25 September 2017

Surrounded by Greatness: Sarah

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Slender, tall, soft-spoken. Hair the sheen of dark chocolate, beautiful skin with a delightful bridge of freckles on her nose. Sparkling green eyes. A quiet smile, sometimes brilliant. Modest, inexpensive clothes but always a beautiful, functional outfit. Nowadays she always has a baby on her hip or a child by the hand.

We are cousins. But I hardly knew her until I turned 18 and roomed with cousins for my first year.

Fresh out of high school, I aspired to stand out in the crowd, to be noticed for something great--black coats, red boots, intense looks. Sarah stood out in our apartment without effort. She didn't say much, but she set an example. She didn't pursue outlandish clothing or hair or makeup styles. She smiled easily. She went where she was supposed to go when she was supposed to. She didn't use crass language. She spoke gently. Sometimes, as I studied in the bedroom across the hall, I heard the strains of a violin as she played hymns and other pieces. In the eight months we shared an apartment I only saw her upset once.

From Sarah's example I learned how important it was to drink lots of water every day. I also learned that it's ok to like french fries and cheesecake. I learned how to move like a princess. How to talk like a princess. How beautiful it is to dress conservatively and still be comfortable in one's own skin.

I walked in the mornings. Often I would blow in from the frigid Rexburg dark to find Sarah, hair wet, at the kitchen table, studying her scriptures while the rest of the apartment slept. We didn't converse much while we lived together. But we got along. She didn't know how much I watched her and decided to try to be like her.

One cold, pre-dawn morning I trudged up the stairs in my seven layers to find a note hanging from the front doorknob. "Dear Cassidy," it said, and then listed a bunch of qualities the writer appreciated about me--stuff I didn't think anyone noticed, stuff that just warmed the Idaho ice right out of me. It was signed "<3/." No name. I thought it might be another roommate who usually walked in the mornings with me but had wanted to sleep today. I held the note gently and walked through the door to find Sarah, hair wet, sitting under the kitchen light with her scriptures.

I kept that note in my college cookbook for years, and added it to my keepsakes after that. I've signed secret notes "<3/" ever since.

Sarah found her sweetheart the next semester, and she was gone even more. I missed her, though I was happy for her. I watched her romance and hoped that someday I might be a good enough girl, like Sarah, to find that kind of love.

I don't go to receptions as a habit. But I went to Sarah's.

Sarah started a family. A handful of moves, a handful of gorgeous children...beautiful pictures that I loved to see on her blog or her FB feed as the years went on. Sarah, with her queenly posture and her sweet, angelic smile, surrounded by husband and children.

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Then, suddenly, she lost her 20-month-old daughter to pneumonia.

I went to the funeral, unsure of what I'd see or of what to do when I saw Sarah. What do you say to a young mother so freakishly bereaved? What was Sarah experiencing?

She was the same Sarah in suffering as she had been in school. She didn't cry. She held her face bravely and even managed to smile at some people as they came to view little Ella and wish Sarah and her family well. She clung to her husband and kept her other three children close, but she stood Sarah-straight. Graceful and quiet as ever. A princess.

I didn't find a moment with her until we were at the grave site. Then I couldn't be nervous anymore, or worried about pretense. This was Sarah--as genuine and beautiful as any woman I've ever known. All I could feel was sisterly love for her and the desire to hug her and to tell her I loved her and was praying for her. She hugged me tightly--as if we were not only cousins, but friends--and clung to my hand for a minute. We held each other tightly, and I tried to share with her the love and admiration I had for her, to give her something. Then I moved back to my husband, and she moved to greet other well-wishers.

Have you ever stood that close to a princess?

I watched her throughout that afternoon in awe. She held it together, though I could see her grief. She didn't draw attention to herself--and just that fact commanded attention.

Since then she still posts beautiful pictures and soulful testimonies about families being forever. Always positive. Never questioning or complaining or upbraiding, though she acknowledges that she struggles. We don't mix much, both in our own spheres of busy.

But I still think of Sarah often. Of her hug in the cemetery. Of her graciousness in fair and foul weather. Of that note on the doorstep. Of french fries and cheesecake and water. Of quiet manners and gentle speech. Of the kind of confidence and selflessness that withers others' need for pretense with a look, a touch, a smile. Of how to be a princess.

