Part Two: The Divine Feminine

Part Two:

One wonders why one forms expectations for anything. Rarely is there a match. That’s not exactly accurate: I was partly right (a brief history of land use acknowledgment here) but also completely wrong about how the DFW Divine Feminine event held on April 22 would affect me.

Planning to attend began in October 2022 and seemed connected to the Heavenly Mother podcast and poetry research in August. Not that it was my planning, of course; Natalie Cosby was my contact for many months. She and her team raised funds; solicited art, dance, and poetry; included relevant music (violin and harp arrangement of “Meditation” from Thais); secured a venue; booked speakers; arranged and printed agendas; tested pens (the writing kind); promoted the event with layers of publicity; involved indigenous peoples and a variety of faith leaders; arranged for unique handouts and relevant merch; organized timed events; staffed (not “manned,” sorry, couldn’t resist) volunteer positions throughout. What a list, and it’s just what I observed must have gone on. Surely much more work happened. Impressively done!

That was my expectation, however: Women do things well. Although it is probably apocryphal, Spencer Kimball, president of the Church from 1973-85, said it wouldn’t work for women to be in charge because things would be done too quickly and efficiently whereas the way men run things, there’d be more time. Something like that. I’m not sure it makes sense. On the other hand, a women’s banquet preparation would be coordinated and organized whereas men might have crackers and chili. But no. That’s sexist. Sorry again.

To redeem myself: Three of the four talks I heard were from men. Brief summaries will add to what I thought I knew before, and then the grand finale will ensue.

The first, wandered into randomly, was “Mother, Daughter, Queen and Priestess in Ancient Egypt.” Jared Rubalcaba, the presenter, takes tours to Egypt as well, and after hearing this, I was ready to go. An inveterate notetaker, I began writing but soon found it was too much to absorb. Luckily, the lecture is also here on YouTube. As I listened a second time, it was clear that this is so full of wonder that I can’t summarize it other than perhaps to say this Lady of Countless Names is indeed the being I worked to describe in that scholarly paper that now seems so inadequate. She is the Companion of divinity. Not a delicate or retiring shadow but an equal. In the video’s conclusion, Jared shares his translation of an unnamed text beginning at 54:50. If you listen to the earlier part, great. But you don’t have to. The name of the goddess speaking is Hathor. This Wikipedia article has 177 citations and a Works Cited of more-than-I-am-willing-to-count scholarly sources about her.

That time was well spent. The second topic about which I also knew nothing was the Kabbalah. An SMU professor, Serge Frolov, began with historical context. Unlike the millennia-old texts and art of the Egyptian goddess, Kabbalah is medieval (12th century Catalonia) and, therefore, “new.” The word means “tradition,” but connotation adds “mystical.” Or, differently interpreted, Kabbalah pre-dates all religions. The foundational text is the Zohar, published by a scholar who said it had been written by a 2nd century rabbi during his 12 years of hiding in a cave.

Dr. Frolov then introduced the word “Shekhinah” which means “the indwelling of the divine.” A photo using 10 Hebrew letters is in media above, but the crown at the top to the foundation at the bottom are flanked by three words on each side: wisdom, lovingkindness, eternity of the right; understanding, justice, majesty on the left. He asked the audience which one was the feminine side, presumably because all got it wrong. Sure enough, people were quick to guess the right when the correct answer is the left. Embedded between the last two on each side is glory, a word sometimes also associated with Shekhinah but masculine.

This video with Daniel Matt is short but discusses the importance of the shechina (different spelling) as the appearance of God in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and the presence that accompanies the children of Israel throughout their time in the wilderness. In fact, he ties this to humanity, that the divine needs our righteousness for expression. Matt likes another name for it, “the secret of the possible.” Dr. Frolov describes Shekhinah as the female, Tif’eret the male. Their marriage is only possible when the Temple is on the earth, so when it was destroyed, they can no longer meet “as is currently the case.” He also suggested we look at the opening prayer at Shabbat, which you can hear here, chosen because the English translation is included. The meaning? A bride is the key symbol.

1 Let’s go, my beloved, to meet the bride, Lekha dodi liqrat kallah לכה דודי לקראת כלה‎
2 Let us welcome the presence of Shabbat. p’ne Shabbat neqabelah פני שבת נקבלה

Finally, Dr. Frolov discussed another symbol, the Star of David. To save time, I’ll just say that the descending triangle as it meets the lower triangle suggests the male and the female coming together, in a literal and graphic sense. This should sound very familiar if you know Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code or the 2006 movie. Tens of millions of books were sold, and the movie earned hundreds of millions of dollars. Brown was sued by several plaintiffs, however, who claimed he either plagiarized their novels or research. Conversely, others said the “research” was completely bogus. Brown frames the story as a conspiracy to repress the posterity of Jesus, and the Catholic Church doesn’t look good with that interpretation. His main character, Dr. Robert Langdon, does solve the mystery and restores the descendant of Christ to her protectors. Her name, of course, is Sophie (remembering wisdom). In the final scene of the movie, Langdon cuts himself shaving and the blood forms a sword as it swirls into the porcelain sink. He rushes to his own book, Symbols of the Sacred Feminine, realizes he has known the truth all along, and hurries to the Louvre where the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene lies beneath the inverted pyramid. The chalice if you will. In fact, there is a shopping mall there instead, but the truth intrudes.

I did ask Dr. Frolov about Code afterward, and he reminded me about the lawsuits. The star of David symbolism is accurate, he believes. I also asked him if he knew of the LDS doctrine of Heavenly Mother. He does, and plans to use it in his class on the Divine Feminine, but has never gotten around to it. Remember round tuits?

