Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pioneer women

Janie Arnold asked me to write something like a diary entry for a pioneer woman with entries for Nauvoo, traveling across the plains, and living in Salt Lake valley. At first I had a hard time trying to feel any kind of inspiration, but I went to the library and picked up 8 books (all but one I had read before), and started digging through them. I wrote a page and decided it would not be very interesting to sit and listen to me read pages of writing, and I found the task to be forced and somewhat unreal. I decided it would be far more entertaining to have actual entries from the actual time periods and have different people reading them.

As I have been going through the books I am reminded of how strong the early pioneers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were. I am reminded of their faith and courage and sacrifice. I am reminded that we share the same human emotions and desires. I am reminded of how convenient my life is in many ways; but also, I remind myself that I can’t really put myself in their place because the world of the mid 1800's is foreign to me. Just as they must see the world of 2008 being far removed from what they could have imagined.

These pioneer women were waiting for the return of the Savior just as we are. I wonder if they believed it was more imminent than we do. Perhaps we have a different sense of time because of all the access we have to history, but more than that, I think we have a sense of immediate gratification that is contrary to their mindset of rewards in heaven versus hardship in this earthly life. They were preparing for eternity while we tend to prepare for tomorrow on earth.

Their stories teach me about courage and faith; about perseverance and commitment. I wish I understood more of the culture of the time period. There isn’t any way to look at the past through a clean window. Our view is clouded with our own time period and what we know of the here and now as well as the past. What would I see if I could look into their world as they are living their lives? What would I hear? If I could listen to their thoughts, what would they be thinking? If our thoughts are a product of our environment, our language, culture, education, religion, beliefs, the literature we read, the things we watch on television, etc., then, what would their thoughts be like?

My curiosity actually hurts me at times. It feels like a desperation that I know can’t be satisfied by any means but I can't stop the questions from plaguing my mind.

Some of the entries from these pioneer women are written later in their lives about experiences from the past, and we know that we see our past according to where we are in the present, so, what is the truth of their stories? Are we reading their real story, or the story they want to others to believe? How can I know these women?

We can only share snippets of our lives with others. There is our life inside of us that no one else knows but God. When we try to write about our lives there must be something missing from every story. We are individually everything that we’ve seen, heard, felt, experienced, read, thought, and there isn’t any way to describe a life on paper. There aren’t words to describe every moment that our hearts beat. Even our moods shift and one day we may write about a story that would be told differently on another day.

What I do know is that they believed in something that moved their lives in a specific direction. They had a purpose that is hard to fathom because I haven’t been called to gather to Zion. I haven’t been asked to do the things they did. Many of them moved from one place to another and then moved again and again, and they carried on, some admitting that they kept going because they had “cast their lot” with the Church and its people and there was no turning back. Of course we know that there were those who did turn back. What made the difference? There were those who had nothing to turn back to, and those who had comfort and wealth with family that they had left for the gospel of Christ. At least, they believed their leaving was for the gospel and that belief motivated their decisions again and again.

Where would I have been in the world of the Church in those days? I can’t place myself there. Perhaps my stubbornness and independence would have carried me through and I could have endured the hardship. We can’t ever completely imagine with total clarity a life that isn’t our own, can we?

There is a new movie out about Emma Smith, wife of the prophet, Joseph Smith. I watched the trailer for the movie on you-tube and then there was a music video that I listened to. The chorus to the song says, “How much can one heart take?” It says something about, “when you lost your husband, when you buried your children…” and it says that the angels stood in reverence and heard your prayers. It made me think about how much a heart can feel and keep beating. I think a lot about those kinds of things. I mark the lines in the scriptures that have the word, “heart”, and I wonder about how much it has to do with everything in our lives. Our hearts are what lead us astray, keep us steadfast, stir us up to anger, bring us peace and joy, and feel the witness of the Holy Ghost. I don’t know how much one heart can take. I know that every person is unique and God knows our hearts and whatever we keep in our heart will be revealed on judgment day. I know that one heart may seem stronger than another, but things aren’t always as they seem.

I know that each heart can take more than the owner ever thought possible. I hear that again and again.

I know the point of the song was to not judge Emma Smith for not going with the Saints to Salt Lake and to give her credit for everything she endured. Yes, there are those who believe she did not endure to the end or she would have followed Brigham Young, the leader of the Church after Joseph Smith was martyred. We can only pretend to know what was in her heart. To say that the journey westward was more than her heart could take at the time, in her circumstance, is to say that she gave up. I don’t know that she did. I don’t really know anything that was in her mind and heart and in her prayers. Books have been written, but we don’t know the words written in her heart. I admit that I wonder about what happened. I wonder how much of her faith was in Joseph and how much of her incentive to keep going was wrapped up in his life. Did his death shatter not only her heart, but her mind? Maybe we should also ask, “How much can one mind take?” Our thoughts are powerful.

What was she thinking when her world (Joseph) was “taken from her”? (Did she think he was “taken” from her? If so, did her perception affect her faith?) Did his death bring about the culmination of everything that she had been through? Did all of the years of sacrifice and the enormity of her fatigue, pain, grief, sacrifice, love, joy, heartache, faith, courage, doubt, fear, determination, and everything else, weigh so heavily upon her that she had to rest? Perhaps, she simply had to rest.

You know what it feels like to have to lay your head down? And, do you know what it feels like to keep going because you can’t stop, because if you stop you might never get going again? Either way, sometimes we have to lay our heads down because there is no other way we know how to survive.

I believe the angels hear our prayers. I believe they help us whenever possible. I believe there is something strong beyond this life. I believe that no one knows my heart and mind the way God knows me.

When I think of the pioneers I wonder: What would I do for my belief in the Book of Mormon? What would I do for my belief in Jesus Christ? What would I do for the leaders of the Church when they call for sacrifice?

My heart knows.

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