To the Moon and Back

You will not meet a more delightful person than Grandma Lloyd.  I remember President Hinckley once said that sarcasm was an insulting form of humor.  Obviously, he had never met Grandma.  Her gracious sense of humor made my world turn at times, and always kept me on my toes.

In my younger years, she lived just across the street, and we would stop in to visit almost daily.  She always had a homemade chocolate cake on a platter in the kitchen.  But it was not the cake that drew us there.  She was magnetic.  She understood children so well, and she made us feel completely safe.  My fondest memories are of watching her tap dance as she would sing some old tune.  She would hold her hands out daintily, and look intently at us, smiling broadly, as she tapped back and forth across the entry way tile, unfazed by our embarrassed giggles.

She was a worrier, and hated the thought of us crossing busy 9400 South.  We would always ignore her pleas to cross at the traffic light down the street.  If ever we would come by in the morning, she would scurry out in her mumu (she loved those things), and guide us across the busy road between her worried screams.

I also loved to watch Grandma interact with her three sons.  The three of them were keenly aware of Grandma’s anxious manner, which would cause her to sometimes disregard common sense.  My uncles had a playful way of preying on her naievete.  This ritual seemed to be their way of reminding each other just how deeply (and blindly) Grandma loved them.

Grandma had her signature ways of expressing her love, marked, of course, by hyperbole.  She would always call me “Jeffer”, and say to us, “I love your guts,” or “I love you to the moon and back.”

She passed away last Sunday morning.  I flew in to Salt Lake just in time to spend a treasured Saturday with her.  I will not forget the way she locked her eyes on me as soon as I entered her bedroom.  It was a look I had seen a thousand times before.  Notwithstanding her physical limitations, the day was full of precious exchanges–trademark expressions that I had taken for granted so many dozens of times before that day.  Every moment was utterly delightful.  But hidden among those lovely smiles, I would see from time to time a muted glance or a furrowed brow, and it made me wonder just how much she was enduring in that frail little body of hers.  The doctors had sent her home with morphine, but Grandpa knew that while it would help with the pain, it would also compromise her ability to engage.  When we asked how she was doing, she would respond with a simple, “I’m okay,” as if to say, “this is worth it.”

I am richly blessed with countless delightful memories of Grandma Lloyd.  But none will sink as deeply as those last moments at Grandma’s bedside.  Love is easy to express most of the time.  Love expressed in sacrifice convicts the conscience.

To the Moon and Back

Dimly through the glass, I saw her lying bravely there.
Each smirk a costly gem, each smile a priceless token.
Meekly now, I clasped her hand, and as her eyes met mine,
I read the verses never penned, the sermons never spoken.

In a subtle flash I sense the strain that assails her little frame.
But from her cup she did not shrink, nor did her will contend.
Deeply now, her love abides, and there it will endure;
In agony she sealed me hers, to the moon and back again.

JN

Love and Virtue

In a timid thought by chance I traced
A faint and fleeting path.
Like a rabbit trail it seemed too shy
To promise much to any traveler.
And more than once, I lost sight of it among my gadding thoughts.
But as a nerve would spurn against the body’s foes,
So my senses seemed to meekly guide me there.
And once resigned to hope, I trod that road
Beyond the thoroughfares of strife.

JN

William Blake Nativity

His Own Smiles

Last night my son went to bed upset.  As the oldest child and the only boy, he gets picked on by his mom and dad more than he should.  He also gets left out by his two younger sisters, who tend to be more interested in pretending to be puppies than in building with Legos.  The details are unimportant, but it was these circumstances that caused him to be so upset last night.

After I put the girls to bed, I returned to Jackson’s room, where I made a half-hearted attempt to cheer him up.  (Inwardly, I felt no sympathy for him since I felt he was being irrational—a common mistake of mine when responding to others’ problems.)  He would not shake off his own discontent, so I ended the ritual quite abruptly with a terse “goodnight” and left the room, hoping to teach him a silent lesson about “attitude”.

A few minutes later I had already settled into bed with a book, when Liz came in and asked how bedtime went.  Feeling a twinge of guilt, but not wanting to swallow my own pride, I told Liz that Jackson was still upset, and that he might like a visit from her.  Minutes later, Jackson entered my room with this peace offering (unsolicited by Liz):

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I’m still trying to dissect my emotions, but the feeling that seems to overshadow them all is pure awe.  Here, Jackson, a real person who feels stress, anxiety, hope, love, disappointment, and anger, just like me (I tend to forget this fact about my children), bravely set aside all of his frustrations with his own marginalized family situation, out of concern for my own emotional welfare.

I believe that parenthood is a sacred relationship that is designed to teach us about our relationship with our heavenly parents.  As I have cared for my children, I have felt that quiet assurance that my heavenly parents love me the same way I love my kids.   Frankly, while nevertheless special, I expected to have these experiences.  What I did not expect, however, is the converse experience of having that same humbling feeling at times when my child expresses his or her love for me, as Jackson did last night—yes, God loves me as I love my children, but God also loves me as my children love me.

