Gifts Without Thunderous Applause
by Marvin Payne
When I awoke on this spring morning, snow was gently falling in wide feathery cookies, light as air. Gazillions of them. As they fell down through the baby leaves on the aspens, neither disturbed the other-they were that light. This might be some of the last snow of the season. When it falls unexpectedly, out of time somehow, it sort of stops your head in its tired little circuit of worries and makes you gaze out the window and think about things. Maybe it reminds us how our lives can change as completely as snow changes the world. I wrote this poem nine years ago on the occasion of that season’s first snow.
The first snow of the year
is falling, wide flakes swirling
and slanting through stuttering sunshine.
A little catches on the grass.
I think of deep snowfall
on some other winter, and you.
The sun is back.
The street shines black
and grass is green.
Still, snowflakes wander
It’s a gift, really, snow. It just, for no apparent practical reason, looks beautiful as it falls. Then it’s beautiful as it lies there. (Of course, our pushing it around and driving cars through it and dropping pollution on it is what messes up the beauty.) Then, when we need water, that’s what snow becomes, having been stored and delivered in ways we could never have thought of, let alone executed. Beautiful ways.
I spent a couple of days recently with a few dozen artists I merely know, a few more I was meeting for the first time, and a couple dozen with whom I’d worked closely over the years. Filmmakers, painters, writers, musicians, and theatre geeks. (I was invited as a theatre geek, although my oldest friends were the painters, and I’d spent a lot of hours working with folks in each group.) We all just kind of reported on what we’re up to and tried to get each other fired up with sufficient passion and vision and unity to, say, remain alive. Several prophets who have had the recklessness to imagine that artists could somehow be useful were quoted plentifully, and the ghosts of Shakespeare and Milton were summoned often (not Berle, although now, being shortly deceased, his spirit is probably available for such summoning-and heaven knows we could probably use it).
It’s an invitational event, sponsored by some particularly generous and avid art aficionados, and the idea is to pass the invitations around with the Primary Objective of somehow enhancing the making of art in the Kingdom. My Primary Objective was to avoid saying or doing anything that would be so dumb as to ensure that I would never be asked back. I almost succeeded. My one input that seemed to stick was, “For a lot of people, what work is for is to make money. For me, what money is for is to make work.” The bigger fact is that art in the kingdom generally doesn’t make money, but money can help make art in the kingdom.
The prevalent feeling there wasn’t nearly as smarty-pants as you might expect to find at elite artiste events like this. (I wish I knew how to type those little French accents over the words “elite artistes.”) I think that’s because pretty much everybody there knew in their bones that even though they’d all worked hard to get good at what they do, it all began with gifts from their Heavenly Father-free as snow, filled with apparently senseless beauty and fashioned on principles none of us could have thought of, let alone executed. Also everybody there was not only an artist, but a home teacher, a primary president, a temple worker, or a den mother. In other words, involved in important stuff.
I wrote in my journal the next day (Sunday, the day I always remember with a certain sobering amazement that I’m the elders quorum president):
“Being a Mormon Artist means that you will compose anthems and portray prophets and generate thunderous applause for truth, and muck out canneries and load moving vans and dig irrigation trenches and honestly wonder which of these things is most important.”
Gifts. What are they for, anyway? For that matter, what are they? I’ve always been a song-and-dance man (can’t dance, really, but people have often been choreographed to dance around me in ways that have actually fooled any number of audiences-maybe three, maybe that’s the number). Those are gifts. But what about speaking, listening, enjoying, being curious and yearning? Is the mere ability to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” actually a gift? A lot of people don’t, you know-hunger and thirst. Do you? It’s probably a gift. Like everything, in fact. Doesn’t King Benjamin remind us that God is lending us one breath at a time? And isn’t it the Light of Christ that holds all things in their orbit, including the particles that twirl around the obsquatillions of atomic nuclei in our very bodies? Woh.
From my journal, 19 June 1991:
“Late the other night, 13-year-old Joshua [my son who is maybe one of the most gifted mortals currently residing on the planet, therefore, one would expect, an expert on gifts] and I [a pretty gifted mortal also, I guess, breathing as consistently as I do] were talking about the question David [my most gifted child before Joshua was born] had asked at breakfast, ”Why do we taste?” He hadn’t asked ‘How,’ but ‘Why.’ Joshua said he thought it was a gift.”
Well, yes. That from an expert.
Might it be the height of presumptuousness to attempt ranking the gifts of God in order of importance? Here goes, anyway. In the 46th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants are these amazing words: “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” (A guy I home taught a long time ago, now deceased, always believed but never knew. He was real encouraged when I read him this passage.) To know for sure about Jesus is a great gift. It’s a great gift even just to want to know for sure. And you’re gifted beyond billions of your fellows if you simply believe.
What is a gift like that for? The artist would say, “To share! That’s why we live! To lift! To celebrate!” They might even quote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, “Give beauty back to God, beauty’s Self and beauty’s Giver.” Or the Savior Himself, who said that if we share our gifts with “the least of these my brethren,” we are sharing them with Him. Good enough for song-and-dance men, I guess. Elite artistes. But short of being on stage someplace, or having a monthly slot in a cool magazine like this one, or a semiannual appointment to speak in General Conference, where do we share? You choose. Back fence, primary class, e-mail to old schoolmates, lots of places. But maybe to justify my gig here, may I suggest your journal?
I have no memory of when I wrote this poem. It was before I kept a journal (but not before I kept poems).
Where we live, the snow falls,
all through the silent night,
in hushing curtains, veiling
all the ugliness in sight.
And when the darkness shallows
and the sun begins his flight,
all shapes in all creation
are bright echoes of his light.
When Jesus came, the snow fell
(or so the carols say),
although in springtime Bethlehem
a blossom burst that day,
and cast its color on the hill
a few brief miles away,
where Jesus would, like snowfall,
clothe us white, and cleanse our clay.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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