Sunday, September 26, 2021

Frozen Faith


Shortly after Jack and I were married we faced the decision of where he would attend graduate school, and set out to tour the colleges on our list. 

One trip, to Ithaca New York, had me particularly excited. I had never been to New York, and even higher on my bucket list than the Big Apple was a little town in upstate called Palmyra. In my faith, Palmyra is considered a sacred place, and central to our understanding of Jesus Christ. I realized we would be staying just about 70 miles away, and added an extra day to the itinerary.

The morning of our tour we woke to what we would later learn was the worst ice storm New York had seen in over ten years. Flights were grounded, roads closed, and travel advisories flashed across every station on the TV. We would have to be idiots to attempt the drive. 

Which is exactly what we were. Against our better judgement and the stern admonishment of the front desk clerk at the hotel, we loaded up the rental car and hoped for the best.

It was the worst. 70 miles of white knuckling, sliding on black ice and wondering what our life insurance beneficiary would do with their meager payout. Three hours later, somehow, we arrived in one piece.

The site, referred to as the Sacred Grove, was deserted. Not a single car in the parking lot. We walked around and knocked on one of the little log homes, and an elderly guide opened the door. I have visited plenty of historical church sites in my life, and this was for sure the first time I was greeted with, "What are you doing here?"

He said that for the first time as far as he was aware, the Sacred Grove was deemed too dangerous for visitors, and closed. 

And that was that. Rather than spending our much-anticipated visit among the beautiful grove of trees, we got to spend about twenty minutes standing in the parking lot, looking at it from across a field. 

I had seen depictions of the Sacred Grove my entire life, and imagined what this moment would be like. Our visit was in April, which was serendipitous. Surely it would be warm, with streaming rays of light brightening my path. The leaves I imagined would be every shade of green with just enough wind to make them dance. I was certain there would be butterflies. 

Instead I huddled, shivering, in a cement parking lot with the view of a frozen gray storm. Every few minutes a branch would crack under the enormous weight of ice and crash to the ground. My fingers were numb, and I dreaded the drive back. 

According to every circumstance, I should have felt disappointed by the failure of my one and only opportunity. But as I watched those falling branches I instead felt an overwhelming, reassuring feeling of peace and happiness that belied my surroundings. To this day it remains one of my most treasured memories. 

Faith for me never has been the result of circumstance or logic. I learned then and life has confirmed since that faith is what steps in when circumstances fail.

The sun rarely shines down in perfect rays, and butterflies have yet to dance around my head. But when it's gray and cold and I can't feel my fingers, faith in Jesus Christ has been the compensating force that makes bad days better, rough relationships smoother, and even the most unsettling routes somehow worth the journey.


Friday, September 10, 2021

Good Vibes at Valley Forge

My mother’s side of the family are Danas. This is a heritage, I was taught growing up, that brings with it some notable claims to fame. 

Take my great uncle Danny Herrera, for instance, who invented the margarita (true story). He first concocted it in the late 1940's at Rancho La Gloria, his resort in Mexico, where my mom would visit in the summer as a child. To this day my cousins and I all wish each other a Happy National Margarita Day every February 22nd, although as sober Latter-day Saints most of us have never actually tried one.   


Another source of Dana pride is that my grandfather Joe Dana, after whom I and my daughter are named, once fired his gun at an approaching bear who went down on the first shot. Though it was clearly dead, no bullet hole could be found until the taxidermist discovered that it had gone in one ear and out the other. If you don’t believe me, the skin was turned into a rug that has been passed around the family for decades and can currently be found in my sister Jane’s guest room closet. 


But the family lore that made me proudest was that this same grandfather was lifelong friends with the great artist Arnold Friberg, and was the inspiration for the physical build of George Washington when he painted his magnum opus, Prayer at Valley Forge. 





The physique of Grandpa Joe in this painting is unmistakable, particularly the unique size and shape of his hands. 


The president of Friberg Art once recalled a time that the painting was lying on the floor of a printer’s studio when a security guard passed by. He studied it for some time then said, “You feel the prayer in his hands. He got it.” 


I couldn’t agree more. 


George Washington is typically portrayed in heroic fashion and rightfully so, looking like the father of our nation that he is. In my textbooks in school I remember he was always shown overlooking a victorious battlefield, or on the back of a charging horse, or proudly presenting the Constitution. 


