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The Believer

A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.

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My only mission, my mother told me, was to keep her praying a secret. I was seven years old at the time, which is roughly when my father declared that God was no longer welcome in our home. I was too young to understand; as far as I could tell, Dad had simply had enough of Him. Mom’s appetite, on the other hand, was insatiable. A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, her faith had always been earnest. Recently, however, it had taken on a desperate and unnerving quality. She decoded divine communications in the most mundane occurrences—God timed the streetlights and directed the play of shadows on the sidewalk. Considering the sheer quantity of time Mom spent on her knees, hands clasped and eyes closed, biting my tongue was a full-time job. Unfortunately, my secret-keeping abilities were limited by my lack of focus. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

Before he fell in love with Mom, my father had been a believer, a descendant of Mormon pioneers, a man of prayer and devotion. By the time I was born, he had stopped attending the Mormon chapel around the corner from our suburban Salt Lake City home. By the time I accepted Mom’s mission, Dad had begun to see faith as a resilient weed, and he wanted it out by the roots. One evening, I ran downstairs to the basement to find Mom kneeling, once again, by my bed. Rather than disturb her, I headed back to the living room and engrossed myself in a book. Dad peered from behind the newspaper, suspicious of my quick return. He asked where Mom was. My eyes remained fixed on my reading material, and I simply told him, “She’s downstairs praying.” Later, after the yelling, I met Mom by the medicine cabinet, where we took our daily doses—fluoride for me, Haldol for her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I forgot.” Her response was measured and forgiving, but I can still feel the weight of her disappointment as she said, “You’ll just have to remember next time.”

I don’t remember any next time. One night in late May of 1985, shortly after my eighth birthday, Mom walked out the front door and didn’t come back. Two weeks passed before police found our Ford Galaxy, locked and neatly parked at a trailhead in the Uinta Mountains, near the Wyoming border. Reaching elevations of 13,000 feet, the Uinta range is the highest in Utah, white-capped well into June. For the next two weeks, while I sat at home pretending everything would soon return to normal, a group of police officers, family, and friends searched the primitive area on foot and on horseback, calling her name, peering under the bushes, slowly losing hope.

Dad explained her absence to my sister and me. “She’s not thinking well,” he said. Later, I don’t know exactly when, I heard him utter the word he’d been keeping secret for many years—”schizophrenia.” That’s what the Haldol was for. He would eventually tell me about a previous incident, when Mom had driven 350 miles to Winnemucca, Nevada, crashed the car, and been taken into police custody. Later the next night, after Dad brought her home, she snuck out of their bed and headed again to the driveway. Instead of leaving, she put the family pickup truck in neutral, released the emergency brake, ran to the end of the driveway, and lay down in the vehicle’s path. She wanted the truck to roll over her head; she misjudged the angle and broke her pelvis. Psychiatrists diagnosed her the next day.

Throughout my mother’s psychiatric saga, Dad’s routine had cycled between hope and despair, the antipsychotic medications keeping time. They all worked wonders, until they didn’t. Inevitably, Mom would lose herself again, going AWOL for days, confusing herself with God, Satan, and most everything in between. Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder marked by delusions and hallucinations, often of a paranoid nature; Mom’s were almost entirely faith-based. The world she inhabited was ever on the verge of ending. God was always at the window, sending secret messages. One night, waiting in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, Mom turned to Dad and, apropos of nothing, said, “Jesus Christ will come by dawn.” In the chilling shade of Mom’s twisted beliefs, Dad’s own faith withered. The more Mom became God’s instrument, the less Dad had any use for Him. By the time Mom disappeared that day in 1985, my father was devoted to the visible, the certifiably nondelusional.

But somehow my mother gave to me what she stole from my father: faith. Today, sitting in my Denver apartment, 20 years and several hundred miles away, I’m still trying to make sense of that faith, the seemingly foolish decision to accept what so many others find ridiculous—to believe in things unseen, things I hope to be true.