The last session featured McArthur Krishna and Martin Pulido. She co-authored A Girl’s Guide to Heavenly Mother with Bethany Brady Spalding. He co-authored the article “’A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven” with David Paulsen, which I quoted in my scholarly article. They discussed the history of the doctrine as well as their own connections to the topic. Krishna and Spalding also wrote Girls Who Choose God because of questions from daughters. Pulido added that the Harvard theologian and scholar Noah Feldman believes the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is one of the best things the Church has to offer, which was in response to my question about how non-members perceive Her. Other audience questions receive good answers as well. One woman has felt hurt by the admonition not to ask more than we have been given. Krishna said that there is a way of looking at the Church as scaffolding: not the object but the tool. And there are other ways of communication than prayer. Plus, I now have two copies of her book, one autographed. Beautiful art fills this slim volume, with a variety of interpretations from artists all over the world.

Circling back to the beginning of part 2, I can now share the non-literary, non-artistic, non-scholarly, non-experiential conclusion: This conference seems to have marked a change in me. While it’s tempting to say it caused the change, I can’t. I don’t know. The post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy prevents me. The pattern (A happened, then B happened, so A must have caused B) holds true sometimes, but most often there is no way to tell.

Before, I had been feeling “beset.” Not a common word, but it seemed the best choice. It means “attacked from all sides,” a bit harsh perhaps, attacked, but all sides definitely. My own doing, of course. I say yes too much, procrastinate often, get distracted easily. So it’s not that there are enemies from without doing me in; I can manage that well enough on my own. The result, however, is no less real even if I am the source of creating my own burdens.

Afterward, that feeling has lapsed into a feeling of peace. It’s not a term I use lightly. Strictly speaking, I wasn’t feeling the lack of peace; it just happens to have been the result. But the joy is real. It’s not that what I knew before was inadequate, either. The Gospel means good news. It is enough.

I’ll just say that without adequate words to describe the difference, I can only say that the confidence, assurance, mindfulness feels new and bright and good. Each of us does so much self-criticism, saying things to ourselves we would never say to anyone else. Perhaps the realization that I am more than what I seem to perceive?

Is this the end of a months-long quest? For now. Lots of good art to see, but, more importantly, kind acts to do. That may be the best outcome, anyway.


Peeking Through the Veil: Vignettes

The genesis of this project was a conversation in 1977 and a series of podcasts and books last summer. The time between, actually, didn’t include much thought or concern except for one brief phone call in 1981. The richness of the past few months has brought a topic rarely discussed into the forefront of my thinking, while it has been there for others far longer.

The vignettes that follow include a few of my experiences but mostly those of others. If you have some, let me know. Perhaps we should write a book.

This is the third paragraph, and if you include the title, the fourth, and I’ve not named the topic. That’s called “burying the lede.” The practice is to be avoided, but the realization is upon me that I have indeed avoided the topic perhaps out of discomfort that it will misinterpreted, misunderstood, misjudged. I will start over.

Our topic is Heavenly Mother.

There. Said. Startled? That’s fine. We have a lot to talk about.

1977. Training for a new position as a CPS investigator, I had time every evening to visit with colleagues from around the Texas region where we were to be working. One man was not from our area, present because of some bureaucratic doings. I noticed he didn’t drink tea or Dr Pepper. This, of course, led to a discussion of why which led to a discussion of what Mormons (old word) call the Word of Wisdom. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about the church. A friend had joined years before, but her husband was military so I rarely saw her. And she didn’t seem particularly interested in sharing.

John did share. I can’t remember what he said about anything else, and I can’t imagine why he would have shared this: He explained that we had existed as spirits before were all spiritually born to a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, that we lived with them before we came to Earth, and that a veil remained so that we were here to walk by faith. It was not like anything I had ever heard before. The entire experience—meeting him, hearing explanations of life on Earth, receiving from him an object that confirmed the existence of a God who knew me—left a lasting impression but not a commitment to join John’s church. I was, however, observably happy, per my husband’s report.

1981. I did join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s a separate story. The vignette is a phone call. Although I can’t see Amy, our sweet-natured, strawberry-blond CPS unit secretary on the other end, I hear her worried voice, its intense sincerity, and imagine her eyes, her furrowed brow. Although we were friendly, she had never called me, so I was surprised at that. And she didn’t waste much time in pleasantries.

She said, “I can’t imagine what someone just told me was true, so I wanted to ask you directly. Do you believe God is married?”

I wasn’t sure how best to say “Yes” other than that, but the answer was the truth. I reflected on the 1845 hymn lyrics of “O My Father” by Eliza R. Snow:

“In the heav’ns are parents single?/ No, the thought makes reason stare!            Truth is reason; truth eternal/Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

Amy was never satisfied. What I found puzzling—and what remains at the core of this conversation—was the implication that a Heavenly Mother, or marriage in the eternities, diminishes God or holiness in any way.

2022. A very long time, with no vignettes in between. And during that time, I don’t remember discussion, much less controversy, about the topic.

The status quo was this: We know She is real and that She is there. We don’t pray to her. We assume we and/or the world are so wicked that the Father shields Her from us/it because limited information has been shared. (That assumption is false, by the way, or at least unfounded.) Alternatively, we have plenty to do trying to be (good, faithful, Christ-like) and cannot spare the time elsewhere.

Further, I assumed a Heavenly Mother was unique to the LDS faith traditions. Last year, I learned that wasn’t true. The Unification Church and the World Mission Society of the Church of God both happen to originate in South Korea and have extensive doctrine. In some ways there is overlap, but not usually. The term, then, is the main connection.

Then, the podcasts came. I listened to some that were recommended and found that a new generation of women looked at Heavenly Mother differently. Several different themes emerged:

  1. Her presence was with us from the beginning. A conscious removal happened long ago.
  2. Much of the lost knowledge is recoverable but requires trust in the scholarship of others.
  3. Artistic expressions of Her as a physical being are available in a variety of styles and media.
  4. The perception that we need Her now is palpable and frequently addressed in poetry and art.

