Consider these sentences from the preface of poet Emma Lou Warner Thayne's new book, The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography. "To suggest that a trustworthy Mormon matriarch could also be a mystic may seem a total contradiction in terms. Here is the story of why it is not. I died and I came back."
The 86-year-old Salt Lake City resident, who has been something of a mother figure for many female Utah writers, correctly suggests she doesn't fit anyone's notion of a mystic. There is nothing fey or otherwordly about Thayne. Clouds of incense do not trail her.
On the contrary, Thayne, who has five daughters, exudes a grounded maternal air. Her gray-eyed gaze is direct, her smile reassuring, as she welcomes me into the St. Mary's neighborhood home where she and her husband, Mel, have lived for the past 54 years.
The lines on Thayne's handsome face have been carved by years of sunlight, mountain air and good humor. As a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she gives the impression of a woman whose feet are planted solidly on the soil of the state her pioneer ancestors helped settle.
On the morning of June 28, 1986, while traveling down a stretch of Utah County freeway in the passenger seat of a car driven by her son-in-law, Thayne was struck in the face by a six-pound tire iron that smashed through the windshield.
X-rays revealed that she had eight fractures, a broken jaw and six irreparably damaged teeth. Multiple surgeries and a painful recovery followed.
During her long convalescence, Thayne experienced a deep sense of disassociation from her life, and, even more troubling, from her core sense of self. She uses words like "neutered" and "blank" to describe her default emotional state. She couldn't cry, couldn't laugh, couldn't engage, couldn't feel.
Beyond death • Thayne, who co-wrote a book with her daughter, Becky Markosian, about eating and bipolar disorders, initially wondered if she were clinically depressed. But she'd seen severe depressive episodes, and her own symptoms didn't add up.
What, then, was wrong with her? A young friend named Rachel, whom Thayne describes as a gifted psychic, provided a partial answer: "You are still you, but pastel, pale, and so sad. You are walking very lightly on the earth. You have been to the place of knowing, and you have come back to do something. You have made a promise to tell us about that place of knowing. Until you can do it, the sadness will be there."
Another friend, Sonia Gernes, an English professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former nun, was more direct. "You died," she told Thayne.
This pronouncement resonated with Thayne. Some time between the punishing impact of the tire iron on her bones and the frantic trip to the hospital, Thayne believes she left this place and went to the "place of knowing," an experience she describes in one of her poems: "whatever is there like being held/ in Father's arms/ way beyond Safe/ carried asleep/ from one quiet to another/ all of it a heartbeat ."
Her insights from that experience have informed her work ever since. "I know that there is nothing to fear in death," she says matter-of-factly as we sit together in a den filled with awards and citations. "I know that my mother and father will be there to greet me."
After her accident, Thayne recovered and gained "a sense of serenity knowing that all eventualities, like my father said, will work out," she says. Further, "there are answers that I don't know anything about, and my role is to discover them."
Discovery and connections • That process of discovery drives the narrative of her new book, which, among other things, contains vivid portraits of the people Thayne has met along the way in her capacity as a writer, activist for peace and AIDS awareness, champion of women's and children's rights, former Deseret News board member, English teacher and women's tennis coach at the University of Utah before the days of Title IX.
One of Thayne's defining characteristics is an ability to connect with a range of individuals, from a former justice of the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O'Connor is a friend) to a young Bedouin mother, whom Thayne met on a trip to Israel. She is fearlessly friendly.
Case in point: Long before we'd been introduced, Thayne called me several times to discuss something I'd published.
"Emma Lou is a great influencer of people," says Jennifer Adams, an author and editor with Gibbs Smith Publishing. "She makes you feel you are this amazing person who can do anything. In working with her over the past year or two, I've seen her do this with whoever crossed her path."
Thayne downplays this talent for influence, particularly among members of Utah's writing community. "I meet all these people who feed me," she insists.
Artistic influence • "Emma Lou is my spiritual mentor," says children's writer Barbara Williams, author of Titanic Crossing. Williams jokes that although there is only a three-month difference in their ages, Thayne is years older spiritually.
