Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Because of one of my UCI linguistics professors, I have something special to look forward to.

My favorite linguistics course was on metaphor taught by Owen P. Thomas, who literally wrote the book on it. Dr. Thomas forged the intersection of transformational grammar and literary criticism: Noam Chomsky for English majors.

I wish I had a recording of our seminars; I bet I’d enjoy them even more now. Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, e.e.cummings. . .we dissected various phrases of their poetry, producing increasingly complex syntax trees. And then came the course’s pièce de résistance, Gerard Manley Hopkins and his poem “The Windhover: To Christ our Lord.”

I had never read it before, but no matter. Our class toiled over it, syllable by syllable. And yet with Dr. Thomas, we never lost the forest for the trees (haha – he’d have liked that one). His enthusiasm, his respect, for the beauty of language, for the beauty of the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins, kept us in awe. Our attempts at analysis only reinforced our conclusions that this signature poem of his, like the mystery of his faith to him, a Jesuit priest, would remain a mystery to us. Over 30 years later, re-reading it tonight, I marvel anew at his intertwining of a bird in flight with the sacrifice and atonement of Jesus Christ.

This afternoon in the USC Bookstore while looking for something else, a new biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins caught my eye. I knew better than to stop to pick it up, like picking up the puppy in the pet store. With resolve I walked on. But two aisles later, I reminded myself that I could use a nice, thick book for next week, and I circled back.

And so the book sits here, its dark cover tempting me more than a box of chocolates. I wasn’t strong enough to resist its purchase, but I will leave it untouched until next Wednesday. Then I’ll open it in the day hospital as present to myself, consolation for enduring another day of needles, another round of steroids, another week of Rituxan house arrest.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

Because our global food economy provides us with apples year round, we might forget that fall really is apple season.

The day Akemi and I first visited the Tufts campus in October 2007 happened to be during one of their dining hall “apple weeks.” Every fall, Tufts dining services brings in bushels and bushels filled with heritage varieties from local New England farms. In the midst of this beautiful display they set out bubbling hot caramel sauce and a buffet of every imaginable topping. We conveniently forgot we are a dentist’s family and exercised great restraint in eating only one each. Akemi weighed the college variables for several more months after that visit, but the caramel apples remained a small fun point in favor of Tufts. I hope while she’s back there, she’ll manage the time to go apple-picking herself.

For many years, we enjoyed the apples which Bing’s grandfather Hin grew in his Palo Alto backyard. He also grafted an apple tree of his own concoction in Bing’s parents’ yard which still yields red apples on one side and green apples on the other. One of our landscaping priorities when we moved into this Howard Street house was to plant an “Anna” apple tree, a low-chill variety suited for our climate.

Whereas Gung Gung Hin’s apples are abundant and small, great for applesauce, our apples are few but large. Crisp with good flavor, we savor eating each one. Throughout the summer, I check on the tree now and then to look for the little hard spheres of bright green, and watch them grow and start to deepen in color.

So you might imagine my dismay to see a couple of these prized apples in the courtyard, half-eaten with tell-tale grooves from squirrel teeth. Moreover, this squirrel had the audacity to leave one of them on the armrest of our outdoor bench under the oak tree, as if to rub it in that he likes dining al fresco in the courtyard, too. That does it! Out came the fruit picker. No more apples for these squirrels; they can go back to eating grapefruit.

So on this first day of autumn, I guess I can say I went apple-picking. Today’s heat and humidity did not exactly put me in a fall mood; I could only conjure in my imagination some bracing New England weather and fall foliage scenery. But I have a few nice apples in my refrigerator now, and, as opposed to the squirrels, I might be willing to share them with you. Maybe.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday, September 19, 2011

One of my life’s greatest experiences began with a small enough request.

Bing came home late one Wednesday night in 1991 after his weekly stake presidency meeting, saying President McGregor wanted to talk with me. Eddie Kawai had just passed away, and President McGregor was mourning the loss of yet-another stake pioneer whose personal stories now would go uncaptured for stake historical purposes. As he expressed his wish to have someone interview other senior stake leaders before it was too late, Bing volunteered, “Oh, you should talk with Susie – she knows something about oral histories.”

