Monday, September 24, 2018

Phoenix Song: An Introduction and Some Thanks

I published my second collection of poetry last week. It's called Phoenix Song. 

I really like the cover. The designer, Emir Orucevic, did a great job coming up with imagery that lets you feel the ash even as you watch the phoenix rise.

I haven't figured out yet quite how to talk about the book, except to say in general terms that it matches the cover. I started writing the poems that later found their way into the collection in the fall of 2015, when I'd just gotten the diagnosis of a cancer relapse, and in the years since I've done some burning and rising and thought a lot about the process.

The poems that came out of that vary a lot, though. Two of the book's ten sections are overtly about chemotherapy. There's also a section made up entirely of true stories from my own recent experience at Church as part of a ward. And there are some direct responses to recent events in terms of treatment of migrants, etc. But sometimes, to wrap my head around our reality, I had to bend it or transcend it: there's also a section of alternate histories, a section with a poem exploring each of the virtues listed in D&C 4, and several pieces right along the line between poem and prayer. 

I didn't draft an introduction or end notes to this book, which was a mistake. I owe thanks to a lot of people for this work. Of course, I owe a lot to my immediate and extended family, who helped me through the last few years, and to my wife, Nicole Wilkes Goldberg and brother, Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood, who helped review drafts and kept me company through the really boring publication prep part of the process.

I also owe some specific thanks to members of the Mormon Lit community for giving me occasions to produce.
Eric (aka Theric) Jepson once invited me to do a simple devotional poem exchange, where we each came up with one piece to send to the other person. Mine was "Reach for Me."  Theric also shared a call for submissions for a Jewish alternative history anthology. That project never came to fruition, but two really strong poems in this collection come from his willingness to think of me and pass on that challenge.
This May, Darlene Young organized an event called "MoPoWriMo" (Mormon Poetry Writing Month) where a group of us committed to write a Mormon poem every day for a month. I think I made it to 27 out of 31...some of those were not great, but many others are included here. I doubt the collection would have come together without Darlene's challenge and organizational work.
And the closing poem comes from my review of William Morris's short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. I don't normally resort to poetic imagery in book reviews , but William's work has helped call my generation of Mormon literary writers to a higher standard, so I'm kinda not surprised that happened.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018


It's Yom Kippur. I've written here before about the ashamnu prayer, a traditional prayer of confession for the day. Just went over it again and was struck by how much it means to me right now.

One of the challenges of life in an era where we have so much access to information, so much capacity to weigh the consequences of sin, is to be able to do so without recoiling. To protect ourselves, we so often try to separate ourselves out and put them blame for the existence of injustice on some other group we do not belong to, in a self-deceiving attempt to avoid accountability.

The ashamnu prayer calls us back: invites us to stand, instead, to account. We, as humans, sin. The religious and the irreligious. The liberal and conservative. The privileged and the marginalized. And perhaps we can only truly reckon with sin by facing it in humility together.

And so, in troubling times, I say along with generations:

Ashamnu, Bagadnu...
We have sinned. We have dealt treacherously.

Gazalnu, Dibarnu dofi, He'evinu...
We have robbed. We have spoken slander. We have acted perversely. 

V'hirshanu, Zadnu...
We have done wrong. We have acted presumptuously.

Hamasnu, Tafalnu sheker...
We have done violence. We have practiced deceit.

Yaatsnu ra, Kizavnu, Latsnu...
We have counseled evil. We have spoken falsehood. We have scoffed.

Maradnu, Niatsnu, Sararnu...
We have revolted. We have blasphemed. We have rebelled.

Avinu, Pashanu...
We have committed iniquity. We have transgressed.

Tsararnu, Kishinu oref...
We have oppressed. We have been stiff-necked.

Rashanu, Shichatnu, Tiavnu...
We have acted wickedly. We have dealt corruptly. We have committed abomination. 

We have gone astray.

We have led others astray. 

And today I pray:
O God of Israel, who led our ancestors out of Egypt and showed them their own shortcomings in a promised land, have mercy on us. 

O God, teach us to acknowledge ourselves among the transgressors. Give us strength to face the persistent of our guilt.

And God of Israel, guide us: as we learn to bind up what we've broken, to gather what we've divided, to rise (step by tiny step) above the sins we've lived with for so long.   

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Dealing with Darkness (Sacrament Meeting Talk)

On the border between Montana and Idaho, there’s a scenic bike route called the Hiawatha Trail. I’ve never been there, but I read about it in a General Conference talk. (Don’t judge me for that. I don’t get out much.)

