Music, when Soft Voices Die


Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap’d for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
–Percy Bysse Shelley

I didn’t know Emma Lou Thayne very well. I didn’t know her much at all, except through her writing. But she found me one day, called a couple of people to get my phone number and called me up out of the blue. She said “Hello, it’s Emma Lou,” and I think my voice went up four octaves as I squeaked out “Emma Lou THAYNE???” I had recorded a radio interview a few days before, my first ever, and it was pretty bad. I was nervous and emotional and sounded kind of dumb, but worse than that, I was disappointed in myself because I had failed to take sides–in a conversation about President Boyd K. Packer’s now infamously-redacted talk on homosexuality, I had neither ardently defended President Packer and the Church, nor had I denounced his remarks as forcefully as I thought perhaps I should have to be a valuable ally to the LGBTQ community. I had cried a little, thinking and talking about President Packer, and how difficult it must have been for him to allow the blunt force of his words to be muted a little. I did not want to feel that way; I wanted to be angry, to enjoy a moment of clean outrage.

I don’t remember much of what Emma Lou said, only that she had noticed the wobble in my voice. “It hurts, doesn’t it?” she said, “to feel for both sides?”

She would know. I confess that when I was younger, I did not always like her writing. I loved some of her poems, but some of them, and especially her prose pieces confused me–they seemed not to contain arguments, and they often didn’t move neatly from one place to another. They circle and hover, even fuss a little sometimes, tenderly. I’ve only lately started to appreciate the ways that this gentle worrying with words, through and over and around a problem or a question, opens up space for peace in the midst of a tangle. It’s easy, running back and forth across the linear proofs, parrying the thrusts of argument, to get backed up against a wall, or fall of a cliff; sheer logic can leave us no place to stand, no place to rest. Emma Lou’s words so often made space, opened a window, made breathing room for irrational, mystical, divine humanity. Few titles fit their books as well as “The Place of Knowing” fits her spiritual autobiography.

That day on the telephone, she made a little room for me to forgive myself for not being able to take sides. And all her life, it seems to me, she was showing us that the gentle voices matter, even if we don’t hear them in the noisy fray. Especially when we don’t hear them. I will remember her, and try to use words to make space for loveliness.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this beautiful remembrance. I’ve noticed that same tendency to circle and hover, tenderly, in your own writing (like in your “For Louisa” essay), and I think it’s a good counterbalance to the occasionally false certainty of more argumentative modes, while offering a warmer, gentler mode of “knowing.” The opening of space and making “breathing room for irrational, mystical, divine humanity” is charity at its truest. By all means, carry on in your attempts “to use words to make space for loveliness”: they bless us all.

  2. Rest in peace to a great poet and a great Mormon. I wish I’d known her better.

  3. Gorgeous, Kristine. Thank you.

  4. What a huge loss for our community. This is beautiful Kristine.

  5. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I knew Emma Lou Very well, and I wish I could find a way to write about all our times together, her influence on me, her wonder at life, her willingness to share. She raised money for my Bennion book; Mel sold my parents’ house; her daughter lived with me for a time; we laughed often at our silliness; we stayed at each other’s homes; she joined me in Ireland; we talked poetry; we celebrated our birthdays–they were the same week. She called me two weeks ago.
    Goodbye my mentor and friend–we will meet again soon.
    Mary Bradford

  6. Molly Bennion says:

    Dear Mary,
    Hopefully not too soon. One such huge loss is quite enough for awhile.
    Molly Bennion

  7. What a wonderful tribute, Kristine! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for continually writing and speaking in such a way as to honor her legacy.

  8. Thanks, Mary. If you do find a way to write those stories, we’d love to hear them.

  9. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I have these further thoughts:
    Emma Lou was a magician. Everything she touched turned to gold, every experience whether it was death or birth or everything in-between, she learned by it and blessed others with it. A life-threatening accident was mystical, Her honors gave her a chance to found service organizations. Sorrows became poems. She didn’t need the Priesthood since here own innate and god-given authority was enough to reach every soul. I am so grateful that she sprinkled her gold dust over my life.

  10. Like Steve – I second the request – Mary please write the book. I have said other places she was one of the special/unique women we need to keep as role models, if you could capture her for us, they may help us on our journeys.

    Kristine – I have always loved your touch, your written and spoken words, as well as your musical touch that you bring to my life. Beyond those I have in my life a moment where you and I met, spoke and shared “sister talk”. I carry that in my heart almost daily. Emma was a bright light, a women whose hymn alone, absent all her other writing, keeps me going on dark days. You likewise are a tremendous light to me and your work, style, love does the same for me. Thank you for being a voice about her, and for me.

  11. Mary–thank you for sharing here. I think an essay about your friendship would be a lovely thing to have in Dialogue :)

    Carrie–you’re so kind. Thank you. I get so many things wrong; it’s nice to know that I at least occasionally get it right in ways that matter :)

  12. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I am gobsmacked as they say in Ireland at the kind remarks about me. Of course, Kris, I would love to write about our Wonder Woman
    Mary

  13. Cynthia Sillitoe says:

    Kristine, thank you for sharing this story. It actually made me laugh because it’s just so Emma Lou. She was extraordinary and I will miss her terribly, though every time I break down in tears, I hear her chiding me, “Cynthia, don’t waste all that good salt water on me!”

  14. I am please to say that I have a lovely essay by Emma Lou that will be included in the second volume of my Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons that I am putting the finishing touches on for Signature. I think everyone who loved and admired Emma Lou will be pleased. She was, as they used to say, “Quite a gal.”

  15. Brother Rees – thank you for adding her and for putting out a second volume of Why I Stay, those books and essays mean a lot to me.

  16. You will be happy to hear that all of Emma Lou’s grandDAUGHTERS were listed as honorary pallbearers at her funeral today. So perfect!

  17. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Kris–If you meant it when you said I could write of Emma Lou, when would you need it?
    Love,
    Mary

  18. Mary, check your email :)