Is it Safe to Read Marvin Payne?
by Marvin Payne

I apologize, but I’m not actually backstage right now. Funny Girl was the six-nights-a-week show, and I felt like my whole life was backstage. But now it’s J. Golden again, only on weekends. And even then, I’m on stage for the whole show. If I wait until I’m really backstage again, this column will be late. Imagine I’m backstage.

J. Golden opened last Friday. Last Friday was the third day after we were attacked (we, meaning of course just about everybody in the world). James Arrington, who is the playwright and director and producer, talked to me about maybe canceling the show, like the baseball and football people did. But we determined that a show that’s about hope, trial, and faith could just as easily be our offering toward healing. It opened well. Full house. It healed. It was okay to laugh.

I’ve laughed a number of times since September eleventh (didn’t count the number, sorry). The number is smaller than in any other week of my life, I suppose. (No, I think I laughed less frequently during the Cuban Missile Crisis, because I was sure I’d miss the Sadie Hawkins dance, because we were all pretty certain we’d be dead on the night of the dance. And Christine Welch had asked me to it. What an angel. You’d have been disappointed, too.)

But the biggest difference isn’t in the frequency of laughs, anyway. It’s in the feeling of the laughter. Each laugh now is shot through with a little bit more tenderness toward whoever’s making me laugh, and of course each laugh is only about a half-skip ahead of a tear. My nine-month-old son John does things that will make you laugh no matter how high the smoke is rising, and you laugh because you love him. Since I love him more now than I did before the smoke began to rise, maybe I even laugh more.

Well, let’s try writing a column. I promised you a column based on the question “Is It Safe To Read Marvin Payne?” That’s a joke, but only sort of, now that any question with the word “safe” in it has a little sharper meaning than it used to have. This particular safety issue arises from a response from Column Reader CL, who asked, “Is the purpose of your column to discuss journal writing all the time or has that happened by default? I’m wondering if there are other areas that you would dare venture…like Mormon culture vs. Gospel doctrine, how you make a conventional religion work for a non-conventional person… Is the culture killing the gospel in the church… drowning the potential joy? I have lots of thoughts on the subject but I’d love to hear yours.”

Well, let me see… uh, thoughts, uh, Oh I know(!): “Conventional,” that’s the key word here, I think. In the theater, we have “conventions,” which, in the theater, are not big gatherings of people wearing tags that say “Hi, my name is Ted.” (Actually, this very thing happened in the theater, at Sundance, on closing night of Funny Girl. Although it’s considered highly unprofessional to play closing night pranks on one another, someone had emblazoned the leading man’s second-act vest with a tag reading “Hi, my name is Nick.” My prime suspect for this prank, however, is the leading man himself.) In the theater, a “convention” is a particular circumstance or method of the playwright’s or director’s choosing that everybody, including the audience, kind of agrees to accept as part of the world in which the story is told. For example, in “Star Trek” everyone in the universe just happens to speak English (or American, except Picard, who speaks English).

Not sensible, it’s just a convention we all accept. In J. Golden I’m always in Orem (Orem right now, Springville next month) until I step behind the pulpit. Then I’m in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, or a courthouse in Alabama, or a chapel in Panaca, Nevada. When Frosty the Snowman has that hat on his head, he begins to dance around. These conventions are employed because they make it “convenient” (get it?) to tell the story effectively. It’s from the Latin, actually (very smart people, those Latinians, at least at making up words). The roots are “with” and “going.” Conventions help us move through life. Make things more convenient. Within a particular culture, like within a particular play, conventions are pretty widely shared, and being a sharer makes one “conventional.” Mormonism is a particular culture. It’s conventions make life more convenient.

Unless we are of that strange sort that seems to thrive on inconvenience (or pretends to thrive, not really knowing any other way to live). You see, whereas convenience makes for lots of comfort, inconvenience is often more interesting. Inconvenience often gives rise to a measure of complaint, which, if it’s coming from someone who’s a little bit mature, can lean in the direction of constructive, which often leads to invention. Which often frightens people. Because invention is, by definition, new. And new, again by definition, is not like old. And old is what we were used to. And things to which we are not used (that is a correct grammatical construction–I checked) have another, even more dangerous name, which name is “Different.”

In the church, we have saving doctrines that could be counted on your toes (well, maybe yours and a good friend’s). The Savior kept trying to boil these down (doctrines, not toes) to about one or two. Or one, with a subtitle. But alongside these doctrines, we have about a hundred million thousand conventions, many more than we have toes, even collectively. These (I’m guessing here) the Savior would probably not deign to discuss, let alone to boil, although He probably doesn’t mind them existing, as they are all of them creations of beings He loves. Who are us. But the conventions are not us, nor are they the gospel.