This trail is built on a former railroad line, so you follow the train tracks through the mountains and it’s supposed to be really beautiful. You ride, at times, across narrow bridges over deep canyons, giving you a view that’s either breathtaking or hyperventilation-inducing, depending on how you feel about heights. You really get to know that mountains. Other times you go through these long, dark tunnels that open up onto stunning vistas of Montana’s signature big sky. And it’s supposed to feel just great.

Elder Vern P. Stanfill of the Seventy went once. He told the story in his October 2015 General Conference talk. He admits that even though people tried to warn him, he didn’t really understand how long and dark some of the tunnels were until he was deep enough into one to realize he did not have a great bike light. I want to read you a little bit of his description of how he felt when he got deep enough in the tunnel that there was no daylight left behind him and none in sight ahead:

“Suddenly I began to feel anxious, confused, and disoriented,” he says. “I was embarrassed to admit my anxieties to my friends and family. Although an experienced cyclist, I now felt as though I had never ridden a bicycle. I struggled to stay upright as my confusion increased.”

Brothers and sisters, I think life is like the Hiawatha Trail: we’ve all been warned there are dark tunnels we have to go through, but thinking about them from the outside is different than being stuck in the middle.

And so today, as we’re speaking in this sacrament meeting on the theme of light, I’m going to spend most of my talk dealing with darkness. Because it’s a condition we all spend some time in. A few of you may be there now: I hope I get enough right in my description that you can feel a little less alone. The rest of you have been or will be stuck sometime in the middle of a long dark tunnel—and maybe something I say will stick with you a little bit next time you’re there. There are going to be things in life that shake us. Some of them are also going to shake our faith. You can’t avoid that, but you can face the feelings that being stuck in the dark brings. And learning to face the anxiety is often the first step to getting past it.


So what is it like to feel swallowed up in the darkness?

Let’s go back again and spend some time with Elder Stanfill’s description. When something in life shakes you, it’s natural to feel “anxious, confused, and disoriented.” It sucks, but it’s natural.

When you’re in the middle of a major trial, it is also natural to doubt the very things that are supposed to get you through. For Elder Stanfill, it was that bike light: it wasn’t as strong as he thought, and so in the moment the thing he’d counted on to guide him wasn’t sufficient. In life, the times we doubt our testimony are often the times we need it most. When we’re struggling, the wattage is just not high enough.

And—this is an important truth we don’t always acknowledge—like Elder Stanfill, you are probably not going to want to talk to friends and family when that happens. Maybe, like him, you’re embarrassed. Or maybe you’re defensive: feeling like they can’t understand and you don’t want to hear them tell you to just get over it.

Like Elder Stanfill, you might also find yourself disconnected from your own past. When he was describing his experience, he didn’t just say it was hard to ride a bike: he said he felt like he’d never ridden a bike before. In life, I call this a spiritual or emotional eclipse. Sometimes the trouble before you is so all-encompassing that no past experience can seem to get around it. Even if you remember the facts, you can’t always remember the feelings that let you be anchored and stable. That’s a real thing. No quantity of past experience can get us through the dark passages of our life because the pain of the present can block them almost entirely out of our minds.

And when you’re in that partial or full spiritual eclipse, it’s going to be tough to stay oriented. Elder Stanfill said it was hard to keep his bike upright. And for us, there are some many voices in the world that when our anchors start to fade, it’s hard to know what to hold on to.

So what do you do? If you’re shaken in a way that’s left you feeling isolated from your loved ones and your own past, how might you react?

Common First Reactions

It’s going to be tempting, first of all, to just blame yourself. And that never helps. Taking responsibility can, but there’s a difference between responsibility and blame.

If you want to understand that difference, try two things for me. First, take a deep breath. Now punch yourself in the eye.

You may laugh, but most of us have done that. We get in trouble and our first thought is: I feel like I should be better than this. I feel like I shouldn’t be struggling like this. So we beat ourselves up, and we make it worse.

Another thing that’s tempting to do when you’re in the middle of trouble and you feel like life has never been good is to seek out people who feel the same way, who are also disoriented in the dark. And that’s totally understandable. We want to be understood. We’re going to be drawn to that. And yet at the same time, it can be really risky, because if you feel panicked on your own, having a bunch of other people freaking out around you is not going to help you calm down. But, especially in the age of the internet, that’s a tempting way to deal with darkness. We look for people who know how we feel whether they know how to guide us forward or not.