In the fall, I knew also that I would be presenting an academic/scholarly paper in January for an alumni group of mostly smarter and better-educated young educators. All the time invested in research here, I decided to be brave and do the same topic for them. The paper will be published this spring. If you are so inclined, message me and I’ll email you a copy. (And to emphasize the group’s level, the first paper was on Darwin and something else; I understood about 10%. Mine is understandable.) The paper was well received. Our host was intrigued; she said, “All this time, and it never occurred to me that if there was a Father there had to be a Mother.” My work was done.

Several guiding experiences helped bring to what looks like an almost-conclusion.

First, on a Faiths in Conversation presentation from Thanks-Giving Foundation, with the topic of ethics and creation care, one speaker from the Native American Christian group answered my question about a role for the divine feminine in her belief system. This is her response: “As a Christian native, knowing the Bible, I believe there is a feminine side to the creator. In the Sioux tradition, there are healing ceremonies for many things. A group of people pray through sound and song, for air, water, creation. Specifics about how to address the feminine depend on the tribal tradition and practice. Some ceremonies are just for women and girls and very private. Creation—all these are combined.” That comment struck me as something that needed much more information than could be grabbed on a Zoom.

Finally, to the last vignette: Said with a broad smile, a greeting from a complete stranger at the gym knocked me over. I was walking into the pool, and he was coming out. It was random for him, instructive for me. It was, in fact, the great “That’s it!”

“Hey, ‘bout time you got here. I been here all by myself. Now that you’re here, they’ll have to straighten up. Shoulda been here all the time.”

Slightly rearranged, this became a framework for my paper. Parts of it are copied and pasted below without citations.

Where You been? No passages in scriptural texts refer to a Heavenly Mother. No evidence exists that any may have been removed. What takes the place of the missing history is supposition. One example comes from Margaret Barker, a Methodist theologian. For example, she concludes commentary on a Hebrew consonant shift (aleph/’ayin): “The line whole is then, and probably once was: ‘On the day of your birth, your Mother graciously offers you the splendid garments of a holy one.’ The Mother in heaven clothed her child with a glorious temple garment.” The “probably” weakens this argument.

References to a Mother in Heaven are widely found elsewhere, however: She has names that are not those of lone goddesses (Sophia, Shekinah, Wisdom, Asherah) and symbols (trees, water, serpents, bees). Carol Lynn Pearson, a well-known Latter-day Saint poet, published Finding Mother God: Poems to Heal the World in 2020. As a young student, Pearson asked anyone she thought wise, “Does God prefer maleness over femaleness?” She was continually rebuffed or told “Yes, He does.” Her search for the names and influences of that Heavenly Mother began in anger, but she says that anger was “the fuel, not the destination” and concludes that the necessity of a Mother is “not cosmetic but cosmic,” a phrase she has used widely.

I been here all by myself. The theme of separation builds on the loss of the Mother, whether it was done intentionally or accidentally. Both leave what some describe as “a hole in the heart” or the absence of “a God that looks like me.” In her collection Mother’s Milk, Rachel Steenblik writes poems that are spare and short, usually just a few lines. The mood remains haunting in a poem called “Amiri”: “When the Mother will not/ come to be counted, I count/ the void/She leaves.” Pearson also has this summation in a lengthy poem, “The Case of the Disappearance of God the Mother”: “Her name was stolen/But what’s in a name?/ We could eat bread if it had no name/but it would be harder to ask  for.” French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes: “As long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own. She lacks an ideal that would be her goal or path in becoming. Actual suppression or not, the longing is real.

‘Bout time you got here. Shoulda been here all the time. These sentences sound judgmental, as if the separation was the Mother’s doing. Pearson addresses this phenomenon in “A Goddess of the East,” referring to a comment by the Prophet Muhammad (“Paradise is at the feet of the Mother”) and forges it into a circle: “Everywhere She was perceived/ everywhere she was lost/everywhere she emerges again.” Paradoxically, She has always been everywhere while at the same time missing from discourse. I do not find evidence that she has been actively suppressed, however.

Now you’re here, they’ll have to straighten up. In the Baha’i faith, equality of the genders is a core principle. In 1911, Abdul Baha prophesied: “So it will come to pass that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease; for woman will be the obstacle and hindrance to it.” The need for balance has never been greater; the Baha’i ideal supports equality, not dominance. Again, not a paradox but a conclusion: If the Divine Feminine is essential, so is the Divine Masculine.

Natalie Cosby, an artist, has organized a DFW Divine Feminine Event happening this Saturday. It’s free. It’s at the Grapevine Convention Center. The program looks diverse in topic, if not so much in gender. I’m reading at 12:45 (may change). Check out the website. Consider attending for the art alone! I plan to report on the event next week. Stay tuned…

Introducing Cheryl Seely Savage: “We Have Time”

True or false: People talk about love all the time, but no one writes much about it. On one hand, it could be argued that love is all there is (apologies to various lyricists), with all art and life based on it. On the other, an entire volume of love poems has the look and feel of a rarity in our day. We welcome, therefore, “We Have Time” by Cheryl Seely Savage.

This volume is the poet’s third, following “Give Me a Fragment: Glimpses Into Motherhood, Depression, and Hope” and “Carve a Place for Me.” Praise for those volumes has been high: commenters admire Savage’s love of words, her ability to connect, and her use of the common to show a universality of feeling. Melissa Dalton-Bradford notes that she “achieves that delicate balance between uplift and density.”

Diversity is a good word to describe the poems in “We Have Time.” Some are just a few lines long. In “Longing,” we have “If I could kiss you/ All my gathered questions would/ Answer to your touch.”