It’s a Tuesday night in late January and Elder Littlewood is crammed into the passenger seat of my Honda Civic as we motor through a blue-collar neighborhood southwest of Denver. Littlewood, a burly 20-year-old from a small town outside Boston, joined the Church a few years back. His right-hand man, Elder Nunes, is folded into the back between the door and the baby seat. Twenty-one years old and rail-thin, Nunes is from Texas, where he was born to faithful Latter-day Saint parents. “Elder” is a title used by LDS missionaries—and like most missionaries they will spend a dozen hours a day for a total of 24 months, annoying many but helping some. They have been sent to Colorado and Wyoming, where they usually set out by foot or bike. They’ll wear a suit and tie. They will carry the Book of Mormon and the Bible. They’ll knock on doors and stop people on the streets. “Hi, we’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Every so often, someone will invite them in.

We’re on our way to the home of a recent convert, a single mother of two, who, along with her sister, was recently baptized after several weeks reading the literature, coming to church, and listening to Littlewood and Nunes. It’s a routine checkup, with me, an LDS veteran, serving as transportation and sidekick to the two elders. We’ll ask the two women how their prayers and scripture study have been going. We’ll share a message on Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. We’ll also share our “testimonies”—summaries of things we’ve studied, prayed about, and accepted as truth. “The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, contains the word of God,” I’ll tell them. “Jesus Christ was God’s son,” Nunes will add. We are following, to some extent, an example from the Book of Mormon, which describes a church whose members “did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.” It’s the sort of thing that is so easily parodied that I’m already wondering if my description is a disservice.

As we pull into the women’s driveway, I field pleasant flashbacks from my own mission a decade ago. In a series of small towns in central Chile, I worked remarkably hard to produce gatherings precisely like this one. They were, in all seriousness, my idea of a really good time. As we went about shoring the faith of our new converts, the heavens seemed to open, the spirit descended, and doubts—about God, the Church, the strength of our individual commitments—scattered like cockroaches when the lights come on. At such times it was no mystery what Mom had been seeking all that time on her knees. But I would wonder how my father could have turned away.

Some of our converts turned away, too. One day they would stop answering their doors. We’d see them sneaking out the back, peeking from behind the blinds. Embarrassed and disappointed, I would sulk for hours as I tried to understand what had gone wrong. I would return time after time to knock on their doors, hoping for some reassurance that the feeling had been mutual, that I hadn’t imagined what we’d shared.

Tonight in the Denver suburbs, the women welcome us with smiles. On the kitchen table is a copy of the Book of Mormon. During a previous visit, I told them I considered the book to be exactly what it claims to be—a record of ancient Christian prophets on the American continent, the story of Christ’s visit to the Americas after his crucifixion in Jerusalem. I was serious, and they took me seriously. During another visit, Nunes and Littlewood had explained how Joseph Smith first kneeled and prayed in a small forest outside Palmyra, New York, in 1820. He looked up to see one celestial being pointing to another, saying, “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!” Ten years later, Smith and five acquaintances founded the Church of Jesus Christ (the words “of Latter-day Saints” were added later). He claimed it was a restoration of the institution Christ founded during his mortal ministry. Today Mormonism is one of the newest world faiths, with over 11 million members. In the United States, it is the fifth-largest church, behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of God in Christ. In Colorado, LDS membership has jumped from 82,000 in 1985 to 128,000 in 2005.

Despite the statistics—and my own acceptance—I’m awed by the women’s decision to believe. Frankly, I have always known how fundamentally unlikely religion is. Soon after Mom’s disappearance, Dad took pains to dredge some of the dimmer corners of Mormondom. He would cite the Saints’ practice of polygamy before the Church banned it in 1890, or Joseph Smith’s early days as a reputed small-town swindler. Dad wanted me to know that he had “serious, serious doubts.” I knew that some of those doubts were legitimate. I was aware that Mormonism’s founding stories and doctrine appear, as a renowned Catholic theologian recently put it, “a bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered religious imagination not untouched by perverse genius.” Of course, the same could be said about Moses parting the Red Sea, the Immaculate Conception, or the Resurrection, three founding stories Mormons happen to share with Catholics. But to critics of religion, a millennium or two makes the difference between an interesting myth and a manipulation of religious impulses. Anyway, to believe that God still works in mysterious ways is apparently naïve. For many nonmembers, the Church will almost surely appear, for at least the next several centuries, to be little more than a remarkably successful con job.