But in Prayer at Valley Forge, he is at his lowest. Frozen, defeated, and no doubt weighed down by the responsibility of leading his equally frozen and defeated troops to safety. Fallen to his knees, in a moment of desperation, he pleads with God for help.


Friberg’s Washington looks humble. Prayerful. And by 2021 standards, perhaps a little controversial.  


I wonder, what if modern social media scrutiny existed in 1778, and someone hiding in the snow captured this moment and uploaded it to Twitter. What sort of debate would it spark? Could it have hurt his chances of becoming president years later? 


Possibly. Prayer certainly didn’t help Mike Pence in matters of public opinion while serving in the White House.  Last year, during a meeting of the coronavirus task force, he led the group in prayer. Someone snapped a picture that went viral and triggered a stampede of criticism.  


“You can’t pray this away,” someone Tweeted. “We are so screwed,” wrote another. Honestly, the general consensus of reactions reminded me of Nacho Libre’s sidekick Esquelito when he said, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science," which, by the way, was supposed to be funny. Isn't there room to believe in both?


I don't think Mike Pence was praying to escape his responsibility in the pandemic any more than George Washington was praying as a strategy to avoid confronting the British. I believe that prayer is a component of our efforts, not an alternative to them.


I love the way Pope Francis put this when he said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” 


I think there can be a place in the political sphere for prayer without blurring the lines between church and state, the separation of which is one of our greatest freedoms. Prayer is an incredibly encompassing term. There are limitless possibilities of how a person might pray or to what source, and protections for those who choose not to pray at all. One of the primary tenets of my own faith is the privilege of worshiping according to our own conscience, and allowing others the same - “let them worship how, where or what they may.” 


I just wonder though, how prayer went from a natural expression and condolence we offer one another, to an awkward question of whether offense might be taken. Why people on social media are far more likely to send or solicit “thoughts and good vibes” than they are prayer. 


When you Google "sending prayers," in fact, several of the top search results are lists of alternative phrases you can use that omit the word prayer altogether. Because heaven forbid.


Still, in spite of all the noise, I believe that Prayer at Valley Forge is timeless. I don't know what Washington said in that moment of desperation, but the closest comparison of my lifetime was twenty years ago, watching an equally desperate President Bush address the nation of the evening of September 11th.


I remember sitting on the couch of my apartment in a dreamlike state, haunted by the images I had seen that day, and only beginning to understand how the world and my perception of it had changed. I couldn't imagine the weight on President Bush's shoulders. No amount of eloquence in his address would have been enough to comfort Americans that night. No call for vengeance or promise to rebuild sufficient.  And so he said - 


Today our nation saw evil - the very worst of human nature - and we responded with the best of America.


Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us.” 


Two decades later and more than two centuries after Valley Forge, we are still at times witness to the worst of human nature. And when we are, I'm grateful for a "power greater than any of us," and for the right to say God bless America, and mean it.



Friday, March 26, 2021

(Real) Real Housewives of SLC - Traci

If you live or pass through Herriman Utah, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Corey. And if you’ve seen Corey, there’s a good chance it’s made you nervous. 

To be clear, it’s not Corey himself that will make you nervous. Corey is kind, respectful and soft spoken. But those who see him crossing the road worry for his safety, and for good reason. 


Corey is confined to a manual wheelchair that he pushes along with his feet. His errands, which are the highlight of his daily routine, require him to cross the Mountain View Corridor, a busy highway through which cars pass at an upwards of 70 miles per hour. The time it takes him to scoot his way across the intersection is perilously close to the time it takes the signal to turn from red to green. 


Passersby who notice Corey frequently pull over out of concern, offering to push or give him a ride, but he always respectfully declines.


“Guys, the wheelchair guy has been seen both yesterday and today,” wrote one member of the community Facebook group Herriman Happenings, in February. “He was pushing himself down three inches of snow on the sidewalk and snow blowing sideways. What the heck?” 


Respondents to the post had compassion, but were quick to point out that attempts to assist him had been rebuffed. 


“He does not want help” said one member, “It has been offered many times and he says no.”


“He won’t take help,” said another. “I think he just wants to be left alone.” 


Traci Paoli, a Herriman resident and mother of two, was scrolling Facebook when she came across the post. She had also noticed Corey crossing the street and felt helpless to assist him.  Reading through the thread, it seemed that offering help was pointless. But instead of feeling discouraged, it made her determined.  