Thayne's maternal warmth is attractive to fellow writers such as Adams and Williams and Lisa Bickmore, a poet and faculty member at Salt Lake Community College. "To me, Emma Lou has offered everything from a much-needed laugh, to encouragement, to a plate of something delicious and nourishing that generous, motherly spirit."
Bickmore also underscores Thayne's artistic influence. "I fell in love with the poem 'Love Song at the End of Summer,' and it remains one of my all-time favorite poems. It meant so much to me that a Mormon woman, older than me, could speak so powerfully about a life lived in the body that wasn't hostile to the spirit."
Thayne's ability to reach across normally divisive boundaries class, religion, geography, gender is rooted in something more than a grandmotherly friendliness. "Emma Lou is willing to explore realms of thought that aren't easy or simple," says Amy Jameson, a Salt Lake-based literary agent with A+B Works, "but at the same time, her faith is her bedrock."
'Arrival at 86' • Readers should know there is no simplistic confirmation of conventional Christian or Mormon doctrine in The Place of Knowing.
"The pillars of my faith were still intact," Thayne writes of the aftermath of her accident, "but the roof had blown blessedly off the structure to reveal a whole sky full of stars."
How has Thayne's spiritual autobiography been received by the Mormon community? Perhaps it's too early to say. But Thayne, who gave LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson an earlier audio copy, reports he has said on more than one occasion that he "stayed up all night listening" to the book.
What's next for Thayne? She recently blogged for The Huffington Post about her sometimes-misunderstood efforts to pursue solitude in a culture that is famously communal. "I was 54 years old before I ever was away on my own. The devout Mormon culture I grew up in thrives on togetherness. Even in prayer. Attendance at meetings is an index to being attuned to the Gospel. Missionary companions are never alone; they travel two by two day and night. Living an inner life is seldom the topic of lessons or reading. To cultivate both belonging and a need for solitude in the same woman is rare."
Meanwhile, Thayne continues to write about her life as a grandmother and great-grandmother. A recent poem, "Arrival at 86," examines the challenges of getting around physically as one ages.
"You never imagined being here
Searching for hand holds
A fall the danger embedded
In any move from there to here."
Through it all, Thayne strives to follow her mentor Lowell Bennion's advice to "stay in touch horizontally with the human and vertically with the divine."
Ann Cannon is a Tribune columnist and author of books for young readers who also works occasionally selling books at The King's English.
Emma Lou Thayne reading
Emma Lou Thayne, the Utah author of more than a dozen books of poetry, prose, a novel and a new spiritual authobiography, The Place of Knowing, published by iUniverse, will give a reading.
When • 2 p.m. May 21
Where • The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
More • Read her blog entry on Huffington Post. > huffingtonpost.com/emma-lou-thayne
Poem • Look at this story online to read Emma Lou Thayne's poem "Love Song at the End of Summer." > sltrib.com
P For Utah's mommy bloggers, daily life is filled with an endless supply of blog posts: sick kids, bored kids, doting husbands, giving birth and post-pregnancy weight battles, recipes, and, especially at this time of year, the lessons they learned about parenting from their own mothers. Love Song at the End of Summer
It is clear now, body. Every day can be late August,
after the birth of babies, never quite cold.
But one must learn early what you are for forever.
Good old leather tiger, half domesticated
by paws in pans and shoulders hung too often with beaded fur,
you may think I forget. But you do not let me.
By now I know better. I come back.
Still, you never take me not surprised, faithful one,
by how to arrive, and the pleasure of sweat,
and how to shiver away the bee.
You move to the song behind the dance.
Even after a standard, plain white, unstriped day,
you ripple in our sleep and wait, mostly unperplexed.
And when, no matter how faint, the music breathes
behind the catcalls of too much to do, you muster
almost without my inclining, potent as needing to dance,
to pace off the house, the garden of weeds, the clogged creek,
and the midnight clutch of vagrancies. You pad from
some spring, and wild, except for my importuning,
go. To do it all
When we lie down, it will be like the squirrel there,
unflagging in the last swift moving in the leaves,
August stashed in crisp piles above the dust.
I may find no way at all without your sleek taking.
Under the wrinkles that tell you no, I can hear you now
saying, "I still love you," and to time, "Leave her alone."
Source • From Things Happen, Signature Books, 1991