It’s a view I was once tempted by, the result of the agnostic impulse I inherited from my father. The impulse works in direct conflict with the spiritual side I inherited from my mother, the part of me that believes in God as surely as he believes in oxygen. The “Dad” side led me to journalism—a professional preference for fact over fiction. The “Mom” side steered me to religious devotion—a constant search for true north. At some point—perhaps by the medicine cabinet back in 1985—I decided that the Mom-side should take precedent.

Sitting with the new converts, however, I can’t help wondering how they’ll maintain momentum. Their relationship with the Church is subject, like all relationships, to a honeymoon phase. Sooner or later certain realities intrude, chief among them the fact that a Mormon remains, by common consensus, a remarkably strange thing to be.

It is a stigma that has existed since Joseph Smith founded the Church, but one that has been strongly renewed over the last few years.

The journalist in me keeps track of how the devout Mormon in me is viewed. For some time now I have kept 3×5 cards on the subject. For example, one card notes that just before these two suburban Denver women were baptized, a national poll showed that two-thirds of Americans feel that the United States is not ready for a Mormon president. Next card: 37 percent said they would never vote for a Mormon, a number surpassed only by those who won’t vote for that other highly suspicious religious devotee, a Muslim. Another card contains a quote fragment from the early 20th century: “…irreconcilable antagonism of the American nationality with the pseudo-Christian, polygamists, deceitful, rapacious, and rebellious Mormonism.” The stack of cards is thick and growing, fed by a recent and remarkably vehement round of Mormon bashing. In December the Internet publication Slate called Joseph Smith an “obvious con-man.” By believing in him, the article stated, “someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.” A New Republic article stated that, “as it is currently constituted, Mormonism lacks the intellectual or spiritual resources” necessary for its practitioners to make morally informed decisions. The sentiment received a resounding echo a few weeks later, when the comedian David Cross finished a routine with the following punch line: “Mormons are f___ing idiots.”

It is difficult to say exactly where well-founded criticism ends and bigotry begins. It is equally difficult, however, to imagine any publication or comic of similar repute daring to express such opinions about other well-established religions. Substitute “Jews” for “Mormons” in David Cross’ punch line and it spells career suicide. Sitting with the suburban Denver sisters and discussing their new faith, I quietly hope that they aren’t aware of the public scrutiny Mormons are up against. Perhaps the Los Angeles Times, noting the Mormon-trashing trend, said it best: “It’s been nearly half a century since our political journalism has witnessed anything quite as breathtakingly noxious and offensive.” Of course, things could be much worse.

Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum spotted the mob of angry men on the afternoon of June 27, 1844. The brothers were inside the Carthage jail, not far from Nauvoo, Illinois, headquarters of the early Mormon Church. From a window in their cell, they could see the 100-man posse, their faces painted black with mud and gunpowder. The Smiths wedged themselves against the door, but the mob fired through it. One bullet caught Hyrum Smith in the face; he fell to the floor saying, “I am a dead man.” Joseph Smith happened to have a six-shooter handy. He drew his gun, reached around the door, and fired into the mob.

Smith and his fellow Saints had founded Nauvoo after being chased at gunpoint from Missouri, where 17 Saints, including children, had recently been massacred by a mob. There were other hate crimes, too. In 1832, in Hiram, Ohio, some 30 men broke into Joseph Smith’s home and dragged him into the street, where they tarred and feathered him. During the incident, a man tried to force a vial of acid into Smith’s mouth. In the meantime, other Saints were pouring into Missouri, a place they considered “Zion”—a biblical promised land. But In 1833, a mob in Jackson County, Missouri, proclaimed that every Mormon man, woman, and child would be whipped unless they left the county. A few months later, the mobs tore the roofs off 13 Mormon homes before almost whipping to death several Saints.