“So many people really had tried their best,” she says. “But no one is beyond help.”


This is a lesson Traci has learned firsthand. 


It's been said that challenges come in threes, and if that’s true Traci’s trio began in January of 2013, when her daughter was hospitalized for RSV. After a week long stay they were relieved to return home, when her son also became suddenly ill. What first appeared to be an upset stomach turned out to be a Little League football injury to his abdomen that resulted in a harrowing 28-day hospitalization, including three stomach surgeries and a week in the PICU. 


Grateful that both children recovered fully, the family was barely able to catch their breath when Traci was diagnosed with breast cancer. The year that followed was agonizing, as she faced an uncertain future, along with chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. 


“I know what it’s like to need help,” she says, “but I wasn’t very good at accepting it.” 


Now a seven-year survivor, she has learned to not take no for an answer, and her heart immediately went out to Corey. 


Traci began to ask questions, which led her to connect with other women who had begun the process of seeking help. “She truly took the bull by the horns,” one of them said. “We knew our goals were ambitious, but Traci reached for the stars.” 


While recovering from double foot surgeries, she spent hours on the phone, reaching out to Corey’s mother, who is also in a wheelchair, to asses his specific needs. She also contacted Cypress Credit Union for help soliciting donations, and lobbied Herriman and Riverton cities for greater measures to ensure his safety. 


Then, she said, “Help just seemed to come from the heavens.” An employee of Cypress offered to visit Corey and his mother in their home to assist with paperwork. A representative of National Seating Mobility with twenty years experience also offered in-home help. Harmons Grocery, where Corey shops daily, assembled his favorite products as a gift. A new winter coat was donated, and gloves, and shoes. Another had a custom flag made for his wheelchair to alert traffic to his crossing. 


“It goes to show that people really did want to help,” says Traci. "They just didn’t have the right opportunity.” 


Within a matter of weeks, over $4,000 was contributed, enough to purchase a new, safer wheelchair custom made to Corey’s specifications. His aunt, Colleen Blackburn, says, “To hear that people see him and want to help makes my heart glad. God does answer prayers.” 


When asked about the impact she has had on Corey, Traci is quick to deflect attention away from herself, and shine the spotlight on others who made the effort possible. 


“I grew up in Utah," she says, "so I’ve always known that good, friendly people live here. But I don’t think I ever realized how good or how friendly until this experience.” 


This is how we do it here. 



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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

(Real) Real Housewives of SLC - Dawn & Emily


If you stand in the driveway of Dawn Mangum’s house, you can see roads from all four directions leading to it. It’s a fitting metaphor for the alternative paths by which she has arrived at her life there. 

Eighteen years ago, after the joy of adopting her first child with her husband and plans for a large family, she suddenly found herself as a single mom. “I was alone in a tiny apartment with this baby,” she said. “Working nights, eating Spaghettios, just doing whatever I could to get by.”


To give herself a break, she said she began to “very awkwardly” take her daughter along to church activities for singles, where she said she was lucky to reconnect with Rick, a friend from high school, and the two were married. After a years long-struggle with infertility, her joy was complete when they learned they were expecting a son, and she was able to enjoy a happy, uncomplicated pregnancy.


Two months before the baby was to arrive, Dawn became concerned about his movement, and scheduled an appointment to be monitored. What followed, she said, “was a whirlwind of chaos and shock.” She was suddenly surrounded by teams of doctors, wheeled in for emergency surgery, and “before I could even figure out what day his birthday would be,” learned that her son, whom they named Matthew, did not survive. “My world shattered into a million pieces that day.”   


Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Metehara, Ethiopia, a young girl named Hawi was facing her own whirlwind of chaos and shock. 


She had lost her mother to HIV at age two, and both grandparents by age eight. Sent to live with the family of a step uncle, Hawi endured immense challenges until one night, at age eleven, she found an opportunity to escape, scaling the concrete wall that surrounded the home. From there, she made the brave decision to take a path around a lake which was said by the natives to be haunted, because she knew others would be too afraid to search for her there. 


She then hitchhiked the two-hour ride to her birth city, hoping to find her father. Miraculously, she encountered a friend of her late mother there, who immediately recognized her because of the resemblance, and safely led her to an orphanage. 


