Monday, October 19, 2009


E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

It's funny what will trigger a memory, and when it will happen. I'm sitting in the Denver airport, on a layover on my way to Utah for my brother's wedding. It's a little early for lunch local time, but my stomach is still two hours behind in sync with New York, where I had breakfast 4 hours ago. Luckily, the restaurants in the airport are used to problems like this, and are already serving lunch type food. I decide to splurge, and momentarily suppress my vegetarian leanings. I get 2 pieces of rotisserie chicken with a side of garlic mashed potatoes, one of the more expensive items on the menu.
Rotisserie chicken is one of my dad's favorites. He sometimes likes to pick up a small one at the grocery store, especially now that much of the family is vegetarian. He'll spend the next few days working his way through it, eating it by itself or adding it to tacos or another dish. I think of my dad when I order the chicken. But then, while I'm pulling the meat away from the bone I think of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, John Westwood, who we call Pop. I remember eating chicken one time at his house, and him demonstrating to me that there was still plenty of meat left on the piece I was finished with. I am the type to leave scraps here and there, so I don't have to get too messy or think too hard about what exactly it is I'm eating. Pop, however, was a firm believer in savoring every last bit. I smile to myself, remembering Grandma Betty telling us about my cousin Ethan, at age 4 or so, after Pop had passed away, wondering if Pop was able to have a picnic of fried chicken in heaven, since it was such a beautiful day, and that was one of Pop's favorite things to do. Grandma Betty refrained from remarking to Ethan that it wouldn't really be heaven for the chicken involved.
I am glad to have these memories of Pop surface as I get ready to see my family, and witness it expand through my brother's marriage. I wish that Grandma Betty, Pop, Grandpa Art, and Grandma Judy could all be here with us, celebrating. But maybe they'll all get together and have a picnic in heaven in our honor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Visit

Got down to the hospital to see Grandma. I told her how I felt about her and grandpa and her brother Carl who used to live upstairs from me and died early in the morning, getting ready to go work in the temple. I told her how Michael and I talked about how someday we will be the older generation responsible for keeping things together and it's hard to imagine ourselves being up to the task. And she reminded me that you don't become the kind of person overnight: it takes time. And then she told me a story she's told me many times before, about how she, as a younger woman, spent some time caring for an elderly relative of hers who was quite cranky and bitter. The experience made her vow to herself that she wouldn't be a cranky old woman: which made her realize that she'd better stop being a cranky young woman first.

I laughed. We talked and talked, told each other new stories which led us back into telling stories
we've already told each other dozens, maybe hundreds of times--and I love the rhythm of it.

Next Friday, she told one nurse, she will have twenty-nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

When another nurse asked where she was from, she said "Would you like the short version or the long one?"

Maybe that's one thing we can keep from generation to generation.

Good News

Matt just called again to say that Grandma is awake and breathing fine in the hospital. Everything seems to be fine--they'll hold her for observation (thank God for doctors and their families who let them sacrifice for the rest of us!) and then she'll be able to come home. Things sound good.

After I got off the phone with him, I started sobbing. It's crazy, I'm here alone in an office on BYU campus and I turned off the lights and curled up on the floor while I cried. There's something about the sense of relief that makes it more OK to acknowledge how much something has shaken you.

I believe in God because I believe in the eternity of memory. That when beautiful and profound things happen, like my grandmother deciding to marry my grandfather even in a time when their "mixed race" marriage was illegal, somewhere written on the face of the universe, that stays. I really believe that's not just a good thought, that's how things are. What we do in life matters. The ways we are connected matter and are infinite and eternal: healed and purified relationships are heaven.

This is maybe why I care about history and ethnicity: they are threads that bind us to those who gave life to us, those who shaped our souls with their love.

And if you want to know who I am: I am someone who absolutely refuses to give up on that! I am, or at least want to be someone who never lets the very real and heavy burden of life get in the way of the healing burdens of inherited love.


A long conference with a student meant I was running late to class today--at 1 pm, when I should have been in the classroom with my ringer off, I got a call from my younger brother saying our Grandmother had just fainted and not gotten up and that Grandpa had called an ambulance and gone with her to the hospital.

I remember something like this happening several years ago--I think they lived in California at that time--and everything came out just fine then. I'm assuming that the same will happen now, but it's still scary. It's not so much a feeling of worry over her, she's a good woman and will be all right no matter what--it's a sense of my own vulnerability in the possibility of her absence.