Despite the fearsome price they’d paid for their religion, the Saints had remained loyal to Joseph Smith, and in Illinois, they nursed a backwater swamp into the second-largest city in the state. While theories differ on the origins of Smith’s vitality, they all must depart from the fact that he somehow managed, either through a divine endorsement or a crippling charisma, to convince a stunning number of otherwise intelligent people that he was an authentic prophet of God. The early Saints’ unshakable allegiance to their leader was surely one reason for the constant onslaught from outsiders. With every attack, however, with every forced evacuation and unplanned migration, that faith only seemed to strengthen.

In Nauvoo the Saints prospered as never before. But their relationship with the outside world remained strained. They had always owned a hearty confidence in the rightness of their cause and the magnificence of their destiny. As in Missouri, outsiders viewed this confidence as extreme arrogance. Sentiments soured further when rumors spread of Joseph Smith’s polygamous practices. The tipping point seems to have arrived in mid-1844, when Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, ordered the destruction of an anti-Mormon press. The mobs returned. In early June of that year, a group of Illinois residents threatened the Saints with “War and extermination…made with powder and ball.” In response, Smith and his peers declared martial law in Nauvoo. They raised an armed militia and conducted military exercises, actions the people of Illinois considered seditious. Hoping to placate his constituents, Governor Thomas Ford had promised to protect Joseph and Hyrum if they’d submit to trial by a non-Mormon jury in Carthage. The men agreed, though they were skeptical. On his way from Nauvoo to Carthage, Joseph Smith offered one of his last prophecies: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter…I shall die innocent and it shall yet be said of me: ‘He was murdered in cold blood.'”

Now, in the Carthage jail, his prediction was unfolding like a scene from a Western movie. After watching his brother die on the floor, the prophet attempted to climb out the room’s only window. He was shot four times, twice by men at the door, and twice from outside. He fell through the window, crying out, “Oh Lord, my God!” Some witnesses claim Smith hit the ground dead. Others say he lived long enough for the mob to prop him up against a well, where they shot him again.

Some 15 years earlier, in the early 1830s, my great-great-great grandfather, Nathan Calhoun Cheney, had turned a corner in Freedom, New York, and found a man preaching the Book of Mormon. Nathan read the book and believed in it, a fact his father, a Revolutionary War captain named Ebenezer Cheney, could not forgive. He asked his son to abandon his new beliefs; when his son refused, Ebenezer asked him to leave. Nathan departed with a change of clothes and the Book of Mormon. In the surviving letters and recollections, I can find no evidence that he ever went home again. If he ever regretted his decision, he left no evidence of that either.

The next 20 years would be a sometimes slow, most times harried westward migration. From New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and, finally, to Salt Lake City, Nathan’s was the story of one mob after another. With the Saints, Nathan acquired and abandoned an estimated $20 million in land and property. He personally built and discarded two homes. Just before making the trek to the Salt Lake Valley, his wife, Eliza, wrote a final letter to her parents, who also disapproved of the Church:

“The last letter I received from you was dated January 25th [1846]. The general tenor of the letter was to have us return, but I have not the most distant idea, neither has Nathan of ever turning back. Our course is and must be onward… If you are indeed looking for this work to fail, you will look in vain.”

Searchers found my mother’s wristwatch, some personal papers, and the car keys, but they never found Mom. The theory was that she wandered around the flanks of King’s Peak—Utah’s tallest mountain, and a place of somewhat mystical longing for Mom—where she fell asleep and never woke up. At the time of Mom’s disappearance, all I knew is that she left without an explanation, a goodbye, an expressed regret. I began to wonder if I had ever actually known her. What I thought was Mom might have simply been her schizophrenia, her obsession with God, or some combination of the two.

I recall, for example, a walk in the park one winter, just Mom and me. Snow bent branches on the trees. “The branches pointing up are God’s,” Mom said. Noting the downward-facing branches, she continued, “These others belong to the devil.” Trees with branches sticking straight out were making up their minds. I prayed, hoping they’d decide soon. The snow was still falling. I felt kind and I felt important.

Such memories can disturb me. They tell me that my mother was central to my sense of the divine. They also indicate that madness was central to hers. Thus my faith, which has always come easy, has often frightened as much as it has filled. My choices have sometimes seemed binary and ominous. I could believe, and follow in my mother’s doomed footsteps. Or, like my father, I could deny myself this weakness and save myself—and maybe others—from a world of hurt. The problem was that I didn’t know how to stop believing. My faith offered a connection with Mom, a thing I was unwilling to give up.