Finally out of harm's way, Hawi began to thrive. She is incredibly intelligent, and was soon the top student in her class. English came easily. She would often sneak off to a hut in the middle of the night to practice it by watching American television, where she first heard the name Emily and decided that's she would call herself. Hawi, which means "Hope," is now her middle name.


Emily became proficient as a translator, and for years assisted parents as they came in to adopt. Usually young children. Rarely teenagers. Never her. Now 14-years old, she was just one year away from being aged out of the orphanage with no options for the future. 


By this time Dawn and Rick had gone on to welcome three more daughters. With their four girls and a peace about their son Matthew that came with time, they felt their family was complete. Still, the idea of a baby boy tugged at her heart.


That tugging eventually gave way to an idea, which became a suggestion and then a commitment, and Dawn and Rick found themselves submitting paperwork to adopt a child from Ethiopia. 


Once cleared, she began checking the orphanage’s website constantly, where profiles were displayed of children who were waiting for a family. Firm in her decision to adopt a baby boy, she would quickly scan past girls and teenagers. 


Until one afternoon, when she was clicking through, and Emily's picture appeared on the screen.


“I just froze,” Dawn says. “There was something about her.” Days went by and she could not shake the feeling she had about Emily, but hesitated to tell Rick because it was so far from what they had agreed upon. “I finally texted him at work,” she said. “I was half hoping he would say I was crazy so that could be that, and we could move on.” 


Instead he immediately replied, “I think we should look into it.” 


Two months later they were on a plane to Ethiopia to meet their daughter. Arriving at the orphanage past midnight, she said they expected to see Emily the next morning, but instead found her waiting, anxious and excited to welcome her parents.



Entering a new country and new family at age 14 was a tremendous adjustment for Emily, but her hard-earned strength and intelligence served her well, and she quickly began to blossom. “We love her so much," says Dawn. "She has blessed and enriched our lives far more than we ever could have imagined." Adding, “I don’t deserve any recognition for adopting her. She's the one who’s incredible. We’re just the ones who happened to be listening and answered the call.”



After graduating high school then serving an 18-month church service mission in Georgia, Emily fell in love with the south and is now working in Kentucky. There, she lives close to four others from Ethiopia, seen together in this photograph at the orphanage before their respective adoptions. 





It has been a winding path for Dawn, Emily and the others seen here, and a realization that life is not just the result of roads we chose to take, but the moments they intersect with one another.


This is how we do it here.


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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

(Real) Real Housewife of SLC - Sarah


Sarah Nitta was busy washing dishes when she noticed movement behind her backyard fence. Upon closer inspection she was able to discern a man in a dark hat, and it made her nervous.  Who was he, and what he was doing back there? Eventually she saw him lift a tent, and realized he was homeless and setting up a place for himself and his partner to sleep for the night. A night that would reach 19 degrees. 


She tried to get on with her evening, but couldn’t stop thinking about the couple in the tent. When it got dark, she sent her husband outside to see if they were still there. Their supplies were, he said, but he received no response when he tried to reach out. “Hello? Anyone there?” Nothing.


Sarah wasn’t convinced, so she packed up the enchiladas she had made for dinner into bags, grabbed a step ladder, and headed outside herself.  “I’m not going to lie,” she said. “My heart was racing a little.” She climbed up, called out, and was again met with silence.  But Sarah wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Hi,” she said. “I’m just going to drop down some food, okay?” And then, from the darkness. “Thank you so much. We won’t be here long. We’re just trying to get back to Arizona.” 


Encouraged by the sound of their voices, she asked if they needed blankets, to which two very eager voices replied, ‘Oh yes. Please!” 


By now the temperature was in the twenties.


“When I first went inside I started to look for some dingy old blankets,” she said. “Then I realized how dumb that is. If they steal my blankets they need them! I can always buy new ones, and they aren’t in a position to do that.”


Watching their mother, her children also became eager to help. “They need blankets,” said her 8-year old daughter matter of factly, “And so we’re going to give them blankets.” Together they gathered their nicest minky comforters. “I just hope these keep them warm,” said Sarah, who slept better that night knowing they would too. 


She admits she had some reservations and understands that situations like this require caution, but says she felt an undeniable pull to give what she could. “We never know what brought people to the place they’re in,” she says. “They are someone’s brother or son or mom, and I believe those people are praying for their loved ones to be taken care of that night," she says, adding that she has a cousin in a similar situation and hopes she encounters people who are kind and willing to lend her a hand from time to time. 


