From my Bookshelf

Emma Lou, I’m so glad I found you

I discovered a treasured gem in my e-mail inbox.

It was a link to a story written by one of my favorite writers – Emma Lou Thayne.

I clicked on the link to the Huffington Post and discovered Emma Lou writes a religion blog.

“How did I not know this?” I said aloud, waking up Nikki who was sleeping peacefully by my feet.

“How did I not know she blogged?  How am I not a follower?”

I clicked through her blogs and then googled (love that verb) her name and discovered that not only does she regularly blog, she also has a new book called “The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography.” I immediately went to Amazon and purchased the book. I can’t wait for it to arrive.

By googling her name, I discovered she was in a terrible car accident that took away several years of her life.  Her book is about what she experienced during those years.

Lois Collins, a reporter for The Deseret News wrote, “For a long time, people told poet and writer Emma Lou Thayne that the six-pound metal bar that flew through the windshield of the car she was riding in should have killed her. It smashed the glass and then her face above her right eye socket before lodging in the rear window. For her, it meant a number of surgeries and a sensory-numb recovery that seemed to lack color, joy and life.”

“You could have died,” friends said, exclaiming over the nearly three-foot L-shaped rod that lives now in a corner of the coat closet off her living room, a not-too-ready reminder.  It was built to hold a mud flap on a semi.

photos by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She said she lost three friends or parts of herself in that accident – the wizard in her head who could “plan, create and figure,” the genie in her heart that “could fathom joys and woes,” and the tiger in her bones who “could muster, leap and frolic.”

Now 86 years old, she said she felt like she was in someone else’s skin, which is exactly how I felt during my fight with cancer.

I cherish Emma Lou’s deeply personal writings. An autographed copy of her book “As for Me and My House,” sits prominently in my bookshelf, and has been there since it was published in 1989.

Her “meditations on living and loving” as she subtitled the book, sank deep into the soft cavities of my bones all those years ago where I’ve tended and nurtured them ever since.

When I had my first daughter, almost 22 years ago, the world was a confusing place for women.  I grew up listening to the loud, shrill voices of too many feminists who made motherhood and homemaking seem like the most fulfilling, demeaning jobs in the world.  I used to joke about “housewifery” and how I could never be “just a housewife.” I couldn’t imagine myself staying home all day with children and not having a job outside the home.  I felt claustrophobic just imagining the drudgery of such a limiting lot in life.

But after about two years of trying to work and take care of my family and home, I decided to quit. I couldn’t seem to hit the right balance between my work and home lives. Plenty of women can and do.  I could not. It initially overwhelmed me.  I couldn’t help looking at the clock and thinking of how much more productive and confident I felt in the office than at home.

Emma Lou elevated my perspective.  “Nothing is more personal than the house, the home, the place that I live in.  Nothing more reflects my sense of the world or my regard for what is important.  Through it stream my passions, my people, my phases, and my philosophies.  Into it I allow the programs the pages, the food, the habits that persuade my days and occupy my nights.  It is my shelter, the husk of me.  In it I am warm and cold, from happy to sad, thoughtful or automatic, active and passive, sometimes touched by the divine, always subject to being human…How I live in it counts, not only to me and mine but also to others who are beneficiaries…of the good will that derives [from it]. Every household, like every person, makes a difference.

On the days I wondered whether my staying home mattered, I thought of her essay “On Mattering.”  She wrote “We all need to matter – to someone else, to a project, to a day, to ourselves, to God.” She logged the activities of her life and all the seemingly mundane tasks of her day and showed how she made them all matter, mostly by keeping perspective.  At the end of the day she said, “The jobs are done and I can’t even remember doing them.  Only that I liked it – a lot.  It’s the people, not the jobs…I must remember I can endure enormous stress or enjoy generous contentment if I feel that what I am doing matters.”

I learned from her to give myself a night out for my own creative endeavors.  She dedicated Wednesday nights for her personal writing time, and even set up an office where she could go every week just to concentrate on her writing.  I followed that example and took one night class a week for several years to earn my master’s degree in writing, something I will never regret.

In another essay on “Learning by Being There,” Emma Lou wrote, “Things happen.  They simply happen.  In a home or away from home.  Dealing with what happens is most crucial to being part of that home.  To ask why? or why them? or why me? Can be the least productive of concentrations.  Why not me?  Why not any of us? would seem more reasonable. And more efficacious. The unpredictable life is often the best teacher, the saving grace of flexibility, the thing learned.  And faith to pray not so much for “Please, with your omnipotence change all this,” as for “Please, with your strength help me to manage.”

I’ve learned that truth for myself over the years, starting with when my dad died unexpectedly in 1992. Asking “why” never led to a satisfying answer. I quickly learned to ask, “What can I learn from this?” When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was hard to ignore the begging “why?” questions, but I did the best I could, and focused on asking, “What can I learn from this?  How can this make me a better person?” Those kinds of questions make all the difference between short-term pain and long-term misery.

A few years after becoming acquainted with Emma Lou’s writing, Utah State University, my alma mater, invited me to serve on the university’s alumni council. It delighted me to discover that Emma Lou’s husband, Mel, also served on the board.  So at one of our council meetings on campus, I met Emma Lou.  We sat next to each other on a bus when we toured one of the school’s new facilities.

I introduced myself, swooned over her book and all she had taught me through her writing.  She asked how my writing was progressing, and since I had a toddler and a baby at the time, I told her writing in my journals was about the best I could do. She said, “Well, just keeping turning the corners of your life, you never know what you’ll find on the other side.”

What a lovely motto for life I thought.

“Just keep turning the corners of your life.”

It suggests a degree of grace in the journey.

I titled my graduate school thesis, “Turning the Corners” because it consisted of a compilation of writings that represented just that – the corners I’d turned during a transitional time in my life.

I subscribed to Emma Lou’s blog and I will devour her book, hoping to soak up any wisdom she might have for me now, after suffering through a terrible accident, and looking at life through her crystal clear 86-year old eyes.

It doesn’t matter that Emma Lou doesn’t even know me.  What matters is that even without knowing me, she’s taught and inspired me.

We all need at least one Emma Lou. Who is yours? I’d love to have people share.

Who makes you think?  Who makes you recognize what’s good in your life? Who brings you to your senses, and back to the true you when you lose perspective?

That person could be your Emma Lou.

The Emma Lous are the people who remind us that we matter, and that our lives, in all their messiness and constant change, are uniquely and wonderfully ours, and we should own them, be proud of them, and never stop trying to make them better.

I’ll leave you with one last gem, a piece of her poetry that at one time I memorized:

About Time

Each of us wants to be friends with time,

Comfortable waiting for toast to pop,

pleased to pull at the garden knowing

no season is going off with us.

The trick is to find out

whether a minute is worth more

crammed or empty.

And, either way, to get on with it.

Thank you, Emma Lou Thayne for reminding me by your poetry, your books, and your life“ To always get on with it.” I’m sure that when I read your book I’ll discover that’s exactly what you’ve been doing all these years  — trying even harder during the dark times of recovery and healing — to get on with it.

I just know it.

I can’t wait to read all about it and to soak up every life lesson I know you’ll share.

2 thoughts on “Emma Lou, I’m so glad I found you”

  1. Thank you for your beautiful blog. Thanks to the article you wrote for the Deseret News, I looked you up. Your posts that I’ve read–Emma Lou Thayne, Whitney Houston, the “visit culture” have inspired me this morning. Thanks again

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