Throughout my teens and into my early 20s, I saw my father’s decision to leave the Church as a razor-wire fence. Everything that came before it—namely my ancestors’ remarkable pilgrimage, sacrifice, and faith—became entirely distinct from whatever followed it—namely myself. Dad’s loss of faith cast doubt on my own identity, which I viewed as a rightful inheritance. My Latter-day Saint friends and neighbors seemed to receive theirs like old money, but my father had blown my spiritual trust fund. In the years following Mom’s disappearance, in a thousand imaginary debates, I set out the justifications for Dad’s reconversion, a series of rational arguments in favor of a religion whose tenets he now found preposterous. My case culminated with a reminder of the LDS belief that families can be forever, that a reunion with Mom was all but inevitable.

Our relationship increasingly revolved around Dad’s decision to leave Mormonism and my decision to embrace it. Over time I realized there was one benefit of Mom’s disappearance: It freed my father from his daily battle with a Being that only seemed to provide fuel for Mom’s madness. I suspected Dad viewed my decision to believe as a source of disappointment, or at the very least a promise of future problems. He surely sensed my own frustration with his decision not to believe.

As my dedication to the Church grew, my alienation from my father increased. Every Sunday in winter, he had hustled my three siblings and me up to Snowbird ski resort above Salt Lake City. He called the resort “the one true church” we ought to worship. His irreverence, together with the Sabbath-breaking, offended my tender teenage piety. I told him I could no longer attend, which could very well have been the moment my faith and his atheism became truly adversarial. In the wake of our shared tragedy, he was doing his best to keep his family together; faith, once again, was making the job difficult. Our roles from then on were set. He saw me as a doe-eyed, inexperienced adolescent—a kid who clung to faith out of a lingering inability to accept reality. I saw him as an aging cynic—a man who’d abandoned faith the moment faith became inconvenient. For a time, my devotion to the Church was mostly an act of defiance.

Much of my adolescent faith was also an attempt at redemption, an ongoing effort to prove to Mom—wherever she was—that I had not forgotten. “You’ll just have to remember next time,” she’d said that night by the medicine cabinet. The memory is indelible; it has always occupied the space in my brain reserved for information about who I am and where I come from. With time, however, I have become increasingly aware of what’s missing from my version of that evening’s events—Dad. As I’ve matured, I have imagined him retreating to some corner of the home that night, his frustration extreme and entirely justified. Mom’s condition had cost him more than his faith. The expenses he incurred for Mom’s psychiatric treatment contributed to his declaring bankruptcy, dropping out of an MBA program, and moving into the only house he could possibly afford, one that was at least three rooms too small for his young family. He had borrowed two cars from his mother, and his wife had crashed both. Whatever dreams and ambitions he once had, they were all dead on the altar of Mom’s “disease,” a thing that seemed to begin and end with God. Looking back, I see myself apologizing to the wrong person—I should have been with Dad.

In college, after my mission in Chile, I went about healing our relationship. My strategy was to earn as many A’s as possible. I figured in Dad’s literal and reasonable world a high GPA was something like piety. Truth is, I was trying to even the scales, to show that I could be true to both of my parents, that I could be religious and rational. Academic achievement became a kind of secular sacrament that my father and I shared. My baptism was admission to a prestigious graduate program. My priesthood was a Fulbright fellowship. Remarkably, it worked. The rancor in our relationship evolved into respect. I was successfully straddling the divide between faith and reason, Mom’s world and Dad’s. I began to wonder why I had ever viewed the two as incompatible.

My wife and I landed in Denver after time spent living overseas. It was 2005 and we were looking for something permanent. The obvious choice would have been to return to Utah, where both of us came from. By then I’d spent almost a decade outside the valley to which my ancestors had fled, the one from which my mother had fled, the place where my father’s faith had failed. I’d been exercising my faith not as a form of rebellion, but for its own sake. The thought of a long-term homecoming, rife with potential father-son conflict and heavy childhood memories, made me feel queasy, so my wife and I sought the other side of the Continental Divide. My great-great-great grandfather and his family had crossed the same line some 150 years earlier; though they moved in the opposite direction, their goal was more or less the same as mine. They wanted to practice their religion without distraction from those who disapproved.

