Wonder twin powers, activate!

The first day I met Angela Hallstrom, I got lost.

Well, kind of. She’d just moved from Minnesota to SLC, and on this given morning she was following my van up I-15 en route to Sugarhouse Park, where we and a mutual friend planned to entertain our various preschoolers. All I knew about her was that she had an MFA, a finished novel manuscript, and an elegant name. Impressed by all three, I determined to impress her in return, starting with my caravan-leading skills. But on the freeway, while talking a manic streak with the aforementioned friend, Darlene, who was riding shotgun in the van, I missed the exits to I-215 and I-80, and had to backtrack to the park by taking 21st South. Road construction clogged the way, causing a near standstill. Five minutes passed. Ten. Embarrassed, I checked my rearview mirror and spotted Angela behind me, looking vaguely amused. Five more minutes. Angela’s son was squirming. I feared for my fledgling reputation, then reminded myself that a midwesterner would likely have no clue that we’d taken a maddening detour. Half an hour later, when we finally parked by the geese-laden duck pond, I apologized just in case. Angela smiled benignly and didn’t mention that she’d grown up in the valley. This is one reason to like her.

There are many others. In fact, over the 3+ years since the park debacle, Angela has become one of my most-decorated friends. She’ll kill me if I wax rhapsodic, so I won’t, but there are a few things I must mention: her heart is as expansive as her mind, and that’s saying something.  Her exceedingly good nature charms everyone, including, notably, my misanthropic husband. And she’s one of the few people who can tell me hard things in a way I can hear them; one of the few people who can cue me that, for a minute there, I lost myself. Read more »

happy anniversary

Behold, Segullah‘s fifth anniversary issue.

We’re giving away a thousand copies to readers who begin or renew a one-year subscription to the print edition of our journal. Don’t miss this double-length collection of personal essays, poetry, feature articles, and (for the first time) short fiction that illuminates the concept and experience of marriage from dozens of different angles—some from within the bounds of its rewards and challenges, and some from without. Highlights include essays from Mormon lit mavens Linda Hoffman Kimball and Tessa Meyer Santiago, a short story from award-winning fiction author Angela Hallstrom, and an article by LDS sex therapist Natasha Parker, plus winners and other honorees from our most recent personal essay and poetry contests.

Very Greek.

Andreas Ioannis Kostakos + Ekaterina Pappas + Georgios Petro Linardakis + Christina Kallianes = me, almost 39.

or is it everything?

There’s pizza, and there’s pizza from The Pie.

There’s eating pizza from The Pie, and there’s eating extreme veggie pizza from The Pie. (redonionsmarinatedtomatoesartichokeheartsfetacheesefreshspinach)

There’s eating extreme veggie pizza from The Pie, and there’s eating extreme veggie pizza from The Pie with your favorite person on earth.

There’s eating extreme veggie pizza with your favorite person on earth, and there’s eating extreme veggie pizza with your favorite person on earth sitting outside on one of summer’s last evenings perfectly warm in the shade.

There’s eating extreme veggie pizza with your favorite person on earth sitting outside on one of summer’s last evenings perfectly warm in the shade, and there’s eating extreme veggie pizza with your favorite person on earth sitting outside on one of summer’s last evenings perfectly warm in the shade with the sound of rushing waters in one ear (plaza fountain 10 feet away) and the sound of Thom Yorke in the other (uncannily, singing the track that’d been in my head all day).

Let’s go down the waterfall
Have ourselves a good time
It’s nothing at all
Nothing at all

Doors of perception

Mormons are familiar with this concept of a greater reality being blocked for certain purposes. We believe that our minds are extensively veiled, unable to access the vast majority of what we know (i.e. everything we learned and experienced during our premortal eons of existence). Brigham Young even taught that the spirit world–the intermediary sphere of postmortal existence–exists right here, as part of the boundaries of this earth. We just can’t see it, because it’s veiled.

That elusive expanded reality has been haunting me for months now, especially this week, as my probability drive implodes. I needed the right music to breathe–after a long stretch of raw, scrappy Pixies it was time for something more contemplative. We Shall All Be Healed was on continuous loop for several days early on, John Darnielle being the ideal frontman for resigned, matter-of-fact states of pain, but then I was at a loss. Louder Than Bombs filled the gap until I hit upon the perfect dark horse: Ride’s album nowhere, the melodic wall of dream-noise that dominated the summer of 1991, when Reed was working at DV8 and I’d sit at the bar for hours, amused by various men trying their luck with me, while Reed hauled kegs and tried not to fume. Wonder what we would’ve said if someone gave us a quick peek into our lives 19 years down the line. Now playing, as I sit in the dentist’s reception room while the kids get manhandled by hygienists: Seagull.

