The Lower Lights

This weekend we took a trip to the big city. We didn’t tell the kids what we were up to, we just packed them a bag, put some treats into little Christmas sacks, and piled into the van. Once we were saddled up, we told them that we were going to Salt Lake to see The Lower Lights Christmas show at the Masonic Temple.

We’d do a little shopping (we tasted most excellent chocolate and fifty-year-old basalmic vinager at Caputo’s), then see the show. We’d sleep in a hotel and in the morning get breakfast at our favorite little café. (If you have a chance to get breakfast at Pennyann’s Café, you won’t regret it). After that, we’d head home and get ready for the last week of school before Christmas.


The concert was fantastic, especially after five years of listening to their music on Sundays and holidays. If you don’t know who they are, The Lower Lights is a kind of local Utah supergroup of Latter-day Saint musicians who have been making records of traditional hymns in a style I’d call it roots or Americana. Some might call it folk, others country, maybe old-timey. Many of them have their own bands and their own gigs. They aren’t Christian musicians in the traditional sense, and not really traditional Mormons: there were a lot of beards and jeans on stage.

With The Lower Lights there is a wonderful sense of community between the audience and the band. The show was full of foot-stomping revelry, huge layers of vocal harmonies, screaming Telecaster chicken pickin’, ethereal pedal steel guitar swells, good humor, and a reverence for both the gospel music tradition and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Their music is the one of the few times I feel a through line between my faith and art that touches me. I love my adopted church, which I joined in college when many young people are finding their way out of the faith traditions of their familes. Mormon theology is both and ancient and modern, conservative and really trippy, and in almost every way it’s made me a better person than I would be if I was left to my own devices.

I have to say, however, that I really can’t stand Mormon aesthetics. It’s actually more accurate to say that I don’t like Christian aesthetics, which in my opinion, are almost entirely lacking in subtlety. Christian art leaves very little room for me, as an individual, to think my own thoughts or to have my own reactions.  For me, Christian art is almost always a sermon when I need it to be a friend. Art that shares my aesthetics usually doesn’t share my faith. Conversely, art that shares my faith usually doesn’t resonate with me aesthetically. I used to get mad about this. These days, I just realize that it’s not gonna happen, and move on with my life. 


The Lower Lights is one of a few exceptions. There is an earthiness to their music—stringiness and stompitude. Like the spirituals played by blues and country musicians, I get a sense that their love of God is coming from the mouths of sinners like me. They are David dancing for joy. For all the power of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and for all of their technical perfection, I do not feel like I am supposed to sing along with them. With The Lower Lights, it is expected. 

My publisher, Zarahemla Books, is another haven. Folks like Joanna Brooks, the guys in the band Fictionist, the Segullah bloggers, the Modern Mormon Men bloggers, my old Sugarbeet gang: they are all out there being the in the world but not of it. When I feel like there’s no room in the church for a scruffy ex-Catholic now-Mormon fiction writer like me, I look around at these people and my friends near and far, inside of the church and out, and realize an important message we used to sing about at YMCA summer camp: “All God’s critters got a place in the choir/some sing low and some sing higher.”

The Problem with Grups

You hear a lot these days about whining, narcissistic young people. You also hear a little bit about how they aren’t that bad, and we ought to just leave them alone. This kind of discussion keeps the the Huffpost/Slate/Buzzfeed hamster wheel spinning. I guess it actually generates a little bit of power, but quite frankly, I’m a little bored of it all.  


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Last Man Standing

This is a photograph of me, my grandfather, my uncle, and my dog. I have no idea when it was taken, but from the house and my hair I'm guessing it was about 1982.

I almost tossed it into another stack of stuff until I realized that everyone in this photograph is dead, but me.

This was one of those moments you never plan for, because you can't. It's the kind of awareness that hits you over and over again in middle age. I wish I knew more about Buddhism, because their thinking about impermanence is so valuable, and so much clearer headed about change than my own Christian traditions. In fact, everything in that picture has moved on.

My dog went first. I wasn't there. At that time, I was living on an island in the Puget Sound at a YMCA camp. I had a message in my box to call my mother, which I did from the staff phone. I hung up after my mother told me that she found Pongo peacefully curled up in the morning after being mostly miserable for the last few weeks of his life. My step brother buried him in the back yard. 

