Nephites and the wicked, dark-skinned Lamanites. The two groups fought off and on for hundreds of years, and then one day there were earthquakes and floods and volcanos, and then three days of absolute darkness. Finally, the darkness dissipated, and Jesus appeared to teach them the gospel before he ascended to heaven. The people were righteous for a few generations, but eventually the Lamanites had wiped out the Nephites. Only the Lamanites survived, and their descendants had become the Indians who were scattered all through North and South America. It was our sacred duty to bring the gospel to the remnant of the Lamanites and restore them to their proper place in the House of Israel. Of course, the only Lamanite I had ever met had been the man at the trading post.

Grandma rocked slowly in her chair, her eyes closed, as I read:

Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.

TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH

When I finished, Grandma looked up and said, “That’s probably enough for tonight, dear.”

I closed the book over a ribbon bookmark and placed it back on the shelf near Grandma’s rocker.

“I always like to sing a hymn,” she said. “Do you know ‘O My Father’? It’s my favorite.”

We sang together, me quietly, probably out of embarrassment, but her voice was clear and melodic. She seemed to really appreciate the words of the song:

When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you,
In your royal courts on high?

Then at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do.
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.

“It’s time to pray,” she said. “Be a dear and help me get out of this chair.” I grasped her hands and helped her to her feet and then gently lowered her to her knees on the rag carpet in front of the fireplace.

Her prayer was in many ways quite formal, as she used the archaic “thou” and “thee” forms that I had heard in church so many times but still hadn’t mastered. Nevertheless, her prayer was heartfelt and familiar, and she prayed as if she were talking to a dear friend she deeply missed. I’d never heard anything like it, but I understood why she loved that hymn so much. To her, God wasn’t an abstract concept but a father, a loved one who was waiting for her to come home.

“I know my time in this earthly sphere is short,” she said, “but Father, help me to make the best of it to bless the lives of all those around me. Show me how to do thy will in my every act. I know thou hast guided me through my life, and I will follow wherever I am led.”

I realized that she was someone who had heard the voice of God, that her prayers had been answered. I was filled with the desire to be like her, to know what God wanted me to do.

“Please bless my young grandson, Will, that he will know thy voice and give heed to it. Watch over him in all things, and make him an instrument in thy hands, like unto Nephi of old.”

For the first time since my baptism, I had that strong desire to know God, to listen and follow, and I was determined to do what was necessary to get where Grandma was.

When she finished in Jesus’ name, “Amen,” I helped her to her feet, and she hugged me tightly, told me she loved me, and said she was glad I had come.

That night in my room, I knelt by the bedside and prayed fervently for guidance, for the voice of God to lead me. The room was quiet, and all I could hear was barely audible laughter coming from the bunkhouse. Maybe developing a relationship with God was like my dream of climbing the mountain: It would take time and effort, but I would get there.