Speaking of Prayer

Or, By the Grace of the Check Engine Light

My own skepticism has caused me to hesitate sharing this experience, because when I hear people share their own experiences and draw what I consider to be specious conclusions, I fear that’s how people will perceive the lessons I learned one morning a few weeks ago. When returned missionaries come home and declare that they were good missionaries and kept the commandments, therefore they got engaged within a month of returning home; or when people assume everyone in an entire region of the world was wicked therefore a catastrophe leveled the land, I tend to wince a little. So what I’m about to share may prove a little hypocritical, but the Lord’s judgment is just and for me and me alone; nevertheless I’m willing to face judgment from my spiritual peers and superiors in mortality. Or just not care. I’m fine either way now.

It was a Tuesday night, and I decided to go to bed early, because I had to take my mom to the airport at 3:30 Wednesday morning. She came up to attend my graduation ceremony for library school and had stayed with us for a full six days. The car I usually drive had a flat tire, so we planned to take the other car instead. I headed to bed around 9:00 or 9:30, which would have given me a solid 6 to 6.5 hours of sleep.

In order to sleep, one has to be sleepy, which I wasn’t. I can’t even recall that I was all that tired. I lay in bed and tossed and turned. Every half hour or so I looked at the clock, which gratefully seemed to be creeping along. I played a few rounds of sudoku on the Kindle and read a few pages of The Screwtape Letters. I tried lying on my stomach and then on my back and then on my side. I turned the pillow when it got too warm. I attempted breathing exercises to help relaxation.

Nothing worked. My mind was too active thinking about driving to the airport and potty training Z and work and everything else I could possibly think about. Reilly said if I was too worried about being too tired on the road, we’d get the whole family in the car. But I didn’t want him to be too tired for work. I told myself I’d be fine.

Time went from crawling to running, and around 3:00am I finally dozed off to half-consciousness. My alarm went off at 3:20am. Reilly got up to scrape any ice from the car windows, which there was none. I threw on some jeans and a sweater, then my winter coat. I grabbed a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator. Mom and I climbed into the car.

The ride to the airport was uneventful. I pulled into the dropoff area and helped Mom with her suitcase. We hugged each other. I cried a little. After watching Mom walk into the terminal, I got back into the car.

Just as I had pulled away from the dropoff area and driven onto the road exiting the airport, the check engine light came on. A bright yellow-orange light shaped like a drawing of an engine.

I still had 40 miles to get home.

Sometimes the engine sounded fine. I don’t know anything about cars, but sporadically the engine sounded as if it was losing traction, like it lost its grip on a thingy but another thingy would keep spinning for 5 to 10 seconds until it gained traction again. This happened every few miles the whole way home.

Whenever this happened my stomach sank, and I would experiment with pressure on the gas pedal and vary speeds to see if that affected the traction thingy. The traction thingy happened no matter what I did. Yet I decided to drive slower than the speed limit most of the way; I don’t know why.

The whole time I watched the speedometer and the temperature gauges, and the check engine light stayed on. The whole time, my mind was alert, and I came up with an emergency plan in case the car stopped on the freeway.

The whole time my mind was spinning, with and without traction, much like the engine seemed to be. The whole time I was driving I was praying aloud. I turned off the radio so I could hear the engine, but also so that the Lord knew I was serious about needing to get home. There are worse situations than being stuck on the side of the freeway at 4:30am, but I wanted to get home. I made this desire known.

I talked about my family and my attitude and my current level of spirituality. I apologized for not praying as much and reading my scriptures as much. I started making those deals that people make about being a better person if they survive a certain situation. I expressed gratitude for blessings, for being able to drop off my mom safely at the airport.

The distance home shrank and I steered onto our exit. I asked and hoped that the car would make it to our apartment on the slower city roads and at stop lights. Soon I was just a few miles away. I pulled up to our apartment and parked the car. When I turned off the ignition, the check engine light also shut off. I sighed with relief.

Reilly was up when I walked in. I told him about the car. It wouldn’t be until the following Sunday when Reilly’s dad would look at it to see if anything was wrong.

But it occurred to me: What if nothing was wrong with the car after getting home? What if this was just a thing that happened to keep me awake on the way home from the airport? What if the check engine light turning on was all in my head? If nothing was wrong with the car, it might look like I was just telling stories, for what, attention?

Thankfully, something was wrong with the coil thingy in the engine. Yes, it’s a bummer, but I’m also glad I wasn’t imagining it.

Reilly said that if I had been worried about staying awake on the drive from the airport, the car issue and the check engine light had definitely kept me from falling asleep at the wheel. A blessing in a slightly conspicuous disguise.