Unlike Nathan and his family, we weren’t heading for uncharted territory. The first Saints arrived in Denver in 1897, back when it was front-page news. “Mormons Are in Denver…. Genuine Latter Day Saints.” That was the headline in the Rocky Mountain News. Today there are over 50,000 Latter-day Saints in the Denver metro area. It is a thriving community, and my wife and I gladly joined it. By this point I had taken a proprietary interest in the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s Atonement, the possibility, that is, of at-one-ment. I’d begun to see my religion, with its emphasis on serving others and emulating Christ, not as a simple means of being but as a rather long becoming. I embraced the experience most commonly called “conversion.” To the skeptic, of course, this can only be called nonsense, a particularly contagious brand of wishful thinking. I understand this view, though I cannot agree with it. Neither, however, can I adequately refute it. Though it may seem a cop-out, language cannot really explain the experience, because the experience depends precisely on the absence of language. It is the product, as St. Augustine once put it, of “what the truth saith inwardly without noise of words.”

This is all very strange to at least half of my friends, the almost uniformly agnostic group of intellectuals, editors, and writers with whom I associate on days other than Sunday. It was with some measure of exasperation that one of them recently turned to me and said, referring to Joseph Smith’s early visions: “I mean, come on!” Usually, they politely accept my faith as a belief in some sort of fairy tale, even if it’s one I should have outgrown long ago. Increasingly, however, I have been asked to justify my beliefs, to explain how a semi-intelligent person can buy any of this. Taken with the recent round of Mormon bashing, it all feels remarkably familiar, a verbatim replay of conversations, both real and imagined, with my father. Once again, I find myself straddling two divergent worlds.

A few years after Mom’s disappearance, one of my junior high school teachers handed me a copy of Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s exquisite story about the mystical mountain lamasery Shangri-La—a repository of truth, wisdom, and everything that will endure when all else fails. The book struck me like a revelation, my family history writ large. The main character, whom I identified with Dad, is Hugh Conway, an enigmatic castaway who must decide if he’ll remain in his newfound oasis or return to the “real” world of wristwatches, wars, and decay. Conway determines that he must leave Shangri-La. Looking back from the edge of his lost horizon, he sees that “a dream has dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality.” In a particularly pertinent moment, Conway wonders “whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and was now mad.”

Shortly after Nathan Cheney turned that corner in Upstate New York, my family embraced their own Shangri-La, a place and a mindset they called “Zion.” They considered it a repository of truth and wisdom, and they believed it would endure when all else failed. Recoiling from Mom’s madness, my father stepped beyond the edge of faith. I imagine he experienced a Conway-like moment of profound uncertainty, an inability to tell if he was squandering what previous generations had gained, or if he was gaining what previous generations had squandered.

In Mom’s absence, I had seen my mission as a long-term effort to show Dad that Shangri-La still beckoned. The more I practice my religion, however, the less I see any association between Mom’s madness and my beliefs. Faith, as I presently experience it, is an intellectual act aimed at nothing less than Truth, an honest search for things as they really are.

In my recent readings of Lost Horizon, I find myself, not my father, in Conway’s position on the border between two realms, the sacred and the secular, each of which is increasingly disinclined to accommodate the other. It seems clear that someday I too will have to choose between the two. I cannot say for sure which world I would opt for, but my hunch says that I would go with faith—not in order to connect with my long-gone mother or to rebel against my agnostic father, but to practice religion because I believe—because it enriches me, and, with any luck, others.

In the meantime, when I’m asked for a rational justification of my beliefs, my first impulse is to shrug and cite a passage from my great-great-great grandmother Eliza Cheney’s last letter home. It was her own final attempt to explain herself and her religion. After everything, she kept it simple: “It is …a marvelous work and wonder,” she wrote. “It is not, nor will it be understood by all.” m

Jeffrey Oliver is a 5280 contributing editor.

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