La Vie Villageoise, #1

I awoke with the sun this morning, opened the shutters on our bedroom windows, heard nothing but a faint scratch-scratching of a neighbor’s hoe in the soil of his garden, and reached for my camera.

These are the views.  They’re straight from the windows of a writer who’s not pretending to be a photographer, mind you, but who knows she can’t describe the scene as effectively as the scene can describe itself.

I’m in my knee-length cotton night shirt, by the way, so these first shots stay rather close to home.

You don’t need to get dressed yet, either.

View down the road. . .

Our ivy-covered wall and the neighbor’s facade that dates from the early 18th century

The local postal carrier delivers to the widow across the way

Into the garden. . .

Lavender, Rosemary, and these. . .

Tilt the camera up 15 centimeters, and this is the view of the Jura mountain range in France

Tilt the camera 30 centimeters straight down, and this is the sidewalk

And if you come back tomorrow — and the next day and the next and for weeks to come — I’ll take you on a long stroll on these sidewalks. I’d like you to get to know the village with me.

Advice:  Best to first change out of your pajamas.  At least I did.

That’s it.   I’ll bring the camera.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Feu d’Artifice à Genève

That title might seem to mean something like “Few Artificial in Geneva.”

OK.  No problem. We can work with that. Because that’s one underlying theme for this post: Things Get Real in Geneva.

But the actual French meaning is artificial fire, or “fireworks,”  and that meaning works just as well for this post.  Because I’ve been on fire.

And there has been real work.

**

We arrived here blechy and jet lagged from the U.S. last Tuesday, and within hours were up to our sweaty brows in 650+ moving boxes. Six polite moving men unloaded them from the behemoth of a moving truck, which blocked this, one of the most narrow one way roads ever.

Nice of the men to set up orange safety cones all around, I guess.  Just in case someone oversees the truck as big as Mont Blanc with a loading plank so large, you could invite half the village to square dance on it. Traffic, (thankfully, there’s not much), comes ambling up to the cones and has to reverse back down, down, down the road looking for a way out and, I hope, around.

Our neighbors love us instantly.

In a sort of round-the-clock blur that stretches over days, strains backs and smashes digits (manual and pedal), we all work at hauling and sorting — sofa in living room, beds in bedrooms, table in kitchen — and strategically placing a whole scale size model of the Swiss Alps made of boxes in the three floors and basement of this house.

Then, each with box cutters in hand, we assume our Gorgon The Ravager persona, and have at it.

Raaaaaaarrrgh.

We gouge and slice the cardboard.  We unbox. We huck an entire forest worth of packing materials out the doors and behind the house and build, folded box by folded box, another, though deflated, alpscape.

At 2:41 a.m., I find myself foraging.  In sweaty clothing from two days ago, my son’s flip flops, and a miner’s headlamp, I’m still raaaaaaarrghing, hucking and stacking in our dark courtyard, hefting up and down stairs, lugging lamps and side tables to places they won’t stay, probably, longer than a week when I decide they need to be moved to another floor.

Which is when the last of four trucks arrives, that one from storage kept in Germany.

I have no time to lose.

Or sleep.

In short, I work like an ox.  I mean Ork.

Why can’t I sleep? Because I’m just a tad manic when it comes to these moves.  And that’s only because I’ve learned that it’s best to just tuck your head low and bulldoze right through them than to look too deeply into the labyrinth, deliberating, hunting for inches of space, moments of clarity.

Someone else might suggest you work in measured spurts.  Take a drink, they say! Kick your feet up,  give yourself lotsa, lotsa time. And get away occasionally to visit the local sites. Your boxes will wait!  Enjoy the transition! Carpe cardboard!

Shhhhhuuuuuuure.

I say stretch your jowls back into a ponytail, wear a helmet (because you’ll be crawling into attics) and a weightlifter belt (you’ll be crawling there with very heavy boxes), eat your last meal, strap on your Camel Back, take a deep breath, and come up for air only after you’ve hung your guest hand towels.

Get done with it.

My deadline was Saturday at 6:00 p.m.. I told the family we needed to be functional — not totally unpacked, just unoverwhelmed — and in the house by then.

So if you’re going to hit it head down and jaw set, you need a system. Like packing out of Singapore, I had a system for packing into Switzerland.

It starts before you move and it starts (you saw this coming), with lists.

PRE-NEW HOME:

*List your house contents by room. File them on your lap top under each room’s name.

*Take digital pictures of those rooms, those furnishings, and keep them with those files. This is critical for insurance purposes, of course, which you will need (See The Disaster Move below), but also helpful when you are making sense of chaos on the receiving end.

*If you move yourself, (which is possible within the same country, but impossible for international moves), mark your boxes meticulously. Best to have large white adhesive stickers on which you write content descriptions, as you can take off (or cut out) those stickers later, if you need to keep them, whereas you cannot when you write directly on the box.

*If you’re hiring movers, follow up on how they mark boxes. Carry your own Sharpie around and add descriptions. (“Kitchen” is too generic. “Fave French pottery yellow/blue,” better.)

*If possible, make your phone calls 2 months beforehand to set up Internet, phones, alarm system, other municipal services in your new house. If you are moving in the summer, be aware that in some countries, there will be a significant lack of manpower in July and August.

*If you are moving to another language . . . good luck with all the above. And below.

*If you are moving to Switzerland, you’ll have to be a legally registered before you can get any of those things above rolling, which registration requires that all the members of your family stand physically in a municipal office as proof of their existence.

*HOT BOX: In it you keep all your keys (house, garage, safe, bike locks, back door, tool box, etc.) and your remotes and other small indispensables. Mark them each with a sticker. Keep this box with you, if you can. Do not put it in with all your moving boxes.

*DOC BOX: In it you keep health forms, new school info, insurance forms, marriage licenses, birth certificates, which will probably be essential in your moving-in phase, especially if you are in a new country.  Do not put it in with all your moving boxes.

*SHOCK BOX: If you are moving to a new country, you might have different voltage and differently configured plugs. In this box you keep all — many — adapters and transformers. Then you can use your electrical items soon after arrival, not weeks later, when you’d otherwise find adapters and transformers in the bottom of your ski equipment and gardening tool boxes.

HOMELAND:

*If you have children under, say, 10 years of age, they should not be in the home during the physical move.  Their needs will be a distraction that will not only be frazzling, but could be quite dangerous.  I could tell you stories.  Trust me and please find childcare beforehand.

*Before the move begins, load the fridge with drinks and food to grab. Offer drinks— Plastic cups and water! — to your moving crew.  If they are exceptionally good, offer them lunch.  When it’s all over and if you are satisfied, it is expected that you give them a communal tip.

*When movers arrive, meet with them and take a group picture. Ask for their names, then note those names with their faces. If there is good (or not-so-good) service, you will want to give specific feedback to the headquarters.

*Treat each worker with respect and expect them to treat you and your belongings the same.  To help them do so, ask them to first protect all your floors, stairwells and corner walls with some sort of light adhesive paper. If you are in a country where it is customary, (all Asian countries, for example) ask workers to remove their shoes when entering the home.

*Place, don’t push.  Tell the worker this, and demonstrate it yourself.  Don’t shove heavy furniture across the floor, but pick it up (which requires more manpower), and place it.

*Write the names of every room on paper on the floor in front of each doorway.  These names should, if possible, closely match the rooms of the house you just left. (Office, kitchen, parent’s room, storage room, . . .) Alternatively, you can number every room.  The movers work best with a quick-call system.

*If you can, draw a schemata or floor plan of this home and tape it to the main entry way of the house. Talk/walk through the floor plan with the head of the moving team before a single box leaves the truck.  If you don’t speak the language, you’ll have to point and grunt.  And good luck with that, too.

*To that point: Learn 10 phrases in your new language so you can direct/understand your crew. If you can’t pronounce the phrases, write them on cards you can show your crew.  (This helps most the time, but you won’t understand dialects.  And some words — the ones they’ll use to yell at each other — you’ll not want to learn, anyway.)

