Friday, August 21, 2009

Mine Arm is Lengthened Out All the Day Long

An odd title, but it pretty much describes an idea that I really like.

It's been a week of bad health news. My dear grandmother's doctor discovered gout in her thumb and after an emergency surgery, she's still waiting to know how much of her thumb was removed and if the infection has spread anywhere else. A friend--my age--just found out she has MS. I attended a funeral on Monday for a woman from church who died of surgery complications. And I rolled my measly ankle a couple of weeks ago smack dab in the middle of marathon training. I feel like a total whiner.

There's so much I wish I could do. But with GranNomi in Missouri and my friend in Utah, and my ankle wrapped and iced and elevated, there's not much I can do. Besides pray.


Except, you see, there is a woman from church here who is dying of cancer. She has no family. She is in her last weeks. And she needs people to stop by. Yesterday Julie and I dropped off her kids at a friend's and headed to McDonalds for some milkshakes. After all, they are the medicine my Grandad always brought me. I also towed along a bag full of tricks--dominoes, crossword & sudoku, some random DVDs, and my new Eliza R. Snow book. Just in case.

Holly didn't answer the door. Julie and I freaked out--we could just imagine her, unconscious, on the floor, unable to answer the phone. We knocked and tried talking to her through the door with no answer. We tried to look into the windows, but they were like seven feet above the ground. We chatted it up with her Latin neighbors, who didn't even know she lived there. We called everyone we could think of--friends in Utah, a co-worker at the Smithsonian who was out in the field that day, people from Church. Finally, after hearing baby Bronco crying on the phone, we took our dripping milkshakes and left.

Of course we got a text that Holly was out on some errands with a kind friend. When we returned, she was just getting out of the car and needed help unlocking the door. Confused and hot, sweaty, tired, she was grateful for the melting strawberry milkshake-turned-milk. I gave her a hug and we left.

There was so much I wish I could have done. I wish I could have comforted her and taken away her pain and frustration. I wish I could have given her a foot rub or helped clean up or made her laugh. I wish I could have heard stories about her childhood or about her career or her conversion. Instead I felt her sharp shoulder bones in her grateful hug and left her sugar. I wish I could visit with my grandmother and tell her stories about Eliza R. Snow and play dominoes (she seems to always win).

Holly is now in the hospital, unconscious, her body fighting infection and pnemonia. At least she has no pain.
And at least I know that I do the best I can to help my family by helping the people around me. And I see in the process that in a strange way, there is an arm lengthened out all the day. And beyond.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bookends to a Week (literally)

It's been an exam week. Hopefully my last one. Oh I hope.

And it's been a week bookended (literally) with two pretty incredible tender mercies. Like some of the biggest I've ever seen. The kind that get me through these kinds of exams.

Last Saturday, after one of my worst runs ever (oh! the humidity! the August heat! the miles!), as I was eating my well-deserved breakfast, Fed Ex knocked at my door with a giant 70-lb. box from a woman for whom I do contract work. Bless her heart. She sent me her collection of the Woman's Exponent, from when she wrote her own dissertation on Utah women's suffrage. She said this collection saw here through her dissertation and she hoped it would see me through mine.
Now let me tell you about this gem. I discovered the Exponent when I worked as a research assistant at BYU. Published between 1872 to 1914 by Utah women, the newspaper covered everything from Relief Society minutes to correspondence with national suffrage leaders to fiction and poetry and biographies and editorials. Very progressive editorials, I might add. And oh! My favorite women! Emmeline B. Wells, Eliza R. Snow, the list goes on and on.

I love these women. I love feeling the raised print on the pages. I love the handwritten names at the tops of the papers--who they belonged to. I love them because I know them. I love Jane Snyder Richards, who was the Relief Society president in Ogden. It was her idea to create stake Relief Society organizations, and under the direction of Brigham Young, right before he died, she was the first. Her husband, Franklin, gave the most beautiful lecture on women and marriage and the sharing of priesthood that I've ever read. And now I've got them here with me. Their words will provide fodder for my research, and their spirits will accompany me on this process.