I'm so happy I know Sarah. She is someone I wish I could introduce everyone to. She makes people better just by being in proximity to them. It's a gift. From a princess.

03 July 2017

Pennsylvania Summers

 When you can't stand the heat—

Constitutional Convention, Summer, Pennsylvania 1787
When a job has to be done,

And the burden is yours, by your failure or your choice,

When you've sat all summer in a Pennsylvania hall without air conditioning, and flies buzz 'round your wig,

When you've marched the uphill Pennsylvania miles, and the object still seems far away,

When gray sky and triple digits bear down on you from above,

Lewis A. Armistead, Confederate Army
And ball and canister fire bear down on you from the front,

When you watch your strength and numbers and resources drop by ones, fives, scores,

And find you have nothing left;

When those around you can't agree on a solution,

And you can't come up with one on your own,

And outside voices naysay or clamor for the answer,

And the enemy, whatever it may be, physical, metaphysical, financial, emotional, surges all around you to hedge up your way,

When your Pennsylvania summers come—

Do what they did. Finish.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Union Army
Keep your uniform on: that symbol of your rank, insignia, heritage, identity.

Don't waste time and energy looking around for someone else to blame or take control.

Drop to your knees or simply mouth a plea to Heaven.

Trust that the Great Finisher Himself hears you from above the clouds and heat and shrapnel.

Raise yourself. Square your shoulders. Then raise your pen. Raise your sword. Set your hat upon its tip.

And write. Run. Charge.

To the Constitution. To the Angle. To the victory.

Keep your dignity. Be dogged.

Be like them. 

Gettysburg, Summer, Pennsylvania, 1863
They christened the American dream and kept it alive. In Pennsylvania summers. In their uniforms. In their wigs. In their buckles. On their knees. Swords in hand. Even when they'd given what seemed like their all and could go no farther. When they couldn't stand the heat...

They finished.

That's the American dream—a people who dream big and with prayer, dignity, and doggedness, finish. Despite the heat.

That's a lesson from some great Americans. And Pennsylvania summers.

28 June 2017


I made sure to put my hair up and out of my face the day after I took a food handler's permit. Because I felt accountable--not to state officials or even to consumers; accountable to the course itself--accountable to the words on the screen.

I sat in the car with my husband this afternoon, and again on the front steps with him this evening, and read out loud to him. He listened. We didn't converse. But a sweet connection settled between us in my mind. Because we shared the same words.

I took clam chowder and breadsticks to a lady who was convalescing from a heart attack. Hours later I received a long text from her that I drank in. She didn't thank me. She expressed her thanks. With adjectives, a record of her feelings, and specific details that made me feel I had stepped through the phone screen into a story.

I look to old friends for words. But the blogs are empty. Everyone, including me, is in the world of pith and pictures. One-liners, links, backup sources. Statements.

People post statements. It's easier. Safer, in a way. Our world has become a world of making statements. They are short; they can be backed up; they are concrete. I don't need brain cells to make them, just to back them up with someone else's.

Statements are clear. But expression is pristine.

Statements clarify. Expression is catharsis.

Extension of self. Connection. Connection with self. Connection with Others. In a beautiful way.

Statements deaden my creativity. Expression resurrects it.

The law drums statements into us. The law does not express. It states. (Statutes, statesmen, the State itself). The law takes words and fashions them into batons, rulers. Keep the time; raise the bar. Others take words, work them into statements, fashion them into clubs or bayonets, cushioned between equivocations or not.

Social media; it's a different species of social.

When I began law school, I inadvertently put expression behind me. The mechanics of law—centuries of bad writing, bad expression, for "good law"—choked it out of me. I didn't know I was consenting to that. Should I sue the mechanics of law for mortally constricting my expression? But I would have to state my claim; state my argument; back up my statements with other people's statements—they call it "language," not words. What would be the point.

There are many statements that lack life; many expressions that lack beauty. Both that lack humanity. But if it's alive; if it's beautiful; if it uplifts; if it frees, it's expression of the highest kind: poetry. Trees and heights, not sidewalks and blocks.

A poet expresses statements. A poet deals with beauty and uplift. A poet takes words and fashions them into a scepter. Something bright, benevolent, and beautiful. A king a thousand times. Have you tasted the beauty and empowerment in doing that? I haven't. For too long.