Six full pages are needed for the explanation of a trip to Jane Austen’s home in “Pilgrimage: A Narrative.” This is not a prose poem, however, works better than a travelogue because of the rich language and depth of mood. Savage describes not only her feelings but also the history of England, not just as a journey but also as an homage to Austen. Savage clearly loves Austen (“Love Like Austen, “too), but her reasons reflect a density difficult to summarize.

Two elements are notable in her regard for Austen. First, time plays a crucial role both as a limiting factor and as a gift. In high anticipation, Savage reports arriving at the village of Chawton only 30 minutes before the museum was to close. Yet, “Museum workers gave us 45 minutes,” she writes. Memory couples with time. Her husband (unnamed here) takes a bit of mud from the garden and swipes it on the title page of Northanger Abbey: “Grinning at my surprise: ‘You now have a part of her.’” A symbolic action, but a beautiful testament to the influence of a brilliant writer on a modern heart.

One common complaint about modern poetry is that it can be abstruse (difficult to understand). An object lesson there—sometimes writers choose unfamiliar words to reflect everyday reactions. There’s no reason to. “Omphaloskepsis” just means “navel gazing,” after all. Savage avoids this pitfall. “Holding Hands” begins simply: “Some say love begins with a smile.” She then recounts a night of dancing and stars, with a concluding “My hand never leaving yours”. That image captures a moment universal in its appeal and, importantly, immediately accessible.

Finally, a few words about the title “We Have Time.” Often, we ask, “Do we have time for a quick trip to the store?” or “Do you have time to start dinner?” By making a short declaration, Savage captures something almost indefinable in love relationships—the play between time and eternity. We are reminded with every loss that we don’t know the time we have. In our faith, we know that eternity is to be our inheritance. Applying these two concepts to our love lives, Savage finds a side of humanity to explore on many levels. A love that is sure, that is deep and abiding—that is indeed the love for which we have time and will, perhaps literally, make time.

So, “We Have Time” is recommended! Available on Amazon…

On “Trees”

This is MoPoWriMo (Mormon Poem Writing Month), organized by a well-known LDS poet and supported by 132 writers, some of whom do write a poem a day in February and some who don’t. The writing is excellent, mostly by those who are not me.

Late last evening, I asked the second oldest of the Taylor Demolition and Wake-up Service for help. Just a word can spark an idea. A spark can spark an idea. Anyway, of all the words he could have chosen, he offered one within 3 seconds, with a bit of a smile, that I did in fact write about, though it was quite the humbling experience. The oldest of the Service (without immediate benefit of the original poem) allowed that my effort was, and I quote, amazing.

The CEO had already gone to sleep, or I might have had another prompt. To catch up on him, a brief exchange: If I don’t hear the toilet flush, I’ll remind him with a “flush the toilet.” Recently, he said, “I always do, Grandma, thanks to your persistent reminding.” Another of them said something virtually identical about handwashing, but it didn’t seem so final.

A poem doesn’t have links, but blogs do. Needed, I think, for clarity. In addition, per a response to my poem, someone said he’d never read it though he knew the famous couplet. I’m expecting knowing it for so long means that I read it a very long time ago.


On “Trees”


“Give me a word prompt for a poem,”

I ask the precocious teen.


I sigh. He’s being funny.

“Oh no,” says I. “There is one already.”

The dad says, “Why’d you ask if you aren’t…”


“I have always hated it.”

They listen to my poor reading—

The last couplet is famous:

“Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.”

They shrug, say nothing.

Rabbit holing, I learn:

Joyce Kilmer insisted on fighting in WWI

And died. As did so many. No Dulce, the old Lie.


The poem is widely parodied (I knew)

But was set to music by Oscar Rasbach

And sung seriously by Patti Page

And Paul Robeson in his exquisite bass,

Available on YouTube. I still don’t…

Writer/critic Guy Davenport said,

“(It’s) the one poem known by practically


Turns out Davenport was brilliant; he wrote

J.R.R. Tolkien’s obituary for National Review.

So, humbled, I must repent. It rather stings. Here’s why:

I must meet Joyce Kilmer in heaven and apologize.

I must read more Tolkien and Pound (Davenport’s friend, our Dante).

I must try (for the millionth time) to think before I speak.

What I do know, and did before I asked that question of the teen,

Is simply this:

I shall never make a poem

As rich in history

As “Trees” or

Known by practically everybody.

Meet Jen Furlong!

The best thing about people (especially the ones you don’t know) is that it’s easier to learn from them. I don’t work with Jen Furlong because we are on the same team. Although that doesn’t seem to make sense, it means that we are both right-leaning analysts for Ad Fontes Media. Pods of left-, right-, and center- analysts work together. So I actually know her less than I do workers of the other leans. But I subscribe to her podcast and chat with her occasionally when the right-leans meet together.

We’re also on Facebook, along with others from Ad Fontes. And that’s where I saw Jen’s inclusion in the Cracking the Rich Code, a series of personal inspiring stories and insights from individuals who are “top thought leaders around the world.” Yes, there is a connection to money, but not as directly as you’d think. Jen’s chapter is amazing. She begins with an “origin story” that I found riveting. Her writing is excellent; the story, inspiring.

Her five keys to empowerment are worth repeating:

  1. Keep looking for opportunities. When the original plan doesn’t work out, find another one. (Some of us are bad about giving up…)
  2. Focus on what’s in your control. Lots of things aren’t, so don’t worry about them.
  3. Become your own advocate. Clarity in goals is essential. (Some of us would like a personal assistant/mentor/literary agent to take it all over. Not gonna happen.)
  4. Embrace the suck. Lean into the difficulties. Don’t give up. (This one surprised me perhaps the most. It’s more specific than the usual “What doesn’t kill me” advice.
  5. Extend grace to others. Forgive, in a word. Jen includes a personal example of people talking about how to get rid of her when she wanted to become a Marine. It’s so easy to nurse a grudge. It’s harder to just get on with life, smile, and not let them get you down.

