Saturday, November 07, 2015

Dreams of redemption along the Wasatch Front

On Monday morning, we delivered our daughter Annie to a mental health treatment center on the Wasatch Front. After farewell hugs and tears, we sought comfort in the Angel Moroni.

SLC is LDS HQ, as any Rocky Mountain resident knows. Chris and I fought our way through traffic to downtown SLC. First stop – the ritzy bathrooms of Grand America, big brother to Little America across the street.  One thing I’ve learned from attending many events at Cheyenne’s Little America – this chain’s bathrooms can’t be beat.

Our second stop was lunch. We prowled Main Street until we found the longest food line and became a part of it. Long lines mean good food, right? The Robin’s Nest boasted on its window that City Weekly had given the place kudos for its vegetarian sandwich. We were the oldies amongst a gaggle of the working young, all in their twenties and thirties. It was difficult to look at these energetic people and not think of Annie, she of the beautiful voice and passion for all things creative. During the past eight years, she’s spent the majority of her time in treatment centers from Cheyenne to San Clemente. Her body is cross-hatched from cuts by razor and knife. Her psyche wavers between the living and the dead. If I think about it too much, my psyche loses its bearings. Instead, I order sandwiches while Chris finds a seat in the crowded café. I order what I think is “The Robin” after the name of the place but it is actually “The Rubin.” The order-taker corrects me then adds, “It happens all the time. Robin, Rubin – we know what you want.”

I briefly consider correcting the menu’s spelling of the esteemed Reuben sandwich, but decide against it. I don’t want to be the dithering old guy holding up the line.

Chris and I linger over lunch. We eat and watch the people. I absorb the energy and feel a little better on this Monday in Utah.

Our next stop: Mormonlandia. We ride the light rail (UTA TRAX) to Temple Square. We walk by the LDS Family History Library, home of a million stories. Chris and I each have distinctly non-Mormon family stories. But we’ve seen the stage version of “Book of Mormon” and know that the actual Book of Mormon is filled with fanciful tales. We were also raised on fancies and delights. Stories of the saints and martyrs and miracle filled our childhoods. Over my crib, my parents hung a print of the Archangel Michael driving Lucifer out of heaven. During mass, we devoured Jesus’s body and drank his blood. Mary the Virgin gave birth in a manger. Virginity was the guiding principle of every young Catholic until marriage, when we were expected to breed like rabbits. There was magic in this, too, as were expected to know how to procreate without anyone actually explaining to us the mechanics. That we had to learn on the street like any good Christian. Sex ed consisted of convoluted birds-and-bees talk from my father and a sixth-grade lesson from a priest who warned that it was a mortal sin to put our hands in our pockets. Now go forth and sin no more, hands swinging freely by your sides.

It is as easy to poke fun at Mormonism as it is Catholicism. But both build empires out of stories. And at the center of both traditions is faith. Unshakable but also rigid. Faith that can move mountains and slaughter innocents.

I feel that power at Temple Square. The Angel Moroni blasts his trumpet from atop the temple. He surveys his domain and pronounces it good.

Chris and I wandered the Temple Square grounds. We checked out the tabernacle and the temple, which denies entrance to The Great Unwashed. Any old person can visit the Vatican. But that’s the rule here. Volunteers give tours of the grounds and dispense helpful hints to tourists. One Mormon retiree in a bush hat buttonholed us and, after a few minutes, gets to the proselytizing stage. This doesn’t take long among Mormons. It’s at its heart, this push to save humankind even after death. Entire generations can be saved post-mortem, thus the big research library and its branches at libraries around the West.

Once the proselytizing begins, Chris moved away. She has a low tolerance for sermonizing. For me, well, I always think there might be a story in it. Like the one I’m writing now.

But I said thanks but no thanks to the retiree and moved on to join Chris. She is photographing the many statues. Joseph Smith and his brother are over there. I move in betwixt them and Chris gets a shot. We both shoot up at the Angel Moroni but, for some reason, those don’t turn out. Maybe the gold reflects too much sunlight. We may be too far away.

Many of the remarkable events in the Book of Mormon are illuminated in paintings at the LDS Conference Center. Our guide Gary, a retired Xerox salesman, shows off paintings by Minerva Teichart of Cokeville, Wyoming. Teichart may be one of the most prolific of the Mormon painters. She gave paintings as favors to friends and neighbors. She taught art to Cokeville’s many kids, back in the days when Cokeville had many kids. One room in the center is dedicated to twelve paintings by artist Arnold Friberg, the man who later painted the famous work of George Washington kneeling at Valley Forge. LDS Primary President Adele Cannon Howells sold her own land to pay for the paintings because the church was broke – this was the last time that the church publicly pleaded poverty. “Ammon Defends his Flocks,” “Alma Baptizes in the Waters of Mormon” and ten others were featured in LDS’s The Children’s Friend and millions of copies of the Book of Mormon, which is where Cecil B. DeMille discovered Friberg and brought him to Hollywood to paint scenes for “The Ten Commandments.”

Representational religious art is not my bag. But Teichart and Friberg and the rest of the conference center artists were talented people. The paintings tell ripping good yarns and the characters have to be larger than life. The Catholic Church also commissioned lots of art, much of it by masters of painting and sculpture. We know that Catholics also conducted the Inquisition and murdered scores of native peoples in the name of conversion. We also know that the LDS hasn’t been the most tolerant of religions. Just this past week, church hierarchy announced that homosexuals are apostates and their children cannot be LDS members. This comes at the same time that Salt Lake City elected a lesbian mayor. Not surprising, really, in a place that has the seventh-largest LGBT population among the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas.   

Gary concluded his tour with a visit to the roof. This cantilevered building supports several acres of marble walkways and fountains and high altitude forest and prairie grasslands. From here, I can view the mountains and the prairie, the downtown building boom, and airplanes departing for L.A. and Chicago. Gary told us that beneath our feet is the 21,000-seat auditorium that he showed us earlier. I think of falling through the marble and into that gigantic space. One of the Latter Day Saints might scoop me up and lift me to the top of the temple where I can join Moroni in his eternal symphony. Play on, you mighty angel, play on. Faith comes in many forms. My faith tells me that my daughter will find her own faith. I care not if it be Moroni or Jesus, Adele or Mozart, that bears her up on eagle’s wings. 

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