*Pack one suitcase per family member to live out of during the move.  Everyone should pack in two’s: Two towels. Two toys. DVD’s, books, pairs of shoes. . .It’s always worked for me. Keep these suitcases in a bathroom, where there’s little traffic while moving in pieces of furniture.

*General rule: Unload and set up beds first, big next, little last. Beds let you sleep in the home sooner, but also provide a higher surface for placing and unloading things. Get large furnishings (your clothes washer should be #1, then sofas, dining tables, armoires) in place first, smaller boxes (kitchenware and office supplies) set up later on.

*Keep framed artwork/photos wrapped in protective covering and stacked, leaning against a wall in a remote part of the home or in a closet. They will be the last things you need to unpack, and can be easily damaged if left elsewhere.

*During the move, carry with you an iPad or legal pad at all times. Note when something is damaged or when you question how something is assembled or done. You will also get phone calls with information —new codes, passwords, addresses, community activities — you won’t be able to sort out in the moment.  Keep your writing pad with you as you walk from room to room at all times, working alongside the movers.

*Have one closet or even one drawer where you can lock up your valuables.  Never leave your handbag or cell phone in an open area.

*And never leave furniture standing unattended outside the home during the move.  There are professionals who scout for moves, which are generally Sites of Chaos, and passers-by can walk off with your belongings. Again, I could tell stories.

*Expect surprises — your bookshelves won’t make it around the corner to the top floor, your photos will be ruined by the heat and humidity in the container during the transatlantic shipment, your favorite blue and yellow French pottery (from above) will make it.  But barely, and in many more pieces than one.

Most “surprising” move I’ve experienced to date? I’ll give a short version here, but have saved a longer narrative for my book.

Disaster Move

The head of the moving team, a burly guy from Brittany, stood down in the middle of Rue du Colonel Combes brandishing a huge pair of industrial clippers in his hand. This was the ceremony that launches most moves: the Cutting of the Lock.

When you loaded your household into one container on one side of the planet, the loading team, before locking up your container, (the one that’s going to float across some ocean, stacked on top of hundreds of other like containers on a massive barge), has to be verified and signed off.  You take a look at what they’ve crammed into 40 cubic meters, sign your name to a form, and they then swing shut the big metal doors, secure them with a gigantic padlock, and tuck away the key.

(In theory, your container is never opened between locking and lock-cutting. Although that has to happen sometimes, when all your goods get transferred from container to container in order to, I don’t know, pass through the Suez Canal.)

So the team leader, the one I mentioned above, was standing ready to cut the lock. I was leaning casually out of the second story window from our apartment, eager to get this move on the move.

He cut the lock. One door creaked open a couple of centimeters. With it, a quick swish of water, which spilled out of the bed of the container and onto the Rue.  The man (and all his team mates) threw quick glances up at me. I was cool. Bemused.

The second door creaked open a bit, held back by one man who watched me, not the door.

More water.

Then they swung both doors wide open — two men had their eyes squeezed shut — and when those doors swung wide, an actual waterfall gushed out onto the road.  The guys, former fishermen from Brittany, literally hopped out of the way in their rubber boots.  And one mattress after the other —eight in total — the ones that had been stacked up against the door when the other crew had packed the container, slumped out of the back of the trailer like enormous slabs of pound cake soaked in an ocean of coffee.

Limp, dirty, saturated with brine and moldy, every bed we owned fell — one after the other after the other — out onto pristine little Rue du Colonel Combes.

I remained immobile.

Then someone down on the road cleared his throat.

“Madame,” the man with an accent from Brittany called up at me, “Uh, it’s maybe best you get something to write with.”

I did.

And after several hours of unloading a container that had not only been somehow submerged in water, but had been tampered with somewhere during its thousands of miles in transit, after those patient hours of watching these men fish out stuff from this deep container, I filled eight full pages of legal pad note paper. Line upon line of damage, disappearance, and loss.

All beds and bed frames, head boards and bunk beds, trashed.

Leather chairs rotten from prolonged exposure to moisture and punctured with. . . . …bicycle handlebars?

Lamps, crushed and bent around. . . a basketball?

Clothing —boxes of what we had planned on wearing the next week — rank and fuzzy with mildew.

A couch, gored through with. . . fireplace pokers?

And in the end, a personal visit from the moving company’s owner (and namesake).

Which meant most things were covered at least partially by insurance. But many things (my children’s baby blessing clothes, some priceless journals, every last picture from my mission in Vienna) were irretrievably gone.

***

So. . .like I said, be chipper.  And be ready for surprises!

Some of them — nearly all of them — I promise, will come, but they only come over time, over months and even years.  They will be splendid, I promise this, too, and more than worth the stress, aches, bruised shins and sundry material losses.

By 6:00 p.m. last Saturday evening, we were able to walk through the maze of boxes stacked nearly everywhere in this house. I dug out four beach towels, hung them in the bathrooms, and we all went out to celebrate having made our deadline.

Seems the whole city threw a party just to celebrate our having arrived.

Just  take a look at this footage from the fireworks finale:

Really, Geneva.  I know we’re new here an all.  But, aw, you shouldn’t have.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Sweet Hours of Prayer

Photobucket“Die Betenden Hände” (“The Praying Hands”) from Albrecht Dürer

This post, first featured in the Segullah blog, is begging for more comments.  So I’m posting it here for my wonderful and diverse readers, hoping you’ll respond. It’s Sunday evening here in Geneva, and wherever you are,  whatever your belief system might be — even if you claim none at all— this might add to your private experience with The Sacred.

**

When Adrienne Zenzo prays, it’s a full body experience.

Eyes clamped shut beneath brows gathered like small drifts of chocolate mousse; ample features rustling-spreading-contracting like cocoa-colored suede being fitted  around bones hardly discernible; lips as regal and rouged as Nefertiti; her monologue’s syllables peaking and lulling like a row boat on rough water sending a splattering of the sea salt spray of her saliva into the sunlight; a body that rocks the earth and yanks at heaven’s veil, too, with a mounting buoyancy and momentum that seems to be gearing for take off. Or for a dance. Or for a wrestle.  Adrienne Zenzo doesn’t just say her prayers. She births them into the cosmos.

She calls God “Papa”, and every time she does so in her pulsating and vigorous prayers, one or more or all of her four children sitting with us in their 13 square meters of Parisian refuge, echoes; “Oui, notre cher Papa.” Their own earthly Papa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been living in Canada for three years while his wife and children, refugees as well, await passage there from France.  Await passage to him. Passage to hope.

While waiting, she meets the LDS missionaries and local church members like myself, who teach her the restored Gospel.  She, of course, teaches me and restores to me something broad and old about speaking with God.

***

When Birgit Holmesund prays, it’s as if God himself is at her elbow, leaning in on His elbows, too.  Nodding.

Birgit is Norwegian, hale and sturdy, as vanilla blonde and angular as Adrienne is chocolate brown and spherical. We are all—five employees of Norway’s Staatskirke(state church); three regional state church youth representatives; and three professional theater folks, (like myself, and I’m also the token American)—we are all sitting around the large oval pine table in the Østenstad church’s communal meeting room overlooking the Oslofjord, where Birgit, imposing at over six feet and as imperturbable as a tall glass of heavy cream, is leading the meeting.

On today’s agenda?  How to respond to the parental concern that the artistic director of the big upcoming (and state church-funded) musical, “Josef Og Det Utrolige Farvet Drømm Kåpet”, is. . . a practicing Mormone.

Ja. Dette er meg.  (Yup.  At’s me).

A bit cornered by the community’s suspicions about The Intruder, Birgit calls this emergency prayer meeting, which she opens by stating that “we will seek and carry out exactly God’s will.” With the bow of her head, a stillness enters the room, flooding it with a steady, low vibration.  I wait for her words.  But there’s only stillness.  And more stillness. So much stillness, in fact, such lo-o-o-ng unfiltered stillness, I fidget for a moment wondering if maybe, I don’t know, maybe I missed some crucial cue? Was I supposed to say something? The prayer maybe? I peak from under my bangs, and see the crowns of so many patiently bowed heads. Then silence rises from floorboard to tabletop and ascends to the ceiling, while everyone continues to sit, heads bowed, in what’s beginning to feel to me like a full-length symphony of silence.

