Friday, July 24, 2009

Plains and Trains...and What Remains

I want to tell you a story about a woman named Rebecca. She was raised in New York, and her father was a famous drummer. --Not a drummer in a rock band, but the drummer on the back of the bicentennial quarter. Gideon Burdick, as a young teenager, was George Washington’s drummer as he led troops across the Delaware in the Revolutionary War: “The muffled sounds of Burdick’s drum encouraged the soldiers through the snow and sleet to the icebound Delaware River.”* And when this brave young man grew up and had a family, he had a daughter named Rebecca.

Okay, sorry to get all historical on you. But I almost feel like I know Rebecca. And she has an amazing story:

Back in 1824 she married a tall, handsome guy named Hiram Winters and they were totally in love. One night while Hiram was away attending meetings, Rebecca dreamed that Hiram returned to her with some kind of wonderful gift, something of great worth that made her amazingly happy. It filled her with a light and joy that lingered throughout the next day. She couldn’t imagine what Hiram could possibly give her that would make her so happy. When Hiram returned, he handed Rebecca a small book and said, “I will make you a present of that.” It was one of the first copies of The Book of Mormon. She recognized it as the gift from her dream, and knew at once how precious it was: “Each time I searched its pages I felt that same light and influence as I felt in my dream.”*

They were severely persecuted for their beliefs. Five times they were turned out of their homes by angry mobs and forced to flee for safety. Finally they joined a wagon train and headed west. Hiram had built the wagons himself, and Rebecca hand-stitched their clothing for the trek.
About two-thirds through their journey, cholera struck the camp. Cholera is a horrible disease with intense diarrhea causing a rapid drop in blood pressure and acute dehydration. Rebecca attempted to nurse others back to health, and was eventually stricken herself. She died in less than a day.

There was no coffin, other than a few wagon boards that could be spared. Her husband dug a deep grave that would keep her remains safe, lovingly tossing in his belt buckle as a remembrance. There was no headstone for her resting place, but a wheel rim from a broken-down wagon was found. A dear friend, William Reynolds, sat up through the night chiseling into the cold steel the words, “Rebecca Winters, Aged 50 Years.”
Imagine the heartache as the rest of the company pulled away the next morning, leaving Rebecca behind. Imagine, too, the pain of her son Oscar, who went ahead to build her a house, when he saw everyone but Mother arrive.

Fast-forward 50 years.
Around the turn of the 20th century, The Burlington Railroad was laying track as it moved westward, and a surveyor noticed the wagon wheel with the chiseled letters: Rebecca Winters, Aged 50 years. This is one of very few marked graves discovered on the plains. In an amazing gesture of humanity, the railroad tore up several miles of track to reroute so as not to disturb Rebecca’s resting place.

Fast-forward another 90 years.
The railroad was concerned about the safety of the many visitors to the grave because of its proximity to the tracks. They contacted the family and requested permission to move the grave.

A formal archaeological dig ensued. Suspense filled the air as a high-tech instrument with a metal plate began shaving off layers of dirt until the perimeters of the grave appeared a foot below the surface. They found Rebecca’s remains in near-pristine condition, complete with her husband’s belt buckle thrown in as a memento.

In 1997 I attended the rededication of the Rebecca Winters gravesite. I rode to Scottsbluff in an air-conditioned SUV and still managed to complain about the heat and the dust and the length of the ride. When I paused to consider the conditions our ancestors traveled in, it was incredibly humbling.

It was very moving to see the love and care from strangers and outsiders toward my 3rd great-grandmother for more than a century. And the significance of being able to actually touch the hand-chiseled inscription on the wheel-marker was like traveling back in time, a tangible linking of several generations.

Rebecca’s story has many parallels to my own family:
My mother, too, died in her early 50s. Several months later I dreamed she was still with us, but very ill. Our family was preparing for some kind of a vacation or journey. We begged her to join us, but she firmly stated we would have to complete the journey without her, all the while assuring us that we could.

We trudge along, sometimes stumbling and straying, and struggling to find our way. We’re learning first hand how difficult it can be to journey as a family -- especially while planning on journeying into eternity together. And sometimes it still seems my mother whispers to us, assuring us that we can succeed.

The one thing I find rather attractive about the pioneer trek is the simplicity of that existence. Focusing on a single path (note name of blog), moving a certain distance each day, almost seems therapeutic compared to my hectic, frazzled lifestyle, being pulled in so many directions, scattered between so many urgent needs. I should not allow myself to become distracted by the materialistic briars and thistles of our era, derailed by potholes of pride, or poisoned by snakebites of selfishness. I realize that I could do well to focus more intently on the true journey at hand, and never weary of doing good.

If you are faithful, the day will come when those deserving pioneers whom you rightly praise for having overcome the adversities in their wilderness trek will instead praise you for having made your way successfully through a desert of despair, for having passed through a cultural wilderness and having kept the faith.
–Elder Neal A. Maxwell

* From "Rebecca Burdick Winters: The Supreme Sacrifice" by Cassie Winslow

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hob-nobbing with Bill Gates

After a 6-hour car ride, we pulled up to the front of the hotel, ready for the staff to open our doors and show us to our rooms. But instead the place was swarming with secret service agents. Literally swarming. There were probably 13 cars behind us along the curb, and then two-by-two all these FBI-looking people wearing ID badges made their way to the entrance, some from cars, and others looking like they just popped out of the bushes.