You gave me things I'd never seen
You made my life a waking dream
But we are dead
Falling like ashes to the floor
Falling like ashes to the floor.
Definitions confine thoughts, they are a myth
Words are clumsy, language doesn't fit
But we know there's no limit to thought
We know there's no limits.
Now it's your turn to see me rise
You burned my wings, but watch me fly
Above your head
Looking down I see you far below,
Looking up you see my spirit glow.

I don’t know what to make of it all, and at this point I’m not even going to try. I’m realizing more and more that my distress comes from wanting to define the undefinable, pin down what can’t be pinned, decide what can’t be decided, and understand what can’t be understood. Two mutually exclusive realities coexist, and choosing in harmony with one tends to disrupt the other, and no certainty exists except the certainty that both are essential. I’m learning, the hard way, that simultaneously navigating both requires the strictest integrity—the two planes intersect along the thinnest of lines, and even one step out of place lands you in exile. And right steps require right thoughts and right intents and right desires, and while I know and love the taste of rightness, it’s not always what I’m drawn to and drawn by. So the price of living in an expanded realm, of inhabiting and exploring a cube instead of a square, is rigid resistance of the most compelling and magnetic distractions. It’s all yours, God says, iff you play by the rules. Iff, the philosopher’s abbreviation for if and only if.  What I’m so slow to accept is that the rules aren’t arbitrary lines to toe, but incontrovertible laws, determined through the physics which govern the evolution of souls. There are no loopholes. God doesn’t wink from the corner. Consequence is embedded in my choices, and my choices often suck.

But I wouldn’t be where I am, wouldn’t have these doors open, if I were incapable of walking aright.

A perfect waking

Light breezes from the open window and the ceiling fan, air completely dry and silken-gentle. Beneath and on top of the sheet, room temperature resting at the pitch where skin fully relaxes. Sunlight glowing bright, too thin to be hot. Reed got Andrew off to camp at 6 and changed T’s poopy diaper at 7; I opened my eyes and stretched my legs and rolled over and dozed off again. Made that kind of love that only unfolds in the morning hours, still half-dreaming, when pleasure lies right next to you, there for the taking, and the taking is easy, unencumbered by heavy layers of the rational and the daily. Barely escaped the veto of Thomas pounding on the locked door with dismay; we laughed at his victorious chuckles upon admission to the inner sanctum. I might’ve been disappointed at finding myself fully awake if it weren’t for the air on my legs–just a touch too cool–as I walked out of my bedroom, and the half-slice of lemon-sour cream pound cake leftover from last night, and the lingering delight of driving I-215 at sunset with the boys belting out “Fortunate Son,” having just seen my husband in the company of his closest friends, his happiness unfurled like the colors lining our neighborhood streets, tethered to flagpoles so they won’t dissolve into light.

Holy Spirit

It often starts behind the sternum, the heat and the light; sometimes across the shoulders or atop the crown of the head, but usually right there in the center of the chest. Burning. A fist-sized circle glows orange and red and then bursts into flame, like a gas burner igniting in slow motion. Then comes the steady expansion throughout my torso, gas burner on high, orange flames topping the blue, licking my shoulders. The sensation comes in waves, wide as the curves which chart the deepest sound, broad enough to feel the peaks and troughs as they pass. In Eastern art, the lotus flower blooms red-orange squarely above the seeker’s heart. Enlightenment. And this is the form of the lesser power–a gentle blossoming, stable enough to remain through time and space. But when the petals combust they cannot last, only for minutes at a time (lest the heat utterly consume?)–long minutes, though, and sometimes many strung together. The fire clings when I walk, but fades more quickly with movement; in stillness, it remains for as long as it will.

The heat from above and behind feels weaker at first, thinner, originating beyond me instead of within, sometimes topping the joints like electric hands gripping my shoulders; sometimes centering at the top of the spine, sometimes traveling its length. The mantle spreads, sunlight on a turned back. At full strength it fills the limbs and digits and dissolves the membrane enclosing the self, granting deliverance for a few bright moments, a token of things to come.

And every now and then, the heat touches the head first, as if unseen hands are pressing my scalp. As it burns white, I wonder who, or what, is standing behind me, and whether its feet touch ground.