Birgit’s first mellow words, like bright yellow oil, seep into the density:

Fader.” (Pause.) (Pause.) (Pause.)

Hjelp oss.”

Father.  Help us.

Stark.  Frank.  But not a hint of IKEA assembly-line-shrink-wrapped prefabrication.  Her tone, when she then continues to pray, is as textured and tightly woven as home spun boiled wool, plaintive and importuning, yet conversational, as if she is beseeching royalty with whom she just happens to be an intimate, sidling up to the king to whom she is a most trusted confidante.  The queen herself, perhaps.  Or at least his daughter.  I have never known public prayer like this, so at once spontaneous and deliberate, with unselfconscious speechlessness here and there as if actually yielding to the interlocutor to, please, hjelp oss. To please respond.  All those blank nonverbal gaps of listening or of finding the truer word, the courtesy they create of waiting quietly for the requested —and expected— heavenly answer.

***

When Maria Kellner prays, it’s. . .well. . .When does Maria Kellner not pray?

Shyly trailing Elders Crane and Hunter whom we’ve invited to dinner, Maria hides in the evening shadows off our doorstep, reluctant to show herself because she’s only just met these missionaries while the two have been filling time, tracting right up to our appointment at our home in the village of Grünwald, Germany.  They’ve had a good discussion with the woman I only now discover has been my neighbor for a year, and happily bring her to dinner.  That decision changes her life and mine.

By the end of this, our first of many hours together, I’m aware that I’ve been sitting in the presence of one of those rare people who are truly meek and guileless, a woman whose constant firehose gush of gratitude leaks from her eyes in unashamed rivulets of tears.  Her stubby, reddened, arthritic hands—a worker’s hands, a caregiver’s hands—she uses to mop up her crying, then she presses them to together again like Albrecht Dürer’s “Praying Hands”, clasping them against her chest, talking about  “der liebe, gütige, allmächtige, barmherzige” (the dear, caring, almighty, merciful) “Gott.”

Since moving from Bavaria, I’ve passed again through Grünwald, and surprised Maria once by showing up on her doorstep unannounced, much like she had shown up on mine that first evening three years ago. This time I hid off in a shadow, and when she answered her door wearing a visible temple garment, we cried in pure giddiness together, Maria’s marvelous claw-like hands clutched in that constant prayer under her chin.

With those same aching, praying hands, she now writes prayers to me.  She is losing feeling in her extremities, though she doesn’t write of that. I know this only through others.  Her fingers burn, her feet swell with edema.  She uses ballpoint pen on sheets of onion skin paper.  Her joints lock and throb through the nights, I’ve been told.  She is buying and licking these envelopes.  Her eyesight shows signs of macular degeneration, and she’s not yet 65.  Stamps, she’s bought them for these prayer letters.  She hobbles four blocks to “die Post” to mail them off to me.

When I fold them away, I whisper, “Amen”.

***

When Siti Maraliyanah prays, it’s five times throughout her day, head covered, on her knees, touching her head to the ground, humming or singing her thanks to her God.

“Pray is thank”, she tells me in her broken English with its thick Indonesian accent, “And if my family [who live on the coastal countryside of Java] need pray, they call me middle of night.” She holds up her cheap little scuffed black cell phone, smiling brightly. “We pray all night together on the phone.”   And then she prays the next day again, of course, all five times or more, genuflecting and humming, brought low in her thanks.

A single mother of two raised in poverty by a Muslim fisherman father who sails the Southeast Asian oceans for months on end, and a stroke-victim mother who lost two of her own five children, Siti’s brother and sister, to bizarre deaths, Siti has lived a life for which most of us might not be able to “pray thank”.  But for her, thanking (and admitting one’s own unworthiness before God’s greatness) is all that prayer is about.

When I watch Siti mouth her prayers of pure glorification, or more so even, when she prays with me, which she on occasion does, I’m rendered more than a bit aware of my own string of prayer requests, my self interest, my well-dressed but stodgy shallowness, my static recitations, my conspicuous lack of sheer and effusive “pray thank”, my limpid and lukewarm footnotes asking that God remember the less fortunate. (Since I know I will forget them.)

***

When Adrienne sways and croons and gets sweaty in her pleas to her “Papa”; when Birgit suspends the slap-dash crush of time and motion and ego in order to allow God’s spirit to enter and transform our praying space (or our praying selves) into a locus for revelation; when Maria draws those gnarled Dürer hands together to acknowledge—in every conversation, in every encounter—the goodness and mercy of her God; when Siti bows to the ground, singing her five daily “pray thanks”, I am taught the most important foundational reality of a living, vital faith: the absolute centrality of — the life-or-death indispensability of — unaffected, effective and change-effecting prayer.

Without that kind of prayer, writes pastor Dennis Lennon, author of the exquisiteTurning the DiamondExploring George Herbert’s Images of Prayer, we stand exposed to a “creeping paralysis of spiritual sterility, when the heart hardens into dry, barren formality and hypocrisy.” With powerful prayer, however—and with many endlessly sweet hours of powerful prayer, I should add—we are infused with living water and Christ’s blood, which save us from spiritual anemia.  It is then we learn for ourselves the truth and beauty of what Lennon writes and what I know from experience to be true;

“What blood is to the body, prayer is to the soul.”

What is prayer?

How vital is your prayer life right now? Is it as necessary as blood is to your body?

In what circumstances have you learned your most powerful lessons about prayer?

How have the prayers and praying patterns of those of other traditions and faiths inspired you toward more meaningful praying?

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Amputee of the Red Sea


Keeping with the theme of seas and underwater miracles is this poem, written in October of 2007.  Our family had arrived in August in our new home in Munich just days removed from our Parker’s funeral held in Utah, and by October the gray and wet of a Bavarian autumn lay across the skies and our spirits like a sodden gray flannel blanket.

Thanks to  several connections from Randall’s work which took him regularly to the Middle East, and using an accumulation of airline points, we escaped the heaviness of the city for the light and lightness of the south. What I found quickly, though, was that grief knows no borders.  You cannot go far enough away or deep enough into the sunshine to not carry its shadow on your shoulders.

At that point, I was still unable to immerse myself in water — even showering was a test of my will — and so I couldn’t join my children in the water where they were trying snorkeling for the first time in their lives.  I chose to sit and watch from the pier. How could people not know the terror of water, I wondered. And how could the world be celebrating life with the sun darkened, everything eclipsed by such blunt loss as that which I felt in my very limbs? I sat like stone while these thoughts swam and thrashed in my brain.

Then I heard  and felt something approaching from behind.

Amputee of the Red Sea

 

I’m watching bodies

From where I sit at the end of the pier, knees tucked up close to my chin,

Heat blurring todayandthen.

These bodies float face down, strewn like the drowned dead across this,

The Miracle Basin.

Nothing, not even these happy snorklers, can keep me from

Weeping behind black lenses.

And you roll up right beside me.

Roll right up within inches and

Raise yourself from your chair,

Raise yourself with shoulders as imposing as the Sphynx,

Raise then brace then whisk yourself down onto the pier to sit

At my side.

Just one thin plank divides us.

Your legs end midthigh.

All torso and profile, you overfill my peripheral field, and in

Half a breath I feel to be

Your companion in deficit.

My tears stop.  Then my legs suddenly shame me.

I would speak to you. I would turn my shoulders, clear my throat, take off my glasses

And I would speak to you.

You’re here, too, I would say, just sitting and watching,

Cut in half as I feel

Dismembered

And how did yours happen and when and how have you made it

And will we ever know joy we who are so chopped down

And—-

You fling yourself into the blue,

Splitting the Sea with arms like windmills,

Arms that, with each plunge,

Whip droplets of miracle water onto my shins.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Glass Bottom Boat

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

**

And speaking of the “Empty Sea”, the following is a piece I wrote when a visit to an aquarium caused me to think for days and weeks on end about the relationship between the seen and the unseen realms.

