Emma Smith in a Party Hat and Other Contradictions
My sophomore English teacher was insistent: we would learn the definition of a paradox. She wrote it on the board and instructed us to copy it. We knew it would be on the quiz that Friday. We didn’t realize that it would show up as a final question on nearly every quiz for the rest of the year.
Paradox: a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.
I memorized that definition twenty years ago and have since added to my understanding of the concept. Paradoxes aren’t limited to statements. Dr. Brené Brown’s latest book, Atlas of the Heart, explains a paradox as “the appearance of contradictions between two related components. Although light and darkness seem to be opposites, you can’t have one without the other—the opposing elements of a paradox are inextricably linked. Even though the elements seem contradictory, they actually complement and inform each other in ways that allow us to discover underlying truths about ourselves and the world” (82).
Recognizing paradoxes in life, art, and religion helps us see how seemingly contradictory ideas, statements, actions, and experiences complement and inform one another to lead us to underlying truths.
When By Common Consent Press announced its publication of a book of poetry by Nancy Heiss (@nannerslayton) called Paradoxical Glory, I was immediately intrigued. Nancy explores the contradictions in having deeply embraced motherhood, while also learning that motherhood was never her full identity and that, regardless, the daily demands of mothering her children are fleeting. She explores questions of faith, holding belief and questions together. She looks at love, loss, and grief—the beauty and pain intermixed. I ordered the book as soon as it was available.
On Saturday night, my husband took our three older kids out, and after getting our youngest tucked into bed, I sat down with a steaming mug of lemon loaf herbal tea and my copy of Paradoxical Glory.
Nearly every page gave me a reason to pause. I laughed at poems such as “Runner Up 1,” wherein Nancy’s daughter tells her she’s the best mom in the. . . neighborhood, but surely there is a better mom somewhere in the world. I cried at poems exploring Nancy and her family’s grief at the sudden death of her mother-in-law. My own mother having passed nearly ten years ago, I found solace in reading about the particular loss of a mother and grandmother and the holes it leaves in the lives of so many. At other times, I stopped to contemplate ideas that expanded my thinking or understanding, such as the final lines in the poem “Looking Down”:
Up is where we find God, but
Down is where we do God’s work.
So, look up, yes.
But oh, look down.
I tweeted these lines, then turned the page to find the poem “Something Extraordinary,” including a picture of Emma Smith in a party hat. Nancy interposes Emma’s famous words about the mission of Relief Society, starting with, “We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls—” along with the activities common to many ward Relief Societies today. Here I felt a twinge of envy, wishing I had written the poem myself.
As I continued, I anticipated the poem “BRCA,” having read it on the Twitter page of @bccpress. It was this poem that led me to purchase and read the book right away rather than add it to my immense to-read list. I am BRCA1+, meaning I have a genetic mutation that gives me a very high risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers. I found that I longed to read the topic discussed in poetry. Even still, I wasn’t prepared for the artwork by Brooke Newhart accompanying the poem (@brookenewhart on Instagram). I had to pick my jaw up on the floor after seeing so succinctly what it feels like to have a BRCA mutation—that the very parts of my body that assist in giving life and sustenance to a baby may be the very things that kill me, as they killed my mother and great-grandmother. This paradox lives inside my body.
When my husband and kids got home, I paused my reading for the night to assist with the bedtime routine. But I was eager to get back to reading the next day and finish the book. Paradoxical Glory left me feeling seen while also granting me new visions and insights. I expect I will come back to these poems many times to see so many of life’s contradictions explored—the balance of opposition and complement leading me to deeper truths.
Special thank you to By Common Consent Press for providing the images of the poems and illustrations upon my request to include these pages in this post.