My friend Kristin had a baby last week. Her first. A beautiful, beautiful daughter named Margaret. When I saw the photo I swooned. Now that my baby-making days are far enough behind me I’m free to thoroughly adore the babies of others, whereas a couple of years ago when the transition was still in process I had a difficult time enjoying them. Not because I would wish that the baby would be mine, but because I’d be terrified by the very thought. I’m relieved I can embrace babies again without feeling threatened. Especially now, with Maggie here to love from a distance.

Given my seemingly endless parade of sick kids these days, I’ve been looking for baby gifts online. I stare at the itty bitty caps and the plushy blankets and the soft, pastel-colored newborn toys, and I remember the time so many years ago–seventeen, in fact–when I was preparing for my firstborn’s arrival, and I wonder what Kristin’s initiation as a mother might be like. She’s my age–we were close high school friends–and I can’t imagine having lived all these years outside the boundaries of motherhood. Not because there’s anything inferior or unworthy about such a life, but because mine has been so saturated with babies since the dawn of adulthood that any other path seems fascinatingly foreign. Who would I be today if I’d made different choices in my twenties and thirties? Both Kristin and I have forfeited some experiences in order to have others. Now, at midlife, my friend is just beginning parenthood and I’m finding other meaningful and transformational opportunities for personal growth. I know I wouldn’t change the order of things in my own life if I could; I suspect she wouldn’t either. We’ve both been extremely lucky to have the luxury of choice, as well as the chance to be parents when we wanted to be.

I think of them often, this new mother and daughter just beginning to know each other. I remember the conflicting feelings I had when Elizabeth was born–the transcendent sense of expansion as well as the heaviness of responsibility. Just minutes after her birth it dawned on me that this person would be alive until her life was over, a logically obvious fact that came as a complete surprise. Within a day I gained the uneasy understanding that there are no real breaks in the work of motherhood, that even when the baby slept or was cared for by others I was mentally and emotionally occupied. It was an overwhelming realization at age twenty-one, and I’ll bet it’s equally overwhelming for Kristin at age thirty-eight.

But that daunting knowledge has a welcome flipside. I didn’t really see it until Elizabeth was a few months old, maybe four or five months, and had outgrown her new-baby bewilderment at finding herself in a body on this earth. My mother-love had been constant and fierce from the start, although mixed with plenty of ambivalence and even resentment as I attended to my daughter’s near-constant needs. But as she approached middle babyhood, something amazing happened: she began to emerge as a person. Not merely an incarnation of Everybaby, but a unique human being. She was herself, just as I was myself. And I realized with a deep flush of gratitude that I would have the pleasure of knowing her every day of our lives. It wouldn’t be all pleasure, of course, but at the same time it would be. For somehow, the difficulty and the joy were one and the same.

“She’s always here,” a mutual friend of ours once said when her firstborn was small, and her voice carried a measure of dismay, but also ineffable delight. With four children of my own by that time, I knew exactly what she meant.

And today I’m glad, so very glad, that Kristin will, too.

Delighting in Fatness

A few days ago I wrenched my skinny shirts from their hangers, folded them into a neat pile, and set it on my dresser.

This triumphant act was months–no, years–in the making. Seriously. I cannot overstate my emotional attachment to my skinny shirts, meaning those shirts that only fit properly when I’m eating sparingly and well, and exercising vigorously and often. In other words, those shirts I never wear. Or wear happily, at least. The collection includes a fitted denim button-down, a black Old Navy criss-cross jersey, two shirt-under-sweater v-necks, and a stretchy dark red number that convinced me I was still hot at a critical moment.

I vividly remember the moment of decision I faced that red-shirt year. After having weathered six pregnancies, I was just about ready to forfeit any and all further attempts at hotness. Staring at my young-yet-not face in the mirror, I seriously considered chucking my cosmetic bag, cutting my hair in a short, sensible style, and buying some stretch pants and sneakers. Going unisex, I thought, would be a huge relief.

Then all of a sudden I realized I was only thirty-two. At some future date, hotness would be taken from me whether I liked it or not, so I might as well capitalize on my remaining years of choice. And so, instead of chopping my hair off, I went out and bought a highlighting kit. And instead of buying stretch pants I bought a deep red stretchy jersey top with a v-neck.

I’m wearing that shirt in my facebook profile photo. Notice the look of triumph.