I miss the poetry. Poetry takes expression. Expression takes solitude and time. Time to feel, to sense, to unravel beauty. It takes one's own thoughts. It takes looking further in than the stomach and further out than what is right in front of you. It takes discipline. A law student with a family has discipline, but of a different kind. She has the desire, yes. The opportunity, the ideas, the ability...no. Not even the thoughts. The law, the feeds...so much of what we write and say and argue and fashion, "share" and give is someone else's.

I miss sharing my own. Without having to equivocate; or make a point; or be heard; or leave the other side no argument; or back everything up; or look to authority; or cringe every time I think about stating or expressing something because who is going to feel zinged and zing right back?

I give statements. But I share expression. I bond with words and Others. Through words. Through expression. 

Words...the itch in the fingers and the ache in the mind for them. One's own words. For one's own ideas. But it's like new shoes when you've bought your first house—the payments are the necessities. The shoes have to wait.

So, because I lack solitude and time—and brain energy—I try to put poetry into other things—a quilt, a meal. But lead-colored scrolls over a white college-ruled page possess a color, a movement, a taste of satisfaction that pinwheels and muffins don't. 

I got outside yesterday morning before 7:00. I think the early morning is the most poetic part of the day—it blooms with expression and promise. The rest of the world isn't up yet; fewer statements in the air.

As I walked and watched the sun-shadow patchwork over the mountains, images of a story thought up long ago sprang unbidden to my mind. They kept me company the entire hour. That doesn't happen anymore. 

I haven't ironed out the plot. But I have the images. The ideas. I know how pristine it felt to think them. I know how cathartic it will feel to give the images words.

Until then, this is a place for words. Not perfect statements; not flawless expression. Words. Words that hopefully beautify, uplift...share. Share in the sense that Wordsworth and Longfellow, Lewis and others share. I don't converse with them. I don't debate about their views and mine. I drink their expressions in and feel revived. I put my criticism cap off and let my mind and spirit rest. I put my almighty opinion, my endless fountain of wisdom from me, and just breathe and listen to the whispers they stir in my soul. Like leaves that rustle as the sun twinkles on the rocks in a trickling brook.

I breathe the sun and water-mist in. And grow.

I feel a connection with them, with Others, in my mind. Because of their craft, their scepters, their words. They own their worlds. They don't equivocate. They don't rupture and splay. They simply create beauty.

Through words.

31 May 2017


A lot of 4:30–6:30 a.m. homework sessions. 11:00-5:00 (interrupted) sleep cycles. A lot of hurried, half-real meals and chewing nuts and M&Ms in class to stay awake. A lot of stress about Public School Law, Constitutional Law, Evidence, the rest of classes, , and that 30-page substantive legal research paper every BYU Law student has to write. A lot of abbreviated workouts and a digestive system sludging through junk food. Then a lot of studying for comprehensive finals. And a lot of finals. A lot of prayer throughout.

I made it. To the end of the semester. With one week between end of school and beginning of work, when the crazy schedule would start up all over again, I wondered how best to treat myself--I deserved it, right? My body cried for a break. So did my brain.

Literally the morning after my last final I picked up a book and read this passage:

Although the world tells men to play nine holes of golf or go on vacation and tells women that the very best way to be rejuvenated is by going on a shopping spree or to the spa--I believe that covenant men and women are far more likely to be rejuvenated through service, especially if they are able to delight in that covenant with others." --Wendy Watson Nelson

Zing! It rang true. Why go to a spa or a movie or the mall when I could take an opportunity to o something meaningful? Something refreshing for the spirit? That, I realized, was what really needed rejuvenation. And just the thought of brightening someone else's day released sunshine inside--sunshine the stress-for-self of a nonstop semester had squeezed out.

The mall, the spa, the golf course, restaurant, vacation site all have their place, and I use them too (maybe not the spa--too touchy-feels for me). But I wanted to be refreshed from the inside, I realized, and the outside would follow. And I remembered previous experience where service had done just that.

So I went and helped my mom and siblings at the family store that day instead of personal R&R, as conventional connotation would put it. I feel great.

05 September 2016

Midwest Autumn

Image found here
The cold leaves late and enters early in Wisconsin.

The winters are wet and cold, and colder because they are wet. To breathe the air freezes the nose hairs and sears the lungs. Shadows long, world a morality play of thigh-high pristine white and stark gray.