On her website,, Jen offers all kinds of business model applications. I need to get serious—communication is my worst thing. Students in my class used to have interpreters: “What she’s trying to say is…” I was a great teacher, probably, maybe, but not a good communicator.

On her site there is a link to a TEDx Talk that she calls The Platinum Rule. Yes, she says there is something beyond the Golden Rule. I won’t tell you what it is, but she is offering an important insight that is perfect for our day. Plus, she’s a really great communicator. Check it out.

Triptych Plus One


Three funerals in two days. Three remarkable men, completely different. Three interpretations of how to live. One force of nature to conclude.

Thomas Lane Nelson died August 27. His obituary reflects a long life—military service, business acumen, family. His beloved Jean had been gone only four months. Not that his children were ready, but he was. Imagine 66 years of marriage. As bodies age, happy or not, they sometimes acquire the residuals of pain—a surgery not healed, an infection detected, an odd organ out or in. At least 10 years of that, a wheelchair, hearing aids.

When I saw him last, he was going into a sealing. I’ve known him since January 1985 when we moved to Dallas, though he and Jean moved probably eight times afterward. Unless you’re close, catching up on kids usually happens first. He’d ask about mine, and there might be a little bragging. Brennon Nelson, his grandson, said he would always call you “the second best…” whatever. Brennon received his JD with honors from The University of Chicago last year and sang “O My Father” as nearly perfect as I’ve ever heard it perhaps because his undergraduate degree is in music performance. Best, not second.

  • From Tom Nelson I’ve seen how powerful the loyalty of love can be. He didn’t see life as an easy glide upwards. He shared successes and failures alike. He knew Jean loved him, he’d say, even if he knew nothing else.
  • He was a Navy pilot, a top gun, who flew 300 combat missions. He’d tell of landing on a flight deck with no lights, and I felt I was sitting him in that cockpit, praying for all we were both going to live. Fear passes.
  • And it’s the trivial things we sometimes remember. He loved candy corn, and today when I saw a fancy dessert plate that looked like a piece of it, of course he came to mind.

Douglas Eugene Shields died August 24, unexpectedly after a recent diagnosis of heart disease. His obituary is short; stories from his brother gave us much more. Doug was born with cerebral palsy. He needed special care to eat, to play, to crawl. His mother, Lri, a nurse with an inventive mind, fed him Three Musketeers because he would lick the chocolate and then consume more food because he had been able to move his mouth. She placed toys just out of reach so he would have to put forth real effort to reach them. Once on a Christmas Day, at age 3, he began to walk, but just for the day. It would be months before he would again.

He was someone to whom I said “Hello! How are you?” With a little low wave he would say “Hi” if we were too far apart. His mother and I have talked for years. She has had many losses, a baby son, a husband too soon, a barely out of toddlerhood granddaughter. Lori is British, and she made it through World War II bombings of her village. And nursing, always nursing, having arrived in Dallas in the 1960s with her American husband who moved the family all around the two countries. I learned that he was a long-time movie buff with a sideline as an extra. Once there was a film cast and crew in and around the house. They’d had a very long night. When Lori strolled through the next morning in her nightie, she was surprised to see the living room full. Later, as Michael Douglas was going out the door, he called to Doug, “Tell Mom goodbye!” She was livid. “Don’t ever neglect to tell me WHO is here!”

  • From him I saw a mother’s love, first. It was her fight to give him a life, and so she did.
  • The ability never to say anything unkind about someone—nor let anyone else—is rare. He had it, in an unassuming way.
  • Most of the time, just being quiet is the greatest gift, to yourself and others.

Muhammad Ali Mazidi died August 30, sitting in his chair. His obituary is also short. No cause is known. Word flew through the Baha’i community locally and from them to their friends. I met Ali, as he was called, in January this year at a Baha’i observance of Martin Luther King Day. He came up and said, “Hello! I’m Muhammad Ali.” Most people, in most contexts, are quiet and waiting. I couldn’t help but smile, of course. He assumed I knew the same people he did through the international dinners held in the area, and he’d just never met me before. Those dinners ended when their venue closed. I suggested I might have a way to help.

From January to July, I met Muhammad a time or two when he asked about the international dinner planning. He also introduced me to a handy man, brought him over and then texted me to check on him many times. In that time he went from being a complete stranger to a friend to meet at Costco who would then insist on buying me the hot dog lunch. And he enjoyed the international dinner although it was with a different group of friends and an unfamiliar location. A pleasant surprise.

His services were in the Baha’i tradition. He was born in Iran and had spent years helping others immigrate. Few knew all that he did. His accomplishments were not part of the service except for letters read from the pulpit (Ali has a Wikipedia page). The readings from the Baha’i service, though, were sublime. This from Baha’u’llah: “Wert thou to attain to but a dewdrop of the crystal waters of divine knowledge, thou wouldst readily realize that true life is not the life of the flesh but the life of the spirit.” Throughout we heard of grace and glory, enduring beauty and goodness, compassion and light. One young Iranian woman sang “O Son of Man” in English, using a melody her friend had written. This version shares photos of the tender moments of the family of man. The melody is different than hers, of course, but watching this, I could feel that the truth was here—and looking not unlike what might appear in my faith tradition—giving hope and peace to all. Her version was perfection—like Brennon’s would be on Monday.