But here’s the deal. I’m now thirty-eight, and counting. A combination of factors have made it difficult for me to properly enjoy that shirt, as well as the other members of the skinny collection. Age, for one: with every passing year it takes more and more effort to maintain my weight, and I’m just not willing to spend more than an hour a day exercising, and I’m just not willing to forfeit refined carbohydrates because they’re one of my chief joys in life. Medication, for another: when I switched antidepressants last spring I gained 20 lbs within 6 months. And check this out: recently I had my first-ever custom bra fitting, wherein I learned that my bra was three (3) sizes too small. Now that “the girls” are properly supported, there’s a lot less room in all of my shirts, and the skinny ones look downright scandalous.

Still, while I haven’t comfortably worn my skinny shirts for a good long while now, I haven’t wanted to let them go. A while back I gathered them up and moved them to the far end of the closet, not the hidden end, but the end I can easily see. There they hung, daily reminding me of an impossible ideal belonging to a bygone era. The sight wasn’t discouraging. Rather, it enabled me to live in a fluffy pink cloud of denial: “Someday soon I’ll wear those again.” In fact, I was so convinced that this would happen that I didn’t worry much about my actual body size or how I would get from here to there. In my mind, being skinny was a present-day reality.

But the other day, the pink cloud parted. Not dramatically or traumatically, which I’m grateful for. But gently and wisely. I just looked at those shirts and thought, “I’m not going to wear those again. Time to give them to someone who will.”

So, yesterday I brought the pile over to one of my close friends who I deeply care about despite the fact that she weighs 50 pounds less than me. I laid it on her kitchen counter without hesitation, and smiled as I thought about how cute she would look in the black-and-white sweater-shirt thing. I drove home in my supersized bra with my muffin top oozing over my denim waistband, and was warmly greeted by a man who, apparently, thinks middle-aged fleshiness is hot.

I’m inclined to agree.

p.s. I kept the red shirt. It might still work, with a jacket.

A Soperific Christmas

Christmas 2009

Fans and Friends:

Don’t look so dismayed. The only people holding a hard copy of this letter are the ones who send us money every year. Console yourself with this Soper e-letter, and remember, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Elizabeth (16), also known as Elli, recently landed a 4.0 and a 19-year-old boyfriend. Mom pretends to be cool with this, although she almost passed out when she came downstairs to the family room and spotted them “sharing” a beanbag chair. Ben (15) continues to progress toward his goal of total world domination, starting with the high school debate team. (Specialty: public policy. Who would’ve thought?) His tournaments require Mom and Dad to moonlight as taxi drivers, but they’re relieved he’s finally putting his arguing skills to good use. Andrew (12) managed to weasel his way out of school for the past month with various illnesses. He’s back in the saddle now, and might even be ready to take up his fencing foil again soon. Every middle child deserves a weapon.

Christine (10) is also back to public school and trying to exercise patience with the other 5th grade girls, whose only interest is Hannah Montana. (Thanks to her sister’s obsession with Japanese anime, Christine’s tastes run more sophisticated.) Meanwhile, Matt (8) stays busy creating new incarnations of the paper airplane and plotting various ways to capture Bin Laden. Apparently, the two goals are somehow connected. Sam (6) is thoroughly bored with first grade worksheets, but loves Mr. Vierra, his super-young, super-cool teacher from Hawaii. Along with Matt, Sam daily invents new ways to dent walls and stain carpets, but his chief pursuit is competing with Dad for the most and best snuggling time with Mom.

As for me, life is a whirlwind at the ripe old age of 4. Mom and Dad were starting to get the hang of my various Down syndrome-related challenges, so this year I ramped up the intrigue with a diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Delay (PDD), an autism spectrum disorder. Each week I juggle two preschool programs and several serious occupations on the home front, including advanced toilet flushing and rhythmic cabinet banging. I recently mastered the alphabet, but I refuse to utter a single word—better to maintain my rep as the strong, silent type.

Mom had a big year with two book releases: Gifts 2 (the sequel to her celebrated Down syndrome anthology), and The Year My Son and I Were Born, her memoir about yours truly. Book marketing in the midst of a recession is not for the faint of heart, but Mom came off conqueror and is looking forward to the upcoming release of Year in paperback. She’s sworn to wait a bit before starting her next book, which is good news for Dad, whose back scratching needs have been woefully neglected as of late. And I think we’d all agree that a man who works 12-hour days, tolerates 7 kids, and spins heavy church responsibilities on the side needs his scratchies.

Well, that’s all the news I’m willing to share through corrupt online communication methods. Only the chosen few get to hear the rest of the story. Repent, and you shall be rewarded in 2010.

Thomas Reed Soper

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The fruit of surrender is grace.

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