That was a bit of a stretch. What I knew was that my father in the 1970s was the chairman of the Cal State Fullerton Japanese American Oral History Project, which published interviews with pioneers of the Orange County Japanese American community. My grandmother, Shizu Kamei, was one of the interviewees. In the days before Apple multi-lingual keyboards, it was quite a feat to interview, record, transcribe, translate, and then publish in Japanese and English the interviews of these elderly Issei. I was present when my grandmother was interviewed and otherwise helped my dad with various parts of this project, so I got the gist. But certainly I was no expert oral historian, nor historian of any kind.

I asked President what he wanted to do with the oral histories – what should I be asking? At first, his priority was just to get what we could get. He strongly felt the urgency to just start. As I started making the rounds of the “Senior Saints,” I also found myself collecting oddball records; a program here, a photograph there. I went back to President McGregor.

The oral histories need context, I remember discussing with him. Then he shared what he really hoped for: a comprehensive history of the stake, modeled after the one published in 1987 by the Los Angeles Stake. And so over the next 18 months, the oral history project became the stake history project. I worked on it while Akemi, a baby, napped and after she went to bed in the evenings. It took over the gaps between teaching real estate development at USC and teaching piano lessons in the afternoons.

The stake history project grew and grew, evolved, and took shape into chapters devoted to eras defined by each stake president. I pored over microfilm records requested from Salt Lake, sifted through ward and stake file cabinets, and made the rounds of the wards, inviting more interviews. Whenever someone cleaned out a closet, looked under a bed, and otherwise discovered scrapbooks or a box of memorabilia, the watchword became “give it to Sister Leung.” By the time the 90+ page manuscript “wrapped,” I had 14 boxes of indexed documents and photos in our garage and odd corners of our small house, with many more filled with treasures such as a hand-embroidered Relief Society tablecloth. I had become a self-taught historian and archivist.

Around the 18-month mark, the stake presidency and I shifted our attention to turning this manuscript into a book, affordable to produce, yet worthy of being a keepsake. Jeff and Jana Parkin became integral to the success of what became the beautifully produced How Firm a Foundation: The Story of the Pasadena Stake. Over the second 18-month period, we edited and re-edited every word, agonized over every photo selection and graphic element, and prayed over virtually every production decision. Akemi, now a toddler, was growing up in the Parkin home, with fellow toddler Josh and Schubert, the Parkins’ Sheltie.

On parallel track were plans for a stake reunion timed for the release of the book. For lots of reasons, the stake presidency decided upon the stake conference weekend of October 15-16, 1994. When our former stake president, Howard W. Hunter, became the prophet that June, many things started to fall into place. He faxed his foreword to the book. His health improved and he indicated he would be delighted to attend our reunion stake conference. He gave his approval for two other former stake presidents then serving as a temple president and as a General Authority to leave their districts to attend. While the Parkins and I raced around the clock to get the galley to the printer, a veritable army swung into action for the conference weekend preparations. After a briefing by the Church security detail, President McGregor and I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

All of our former stake presidents, their wives, and nearly 2,000 stake members, alumni, and friends gathered on that picture-perfect fall weekend. I will never forget the way everyone stood and fell into a reverent hush as President Hunter in his wheelchair entered the cultural hall at the start of the Saturday evening session. As the stake choir sang the opening “Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise,” I saw each of our former stake presidents sit up tall on the stand, each of them so happy and proud to be looking out over their stake congregation again. The long look President McGregor and I shared during that joyous opening hymn will remain one of the happiest moments of my life.

I can’t begin to recount the many heaven-on-earth aspects of that weekend. I learned that the veil is very thin. Angels sang with us, and even the air had a glow and a heaviness, thick with the spirit. Jack McEwan, then president of the Los Angeles Temple and of our Pasadena Stake diaspora, took me aside to say how I will never know the extent of eternal blessings brought about by the book and that weekend – they will just “ripple forward like a pebble on the water,” he said.

