Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Once Thought I Saw Too Deeply; I Now Know I Didn't See Deeply Enough: Moving from Unbelief to Belief

This post is an assignment.  Mormons are encouraged to share their beliefs.  That should be easy for me, as the gospel has brought me great joy.  Although I'm still learning and growing, there are two versions of myself.  The only way to describe the first is to picture a lone person standing on a slender flat-topped butte surrounded by nothing but empty space.  The man is there all alone in the eternal star-studded night.  There might be happiness or joy out there on some distant world, but from that pinnacle there is only cold nothingness.  Connection is only an abstract, theoretical possibility.   All the data then seemed to say to me I am alone, and so is everyone else; they just don't know it.  I related a lot with Hemingway.  All was nada y pues nada.  At one point I dropped out of college and proceeded to try and slowly drink myself to death because nothing had meaning to me.  My parents were great; my siblings were great; I had truly wonderful friends.  I knew I could write and could probably make it as a writer if I tried, but I just couldn't believe it mattered, and so I quit life.

At one point I found a book called The Outsider by Colin Wilson that details this common sentiment among 20th Century writers.  In it, Wilson quotes from Henri Barbusse's novel  L'Enfer, where the protagonist concludes I see too deep and too much.  Life, I concluded was banal; others, for whatever reason, somehow were blind to it.

The second version of myself, although not always thrilled with how any particular day is going, is rooted in a  deep, general happiness that transcends the circumstance of the moment, and a real connection with my God, my Savior and the world around me.  That is a direct result of my spiritual conversion.  I sometimes feel guilty about this change.  My two older boys were raised by a different father than my two younger boys, even though all four were raised by me.  I don't believe I was ever a bad father.  I seldom spanked my kids, but I could really yell, and I was horrible at listening.  I can still lose my temper, but that happens less and less all the time, and although I still wander around in my own little world--thinking, creating and writing in my head--I'm less authoritarian, kinder, and a little more connected.  My two older boys got gypped.  It has absolutely nothing to do with them; and everything to do with the gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

So, I should want to shout that "I once was lost but now I'm found" from the roof tops.

Yet, I don't.  This post is an act of will.  My will--because I know what I have is worth sharing.  The Outsider discusses a certain type of writer who has a terrible secret to share--that all is nothing in the end--and they don't want to share it, but they are compelled to share it anyway.  They have to.  The misery is too painful to keep inside.  When that was my secret it oozed out everywhere--in my demeanor, my taste in music, my writing, and my dreams.  It had to.  I couldn't bear the darkness alone.

Now, I have the opposite problem.  I carry around this great joy that is unconnected with anything that's going on around me, and I have no adequate way of expressing it.  I want to.  I want others to feel it also.  But, I know it won't be my words that pass it along; I doubt anyone will even believe me.  I don't necessarily fear ridicule.  I'm pretty secure in being a lone wolf.  I was that for most of my life.  What I fear is being misunderstood.  I fear being taken as a salesman.  For peddling happiness, or God, or the Church like cheap trinkets on a street corner.

I don't want that because my beliefs are too sacred to me.  The world has enough televangelists, enough politicians, enough PR men, enough salesmen.

What I want is real connection, and the truth is I doubt I have what it takes to share the joy I feel inside.  People who have died and visited the other side before being resuscitated express this.  On the one hand they want to shout God lives and he loves you.  On the other hand, at least at first, they are stunned to silence by the overwhelming weight of bearing the good news.

But I do want to share a video.  I'm thinking perhaps it speaks for itself.  At least for some.  I know not all will feel it.  The music of the spirit is like that.  One has to be ready to hear it.  So much of earthly music is like that too.  I once wrote off opera, jazz, Bob Dylan.  Now I hear deep enough to get them.  I once couldn't hear silence well enough meditate, now I sometimes can.

I hope you can feel the spirit as Thomas S. Monson humbly accepted the calling to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints many years ago.  I know I can.  He is now the President of our church and our Prophet.  I love this video because it is so opposite of the rhetoric and noise of this world:

The LDS church is not the only place I hear God speaking, and no church leader would expect that of me.  If we believed our church was the only source of light, we would come to the conclusion that it was pointless to share our joy; we'd come to the conclusion that nobody would ever convert because there'd be no connection.  You can't be drawn to what you don't recognize.  One is drawn to goodness because goodness is our natural home.  It is where we belong.  So, I also recognize God in the words, thoughts and just the simple happiness of spiritual leaders of other faiths, such as the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh.