Glass Bottom Boat

London Aquarium

April 2010

Have you come to the depths of the sea

At the ends of the deep walked about?

Job 38: 2

Heaven is a glass bottom boat,

earth, the liquid deep

where the wild aquatic pageant

bullets round in schools carving sleek lapidary waves,

or slinks past, languorous

as metal syrup.

These depths vibrate with life.

As does the boat

from which countless cloudless eyes observe

through transparent walls.

The eyes trace all creation:

pumping gill; thorny nozzle; nobby tentacle; jellied limb;

whiskered jaw; pouting lip; lavender scale;  sequined skin;

peacock-feathered fin; organza glamour sleeve;

glow-orange acrobat; bloated magistrate;

swanky length of leathery ganster;

slate eye of cruising tyrant;

courtship dance; feeding frenzy. . .

From crustacean to whale carcass

reel the heaving  sloshing hordes.

Microscopic , droll, massive, venomous, pure

underwater mystery

coolly adrift,

yet rapt in the survival swim.

closely seen,

yet blind to the seers.

Life hugs heaven’s hull,

laps and licks its sheer bow and stern,

unknowing.

Creation floats by its creators’ eyes,

fins waving,

mouths gaping as if with song,

bubbles rising,

if but to disappear on the surface

where they join the waft

of out tide.

Empty Sea

Photo credit: Michelle Lehnhardt

“Hey, hi, sister. Let’s give ya’a hand there with those bags, huh?”

She has two, and since I helped pack and load them, I know they could break any ex-high school wrestler’s back, a back the boy speaking to her seems to have. With two hands and a nod of the head, he blithely snatches one of them out of the back of our car and plops it curbside.  My eyebrows lift and drop just as quickly.

“Big day ahead,” the young man next to him wearing glasses adds. “And I know. Been here three weeks. Still remember my first day. Whoah.” which last word could be commentary on her second suitcase, the one he’s heaving with a grunt and both hands.  Or he’s commenting on that first day. Both are weighty.

“But hey, welcome to the M.T.C.! You’re gonna totally love it.”  He has a look of such earnestness — he must have been captain of his high school chess team — I want to vote for the kid.  Don’t care if he doesn’t happen to be running for anything.

There are at least thirty like him: all young men in white shirts, striped or spotted ties, dark pants, practical shoes.  Black name tags with white print.  Big smiles with white teeth with which they are greeting the 400 missionaries (100 of whom are “sisters”, like our daughter) arriving curbside that day at the M.T.C., or Missionary Training Center.  We are finally here, at this compact and concentrated compound situated halfway between the Provo, Utah temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the outer edge of the campus of Brigham Young University, the nation’s largest private learning institution, and, like the M.T.C., one of the grand jewels of my church.

The stickers on their shirts say they’re playing “Host” for the day. They could be playing computer games in a lightless basement.  Or riding their motorcycles up a mountain trail. Or cashing in on a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship.  Or cutting another album with a major record label.  Or sleeping to this hour, 12:35 p.m. on a Wednesday after having hit the midnight premier of Spiderman with the girlfriend.

But they are here.

No computers. No basements.  No motorcycles. No spontaneous mountain trails. No prestigious university studies or fame and fortune.

No movies. No midnights. No girlfriends.

Instead, they are standing here adding to midday  brightness, hosting a stranger, hoisting her baggage, and calling her “Sister.”

That one thought, and I’m instantly, hopelessly verklempt.

Claire stands between the two crisp youngsters like an awkward queen flanked by footmen, and glances back at us, her family. We’ve left the engine running like our emotions, which idle in high gear. Our tanks are low.  We’ve emoted ourselves almost dry over the last 24 hours. Saying goodbyes are painful for us since we are an extremely close family, and her brothers cling to her in all ways. I watch Luc trying to stay lighthearted, his preadolescent mouth curling and pursing.

Good thing we have a narrow designated drive-thru delivery slot. The whole passage I describe here lasts no more than five minutes, in fact, which skims off the maudlin slosh, leaving us crammed-with-happy anticipation we’ve all had in our hearts for some time now.  We’re being tugged along by the friendly efficiency of the “Elders”, a foreshadowing of the well-greased but warm regimentation to come.

“So, where you going?” the eye-glassed boy asks my daughter, adjusting his tie after pulling out the handle on her rolling case. “I’m going Iowa. Des Moines,” he says.

“And I’m Vegas,” the stocky partner pipes up, wheeling alongside Claire, who is half looking over at us, half looking ahead down the sidewalk where her footmen escort her. If they’re decoys to keep us all from getting soupy in our farewells, they’re at least darling ones.

“I’m going to Italy,” she says, “to Rome, Italy,” and those are the last words I hear from her as she turns shoulders and body fully to them, hefting with one jerk her bookbag higher onto her shoulder.

“Okay, whoah. That like totally beats Vegas,” Elder Wrestler says.

She is turning from us.

“And crushes Iowa, man,” Elder Chess adds. “Pretty cool.”

She is smiling and laughing, walking at their pace.

Their voices grow indistinct as soon as I climb back into the car, and although I have the window rolled down as we stealth coast behind the trio, I can’t make out the exchange that keeps Claire nodding left, smiling right, nodding again, adjusting her bookbag.

Then she turns with them, up a pathway toward one of the many brick buildings that compose the training campus. We hang our arms out the window, yelling obnoxiously, “Arrivaderci, Sorella!”, waving in frothy desperation, turning our car left. And I watch her talking and walking head-on into a new life.  Apart.

That life apart means, first, that she’s no longer Claire Bradford. She’s “Sister Bradford”— or the Italian, sorella.  And the wrestler is no longer a wrestler, but an “Elder.”  She will be in the M.T.C. for 8 weeks, like all the missionaries who are there to learn a foreign language.  (The wrestler and chess captain and others speaking English, leave earlier).

There are regularly 2000 L.D.S. missionaries at the M.T.C., 50,000 in the world— most youths, many seniors, some married couples of which there are dozens who will serve as the president and matron of the 340 LDS missions around the globe.  All, young or older, have lived in a way to qualify themselves to represent their church, family, country and God in whatever part of the planet they happen to be assigned to.

They do not pick their missions or have, really, much say as to where they would prefer going, but apply, only to receive a letter assigning them. To Vegas. To Iowa. To Rome.  To Ukraine. Nigeria. Vietnamese-speaking Sydney. Mandarin-speaking Paris. The Amazon jungle. The Gobi desert. The favelas of Sao Paolo.  The slums of Detroit.  The ruins of Athens. The islands of Philippines. The yurts of outer Mongolia.

Missions last from 6 months (for seniors) to up to 3 years (for presidents), and are benevolent service, meaning they are both unpaid labor and are paid for by the missionary. For the duration of their service, they will have limited (though consistent) contact with their loved ones by email, letter or a couple of phone calls. They will grow exponentially. They will sacrifice much. They will gain much, much more.

On the first day — within an hour or two — Sorella Bradford meets her partner, another newly arrived “Sorella”, to whom she’ll be assigned for the duration of the M.T.C., the first of a long string of companions with whom she’ll spend every hour of every day in intervals of a few weeks to a few months each, for the next 18  months. Sometimes they will have serious challenges getting along. Sometimes, they will become best friends, true sisters.  BFF, like the companions of my mission I still love so deeply.  Most of the time, they at least work things out and then watch miraculous things occur in their little lives. Some of the biggest miracles are those companionships working out.

She (and her luggage) will be in a dormitory room with three other female missionaries (and their luggage) with whom she will work and pray and struggle and learn Italian as well as other missionary essentials for the next 8 weeks. The intensity, starkness and newness of the experience coupled with the tight quarters, lack of privacy and drive to learn quickly tend to be some of the hardest aspects of M.T.C. experience.  There is a reason some people call it Spiritual Boot Camp.

There’s a reason, too, why some call it incredible. Or heaven.