I’m grateful the situation compelled me to utter a 35-minute prayer on the freeway in the wee morning hours. The act of praying aloud also had kept me awake.

But what if I had gotten a good night’s sleep? Chances are that the car would have still acted up, and my mind would have still been put on high alert, and I still would have made it home safely. I’d still have something to be grateful for.

Instead of a prayer of desperation, I offer a prayer of gratitude for the check engine light, for the reminders of temporariness of this life, the awareness of struggles in this world, the assurance that–even when we feel we’re losing traction, and I’m just now realizing the analogy of this situation and forthcoming bad pun–exaltation will come to this mortal coil.

It’s Easy to Judge

In front of Paris

When I first moved to New York City, I started working in the Financial District. At the end of the day, on my way to the subway, people would stand on the street corners handing out little cards or flyers. These people mostly tried to get the attention of men. I’d catch a glimpse of the flyers and saw that they advertised gentlemen’s clubs. I wasn’t naive about New York, and I wasn’t surprised about the kind of effort that went into promoting that kind of business. However, I was bothered, and there were times that I wanted to knock the flyers from the hands of one of those people, but then I realized that if they scattered onto the sidewalks and streets that anyone could read the flyers. Children and women, decent men. While it’s true that there are corrupt children and unwholesome women, I still held onto my hope that innocence still roamed the streets. I wanted to preserve that as much as I could.

Last week Reilly and I went to Las Vegas to attend a friend’s wedding. It was  my first time to Sin City, and I was excited to let as much as possible stay in Vegas. We walked a lot and looked at the shops and lights. All along the Strip, people passed out flyers for gentlemen’s clubs and peep shows, almost like how it was done in New York. The one main difference is that the people got your attention by clapping the flyers  against their hands. I avoided eye contact, but hands stretched from all directions, and it turned into a pretty challenging obstacle course.

They annoyed me at first, but I looked at how many there were, and I wondered how they were getting paid. Even women passed out the flyers, and then I wondered if that was the only way they could support families. I wondered if they considered a better way, if they had a better way, if they even had a choice. I wondered if they were able to shut off their conscience, to ignore the images on the cards they handed out. Instead of being angry at what those people were doing, I was sad. It’s a shame that they have to do that at all. It’s unfortunate that they make it happen in Vegas. It’s a tragedy that they’ll probably have to stay there.

(I’ll write a more upbeat post about Vegas one day. This has been on my mind for a while, though.)

Stupid Parking Job

Macey’s is a Utah grocery store with a pretty good bakery and super cheap soft-serve ice cream, and they have free Smarties and Dum-Dums or Chula Pops at the cashier. Reilly and I got blue raspberry Dum-Dums tonight. We had just seen a father pushing his two kids in a cart. The daughter was around two years old, and the son was about 4. We were in the frozen foods aisle when I heard the son say to his dad, “Why are you talking back to me?” just before the daughter dropped her sucker on the floor and cried because the dad wouldn’t pick up the dirtygross candy for her. We quietly laughed far enough behind this family.

This evening, Reilly and I came out of Macey’s and wheeled our cart of groceries to the parking lot. Reilly walked in front of the cart, and I was pushing it. As we neared our car, we noticed a small grey SUV parked next to us. Reilly saw how the Jeep/Forerunner/similarly objectionable vehicle with a Washington state license plate was parked, and he looked back at me with an expression that made me look at what he noticed. The vehicle’s left rear wheel was on the line, and the left front wheel was in our parking space.

I immediately reacted. “I hope he [the owner of the SUV] comes out soon so I can kick him in the nards.”

Reilly agreed that the parking job was bad.

We loaded the groceries into the trunk of our car, and I wheeled the cart to the nearest cart corral. The perfectly cool air braced my hot, angry face. Yet, I still wondered how I could push my neatly into the corral when I had a normal cart and the other carts in the corral were a mini-cart and a car-cart that kids could sit in and pretend to drive while parents pushed it. Then I just decided to make sure my cart was at least out of the way, because I’m incredibly considerate about these things.

When I returned to the car, Reilly had unlocked my door, but he hadn’t opened it because the space between our car and the dork car next to us was too narrow. But he also looked at me as if something was funny.

I opened the car door and slipped inside, and I happened to glance inside the Jeep/Forerunner/whatever. The driver happened to be in the car, and the driver happened to be a woman. Blonde, ponytail, appearing to avoid looking to her left at her condemners.

It occurred to me that she could have heard what I said, but once I closed the door, I told Reilly, “It’s a girl in that car! I’m still going to kick her in the nards!”