But those are other voices, other faiths, other windows to the divine.

A writer's job is to bear witness.  To share truth as we know it.  This is mine:

I know that God lives; I know that we have a purpose; I know that deep down, there is a well of happiness in each of us; that we are connected to a light, a glory beyond all human capacity to express.  I know that at  times this life feels fake, plastic, unreal.  We may feel, much as the writers chronicled in The Outsider by Colin Wilson, that we are somehow disconnected with everything around us, that we carry a deep, dark secret, an immense loneliness.  That's because we do.  It's because this world is not our real home.  This life is a temporary assignment, like going off to college, to learn and grow and enjoy--yes.  But it isn't our destiny.  It isn't where we ultimately belong.  It is a stop over on the road to eternity.  That emptiness, that deep longing for something more is God-designed to urge us forward so that someday we can return to our source, our light, our Savior, our God.  But, we don't have to wait to get a glimpse of it, a taste of it.  We can tap into it now and feel deep joy in this present moment no matter what that entails.

I bear testimony of this in the name of Jesus Christ,


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Fall into Winter, Journal Entry No. 2: Drives, Books & Daydreams

September 27, 2017, 8:14 p.m., 58 degrees Fahrenheit.  The nights have warmed; the song of the crickets and cicada have returned.  Outside the air is rich with the aroma of wet earth and cottonwood--deep, vital creek-bottom smells, the odor of spring.  It even feels like spring after two nights of frost.  Clouds have moved in and obscured most of the sky.  I didn't notice if it was moonlight or the last hues of day that made the clouds visible.

. . . . .

I spent my afternoon driving back and forth across 35-miles of this great valley that stretches 70 miles west from Dry Creek almost to the Nevada border.  I made the 45 minute commute home, picked up Everest, and then drove back across a good portion of the valley again to take him to the Chiropractor.  Then it was a stop at McDonald's before heading back home.  But I seldom mind driving here.  This wide-open valley is my home.  Having less than two people per square mile, its wide-open roads are about as traffic-free as roads can be in the twenty-first century.

I particularly love a forest of Russian olives and a single, giant cottonwood that has grown around some springs that seep out into the desert a ways out.  There are hundreds of the silvery-gray trees massed thickly together.  When driving past, I always imagine what it would be like to have a house hidden back there under the shade of that one giant tree.  A narrow lane could wind through the Russian olives, barely visible from the highway.  One could trim the olive trees and put in footpaths.  One could wander around his own little oasis for eternity and no one would notice.

I can kind of do the same thing at Dry Creek--although I seldom do--but it would be different out there.  Our property runs along a canyon at the edge of the foothills, borders property of the state Fish and Game, and sits adjacent to the National Forest.  You expect woods here.  But out there in that big expanse of desert--now that would be something.

. . . . .

After returning home, I read from The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hershel Shanks.  Again, my mind started to wander--this time to the Wadi Quamran settlement near the shores of the Dead Sea.  The book covers multiple theories about the people there, and as the author presented the pros of each theory, I saw the complete society form before my eyes, and then as the author presented the cons and postulated the next competing theory, the community would dissolve and bleed into a new one.

I had the idea that it would make a great novel--to start several historical novels about the same place but erode each narrative until it was incomplete, fragmented, and then bleed the narratives into one another, layering up the stories like strata of an archeological site.

Maybe some day I will get around to writing such a book (or any book).  But Marci is home from her second job, and it is time to enter this strata, this place, this now.  There will be more time to wander the different landscapes of my mind later.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Fall into Winter: Journal Entry No. 1

Mt. Katherine from Dry Creek 9.25.17

7:45.  The last of the light.  The evenings have been silent for a little over a week now.  Cold has cut off the song of the cicada, the song of the cricket.  Now there is only stillness except when Oreo, our blue-heeler, barks.

A fire glows in the fireplace and is reflected onto the coming of the night through the front window.  Today edged above 60 degrees, but last night we had our first frost.  Most of the garden survived though.

I came home, put a pizza in the oven that Everest had preheated, and then put some dishes in the sink and headed outside. 

I caged the apple tree we planted in the spring.  The deer have returned for winter, and last week they stripped off its leaves.  Luckily, they haven't chewed off the branches yet.  I also caged the new cherry tree.  Then I came in, ate some pizza and watched an episode of Escape to the Country, a British show that I like.