Fast forward to this past Saturday. After another horrible run (oh! the humidity! the August heat! the miles!), I found another package on my doorstep. This one was from another woman for whom I worked before I started graduate school. I was her research assistant on several projects--namely early Relief Society documents and Eliza R. Snow poetry. Well the poetry book just came out. And I'm happy to present it to you here:

Over 500 poems, each of them carefully annotated and introduced, present snapshots of a beautiful early Mormon trajectory, filled with personal relationships, development, editorials, theology, history, and faith. They are the stories of an amazing journey. I loved getting to know Eliza on a very personal level--pouring over her journals and letters, tracking down her speeches, experiencing her travels and newspaper publications. I loved researching and writing, organizing and formating, discovering the mysteries of people referred to only by their initials based on clues in the poems, understanding the social, cultural, political, economic, literary, and religious implications of her references. I loved it all.

And I loved working with two master historians and writers. I loved our day-long writing sessions, get-aways at Karen's cabin or Jill's cabin. I loved laughing our heads off at the antics we imagined in this nineteenth-century life. I loved pulling together the threads and now, finally, seeing the finished product.
Two bookends. Some of Eliza's poems even appear in those Woman's Exponent copies. From primary sources to adept analysis and interpretation... these two packages have reminded me why I'm here in the Washington DC summer dog days, why I'm plugging through minor fields. I need to gain the tools, to learn the trade, to sharpen my ability.

But I also need to remember and to fuel myself and to refreshen my passion. And these two packages have done just that.

Friday, August 07, 2009

2 More City Blocks, or A-Treking We Go, or Pioneer Children Sang as They Walked and Walked and Walked

When I was a young girls' camper, Ray Baird would take us on hikes throughout the mountains of Camp Shalom and the Uintahs. As young girls are wont to do, we would complain and ask how much longer. "Two more city blocks!" Ray would always reply. Every time it was the same answer. It always baffled us how those two city blocks stretched into many, many more miles.

Last night I was asked to speak at our stake youth conference pioneer trek. I even made my own little pioneer skirt and apron to really get into the theme of things. I studied up on my pioneer stories. I worried, because I was scheduled to take my second minor field exam this week, plus a myriad of other responsibilities falling into my lap made for a very full plate. One thing at a time, I thought. Two more city blocks.

Well things fell into place, as they always do. My exam was pushed back to next week, and I was able to concentrate on the task at hand. Virginia and I drove down through the rolling hills of Virginia, had dinner at a greasy little diner in Marshall, Virginia, then pranced into camp just as the sun was setting, where the kids were constructing makeshift tents and regaling stories of thier long trek pushing and pulling, fording streams and making jokes, sweating and falling and getting back up again.
It was a delightful evening. Only dinner wasn't cooking very quickly in the Dutch ovens (darn thick potatoes). Dan and Virginia and I started the group off, singing some old Eliza R. Snow trail hymns, but we didn't know the tune too well. It fizzled out. And dinner still wasn't ready yet. Kids were starving and tired. But I started telling them stories around the campfire under a full moon. I love how Eliza wrote about it:

“Many, yes many were the star and moonlight evenings, when, as we circled around the blazing fire and sang our hymns of devotion and songs of praise to Him who knows the secrets of all hearts—when with sublime union of hearts, the sound of united voices reverberated from hill to hill; and echoing through the silent expanse, apparently filled the vast concave above, while the glory of God seemed to rest on all around us."

And pretty soon everyone was listening. Intrigued. Enraptured by the stories of yesteryear. Interested because they'd just walked a bunch of miles in their shoes. They loved hearing how Margaret McNeil Ballard was too short to cross the rivers, so she held on to her cow's tail and made it. Or John Stucki, whose father put a piece of buffalo meat in the back of the handcart for safekeeping for Sunday's meal, but as John pushed that cart, hungry, he would cut off a sliver every day. When his father found the evidence, instead of punishing him, he put his arm around his son and cried, grateful that he could somehow provide for his growing boy. Or little Agnes Caldwell, who ran alongside the rescue wagon in the snow, wondering why they wouldn't pick her up, later to discover that her running kept her blood circulating and saved her legs from frostbite and possible amputation like those lying in the wagon.

Two more city blocks, guys. Keep going.

My favorite story, though, was this:

“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hillslope, and I have said, ‘I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it.’ … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.”

If I can just make it to that hill, or that spot ahead on the horizon. If I can just get through this one more exam, and then that dissertation. If I can make it through this week. The thing is, there's always another two more city blocks--another hill, another valley, another item on my list. But that's what keeps me moving. It keeps my blood circulating and prevents my own frostbite. And I look back at where I've been,and I realize the hands that have pushed and pulled, the energy that has come in such small, beautiful ways.

Two more city blocks.

R.I.P. Ray Baird. We still love you and think of you and sing your praises. And Oh! Pioneers! You, too.