To the question in question: Am I safe to read? Well, I wear a white shirt to church. Always. Sometimes I get up and put on a striped one, or a light blue one, but I always take it off again and put on the white one. That’s conventional (Read “safe.” Meaning that when I bear my testimony, or speak an idea in class, people lump me together with people they trust, people who are not likely to deceive them, trustworthy people like white-shirted Gary Condit–oops, see how misleading conventions can be?).

But I often wear a bow tie. (Because I recently learned to tie one, actually “wrestle one into place,” and I’m quite proud of the skill.) Ergo, I am, on those “unconventional tie” Sundays, dangerous, or at least less trustworthy. This would indeed be the case if the people with whom I go to church were mindless automatons, governed by embedded computer chips programmed to equate “different” with “dangerous.” But they’re not. (This is the nub, CL.)

I don’t have a “conventional” job. I don’t have a “conventional” family (my first wife and I determined after twenty-two years that we would more likely thrive as friends than as spouses, and now waiters regularly look at my second wife and ask me what my daughter would like to order. My children are younger than their nephews–stuff like that).

I don’t have a “conventional” home. In a western town situated at an elevation of five thousand feet, with ten-thousand-foot mountain ranges just a rifle shot to the immediate east and north, a town named “Alpine,” formerly “Mountainville,” how many log cabins would you expect to find? Here is the exact number: one. Mine. My biggest “non-convention”? Hold on to your hat. No mini-van! (Just to keep things simple, I’m not even going to discuss the potential social hazards of the various facial-hair configurations required of me by my Way Unconventional profession.) But everything’s fine, because I’m surrounded by Latter-day Saints. Real ones. Different ones. (Some bearded ones!) Really different from each other, even the ones who look (dare I say “dangerously”?) similar.

So I will tell you what’s really “unconventional” around here: Islam. (Although having my young friend Shaheen just up the road, and gentle Behrad and lovely Niloufar just a few doors beyond, may disqualify my ward as an acceptable “test group.”) Except for this morning, I haven’t more than glanced at our copy of the Koran for years. Because this column is supposed to be mostly about journal writing, here’s what I wrote in my journal during an early-morning priesthood meeting last Sunday. (You need to know that on the Lord’s baseball team, my stake president, Terry Brown, is an absolutely consistent homerun hitter. He also runs marathons and plays the five-string banjo in public–this would generally be regarded as “unconventional” behavior.) He was left five minutes to speak at the end of the priesthood meeting.

16 September 2001

“President Brown says that the terrorism of this week is contrary to the core of Islam. The acts of this week are as uncharacteristic of most Muslims as was the Mountain Meadow Massacre uncharacteristic of most Mormons. The Lord loves those people and their families. It has been surmised that when the Islamic people embrace the gospel it will be by tribes and families. If Terry meant to stir in me a love for Islamic people, he has succeeded–he and the Holy Ghost. What if one of the effects of the horror at Mountain Meadow would have been to soften the hearts of the world toward the tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints who would never have done such a deed, saints whose forgiveness and faith would have made such a deed utterly undoable? What an amazing prospect! In the smoke of Mountain Meadow, did anyone in the world receive that blessing? In the smoke of the Twin Towers, we can.”

Okay, Terry opened the Mountain Meadow can of worms. Talk about terror. (My son Sam, who lives in St. George, told me that a lot of folks down there aren’t comfortable with certain authoritative explanations of the massacre. I told him I’d be suspicious of anyone who had an explanation they were comfortable with.) Looking for a hint of how to feel about the Twin Towers attack, I went in my journal to Mountain Meadow.

8 June 2000

“Drove up north of Veyo to shoot the Winchester (with my grandson, Skyler). Just after sunset we went to Mountain Meadow. It deserves more time. There was a palpable feeling in the air of the nearly infinite power of man to cause and feel pain. I pray we may never feel so lonely, so distant from our Heavenly Father as they, slayers and slain, must have felt. It frightened me to be human in that place.”

My emotions went on a journey this week. All of them–laughter, too. The journey began with thinking that carpet-bombing Afghanistan might be a good idea. (This was before any laughing.) It ended with loving half a world of faithful Muslims, an enormous family of newly vulnerable Americans, some miraculously united leaders, a host of fallen heroes, and a much greater portion of those of us who are left behind here to pick up the pieces. There have been bright flagmen at every hazard on this little trip, but my primary guide has been the Lord. He can teach us how to feel. When to laugh. When to cry. When to say, “”I love you but, though I can neither punish nor redeem you (both vengeance and redemption are the Lord’s), I must stop you from hurting my family. And my family is really big.” No, let me try writing that again.”I must stop you from hurting other members of our family, for you are part of our family. And our family is really big.”

I’m coming out of this remembering that the Lord can teach our hearts. And if our hearts are not driven by His truth, no act of our hands will be the right thing to do.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.