After that, I did up the dishes and returned outside.  I transplanted an aspen that was in a pot sitting on the front walk.  I am slowly planting a forest west of the house as a sun and wind block.   The ground was still plenty moist from a heavy rain that turned to snow in the early hours of the morning Sunday.

Then I brought in firewood and lit a fire.

Things are generally simple here.  Lots to do.  Lots of routine.  I'm ready for that at this stage of my life.  I don't even mind dishes.

I love being outside, even if it's just to get firewood.  I love the smell of wet wood, of chimney smoke.  I love little noises--a distant dog barking.  In the morning, there is the yelp of coyotes and our rooster crowing.

I am glad the heat is gone.  Summers are getting far too long.  I don't see how anyone can deny climate change anymore.

Although we could have fires all winter, we only have them in the fall (before we switch over to the furnace), at Christmas time, and in the spring (after we have stop using the furnace).

There is no heat like fireplace heat.  It sinks in deep, warms you down to your bones.  But sending smoke up the chimney constantly is hard to justify anymore.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dry Creek In the Year of the Cat, Part I: For Now We're Going to Stay

Yesterday I knew exactly what I wanted to write for this post.  I was headed down an empty highway of this big, open valley, headed to work in a neighboring town on my day off to get a few things done, and I was listening to "Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart. 

Oh how I love that song.  I know the lyrics well, almost, but not quite, by heart.  When I was younger I was drawn to the escapism, the exoticness, and the romance of the song, crystalized in the first verse:

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

Anticipation is the teens and twenties.  A restless desire to be anywhere but the present.  Life is wide-open, full of potential.  The now sucks, but the future is open, there to be molded by fantasy, dreams and aspirations.  One morning happiness will just appear it seems.  The right woman to make everything right.  "She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running / Like a water color in the rain."  Wow!  Finally, at last.  Happiness:

She doesn't give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears

That is youth, or at least mine.  Only a little of it was reality.  Most of it was my imagination.  But I did have a couple of weeks when a female friend from Germany came to visit while I was in college. We went on a long road trip from Dallas to Big Bend National Park and crossed the Rio Grande on a row boat to Boquillas, Mexico, spent the day strolling dusty calles and playing with the village children.  So there was a woman in a country where they turn back time.  I had my Year of the Cat.

Yesterday though, I was more focused on the final verse:

Well morning comes and you're still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you've thrown away your choice you've lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime you're bound to leave her
But for now you're going to stay
In the year of the cat

Recently Marci and I decided we would have to leave Dry Creek.  The teaching positions we've been waiting for five years in this county of two people per square mile opened for others and not us.  It seemed it was finally time to leave this fantasy and move on to the city and reality.

Listening to "Year of the Cat" yesterday, I realized I have two loves:  Marci and Dry Creek.  As a child, I couldn't wait to get away from here, but from college on, I have been driven by the desire to return.  Because Dry Creek is in a rural area and employment is scarce, in a very real sense, it is in another land.  Children grow up, go off to college, get careers, and spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to this area.  For 13 years I taught in Arizona, spending nine months each year pining for my chance to return to Dry Creek each summer.

Finally, five years ago I decided to heck with it, I'm going to live the dream instead of simply measuring out my life in spoonful reality.  Without any jobs in place, we packed up and moved to this piece of paradise.  Although I didn't regret that decision--five years is five years after all--it seemed like the time was right to move on.

But in the process of letting the residential treatment center where I teach know I was looking for employment elsewhere, I was offered a healthy raise.  I discussed it with Marci.

Well morning comes and you're still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you've thrown away your choice you've lost your ticket
So you have to stay on.

Marci is my life, not Dry Creek.  I will follow her wherever she needs to go.  Yet, in a weird way, Dry Creek is the other woman.  She draws me, she dazzles me, she occupies my dreams and my time.  I guess my mom had to deal with the same thing.  My step dad was always outside spending time with this land, often only a block or two away, but away none the less lost in his secret connection with his other woman, this place--a daily wild, exotic escape from reality.

Life is uncertain.  To learn and grow we must free ourselves from the demands of the selfish "I".  We must be willing to let go, eventually, of everything except our connection to our creator.  So, I can't say we'll be here forever, but for now, we're going to stay

in the year of the cat.

The van stuck in the driveway Christmas time 2006 before our house was built. 
Mitchell helps grandpa burn at the bottom of "the big canyon".

My favorite maple grove on the property

Rio in the apricot tree

Rio and Everest with Grandpa at the front gate of Dry Creek

After Dad died, I erected this sign near the apricot trees he loved.