Now this picture, drawn by a forlorn seven-year-old, 30 minutes past his bedtime with only a night light to aid him, means much more.  It represents the way God, a real person who feels marginalized by those He loves, whose sole desire is our acceptance, sets aside His own feelings of hurt, sadness, and frustration, to express His love for us notwithstanding our own callousness.

This humbling thought reminds me of some stanzas from a poem by William Blake:

Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me,

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,

Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

JN

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Snapshots

Who doesn’t love a good snapshot? They remind us of the best of times. One of my favorites is readily available on Facebook . It’s a picture of my friend Levi pounding my face into the sand at Newport Beach, California.

This was taken 14 years ago. We had just graduated high school. I remember the exact moment, and exactly what I called him after I finally got out of the headlock. So does he, and probably Shane (who took the picture). This photo, while endearing, happens to be quite uncharacteristic of my relationship with Levi. We don’t pick on each other or joke around much. In fact, a lot of our conversations are quite serious now, but I still like this photo because it reminds me of what our relationship was like when life was much less complicated.

picHere’s another.  This is a picture of my dad with my daughter, Harper, taken at Disneyland.  Harper is wearing Dad’s “Indiana Jones” hat.  This photo is much more characteristic of its subjects.  Harper has her usual happy glow, and Dad is displaying his defining meek and gentle manner.  Years from now, Harper will treasure this photo, as it represents her grandfather’s unqualified love for her.

I once heard one of my professors at BYU define literature as those works to which we often return.  I think this approach is worth giving some consideration, although it can’t be taken too literally, or else all of our reading assignments in high school English class would be Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.  Literature in my view is a library of works that defines a culture’s values and/or captures society’s sentiments during significant cultural events.  Think of how Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein represents the values of the Romantic Period with her harrowing descriptions of nature in all of her merciless, sublime power.  Or how Steinbeck painted a perfect picture of the disenchanting realities of capitalism and industry in The Grapes of Wrath.  Both of these examples provide snapshots, brief but accurate glimpses, into a single question or conflict that shaped a cultural identity.  And for that reason, we return to them often, perhaps to make sense of how we got where we are today.

In real life, we tend to collect those photos that remind us of the happiest times–a day at the beach or a vacation with Grandma and Grandpa.  But like a Harry Potter novel, these moments form only a small sliver of our personal identity and history.  William Blake and Flannery O’Connor may not have written the most uplifting or entertaining literature, but their writings have become very important signposts as we attepmt to retrospectively map the development of Western culture.

I have come to believe that this mapping exercise (recalling those experiences that teach us about who we are) is vitally important to our personal development.  In fact, we acknowledge the power of self-awareness all the time in popular culture.  Think of your favorite non-tragic protagonist in a recent movie or novel.  (I won’t use this example, but I could!)  Either your hero is a John Wayne type, whose unwaivering confidence enables him/her to overcome any obstacle, and the plot is only about documenting his/her path to victory.  Or, your hero is a Bruce Wayne, who keeps hitting road blocks until he/she finally identifies and embraces his/her true identity, at which time (climax!), he/she becomes unstopable.  Either way, our heroes always know exactly who they are–strengths and weaknesses, what is important to them, what is not. Conversely, think of your favorite tragedy.  Here your protagonist fails to identify or accept his/her tragic flaw until it is too late.

I believe that part of life’s unfairness comes because we fail to notice the subtle course corrections that we should be making from time to time.  One small indiscretionary moment leads to another, until our life (or perhaps just an aspect of it) has become a classic tragedy.  In my experience, I fail to make these corrections when I have a distorted self-view.  I might see myself as Bruce Wayne the wasteful billionaire playboy, Peter Parker the vengeful nephew, or most commonly for me, Jesse Pinkman, the guilt-ridden drug addict.  Whatever self-view I would like to (or tend to) adopt, the pattern is clear: distortion leads to sadness.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe anyone’s life plays out like a Spiderman movie.  As real human beings we cycle through periods of self-awareness and self-distortion.  But I suspect that by regularly returning to and reflecting on life’s defining moments, these cycles may become more evolutionary than seasonal.  This all may sound very theoretical, so let me give an example of a defining moment that I often return to, and explain how it guides me.

I was once asked to give a priesthood blessing to a person who was going through some personal struggles.  (Those non-Mormons reading are probably aware of the idea of priesthood, but as a quick summary, priesthood essentially is authority formally granted to worthy male members of the Church to act in God’s name in appropriate ways.)  I had known this person very well, and cared for them very much.  But when I placed my hands on this person’s head, I experienced feelings for that person that I had never felt before.  It was a feeling of love that was much deeper than my own love for that person.  I had a sense of this person’s defining characteristics that I had never before noticed.  To me, it was as if God was allowing me to feel how He felt about that person.

I return to this experience often.  I wrote it down.  I treasure it.  Each time I think back on it, I am filled with hope for my own future.  I feel that if God knows and loves that person so well, He must feel the same way about me, individually, intimately.  It reminds me that in spite of the lingering questions that trouble me about my faith, that God is very present in my religious practices.  This experience educates my self-view.  It encourages decision making that will help me to have more experiences like it.  It gives me a desire to be kind to everyone around me.