On that first day, she’ll sit through various orientation meetings, including those with her group (called a district, which normally has about 6-10 members) of Italy-bound young men and women, and their teachers.  Claire’s teachers are returned missionaries themselves, having come with high recommendations not only as strong speakers of Italian, (or any of the other 50+ languages taught at the M.T.C.), but as examples of good missionary service. They must be students at the nearby B.Y.U. and must make it through a series of interviews and teaching modules to get their coveted jobs. They’re paid standard pay. But when I was a teacher there, I think I would have done it for free. Next to my mission in Austria, my years at the Provo M.T.C. were two of the most fulfilling of my life.

(I still wonder how I got hired there, but realize I had to be in order to fall in love with and marry Randall,who taught there at the same time. Another reason I think the M.T.C. is holy ground.)

When the missionaries — bewildered, homesick and jet lagged as they might be — gather with their district that first day, they’ll hear endless much of their mission language. By the end of that first day, in fact, they’ll already have the most essential words of their mission language down pat: a basic prayer.  Because more than perhaps ever before in their lives, they will pray. On knees. In circles. With companions. With their three roommates. With every missionary in the M.T.C. With their teachers. At the crack of dawn. At the end of the day. In the cafeteria. In the gymnasium. In their closet. In their bed.  In the shower. In their heart.

From that hour on, they are challenged to begin praying and reading their scriptures in their mission language, and after the first weekend, they are challenged further to live S.Y.L., “Speak Your Language” with their companion.  That means trying to stop speaking their mother tongue altogether.  This makes the M.T.C. a quiet place for a while. It’s also a source of great humor and pain.

You try, after a few hours of instruction and with a person you’re suddenly sharing air with 24/7, speaking only Hmong.

Funny?  Infuriating. Faithful.

They follow a rigorous hour-by-hour daily schedule, which begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m.  They will study, exercise, eat in a big cafeteria while practicing their language with their district, will review and solidify what they’ve studied in their classrooms, have personal gospel study, have companionship study, have district devotionals, attend M.T.C.-wide devotionals, sing a lot of church hymns, go to the Provo temple for weekly visits, and have one day set aside (besides Sundays) for practical preparation like doing laundry, writing letters to family and friends, cleaning up their room, going to permitted cultural events, getting out into nature, shopping for food, fixing their bikes (many missionaries bike for transportation once they are in their areas of service), or getting a nap.

After their training in the M.T.C., they’ll load their learning and luggage and fly to, let’s say, Rome, and they’ll probably think, as they look out the airplane window and hear the flight announcements, that these people speak faster than they’ve ever heard their language spoken, and with accents that make the warp speed language unrecognizable anyway, and so as they fidget with their seat belt and touch their name tag, they’ll feel woefully underequipped for the challenge that lies ahead. They’ll maybe want to bail. They might cry into their airplane napkin, wishing for a parachute.

And then someone will be at the receiving end, probably two guys, one with a thick wrestler neck and his companion (maybe with glasses), and they’ll be standing there in white shirts and ties and practical shoes, name tags and white smiles, singing in the most beautiful tones ever heard by mankind,

“Benvenuto en Italia, Sorella!”

And right there, an astonishingly vivid life begins.

Given all that inestimable goodness, I do not feel empty — or depleted or robbed or abandoned —  while my daughter serves a mission. On the contrary, I feel as my great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Sturdevant Leavitt, felt:

To write my love of God above it would drain the ocean, though the sea was ink, and the earth paper, and every stick a pen and every man a scribe.  When I try to praise him in beauty, to honor and magnify the name of God, I find I have no language at my command that will do justice to the case.  But when I lay aside this weak, frail body I expect to praise Him, in beauty of holiness.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

Hannah

I wasn’t sure how our family could face any holidays without Parker, and Thanksgiving posed its own set of problems. That particular holiday of 2009 was for some reason especially hard for me, I recall, since I’d somehow managed in the two previous years to sidestep the date, reasoning with myself and the family that since Europe didn’t celebrate the holiday, we didn’t need to, either.

But something was brewing in my soul already at the beginning of that November. I felt it percolating at the base of my spine. So I kept quiet, bracing myself against that new, gentle internal imperative that, yes, this year needed to be the year we returned to giving real thanks.

You see, giving thanks as we’d given thanks over all the Thanksgivings for the last twenty years was fraught with the potential for a nasty emotional crash and burn. For as long as our children could recall, Thanksgiving had been synonymous with one thing more than anything: gathering missionaries in our home. It was one of the main reasons we’d invested in our long, massive pine slab of a Norwegian dining table, in fact. We knew we needed room for missionaries at Thanksgiving.

Sometimes we would get a real throng packed into our home; one year we had had eight elders and sisters and a few random friends for whom we set up chairs and extra tables in every corner. I remembered how music played throughout the house or from the piano where the radiant young people gathered, pulling our children between them, to sing harmony from the hymnal. Scented candles mingled with the smells of holiday kitchen. I wore an unused apron. Randall, oven mitts. Luc, his French chef’s hat. Dalton, a construction paper pilgrim’s collar. Claire, an Indian headdress. And Parker, a look of such hunger, you’d have thought he had just crawled out of the hull of the landlocked Mayflower itself.

He was always especially preoccupied with the details of the feast. Just like the rest of our kids, he knew full well this kind of spread was nowhere near Mom and Dad’s normal culinary behavior. The gastronomic high point of our family’s calendar is what it really was. So you’d better enjoy it. And plan on leftovers until well past Christmas. Consequently, Parker really got into it. He would help baste the turkey, mash the potatoes, crimp the piecrust edge. With Claire, he would set out silver and china, fine glasses and the harvest centerpiece, his anticipation and appetite mounting as he awaited the missionaries’ arrival.

Because as much as he had an appetite for food, he was an even more voracious social creature, and more than turkey and stuffing, it was actually the gathering of elders that gave him his biggest charge. To boot, Thanksgiving is literally our family’s rightfully inherited holiday, and Parker was proud of that. As early as age five, he was vocally proud of the fact that he was a direct descendant of the originator of the Thanksgiving feast, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth colony, and as such, Parker had learned, over the years, to fill in the blanks in Randall’s predinner presentation on the history of the holiday and the saga of the pilgrims, whose blood was in our veins.

After that little presentation, we’d always eat. Then we’d sing, tell stories, list our rounds of thankful-for’s, laugh and thank and sing, and eat all over again until the three turkeys, two hams, eight pies, bread pudding, six dozen rolls, the stuffing and the cornbread and the cranberry sauce and the ten side dishes (and those hidden coffers of chaser chocolates) were gone. Or at least thoroughly decimated.

Maybe the children wouldn’t notice if we skipped it again, I kept telling myself as November crept along. Maybe, though, they would notice, but maybe they would understand, too that, well, Mom and Dad just can’t do that song and dance and feast anymore. Maybe intuitively they would know that it was not the singing, dancing, or feast-spreading that was painful. Maybe they actually understood that what was painful, when you know our whole family history, was those missionaries.

For eighteen years, our family had discussed and looked forward to that 2009 date. With missionaries themselves, we’d discussed—over third and fourth servings of stuffing with turkey gravy—when little Parker would one day be grown, when he, too, would be a missionary. My memory vaults had stored that truth. This year, he was supposed to have been one of them. It was one obstacle I couldn’t easily get past. Even in mentally projecting to the feast day, my son’s absence felt bigger—louder, heavier—than any feast or any feast-covered Norwegian table could possibly cover for.

Don’t misunderstand. I knew cognitively that I had very much for which to be grateful. Endless much for which to thank my loving Father in Heaven. But I still felt sad and pensive and lonely. Lonely for my boy. And I feared that trying to celebrate that day with missionaries was going to mean I be inauthentic to the point where my face might crack. Who knows what I might do?  What if I broke down? Or worse, what if I had to hold so stony that everyone would feel the stiffness and the happy feast would be a brittle bust?