The line of cottonwood Lloyd and I planted along the road

A piece of old farm equipment that came with the property

Everest at Dry Creek

The first garden bed outback of our new house

Planting the first vegetables.

What led to building Marci's shade house.

It starts to come together.

Adding a fountain and dining

The front walk and grapevine

Marci feeds our new chickens.

A fine fall morning at Dry Creek

Fall snow on Mount Katherine

Winter at Dry Creek

Our dog Darth at Dry Creek.  She loved this place.

Building the grill pad out back.

The grill pad with its new deck.

Gravel for the eating area

The deck stained, the planters hung.

The grill pad complete
The main backyard path

Marci's cut-flower garden in the fall

Grapes ripening in the Hanging Bucket Garden

The new swing in Marci's Shade House

Sunflower Station, step 1

Sunflower Station, step 2

Sunflower Station, step 3

Sunflower Station, step 4

Sunflower Station, step 5
The work and escape continues

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Winter Walk at Dry Creek: Reacquainting Myself with Myself and the Land

Headed home from work on a chilly winter's day, listening to NPR and feeling blue.  A fragment in my life I didn't like.  It was nothing big; I just realized that I'm just enough in touch with the world to be out of touch with myself.  Yesterday, I'd spent way too much time on Facebook reading and commenting on political links.  All the peaceful protests give me hope, but there is something about social media that is spiritually deadening.  I have no intention of giving it up.  I have a couple of good friends who I really never knew outside the cyber world.  Facebook has also reconnected me with my two best friends from high school, who I'd semi-lost contact with before Facebook entered my life.  So, it's not that I think it's evil; it just distracts from living in the moment.

Even when I was a fairly unhappy person as a teenager and college student, I was always good at living in the moment.  Cafes, restaurants and bars became almost sacred places.  I spent hours silently reading while listening to casual conversations, the hum of heaters or overhead fans, and the occasional drop of ice in the ice machine.  I might have been alone and without belief, but I was grounded deeply to the now, and that felt good, if only for the moment.

I've lost some of that, and I want it back again.  Right now I hear bacon sizzling in the pan and smell that rich, sweet meaty aroma as Marci cooks us breakfast for dinner.

Anyway, on the way home, I glanced out my window down a long, straight, snow-covered farm lane edged by a barbed wire fence and elms.  When I saw it, that old, familiar yearning came back, and I thought to myself I've lost track of why I'm here.   Politics do matter.  It's important to speak out against Trump, not because any single action is effective, but because numbers matter.  Apathy and silence is democracy's greatest enemy.  But that's not why I'm here.  I'm at this place and time because of Dry Creek, because of my land, because of my heritage, because I've been a part of this place for so long that it is part of me.

As I neared our property and saw Harold, our resident eagle in his tree, I decided that I needed to take a walk.

Harold, our resident eagle, photographed in 2016 by Rio Brown

Everest decided to come with me, and so we also took the dogs.  We didn't go far--just up to my mom's house--but it was enough to reacquaint myself with the land, something I needed badly.  At least this day I found connection to the moment again. 

Looking down into the canyon from the old gate
Mt. Catherine (left), over 10,000 feet above sea level

Buddha (left), Oreo (behind), Everest, and Camilla (on Everest's lap)
rest on the bridge to Lloyd and my mom's house.

Friday, July 22, 2016

American Fecundity 2016

These are uncertain times.
Heat hangs heavy, unnatural,
skies cyclone-oppressive.
Hate thickens, alien-green.
The valley is still; not a blade
bends.   There is a highway out—
love actually
but all stand stoic, lulled
by the static dreadful
blossoming impossible.

 © Steve Brown 2016

Monday, July 18, 2016

True, Hard Fact: Repentance Requires Revision and Editing

Recently I’ve become acutely aware of what it means to be “born again.”  It’s not the free-ticket to redemption one might suppose.  We are promised by our Heavenly Father that if we repent, He will "remember [our] sins no more" (D & C 58:42).  I have no doubt that is true, for I have felt the joy that results from becoming worthy.  I have had the spirit testify that I have been forgiven, and I don’t carry around the baggage of my past decisions.  If my Heavenly Father has forgiven me, there is no reason why I shouldn’t forgive myself.  The redemption of Christ is about moving forward and not backwards.  He tells the woman caught in adultery that she is forgiven and “to go and sin no more”  (John 8:11). 