Other moments of mine are not so uplifting; some are rather dark.  But they all have a guiding influence.

Today we have libraries where we carefully catalogue the works of Shelly, Blake, O’Connor, and Steinbeck.  Think of how meaningful life would be if we all had a personal library of our defining moments (not just the Harry Potters) carefully catalogued and readily accessible on a regular basis.  Climax!  We would be unstoppable.

JN

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Dinosaurs and Domino Rally

Last week I eagerly digested everything I could find about a thought provoking debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the curator of a creationist museum in Kentucky. (God bless both of these men for willingly submitting themselves to the criticism that will follow for months and years to come!) The premise of the debate is a simple one—could the Earth, and all of the living organisms that have ever lived on it, have existed only within the last 6,000 years, in accordance with the historical account of the Bible?

As a Mormon, this was my first real exposure to the evangelical doctrine of creationism, and I am completely fascinated! (Mormons by and large accept the account of the creation in Genesis as allegorical—even mythic, and have no problem with the science of evolution.) It was refreshing to watch a religious community other than the Mormons make their very best attempts to defend a position that the secular world views as nothing less than absurd.

The debate, and everything I have read about it since then, has led me to think about why we defend our beliefs so vehemently. Why is it so important that our children believe that our first parents ate spinach salads with dinosaurs at the Eden Country Club? Why is it so important that they believe that the Book of Mormon was translated using a purposefully crafted urim and thummim, as opposed to a peepstone in the bottom of a hat? I suspect that if all of us Mormons and evangelicals were honest with ourselves, we would accept that the answers to these questions are really quite trivial, even irrelevant, when it comes to the important questions. But, perhaps because it is human nature, we (I) tend to harbor an uneasy feeling that these outlying questions are the first dominoes in a really, really important game of Domino Rally that absolutely must not ever, ever, ever come crashing down. In other words, we tend to have this fear that if what we always believed about the creation or the translation of the BOM is wrong, then we must also call into question the existence of God himself or at least our understanding of God. And this simply cannot happen.

It is not my intention to (re)debate the veracity of creationism here. I think it’s perfectly fine to believe in something that from a secular view is unbelievable. After all, any believer must ultimately accept that with God all things are possible. But I think it is very important for us to continually evaluate whether our beliefs are worth the energy it takes to believe in them (much less defend them). Is believing that the world was created by God in six days important to my understanding of God and my relationship with Him? If the answer points more toward no than toward yes, perhaps I can be satisfied with simply hoping that it is true or expecting it to be true, knowing that it is not a dealbreaker either way.

As you can imagine, this belief-assessment test is quite helpful as a Mormon.  Most of the time, these inquiries lead to my taking a step or two back.  Instead of insiting that God created the Earth in just six 24-hour days, I can preserve my belief system by settling with a simple belief that God is the creator of all things, which requires no evidence other than a sunset or a perfect day of fishing on the Provo River.   Basically, this process helps me to identify which dominoes must remain a part of the Domino Rally game, and which ones I can throw back into the box. It frees me to move on and redirect my focus toward the really important questions.

Some may call this my own negotiated version of cognitive dissonance, but I disagree.  I have found that by changing the lens and broadening my focus, I get a much clearer picture of the truth, as opposed to trying to make sense of each pixel in a photograph, one at a time.  Take, for example, Wordsworth’s popular description of the origin of the human spirit:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I love these stanzas, notwithstanding their overuse in high school English and Mormon Sunday School classes. As the lines above demonstrate, Wordsworth was a content-focused poet who emphasized the importance of the message of a poem over adherence to formalistic rules. His effective synthesis of a simple truth is the product of his careful “Goldilocks” focus—not too close, but not too far. To summarize it more crudely, the human spirit came from God and existed before birth and will continue after death. Perhaps to say anything more or less than this only takes away from the truth.

It is also important to point out that, at least for me, the truths that are really worth knowing tend to lack a sufficient amount of evidence to make them undeniably true (i.e., everyone must accept it). This creates a space where faith and doubt each make their case, like electrons constantly orbiting the nucleus of an atom. Their mere presence proves the existence of some truth—in fact, faith and doubt are in many ways a physical part of the truth. But their constant motion makes it difficult or impossible to identify the truth precisely.  The presence of doubt essentially forces us to maintain that wide focus, as if God were directing us toward the most meaningful viewpoint.  Yes, ironically, it requires faith to throw those little pixel-dominoes back into the box, but the idea that God is guiding my spiritual evolution gives me courage.

We tend to reject the truth (or at least become dissatisfied with it) because we want the factory tour. We want to fill in the gaps by unnecessarily adding a dangerous number of dominoes to our Domino Rally game. Like the math teacher, we want God to show his work. I look forward to seeing that worksheet someday. But for purposes of living a worthwhile life here on earth, from day to day and from moment to moment, I suspect that it would just be a distraction.

JN