Emma Lou Thayne, beloved Mormon poet, English teacher and essayist, died earlier this month of congestive heart failure at age 90. Casualene Meyer, who recently interviewed Thayne, files this memorial for 15 Bytes.
“Out of my life of being loved and encouraged, lavished with kindness and understanding, I could try, in telling my stories, to make the light . . . real and moving . . . . And hope that I would be believed. Out of the grace offered to me, I could ask for ways to offer it to others. Not only to live with the serenity of abiding in the place of no fear, but to let others know of that place and of the light awaiting them.”
So writes Emma Lou Thayne in her culminating work, The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography, which centers on Thayne’s death-and-return experience. Speaking of her 1986 car accident in which an iron bar went through the windshield and struck her face she also writes: “I went away and returned with a promise to keep. It had taken months before I actually accepted that I had died. Keeping that promise of offering peace would take the rest of my life. Love would be the directing force, love that is not finite. This I had to teach. The more we love, the more we are privileged to love . . ..”
Emma Lou Thayne kept her promise. I respect her for her native ability to make light believable, and I love her for her authentic expressions of love. After reading her book The Place of Knowing, I can put a name to divine love, and I have recognized more completely instances of it in my own life. Thanks to the time she gave me in extended phone interviews, conversations and short emails, I am but one witness of the generosity of this woman who said “I’m happy to be Aunt Lou to half the Salt Lake Valley.” Her claim is more humility than hyperbole; given the time, she would have created a close relationship with anyone.
Emma Lou’s public accomplishments include 13 books of poetry and prose, anti-nuclear peace activism, service on the Young Women’s General Board of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a stint on the editorial board of the Deseret News as its first female member. She was also an adjunct instructor of English at the University of Utah, and most recently taught older adult writers to tell their own life stories as part of the Oscher Institute at the University of Utah. Her best-known work may perhaps be the lyrics of the well-loved hymn “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” All of these achievements are informed by her strong family relationships–that “life of being . . . lavished with kindness” by her parents and brothers, husband, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.
Emma Lou wrote of light and peace, but she also knew grief; in her poem “Let Me Be Sad” she writes with deep acceptance of human hurt:
Like walking into a sea, only in depth I can float.
Depth, too often feared for its power
To raise me footloose and struggling
Is all that can gentle me back to shore:
Safe, breathing in the cosmos of the sweet unknown
Full of the Light of having been sad.
Emma Lou was generous with her enlightenment as she connected with others. In a recent BYU Studies interview, Thayne said, “One time somebody asked me, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘I do people; people do me’.” How apropos! In both word and deed, she loved and healed, inspired and protected, by making light believable.
Casualene Meyer, poetry editor of BYU Studies, is an adjunct instructor of English at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota.
David Pace is a writer and literary editor of 15 Bytes. Author of the novel “Dream House on Golan Drive,” (Signature Books), his creative work has also appeared in Quarterly West, ellipsis…literature and art, Alligator Juniper, Sunstone, Dialogue and reprinted/posted in Phone Fiction. His by-line has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, Huffington Post and elsewhere. www.davidgpace.com