I held those feelings in check for a while. Then, one Sunday at church meetings while casually eyeing the four good elders, two young sisters, two lovely senior couples, and the fine mission president and his wife all serving in our little Munich congregation, I felt suddenly ambushed by a crowding sense of affection for them.

It catapulted me in their direction.

I strode up as if it had always been my plan—it had not been my plan; let’s be clear that it was strictly against my plan—and I invited them all to our home for a what I announced was going to be a “fabulous Thanksgiving feast!”

Well.

The night before said “fabulous feast!” I found myself on edge and on my knees. I was praying to the Father to guide me, to show me what to do with this continuing weight of sorrow that held me down and made me sometimes feel like a total alien in the world. How, I asked the Father, could I go on as He wanted and needed me to go on? How could I bring joy and testimony and hope to others when they, through no fault of their own, embodied the very thing that made my great and reverberating loss worse? I needed a paradigm (I told God this), or a model or something—anything—to show me how to live with the ever-presence of my son’s absence.

I was waiting. I would follow His instruction, whatever it was.

So I prayed, then waited, then waited some more. Then, about an hour later, I received the distinct impression to read in the Old Testament.

Okay, I thought. But you know I’m studying the Book of Acts right now, I told the Impression. (I think I even motioned with a finger to the scriptures lying open on my nightstand, in case the Impression thought I was just making excuses.)

Old Testament, it said.

 I held my head low in prayer, my eyes squinched in questioning. Huh?

Go to Samuel.

Samuel. Samuel? But aren’t there two Samuels?

First. First Samuel.

All right. But the chap—?

First Samuel. Chapter 1. 

Question mark dangling silently in my head.

And focus on verse 18 and onward.

I got up from my knees, got my scriptures from my nightstand, closed them from where they’d been in the Book of Acts that morning, and opened the pages.

First Samuel.

In one glance at the chapter heading I felt gentle heat and expansion spread across my head and shoulders. Only in that moment did I recall what 1 Samuel was all about. (I had taught it in seminary just the year before but had forgotten it in the internal blur heading up to Thanksgiving.)

It is, as you probably know by heart, the story of young Samuel. But for me and from that point on, it will forever be the story of my beloved Hannah.

I sat there in bed and felt like a silent electrical storm was filling my room. Tears hung on my eye ledges. There she was: my paradigm. Magnificent Hannah, who leans against the temple pillar, weeping in the bitterness of soul because she longs for a child but is barren. Who is then promised by Eli she will have one, but only one. Whose sad countenance, with that divine promise, disappears forever.

Hannah bears the son and brings her treasured Samuel up to exactly the point where she has weaned him. (She keeps him as long as she possibly can. With Parker, it was right up until he was an official adult, until he was a week at college.) And then, transformed by her deep integrity into a pillar of strength herself, she hands her little boy back to God —”lends” him back to His house—where he will be part of that temple, and will “appear before the Lord, and there abide forever.” Shoulders erect, gaze even, she hands back the gift, so that her son will worship and serve God, his rightful Father, the rest of his living days. Oh, what a woman!

But that is not all.

I felt prompted to read on into chapter 2, and there I found equally astounding truths. Hannah—this woman who, the cynic could argue, had been robbed of her prized child, (robbed is the root for bereaved) —does not then curl up and retreat forever in her mother sorrow. Of course, there’s no reason to believe she is anything but heartsick. Empty armed. Desolate. But she does something remarkable at chapter’s turn, and it’s something I still can scarcely fathom. She takes a deep breath, throws back her head, and instead of wailing and lamenting, this bereaved mother sings. For ten whole verses straight, Hannah sings prophetic praises to the Lord.

It just so happens that I am a singer. Singing was a principle part of the mother my son Parker knew. Throughout his life, Parker had gone to countless  rehearsals, recitals, shows and concerts, had watched me from backstage or from the front row as I signaled to him, had become friends with my accompanists and many orchestra members, had even learned many scores with me.

In fact, I had even performed with Parker, who was a gifted percussionist, on several occasions. He used to joke that with his dad, he spoke fluent basketball.  With his mom, fluent music.

Can you blame me, then, that his death threatened to shut down my vocal chords completely? Permanently?

Sing? The thought stuck in my throat like cold tar. I held my eyes on those words in the bottom right hand corner of my page: “Hannah sings praises to the Lord.”

But this is too much, I thought. Too much to ask.

Yet as I stared at those words, I heard Parker’s mellow voice encouraging me: “Keep singing, Mom.”

For whatever “singing” would mean––and at that time I couldn’t get beyond a hazy notion of just squeezing air through my throat— I was to keep doing it.

Then, continuing to read, I turned the page. I remembered Hannah, the woman from Chapter 1, drooping in despair like a drunk leaning against the temple pillar. Then I saw the decisive and covenant-sure mother standing firmly as a temple pillar. And then I envisioned her here, raising her eyes, her head, her voice in song. And I came to verse 8: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them.”

So there it was, an essential key that unlocked a paradigm shift for me.  Hannah would become my personally appointed patron saint of those who, in spite of broken hearts, do not abandon their covenants.  They keep singing their devotions to God.  In spite of and even in the midst of great hurt and deep grief, those like Hannah can be transformed by God’s grace, transformed and rebuilt from rubble into pillars of integrity upon which God can rely, his kingdom can be built, and others in distress can lean.

My Hannah.  My paradigm. I’d found her.

Or, she’d found me.

That year, I let the elders take over kitchen clean up. While they packed all the leftover turkey and stuffing, cornbread and sweet potatoes into plastic bags they’d take home for themselves, and while they scrubbed and dried serving platters, their white shirtsleeves rolled up to their elbows, dark ties flipped over their shoulders to keep them away from the sink full of soap suds, I sat in the next room at our piano.

Encircled in the love and radiance of God’s penetrating joy, flanked by young sisters and elders  who might as well have been my Parker’s best friends, I sang hymns of Thanksgiving. Head thrown back. Eyes glistening. Heart and soul brimming with a true feast.

Hannah

1 Samuel Chapters 1& 2

Thanksgiving 2009

She wept and fasted, prayed and wept sore while

the priest misread her longing, misunderstood her anguish, misjudged her, this

strange woman of sorrowful spilled-out spirit, the drunk

clinging to the temple pillar, whispering to herself and to God while

vowing the vow.

God heard that vow, remembered her, and the boy she bore

she named Samuel, “Because I have asked him of the Lord”

and she rejoiced with song while the vow warmed her milk.

She praised, while the vow pinched half-pitch dissonance in her hummed cradle tunes.

Closing her fingers round her child’s tiny pillowed thigh, she felt the vow.

She would not reverse the conception;

she would not rescind the covenant,

and caught betwixt boy and vow, she wept and fasted, prayed and wept

that sore second gestation: the sworn months to have, then wean, him.

Then lend him to God.

Hours dissolved as did days.

Months, dripping in milkdrops

that drizzled into streams

of dire transience, filled out his flesh,

readied him for the temple.

Now she proffers him breast and breast again and again, knowing

her eyes must memorize the secret rhythm of his fontanel pulse.

Here: velvet folds in the nape of his neck. And here: a fingernail, an eyelash. . .

No, not yet, son, do not yet turn your gaze, do not strain your neck

toward the imminent world.

Here: my honeyed nipple.

Here: Remain.

Her milk runs dry.  His time runs out.

Pulling the child tight to her heart, her vow low on lips, she goes to gather

three bullocks, one ephah of flour, one bottle of wine: Flesh, Life and Blood;

a decent offering, past worthy.  And none other knows what is privately required:

This one, her one and her only child.  True token of the intimate vow.

Weeping, fasting, praying and weeping sore, this strange woman,

the one like a temple pillar,

whispers into her child’s ear the vow, breathes of his hair, and, arms stretched,

offers the offspring to her High Priest.

With that, she turns and goes, and going, raises her eyes and voice to God

in her soaring anthem of thanks.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Tabernacles to Temples

ONE week to the hour after the accident that cost Parker his life, our family and closest friends gathered in the temple.  There, we participated in something we hoped would be strengthening and unifying.  We had no idea how just strengthening and just how unifying — how unearthly and significant — the evening would end up being.