I wept openly because no one was there. Eventually a man named Steve Spaulding, who managed the camp, saw me crying and asked what was wrong. I sniffed and wiped my face with the back of my sleeve like a little kid and told him my dog had died. He just looked into the trees, pulled me into his arms and said, "Dammit, Todd. I'm so sorry."

Poppa Bob was the next to go. I got the call two years later when I was in graduate school in northern Arizona. My mother said plainly, "Poppa Bob died today, Todd." I remember asking what happened, and she said, "It's taken a long time for him to go, but after we went to see him last Christmas it seems like he felt he could go. Nana says there was a giant double rainbow right over the house. She couldn't see it, but everyone in Chinook did, and it felt like something out of the ordinary was going on."

I felt relieved by the news. Poppa Bob had been sick for a decade or more. At one point, early on, he apparently had some kind of heart attack in his chair, and because he was a physician, he got out his own stethoscope, listened to his own heart, and said to himself, "If I call Lucia, they can get an ambulance here, and they can get me to a hospital in Havre and I'll have a 60/40 chance of surviving, but I'll be a mess for the rest of my life. If I do nothing, I'll be dead in an hour."

He decided to live out the rest of his years as an invalid. There are very few people left in this world who have the character and skills to make choices like that.

Poppa Bob and I spent a day together few months prior to his death, and he went through a lot of old stories about WW II that my mother said he'd never told anyone. He let me go through a bunch of his papers from the military. We laughed a lot. From my position now, I can tell that he knew then that his time was going to come.

On the phone, my mother said it would be really difficult to get me to the funeral, and Poppa Bob wouldn't not have wanted me to leave school. Instead I wrote a eulogy and faxed it up to Northern Montana, which my mother read at the service. I was told that there wasn't room for everyone who came. His life and career was an influential part of that section of northern Montana. Someday I need to tell it.

A few weeks ago, my Mother sent me a text message about my Uncle Steve, which came during a faculty meeting. Again, the message was plain and unadorned.

"Your Uncle Steve died this morning. Details coming." I just sat there, and the words other people were saying broke into pieces and dropped to the floor. My cousin and sister were included in the text message, and their responses buzzed in during the meeting. I don't remember what the meeting was about.

Steve had stroke a year ago, and I thought he'd had a second one, but I learned from another text that he died of diverticulitis, which basically meant he'd died from ruptured intestines, which the doctors told my mother might be one of the most painful ways to die. Instead of getting help, he just lay in bed, suffering until he died.

Steve's story is complicated and pretty messed up. It's not worth going into, but I was, quite frankly, glad to hear he'd passed. It was really better for everyone. We think he knew he would die if he did nothing, so, like my grandfather (his father-in-law) he made a conscious choice about his life. In this case, he chose to commit suicide over the course of three days. His weapon of choice was a run away infection.

All of these thoughts and more broke loose this weekend, when I hovered over this picture. I wondered who in my family would pick up this photograph at some point in the future (I hope decades from now, but who knows) and say to themselves: "Everyone in this photograph is gone." 

How long before everyone in all of the photographs is gone?



I'm Writing Little Essays

For the next little while, I'm going to post a short essay on Sundays, more than anything to retrain myself to get a regular writing rhythm. I'm not so interested in the hustle of publishing like I used to be (was I ever actually "interested" in that, or was it a necessary evil?) but I do like the idea of setting goal and sharing. 

This kind of small-scale stuff is what made me fall in love with writing after I graduated from college, and it's what carried me a long through graduate school and tenure-getting. I had an absolute blast writing the first piece about me and some kids holding gladiator matches with spiders outside of our elementary school. It's been a long time since writing has been fun.

I'll send stuff out through Facebook and Twitter. Eventually, I'll also shoot some stuff over to Medium. Feel free to read, share, or comment. 

The Spider Coliseum


When I was in the seventh grade I walked to school, even though the bus stopped right by my house. It was an embarrassment to take the bus back then. Dweebs took the bus, everyone knew that. We lived in Portland, where it rained all the time, so shunning the bus was ridiculous, as ridiculous as the kids I see now in my mountain home walking through the freezing air in t-shirts. 

Walking to school got us there at various times, and because our teachers would keep the building locked until 8:35, we’d all have to stand outside, wet and cold much of the time. But it was worth it, because my friends were on different bus routes, and we had different home room classes with different teachers, so we never saw each other, except for a few minutes during recess. 

Showing up early was our coffee break.


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