At first this sounds great, which it is--oh so much better than actually having to atone for ones actions alone without Christ to take on most of that burden.  Yet, truly being “born again” is not as easy as it sounds.  It requires extreme sacrifice.  It requires going through a veil, of giving up the old self, and allowing faith to create something new.   After all, if my Heavenly Father is to remember my sins no more, I must do the same.  That is hard stuff because that is my life wrapped up with my sins.   No matter how much pain and sorrow my old life brought me, no matter how heavy the void that hung around my neck, it was still my life, and there were good times mixed in with the misery.

I teach English at a residential treatment center for boys, and I saw one of my students struggle with this.  In his former life he was a street graffiti artist and small time dope dealer.  While at our school, he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and had slowly rebuilt his life based on gospel principles.  He was at a relatively safe place when he wrote a descriptive essay for me about his former life as a graffiti artist.  It was an amazing piece, describing the city in the early dawn and the peace and solitude he felt tagging right before the city awakened.  As writing, it was good stuff.  Had he been a shop owner washing down the sidewalk before opening shop it would simply be a pleasant memory.  But this moment of connection for him, because the life choices he had made, was attached instead to an illegal act and a former lifestyle that brought more pain than peace.  Yet, as the memory was pleasant, I could see it pulling him back to a life he needed to let go.

When he turned in the essay, I had two thoughts: 1) this is solid writing and 2) if I don’t help him, this boy is in danger of returning to a life of misery.  Because of my past, I knew I had to be honest.  Warnings about “Don’t go there” would only make him resentful.  After all, it was his life, not mine. What right did I have to tell him that the peace he felt that day was a lie?  I didn’t have that right at all.  And I knew that peace myself.  For me, it was city lights reflected at the bottom of the concrete channel of the Rio Grande from the Santa Fe Bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas after a heavy night of drinking.  My life was miserable because of my choices but that stopping point on a bridge between two countries was none-the-less moving.  I still see that glassy, slightly rippled water, hard and slick as wet obsidian through the diagonal grid of the chain-link fence.

So, instead of lecturing him, I talked about giving up good things for better things.  He had lots of support from staff and has since married in the temple.  He chose to move forward not backwards.  But, I know that choice wasn’t easy. 

Here is the warning I give my children and future grandchildren:  Live your life so that you never have to “go and sin no more.”  Christ does provide us with fresh starts, but every time we have to be “born again” to move forward in happiness, we have to leave part of us behind.  Life is messy and good times get mixed in with our poor choices.  To truly start over, we have to leave the past behind.   In leaving the past behind, we leave a chunk of ourselves with it.

Live so that all your greatest memories can apply to the life you want to end with.  How grand it must be to be eighty years old, look back at your life and remember that your first night of intimacy was with your wife who is pushing your wheel chair when you are eighty.  Does that mean you can’t have a meaningful marriage if you had premarital sex with another woman or went through a divorce?  Of course not, a loving Heavenly Father does allow us to start over.  But not even the grace of God can unify a narrative that happened chaotically, without a plan.

True, one learns from mistakes.  One learns wisdom and empathy.  But learning is part of life.  You’ll gain wisdom regardless of your path.  Yet only one path leads to a life where all memories can remain in the narrative that ends with a resolution of joy not disjointed by sin.  It’s good to be able to say, “I was lost, now I’m found”; it is profound to be able to look back on your life and not need to edit anything out to move forward.

I love my life, sin and all, and if I had to do it all over again, without any changes, I’d be fine with that because I know I’d end up here, at a place of faith and the resulting joy that comes from being worthy of receiving the Holy Ghost.  Yet, I have to live with the knowledge that I could have lived another narrative, one where I never stopped speaking to my Heavenly Father.  No matter what I accomplish in this life, no matter how much joy I feel, no matter how close I draw to my Heavenly Father, I know that other narrative is better.  It is a fact I have to live with.  If I could teach my children the ultimate lesson, it would be this:

Live the life God intends for you NOW so that you never have to edit out chunks of living to move forward.  Every hard, right decision becomes a permanent detail to move the narrative forward.  Every wavering is an error that will eventually have to be erased through the revision and editing process of the atonement before the narrative is right.  Those scraps, those dribbles of less-than-perfect text, at some point must be set aside to move forward.  Imagine what it must be like to be Christ—for every word, every deed to be worthy of including in your life story.  You can’t accomplish that, but get as close as you can, and you will be happy for the majority of the narrative, even in moments of sorrow and pain because the Holy Ghost provides a joy deeper, better rooted, and stronger than circumstance.