You'll be shocked to know that all that security wasn't there for us. It turns out that the president of Colombia was scheduled to arrive there right when we pulled up. My brother-in-law went inside to check us in and he bumped into Bill Gates. Yikes! This place is even swankier than I thought. Side note: We're not big fans of Bill Gates. In fact, for years my husband wouldn't even allow any microsoft products into our house. But the fact that he was there at all says something about the accommodations. Location, location, location.

The weather was a perfect 72 degrees (roughly) every day, complete with a gentle breeze. The sky was a deep blue with perfectly fluffy white clouds. The mountains were beautiful, the wildflowers were glorious. If it weren't for the simple fact that Bill Gates was there, I might have thought we'd all died and gone to heaven. Instead we just went to Sun Valley, Idaho.

None of us were actually interested in spending any time with Bill Gates or the president of Colombia. Because there was someone way more important we were there to see:

Cousins! (And can you imagine more adorable ones?) And of course they come with a complete set of aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

My amazing sister-in-law pre-cooked and brought along dinners for every single night, so all we had to do was pop it in the oven and make a salad. It was delicious. She is brilliant. So organized. So generous. All we had to do was tag along and enjoy.

We rode bikes (I nearly died), played tennis (I nearly died), and went for long walks through the wildflowers (I nearly died). So THIS is how they burn off all that delicious food, huh? The kids also went fishing and shooting (cringe), rode paddle boats, swam in the pool, and went diving for golfballs in a small-but-very-cold pond (brrr!). We saw an amazing ice show featuring Brian Boitano, complete with fireworks at the end. But the best part of all was just being together. Conversations that went on long past dinner was over, dice games that everyone of every age could play together, enormous feelings of love and support.

My sister-in-law summed it up so perfectly: What greater joy could there be for a set of grandparents than to spend time with sons (and daughters-in-law) who love each other, and watch all those cousins adore being together? It was, in a word, fabulous.

I wouldn't trade places (or hotel rooms) with Bill Gates for anything in the whole wide world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

That's it. I'm outta here.

But not for good. I'll just be away for the rest of the week. Nothing personal. It's all about family and fun and, well, getting away. But next week I'll be giving away, so stop back then....

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I Collect Bodies in My Basement

Don't worry, I'm not going all Jeffrey Dahmer on you. Just read on.

During two of the very few non-rainy hours in June, I actually took my kids to the pool. It felt like honest-to-goodness summer, and I loved it. So did they. Of course, I did not don a bathing suit, nor venture into the water. It turns out I prefer private mortification to public humiliation. And lately my body has felt more like a prison than a temple. (Note: This is not good.)

Then (when my nose wasn't buried in my book, and I pretended to be watching my kids) I started looking with my artist's eyes. And I remembered one of the things I love about the beach (okay, and in Utah, public pools.) Bodies. Wonderful, fleshy, Rubens-esque bodies of every shape, size and color. (Okay, not color, because it's Utah. V e r y l i m i t e d c o l o r.)

Usually I pack along my sketchbook, and I start collecting bodies. One of my favorite art teachers, Carl Purcell, taught us that in order to incorporate people in his paintings, he is constantly collecting figures in his sketchbooks. Body shapes in motion. Gestures. Figures of all ages and sizes.

And so I heft my sketchbook onto my lap and I draw — quickly, rhythmically, sometimes without even looking at my paper. And I start to capture all this beauty, these bodies. People walking, people standing up in the pool, hips cocked to one side, talking to fellow parents. People stooping over big, unwieldy beach bags. Children, sliding and splashing. Toddlers, wrapped in bright-colored towels, trying not to shiver. I try to capture it all. And I find that — to an artist — the imperfect ones are infinitely more interesting. Honestly, the rolls and folds create beautiful forms. I find that a pregnant woman's belly looks so much like a toddler's, and contemplate the symbolic mirroring. I study proportions, and find that none is wrong. They are all just fascinating to me.

I also find myself in awe of the heroic individuals who courageously parade their rotund corpulence with little inhibition. They are merely in suits enjoying the water and the sunshine right along with everyone else. As they should.

I wish I could develop more of an artist's eye as I regard my own imperfect body. I wish I didn't bemoan the fact that it takes me the whole summer to turn from blue to white. I wish I could rejoice in my own ripples and curves rather than lamenting the loss of the perfect hardbody I had when I was 20. And I wonder if I spent just a little more time in my basement art studio, poring over the beautiful bodies in my sketchbooks, perhaps I could escape this notion of a prison once and for all and celebrate my body for the temple it is...not for how it's shaped, but for the divinity it houses.

P.S. For some great photos of Mr. Cool's t.v. commercial shoot, earlier this week, look here.