To Be a Pioneer

“Zion Ho” by Minerva Teichert

I’ve done a lot of pioneering over the last few years. It has meant agonizing decisions, loneliness, fear, leaving the lull of security, and striking out with a feeble faith toward truths that friends and loved ones haven’t always understood or supported. Away from easy truths I thought I’d never lose.

In June of 2013 my then-husband and I went on a pioneer trek with a group of teenagers. Our role was to act as a ma and a pa for some amazing kids. It was dusty, sweaty, difficult work; I had feet covered with blisters, and heat rash all up and down my legs. Along the way, we learned stories about the Mormon pioneers and their sacrifices. I gained perspective and a reverence for their bravery and the sacrifices they made to come to a zion they hoped would mean peace.

As a ma during our pioneer trek, I wanted to help our little group feel their worth, learn to love God and humans, and trust to the grace that I believe is one of the organizing forces of the universe, whether it wears the name of Jesus or Brahman or the unearned rain that falls on flowers and fields. I spent much of my time at odds with my husband and tending to my own crumbling belief, so I don’t know that I did a good job. I also didn’t know that it was me who would most need those truths, that I would soon pack a handcart and leave the life I’d known in hopes of finding a place in the world that I could settle, feel free from fear, and call my own.

Some would say the Mormon pioneers were foolhardy or duped, especially the handcart pioneers who left far too late in the season to make a safe trip. But what is life if it isn’t a choice to pack our handcarts with the basics of survival and pull slowly toward the things we love, the truths we’re willing to be wrong about? Some pull with reason and logic, some with faith, some with anger, some with joy. Some plod, footfall by footfall, along the path in hope they’ll one day understand why they keep going. And we make mistakes—I’ve made plenty of my own over the last two years—and we hope our faith and our follies will help us learn to make a zion.

My great-great grandparents, James and Jessie White Murray, left Scotland in 1862 and traveled across America as Mormon pioneers. Jessie’s parents were distressed by her choice to join the Mormons and told her as she left that they hoped her ship would sink. James lost his wife, Mary, in Echo Canyon—almost within sight of the Salt Lake Valley. Jessie helped him care for his children; they later married and lived near Tooele in a place still called Murray Canyon.

I wonder if they ever wished they’d stayed safe in their Scotland homes. I wonder how much grief filled their days, how much they longed for lost ones. I wonder if Jessie’s parents spent days staring west and wishing for just one chance to tell their daughter of their love for her.

As I continue my pioneering and wonder, like Carol Lynn Pearson does in the following poem, if I’ll ever find my place, I think sometimes about my people, my brave pioneer grandparents and feel grateful to know that courage is my heritage. I may not walk the paths they walked, or trust to the same truths, but their faith helps me lace my shoes, pack my cart with what I need, toss heavy things I cannot carry, and head toward my horizon.

Pioneers

My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.

I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.

I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all I will finally say,
“This is the place,”

I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.

––Carol Lynn Pearson

The Longest Night–A Winter Solstice Poem

photoThe Longest Night

What do we do on the longest night?
We weep. We stand at the mouth
of a snowy canyon, cursing God
through our sobs as the long dark
of this year, so cold, sinks deep.

Then, we hold each other, laugh.
We kiss and whisper secrets, gently
caressing the tender hurts in the dark
beneath each others’ skin.

We sleep the sorrow of midwinter,
dream spring and wake
with wet eyes that watch
the light grow longer each day,
each new minute the promise
of a bright-shining, knife-bladed spring.

by Heather Holland

Grief and Love and Waking

“Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace-disappointment in all its many forms-and let it open me?” This is the trick.” —Pema Chödrön

I woke up happy and filled with peace this morning. I read poetry and Pema Chödrön, meditated and cried happy and cathartic tears. I felt grateful for my life—this life, right now, not the life that I waste comparing to what it used to be or wishing away until it gets better. This is significant. One happy waking day is more than I’ve had in months.

Most days I wake up wrapped in sorrow and grief. Each waking is a rush of reminder: I no longer live in the home I loved for over a decade; I am divorced; I feel isolated from many of the communities I’ve spent years building; my faith has taken a beating and is finding new forms; I will never see my brother again in this lifetime. By bedtime I’ve reminded myself of the reasons for my choices, I’ve taken baby steps forward. I’ve nurtured my heart enough that I know I will be okay, then I sleep and forget. Then, I wake and remember.

But today I woke up happy. Today I was so grateful for my life, my body, my home, the sun shining on my face, my bedside table, my best friend’s metaphors, Buddhism, and wonderful people who talked and listened and loved me last night.

You can’t have love without grief; this world of impermanence packages them together. And the deeper the love, the deeper the grief. Sometimes I’d like to choose a lessened grief, but not if lessening grief meant lessening my deep and burning capacity for love.