To think that her presence could suddenly be gone, her memories lost to immediate access, is overwhelming. I've certainly been grateful before that I've gotten so much time with my grandparents; I've tried to soak up what I can from them, to take advantage of the chances to talk. I've known that they are (in spite of all appearances to the contrary) mortal--but I've come to depend on them not to do scary things like this!

The world makes sense to me partly through the strength of my grandparents. I think of all they've done, all they've learned, all they went up against and emerged with more love and richer senses of humor--these are the kind of people who keep the spirit of God in the world. While I realize that my grandmother will still exist no matter what happens, it's difficult to imagine a world in which I don't have direct access to the way she tells her stories, the way she keeps her house, the way she plays games with her youngest grandchildren.

My brother will be ordained an Elder in our church on Sunday: it's a moment in which he is invited to embrace adult responsibilities in the community. I will be married next Friday: that's a moment in which I will accept responsibilities we see as binding (and rooting) us through the eternities.

It seems impossible to me at this particular moment that we will live up to all these responsibilities in anything like the way my grandparents have. Numerous ancient religions used to worship ancestors, to project them as somehow larger than life, and I feel like I can understand why.

Perhaps if we hold tenaciously on to their memory and spirits, the stories can give us access to some of their strength and power. But please God give her much more time to live: I don't want my daughter to grow up without her!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Trouble with Racism that it's become a counter-productive term.

There was a time, say sixty years ago, when plenty of people were still happy to openly admit that they thought of their own "race" as superior to all others. The term "racism" served as a productive way to label and combat those attitudes. Public schools, for example, decided that teaching about the dangers of racism should be part of their curriculum. Being opposed to racism has become a deeply embedded value in our society to the point that to call someone a "racist" is not simply a description of their ideology, but an accusation or insult.

That's a great achievement in many ways, but a major problem in others. I'm glad, on the one hand, that we no longer live in the days when people could hold lynchings in conjunction with picnics and weren't ashamed to take pictures of themselves doing so. I'm worried, though, that by teaching that racism is evil without acknowledging that cultural frictions are natural keeps people from acknowledging and working on living together in harmony.

It's common and normal, after all, to think that food from other cultures smells strange. It's a problem, though, if the biggest factor in your relationship with a neighbor is how much the smell of their food annoys you. It's common for people from different backgrounds (esp. different cultural/historical backgrounds) to be sensitive over different subjects. How do we negotiate those sensitivities and get over the unintentional offense we receive or cause? Minority cultures almost all struggle against definitions of what is normal or acceptable (in clothing, writing, music, hair, whatever) that are based on majority cultural standards. How can we learn not to try to force the wrong standards onto those who don't want to fit?

Our focus on racism has made it difficult to talk to about such cultural issues without putting people on the defensive. "I'm not racist" is the response you're likely to get if you try to raise an issue: which does nothing to resolve whatever friction exists. The word "racism" makes minority individuals excessively defensive, too: because "racism" is a often seen as a choice and racism is as actively evil, the term "racism"makes people from minority groups more likely to interpret tensions with individuals from the majority culture as signs of evil than as natural friction.

So, is it time to try to throw the term "racism" out, or at least put it into a narrower place?


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Parable of the Circle

Several weeks ago, I incorporated some excerpts of this blog along with some new material into an essay for a class. One piece of feedback I got from several students was that they wanted the resulting piece to involve more of me and my personal presence. Why so much time on brothers, great-grandparents, the politics of distant lands when I was directly described only in a conversation with my soon-to-be daughter?

Maybe they're right. Maybe I should spend more time directly engaging the experiences I've had in my twenty-six years on earth. Maybe there's something to be said for the orienting effect of a strong autobiographical presence in this kind of cultural writing.

I couldn't help but wonder, though, if that also says something about our cultural obsession with the narrowly defined self. Do we expect personal writing to be about someone's direct personal lifetime experience because we live in a culture dominated by egoism? Is it entirely true that the events which most profoundly shape us happen within our lifetimes?

Maybe we should loosen the grip of our desire to want to "know" a person by looking directly at them and what they do. Maybe we should look more at what comes around them: how they interact with their ancestors, history, the world around them as it exists now. Maybe viewing people less as self-contained artifacts than within the webs of people, places, and stories that make up their natural context would help us be more thoughtful and ethical in the way we turn and see our lives and world.

If I draw a circle, after all, my pencil should never touch the center--does that make the center less clear, meaningful, relevant?

Can we change the way we read to access this different approach to the world?
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