The summers are hot and wet, and hotter because of the wetness. We breathe as if through bathroom towels, smelling the heat of the clean moisture in the air and the saltiness on our arms, necks, and faces. And green — the green of corn ripening, of squash and carrot leaves sprouting, of weeds thriving, of forests drinking, of lawns that need no sprinklers.

And in the autumns the thick, wet heat relaxes into the sweet, cool spice of yellow leaves and red apples. Things don't yellow in Wisconsin. They are yellow. There's a difference. Even the leaves that fall still live.

As the temperature drops, we get our signal: it's time again.

As children we don't recognize the signal. But one day our mother bundles us up in our color-block '90s puff coats, loads us into the red diesel GMC van and drives the hour or so to the orchard.

Connell Orchard. Acres and acres, it seems, of apple trees. They bend under the weight of thousands of reddening orbs we can't fit our two hands around. The sun shines, but the air is wet, so it feels cooler than it is.

Out come the bags and buckets from the trunk. And off goes our mother, through the trees, and we trooping around her. I don't remember who picks apples, who watches the little kids, or how my mother manages to fill the buckets and bags while not losing sight of us. We can't reach most of the apples. And we're too young to be much help with watching each other. But we never get lost or left behind. We never get hurt. And the buckets and bags get filled. Filled with apples that crunch as sweet as the crisp Wisconsin air.

I don't know how long it takes. I am a child, running around in tights and saddle shoes, or reading a book in the van while I wait. It is hard to wait. I am hungry.

What seems like hours later, the trunk door opens, and my mother and the orchard hands heft the buckets and bags into the van. My mother herds us back into our seats, turns on the diesel engine and backs out of the orchard. We peek around and over the seat at the buckets and bags. So many apples! Apples for eating, apples for saucing, apples for pies ... and still there seem to be apples left over.

We drive past the reaping machines in the ripe cornfields, telephone line upon telephone line of corn. Drive through little towns with two-story establishments and past one-car-garage houses lining the highway behind their great trees.

Drive to a one-room shack just a little way off the road, from which my mother emerges with a single paper bag lumpy and with grease stains on the bottom. We bounce up and down in our seatbelts with excitement.

Our mother is amazing and never gets lost. I can never remember how to get from home to the orchard, from the orchard to the cheese shop, and from the cheese shop to the park. But our mother knows.

And we know when we see the massive yellow-red trees and the small wooden pavilion. We have arrived!

Our mother parks. While she walks to the trunk, we pile out of the red van into an ankle-deep carpet of oak leaves, yellow, orange, and red. They crunch all around as we jump in them, kick them at each other, and run through them. This isn't a park with toys. But we are not disappointed. Or bored. We only come here once a year. It means lunch and leaves.

Our mother brings a bag of apples and the paper bag and sets up her feeding station at the old-fashioned iron water pump. It stands the only attraction at the park, marmalade and cranberry leaves carpeting the stoic black base.

We all jostle and fight about who gets to pump the water out. Some of us lose interest as soon as our hands close over the handle, cold to the touch. Other of us don't have the muscle to persuade the heavy handle to make its upward and downward arc. But our mother does. The mechanisms creak awake as she lifts and lowers, lifts and lowers the heavy handle. And the water coughs, spurts, then splashes out of the pump's mouth.

Our mother fills an empty water bottle or two with the yieldings from the pump, then passes them around to us, along with slices of apple and the contents of the paper bag — finger-sized cheese curds of all shapes, white and squeaky between our teeth.

Those are sensations I still have not forgotten: the crisp, sweet crunch of fresh apples; the contrast of the soft, squeaky cheese; the sweet, ice-cold water that froze our hands and seared our throats as it passed down in tiny delicious sips. Too cold to gulp. And the thick, soft rustling of the leaves all around, red and gold and orange, as we chased each other around our mother.

Each year autumn rolls around in the Rocky Mountain desert. And I miss the bite of the water; the milky-curdiness of the cheese; the smart crunch of each apple bite and sweet juice that ran down our throats and dribbled down our chins; and the leaves, rubies and gold pieces lying thick like a pirate's dream come true. Hands and noses sticky and nipped with cold, smiles big and laughter loud. A day's outing with our mother, nestled safe around an old iron pump.

Simple pleasures. Wisconsin autumn.