Monday, February 28, 2011

Joy in the Journey

One afternoon, I got a phone call that launched me on a life-changing quest.  A publisher called to tell me he wanted to publish the book I was writing about my great-great-grandmother’s journey with the Willie Handcart Company.  I had sent his company a query letter not two days before so I calculated he must have called me the minute he got my submission.  He asked how long it would take me to finish writing my novelized biography.  My head was spinning; judging by my progress, I might be able to complete it in six months. Before I gave my answer he asked me, “Can you have it done by the end of the month?”
I heard myself say “Yes.”
That was the moment I joined my great-great-grandmother on her journey to the Promised Land. 
For three weeks, I was on the trail with the family of Margery Bain Smith.  My initial excitement mirrored their joyful beginning.  Midway through, my plodding progress reminded me of their tedious trek across the plains.  When I reached their life-and-death moments, I struggled to create the passion and power those episodes warranted.   
I learned the pioneer journey was both a physical and a spiritual one.  Their physical journey planted their descendants’ roots west of the Rockies.  Their spiritual journey showed us how highly to value our faith.  I saw how faith still works miracles, sensing angelic help: some seen (my husband and sisters) and some unseen.
          I made the deadline and submitted my book in June of 2006.  I reached the border of the Promised Land, but like the Children of Israel, I wouldn’t be entering the “land of milk and honey” to enjoy the fruits of my labors—at least not yet.  The publisher’s financial backer decided not to fund my book, but it didn’t really bother me.  I had made the trek and learned lessons that enriched my life. 
People kept asking me about my book and, after four years of “wandering in the wilderness,” I felt it was time to pursue publishing it again.  I received so much inspiration writing it; I know it wasn't just for my personal benefit.  It is a powerful, true story that needs to be told.  I’m completing a final revision and love the story now more than ever. 
           Through telling their story, I hope to link my generation to theirs.  No story could have more heartache. Yet no journey could be more joyful.

Margery Bain Smith
(1804 – 1889)

Margery Smith faced a difficult choice. She was a widowed mother of six; one daughter was recovering from tuberculosis, another from Scarlet Fever, her youngest child was crippled and she, herself, was suffering from dysentery.  The Rocky Mountains loomed before her and her only adult son was on the other side of them.  She had to make a decision that would be a matter of life and death for herself and her children.
Three months earlier, Margery and her family left their Scottish homeland to journey to the seat of their newfound religion.  Now she found herself in the Nebraska Territory with no easy options.  She and her traveling companions, the Willie Handcart Company, were warned that if they pushed west so late in the season, they would surely face winter storms crossing the Rockies.  Yet if they stayed in Nebraska, there was no way the five-hundred people in their group could be provided food and shelter.  The Company as a whole had to head west, but some of the individual families were choosing to stay behind. What would Margery do?
She lived by the motto, “God helps those who help themselves,” and she knew she had done everything in her power to go where God had called her to go.  She decided to trust in the Lord and she left the last refuge of civilization behind her, pulling all her worldly belongings in a hastily-made-handcart.
Their trail was plagued by trials:
·         A buffalo stampede scattered their draft oxen, never to be recovered.
·         The food they expected to find at Fort Laramie was not there.
·         They were on quarter rations when an early winter storm blasted the region.
·         They endured a forced march over Rocky Ridge which many of their company never recovered from.
But Margery lived by another motto, also:
I will not dwell upon the hardships we endured,
Nor the hunger and cold,
But I like to tell of the goodness of God unto us.
The moment Brigham Young received word there were Mormon immigrants on the plains, he organized a relief effort.  Hundreds of teams were mustered to carry food and supplies to the beleaguered pioneers.  But for many of them, the help came too late.
Margery's physical reserve was utterly depleted after carrying her six-year-old son over Rocky Ridge. A few days later, she was trodding in the deep snow and knew she would not make it to camp that night.  She sent her children on ahead of her so they would not have to witness her demise.  But her middle daughter, Mary, would not leave her side. 
Ahead on the trail, her children were fascinated by the approach of a rescue wagon.  It was the first one they’d seen with a single yoke of oxen.  In their pitiful plight they made a game of it, wishing that the man in the wagon would be their older brother, Robert.  As the wagon drew closer, the driver stared at them and then called, “Whoa!” to his team.  The voice brought home the impossibly perfect fact that they were standing in the presence of their brother!  They tearfully greeted each other and soon tied the handcart to the wagon. But where, Robert wanted to know, were Mother and Mary?  They headed east to find them. 
From a distance, they saw Mary kneeling by a body stretched out on the snow.  “Too late?” the family asked themselves, “was help coming too late to save our dear Mother?”
Robert pulled the wagon to a halt beside his weary mother.  He found Mary trying to convince Margery that Robert had come to rescue them.  Margery couldn’t believe it until she was swept up into his arms.  Margery said that she couldn’t have been happier to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Margery promised God that if she survived the trek she would never complain again.  She lived to keep that promise, even though she later became blind.
Rather than becoming bitter and losing faith in the God they were counting on to make the winter mild, these pioneers focused on the goodness of the Lord.  Instead of teaching their children that God didn’t answer their prayers to protect them from harm, they told the story of how greatly they were blessed to be rescued.  They showed us how to do hard things and be grateful for the blessings received through the challenge.  The way they pulled through their trials on the trail over 150 years ago still affects us today. 
This picture of Margery Bain Smith and her children was taken around twenty years after their trek.  (Her youngest son was deceased.)
Source:  "The Tired Mother," Improvement Era, July 1919 by Betsey Smith Goodwin.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rule of Spirit