  • Work is one thing, but life is about helping. As his obituary said, “(Ali) dedicated his life to serving others and working towards a more peaceful and just world.” He was friendly immediately, shared our acquaintance, and championed a handyman.
  • His neighborhood walking friend Chris said she isn’t a writer but gave a completely eloquent, elegant description of Ali as a nugget of gold. She realized it the day before he died, after their walk, and didn’t get to tell him. I immediately told two friends they were my nuggets. There are many more. It’s good to tell, and perennially we are reminded to do so. Don’t worry if you don’t. People can feel it.
  • Opinions form and then re-form. Ali wasn’t sure how the international dinner would go. He came anyway and helped. He changed his opinion in support of the dinner and will be ever the more keenly missed for it.

They say deaths come in threes. It’s not true, of course. They just come. We count three and hope we get a break. Queen Elizabeth II died today as I write this, a fourth. Funerals can be of all sorts and sizes because they are for the grieving who at that moment will be able to attend. Millions will watch the Queen’s services, as will I, for the music mostly. They say she was a devout Christian, but she knew how to be quiet and never drew attention to herself. She cared about her family. In spite of scandals and more in 1992, she gave this gracious speech, famously referring to that year as Annus Horribilis. All of us have them but few remember to give them Latin names.

The”nugget-ness” we share may be the power of example, whether we know/realize/understand people do notice us. This YouTube charmingly pairs the Queen with a personal favorite, Paddington Bear. He is rather a klutz, but she is completely gracious. And not only that. She has her own marmalade sandwich “for later” in her purse. Something in common to share. He concludes, “Thank you…for everything.” And that is what I say in farewell to all these four. We are better for having known you.

Standing and Its Prepositions

Standing on/for/near/by/in/up to/in front of…

The actual thesis/lede/point should come first. I’ve taught and been reminded of that. Before the real point, however, today we will examine other adjacent points based on a single word: standing. It turns out to be more interesting than I thought. (The real point begins third paragraph from the last with “So…”)

Used by itself, “standing” has many meanings. Do you have any standing invitations? What is your team’s standing? At their game, did you stand at the drink stand (which your friend can’t stand doing) and stand a Coke for her since she also didn’t have her card? Is there standing water nearby (danger!)? In the theater, you may have gotten a standing ovation from a standing room only (SRO) crowd. It might even be your last name (very rare, #45312 in the US). This information and more! here. And here. What you won’t find is any particularly compelling root word; whether used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective, it’s popular.

This song got me thinking about the word: “Standing on the Promises.” Its history is explained briefly here. Russell Kelso Carter made a promise that he would consecrate his life to God, whether or not he was healed from a life-ending illness. (John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” had a similar occurrence when he cried out for deliverance during a storm at sea. When I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London one lovely Sunday spring morning to attend services, the ushers were dressed in white ties and tails, and the only hymn I remember was “Amazing Grace.”)

A second song comes to mind: “Stand By Me.” Most know it from the movie of the same name, but it has a longer history. Written in 1961 by Ben E. King, it was inspired by an older gospel song, “Stand By Me Father” by The Soul Stirrers. An even older spiritual named “Stand By Me” was copyrighted by Rev. Charles Tindley in 1905. The King song is secular because a “darlin’” instead of God is standing by him. But one version on YouTube has over 526 million views. This one, with the lyrics, has 13M. It’s been recorded in over 400 versions. (That’s not the record; Guinness gives that place to “Summertime,” by George Gershwin, over 67,000 versions. This one, by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, is great…sorry for the rabbit hole…again.)

Next, most of us want to “stand for” something. Are you honest? Loyal? Generous? All other good adjectives? Would you rather—or rather not—stand out?

What would you advise the younger ones to “stand back” from? Who would your “stand in” be?

So obviously this could go on forever. My point will now be this: Who is important enough to you that you would stand in front of them?

When I was little, my grandmother was protective of me. Not that my parents weren’t, but I don’t remember them in the same way. Riding in the car, for example, could turn dangerous if she needed to stop quickly. Her right arm flew out, hard, against my chest. It’s called “The mom arm.” You’ve seen the meme: unless you’re of a certain age, you’ve worn a seatbelt all your life, thank goodness. We didn’t.

Cars aside, my grandmother would sometimes talk about killing someone who was trying to get us kids. Sounds no less odd now than it did then. That’s not mom arm; that’s MamaBear. I believed her. If an intruder came for us, he was going to die.

I would stand between the boogie man my children and grandchildren. For one in particular, there would be a reality of actual, intentional, prejudiced harm. Without details, know that there is a real and present danger to one of mine. From the beginning, my response was “I am prepared to stand in front of this person if someone is threatening.” I have not done it physically yet, but I have done it verbally, more than once. The physical might be easier.

People not related? I was standing near someone in a grocery store recently. Age, race, gender, religion—none of these matter. I had the impression that I should be willing to stand between that person and harm. It’s one thing, and surely a good thing, to walk with someone. It’s good to stand with someone. Standing in front of them might take something more. All this is theoretical, and I hope I’d have the courage if the situation arose. When I began typing the word “courage,” the c didn’t take so we had the o. The autofill for that o is opportunity. Odd, that. One might make a poem of such things…

“The right hand knowing what the left is doing, for such a time as this.”

We aren’t encouraged to tell about our good deeds. In fact, they are to be done in secret (no trumpets announcing our glorious works) so that we can be rewarded openly. It’s where we get the phrase “the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing” when it was a good thing (Sermon on the Mount) and not now, usually, when it isn’t.

But there I am, with Tonya Stafford Manning, and a stepstool. She needed one, so I bought her one. When the women at church (Corsicana through Dallas) gathered up hundreds of new towel sets for her safe houses, we packed them in her car one Sunday afternoon. There was a single folding chair in the back seat. Somehow it came out that was what she stood on to change lights or adjust security cameras.  Since I am now my grandmother (You don’t have enough light to read! Make your bed! Don’t stand on that—you’ll break your neck!), I went to Costco where I bought her a Cosco brand step stool. It was delivered last night after her presentation on human trafficking.