Solstice: Light and Dark

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On the last winter solstice, the longest night of the year, I sat in a car at the mouth of Rock Canyon with my best friend and cried until my eyes were salty and stinging and dry and my chest ached from the heaving and my lips were cracked. Then I stepped out into the cold mouth of the canyon, cried some more, and yelled at God—a long string of angry sorrow and curse words. I stood outside in the dark and yelled until my voice was hoarse and my fingertips were numb. I stood in the cold and felt like a wisp, a shell, such a fragile thing. I was fighting for my life right then, holding on to the edge of a cliff and constantly working to convince myself that I could survive the pain, that I could find happiness, that I was worthy of love. So often I felt that my pesky needs for love and emotional safety and authenticity were making everyone around me miserable, that life would be better for others without me around. Tightly tucked into the dark and cold of the longest winter I’ve ever known, I didn’t know if I’d ever make my way out. I just kept waking up to one more minute of light each day, watched as the day’s light lengthened, hurt and hoped. 

Today was summer solstice, the longest day of the year. I slept in until 11, went to lunch with new friends at my favorite park, washed my quilt at the laundromat, rode the train to Murray to visit my Aunt Gwen who reminded me how loved and supported I am, how grateful she is for me, how she admires me. Just past sunset I drove to Rock Canyon again. I walked into the mouth of the canyon to sit on a boulder and cry. There is still so much pain (and more and different pain) but it is softer around the edges, and I am stronger. I talked to my little brother, told him how much I miss his sparkly eyes and his mischievous giggle. The warm breeze blew through my hair as crickets sang their night song. Orange light beyond the lake faded as the stars peeked out through clouds that moved softly through the darkening blue. I talked to God, whispered a dozen thank yous for the beauty of this world, for this life and the labyrinthine journey I’m taking. After the crying and the whispered prayer, I found the tiny stage of an amphitheater and danced to Regina Spektor, sang, bowed to the applauding stars.

Tonight I held myself tight in love and compassion, reveling in the treasure that is me—that beautiful and imperfect person who is always here at the end of each day and each grief, the friend I’m learning to cherish with each waking. As sorrow and anger and loss have ravaged me this year, as so many of the outer trappings of my identity have fallen away, I’ve finally learned to love myself without condition. It is new love: fierce and soft and open and grateful. Tonight there is such light, such light, such light shining through the cracks and the flaws of my wandering soul. 

And then there was joy…

Today joy peeked its head through the soil again, as it always seems to do. Hooray! And today felt like spring. I’m grateful for spring and joy like crocuses that find their way through hard, snowy ground to the light.

I’m grateful I got to cry today. It cleared a lot of things for me.

I’m grateful that I got to babysit Emerson, a sweet one-year-old who “helped” me load the dishwasher tonight. Grateful for his wonderful parents who are two of my dearest friends—two of those rare people in my life that I never feel like I have to pretend with.

I am grateful that I got to hold my sweet Matthew on my lap tonight and stroke his hair. He is so sweet and wonderful and growing too fast.

Life is so good, especially when I choose to believe it is so.

So, so grateful

Grateful today for the way my children love me so unconditionally. Even when I’m a little off my game or out of sorts. 

Grateful for snuggling and singing and dancing.

Grateful for my Kaitlyn’s incredible sense of humor and the gift of laughter.

Grateful for math jokes, like Scott’s favorite: “Math, I’m not a psychiatrist. Solve your own problems.”

Grateful for a sweet dog. I love our Rusty dog.

The Cold Pulse of Sorrow: In Praise of Sadness

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This winter is cold and hard. And my endless search for a story where I’m perfect enough or wise enough to avoid pain is met in my mind with a friend’s soft voice: I’m sorry, darling, but you’re human. 

Tonight I walked in black clogs along the river trail, my ankles bare and bitten by icy air beneath my long, gray skirt. The bare trees jutted their limbs and sticks into the chill of river and sky, and mallards’ burnished backs and green heads floated on the running water, their quacks and taunts floating up to join the smell of wispy woodsmoke.

The cold pulse of sorrow enclosed me; one warm tear fell down my face. I don’t cry often these winter days. More than one tear and I am drowning in a deep and endless well, surrounded by stones of choices and stories and impossibles, things done and undone, words said and left unsaid, all that is aching and unsustainable.

Why must this be a world of sadness and sorrow?

The river flows on. The sky fades gray, then orange, deepens to cerulean and indigo. Here, even here, I am grateful—not for how I’m filled, but for how I’m emptied. Sorrow is the gift of being hollowed out for hope and future joys. This jagged joy of being human is more than joy. It is also joy’s counterpoint—sadness, sorrow. All of it is a call to gratitude. All. All. All.

This moment. Even this.

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