I was a wild filly.  I can see it in my childhood photos--my long, lanky limbs, my dark mane that flung wildly when I tossed my head, my untamed energy and my unbridled passion.

“This is too hard for you,” my mother tried to reason with me.  My little hands had barely shed their baby fat, yet I was determined to learn how to knit.  My mom worked and worked with me but I could not create the right tension on the yarn.  Before long, the knitting needles went flying in opposite directions.  *Click* and there you have a snapshot of one of my youthful tantrums.

Some ten years later, I smugly congratulated myself on how easily I had overcome my childhood fits of temper. I no longer was tempted to hurl the object of my frustration across the room.  I even learned how to knit.  For my first project since sending my tools flying at age four, I chose a sweater with a lovely lacework design in the bodice. When the clerk told me my chosen knitting project was too hard for me, I thanked her and left the store.  Later I snuck back when she wasn’t working, hid my beginner’s status from the clerk on duty, and confidently walked out of the store with my challenging pattern in hand.  With mentoring, I produced a beautiful sweater.  Life was good.

Another ten years passed and I discovered the temper that had plagued my early years had not been cured but had only lain dormant awaiting the proper provocation:  having another four-year-old in the house. Happily, once my kids outgrew their toddlerhood I was no longer tempted to display fits of temper, but I knew enough not to take pride in the fact.  By then I was convinced that my milder outlook had more to do with my kids’ personal growth than my own.

Now the cycle begins again as our household hits the teen years.

He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty;
And he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.
Proverbs 16:32

Acquiring the ability to "rule my spirit" has been a lifelong quest.  Only recently have I begun to rule my spirit through being Ruled by the Spirit. I’ve learned that to “Bridle your passions,” one must allow the Lord to take the reins to guide through life’s difficulties.  Accepting the bridle means submitting my will to His.  The trouble is that pride gets in the way so sometimes that's a very hard task. But little by ever-so-little, the harnessed energy moves me towards greater happiness.

Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan
1886 – 1936
(From the date Anne entered Helen’s life until Anne’s death,
they remained constant companions.)

Helen Keller was a frustrated child trapped in her private world without words.  Helen didn’t have the ability to communicate, other than the hand signals she devised as a desperate attempt to let her wants be known.   Often she would throw tantrums so her family caved to her demands in an effort to prevent her from falling into fits of rage.

Enter the mentor.
When Anne Sullivan arrived at Ivy Green, she recognized the root of Helen’s frustrations lay not in her blindness but in her isolation.  She immediately began to teach Helen by signing letters in her hands, but since the seven-year-old girl had no concept of words, they meant nothing to her.  Helen became angry and locked Anne in her room. 
 Anne quickly saw that Helen’s lack of discipline made her unreachable, essentially putting a lock on her private prison.  Anne insisted on taming the wild child.  What looked to Helen’s parents like restriction of her freedom to express her needs was really the key to unlock her prison.  Before Anne could teach Helen the power of communication, she had to teach her discipline.  The young Helen bristled at the call to obedience, but in time she submitted to her instructor and her prison of isolation was unlocked.
Once Helen was open to being lead by her mentor, she experienced her landmark epiphany:  connecting the letters w-a-t-e-r to the flowing of water.  Her life would never be the same.  Now she had vision and aim, beginning with the insatiable drive to learn the word for everything in her life.  Through words, her life’s horizons expanded to take in the whole world. 
Anne tried to begin instructing Helen through words, but the key to freeing Helen was not signing letters.  It was in taming her spirit through discipline.  A profound expression of how deeply Helen valued Anne’s key to opening the door to her world is found in her answer to a simple question.  When asked what her favorite word was, Helen spelled out, “t-e-a-c-h-e-r.” 
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt with the heart.
Helen Keller