Now, why “for such a time as this”? We just finished the book of Esther for Sunday school. I’ve read it, listened to it, heard three podcasts on it. So much I didn’t know or understand. The key lines have to do with her decision to approach the king in order to save her people. To protect him, this action is forbidden when uninvited unless he extends his scepter to the one who approaches. Esther, even as his queen, can’t break this law. Her people are in danger of annihilation, so her cousin Mordecai says to her, “…and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a btime as this?” She finds her strength, she accepts that she may fail (“If I perish, I perish”), and off she goes.

So, I believe, Tonya is an Esther: a queen in her own time who has risked much, even her life, to save people. And it’s not just young women. Anyone can be a victim. Old, young, pretty or not, any race or gender or orientation. Here I interviewed her for another site and included links to sites and a documentary used for training Texas workers get about trafficking. The film Be the One starts at 5:30 and is well worth watching.

One young woman said she wanted to do just what Tonya is doing. Tonya’s answer was surprising: “No. You can do something better, something more. I could die tomorrow, but this has to go on.” It’s about love, after all. Esther didn’t want or seek death. She chose life and love. Loving these victims is not easy, for many reasons, but it will go on.

What else can be done? Lots. Her non-profit, It’s Going to Be OK, is privately funded. Accepting federal money means accepting federal rules, not an option for several reasons. So, yes, money. And towels. Panties. Time. The occasional step stool. The link includes information about the Hope and Pearls Gala, coming January 21, 2023, for the first time in a while…something about a pandemic, you know. It’s a massive effort that includes law enforcement at all levels, now Homeland Security, therapists, physicians, hospitals, courts. And Tonya, sitting with rescued victims at every stage—from a driveway in Cedar Hill to the grounds of the capitol in Austin where she launched House Bill 2290 designating January as Human Trafficking Month. Last night, she told us she’s now off to Nebraska.

Things are hard these days. The heat, the price of eggs, you name it. Most things you can’t affect at all. This is something you can. Protect yourself first (turn off open tracking on your phone) and speak frankly to others about the dangers of victimhood. It’s real. If not trafficking, then falling for some scam or another. A police chief when I worked with CPS said he’d learned there’s not a single thing one person won’t do to another. It’s real, but you can help. Tonya will let you know what to do.

Meeting Opal Lee

Last year, after the 5th year my church shared a Juneteenth celebration with our friends at Lifeway Church, I had a column about the history of that friendship in The Dallas Morning News. My blog the next day was not the column but a history of the newly-minted holiday and its champion, Opal Lee.

When I received an invitation to a scholarship program with Opal Lee as an award recipient, I was thrilled with the possibility of hearing her in person. True, she does live just next door in Fort Worth. And Karen Hollie, who pastors Lifeway, did meet her last year. It just never occurred to me that I would. My expectations were for a huge crowd in a megachurch. It was neither: perhaps 100 people in a neighborhood chapel with much of the time spent on the lives and accomplishments of the young graduates.

Ms. Lee sat across the aisle from us with her granddaughter and my long-time friend, Marzuq al Jaami. Before the service, I went over to meet her. Marzuq introduced me by religious affiliation, our interfaith connection, and my desire to have a picture with her. She was charming, took my hand in both of hers, and graciously agreed. A few hours later, mission accomplished.

Bud Kennedy, writing for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram last year, noted, “She is never resentful. She is resolute.” No, she is not resentful of the white rioters who burned down her home when she was 12. It did change the direction of her life, though. And “resolute”? An understatement. Here are Merriam-Webster’s synonyms: bent (on or upon), bound, decisive, determined, do-or-die, firm, hell-bent (on or upon), intent, out, purposeful, resolved, set, single-minded. Maybe all of those together would be enough. When Bishop Harold Edwards, pastor of The Church of the Living God, introduced her—and several more times during her talk—he asked if she wanted to sit down. Her answer was always, “No.” Resolute, direct, simple.

Last year, I had some her details out of order. She graduated from high school at 16. Her mother wanted her to go to college right away, but she got married and had four babies in four years. She then discovered she was going to have to raise her husband as well, “So I cut my losses and took those babies and went back to my mother.” College was a challenge, of course. She had to work, and hard. Part of the time, she worked back in Fort Worth, though sometimes her mother worked in her place “since we all look alike.” At 25, she graduated from Wiley College in her hometown of Marshall and began her career as an educator, later entering school counseling after earning her master’s degree at the University of North Texas.

Her first message to the graduates: You can achieve anything if you work hard enough at it. Listen to your parents. They have your best interests in mind.

After retiring, Ms. Lee learned that of all the accomplishments from the Black community in Fort Worth, not a single thing had been written about the people who had lived there for decades. So she helped found the Tarrant County Black History and Genealogical Society. She worked on Ann Richard’s campaign for governor. She walked 2-1/2 miles every year to commemorate the time it took the Emancipation Proclamation to arrive in Texas. At 89, she walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., hoping to promote Juneteenth as a national holiday. Last year at 94, she was there when President Biden signed that action into law. Next week, she told me and Marzuk, she will be in Philadelphia.

Her second message to the graduates: Vote. Vote for change when and where it’s needed. Never give up. You can do what you set your mind to.

And, perhaps, never sit down. Keep going. You may be only one, but you are one. Keep going. Someday you, too, may get to meet a modern hero. Or be one.

“Everyone knows…”: Reviewing Free Guy and The Burying Man

Recently a person-on-the-street survey found that not everyone in America knows there are 50 states. Some think New Mexico is not a state but part of Mexico. It’s easy to make fun of something “everybody knows” when they don’t, but there is something troubling about such a profound lack of awareness.