Doubting your Doubts

President Uchtdorf’s advice for what to do when it feels dark, when you feel shaken, is to doubt your doubts before your doubt your faith. One reason I think that’s good advice is because it gives you room to admit you’ve got some doubts. And that’s an important thing to do if you’re going to get through them. Think of a broken bone: if you walk around forcing yourself to act like everything is fine, it’s gonna get worse. You need to give yourself a chance to feel what’s tender and to protect that a little bit. Maybe let the rest of your body carry you while the broken part has time to heal.

For spiritual and emotional wounds that leave you anxious, you can tame your feelings a little just by naming them. It’s OK to take an inventory and figure out what exactly is injured without self-blame or shame.

So when you’re struggling, ask yourself what exactly is broken. You can often break it down and be more precise than we’re used to being. We tend to think of a testimony as just one thing, but when I’m struggling, it helps me to think about the different parts. When we bear testimony, I think we’re actually getting at four related things we want God and the gospel and the Church to be.

We want our religion to be true. We want it to be good. We want it to feel possible. And we want it to feel personal.

Let me take a few minutes to go through each of those things.


“I know the Church is true” is something we often hear when people bear testimony. If you think about it, it’s sort a strange turn of phrase: “Church” is not actually a true/false statement. But truth is definitely something we expect from religion. When we say we want the Church or the gospel or a specific claim to be true, we probably mean it’s something safe to hold onto. I actually think that when we say want religious truth, we want a little more than truth. Something can be true and still misleading. We want something that goes beyond that, something trustworthy.

But when you say it like that, maybe it’s easy to see why this can get tough. When someone says “the Church is true,” it’s easier to nod along. If you say, “do you believe the Church is trustworthy?”—maybe you can see why there’s times when that’s tough to feel as secure about.

I believe God is 100% trustworthy, but I hear from him through human filters—whether that’s the words of the prophets or the filter of my own mind—and those filters are not 100% reliable. And so there are going to be misunderstandings and there are going to be mistakes and times when trust is strained. Maybe it’s a time when a leader has a genuinely inspired goal, but kind of sloppy implementation. Maybe it’s a time when a teenaged way of thinking about a gospel principle doesn’t hold up to the complexity I’m starting to see in the world as I age.

Like the apostle Paul says in the scriptures, “Prophecy shall fail. Knowledge shall pass away.” Sometimes we’re going to be disappointed by the ideas we’ve held onto or the leaders we’ve looked to for guidance. And especially if we’re already struggling, that can hurt. But it’s not the only part of a testimony.


We also want God and the Church and the gospel to be good. But that, too, can be tough to believe sometimes when things are difficult.

I remember one night in the hospital during my cancer treatment. I had neutropenic fever, which is how your body responds to an infection when you’ve got a severely compromised immune system, at the same time I had a bunch of other uncomfortable chronic symptoms. I felt like my body was falling apart and I remember thinking, “OK, Lord. I know and I’ve accepted that life is supposed to be difficult, but how difficult?” I can accept some eggs have to get broken to bake a cake, but it’s getting hot in here and I’m pretty sure you’re gonna burn this one. And I remember the scripture coming to mind where God says he’s going to refine us as gold in a fire, and I thought. “Oh shoot. That’s a little bit hotter than I was counting on.” I can still believe that this is good, but it’s a strain.

There are going to be times in life when we wonder if God is really good. And there are going to be plenty of times when we wonder if the Church is good. And the pure gospel is good, though the garbled form in which it exists in my head at any given time might not always be good without some refining.

So there are things that can shake us. This happens all the time. Maybe it’s a political thing you have strong feelings about and it shakes you to wonder whether a Church stance is good. Maybe a past mistake, something in the Church’s history, that wasn’t good, quite frankly. And you wonder: is this Church as whole still good? Maybe it’s something dysfunctional in your own ward or family and it’s hard to see that the Church is good somewhere out there when you’re not feeling it close to you.

I think it’s interesting, though: I’ve watched people, who in their struggles, are able to play their connection to the true and the good off each other. In times of struggle, they’re able to hold on to one aspect of testimony long enough to reconnect with another. I’ve got an uncle who used to say, “I go to the Church for the Lord, not the ward.” And that was his way of saying that he couldn’t always see how the ward, the Church around him, was good, but he knew it was true and could hold on to that. Sometimes for me, I’ve got to admit, it’s the opposite: it’s hard for me to track what is true and what I can hold onto—I’m philosophical and I run in circles in my head—but if a ward member walks up to me and talks for a few minutes, my eyes are opened to recognize the good in them. And I trust that the source that got them there can work for me, too.