Similar to how the living can receive special temple blessings that empower them and enable them to progress in this life, so can the deceased, by representation through living proxies, receive the same blessings which help them progress in the next life. We felt forcefully to offer these blessings to Parker, and secured permission to do so.

Randall was to stand in as surrogate so that his oldest son could receive the blessings of entering into sacred covenants with God, or what is called receiving his “endowment.” We understood that Parker would need the chance to accept or reject these most crucial blessings and their attendant power and responsibilities.

We knew Parker.  And he wanted to get things moving.  Fast.

We arrived with anguished hearts at the temple.  After changing from his street clothing into temple white, Randall made his way to an area where preparatory blessings are given prior to the general meeting itself.

There, the temple worker measured the suffering in Randall’s eyes and immediately asked why he had come this night.  Upon hearing, the worker quietly whispered to two fellow temple colleagues.  As these men stood over Randall, their hands laid upon his head ready to bless him, tears spontaneously streamed down their cheeks as they pronounced holy promises to our son, in whose stead Randall was serving.

Then Randall came to join me in a secluded room that had been arranged for us to have a moment of privacy before the temple assembly began.

On that short walk to the room where friends and family were waiting, something began to happen, but because he was virtually unaware of it, Randall had to count on the reaction of others to realize what had taken place.  I saw it almost immediately when he entered the private room where I had been waiting and praying.

There he found me, head bowed, tissue in hand, already emotionally spent, but at the same time focused — really focused — on the life-giving force I knew came from temple covenants.  I can assure you: I was clinging to them for my own life.

As he sat down beside me, I looked up to find my bereaved husband smiling.

His eyes were bright, and all turbine engines were humming in high gear, it seemed, so that his manner was light, in weight as well as in radiance.

So I mopped up my sogginess, and paid close attention.  Extremely close attention.

I didn’t stare at him, I don’t think, but I couldn’t help but notice how fresh he looked, how rosy-cheeked,  brisk and cheerful.  It left me speechless.   Concerned, even.   I remember shaking my head as I listened to this husband of mine, the same who, just an hour earlier, had been practically immobilized and silenced by the burden of grief. Now, he was now literally on the balls of his feet as if he’d walked in the door after a great game of basketball, or after winning a tennis match. This man who’d neither slept nor eaten for a week, who’d been racked with sorrow so fierce, the capillaries around his eyes had burst and his voice had grown hoarse, the man who could barely walk because his body felt lined with lead — right there in that small temple waiting room that same man started to look an awful lot like the guy I had married over 22 years earlier.

No.  Actually, he looked younger.

He was more than buoyant. He was boyish.

From inside of all that energy, Randall was wondering how it was that his sorrow had passed so soon and so instantly––Less than a week! Wow! Miracle recovery!––and thought this was how he would now feel from that point moving forward.  Grinning at me and taking confident strides, he escorted me to the larger room.

There, we were able to keep an eye on each other.  And trust me, I kept an eye on him.  The text and spirit of the proceedings now overpowered me, and I still recall how I watched a delicate pattern of tear drops in my lap grow to a solid mark the size of my palm. I shook with soundless sobs and struggled to breathe, my chest was so constricted with the downward pressure of heartache and the upward swellings of gratitude to God.

But Randall?  Beaming.  His chin was up, his eyes were glinting, his shoulders squared, and his countenance totally serene.  He was, as he would explain to me later and as he still remembers with incredulity today, figuratively rubbing his palms together in anticipation.  This stayed with him throughout the time in the temple and followed him home.

He could no more help it than explain it.

He hummed as he drove across town. I went through tissues.

He smiled calmly in his rearview mirror.  I watched that mirror.

Fifteen minutes we drove. The whole way, I struggled with the abrupt change I’d seen in my husband’s countenance and manner.

We parked the rental car. We walked through the back door of my parents’ home.  We lay our things on the basement bed.

And right there, from one step to the next, the profound sadness Randall had known all week returned. Like the felling of a tree, grief landed on him again, that suffocating weight that levels the spirit, making it hard to stand.

But easy to drop to one’s knees.   Which is where we landed together in prayer ––a raw prayer shredded in strips by sharp emotion––part pleading, part terror at a reality we could not take in whole, and part silence where words themselves bowed low to a truth too awful to utter.  We fell asleep sharing tears of great longing for Parker, knowing, though not being able to explain, how he had been with us in a way never before (and surely never again to be) experienced.

Tabernacles to Temples

July 26th, 2007

“In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”   Ephesians 2:22

 

These animal skin coverings feel soaked from floating

in sorrow’s brine, and we groan

under their weight, groan

towing tent and tackle up the foothills

toward the Mountaintop.

A week we’ve staggered, and barely,

so that today we would bring our broken tabernacle selves to the temple

arms pressed to chest against the centrifugal cyclone

arms wrapped tightly around the sacrifice we carry:

shredded heart, splintered spirit.

We’ve walked as pulled, pulled as by some

magnetic imperative to this

the axis

the centering place.

An altar awaits us here

where under the cover of His cloud we lean into our witness

and empty these, our elemental tents excavated

of stone,

gravel,

all earth dust.

Heads brought low, we draw open our fine white linen robes to spill

oaths, hearts, viscera, tears (spirit blood)

over the offering table.

These tents must be carved out, burned bare to cinder,

Hollowed for the hallowing.

Collapsible tabernacles rise from their ash-coated knees

rise riding the surge which carries to the inner lining

draped round the place overlaid with gold

which gold endowment pours over and into us,

until we are newly soaked, floating,

buoyant in His glory.

Here, we are aware: the spinning has stopped.

The cyclone seems moved outside.

And now the singular exhilarating dis-covering:

we are centered

entered into by His Spirit

and by his spirit

which inhabits,

lifts onto tip-toes,

ignites within crater eyes brilliant blue flames of youth.

In this Mount, transfiguration:

From tabernacles, temples.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Thistle Valley

“Let her be anchored.”

Those very words came to mind when I first read the following from a favorite author’s memoir.  Here, Isabel Allende recounts her only daughter’s slow and horrifying death, the kind of cosmos-tipping agony that outstrips even the sturdiest personalities, causes the steadiest minds to quaver, can drain and yank and capsize utterly:

I am a raft without a rudder, adrift on a sea of pain. During these long months I have been peeling away like an onion, layer after layer, changing; I am not the same woman, my daughter has given me an opportunity to look inside myself and discover interior spaces—empty, dark, strangely peaceful—I have never explored before. These are holy places, and to reach them I must travel a narrow road blocked with many obstacles, vanquish the beasts of imagination that jump out in my path. When terror paralyzes me, I close my eyes and give myself to it with the sensation of sinking into storm-tossed waters, pounded by the fury of the waves. For a few instants that are a true eternity, I think I am dying, but little by little I comprehend that, despite everything, I am still alive because in the ferocious whirlpool there is a merciful shaft through which I can breathe. Unresisting, I let myself be dragged down, and gradually the fear recedes. I float into an underwater cave, and rest there for a while, safe from the dragons of despair. Raw and bleeding inside, I cry without tears, as animals may cry, but then the sun comes up and the cat comes to ask for breakfast, and I hear [my husband’s] footsteps in the kitchen, and the odor of coffee spreads through the house. Another day is beginning, a day like any other day.

—Isabel Allende, Paula, 272

Within my own experience in “the ferocious whirlpool” following significant tragedy, there was, thankfully, down very, very deep, an anchor, and that was the temple. More specifically, there were the promises made there and the blessings that flow from trying to keep those promises.  I add that specification, because a temple itself as a building is not some magical locus.  It is what happens inside that offers more than peace and quiet, escape from the world and a place to clear the mind.

If it’s escape from the din, crush and flakiness of the world I want, I can just as easily set up camp in a cave as go to a temple.

If it’s meditation I’m looking for, there’s YMCA yoga classes. Or Tibet.

If it’s protection I seek for my daughter, there are real good Tae Kwan Do courses.  And Kevlar.