Seventeen years later, that pebble is still rippling. Yesterday, our stake celebrated its 75th anniversary and the rededication of our stake center, built by President Hunter, significantly renovated over the past three years. As we prepared ambitious open house plans, many told me they had gotten the stake history off the shelf, and marveled at it again. As I was writing it, I very much felt that I was just the available imperfect instrument of the Lord’s powerful will. Reviewing it again to prepare my talk in the rededication ceremony, I felt even more humbled that it all came to pass and remain even more convinced that it was not about me.

Waiting on the stand, I knew another heavenly gallery was witnessing the rededication. Angels sang with us again, this time during “The Spirit of God’ with the Hosanna anthem. Doctrine and Covenants 64:33: “And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This morning’s damp early-morning chill had me reaching for a sweater and finally believing that fall was arriving. Driving home from stake choir practice – finishing touches for tomorrow’s 75th anniversary celebration and stake center rededication – I relished the thought of taking advantage of the heavy cloud cover to spend the day in the garden.

Since I’m speaking in tomorrow’s ceremony and the whole day will require high energy, I told myself I better not get carried away and overdo it. So I carefully formulated my plan of attack to dismantle the remnants of the summer garden and get a start on the fall vegetables.

By nightfall, the citrus trees were fertilized and trimmed, the new swiss chard and lettuce seedlings were in, and my trug brimmed with the last of the red onions, tomatoes, and carrots. The yellow pear tomatoes this summer were especially valiant, and I regretted taking them down. But the time had come, and tonight I made the last batch of tomato chutney while catching up on the phone with Akemi.

Akemi said yesterday and today were beautiful fall days in Boston – crisp and cool. I just pulled out a blanket from the step tansu and heard the “pop” of the canning jar lids in the kitchen. Nothing can match the fall wonders back east, but I’m happy to make the most of our version here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I had run out of sightseeing time, my one July day in Nauvoo, Illinois. The Midwest summer heat and humidity had gotten the better of me, besides. “It’s just a replica,” I told myself that night, trying to justify my decision to skip a tour of the Red Brick Store. But before I pulled out of Nauvoo the next morning, I realized I just couldn’t leave without visiting the reconstructed place where the Relief Society was founded on March 17, 1842.

As I sat on a second floor bench, I thought of the great women who had gathered to form what is now one of the largest and oldest women’s organizations in the world. I love what Lucy Mack Smith wrote a few days later on March 24 in the Relief Society Minute Book: “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.” Eliza R. Snow, who succeeded Emma Smith as the second Relief Society general president, later wrote, “Paul the Apostle anciently spoke of holy women. It is the duty of each one of us to be a holy woman.”

Some of my most sanctifying experiences have come when I have served in Relief Society. Many of my best friends and mentors have come from my Relief Society associations. And certainly most of the tender mercies in my life have come from the hearts and hands of my Relief Society sisters.

When Bonnie Parkin was called as Relief Society general president, it was easy for Akemi and me to root for, and pray for, Relief Society. After hearing her first General Conference talk, Akemi wrote a note, “Go, Grandma Bonnie! Go Relief Society!” We were thrilled to get to visit her in her Church headquarters office in April 2003. Bonnie said to the 12-year-old Beehive girl, “Kemi, you sit right here in my chair – now that’s the look of a future Relief Society president!”

When Akemi called me Monday night with the news that she had just been called to be the second counselor in her Cambridge University Ward Relief Society, I was – and remain – excited for her for the experience I know she will have. On past visits to Boston I’ve met some of the young women she will be serving with; they’re an impressive bunch. And she’s got a wonderful bishop.

I know the blessings will outweigh any sacrifice, for, after all, the Relief Society motto is “Charity Never Faileth.” I know the strength of our lineage of Lucy, Emma, Eliza, Bonnie, and many other great stake and ward Relief Society examples will be with this young presidency. To borrow words from Emily Woodmansee used in one of my favorite hymns, I know that they, on their errand of angels, with earnest endeavor and the Spirit’s divinest tuition, will truly succeed. Go, Cambridge University Ward Relief Society!