Then Reilly said, “I have a little trick for when I park like that. I park the car again and fix it.”

Seems simple enough.

Carry On, My Wayward Mormon

In the mid-80s, reruns for WKRP in Cincinnati were on television. That was the first time I ever saw Gordon Jump, and my parents kindly informed me he was Mormon. Then after the show’s syndication, I saw Mr. Jump everywhere as the bored-as-heck Maytag repairman, sitting around, not fixing the same-brand household appliances because they were so well made.

I hadn’t gotten interested enough in Little House on the Prairie or 60s and 70s football to recognize Merlin Olsen as another who belonged to my religious culture.

Then I heard that Johnny Whitaker guy who starred with Jodie Foster in the 70s version of Tom Sawyer was Mormon. I saw the movie several times as a child. I looked at him and his red hair and freckles and could tell. I knew it.

“Soldier of Love” by Donny Osmond came out in the late 80s. Just thinking of that makes me chuckle.

Then mad rumors spread in the 90s about the Cameron family – Kirk and Candace – being Mormon. And Steve Martin. People. PLEASE. And Bono: I wanted to perpetuate that one.

Then I heard Danny Ainge was LDS, then I read his lips a few times during televised basketball games, when he was really mad. This clued me in to him not being all that perfect.

The media got quiet for a little while, or maybe I didn’t watch as much television or news.

Then people started watching more reality shows. A huge hubbub emerged about some girl named Julie Stoffer starring in The Real World while a student at BYU. The university expelled her for failing to abide by the University Honor Code.

Then all sorts of Mormons popped up in the media. One of the first I’d heard was Eliza Dushku, Faith, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then Aaron Eckhart from Erin Brockovich. Then Gladys Knight, who was a recent convert.

Mormons in Survivor.
Mormons in The Amazing Race.
Mitt Romney
Jon Heder
Ken Jennings from Jeopardy!
Katherine Heigl
Ryan Gosling
Heidi, Benji, and Lacey in So You Think You Can Dance
Carmen Rasmussen, David Archuleta and Brooke White in American Idol
Kelsey Nixon in The Next Food Network Star
Countless others in politics, athletics, academics, entertainment, publishing, broadcasting, blah blah blah blah.

You can look at these famous Mormons and the decisions they’ve made, and you can’t help but judge them. Look how cute and naive and young; and he goes to church? How awesome. Look how modestly she dresses, I wonder what ward she attends. Hey, look at the way she’s toasting a glass of water to the others’ champagne; that’s pretty cool. Wow, they’re really representing the Church quite well. … What? He makes R-rated movies? He can’t be an active member and he’s going to HELL. … Ooh, look at the gown she’s wearing – she must have left the church and is on the fast track to HELL. What? Ken Jennings didn’t keep winning? He must have sinned to make him lose, and he, too, is going to HELL. Jon Heder did a hip thrust in his Napoleon Dynamite dance – that looks too much like The Sex, and he’s headed straight to HELL. Donny Osmond had a mullet? HELL. HELL HELL HELL HELL. They’re all going to HELL.

The thing about the Church is it’s made up of complex individuals who make personal choices. Some of those choices are very private, and some are made public. Some intentions are clear while others are quite blurred. The thing about the individuals in the church is each of them is at a different spiritual level, a different degree of commitment, which disqualifies them for any sort of comparison to anyone else. People have to live their lives. Some do it according to a standard they may or may not understand; some couldn’t care less about the standard; some have a completely different perception of the standard. If someone doesn’t quite live up to the standard, does that mean he’s a bad person? Does it mean he’s a bad Mormon?

A story made the headlines a few days ago, where a man was excommunicated for creating a “sexy missionary” calendar. I would not be able to make judgments about his character or intentions or determine whom he has influenced or how much against church doctrine his actions were. I could assume he had entered into covenants, and he didn’t keep them; I could assume his heart wasn’t nearly as invested in the Church as it once was. I don’t know him, and even if I did, those would not be my judgments and assumptions to make.

Then I think about my life, and my standards, and my devotion to the Church. I think about what sets me apart from the world and how I can be my best self. Then I think about all the times I have screwed up and how grateful I am my life isn’t compared to anyone else’s. Yes, it’s disappointing every time to see good people stray from the Church, but that’s as far as my feelings can go; I’m not without fault.

However, I have to admit I was tempted to say Merlin Olsen was going to HELL for being shirtless during an episode of Little House, even though Michael Landon was shirtless ALL THE TIME, but he went on to do Highway to Heaven, so that makes up for it. But do you see me casting stones? I’m putting the stones down, putting my hands up, and backing away.