If it’s wholesome hand-in-hand harmony I’m hoping to find, I can sign up for a Christian line-dancing club.

If I long for a sense of connectedness to my ancestors, I can always spelunk around in my parents’ attic.

The temple offers much more than all the above, anchoring the human vessel not only amid something, (whirlwinds), but to something, (the unseen but true reality), because we throw our line not only down to the depths of what’s real, but back through time and space, affixing ourselves to the expanse of humanity. Everyone who has proceeded us, though unseen, still reaches toward the line we cast. That, I have known directly and unmistakably in the temple.

How?  I’ll only say that the temple is truly the plane where heaven intersects with earth, it is the link between the unseen and seen realms, the pivot where timelessness and time converge, the place where men and angels comingle.   It is the great gathering place of the universe where, as one author writes, “the whole human family meets in a common enterprise” and “the worlds—seen and unseen— join hands in this work of love.”

Thistle Valley

August 2007

To my husband, two-weeks after our Parker’s death.

Another trip to Manti Temple. Postscript to Sailing to Manti

We crawl through excavation:

Splayed walls of striated fleshrock where water has ploughed

this thorny gorge,

where debris rots under tumbled planes

of memory, upended and shuffled.

A dam burst here.

Viscera and veins—striped pink sandstone—contain us;

on all sides shudder layers of petrified soundwaves wailing

wailing beneath the crushing rush of water

that rakes and claws and scrapes to the bone,

demolishing, devouring, leaving desolate.

One river’s vivisecting roar.

Earth’s heart.

Ours.

Gouged out, carved wide open on an altar,

drawn and scored, torn between here and there:

here, where the mudslide spews its dull red of caked blood;

there, where heaven’s ragged hem conceals our boy.

Yet: through terra cotta ribbons on every side sprout wisps of bright-green shrubs.

Life insisting on itself.

Once we sailed,

all wing and fervor, wind and future.

Now we cut through low buttes,

groping our way to Manti, writhing,

reaching.

Trusting, we offer hands stretched through a veil.

We crawl.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Sailing to Manti


This image: © Val Brinkerhoff

Ten days ago I was here.

If you’re driving south from Utah Valley at midnight heading into the town of Manti, watch for the gleaming white airborne castle straight ahead.  You might blink your eyes then dim your headlights, thinking they’ve caused some sort of halo effect.

They didn’t.

The castle is actually a temple, and the next morning you’ll see it’s not really descending from the skies, but sits atop a knoll. That hill overlooks Sanpete County, an area known for its scrub oak and sagebrush-stubble-covered rolling pastures fenced in barbed wire and split rail, a parched place 150 years ago, turned by Scandinavian pioneers into a farming and grazing paradise.

This is where for over four decades, my grandfather drove down from the north in his hulking red cattle truck to buy and trade livestock. Those deals he sealed with a calloused but firm handshake.  Lots of folks here still remember him by name for that big truck and faithful grip. I think of this while looking out over hundreds of heads of black cattle speckling the landscape.  The scene looks like someone’s strewn a big sack of lump coal across endless lengths of burlap.  I smell manure.  This is earth unadorned, and I breathe easy.

At her request, we’ve brought our daughter expressly to this temple this day.  It’s where Randall and I chose to be married because it’s a gorgeous and pristine temple and, well, there’s just something about the smell of manure.  Besides that, our ancestors had helped build it and even planted the very trees that still flank its entry lanes.

(While living in rattlesnake-infested dugouts, by the way, a drama that deserves its own book.)

Claire has chosen to come here partly because of those parental and pioneer connections, but also because it’s one of the oldest of about 140 Mormon temples in the world.  Its setting is also unique. Its stone the softest peach.  Its character a refined roughness. She chose well.

Closest family and friends, just a few, have made the drive, too, also at her request. With them, and with a temple full of locals who volunteer as “temple workers,” we’ll share a truly beautiful morning.  It begins when a man, maybe 65 years old, dressed head to toe in white and waiting for us at the entrance, stretches his hand to us. He has hands that look like my grandfather’s, a laborer’s hands. Well-used. Faithful. He swings open the glass entrance doors and beams, “Welcome! Welcome to the house of the Lord today.”

A temple, unlike a weekly meetinghouse, isn’t open to the general public, but to members of the church like Claire who’ve agreed to live fully the requirements of membership, and are ready to enter into even weightier promises than those made at baptism. These promises we call covenants, and the blessings given in return for making such commitments are the greatest God can give humankind.  This is a big step.  For years we’ve been teaching and preparing our daughter for this day.

We’re swept into the temple and immediately into the care of many waiting workers. Most over 60.  All smiling. All dressed in white.  All ushering us along with special affection and reaching hands. I know they could all be playing golf, every one of them, or tooling in their petunia patch or sitting on a porch swing watching their cattle.  But they’ve come here — come really far, some of them — to serve.  And it seems they’re here to serve only us –– to serve and bless my daughter — in the simple but particular orientation and initiation rites of worship.

It is women, mostly, who escort us to a private room where we change from street clothing to all white.  The shift in color matches a reduction in tempo, and with that slowing, there is an immediate drop in noise and a narrowing of focus.

Slow.  Silent.  Centered.

Claire is taken by three women to be taught the first gentle lessons and blessings of the temple. It’s here that she receives sacred clothing she will be instructed to wear for the rest of her life, constant reminders of those holy lessons and blessings, a protection if worn mindfully.

For months, I’ve prepared my child for this most tender moment of initiation, when she’ll receive these blessings at the hands of women. I take special note of these hands again with their signs of having lived near the earth, akin to it.  They rest on my child’s shoulder, drawing her to the next room. They touch her upper arm lightly, guiding her around a corner.  Good hands. Good women.  They can be trusted with instructing my daughter.  But I still can’t help myself from whispering as she walks away from me, “Listen to the words, honey. Listen very closely to the words.”

Because they are overpowering. Maybe too much to take in at once, some of the most powerful words man — or woman — can speak.

I notice at this moment that my heart feels pushed to all the corners of my torso, engorged with a joy, but its beat is deep, solid. Claire looks luminous, her eyes brisk and alert, her mouth fixed in a soft half-smile, lips closed, chin low, thoughts churning with wonder and prayer. I intuit this.  If only I could read those thoughts. In so much quietness, my heart strains to hear the unspoken. Is this what it means to be “heart of hearing”?

What are these overpowering blessings?

Someone like Claire receives, among other things, power, protection, guidance and comfort. She’ll need all that for missionary service, no doubt, since it’s seriously demanding in ways physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Having been a missionary myself, I know how it can drain and yank the sturdiest personalities.

Claire’s sturdy. But she needs strength far beyond sturdy.  She needs an  anchor. And she needs that anchor for more than just the next 18 months. She needs it, as I do, for every unforeseeable thing this crazy whirlwind of a life can unleash on us, its vicious whipping gusts, its sometimes thrashing blasts.

From where I sit next to her now, I watch her young profile, as composed as buffed ivory, and hear myself praying, “Let it always be like this, God,” knowing full well it can’t, won’t and shouldn’t be, knowing and praying, then, as a footnote, that since it can’t always be like this — tranquil, held up on every side with visible and loving hands — that she’ll be blessed with something else:

“Let her love the temple,” I vault my wish to heaven. “Let her come here often. Let her be anchored.”

***

Sailing to Manti

(to my husband, on the 22nd anniversary of our

December marriage in the Manti temple)

We sail the vein:

Perforated, gray southbound highway

Down

From dawn’s perch

We approach,

Splaying this languid stage of sagebrush

In two

Vast contours, undulating,

Old rocky chronology seeping left to right,

Largo to sostenuto . . .

Bending beyond peripheral vision

Curling,

wrapping,

enfolding

Heaven,

Her mist-mottled crepe curtain

Whispers,

Torn,

As ragged hem reveals enough:

Mountains, their triple depth in

Slate then ash then dust

Hang an ageless opaque canvas.

Drawn, we aim.

Trusting, we offer

Hands stretched through a veil.

We sail.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.