Sarah doesn't know what it's like to be homeless but has overcome her own share of struggles, including years of heartache brought on by pregnancy loss and infertility, before growing her family through adoption and IVF. She has also battled debilitating food addiction and completed a 12-step addiction recovery program, ultimately losing over 100 pounds.


Through all of it, she has been open about her struggles and received an outpouring of support, appearing as a contestant on The Biggest Loser, and sharing even her lowest moments of grief with her followers on Instagram. "I have felt seen and loved," she says, "And I do believe everyone deserves to feel that."


Far more revealing of her character however, than reality television fame or thousands of followers on social media, is what Sarah chose to do when she was home washing dishes, noticed cold strangers behind her fence, and no one was watching to see how she would respond.


The next morning she packed up a bag of breakfast burritos and filled two Nalgene water bottles with hot chocolate, which she told the couple to keep and fill with hot water from a gas station to warm their sleeping bags at night. Later, she looked out the window to find that they were gone but her blankets remained neatly folded by the fence, the kindness of a stranger returned. This is how we do it here.


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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

(Real) Real Housewife of SLC - Terri

Every Christmas season, Terri Jensen has an overwhelming amount of presents to wrap. Like, overwhelming. So many in fact, that when her home ran out of room to place all the gifts and wrapping paper, a friend volunteered warehouse space for extra storage.  

Last year the presents totaled a thousand, each of which was hand-wrapped and given to residents of the Salt Lake City area in desperate need - Immigrants, refugees, homeless, the mentally and physically handicapped, and widows with young children. With each gift, Christmas became a reality for someone who would otherwise have received nothing. 

 

Terri never aspired to be the Santa of Salt Lake, but life has taught her to expect the unexpected. An elementary school teacher for twenty years, she was in the middle of fulfilling a lifelong dream of earning her master’s degree, with hopes of continuing on to a doctorate, when her 16-year old daughter Emily was in a car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. 

 

Terri’s life was put on hold as she became Emily’s full-time caretaker. She attended high school with her every day, pushing her to class in her wheelchair, taking notes for her, and adapting and coordinating her schoolwork with teachers to make it possible for Emily to still ‘graduate’ with her peers. 

 

Twenty-two years later she continues to care for Emily full time, and service is a way of life.


Every Christmas since she and her husband Larry were married, they have participated in Sub for Santa. When she began teaching school, she realized there were desperate needs among her students and within the community that she could never alleviate herself. Eager to do more, she and Larry founded “Heart and Hands Sub-for-Santa” to rally friends, neighbors and the community in a giving effort. Since then, she has spent thousands of hours assessing needs and collecting, wrapping and distributing gifts. 

 

In the words of her daughter, Jenny McArthur, “This isn’t a wealthy woman who sits on boards and attends fancy gala fundraising events. This is a woman in the trenches. A woman who cares full time for an adult handicapped daughter, who worked full time as a school teacher for years, and who now in her golden years works full time in the trenches of charitable work year round.” And, she adds, “She is as thoughtful of the one as she is the many.”

 

In addition to her efforts with Heart and Hands, Terri also works with volunteers on Navajo Nation reservations to provide delivery of much-needed supplies, and is actively involved in charitable organizations in Africa. She coordinates thousands of pounds of donations a year to be sent to Zimbabwe, and serves on a committee to help provide equitable schooling opportunities for women there. 


Whoever said that Christmas is how people act the way they should the rest of the year never met Terri Jensen. For her it's not a season of giving but a lifetime, of the kind of gift no amount of wrapping paper could contain.


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I am so excited to share, along with Terri's story, a simple but impactful way to assist her efforts to provide for those who suffer. Because of COVID there is not only a greater need among the most vulnerable this holiday season, it also is easier than ever to get involved.


Terri's "Heart and Hands Sub-for-Santa" has been working with licensed Social Workers to locate individuals with physical and/or intellectual disabilities living at the poverty level. Together, they have determined that the most helpful gift for this community are grocery store gift cards.


The next time you find yourself at the grocery store or online, please consider purchasing a gift card to contribute (Wal-Mart gift cards are best). Donations will be accepted until January 12th, and can be mailed to:


Too Often Forgotten

P.O. Box 159

Clearfield, Utah 84089



Frozen Faith

Shortly after Jack and I were married we faced the decision of where he would attend graduate school, and set out to tour the colleges on o...