That trust—that something which works in theory or in another person’s life can also be accessible in my own—is its own aspect of testimony. It’s one we often undervalue, but it’s vital. Our religion is not just a series of observations about the divine: it’s fundamentally about our relationships with God and each other. And so it’s not just a clean list of eternal facts: it’s an intensely personal day to day discipline. We all need to believe not only that the gospel is true and good but also that we can do it.

That we can rise when we fall—or at least let ourselves be lifted. That we search and ponder and go and do and mourn and comfort and repent and be refined. And we need to be able, in the midst of everything else, to look forward and imagine ourselves doing the daily work of discipleship for the rest of our lives.

And there are going to be times in your life when you’re not sure that you can anymore. When your ability to imagine yourself putting one foot in front of the other is strained almost to the breaking point. Earlier in this meeting, Sister Carvalho spoke about times when as a parent there’s a lot going on and you haven’t slept enough and you just wonder if you can make it. And the doubt isn’t about the ideal and whether it’s valuable or correct—it’s just about what it feels like it will take to reach the finish line.

I think all of us have been a person or known a person where that was the part of a testimony that shook. That part about whether I, individually, can make it. And there are times when that’s the struggle, that’s the darkness we’re dealing with.


In a religion centered on relationships, wondering whether the demands of the gospel are possible is not the only concern our own sense of self plays a role in. At a fundamental level, we also need to feel connected to God and the gospel and the Church on a deeply personal level.

We have a need to feel like we belong, like we can be ourselves and disciples at the same time.

And it can be tough when that gets shaken. We sometimes dismiss concerns about belonging when they happen to others and say, in effect, “if you feel like you don’t fit in, suck it up and get over it” or worse, “if you don’t feel like you fit in, go somewhere else.” We sometimes assume that if you believe the Church is true—whatever that means—you can set aside your need for belonging for the sake of belief. But trying to keep the faith without finding a way to own your place in it is about as practical as dealing with an allergy by fasting for the rest of your life. In some ways, identity-level questions about how and whether we belong can be the most challenging of all.

I think of the prophet Elijah, who knew what was true more firmly than any of us do, who knew God is good, who knew that he had been totally personally faithful in the face of intense opposition—and yet he still told God, at one point on a mountain, that he felt so alone he just wanted to die.

And if Elijah the prophet could get there, then brothers and sisters, we can too. It’s hard to feel cut off, hard to hold on long enough to find a new way to think about how we fit. God’s kingdom has a place for each of us, but it takes real work to find it. We might, at times, have to make it through some dark passages to get there and I can only hope that acknowledging that the struggle to find your place matters helps ease the panic you might feel as you work your way forward toward the light.

Reaching Out

At different times in my life, I have wondered whether the Church or the gospel or God himself was trustworthy or good, when I’ve wondered whether my religion was possible or whether I personally belonged. Fortunately, I don’t usually doubt all four of those things with equal force at the same time and I can hold on to one while I work through another.

That’s how I doubt my doubts. I feel my way to the things I can hold on to while I sort through the things I’m struggling with. I might rely on the goodness of another person or go back to one treasured truth. I might depend on my own confidence if I’ve got it or remind myself that I belong no matter what—that I’m always a Mormon even if I’m not always great at it.

And during that process of sorting and rebuilding and healing, I allow myself some frustration and pain.

It’s OK to be scared or worried or angry. It’s OK to let the people we love be scared and worried and angry when they’re struggling. It’s OK to be shaken.

But my promise to you today, brothers and sisters, is that if we can still reach out through the darkness, in our pain, the Lord will be there for us.

I’d like to close with a poem. It’s one I wrote about Peter the apostle and what I’d like to ask him about making it through disorientation and anxiety when you don’t know where to stand. This poem’s called “How You Knew”:

Tell me if you remember
when the ground beneath your feet
still seemed solid

Tell me if you remember
when the things you knew
still seemed sure
and sound

Tell me
if you remember
what it felt like the very moment
when you looked down
and saw the words you’d trusted swirl
and churn

Tell me
if you remember
how the wind had just whipped up
how the breath caught in your throat
how your muscles all tensed and spasmed
how your body prepared to drown

Tell me
how you walked on water
Tell me how you knew
though soaked with terror
to cling to the Master’s hand

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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