The interplay between what people know, what they think they know, and what they don’t know at all forms the basis of two works that could not seem more different. A closer look, however, suggests that the ideas that unite them—awareness and freedom—are shared regardless of superficial backgrounds.

Free Guy (2021) stars Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character in a massive video game. As a sub-genre called action comedy, this film is reminiscent of Zootopia (2016): serious allegations amid humorous action. Both feature other characters involved in conspiracies. Guy repeats the same day, a trope used in such films as Groundhog Day (1993), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Dr. Strange (2016). He gains self-awareness when he accidentally shoots the bank robber who arrives daily where he works as a teller. Putting on his sunglasses, Guy discovers that the world is not what it appears.

The conflict involves the exploration of corporate greed; the programming code for the game was stolen by Antwan (Taika Waititi), CEO of Soonami. He plans to replace it with a second version but has never given original credit to Millie Rusk/Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer). It isn’t immediately clear to the programmers that Guy is sentient, so thinking he is a rogue player, his presence diverts from the new launch. Guy has no idea what his reality is until Millie/Molotov Girl explains it to him. A battle ensues, Antwan sends avatars to destroy him, and Guy goes about telling the other NPCs that they have choices. In one scene he changes his coffee shop order, or tries to, horrifying the barista. Spoiler alert: Things work out, as happens when the word “comedy” inhabits the genre.

Cleudis Robbins grew up a child of the mining culture in Harlan County, Kentucky. His step-father was killed in a cave-in, and the family suffered after that, with his mother Guynith struggling to support seven children. The stories from those years culminated in a novel, The Burying Man, which Cleudis finished in 2012 with his daughter, Janene Nielsen, just before his unexpected death. And the work is a novel, with all the art, structure, and theme that it suggests, rather than a memoir. (Available on Amazon and Kindle; see Goodreads.)

The Burying Man does, indeed, have much to do with death. The epigraph: “Whatever you tell yourself by an open grave or fireside, the dead do not sleep, are not at rest and, above all, are not gone.” The opening lines of this first-person narrative come from Rose Grace, nicknamed Bud: “My daddy always said that death is just like opening a door—but it ain’t, you know. Death is more like a curtain that gets finer and finer until suddenly, with your last breath, you realize Heaven is all around you and it always has been.” Bud begins this story as a ghost herself, though it’s not until near the end of the novel that we understand what happened to her. As with the film, this isn’t a new technique. A deceased narrator works in The Lovely Bones and (spoiler alert) The Sixth Sense (1999). Somehow, because of the richness of the story, its power and detail, even a child’s death is forgotten until confirmation when her father finds her body.

The setting is a Kentucky mining community around the fictional Emerita Coal Mining Camp during the 1930s. Bud’s father, Oakley Grace, lost his father in a mining accident when he was a boy. He, too, has a nickname, Mournful. The seventh son of a seventh son, he has the power of seership but also of healing and preaching. He marries young and in the course of the novel loses all his family. There is an inevitability about his fate even apart from his name. The authors conclude the book with a list of hundreds of men who lost their lives in Harlan County mines from 1913-1939, so there is a feeling that Mournful not only preaches their funerals but encapsulates the sorrows of all those lives.

Besides the father and daughter, two other characters are carefully drawn. Keziah Grimwood lives back in the mountains, coming down only rarely when she senses Mournful’s needs. A member of a small ethnic group called Melungeons, she seems to have access to all sorts of folk wisdom. Her age? “Between 35 and 60.” Her complexion? She has “a dark pool of a face.” Her eyes? The color of Virginia bluebells. Her ways are based on a view of the world informed by layers of mystical understanding. When dressing Mournful’s father for burial, she sings the words of one hymn to the melody of another, “It keeps the bad spirits guessing.” The title above is based on a phrase that reflects her kind of knowledge. Over and over throughout the novel, we hear “’cause everyone knows…” In the father’s funeral preparation, for example, Keziah stops the clock so that no one else in the home will perish.

The villain of the novel, Cork Markham, begins as a bully in childhood but a friend “of sorts” to the young Mournful. Their lives were worlds apart. Cork’s father was the mine company’s superintendent. As time goes on, he progression into evil reveals a profound lack of character. Greed and lust motivate his actions toward Mournful’s family as well as the rest of the camp. But he’s neither simplified nor cartoonish, making him a remarkable study in how not to be. Everyone knows this, too, and they either fear him or take his hush money.

The crisis in the novel concerns the coming of unions. Unsafe mining practices were one thing. Another was the system of scrip for payment. Miners did not receive pay. Instead, there was a voucher system which gave them access to the company store and housing the company owned. Cash was almost non-existent. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “16 Tons” has the lyric “St. Peter don’t call me ‘cause I can’t go—I owe my soul to the company store.” It was a long struggle that began in 1890. This brief history from the union’s website includes information about Harlan County. We may feel long removed from the miners’ struggles and only vaguely aware of what conditions were, yet it is barely 100 years since laws attempting to limit the ages children could work in mines were designed, and widespread observance of the laws didn’t begin until the 1930s.

These two works, so superficially dissimilar, have in common the lack of freedom for the characters within them. Guy and his friends are living in blissful ignorance…until they’re not. Mournful Grace has no real chance to leave his world either but is keenly aware of all the pain that causes those he loves. The world of computer gaming is, sadly, much more relatable to our day, but when we see the pictures of children in mineshafts a mile below the surface, we should not forget those realities either.

Free Guy is clever and makes for an enjoyable escape. The Burying Man offers a serious exploration written so beautifully, so poetically, that the stories will resonate long after the last page is read. The events are based on real events but not limited by them. Little Bud’s life on earth ends tragically, but she gives hope of more to come, of love that continues, and of the purpose of struggle.